A Week With the iPhone 5: A Familiar Alien
Oct 1, 2012 5:00 AM PT
The most challenging thing about the iPhone 5 is how it feels in your hand -- it's light. Sure, it's just 20 percent lighter than the iPhone 4S, but it's also smaller and bigger at the same time -- 18 percent thinner with 12 percent less overall volume, despite having a longer screen. All of this comes together in a look and feel that starts off feeling like something alien yet it looks familiar.
Apple's best products beg to be held, to be touched, and the iPhone 5 is no different. Its lines are so clean, so perfectly matched that if Apple hadn't used subtle textures on purpose, a guy might think the iPhone 5 was manufactured with nano technology, built from the ground up, molecule by molecule.
A Contradiction in my Pocket
Once you hold it, the seemingly incongruent size and feel will be both delightful and scary -- the heft of the iPhone 4 is gone but there's so much bright and shiny screen that it took me, a previous iPhone 4 user, a few days to get used to. It seemed unbalanced in my hand, as if it could be top heavy, and yet, it's perfectly balanced. It's an illusion, of course, created from daily familiarity over two years with my iPhone 4.
When I first slipped it into the pocket of a pair of jeans, I marveled at how light it felt. And when the phone slid sideways in my pocket (I'm a pretty big guy) I had a quick, utterly irrational worry that the pressure from my jeans on the outside edges of the iPhone 5 -- over the fulcrum of my thigh -- might break it as I sat down. Yes, totally stupid thought, I know, but the thing is so thin and so light that the image entered my mind.
The iPhone 5 is the result of a gorgeous evolution. I can't imagine having a larger smartphone and actually liking it. Similarly, I can't imagine going back to my iPhone 4.
The 4-inch Retina display, which essentially offers up a whole new row of icons on your home screen, gives you just the extra room you needed without going overboard. I read the new Jack Reacher novel, A Wanted Man by Lee Child, in record time. And HD videos? Freaking sweet. Letterboxing around videos on less rectangular screens always faintly annoy me, so the new widescreen format is appreciated.
Apple says the screen is more vibrant with better color saturation, but in my experience your reaction to the screen will likely have more to do with the level of brightness you set. If you want a lot of pop, you increase the brightness setting and then pay for it slowly with battery life. I tend to set my brightness level high.
Other smartphones have been able to tap into the faster LTE data connections available by carriers for quite some time now, so in a sense the iPhone 5 is just playing catch up. LTE only really matters, of course, if you've got a carrier that offers great LTE service in your area. I'm in the Pacific Northwest, so while AT&T has some LTE, there's lot more 4G coverage where I tend to frequent. So I've yet to truly experience anything amazing when it comes to data transfers. So far, it all seems pretty normal to me. What I have been pleased with is traveling around to areas where I know there are older, less supported cell towers, and I seem to get just as good of connectivity as I had before with my iPhone 4. Maybe a little better -- it's hard to say sometimes if the speed of an action on the iPhone 5 has anything to do with data or if it's just due to the faster A6 processor.
Which brings up the overall system speed. Sometimes my iPhone 4 seemed to bog down when I was really putting it through a good workout, which was often connected to needing to download a lot of data. So I was never sure whether any lag was due to my data needs and connection or the iPhone 4 itself. With my iPhone 5, everything is pretty much smoother and snappier. Not crazy insane speeds, but definitely better. In fact, in my first week with the iPhone 5, system and data speeds rarely entered my mind at all, which tells me my brain and expectations are still catching up to what the iPhone 5 can deliver.
Love the Camera
I take a lot of photos as well as some video, and while I prefer a DSLR camera with nice big lens over anything else, I pack my iPhone everywhere. So the camera has to do a lot of work. The first thing you'll notice about the built-in camera app is that it opens faster. The second? The shutter click is a rapid fire delight. I found myself snapping three, four, and five shots just to hear the fake shutter sound and see the rapid you-just-took-a-photo animation on the screen. Coming from an iPhone 4, it's awesome.
The HD video seems quite a bit better, too, even over the already great iPhone 4S. Apple says it has improved video stabilization, and since most of my previous video came from an iPhone 4 at a lower resolution (720p vs 1080p) -- the end result is much better video.
The new panorama mode in iOS 6 is especially cool to me, since it's right there, built into the camera app. Because I enjoy getting outside, the panorama option makes it easier than ever to grab shots of big open landscapes, creating a single seamless high-resolution panorama shot up to 28 megapixels. Crazy. I think it's magic.
Tidbits, Here and There
Frankly, a lot of the greatness in the new iPhone 5 is baked into the operating system, iOS 6, much of which you can get via an iPhone 4 and/or 4S -- the brilliant AirPlay to Apple TVs, iCloud, Siri. So what else is new and different that matters?
How about the much-maligned super small Lightning connector? I like it. Sure, it sucks that I can't use my old adapters, but being able to grab the plug and slip it in without making sure it was oriented correctly? It's easy, and that's better. Seems as if I have to pay close attention to what I'm doing with every other device, and even then, I get it wrong 40 percent of the time. With the iPhone 5, I haven't missed once. Even in the dark. Just saying.
The speakerphone and audio clarity seem a bit better so far, but I'm not sure it's by much -- I still don't understand what the problem is here, but I wonder if the folks at Apple just have better hearing than everyone else. Maybe all of us Apple fans who are baffled with the overall call quality can simply send over our kids, dogs, cats, and parrots to spend a few days with Apple's top executives, who, when the chaos is visiting, can only communicate via their iPhones. If Apple would be game for this little real-world test, I'm pretty sure the next iPhone's speakers would be powerful enough to hail a cab.
While we're talking sound, the new EarPods are a definite improvement. They aren't blow-your-socks-off fantastic, but they'll get the job done. They don't seal off your ear canal like some buds, which means you can hear noise from your environment, but the side effect of this feature means you sound natural to yourself when you use the EarPods to talk to other people using, you know, the phone part of the iPhone.
Ah, the Maps
So why have I waited so long to talk about Maps? Is it reluctance because everything else is so great? Maybe. Or maybe the whole Maps app flap is overblown. Maybe. When Apple ditched Google as the engine behind its built-in Maps app, Apple created a road to future improvement that Apple could control. Unfortunately, that road right now is like a gravel road -- sometimes quite serviceable, sometimes with fantastic views, and sometimes full of washboards and ruts. Depending on where you live in the world and depending on how you use the Maps function, you'll experience everything from not noticing anything wrong to bemusement to outright rage and possibly despair. Let's just say you shouldn't count on Apple's Maps app to get you to a job interview in an unfamiliar town.
Apple CEO Tim Cook has now publicly apologized about the Maps flap, and I believe it's clear to Apple that this is a priority that needs to get fixed. I expect a lot of money and effort are already being thrown at this issue.
I'm still using my iPhone 5 naked -- no screen protector, no case. I haven't scratched the back yet, nor have I dropped it. I don't plan on immersing it in liquid. So far, I'm quite pleased. For me, the iPhone 5 currently has everything I need, most everything I want, and it's good enough that I don't have to think about it. Seriously. The iPhone 5 has evolved into being a conduit to the world, connecting me to what I care about, without getting in the way. Right now, I've got nothing pressing left to ask for.
I don't know if I should say, "Damn" or "Thanks." Then again, I have a two year contract with AT&T, so I've got plenty of time to engage with the world and stoke my imagination.