The iPhone is always a difficult phone to review, because by the time it reaches South Africa, interested people have already read everything they need to know about the phone. This time around South Africa got the iPhone quite late compared to previous years, and we were all too pleased when an iPhone 5 finally got delivered to us on launch day by Vodacom. First off, we did not want to rush a quick review of the device. We basically wanted to know one thing – is it still the gold standard in the smartphone world? And that meant spending a few weeks with it.
At first glance the iPhone 5 is not a massive departure from the iPhone 4 and 4S – it uses the same metal and glass design which really does feel better than any other smartphone out there. But this time the outside rim and back plate is made with a single piece of aluminium, much like the designs Apple uses on their Macs. Unlike the previous model, the two colours are actually very different – Apple has gone for a black/slate design, and a white/silver combo.
The white version takes the “Mac” look a little further with silver aluminium, where as the black version is definitely more striking. They might as well have called it “obsidian” – it looks dark and shiny, with a subtle dark blue tint. But the most striking aspect of the phone is how light it feels – despite being larger in volume than the previous iPhone 4S, it is a good deal lighter. In fact, it feels so light some people are complaining that it feels fake…what a problem to have?
We lived now with both colours for a while – we used them without cases, and tried not to babysit them too much. After these few weeks we have to recommend the white one – it just seems to wear better over time.
The black one got little silver scratches around the edges from just everyday use – so that lovely dark look quickly starts to look a little worn. We also found that the edge chipped off to show the raw aluminium underneath. Maybe Apple want to convinve us that the little scratches will look good over time – kind of like an old leather chair. However, we are not convinced at all. The simple truth is, that despite feeling great in hand, getting small scratches on a high end phone is just bad form by Apple. The good news is that in most cases you can actually touch up those scratches with a simple permanent marker.
The white model on the other hand still looks pristine. After a few weeks the only place on the phone that got a tiny scratch was the chromed Apple logo on the back.
In terms of storage size, we can now finally start recommending the larger models. In the past we always thought the 16GB model was more than enough for everyone. But with the better camera, 1080p video and overall growth in app sizes, we reckon the time has come for Apple to make the standard size 32GB. Maybe on the 5S/6?
That taller display:
iPhone users will find the latest model a joy to use – the slightly bigger screen gives a lot of apps some much needed extra screen real estate. Games have slightly wider views, and news apps can show a bit more text in a single page. We were also surprised to find that almost all of our apps were ready to use the larger resolution (unlike the switch to Retina which did take a long while). Apps that are not yet coded for the new screen simply get black letterboxing on the top and bottom of the screen. Not really noticeable on the black model, but on the white one it looks strange.
Unlike some supersized phones, the iPhone is still comfortable to hold and use with one hand. Reaching the top edge is starting to become a slight stretch though, but we can say it is still easy to use because the shape of the display has not gotten any wider. Apple has supposedly made some improvements with the display in terms of colour accuracy, but we could not notice any major improvement above the older iPhone 4 and 4S. Black levels are a little darker though.
We suspect some people might prefer a supersized phone after using the iPhone 5. While the screen is more comfortable to use, it definitely does not have the same “wow” effect as looking at a large screen like on the HTC One X or Samsung Galaxy S3.
Using the 4S afterwards feels like holding a little squat version of the phone, and truth be told, its not actually worse. Some people might even prefer it. You do get the sense that Apple just basically succumbed to the pressure of ever increasing screen sizes, without messing with the usability too much.
What else is new:
- The camera is much improved. We were so impressed by the 4S camera a year ago. Since then the Nokia Lumia 920 arrived, but the iPhone 5 manages to keep up. Low light performance is excellent. The camera is very quick as well.
- The phone feels a little faster in everything, as you might expect.
- The iPhone 5 supports LTE networks, which as you might know is slowly rolling out in SA. The problem is that Apple controls the ability of the phone to connect to it, and right now Apple has not enabled phones in SA to connect to LTE.
- Apple has retired the ubiquitous 30 pin connector, and replaced it with a “Lightning” connector. This means if you have iPod docks or car kits, you will need to buy adaptors or extra cables, which quickly becomes expensive. I personally had to buy an extra cable for the car (R200), and a 30 pin to Lightning adaptor for my alarm clock dock (R300).
- Apple has included their new “earpod” headphones. They look completely new, and unlike the old models, they do not seem to become dislodged from your ears with a subtle breeze. They sound much better as well.
Should you upgrade?
Apple seems to be following a pattern here – they are well aware that the typical cellphone contract is 2 years, and their phones seem to improve enough every two years to warrant an upgrade.
Just like our 4S review last year, we do not actually see the benefit of upgrading to the latest one if you already own the previous one. The 4S runs the same software, and it is a very speedy phone. The 4S is still a great phone, and there is just not enough to warrant the expense.
If you are still using the iPhone 4, you should probably be up for an upgrade by now – then the iPhone 5 is a brilliant upgrade (that is if you are not convinced by the Android users that you should try the Samsung Galaxy S3 or HTC One X). You will notice the speed increases, you will appreciate the much improved camera, and you will probably get it at a good deal now that most cellphone networks in SA have the iPhone.
But – is the iPhone 5 good enough to compete with ever improving Android and Windows Phone devices out there? That is a difficult question – phones like the Samsung Galaxy S3 and Nokia Lumia 920 have definitely caught up to the iPhone in many respects – and exceeded it in many others. iOS 6 in particular is starting to feel a little stale in certain ways. While it is quick and very easy to understand, we really hope Apple will innovate a lot more with iOS 7. We are also disappointed to find that the iPhone does not automatically support LTE in SA, and Apple has to “approve” networks before the phone can get the little LTE switch in the software.
Current high end Android users will probably not be swayed by the slick looks of the iPhone 5 – but we do feel the current Apple iPhone ecosystem is still without equal. Things like a thriving AppStore, iTunes and excellent iCloud integration make the iPhone’s value proposition great, but Google is very quickly catching up, and we feel 2013 might be the tipping point where iPhone is no longer the phone to beat.
But right now, the iPhone 5 is still the standard in a very competitive smartphone world. While Android might have caught up in terms of software, the iPhone build and feel is stunning, and the overall polish of the entire user experience is still very hard to beat.
Stunning fit and finish. Light weight.
Camera is a solid competitor to the Lumia 920.
No LTE support for iPhone 5 in SA yet – Apple has to switch it on via a carrier update.
16GB base model is becoming a little small. Apple should increase the base model to 32GB.
Black model scratches easily.
You will need to buy adaptors if you have plenty of Apple 30 pin accessories.