The iPhone 5s

Another year, another upgrade as they say. Well, another two years technically. As I mentioned before, my contract ended this month and I planned to upgrade to the iPhone 5s. The 5s gives me the most storage space and a two-year jump in technology and form factor. As with Apple’s other “s” models, the 5s shares the design of its predecessor, the iPhone 5, and focuses mainly on improving internal components. The major changes with the 5s are the Touch ID fingerprint sensor, a faster processor, a dedicated motion-processing chip, an improved camera with a better sensor, improved lens, and improved flash, and of course new colors – gold and gray. As with the 4s, the 5s represents an upgrade to an iPhone 5 and a 5s all in one.

In the past I have pre-ordered my iPhones so that they arrived at my doorstep on the day of launch. This year the 5s was not available for pre-order, which meant that I had to wait in line like everyone else. Bummer. Luckily I have a pretty flexible schedule at work so I could a “meeting” with myself to head out to the AT&T store around the corner and grab one. I called ahead to see if I could reserve one to pick up later but no dice, I had to go and wait like everyone else. The was already a line outside, specifically for people looking to buy an iPhone. You had to wait until someone was ready to take you, presumably to prevent a mob scene. The line didn’t seem that long, maybe 15 people. There were several store employees outside with  iPads taking people’s names and wireless numbers to preload their accounts. Overall the line was quiet and organized. I waited patiently, checking the time every now and then as I had a meeting to go to the next hour. I had exactly an hour to wait, not a minute more.

That would have plenty of time if everyone didn’t decide to ask questions, change their plan, buy accessories, look at the competition, and try to find the fountain of youth while they were in the store. It felt like forever. There must have been six different customers served at one time, but it took each of them 30 minutes to get through. I had places to go! I just wanted to get inside, pay for the phone, and activate it at home. I didn’t need anyone to walk me through anything or sell me any crap; I just wanted my phone.  I considered asking someone if I could sneak in earlier but I’m pretty sure the answer would have been ‘no’ and I would have felt like a douche anyway. So I waited in line like a good little customer.

It felt odd being in line with all of those people. I literally felt like I was in one of those “next big thing” commercial that Samsung makes. I was just standing there in line listening to people asks questions about their plans or worse, gush about the iPhone. “It’s got a fingerprint sensor. Isn’t that amazing?” It is amazing but it just sounds stupid when I hear people talk about it. The more I stood there, the more uncomfortable I felt.  I pictured everyone who was driving by looking and saying “Look at those losers waiting outside an AT&T store. Must be Apple fanboys.” That was a figment of my imagination of course, but I still couldn’t shake the thought. I hadn’t been that embarrassed since I waited in line to buy a discontinued HP TouchPad.

I was worried that I’d do all this waiting and they wouldn’t even have my model – a black 64 GB – but that was unfounded. While they had no white or gold models, they had lots of black ones, mostly 32 and 64 GB sizes. I continued to wait, listening to these old rich guys talk about their homes in Aspen and Ivy League colleges (please kill me) until finally, after three mis-calls, it was my turn. Unfortunately my hour had expired and I needed to be at my meeting. I sent a quick email telling everyone that I’d be about 15 minutes late, buying enough time to get in and check out.

Once I got inside the process was pretty easy. I scared the AT&T woman by immediately telling her that I had places to be and didn’t want to waste any time. She hurried to the back room to grab a phone and bring it to me. I told her that I didn’t want it activated but she said that we had to because of the LTE chip. Sounds like a bunch of BS to me since I could activate it at home if I ordered it from Apple, but whatever. The process didn’t take too long and I grabbed a 30 pin-to-Lightning adapter and an extra Lightning cable while I was there. After an hour of waiting it only took about 10 minutes to get the phone and check out. I was only 10 minutes late to my meeting 🙂

I’ve had my 5s for a little over a week and I really, really enjoy it. First, the color. I was a bit bummed when I learned that Apple lightened the metal on the back and sides. I really liked the dark charcoal metal of the iPhone 5 but the new color, called “Space Gray”, is growing on me. It isn’t as light as the silver used on the white model; it’s more of a dark bluish steel. It provides more contrast and actually looks rather nice. Apple also blackened the black glass so that it stands out a bit more against the gray. It makes it easy to distinguish from a black iPhone 5. Like all “s” models thus far, there is little on the outside to differentiate it from its predecessor other than the color, the new Touch ID home button, and the flash if you notice it. It’s just as tall, just as thin, and just as light as the iPhone 5. It makes my 4s look just as pudgy and beastly too.

Touch ID

The headlining feature of the 5s is the Touch ID and I can say that it works as advertised. Setup is really easy – it displays an image of a fingerprint and asks you to place your finger on the home button several times while it takes readings. The gray parts of the fingerprint turn red as more data is gathered. It will even tell you if you aren’t moving your finger enough! All in all it takes less than a minute. Then the magic happens. Lock your phone. Press on the home button for just a fraction of a second more than you normally would and BAM you’re in. You actually don’t even have to press the home button; you can just rest your finger on it and the phone will unlock to the last app that was open.

I was curious what Apple did to the lock screen with Touch ID. Was there a fingerprint image? A message of some sort telling you to put your finger on it? No. Nothing. The lock screen looks exactly the same. Swipe to the right to reveal the PIN screen just like you would on any other iPhone. Gently place your finger on the home button, don’t press it, and you will see the bullets for your password fill in automatically and BAM you’re in again. The only indication of failure is a small “Try Again” message at the bottom of the lock screen that replaces the “Slide to Unlock” text. Fail three times and you are slid over to the lock screen with a “Try Again” message at the top of the pin field.

The sensor works pretty well, though I have had trouble getting it to read if my finger was rotated too far to one side. Probably because I didn’t move it enough when I added it. Even with a failure here and there it is faster and easier then entering a passcode. One thing that might be difficult for people who have never had a passcode is that they still need to remember it and enter it on occasion even when Touch ID is enabled. If you reboot the phone you have to enter the passcode the first time. If you need to add or remove a fingerprint you need the passcode. The first time you purchase from the App Store or iTunes, you need to enter your password. After that you can use Touch ID.

For someone like me who is required to have a passcode, Touch ID is worth the upgrade all by itself. For everyone else it provides a really easy way to add an extra level of security to your device. Touch ID is something that I could see coming to the higher-end iPad in its next iteration. I’m excited to see if it’s use will be expanded to include iCloud Keychain (when it comes back to iOS 7) or maybe even multiple user profiles on an iPad. I’d love for Apple to allow third-party integration so that I could sign into my Pay Pal or Facebook account simply by using my fingerprint. I understand why Apple is limiting it now but that would be cool in the future.

There was a lot of press about whether or not Touch ID was really secure and whether it could be broken. From a technical software standpoint it is very secure for a few reasons. One, your fingerprint data is not stored as an image. It is stored as data about the characteristics of your fingerprint and it is encrypted. Two, the data is physically only available to the Touch ID sensor. There is no physical circuitry in the phone that allows any software (even iOS) to ever access the fingerprint. Fingerprint data is literally stored inside the CPU of the iPhone. From a physical perspective the Touch ID sensor can be fooled using standard, but involved, techniques that fool all other fingerprint sensors as well. If someone can lift your fingerprint off of a surface, make a high-resolution image of it, make an epoxy model of it, and physically acquire your phone, they can fool the sensor. At that point you could use Activation Lock or Remote Wipe to make the phone useless. As soon as the thief tries to reboot it, they will need your passcode anyway. I’m not worried.

The Camera

The camera is another big feature for the 5s. The camera in the iPhone 5 is largely the same as the camera in the 4s, except with slightly better low light performance and a sapphire crystal lens cover that reduces scratching. Otherwise it is the same 8 MP camera and takes similar pictures. The 5s still uses the same camera hardware but includes a larger aperture lens (f/2.2 vs f/2.4) and a sensor with 15% larger pixels. The combination of larger pixels and larger aperture let in 30% more light which improves low-light performance. The A7 chip also allows the camera to provide software image stabilization for stills, slow-motion videos, faster autofocus, and continuous exposure adjustment during panoramas.

First of all, the camera is fast. It takes about a second to activate and takes pictures almost instantly. It’s probably faster than our point-and-shoot camera. Burst mode is fast as well, easily taking 20 or 30 pictures in a few seconds. The A7 is so fast that HDR pictures only take about a second or two to process versus up to 10 seconds on my 4s. HDR is a great option when you are taking photos outside because it will expose both the sky and the subject properly. Usually the sky has to be really overexposed (almost white) to capture the subject correctly.

The slow-motion video is easy to use, though I’m not sure how often I will take advantage of it. It is fun and you can adjust which parts of the video slows down as you play it. At the moment you can only slow down one part of the video; it would be nice if you could add other slow-motion sections as you go along. One of my concerns was whether or not you could actually share any of the slow-mo videos, and you can – to Facebook, Vimeo, YouTube, an iMessage, or email. Not every video lends itself to slow motion so I’ve been trying to use it for things like jumping or water splashing. I also don’t need a huge number of those hanging around as they are quite a bit bigger than a standard video. Overall it is a fun little feature.

I haven’t used the flash too much but in review photos it seems to address color casts but create red-eye like crazy. I’m not much of a flash photographer so I don’t know if I’ll use it too much in the future. Good to have though. Overall the photos look a bit better than what I got from my 4s. I’ve taken a few low-light photos and they have been very nice. Looking forward to using this for the next couple of years.

The A7 and M7

Apple said that the A7 CPU inside the 5s  is fast, and it certainly is, beating every current phone and even coming close to desktop PCs in benchmarks. From a user perspective it makes the phone very pleasant to use because things are very responsive. It runs iOS 7 exceptionally well and should position it well for the next couple years of upgrades. The A7 is part of the reason that the camera is so responsive and that browsing is so fast. The M7 provides continuous motion processing capabilities so that apps can read the gyroscope, accelerometer, and compass without waking up the A7 and draining the battery. Developers can modify their applications to take advantage of continuous motion tracking. I don’t have any that do it so I can’t really review it, but it sounds nice. iOS is supposed to take advantage of it by not asking you to connect to Wifi networks while the phone is moving (like in a car), and I can vouch that I haven’t been prompted while driving thus far.

All the Other Stuff

In addition to the new stuff I also get all of the features of the iPhone 5 that I’ve been missing for the last year, namely the thinner and lighter design, longer screen, clicker buttons, Lightning connector, additional sound-cancelling microphone, micro-SIM card, and LTE. The most useful of these are the reduced weight, longer screen, and LTE. First, the physical. I like having a longer screen and seeing a couple more rows of information. I was starting to get used to it on our test phones at work and it was making my 4s look old. I really can’t say enough about the shape and weight of it either. It is not that much lighter or thinner than my 4s but the weight distribution and design of the edges make it feel really light. I have a Zagg Invisible Shield HD on the front and back and I love it. I like to just twist it in my fingers. It’s so light that it feels like nothing but it’s still really solid feeling.

The best feature by far has to be LTE though. I. Love. LTE. I was a bit worried about AT&T’s coverage, but it works great in the places that I frequent the most – Portsmouth and Dover. And it’s fast. It is just like being on Wifi. I am super lucky to still have unlimited data too. In the nine days I’ve had the phone, I’ve already used 970 MB. Combined with the rest of my month, I’m already at 2.3 GB, which is one of the standard capped data plans. I’ve been enjoying iTunes Radio at work and partaking in extra web surfing due to the speed increase. I’m very impressed.

I’m also pretty impressed with the battery life. The 4s was widely known to have battery issues and mine has been going downhill for the last six months or so. Just having it in my pocket during the day at work would bring it down to 25 or 30% capacity by the end of the day. My 5s only drops to about 50% and that’s after streaming iTunes Radio all day long over LTE. Not bad. I’m trying to treat the battery a bit better this time around by not always keeping it charged while also not letting it go down to zero.

Overall

If you couldn’t already tell, I’m pretty happy with my purchase. I’m not sure what Apple has in store for the iPhone 6 next year, maybe it’s a larger screen or an even thinner form factor, but I think my 5s will keep me happy until its time to upgrade again. It’s light, it’s fast, it has a great camera, and it has all of the apps that I want. Highly recommended.

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