iPhone 5s Review: iPhone 6? The Predecessor's Still Got What It Takes

Reviews Michael Grothaus 11:25, 15 Sep 2014

Apple's iPhone 5S is still worth a look despite the arrival of its successor, the iPhone 6

Rating: 
4.5
Typical Price: 
£549.00
Pros: 
The blazingly fast 64-bit A7 processor and the M7 motion co-processor. The new camera features are worth it for photo buffs too
Cons: 
Touch ID is cool, but feature-limited, Still the same 4-inch display and overall design
Verdict: 
If you have an iPhone 5, the 5s is a worthy reason to upgrade for the A7, M7, and camera. But don’t upgrade just for the Touch ID alone. You’ll be disappointed. If you have any iPhone below the 5, jump ship to the iPhone 5s. It will blow you mind.

The Apple iPhone 6 has finally been revealed by Tim Cook and his cohort. As expected, it sees a significant overhaul of the phone's exterior and a substantially larger display. On the inside there are faster speeds from the improved A8 processor and the new build if iOS 8. It's also the first iPhone with an NFC chip - which can team up with the Touch ID fingerprint scanner to enable contactless mobile payments for goods and services via Apple's new wallet: Apple Pay.

But the important question on many people's minds is, understandably, has it made the iPhone 5S redundant? Is last year's handset still relevant and a device worthy of your time and money?

Of course the answer is yes. A big part of what Apple is doing that's so exciting comes with the iOS 8 software rather than the hardware per se. You can even enable Apple Pay on an iPhone 5S by pairing it with Apple's new Apple Watch (arriving in 2015), as the wearable has an NFC chip too.

In our iOS 8 beta 5 review it became abundantly clear that what Apple is bringing to the table with iOS 8 is pretty bloody significant. There’s a myriad of design tweaks, but the real action is happening under the hood; things like HomeKit are the real USPs and show clearly the direction Apple is heading in the not too distant future –– your home. 

Yep, we’re talking about The Internet of Things (or, IOT, as it is sometimes referred to). If you don’t know what the IOT is, then we’d recommend you read our feature: What Is The Internet Of Things (IOT)? Needless to say, all of this IOT voodoo – inside the context of Apple's ecosystem – will be done using your voice via Siri. The future’s basically here and we're about to start living in a Jetsons' style world.  

The iPhone 5S handset sports a similar design to its predecessor, but packs in a fingerprint scanner Home button, the latest iOS software and an updated set of internal hardware - the focus of which is Apple's A7 chipset which uses 64-bit architecture for unprecedented speeds.

This review has been modified with insight on the iPhone 5s after six months’ of usage. The additional copy is designed to offer a clearer insight of what owning and using an iPhone 5s is like over a longer period of time – typically, we test a handset for two weeks before publishing a review.

The added bits are titled in bold and are presented in italics. We've added some additional thoughts on battery, the camera, iOS 7 in general and TouchID, as well as Apple’s A7 and M7 coprocessor. Enjoy! 

iPhone 5S review: Design, Display and Build

To start with, lets get the design, display and build out of the way, because little has changed from the iPhone 5 to the iPhone 5s. The 5s has the exact same physical body as the iPhone 5. The materials are the same, the volume, mute, and power buttons are the same, and even the speaker grille layout is the same.

Physically speaking, the only differences between the iPhone 5 and 5s are the Home button and the colors, with the latter being the most obvious change. The iPhone 5 came in black and the two-tone white and silver variant, dubbed "White". The new iPhone 5s comes in “space grey” (which could have easily been called “platinum”), gold and silver. The model I tested was the space grey model and I actually prefer its look over my old black iPhone 5.

Besides colours, the only other physical difference is in the Home button. Because of the Touch ID fingerprint sensor built into the home button, the button is no longer as concave as on previous models. However, it feels just as good –– if not better on the fingertip. It’s also just as responsive when pressed.

As for the display, absolutely nothing has changed. It’s the exact same display found on the iPhone 5 and the new iPhone 5c: a 4-inch Retina display IPS LCD panel with an 1136x640 resolution at 326 ppi. It’s as beautiful as ever, but nothing is new. 

iPhone 5S review: Connectivity 

Just as with the design, display and build, little has changed with the connectivity features of the iPhone 5s. The iPhone 5s offers that same Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n, dual-band, Wi-Fi hotspot, and Bluetooth 4.0 as its predecessor, including full support for Apple’s AirPlay and AirDrop clients. 

The iPhone 5S fully supports 2G and 3G (DC-HSPA and HSPA+) bands just as before but this time Apple has added in a host of additional 4G bands. With the iPhone 5s you are virtually ensured that the phone will work in any country in the world provided you have a compatible nano-SIM card. Apple’s new iPhones are the first truly global handsets the company has ever produced.   

iPhone 5S review: Touch ID

Editor's Note: We've left the following section of the original review, covering Apple's Touch ID functionality, untouched, but we must clarify that as of September 9 2014 (Apple's iPhone 6 launch) there are some new things to consider. Most importantly, the lack of functionality Michael talks about is largely no longer relevant with the announcement of Apple Pay. This is the opening up of the Touch ID scanner in a deal Apple has penned with major card companies (Visa, Mastercard, American Express), banks, and retailers, which allows it to be used for  contactless payments at point-of-sale.

There are a few caveats, however. First, Apple Pay rolls out in the US in October. We have no information on when it will arrive elsewhere other than the usual "soon" promise. Secondly, in particular relevance to the iPhone 5S, the service requires NFC to function, and the iPhone 5S does not have an NFC chip. You can give the iPhone 5S this functionality by pairing it with an Apple Watch, as the watch has an NFC chip inside it, however, the Apple Watch is not expected to go on sale until 2015.

With all that said, please continue.

But what about the Touch ID? That’s Apple’s flagship iPhone 5s fingerprint scanner feature. Apple was keen to add biometrics to the iPhone and for the most part the fingerprint scanner works well. However, my issue with it is that is offers very little benefit – for now at least, anyway.

That’s because all you can do with the Touch ID right now is use it to unlock your iPhone and approve purchases in the App Store and iTunes Store. Now, I completely understand why this is the case – Apple needs to go slow and steady with the capabilities of the first useful fingerprint scanner a smartphone has ever seen. There’s also a large amount of trust that users need to build up as far as biometrics are concerned. It’s a new technology and needs to be understood and proven safe before it’s adopted for more advanced features like mobile payments.

That’s why I tell people not to buy the iPhone 5s only for the Touch ID. You’ll be disappointed because there is little to use it for. The good thing about the Touch ID is that it will be easy to add capabilities to in the future since the hardware is now there. Hopefully Apple will be rolling out iCloud Keychain soon, which would allow users to log into websites on their iPhone 5s with just the touch of their finger – no more passwords and usernames! 

But the holy grail of Touch ID use is when Apple opens it up for use in third-party apps – something not likely to happen until at least iOS 8. But when they do, Touch ID will be a godsend. I keep several of my apps passcode protected. Instead of entering a passcode each time, it would be much faster if I could just tap my finger.

Apple did however file a patent way back in 2012 for where it sees biometric technology heading. The patent suggests a feature like TouchID could be used to access sensitive and/or encrypted applications on the device; things like Dropbox, email and Evernote.

“Given the prevalence of electronic devices [...] that store data in the modern world, many users may own and/or utilize more than one such electronic device,” says the patent. “As such, users may need to wirelessly transfer data [...] back and/or forth between the storage media of various such electronic devices in order to make full use out of the electronic devices.” 

The patent continues by claiming that “manual configuration and/or passcodes entry system may be inconvenient for users. Users may not want to remember passcodes and/or have to enter such passcodes or similar security measures in order to transfer data between different electronic devices.”

Interesting. As is the idea that Touch ID is also probably Apple’s “in” into the world of mobile payments. NFC is great, but not very secure. But NFC with a Touch ID sensor provides security and speed and you can be sure Apple will use both in conjunction when they do enter the mobile payments market.

Six Months On: Okay, this was *the* big feature of the iPhone 5s. For the first several months I hated it. I thought it was more gimmick than anything, and I found it didn’t work too well. It would misread about 50% of my fingerprint readings. 

Then I discovered that the misreadings were coming because I used the same fingers twice to encode my fingerprints to the Touch ID. I did this because I wanted the Touch ID to be able to read two of my fingers from every possible angle. But in reality, that only confused it, resulting in false-negatives. When I wiped all my fingerprints clear and re-encoded them only once, the Touch ID worked flawlessly and now continues to do so.

But just because the Touch ID now picks up my fingerprints with almost 100% accuracy, it doesn't mean it’s all that useful. This stems from my original criticisms of it: it’s just too limited in what it can do. You can still only use it to unlock your iPhone and approve purchases in the App Store and iTunes Store. I understand with something as sensitive as fingerprints that Apple needs to expand Touch ID features slowly, but for now the Touch ID is no reason to buy the iPhone 5s.

When Apple implements mobile payments via Touch ID and opens it to third-party developers (I’d love to be able to unlock my banking apps with the Touch ID) that is when the Touch ID will really shine.

iPhone 5S review: A7 Processor and RAM

If there were one reason to buy the iPhone 5s the A7 processor and M7 motion-coprocessors would be it. Let’s talk about the A7 first. It’s a 64-bit ARM processor with two cores running at 1.29Ghz.

The A7 is the world’s first 64-bit processor in a smartphone.... and it freaking flies. In my Geekbench tests the A7 scored a whopping 2560 when both cores of the A7 were in use. That compares to a scores of 1646 in the iPhone 5c, which uses the older A6 processor from the iPhone 5.

Opening apps and loading GPU-intensive content like games is incredibly fast. Even the startup and shutdown times of the iPhone 5s have been cut in half over those of its predecessor. In a bid to further showcase what’s possible with the iPhone 5s’ new chipset, Apple took to YouTube to demonstrate just some of the CPU/GPU-taxing activities you and your iPhone can get up to. The most recent video focuses on music-capture and performance, and shows iPhone users’ recording entire bands, tracking instruments, filming performances and even controlling the lights at a ballet performance.

As you can see in the video above, the main push seems to be about music – capturing it, recording it live and filming it wherever you happen to be. The iPhone, in our tests, handled pretty much everything we threw at it, including a music recording session whereby several instruments were hooked up to Garage Band and recorded and edited in real time. Not bad. Just remember a charger, because doing stuff like this ruins the battery!

In addition to the A7, the iPhone 5s also features 1GB of RAM. Now, let’s be clear: there are plenty of smartphones out there with more RAM, but they are nowhere near as fast as the iPhone 5s. That’s because Apple doesn’t rely on brute power to speed up its phones. It tackles speed the smart way by designing iOS around the processor and RAM and making them work smarter together. 

It’s this software optimization that will keep the iPhone 5s the world’s fastest smartphone even after Samsung and others rush out mobiles with 64-bit chips and more RAM. Phones can run faster on less raw horsepower with good coding – as Apple has proved time and time again.

iPhone 5S review: M7 Motion Co-Processor

The M7 motion co-processor is the second part of the reason people should buy the iPhone 5s. The M7 motion co-processor’s sole job is to measure motion data from the accelerometer, gyroscope, and compass. In the past this would have been the A7’s job.

The immediate advantage this co-processor provides is a whopping saving on battery life because the A7 doesn’t have to be constantly engaged anymore to measure motion data. The M7 handles all of that in the background much more efficiently.

What’s more, the M7 is so sensitive it can tell the difference between when you are walking, running, sitting, or driving. This means apps that support the M7 can give you a more accurate reading of how many calories you are burning since it can now tell what activity you are doing while moving.

Fitness apps also no longer need to be actively engaged to record your motion. Since the M7 is always recording motion data in the background, you can launch a fitness app after you started moving and it will look at the data from the M7 and update your stats appropriately.

Six Months On: The biggest selling point of the iPhone 5s was supposed to be Apple’s new Touch ID fingerprint sensor. I’ll speak more about that in a bit, but first I want to say that, after almost six months of use, the strongest selling points of the iPhone 5s remains its processors.

Let’s start with the A7. It’s the world’s first 64-bit chip in a mobile device and though when the iPhone 5s shipped, iOS 7 took advantage of it, not much else did. However now that developers have had some time to recode their apps with 64-bit support, the A7 really shines in the iPhone 5s. 

The A7 is the muscle of the iPhone and it’s why I think anyone who buys any iPhone besides the 5s is throwing their money down the drain. With the A7 the iPhone 5s is future proof as far as app and OS speeds go—at least for a few years. Buying an iPhone with an A6 or lower (iPhone 5c, 4S, 4) is just a waste of money. Thanks to the A7, the iPhone 5s flies—six months of use has proven that.

The other main star of the iPhone 5s is the M7 motion co-processor. As someone who has taken an increased interest in his health in the past several years—and someone who used a number of fitness tracking apps to track walks with my dog and jogs through the park—I can tell you the M7 is a game changer. 

I love not having to tell a fitness app to start tracking my exercise. The M7 chip is tracking my movement all the time. Now when I walk to the train, I don’t need to tell my fitness apps (ones that support the M7, anyway) to start tracking when I leave my house, stop tracking when I board the train, and start tracking again when I get off the train. Since the M7 can distinguish between multiple types of movement, I never have to worry about activating anything in an app.

iPhone 5S review: iSight camera 

Many were disappointed that the iPhone 5s kept an 8-megapixel camera. After all, it’s not uncommon to find 12 MP and larger on smartphones these days. But as is the case with iOS, the A7 CPU and the amount of RAM inside the iPhone 5s – more isn’t always the best, and sometimes a tweak will suffice.

Matter of fact, the most important factor in capturing good photographs is light. How much light can a camera’s sensor capture? In the iPhone 5s Apple has bumped up the light sensor in the iSight camera by 15%, which allows it to capture that much more light, allowing your pictures to look better. This 15% larger sensor actually gives you better pictures than a 15% bump in megapixels would.

To capture even more light, Apple also added larger pixels to the light sensor, measuring 1.5 microns, and increased the aperture to ƒ/2.2. Is this better than simply adding a 12 MP camera? You bet.

iPhone 5S iSight Picture Samples

Apple also greatly increased the flash capabilities on the iPhone 5s. Now the 5s features a "True Tone" flash, which consists of an amber LED and a white LED. The two differently colored LED flashes allow for better pictures to be taken because the dual flash works with software algorithms in iOS 7 to adjust the flash intensity and color temperature, meaning the iPhone 5s knows the best amount of light--and which type--to emit to let you capture the most natural images possible.

In my tests, the True Tone flash captures skin tone more accurately than the LED flash aboard the iPhone 5.

But it’s not just the underlying camera hardware and flash that have been added to the iPhone 5s’ camera capabilities. iOS 7 adds many new camera features to the camera software. Things like live filters, auto image stabilization, slow-motion video and a brand new UX. But some of those software features –– slow motion video, for instance –– are limited to the iPhone 5s.

iPhone 5S: Slow-Motion Shizzle

That’s because the features – auto image stabilization, Burst mode, and Slo-mo video – requires the hardware found in the iPhone 5s to work. Auto image stabilization uses the processing power of the 64-bit A7 to work with the software in iOS 7 to automatically adjust for shakiness. The A6 and below don’t have enough processing power to accurately compensate for shakiness in the milliseconds needed.

Burst mode allows you to capture ten images per second – handy for shots of moving things, like players in a football match. The feature will snap 10 images per second for as long as you hold the shutter button down. iOS 7’s software then selects the best image of the series, or you can scroll through all the burst images to select the one you like best. Of course, just as with Auto image stabilization, Burst mode relies on the processing capabilities of the A7 to work well.

That same is true for Slo-mo video, which allows you to shoot at 120fps in 720p and play it back at just a quarter of the speed, which results in video that appears to be in slow motion. Good slow motion video would not be possible without the power of the A7, and the results you can capture aboard the iPhone 5S are pretty damn impressive.

Six Months On: Part of the reason I need more storage on my iPhone is because I take so many photos with its camera. With the iPhone 5s Apple kept the same 8-megapixel sensor that was found in the iPhone 5, but added a better light sensor and increased the aperture to ƒ/2.2. It also added a "True Tone" flash, which consists of one amber LED and one white one.

All of those additions have led to superior image quality versus the iPhone 5 and for many of those images, the quality was actually better than from smartphones with cameras with just more megapixels alone.

However, now that plenty of Android smartphones are adding all the best of the features the 5s’ camera uses—light sensor, aperture, flash—and also have a bigger megapixel capability, I wish the iPhone 5s had at least a 10 MP camera.

One thing I will say, thanks to all the tech Apple added to the camera in the 5s, it takes low-light pictures that are leagues better than the ones the iPhone 5 took.

iPhone 5S review: Battery and Storage 

There’s no new storage option on the iPhone 5s, unfortunately. It still comes in in three storage flavours:16GB, 32GB and 64GB. As for the battery, it’s slightly improved, with a 1560 mAh capacity. Apple says that will give you 10 hours of talk time on 3G and 8 hours on 4G. However we rarely ever only use our iPhones just for talking, so battery life is hard to gauge. Depending how you use your iPhone, the battery could last longer or shorter, which is why I feel that any battery tests are usually completely pointless. But yes, the iPhone 5s’ battery will last about 10% longer than the battery in the iPhone 5, provided your use it exactly the same.

Six Months On: For the first 5 months my iPhone 5s’ battery life was just as good—if not a little better—than my iPhone 5. However, last month Three enabled 4G on my phone—and now I see why Apple has built in an option in Settings to disable 4G. When I use 4G my battery life runs out 20% faster. That’s a huge hit when you rely on your iPhone for work. 

To be sure, the diminished battery life 4G brings to the iPhone is not Apple’s fault. All 4G phones suffer from this. That’s because 4G radios use a lot more power than 3G radios. But it does underscore a certain point I’ve talked about for years: the most important technology behind any smartphone is its battery life. After all, without battery power it doesn’t matter what your smartphone is capable of. The first technology company that invents a battery technology to keep a smartphone running for days or weeks at a time will rule the world.

As for storage, my iPhone 5s is a 32GB one. I now wish I had purchased the 64GB model because I’m using it more than ever.

iOS 7.1 is HERE!!!

Apple has just released iOS 7.1, bringing with it a new version of Siri, support for CarPlay and plenty more besides. Other notable features include improvements to iRadio and a new automatic HDR mode.

As predicted Apple has left much of the visual look and feel of iOS alone. There is a new Month View in the Calendar app, however, as well as a few, incremental cosmetic changes to the UX – contrast is better and buttons and icons are now more defined. 

Siri has a few new tricks up its sleeve, however, including push-to-talk functionality, whereby the user holds down the Home button, gives a command and then releases the key to let Siri know they’re done. Users now have a choice of Male and Female voices in Mandarin Chinese, UK English, Australian English, and Japanese.

There’s a new search field in iRadio and users of Apple’s Pandora-baiting music service can also buy music directly from inside the application. Apple has also made subscribing to its iTunes Match service a little easier, too. You can now do it all via an iPhone or iPad. 

A new camera feature inside iOS 7.1 is Automatic HDR, which, as the name suggests, applies HDR filters to objects and scenes before you take a shot. Wonder where they got that idea from!?

TouchID is still as locked down as ever; payments and the like won’t be showing up until at least iOS 8. Apple has tidied up the set-up process, however, and has also improved responsiveness, as well as fixing the oft reported “soft reboot issue” affecting some iOS 7-powered iPhones and iPads. 

But one of the main thing here is speed. iOS 7.1 is A LOT snappier than previous builds of iOS 7. Check out our iOS 7.1 review for the full low-down. The next big iteration is just around the corner too; Apple's iOS 8 is now in the hands of developers and should be with us during the autumn alongside the iPhone 6

iOS 7.1 also comes fully-loaded with support for CarPlay, which includes a specially re-jigged version of iOS for use inside your car. Unfortunately, the first cars to benefit from this new technology won’t be available until later on in the year. Still – at least everything’s good to go in Apple’s corner.

iPhone 5S review: Conclusion

The iPhone 5s is the best smartphone Apple has ever made and the fastest smartphone on the planet. If you are a speed junkie or a fitness buff, ditch your iPhone 5 for the iPhone 5s. It’s well worth it. It’s also worth it for the camera improvements if you enjoy taking lots of pics with your iPhone.

But don’t buy the iPhone 5s just for its flagship feature: Touch ID. Yes, it’s nice, but it has very limited use at present. But given that it would simply take software updates to make it more useful, that could change quickly. Apple no doubt has big plans for this feature.

Thinking about the iPhone 5c? Skip it if you can spend the extra money. For less than £90 more you’ll get twice the phone going up to the iPhone 5s –– and you’ll be future-proof when Apple decides to add more features relating to its Touch ID.

As for Samsung, they should be very worried. Yes, the company said the next Galaxy will have a 64-bit chip, but until they learn that software optimization is as important for performance as raw hardware power is, Apple’s iPhones will always get more power from less hardware. Such is the bonus of owning both the hardware are the software that powers it.

Six Months On And Still Loving It? 

The iPhone 5s is still the best smartphone on the market. It’s worth it for the 64-bit A7 and the M7 motion co-processor alone. The camera is fine for most people, but if you’re going to take a lot of pictures, opt for at least the 32GB model. Apple’s Touch ID is still a neat feature with a *wow* factor, but its uses are too limited. But overall, the iPhone 5s has proved its worth and I can’t wait to see how Apple continues to improve the iPhone with the iPhone 6 this autumn.

iOS 7 took some getting used to, no doubt about it. But now that I have I realize the design changes were a wise move on Apple’s part. iOS 7 feels like a smartphone operating system on the cutting edge. When I compare it to an iPhone running iOS 6, I’m glad I don’t have to use something that looks so archaic anymore.

That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of things that still need to be worked out with iOS 7, but thankfully Apple seems well on their way to fixing most of the annoying bits in iOS 7.1, which is on its fifth beta and can be expected to ship sometime in March.

Specifications

Length 123.8mm
Width 58.6mm
Thickness 7.6 mm
Weight 112 g
Screen Size 640 x 1136 pixels, 4.0 inches (~326 ppi pixel density)
Operating System Apple iOS 7
Camera Resolution 8 MP, 3264x2448 pixels, autofocus, dual-LED (True Tone) flash. Features: 1/3'' sensor size, 1.5 µm pixel size, simultaneous HD video and image recording, touch focus, geo-tagging, face detection, HDR panorama, HDR photo
Video Resolution Yes, 1080p@30fps, 720p@120fps, advanced video stabilization
Processor Apple A7
Connectivity Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n, dual-band, Wi-Fi hotspot, Bluetooth 4.0
High-speed Data DC-HSDPA, 42 Mbps; HSDPA, 21 Mbps; HSUPA, 5.76 Mbps, LTE, 100 Mbps; EV-DO Rev. A, up to 3.1 Mbps
Built-in Memory 16GB, 32GB, 64GB, no SD-support

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