I’ll get used to it. Apple’s hardware designs have the remarkable property that each successive model, once you’ve used it, makes older versions seem improbably huge, low-resolution or dowdy. At some future date, the phone will be as thin and light as it can be. We may be near that point already.
I’ve lived with the iPhone 5 for a few days and find much to like about it as another solid advance. What will be more significant for most people, however, is the iOS 6 operating-system update that’s included with the iPhone 5. I’ve used it for a few weeks and like the subtle changes. (iOS 6 can be installed on the iPhone 3GS, 4, and 4S; iPad2 and third-generation iPad; and the 2010 (fourth generation) iPod touch. It’s preinstalled on the new iPod touch.)
The iPhone 5 has a few marquee-hardware features, the new shape and size among them.
After days of use, I find the taller iPhone is slightly awkward. It’s great to read more text on a single screen and view high-definition films, which now fill the screen. But with normal-sized hands, I found I had to cup the phone to reach my thumb to the upper-right corner; I couldn’t hold it firmly. I also find that visual targets (like switches) are much more difficult to tap on the first go in the upper right than with the previous iPhone screen size.
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Another new feature is the revised dock connector, now a trim, reversible 8-pin “Lightning” nub instead of the 30-pin version in use for nearly a decade. Much has been written about the cost of adapters — a whopping $29 — and the impossibility of using an iPhone 5 or new iPod touch with many audio docks and similar equipment.
It’s a frustrating but necessary switch for thinner phones and simpler designs. Apple could have subsidized adapters to remove the pain but chose not to.
More interesting are the addition of LTE cellular-data networking, a more saturated display, and improved characteristics of the front and rear cameras. LTE was long awaited, as competing phones have featured this next-generation version of mobile broadband since 2011. Apple bided its time until it could get enough battery life by using later-generation radio circuitry.
AT&T lags on its LTE deployment compared with Verizon, but the carrier lit up Seattle-area LTE on the Thursday before the iPhone 5 shipped to customers. Bandwidth tests show rates typically in the 12- to 14-Mbps range downstream, and several Mbps upstream without watching the remaining battery charge plummet. These rates compare favorably with my home Comcast service.
The rear-facing camera has the same specs as the iPhone 4S (8 megapixels), but Apple said pictures are snapped faster, and those taken in poor lighting turn out better. Both test out as true. I took pictures in low lighting, outdoors with glaring artificial lights, and other trying circumstances and saw results far better than with the previous model with much less noise and better detail. The iPhone 5’s increased saturation makes photos and other images more vivid, but not garish. The front-facing camera had a boost to 1.2 megapixels and 720p video, which allows for crisper FaceTime conversations.
I also like the improved speakers, which seem to blast out a significantly louder sound. While driving, and without using the car stereo, the iPhone 4S couldn’t overcome normal street and highway noise. The iPhone 5 punches through. The sound can fill a small room.
iOS 6 is a bit more of a mixed bag. It features dozens of tiny improvements that shave some of the friction off using an iPhone or iPad. I rarely used Siri voice-recognition on my iPhone 4S, but find that the addition of movie times and picking driving directions has me turning to it much more. I do find that Siri falls down in what should be simple tasks, such as “read me the last email messages from [person].” It does better with facts and places.
A number of touches enhance how you interact with frequent contacts. iPhone users will like a feature that lets you send a text instead of answering an incoming call, including using prewritten replies such as “I’m on my way.” A do-not-disturb mode suppresses incoming calls except for a list you highlight.
In Mail, you can now set users to VIP status, which highlights their messages. The free Find My Friends app can use geographic alerts when someone arrives at or leaves a specified area. This is useful to know when friends arrive for a concert, and if your kid got home on time.
The updated Maps app, in which Apple uses its own licensed data instead of Google’s, has a lovely appearance with high legibility and a tendency to show as few details as necessary instead of cluttering a particular magnification. The Maps app now has turn-by-turn spoken and visual navigation. But it omits transit and walking directions in favor of pointing users to third-party apps.
Google Maps may be used reasonably well through Apple’s Safari browser, and reports indicate Google may release a free-standing maps app, just as it did with YouTube, which Apple removed as a built-in option in iOS 6.
I tested directions around Seattle, and found Maps’ routes, spoken cues and on-screen information to strike the right balance between simplified and accurate. My wife, however, was misdirected on the route to the Bainbridge ferry, and global reports indicate mapping data are incomplete or inaccurate in many places. This will improve, but it’s a sad day when such an important program takes a full step backward in some ways while taking a step forward in others. Your mileage will quite literally vary.
Apple’s “revolutionary” past has settled into a series of incremental changes, any one of which hardly raises an eyebrow. Taken together, the iPhone 5 is a great successor to the 4S, and iOS 6’s little changes add up to a better experience.
The real misstep is releasing the Maps app as a sort of downgrade from what we’ve grown to expect. One hopes that will be rectified fast enough.