The iPhone 5 was one of the best phones money could buy. The iPhone 5S looks just like the iPhone 5 but packs guts that are even better, improves a camera that was already fantastic and adds a fingerprint scanner that can be either viewed as a game changer or a gimmick. What's the deal?
The most heavily promoted feature is the 5S’s fingerprint sensor, which, ingeniously, is built into the Home button. You push the Home button to wake the phone, leave your finger there another half second, and boom: you’ve unlocked a phone that nobody else can unlock, without the hassle of inputting the password.
The best part is that it actually works — every single time, in my tests. It’s nothing like the balky, infuriating fingerprint-reader efforts of earlier cellphones. It’s genuinely awesome; the haters can go jump off a pier.
In my scores of tests, with three fingers, the reader never failed me and none of the 20 or so people I asked to test it was able to unlock the phone. If a finger match fails three times, the phone offers you a chance to type in your passcode instead. After five failures, it requires the passcode. Apple says the odds another person’s finger would work are 1 in 50,000, versus 1 in 10,000 for breaking a four-digit passcode.
There is one bug in the system: Sometimes, while trying to use a finger to authenticate an online purchase, the phone asks for a password. Apple says it expects to fix this bug very quickly.
Once registered, you simply hold your finger on the iPhone, and it should unlock very quickly. It’s about as fast as swiping to unlock without a passcode, and much faster than entering even a simple four digit code. As Apple is fond of saying, “it just works,” recognizing your registered fingerprints regardless of how you place your digit on the sensor for the most part. I did encounter a few rare “try again” messages, but the frequency of those decreased over my time with the phone until they were non-existent, something which Apple says is due to the sensor being able to improve its success rate by learning more about your print over time.
The A7 SoC is seriously impressive. Apple calls it a desktop-class SoC, but I'd rather refer to it as something capable of competing with the best Intel has to offer in this market. In many cases the A7's dual cores were competitive with Intel's recently announced Bay Trail SoC. Web browsing is ultimately where I noticed the A7's performance the most. 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.
Is the iPhone 5S faster than other phones like the Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One? Based on every benchmark we could throw at the 5S, the answer is yes. How much? That depends on the test. Linpack suggests that the iPhone 5S is a lot faster — and about twice as fast as the iPhone 5C. Geekbench 3, which recently updated its app to allow for 64-bit testing, suggests a nearly 3x gain over the iPhone 5C's A6 processor.
The 64-bit computing potential of the iPhone 5S and its A7 chip is, at the moment, largely theoretical. It could pave the way to more computer-like experiences on our phones, or even a future merge between Mac OS X and iOS.
First, let's tackle the camera's low-light performance. The shots we took with the 5s were consistently better than what we took with the 5: they were sharper, with finer details, more natural colors and far less noise. As you might expect, our daylight shots were roughly on par, though there were a few times when the 5s won out by a slight margin, offering just a little more detail. All told, the 5s plays in the same league as all those other flagships with a bigger emphasis on imaging. Even so, our sample shots still showed more noise and less detail than the same images taken with the Nokia Lumia 1020. The 5s also does a good job of reproducing color, but it's not the best performer in this category, either. Make no mistake, though: the iPhone has been — and continues to be — great as a simple grab-and-go camera. It may not be a best-in-class performer, but the vast majority of iPhone users will still be happy.
The camera app, pulled up through iOS 7, is then able to monitor what is going on in the scene and what combination of flash you need to light it (if at all). In testing side-by-side against the iPhone 5, where the iPhone 5 needed the flash, the iPhone 5S was happy to take the picture without and produce better results. When the flash does fire the results are superior too, even in situations where we are in complete darkness only lit by the flash itself.
One thing not seen elsewhere is the True Tone flash system in the 5s. It is based on two flashes working in tandem to automatically determine the intensity and best combination of flashes. I got generally lovely results taking flash photos, though I noticed it sometimes took an extra second or so before the camera actually took a picture.
Like the GPU that bears the graphical strain from a computer's processor, the new M7 Coprocessor takes the weight of motion measurements - compass, accelerometer and gyroscope - away from the all-new A7 CPU.
Apple claims this will provide a 6x power saving for (iOS 7-updated) apps that record motion - Nike+, Strava, Moves, etc - but this dedicated chip can also tell what state of movement you're in and will adjust the iPhone 5s accordingly.
To test this, we used Apple Maps to plot an A to B route that required driving and walking. Upon reaching our destination, and exiting the car, the navigation switched from car to foot, taking us down one-way streets that wouldn't have been possible in a motor.
The iPhone 5s is the best iPhone so far, by a long shot. Apple is notorious for describing its products as “magical”. The magic of the iPhone 5s is in how usable its improvements are. The updated camera is both fast and capable, with the True Tone flash proving itself to be no gimmick, while the Touch ID system feels like the first biometrics system that actually stands a chance of succeeding in the mass market.