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The Complete iPhone: a Review and Guide to the iPhone 5

by Mark W. Hibben
10/9/12

Thinner, Lighter, Better

The iPhone 5 is the best phone Apple has ever produced, and a considerable improvement over the 4s, but is it the best all-around smart phone?  Last year, I would have said “Yes!” since the Five improves on the 4s in so many ways.  But the world of smart phones has changed drastically in the past year, and there are now so many phones that offer MORE: more screen area, more pixels, more OS options, more communication options, and more processor cores.  As much as I love this new iPhone, I can’t bring myself to crown it “the best smart phone”.  There’s simply no objective way to do that.  So let me fall back on describing the phone, what it does well, and what it does not so well.

iPhone 5 Features and Construction

The Five retains the familiar control layout of previous iPhones, but the case is now anodized aluminum, and the phone is slightly longer.  The case uses the aluminum unibody construction approach of the MacBooks in order to slim down and shed weight. 

The Five weighs only 112 g and has a thickness of 7.6 mm making it 18% thinner and 20% lighter than the 4s.  The back of the phone is aluminum, except for a pair of glass inlays at the top and bottom.  The screen is now 4 inch diagonal with a pixel resolution of 1136 x 640.  Apple is sticking with LCD display technology for now, and the screen sharpness and contrast are the best you can get using LCDs.   As good as the screen is, the screen is one feature that may cause consumers to look elsewhere, since there are now so many phones using AMOLED (active matrix organic LED) technology that is brighter, has higher contrast and is available in larger display sizes (4.5 inch diagonal and larger) with higher pixel resolutions (1280 x 720+). 

Some users have complained about scratches appearing on the iPhone 5 case.  Anodized aluminum is now used for the cases of all the current generation iPods and iPhones, and provides a variety of color options, but anodizing is not particularly scratch resistant.  We’ve noticed minor dings and abrasion already appearing on our black and slate version of the Five.  These would be much less noticeable on the silver/white version and we recommend this color combo for prospective iPhone 5 owners who are concerned about scratches.

One nice feature of the Five is the inclusion of Apple’s new Ear Pods.  I can’t tell any difference in audio quality compared to the best in ear phones, but the new phones are noticeably more comfortable to wear for long periods.  This seems to be due to the fact that the Ear Pods produce great bass response without needing a tight seal in the ear canal, so they can be worn loosely in the ear.  Ear pods also come with a built in microphone which may help with speech recognition in noisy environments. 

One of the significant changes to iPhone is the smaller, simpler Lightning connector which replaces the traditional 30 pin docking connector.  At the other end of the cable is just a plain old USB connector.  I’m sure Lightning is an improvement in durability over the 30 pin connector, and it’s impossible to insert backwards.  However, the lightning adapter that Apple plans to ship soon won’t be compatible with the Digital AV adapter that has been available for HD video output from iPads and iPhones.  This leaves Apple TV as the only current option for HD video output from iPhone 5.

Specifications and Features Comparison

Shown below is a summary of the specs for the devices tested in this review:

The iPhone 5 uses the new A6 processor, and there’s some uncertainty at the moment about the clock speed.  The A6 appears to have a variable clock speed, a technique that has been used for years in Intel processors.  This allows the processor to conserve battery power when idle, but gives the processor maximum performance when needed.  The A6 also features dual processor cores in the A6 system on chip, and these appear to be custom designed at Apple, rather than licensed from another manufacturer, and I sure hope this is true.

The rear camera has the same basic specs as the 4S, but is an all new design in a smaller package.  The Five has twice the ram of the 4S, but the same amount of Flash storage.  To the usual GPS and compass, Apple has added GLONASS capability to the Five, making it even more of a world phone.  GLONASS is the Russian GPS system.  Apple has also upgraded the Wifi capability of the Five with dual band 802.11n.  Finally, our Verizon version comes with 4G LTE capability, as well as 3rd gen GSM useful for travel outside the US, and that's what requires the sim card slot.  Although the Transformer Prime was not a focus of this review, we include some test data for comparison purposes, since the Prime has a very capable Nvidia quad core processor running at 1.3 GHz in the performance mode setting we used for the tests.   

Performance Results:  Real Life vs. Benchmarks

A great deal has been made of the faster A6 processor in the iPhone 5, and in benchmarks, the Five does test out considerably faster than previous iPhones or iPads.  In our real life testing, the performance advantage doesn’t appear that great. In the application launching tests, no other apps are running in the background, and we measure launch time by counting frames in the video recordings.  Application launching is always performed as a “standing start” test so that the app is not already in the background.  The table below summarizes the results for application launching and web browsing.  For the web browsing test we created a bookmark for CNN on the home screen and launched from there.  The time to navigate from the CNN home page to the Technomicon home page is measured from the time that the link is selected in the bookmarks menu.  The preview button response time is measured from the time the button is pressed to the time the preview appears on the screen.  This last test is primarily a measure of Javascript performance.

Response Time in seconds
Action iPhone 4s iPhone 5
Google Earth Launch 20.65 19.37
Apple Maps Launch 4.40 2.05
YouTube Launch 2.92 2.17
iWork Numbers Launch 1.42 1.75
Browser Launch to CNN 3.47 2.93
Time to Leave CNN to Technom. 3.90 4.70
Preview Button Response 0.27 0.17

 

As can be seen from the table the iPhone 5 wasn’t faster in all our real-life tests, but when it was faster, it was usually by a large margin. 

SpeedTestX HD Network Tests
Device/Network Download Upload
  Mb/sec Mb/sec
iP4s/802.11n 11.34 1.64
iP5/802.11n 16.35 1.65
iP4s/Verizon-L.A. 2.51 0.75
iP5/Verizon-L.A. 26.99 6.32

 

SpeedTest X measures network download and upload speeds, and we performed these tests using our 802.11n network and over cellular.  The Five features Verizon LTE which offers a factor of 10 improvement over the 4s in download speed and was actually faster than our wired high speed internet, which was maxed out by the iPhone 5.

In the benchmarks, the Five lived up to its reputation, easily besting all comers, sometimes by a factor of two or more.  We consider that the two benchmarks we ran, the Sunspider Javascript benchmark and PassMark Software’s Performance Test Mobile (PTM), provide reasonable cross platform comparisons.  Sunspider can be run by any computer browser that has Javascript enabled, so it’s about as platform agnostic as one can get, although it really only addresses CPU performance. 

Device Total Time in msec 3D Access Bitops Control flow Crypto Date Math Regexp String
Asus TF 201 1754.6 323.7 139.7 138.7 14.8 131.5 284 112.5 82.6 527.2
new iPad 1540.9 239.1 131.1 75.8 16.4 135.5 246 107.3 93.8 495.9
iPhone 4S 1812.8 272.3 163.7 98.1 20.7 169.6 280 134.6 102.9 571.1
iPhone 5 956.9 170.1 79.6 45.6 11.2 92 142 84.9 50 281

PTM is more comprehensive, testing video, RAM, and flash storage performance as well as the CPU.  Both tests are completely free to use, and PTM is available in Android and iOS versions.  As is customary for Passmark, user uploaded test results are tabulated and can be viewed on the Passmark site for a large variety of devices. 

 

Passmark PTM CPU Results

CPU
Device Summary Integer Math Mops/sec Floating Point Math Mops/sec Find Prime Numbers thous/sec Random String Sorting thous/sec Data Encryption MB/sec Data Compression MB/sec
iPhone 4s 8120 249 208 50.6 872 33.5 1.05
iPhone 5 25075 607 820 183 2135 92.9 2.27
new iPad 11120 338 284 66.4 1192 46.9 1.44
Asus TF 201 9625 195 437 107 1236 4.99 1.34

PTM Disk and Memory Results

 

Disk

 

 

Memory

 

 

Device

Summary

Storage Write MB/sec

Storage Read MB/sec

Summary

Memory Write MB/sec

Memory Read MB/sec

iPhone 4s

7797

43.5

66.4

1736

303

279

iPhone 5

14713

60.2

160

2824

486

486

new iPad

9609

54.4

80.6

2189

382

352

Asus TF 201

3913

30.3

31.9

1291

233

434

PTM 2D Graphics Results

 

2D Graphics

 

 

 

 

 

Device

Summary

Solid Vectors vec/sec

Transparent Vectors vec/sec

Complex Vectors vec/sec

Image Rendering im/sec

Image Filters filt/sec

iPhone 4s

460

642

609

61.7

493

14.2

iPhone 5

1654

2764

2431

156

1049

42.5

new iPad

246

295

260

37.2

609

9.75

Asus TF 201

2089

4248

3140

97.9

1862

59.3

PTM 3D Graphics Results

 

3D Graphics

 

 

Device

Summary

Simple Test frames/sec

Complex Test frames/sec

iPhone 4s

956

39.9

21.7

iPhone 5

1754

56.9

47.6

new iPad

581

58.9

12.1

Asus TF 201

805

60

17.7

 

Camera Performance

 

Still camera performance is considerably improved over the iPhone 4s.  Here is a still from the 4s, which shows the difficulty the 4s has with high contrast scenes. 

 

This image is nice and sharp with good detail, but the sky color is washed out due to over exposure.  The same scene imaged by the Five shows the true color of the sky, but doesn’t lose detail in darker portions of the image. 

 

The camera auto-focus also works very well for close subjects, whereas the 4s had difficulty getting the image in focus.

In 1080p video, the differences between the phones are much less noticeable.  Both phones produce video at 30 frames per second, and this contributes to motional blur when panning.  It seems to me that the 5 produces less motional blur than the 4s, but both phones produce more blur than a consumer camcorder, the Panasonic HDC-TM90 which we show for comparison purposes, and which records 1080p video at 60 frames per second. 

The Panasonic also uses optical image stabilization rather than image processing alone to remove camera shake, which also helps reduce blur.  Although phone video cameras are good, they still aren't quite up to the level of a good HD camcorder.

GPS and Maps

iPhones and wireless equipped iPads have excellent GPS systems, and as we showed in our maps launch demo, the position quickly converges to an accuracy of about 6 meters.  While Apple maps provides high resolution aerial views for urban areas of the U.S. such as Los Angeles, we found the Apple database lacking for rural areas.  Here we compare Apple maps and MotionX finding my locale in Southern New Mexico.  The blurred low resolution image of my neighborhood in rural New Mexico that Apple Maps provided was in stark contrast to the Motion X GPS HD image that used the Bing mapping database.  This was the major shortcoming of Apple maps that we observed in our testing. 

 

We also compared route finding capability of Apple Maps and MotionX in urban Los Angeles and rural New Mexico.  In Los Angeles, Apple Maps performed flawlessly, and even provided alternate routes.  MotionX also performed flawlessly, but didn’t provide the alternate routes.  We also liked the turn-by-turn directions of Apple maps better.  These were more detailed and provided important information such as which lane to be in when making freeway transitions, which Motion X didn’t provide.

 

 

We next compared route finding in rural New Mexico between Apple Maps and Motion X running on the new iPad, and Google Maps running on the Asus Transformer Prime.  We used the iPad in this case only because the screen size made things a little easier to see in the video demonstration, and we found no difference in Apple Maps and MotionX performance between the new iPad and the iPhone 5.

We found that all three mapping programs gave the same route leading from my house, indicating a right turn onto Raven Road, and all three mapping programs we wrong in selecting this route, since Raven Road is actually little more than a very steep four-wheel drive trail, and is posted as restricted access for emergency vehicles. 

 

The Complete iPhone: A Review and Guide to the iPhone 5 Part 1

This put the issue of navigation accuracy in perspective.  It didn’t take much effort to trip up the navigation programs.  In this example, we simply asked for a route from my house to the local village a few miles away.  The test demonstrated that there’s no such thing as perfection in navigation software, and users of navigation apps need to keep this in mind. 

Airplay Video Setup

Given the lack of any other video output options for the iPhone 5, Apple TV has become a must-must have accessory.  Some may resent being forced into using Apple TV, but they won’t once they try it.  It’s a breeze to set up. 

Our test setup for the iPhone 5 included the following:

1) An Apple TV which was connected via wired Ethernet to our 802.11n router, although you can also connect via WiFi. 

2) A 1080p monitor connected via an HDMI cable to the Apple TV. 

3) An iPhone or other iOS device.

4) A Bluetooth keyboard paired with the iOS device.

Together, these things make a very capable small computer. 

Using Airplay on iPhone 5 is just a matter of going to the multi-tasking shelf, and swiping to the right until you see the Airplay icon.  Then select Apple TV and video mirroring. 

WiFi Performance Issues

Be forewarned that streaming 1080p HD movies or games video can strain the bandwidth capability of your home WiFi system.  You need to have an 802.11a or 802.11n system, and the router needs to be located close to the iPhone, since data throughput varies with signal strength.  We have observed significant video frame dropouts just by locating the router in an adjacent room, which can make movies less enjoyable and games almost impossible to play.  The latest 802.11n systems, such as the Airport Extreme, have dual radio band capability (2.4 and 5 GHz) and will provide the best results.

The WiFi antenna appears to be located behind the glass inlay at the top rear of the phone.  The glass serves as a radio frequency transparent window for WiFi and we noticed that covering the glass with your hand or fingers can significantly reduce signal strength as indicated by the signal strength indicator.  Our WiFi system is an 802.11n operating at 2.4 GHz only, and the body is a good absorber of radio waves at this frequency.  This effect was very easy to reproduce, as we demonstrated in Part 2 of our video review.

WiFi Performance Impacts on AirPlay Gaming

Unfortunately, when playing a game over Airplay using the phone as a controller, you naturally grip the phone at the ends, covering the glass inlays.  We found this had a dramatic effect on playability of games such as Sky Gamblers, as we show in the Part 2 video.

There turns out to be a fairly simple solution to the WiFi problem, but it may require upgrading your home WiFi system.  We tried out the iPhone 5 using an 802.11a wireless router that operates at 5.0 GHz.  The problem of frame dropouts during Sky Gamblers went away, and I was even able to land the jet successfully.  The very latest 802.11n routers use both 2.4 and 5.0 GHz radios, so one of these, such as the Airport Extreme, will give excellent results. 

The Five is the first iPhone to be able to use either radio frequency for WiFi.  If you observe these precautions, all your games and movies will look great streamed from the Five via Airplay.  There’s no discernible difference in video rendering quality between the new iPad and the Five. 

Using iWork via AirPlay

Last year when I reviewed the iPhone 4s, I demonstrated using iWork apps on the phone.  The apps worked, but Pages and Numbers only displayed in portrait orientation, so that most of the HD monitor display was wasted.  With the recent updates of iOS and iWork apps, this has been mostly fixed. 

Pages is now usable in landscape mode, and the text is much more readable, and the full width of the page can be displayed. Combined with a Bluetooth keyboard, Pages in the iPhone 5 makes a reasonably convenient word processor.  For some reason I can’t fathom, Apple decided to leave Numbers as a portrait only app.  This makes it okay to use on the Five’s native screen, but it’s almost useless on an Airplay monitor.  Fortunately, Keynote, the presentation app, defaults to landscape mode.  Ofcourse, all these apps still require some touch input on the iPhone screen, and correlating between the phone screen and the Airplay output can be difficult.  

The Complete iPhone: A Review and Guide to the iPhone 5 Part 2

Siri and Voice Dictation

Along with Apple Maps, Siri and Voice Dictation, which are built into iOS 6 have come under criticism for not working well, or as well as people expected.  It appears that Scott Forstall’s flawless Siri demos have created expectations that aren’t met in practice.  A common complaint is that the voice recognition isn’t accurate.  Another complaint is that Siri and voice recognition require an Internet connection.  Natural voice recognition is a tough computational problem, and Apple has chosen to perform these functions in its servers rather than try to squeeze them into the phone.  The Dragon Dictation app takes the same approach.  iOS users need to understand that even though speech recognition has come a long way, it’s far from perfect, and you still can’t speak to the computer as you would a person.  To get the best results, you will need to slow down and enunciate clearly.  It may feel unnatural, but it makes voice recognition much more useful.  As we show in the Part 3 video, voice dictation actually works quite well when you speak slowly and clearly, and when there is little background noise. 

With Siri, you have two different performance issues, speech recognition and concept recognition, either of which can cause problems for a user.  If you follow the voice dictation guidelines above, you can at least be reasonably assured that Siri will accurately transcribe your speech into printed form.  However, Siri’s database and behavioral repertoire are still rather limited.  You can launch apps and ask simple questions.  Whether you get a useful answer depends on the nature of the question.

WiFi Only Mode

It’s possible to set up the iPhone 5 with the wireless radio turned off but with WiFi turned on.  This is usefull when you’re home and only want to use WiFi in order to conserve battery power.  When I’m home I use FaceTime almost exclusively, so WiFi is all I need.  Oddly, iOS doesn’t make this easy to set up, and it’s one of the few things that isn’t.  First you have to turn on Airplane Mode.  This turns off the cellular and the WiFi radios.  Then turn WiFi back on, and now you’re in WiFi only mode.  It’s kind of a stupid iPet trick, but it works.  You can do anything you would normally do via WiFi: make FaceTime calls, send messages and email, or surf the Internet.  When you use Messages, the app will inform you that you need to turn off Airplane mode. 

This is one of the few cases where iOS indulges in nag-ware, and what’s worse, the warning is wrong.  Just click cancel, and you’ll be able to use Messages like you normally would. 

Lack of NFC

NFC stands for Near Field Communication, and it’s a technology that Apple continues to exclude from the iPhone.  This has led to criticism that Apple is falling behind, but NFC isn’t a particularly new technology, although its adoption by Google Android is fairly recent.  The NFC Forum was established by Sony, Nokia, and Philips in 2004.  It builds on Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology which is used for embedded chips in ID badges.  NFC enables two way communication between devices over a short range at a maximum data rate of 424 kbits/s.   It can be used for non-contact payment systems such as Google Wallet and to help bootstrap file transfer over faster radio systems such as Bluetooth.  Android Beam works this way. 

Apple’s answer to the non-contact point of sale function is PassBook, which presents an image of a bar-code like ticket which can be optically scanned.  Since far more retailers use optical scanning rather than NFC, Passbook has the potential for much wider adoption.  It’s also more secure.  NFC has the potential to allow transfer of information from the device without the user’s knowledge, whereas with Passbook, the user must deliberately present the ticket image to the scanner. 

Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be a good peer-to-peer file transfer option for iOS users that’s equivalent to Google Beam.  There are a number of apps on the app store that promise wireless file transfer via Bluetooth, but we found the process of pairing iOS devices via Bluetooth to be finicky at best.  Plus the file transfer rates, even using the latest Bluetooth 4.0 technology we found to be frustratingly slow. 

What iOS badly needs is the equivalent of Airdrop, which uses WiFi, and it’s a little puzzling that Apple hasn’t provided AirDrop for iOS, since it’s been available for Mac OS since Lion.  It may be that Apple is working on something even better, but in the meantime, email enclosures seem to be the easiest file sharing approach when you can’t use iCloud.

Conclusions

With a screamin’ fast processor and LTE speed, the Five is one of the best phones available, but not necessarily in a class by itself.  There are many good smart phones out there, and the choice of which phone to buy is, I think, much more a matter of personal preference than in the tablet space.  For instance, if you want a larger screen, you may have to look elsewhere than the iPhone.  If you already own one or more Apple Mac or iOS devices, then the iPhone 5 will mesh with them beautifully.   Documents, apps, and media can be shared effortlessly over iCloud.  Whether it makes sense to upgrade from one of the previous iPhones depends on many factors.  Both the CPU performance and LTE capability offer substantial improvements over the iPhone 4s, and these alone may be enough motivation for an upgrade.  Especially LTE.  It’s not very often that a next generation device offers a factor of 10 improvement over the previous generation, but the iPhone 5 with LTE offers that improvement in wireless download speeds, as our tests showed.   With those kinds of speeds, you might decide you don’t need wired Internet at all.

If you’re thinking about a gift for a young person this holiday season, consider the iPhone 5.  It actually makes a reasonable first computer, coupled with a Bluetooth keyboard, Apple TV and monitor.  It does most general computing tasks quite well, and the processor is faster than many computers of just ten years ago.  Not a bad place for a young person to start learning about computers, and there’s a wealth of educational software on the App store. 

One factor I don’t think should influence anyone’s buying decision is Maps.  There’s no doubt in my mind that Apple will fix whatever is wrong with Maps and make it a best in class product.  Think about it this way: could Apple fix Maps for a billion dollars?  Of course they could.  I doubt the entire development effort for Maps has cost a billion dollars.  A billion dollars is a lot of money, but it’s less than a percent of Apple’s cash reserves. I’m certain Apple will correct any deficiencies there are in Maps, but they won’t stop there.  Siri is a form of search, Maps is a form of search, Apple’s ultimate destination is Search.  If I were a Google exec, I’d be worried.  Because if Apple does search, they’ll be successful, unlike Microsoft, which has lost buckets of money on Bing.   

The Complete iPhone: A Review and Guide to the iPhone 5 Part 3

  • 1. iPhone 5 Features and Construction
  • 2. iPhone 5 Teardown
  • 3. Small Ding on the Black Case
  • 4. Lightning Connector vs. 30 pin
  • 5. Mobile Device Specs
  • 6. A6 Processor
  • 7. App Launching Test Results
  • 8. Internet Speeds and Sunspider
  • 9. Passmark PTM CPU Results
  • 10. PTM Disk and Memory Results
  • 11. PTM 2D Graphics Results
  • 12. PTM 3D Graphics Results
  • 13. iP4s Still Image
  • 14. iP5 Still Image
  • 15. iP4s Close-Up
  • 16. iP5 Close-Up
  • 17.
    GPS and Maps
  • 18. Route Finding in L.A.
  • 19. Apple Maps Route Finding
  • 20. MotionX Route Finding
  • 21. Google Maps Route Finding
  • 22. Video Review Part 1
  • 23. AirPlay Video Setup
  • 24. WiFi Performance Issues
  • 25. Using iWork via AirPlay
  • 26. Video Review Part 2
  • 27. Siri and Voice Dictation
  • 28.
    Lack of NFC
  • 29.
    Conclusions
  • 30. Video Review Part 3
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