iPhone 5: What’s Great and What Needs Improvement

The iPhone 5 is almost here, and for many people expecting a completely redesigned chassis, or Siri-like innovation, yesterday stank of disappointment. But there is a lot to like about the new iPhone, and a lot of compelling reasons to purchase one.

Over the past six months, I have met many a Canadian still holding onto his or her iPhone 3GS waiting for the “so-called” iPhone 5 to be announced before committing to upgrade. This is the first cycle since that incredibly popular second (or third, depending on who you ask) generation iPhone for a lot of users — unlike us nerds, and most readers of this site, most Canadians actually do upgrade their phones once every three years.

There is no question that for a current iPhone 3G or 3GS user the iPhone 5 is a huge upgrade. Everything from the screen to the camera to the build quality to the software has received enormous updates. Yes, the iPhone 5 may seem overly iterative compared to the iPhone 4S, and may hew a little bit closer to its well-worn design than we’d like, but it’s an impressive smartphone nonetheless. Let’s take a look at the breakdown.

The Great

– The iPhone 5 is thin and light. At 120g and 7.6mm thin, it’s likely lighter and thinner than your current smartphone (unless you own a Huawei Ascend P1 or a HTC One S).
– It’s well-constructed with machined aluminum all around, including the back, and probably less likely to shatter than the iPhone 4 and 4S. This is a good compromise between the more robust but toy-like exterior of the 3G and 3GS and the industrial wiz-bang of the 4 and 4S.
– It’s faster in almost every way: CPU, GPU, camera, LTE connectivity. All this without losing any battery life. In fact Apple claims eight hours of browsing time over LTE, the same number the iPhone 4S was rated for 3G browsing.
– The new Lightning dock connector is, eventually, going to be an incredibly useful upgrade. When docks, speakers and other accessories migrate to the new form factor, with its reversible 8-pin goodness, people will rejoice to be rid of the old-and-rusty 30-pin connector.
– The 4-inch screen has a 16:9 ratio, so gaming, movies and other media, as well as browsing, will be significantly improved. Existing apps will be letterboxed with a bit of space at the top and bottom of the screen for maximum compatibility.
– iOS 6 is a huge upgrade over iOS 5, with some excellent improvements for Canadians. Indeed, Siri location services now work up here, and her semantic vocabulary has grown significantly. While it’s still weird to talk to your phone, the things you can do are astounding. iOS 6 is still far smoother than Android, for the most part, and has better third-party app support, especially in the paid apps category.
– The camera, despite having largely the same hardware as the iPhone 4S, takes photos much faster, and uses digital signal processing for better low-light performance by combining multiple exposures.
– The awful-yet-ubiquitous iPhone earbuds are being replaced, finally, with the EarPods which will be included in the box of every iPhone 5.

The Not So Great

– The nano SIM slot means incompatibility with other devices using microSIM, and while adapters will be available they’re clunky and unreliable, especially for push-release mechanisms like the Galaxy S III.
– We were really hoping for an upgrade to the camera along the lines of the iPhone 4 to the 4S. While real-world photo comparisons have yet to be taken, there was no indication that, aside from speed and low-light performance, the iPhone 5 has a significantly upgraded camera system.
– The price: iPhone 5 outright prices have increased in Canada by $50 to $699/$799/$899 for 16GB/32GB/64GB respectively. That’s really, really expensive.
– The dearth of Lightning-compatible accessories at launch is going to be annoying. We’ve taken for granted that our docks, speakers, and various other Apple products will work across generations. Now, we have to ostensibly start again, or pay exorbitantly for an adapter (see below).
– The screen may be taller, but it’s still not big enough for a lot of people. Those used to Android phones at 4.3-inches or more are unlikely to be impressed by the extremely deliberate jump to 1136×640.
– Potential battery life was shaved off in the name of thinness. At 7.6mm the iPhone 5 is quite lithe, but many potential customers would have preferred a larger battery and a slightly thicker frame.
– No NFC: the close-range transfer communications technology was rumoured to be included in the iPhone 5, but Apple is clearly not ready to bring it mainstream.
– There are three variants, making for a fragmented LTE experience. While Rogers, TELUS and Bell iPhones will be able to roam on AT&T’s LTE network (provided an agreement has been reached) the North American GSM variant is incompatible with many of Europe and Asia’s LTE networks. That means that when visiting England, Germany, South Korea, Japan or any other country with a burgeoning LTE footprint, our iPhone 5’s will roam on HSPA+.

What Needs Improvement

– 30-pin to Lightning adapters start at $35. Cord-based adapters are $45. These are accessories that every Apple user is likely going to have need of at least two; that’s $70-$90 right off the bat.
– The product is extremely identifiable as an iPhone. Unlike the iPod nano line, which Apple seems comfortable redesigning every couple of years, the iPhone 5 to many people is just a thinner, taller 4S. To the vast majority of potential customers, this is a benefit: the iPhone 4S is still one of the most beautiful, solidly-build phones around. But to many others, especially those diversifying in the Android world, the iPhone 5 is more of the same.
– This sameness extends to iOS 6 which is arguably looking a little haggard after six versions.

– Android phones seem to be iterating faster. Apple has largely steered clear of the specs war that LG, Samsung and Huawei, among others, are engaging in. Quad-core, 2GB RAM, 13MP camera sensors — these don’t seem to concern Apple as long as the components well with one another. Some may call this timid; others shrewd; many won’t care, because the iPhone 5 feels faster than their previous iPhone, and that’s what matters the most.

In all, the iPhone 5 is a huge upgrade for existing users of the iPhone 3GS and 4, and less is using the still-excellent 4S. The excitement of yesterday’s announcement was dampened somewhat by the extensive and accurate parts leaks we’d seen over the past six months, many of which were right on the money. While we’re waiting until the 21st to make our proclamation of worthiness, at this point there is no question that the iPhone 5 is going to be a massive success, regardless of what the tech industry thinks of it.


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