iPhone 5s review
The iPhone 5s is the new top dog in Apple's iPhone series of iOS-powered smartphones. It's a powerful and handsome beast, but is it worth the money? Find out in our updated iPhone 5s review. Updated 9 October
Adding an S to the previous year’s new-shape iPhone is a pattern we’ve seen before, ever since the iPhone 3G turned 3GS in 2009. And once again now in 2013 Apple has evolved its existing iPhone platform.
Only this time the iPhone 5 has split into two – a new flagship 5s and a more playful iPhone 5c in a range of pastel colours. And typographic conventions are rewritten, to turn that shouty S into an altogether humbler lower-case s.
For many Apple product users, though, and quite certainly the early adopters and brave souls that queued overnight to be the first to own the new shiny, the premium metal-and-glass iPhone 5s is the only smartphone to get excited about.
iPhone 5s review: design and build quality
Construction is the same as the iPhone 5, a rather delicate and all-too scratchable aluminium body with aluminosilicate glass front, and glass inset top-and-bottom cheeks behind. At 112g and 7.6mm thick, it’s as ridiculously light and thin as before.
It’s not just the iPhone 5c that now demands you choose your colour. For the iPhone 5s Apple introduced a new gilt-free option it’s calling Gold - gold-effect back and edges with white glass trim. There’s the Silver option resembling last year’s white/silver iPhone 5. And the most sober of three, and the only one approaching decent availability at launch, is the black and grey model, dubbed Space Grey. It’s like the original black iPhone 5, only with a lighter shade of graphite to its back and edges.
Instead of the Black & Slate and White & Silver options that the iPhone 5 was available in, the iPhone 5s has three colour options: Silver, Gold and "Space Grey".
The same external design means that you'll be able to use the same cases that fit the iPhone 5. Apple did unveil some new iPhone 5s leather cases if you fancy something new, though. Macworld managed to get a closer look at the leather cases during the Apple event, but found that they didn't look or feel very leathery at all. They do, however, fit super snugly (which can be a pain if you want to remove it). Check out our Best cases for iPhone 5s round-up for more.
Wondering which iPhone to buy? Read iPhone 5s or iPhone 5c?
Apple also unveiled the cheaper iPhone 5c on 10 September. You can read our iPhone 5c review here.
iPhone 5s review: Touch ID fingerprint sensor
For technical innovations, the iPhone 5s can boast two major breakthroughs, along with various minor running changes.
For convenience and simplicity, securing your phone by that most familiar of unique identifiers would seem to be a logical next step in smartphone technology. Yet no other company has successfully staked fingerprint recognition on its phones until now. There have been perhaps two Google-based phones from Motorola and LG, both of which made effectively zero mark on the world, not helped by poorly thought out ideas like placing the reader on the back of the phone.
The Touch ID fingerprint sensor in the iPhone 5s is the result of Apple’s purchase of biometric specialist AuthenTec Inc little over a year ago. The result is a Home button on the phone which, once trained with some quick dabwork, will only respond to the print of the owner.
Unlike the awkward print readers beloved of Windows laptops, which might unlock one time in three attempts, and require you to careful stroke your fingertip along a narrow scanner, the Apple reader is a capacitive touch sensor. This means you need only lay your finger on the opaque glass window momentarily, and the Touch ID sensor does the rest for you.
Like most security systems, it can be defeated by some long-winded and careful preparation, as demonstrated by a German computer club days after launch. The resources and skill to do so are not trivial; and ultimately most people’s front doors are protected by Yale cylinder locks which are far easier to open by someone without the right key.
So for most daily use the Touch ID system should prove useful and even effective at locking down your phone, and will herald a wave of sometimes-works copycat gimmicks from the usual tribute brands.
In our testing, we found the fingerprint setup process incredibly easy. We just placed our finger on the sensor three or four times as requested in the walkthrough guide. Then repeated again to learn the sides and edges of the same digit.
At present the phone can be set up to unlock by either a fingerprint or by PIN; but not by both to create a two-factor authentication system.
Your fingerprint can also be used to buy stuff from the App Store - music, apps and videos. How long before it becomes secure and trusted enough to even part-authenticate real cash payments with other merchants is another question.
In addition to the new colours, you'll be able to spot the difference between the iPhone 5 and the iPhone 5s thanks to the metallic ring around the iPhone 5s's Home button, which is part of the new fingerprint sensor feature.
Importantly, Apple notes: "All fingerprint information is encrypted and stored securely inside the Secure Enclave inside the A7 chip on the iPhone 5s: it's never stored on Apple's servers or backed up to iCloud."
In addition to unlocking your iPhone, Apple's Touch ID sensor can be used to make secure payments on purchases from the iTunes Store, App Store or iBookstore. You don't have to, though. You can still type in your actual password if you'd prefer.
iPhone 5s review: speed boosts provided by A7 processor
Apple has turned its hand to processor design for several generations of iPhone chips now, starting with the Apple A4 chip that premiered in the iPhone 4. Now manifest as the Apple A7 chip, this latest design is undoubtedly a major advance in processor engineering, if also the least obviously sexy to a style fashionista.
The real boon for Apple’s new A7 chip and its architecture is what it will do in other, future Apple devices. Given the possibility of more than 4 GB of memory, and raw performance that now starts to challenge Intel’s Core processors, we see little reason to not expect the MacBook Air or a similar lightweight laptop to be offered with a battery-sipping ARM processor sooner rather than later now.
Even while it matters little to this phone here and right now, followers of computing technology will recognise this as a significant advance which heralds some interesting developments, and sooner rather than later.
It’s a real marketing coup to be able to promote 'up to 2x’ speed increases, especially when that’s measured against the already ample-quick Apple A6 found in the iPhone 5. Ask a user of last year’s phone what they’d like to see uprated, and you’re unlikely to see ‘speed’ anywhere on the list. While competing Google Android phones still suffer perceptible lag issues in the interface, making users chase the rainbow of faster phones, the latest iOS 7 runs relatively slick and smooth on recent iPhones.
Alas, benchmark testing of a phone’s performance is entirely moot now. Before Samsung and Google’s other hardware partners were caught cheating by fiddling with the processor when benchmark apps were running, we had a rough and ready way to see progress in chip design between phones.
Now we have no meaningful numbers to compare - at least not against Android-based phones. But recent research from AnandTech.com suggests that at least Apple is not using these dirty tricks to artificially inflate its numbers.
So that said, let’s look at some numbers from Geekbench. Version 2 of the popular benchmark application rated our iPhone 5 with around 1660 points. The same app puts the iPhone 5s at an average of around 2240 points - so that’s about a 35 percent increase in point score at least.
Version 3 of Geekbench includes separate single- and multi-core processor measurements. We saw 724 points from the iPhone 5 in single mode, and 1409 points for the 5s - nearly double, actually a 95 percent increase.
In the Geekbench 3 multi-core test, the point scores rose from 1298 to 2556, similarly almost two-fold; a 97 percent score boost.
In the GFXBench 2.7 test, running EgyptHD, the iPhone 5s averaged 53 frames per second, which is pretty nippy. In practice any game or graphic-intensive task on the phone should look exceptionally fluid.
Such benchmark numbers are really only kicking the tyres, though: what really matters is how the phone feels, particularly now benchmark tests’ usefulness have been invalidated by desperate Android pedlars.
In use we found the iPhone 5s pretty slick and responsive, if not as quick in screen animations as an iPhone 5 running iOS 6, for instance. While most of the time the whooshing perspective effect of opening and closing an app appeared seamless, at other times we could see some of the intermediate frames of the animation in a more stilted way.
We experienced some app crashes – Safari and Settings to name but two – the phone recovered instantly and seamlessly each time with barely any delay as it relaunched them.
The display is the same as that used on the iPhone 5, 1136 x 640 pixels, sharp and colour-rich, and although it sometimes felt fractionally less responsive to our fingertip touch, this could equally be down to changes in the software code of iOS 7.
Thanks to the A7 chip, Apple says the iPhone 5s is twice as fast
In addition to the A7 chip, the iPhone 5S has a brand new part called the M7. The M7 is a motion coprocessor, which takes advantage of all of the sensors and continuously measures the data coming from the accelerometer, gyroscope and compass without having to wake up the A7. This will open up lots of new opportunities for fitness apps, so expect to see an abundance of new fitness apps and updates soon.
Read more about how the iPhone 5s compare to Samsung and other smartphones here.
iPhone 5s review: battery life
More power typically demands more power from the battery pack. Apple has several strategies to deal with this most fundamental of issues for today’s mobile devices.
To offload some of the low-level background duties, which nonetheless would keep the main CPU busy enough to deny it power nap moments, an additional little coprocessor has been added to the iPhone 5s. The M7 chip’s given role is to process incoming sensor data from the accelerometer, compass and gyroscope, some of the components that give the phone its orientation.
So iOS 7’s wallpaper parallax effect, where the background image seems to slide behind as you wiggle the phone, is driven by the M7 chip. And with the current fad in fitness and health monitoring apps built for the iPhone, Apple has spotted a new usage area that can be improved, without impinging so much on the phone’s essential battery longevity.
There’s also been a tiny swell in battery capacity, from 5.45 to 5.92 Wh. How does this 8.6 percent increase relate to real-world battery life? Apple says it's added two hours on its runtime when browsing over 4G.
That promised improvement is probably as much due to the change of cellular RF chipset, which should now enable an iPhone 5s to work across any upcoming 4G LTE service in the UK. As well as roam across more next-gen networks when you’re travelling beyond these shores.
We’ve only tried the iPhone 5s with UK 3G networks so far - specifically, Three - and found battery life of the iPhone 5s and its iOS 7 software to be slightly reduced, compared to our iPhone 5 with iOS 6.
The iPhone 5 we’ve found will typically last for something close to 48 hours between charges, after a routine that typically comprises 4 hours of web surfing combined with playing music through earphones; a few dozen text messages per day; ditto Mail message writing, sending and reading; some GPS sensor use from Apple Maps; and various other minor app usage, including two overnight stretches of 7 hours phone sleep.
With the iPhone 5s and effectively the same usage pattern, the phone would last a little less than 36 hours, including two overnight dormant spells.
Fewer hours of battery runtime is a shame. Apple is already the market leader in smartphone battery life, but putting an even clearer gap between it and the competition would have been welcome.
iPhone 5s review: wireless capabilities
Bluetooth and Wi-Fi capabilities are unchanged, and here lies another small disappointment - Apple has not taken the cue from its own upgraded AirPort Extreme and Time Capsule routers to add 11ac wireless to the iPhone 5s. The emerging wireless standard - still in draft until next year - introduces not just faster throughput but greatly increased range too, which would have been a useful asset.
The absence of 802.11ac on the iPhone 5s is not a deal-breaker, of course; no more than the continued restriction of audio quality will stop music lovers from acquiring a new iPhone this year.
To wit, to the best of our knowledge, the iPhone continues with its just CD-quality audio subsystem, where there is a growing need to take on high-resolution music - 24-bit/96kHz capability, for example.
iPhone 5s review: camera
Both cameras on the iPhone 5s have been uprated from their iPhone 5 counterparts. While the front FaceTime webcam maintains its 1.2-megapixel resolution but gains better low-light sensitivity through larger sensor pixels, the main photo and video camera on the flip side gets a similar pixel enlargement, and also benefits from a clever two-part LED flash system.
Called True Tone flash, it mixes two light bright LED sources of different temperature to more naturally light your subject, and hopefully avoid the washed-out glare of most simple flash units.
The difference in sensor pixel size is quite literally microscopic. In fact, by expanding the main camera’s pixel width from 1.4 to 1.5 µm, you would need a particularly powerful lens to see the difference - just 100 nanometre per pixel. But larger pixels yield greater electrical output, leading to clearer images in low-light conditions without resorting to messy noise-reduction techniques. A faster aperture of f/2.4 instead of f/2.2 really helps with indoor and dusky shooting too.
We found picture noise to be dramatically reduced in night-time shots. It almost negates the dual-flash upgrade, as to date we’ve achieved better results by switching off the flash entirely and relying on natural light, giving great natural, evening shots
On the video side, faster processing allows the camera to capture more frames every second when filming. Switch to Slo Mo in the camera app and it shoots at 120 frames per second - then replays at a more familiar 30 fps, giving the illusion of slow-motion. It really is as fluid as regular footage. People are going to have a lot of fun with this feature, although we must sacrifice a little resolution. Where normal video is shot in full-HD, Slo Mo captures 1280 x 720-pixel video.
While it remains 8-megapixels, the new camera in the iPhone 5s features a new five-element Apple-designed lens with a larger f/2.2 aperture. The camera's new sensor has a 15 per cent larger active area, and the pixels on this sensor are 1.5 microns in size.
In addition to the hardware, Apple has also designed the Camera app in iOS 7 to take advantage of the new camera and the A7 chip's imaging capabilities. Before you take a picture, the iPhone 5s will perform auto white balance and auto exposure, and will create a dynamic local tone map around the image to get better highlights and shadows. The camera actually takes multiple images and analyses them in real time to see which is the sharpest.
Apple didn't stop there. The iPhone 5s also has auto image stabalisation, which aims to give users a much sharper image. There's also a new Burst mode, which will take photographs at 10 frames per second until you let go of the shutter.
iPhone 5s review: processing speed and benchmarks
The iPhone 5s’s Geekbench score is more than twice that of the iPhone 5c. Last year’s iPhone 5, however, was about 10 percent faster than the new 5c in this test.
The A7-powered iPhone 5s earned a Geekbench 3 Multi-Core score that was 33 percent higher than the Galaxy S4 and 65 percent higher than the HTC One.
Geekbench 3 (single-core score)
- iPhone 5s 1393.0
- iPhone 5c 671.0
- iPhone 5 723.0
- iPhone 4S 217.0
- iPhone 4 213.0
- HTC One 591.0
- Samsung Galaxy S4 667.0
Geekbench 3 (multi-core score)
- iPhone 5s 2485.0
- iPhone 5c 1180.0
- iPhone 5 1302.0
- iPhone 4S 412.0
- iPhone 4210.0
- HTC One 1507.0
- Samsung Galaxy S4 1862.0
- iPhone 5s 454.0
- iPhone 5c 715.6
- iPhone 5 707.6
- iPhone 4S 1573.1
- iPhone 4 2682.9
- HTC One 1117.4
- Samsung Galaxy S4 1210.5
Read more about how the iPhone 5s compare to Samsung and other smartphones here.
iPhone 5s review: UK price
The 16GB model of the iPhone 5S will set you back £549 from the UK Apple Store. For the 32GB model, it'll cost £629, and for the 64GB model, £709.
That's up from the iPhone 5's previous price of £529, £599 and £699 for the same capactities, but Apple does now offer a cheaper version of the iPhone: iPhone 5C. It'll still cost £469 for the 16GB version and £549 for the 32GB version, though. The 8GB iPhone 4S is also still available to buy for £349.
We've been in touch with the UK mobile networks and have tariff information for the new iPhones - you can read more here. iPhone 5s tariffs and pricing: Best Apple's iPhone 5s contract
iPhone 5s not floating your boat? The iPhone 6 is likely to be launching next year! Find out more in our iPhone 6 release date, rumours and leaked images.
iPhone 5s review: Verdict
It’s easy to dismiss the iPhone 5s as a resell of last year’s phone with a gimmicky finger reader. Touch ID’s existence on a hugely popular consumer device is now showing how the technology has finally come of age. The double-speed processor gives full bragging rights to iPhone 5s users, and ensures the phone nearly always feels incredibly responsive. But the real power of that processor breakthrough will not appear today; instead consider it useful insurance for future developments on Apple’s OS platforms. In daily use, the upgrade of the cameras will be the noticeable change that lift the leading world’s favourite smartphone.
Next page: Read our original preview of the iPhone 5s, and see how much we got right (and how much we got wrong) >>