Something New, But No Longer Revolutionary
I think we can all agree that the iPhone 4S was a fairly modest update to a recipe that hasn't changed significantly in quite a while. The iPhone 5 does a number of things both differently and better, but it continues that trend of slow, steady improvement.
Thin, light, armed with LTE support, a better screen, and a high-performance SoC. That's the iPhone 5. But nowadays we could be talking about any number of phones, right? It's hard not to be impressed. Apple does have to answer for this phone's faults, though, particularly when there's so much compelling competition.
First, there's the rear-facing camera and its purple flare. We like that Apple is using sapphire crystal for its lens. That's the same stuff used for luxury watch faces, and it's very scratch-resistant. But the resulting artifact from strong light sources looks terrible, regardless of whether Apple calls it expected behavior. Then there's the paint-chipping issues that especially affected the earliest iPhone 5s. A purported trade-off for the aluminum body, we have a hard time accepting the ease with which the surface of our launch-day phone is marred. Finally, the Lightning connector. We get it; Apple needed to adopt a new interface. But that leaves us with more than a few accessories that simply aren't worth much in an iPhone 5/iPad Mini/fourth-gen iPad world. And we're not looking forward to buying adapters, either.
But then there are the phone's more appealing attributes. One of the most compelling is 4G LTE support, which opens the door to truly useful Personal Hotspot functionality. The performance of Apple's A6 is pretty stellar as well. Although today's games aren't able to fully utilize its more powerful graphics engine, we can see that there's plenty of headroom available for developers to exploit. How about the iPhone 5's screen? Our benchmarks show just how much better its color is than the iPhone 4S' (though really, this only catches Apple up to what some of its competition is doing). Battery life is better, recharge time improves, and the addition of 5 GHz 802.11n support supercharges Wi-Fi performance. And then there's Apple's lingering advantage: the fact that so many people with iPhones also have tablets and computers operating within the same ecosystem. If you want to peel those folks away, you need another comprehensive package...like what Microsoft's trying to achieve with Windows 8.
If we were only taking hardware into consideration, there are certainly formidable alternatives to Apple's latest. For example, Samsung's Galaxy S III has been on the market for a while, and its AMOLED display is a market leader. We hear it's selling pretty well, too.
Right now, we're in a holding pattern, waiting for new hardware (Nvidia's next-gen Tegra and more cool stuff from Qualcomm) and software (Android 5.0). Until then, we're happy to see Apple with yet another attractive piece of hardware sporting several features that improve on what came before. The iPhone just doesn't have the magical hold on the smartphone market that it once did.