Early reviews of the Apple iPhone 5S make clear a point that was easy to lose track of in the blur of rumors building up to Apple’s Sept. 10 announcement and the cacophony of commentary and still more speculation that followed: This is an “S” device, Apple’s signal that, preparing for a major design overhaul, it has maintained its previous exterior and updated key features. The S is a gap year. It’s a better phone than the phone before it, but not a reimagining of the form factor.
It is not meant to blow your mind.
But it is meant to be very, very good—better than what’s already out there—and, by nearly all accounts, it is.
The New York Times’ David Pogue, in his Sept. 17 review, makes two very good points: Yes, it was Apple that told us to expect the bar to be set high—”Year after year, Steve Jobs used to blow our minds with products we didn’t know we wanted.”
But the smartphone market is now mature. “The big holes have been plugged,” wrote Pogue. “Maybe, the age of annual mega-leaps is over.”
The world will, no doubt, be anticipating a mega-leap from Apple in 2014, but what it got this year is a process that’s twice as fast as the one in last year’s model, a cleaner, more feature-rich operating system; a much, much better camera; improved battery life; and an evolved response to the fact that most people can’t be bothered to use a password: the Touch ID fingerprint reader.
“Take photos side-by-side with the iPhone 5S’ predecessor, and the difference is immediately obvious; lowlight pictures are far better on the new phone. Clearer, brighter, better color,” wrote Pogue.
Bloomberg’s Rich Jaroslovsky calls Touch ID “the most important new feature” and one that “elegantly addresses a significant pain point for mobile users: security.”
Jaroslovsky found it to work “far better than any other biometric device I’ve used, not requiring your finger to be positioned just so. It makes security transparent and even pleasurable.”
The Times’ Pogue was impressed to the point of having no patience for doubters.
“It’s genuinely awesome; the haters can go jump off a pier,” he wrote.
The Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg, known for his regimented battery tests, didn’t perform one, but was still impressed by the battery’s general performance, finding that it “lasted a full workday, including one day where it still had 15 percent of battery left after 14 hours.”
Mossberg also calls iOS 7 a “big improvement.”
Apple has modernized its aesthetic, moving toward thinner fonts and a brighter palette and away from mimicking textures—iOS 6’s wooden shelves in iBookstore, for example. But it’s more than that.
“The fonts are sharper, finer and more delicate. Buttons and controls are thinner and lighter and, in the browser, they disappear or shrink to make a little more room for content,” wrote Mossberg. “Overall, the effect is to make the 4-inch screen seem larger.”
iPhone 5S Reviews Are In: For Apple Lovers, Signs of a Bright Future
The OS benefits from a 64-bit processor, the first in any smartphone.
Anand Lal Shimpi, in his thoughtful and thorough review on Anandtech, calls the A7 system-on-a-chip (SoC) “seriously impressive.”
“Web browsing is ultimately where I noticed the A7’s performance the most,” he wrote. “As long as I was on a good Internet connection, Web pages just appeared after resolving DNS. The A7’s GPU performance is also insanely good—more than enough for anything you could possibly throw at the iPhone 5S today, and fast enough to help keep this device feeling quick for a while.”
From a CPU and GPU standpoint, Shimpi added, “the 5S is probably the most future-proof of any iPhone ever launched.”
That is to say, the iPhone 5S features technology Apple can build on, and Shimpi said he wouldn’t be surprised to see the A7 in an iPad Mini with Retina display—which was another common theme across reviews.
Jaroslovsky pointed out that Touch ID, with last year’s Passbook feature, takes another step toward establishing Apple in the growing mobile payments market, and Mossberg calls the same feature the “biggest step ever in biometric authentication for everyday devices.”
After using it, Mossberg found it annoying to have to type passwords into older devices—a sure sign of a coming evolution.
Jaroslovsky concluded that those who already love iPhones will love the iPhone 5S (and 5C) and those who don’t care will continue not to. The more passionate Shimpi said much the same, but putting himself in the former group, added, “there’s quite a bit to be excited about.”
Mossberg summed up his week with the 5S by calling it “a delight” and, in both hardware and software, “the best smartphone on the market.”
The Times’ Pogue, offered a final point, built on his first two: Apple is very much still building something.
“If we’re reaching a point of diminishing returns in hardware breakthroughs, the software breakthroughs are only just getting under way,” wrote Pogue.
His single, final thesis, he added, is this: “Apple still believes in superb design and tremendous polish. The iPhone is no longer the only smartphone that will keep you delighted for the length of your two-year contract—but it’s still among the few that will.”