Saturday, October 20, 2012

Buyer-Friendly Review: iPhone 5

About this review

Five years after the revolutionary first iPhone was released, I have picked up my first iPhone ever. Coming from an old Nokia 5800 XpressMusic, which I have been using most recently (for well over three years), the sixth-generation iPhone is a huge upgrade. In this review, I will compare and contrast this iPhone with the last model, the 4S, but only in some detail.

This review is meant to look at the iPhone 5 independently for the most part and rather than looking at specs and various performance numbers, it is supposed to be a practical piece of writing aimed at those who are thinking of buying one of these gadgets and want to know the ins-and-outs of it from someone who uses it already.

Like I did for my 2012 MacBook Pro a few weeks back, this review looks at the little things - the annoyances, plus points, button placements and other tiny aspects that you will experience as you use this phone.

Keep in mind that this review was written by an iPhone newbie and I don't already have practice using the keyboard and hardware on the device. Hence it's more of a true, independent review of the phone.

My model
I got my iPhone 5 on contract with Verizon. It is a 32 GB Black & Slate model.

Body design

iPhone 5 may be the most beautiful gadget I’ve ever owned, no matter how orthodox that sounds in the world of iPhone 5 reviews. Seriously, the MacBook Pro is gorgeous, my trusty iPad 2 doesn’t look bad. But the iPhone 5 is truly a marvel in design. You’ll know it when you pick one up in your own hands at a store.

Which color to pick?

Just yesterday, I walked into an Apple Store and checked out the White & Silver model. I think it looks slightly better, but I don’t know if I would have thought the same for the black model had I purchased the white one.

Many people have described the Black & Slate model as Darth Vader-black and the White & Slate model as Stormtrooper-white. They are very correct.

Colors on the screen are noticeably better than that on iPad 2

The black model is not much more than a dark, sleek, shiny black slab in most lighting conditions when the screen is off (same case for the back as well). You may have to tilt it at an angle in the light to clearly see the Apple logo and the iPhone branding on the back. The sides of the phone are banal and the mirror-finish chamfers accent the design well. The metal portions of this model is made of the same aluminum as the white model, except that it’s anodized. There is some talk about it getting scratches more easily, however, I can confirm that scratching with a nail will not damage it very easily. This color has class.

The white model reminds me of a graceful unicorn. The Apple logo is shiny and has a look that resembles stainless steel. There is higher contrast between the MacBook-aluminum back and the branding on the back. You can also clearly see the differences in texture an color between the metal and non-metal parts of the back plate. This color has some elegance and may draw more attention to the phone compared to the black model.

Both colors look very good on the iPhone 5. It’s indeed a tough choice and I had to think hard about it. There is a specific reason for my choice of black, which I will cover in a later section and it has to do with the taller screen. It may or may not sway you towards black version.

Button, camera and other placements

If you have not seen an iPhone before, each iPhone model has four buttons on the body and one silent switch on the side. One of these buttons is on the top, which sleeps and wakes your phone. One button is the round Home Button below the screen, which takes you to the Home Screen (both these buttons wake up iPhone from sleep/lock state). The other two buttons are volume rockers on the upper part of the left side of the device, just below the silent switch.

I think that the button placement on this device are fine. But like some other people would like it, I would prefer the silent switch and volume controls to be on the right.

This is because of two reasons. I am right handed. I don't like to use my index finger for the volume controls. However, I am being very very nit-picky here. The volume buttons also double as camera shutter buttons for those who don't like the on-screen button. I tend to prefer tilting my phone to the left when snapping a picture. It just feels natural to me and I would like to have the buttons on top. But I will get used to it.

The camera and the LED flash are located very close to each other on the back. The camera, however, is very close to the corner of the phone and it is very easy to have your fingers show up accidentally in the corner of all your photos if you tend to tilt the device to the left like me. But the camera placement is not all that bad if you have the volume/shutter buttons on top when you tilt the phone.

There are three microphones on the device. There's a regular one on the bottom, one at the top of the phone on the front and one visible mic on the back, between the camera and flash. That way, you can talk to Siri, talk on a call hands free and enjoy amazing noise-cancellation no matter how you hold your phone. And it really does work. Siri is very accurate even in noisy environments.

I haven't made enough phone calls with this device or with someone else with an iPhone 5 on the other end to really comment on the call quality.

The speakers are on the bottom of the device. Sound quality is not bad at all and it's loud enough (being a phone). However, because there are no speakers anywhere else, your hands may block the sound entirely when you hold the phone horizontally and play certain games. I experienced this when playing Jetpack Joyride and Super Crate Box. It will be the same case for pretty much any joystick game as well, depending on how you hold the device.

Need for a case

I have been writing this review for a couple weeks. All this time, I have used my iPhone without a case or screen protector. It’s risky, but I thankfully haven’t dropped it yet. If you are prone to dropping your phone, you should get a bumper or other case. The body may look very shiny and sleek, but it is extremely prone to chips, scratches and shattering.

But if you think you can be careful, you can enjoy the slim body. In my experience, the phone is very sturdy. I have used it so much, slid it on (usually smooth) desks, put it in pockets with EarPods and it doesn’t have the tiniest scratch or chip that I would expect. I expected the glass sections on the back to get minor scratches quickly, but it is holding up really well.

It is said that iPhone 5 has Gorilla Glass, but there is no official word. But from what I’ve heard, the build of the phone itself makes the screen very shatter-prone if dropped on concrete on the corner (which is very possible).

I have even tested my fingernails (not too hard) on the sides and back of the black model that was on display at an Apple store and it didn’t have any problems. Also, I think the white model will show significantly less signs of wear and tear compared to the black one on first glance.


Here, I look specifically into some of the prominent features of iPhone 5.


The iPhone screen size increases for the first time ever since the first-generation iPhone released back in 2007 in this model.

Retina Display on iPhone 5 vs iPad 2 screen

The color quality on this screen has improved since iPhone 4S, supposedly. However, I cannot compare; other reviewers agree, though. The screen is a beauty. The Retina resolution and bright colors even make the Home Screen look gorgeous. I caught myself staring at the colorful app icons for a few seconds now and then for the first few days after I received my iPhone.

Widescreen videos look great on this resolution. There is a lot less letter-boxing when the phone is held sideways. You can really enjoy your wide panoramas on a wider screen right after you snap them.

Coming from the large iPad 2 screen, I feel cramped on the iPhone screen (even more when I use apps that have not been optimized... shudder). But a narrow screen is a good compromise for one-hand usability.

As always, the touch response is impeccable. There is nothing to say, really.

Camera quality

The back-facing 8 MP iSight camera on the iPhone 5 is the same as the one on iPhone 4S. However, it is slimmer on the inside and supposedly has better night-time performance.

While I haven't really used the 4S myself, I am really impressed by the camera quality on this device. I feel like this is as good as a phone camera gets, but I'm sure there will be better phone cameras in the very near future.

Click to see the full gigantic image

However, there is no doubt that you can easily take professional quality photos (or at least be close enough) without fiddling around with the settings and just pressing the shutter buttons in most cases (obviously you should know how to frame and focus photos; basic stuff).

No purple halo at night (photo shot in twilight with auto mode, unedited)

The camera shoots fast. It basically captures shots almost as quickly as you can tap the button. Combined with the ability to go to the Camera app directly from the lock screen by dragging the camera icon up, it makes a good phone for spies (and other professions that require you to snap photos at a moment’s notice).

Another untouched photo

iOS 6’s panorama feature shines on this phone. I cannot compare it with the 4S myself, but panorama shots look beautiful. What I find interesting is the way it handles exposure in those photos. I have a CyberShot point-and-shoot camera that shoots panoramas. But it holds one level of exposure throughout the photo.

Another unedited photo taken at twilight

So if you start sweeping from a dark view to maybe the horizon with the sun, the sun will appear too bright and this overexposure will ruin the photo. Similarly, if you start sweeping with the bright sun visible, the camera will set a lower exposure for the entire panorama and darker areas are too underexposed. This is not the case on iPhone. Panoramas are perfectly exposed from the left to the right.

iPhone 5 shoots very decent video as well. It pretty much replaces the need for a point-and-shoot. It may even take better photos and video than most cheap digital cameras. I filmed a couple of videos when walking and it captured the tiniest details of everything quite well. There was no blurriness or anything of that sort, but I got the purple halo problem in the sun that everyone is talking about. Video stabilization is remarkable; it almost (keyword) feels like I wasn’t walking.

Purple halo problem: Many people are talking about the severe purple discoloration that the iPhone 5 lens is prone to when the photo/video has a bright light source in it. It is said that it’s because of the new sapphire-crystal lens and Apple dismisses it as normal. I didn’t have prohibitive problems with it. As someone who lives in San Diego, most of my photos have a bright sun in them and I don’t notice anything bad. However, I did get some severe purple flashes in a video I took as I panned across the sun. It doesn’t look particularly bad and it isn’t always there, but it’s there.

The front camera on the new iPhone is now a FaceTime HD camera. Unlike the one on iPhone 4S, this one does 720p video recording. The video quality of this camera is phenomenal. I haven’t taken pictures with it, though. I am guessing they will be video stills and not very good.

Battery life

Battery life is a huge plus point in this device, in my opinion. Stats aside, I will talk about real-life usage in this section from experience.

After the first couple days of overusing the new gadget, I now comfortably run through an entire day on a single charge and plug it in at night. And it charges very fast as well. Throughout the day, I do occasional web browsing, I check reddit many times, listen to music/podcasts, use the Reminders app often, use Siri a lot when walking around campus (through EarPods), and very rarely read a few pages in the Kindle app. However, I don’t play hardware-intensive games a lot at this time.

Obviously, your battery mileage may vary. For instance, if you don’t carry around an iPad and a Kindle like me, you may end up doing a lot more stuff on your iPhone and drain the battery quicker. In my experience, the iPhone lasts through 7 or 8 hours of use and several hours of standby (as the Settings, General, Usage stats say).

You can plug in the iPhone 5 for a few minutes and you have 30% battery all of a sudden. It charges pretty fast. I was blown away, coming from a rather old Nokia, but having seen my parents’ Samsung Galaxy phones. If you’re not so techsavvy, iPhone may be right for you because of another reason: iOS does a lot of the memory/CPU/battery management work for you, while Android may have tasks running in the background, widgets updating and whatnot, which drastically affect battery life.


iPhone 5 comes with iOS 6, which released for older devices two days before the iPhone release. iOS 6 adds some new features, such as Passbook, panorama mode (for older iPhones as well), and Apple’s own in-house Maps that are getting a bad rap everywhere

However, this is not an iOS 6 review. I only talk about the important things you need to know about the software specifically on the iPhone 5.


This is an honest review of Siri, since iPhone 5 is my first Apple product with Siri support.

I was very impressed with Siri since when I took my phone out of the box. It really lived up to the hype. I can set reminders and calendar events way faster with Siri than I can type. I normally listen to music when walking. Siri is indispensable. Moreover, I prefer dictation over the cramped keyboard. Hearing and replying to messages while walking is pretty fun.

In my experience, Siri works very well even in noisy environments. Keep in mind that I mostly use Siri hands-free through the EarPods. That’s an important factor. Siri works very nicely through the phone mic from several feet away too. And I like how you can talk to her using natural language and without imitating a robot.

However, Siri is still missing many features that could be there. For example, Siri cannot edit reminders yet. That may be difficult to do logistically, since you will need to remember the exact wording of your reminders etc. That’s fine. But Siri cannot turn Wi-Fi (and Bluetooth or airplane mode) on and off. This would be particularly useful because as I walk around the college campus, I like to switch between Wi-Fi and LTE because Wi-Fi signal is bad in some areas and Siri particularly gets stuck now and then.

I don’t see many third-party apps integrating Siri either.

Large screen app optimization

All iOS apps have been designed to work on the smaller screen on all previous iPhone models. With the way Xcode and the iOS SDK work it would make things very ugly if iPhone 5 “optimized” older apps for the taller screen - particularly for games. Therefore, when you run older apps on the iPhone 5, they appear smaller, with black bars on top and bottom of the screen.

I find reaching the opposite corner of the screen easy

Going for the closes corner with your thumb is not as easy as the "Thumb" TV ad shows
If this is your first iPhone, you will feel very cramped when you run these apps, but you cannot do much about it. Of course, all of Apple’s apps have been optimized (with the exception of the Apple Store app for whatever reason) and numerous developers have already been releasing updates to their apps for the new screen. But as I write this about two weeks after the iPhone 5‘s release, apps like Skype and WhatsApp haven’t yet been optimized. This shouldn’t be for very long, though.

This brings me to another point: If you pick the exotic-looking White & Silver color iPhone 5, the black bars on older apps will be a lot more prominent on your device. This is not the case with the black iPhone. In fact, I’m extremely impressed with how the intense dark black levels of the screen blend in with the rest of the body.

The taller screen helps a lot. Although I feel relatively cramped (as I have mentioned before, I find non-iPhone 5-optimized apps a pain to use), the taller screen really shows more of your content. It’s not a gimmick. That small increase makes a better web experience, particularly. But browsing in landscape is still better on larger phones because the iPhone just feels too narrow for the web and it takes a while to adjust.

Still no landscape home screen etc.

Now that iPhone has a wider screen in landscape, Apple could have put it to better use by allowing you to use many of the built-in apps in landscape mode that you currently cannot. You can’t even use the home screen in landscape. It would be sort of hard to implement because there will be empty space on the dock when in landscape but not in portrait, but at least let us use the App Store and the Music app in portrait!

Is Apple Maps really that bad?

The question that many people are asking is whether or not Apple’s Maps are a deal-breaker.

Google has still not released a Maps app (at the time of writing), but you can always use However, it’s not a good experience. There is no support for the compass and it is quite buggy overall compared to the built-in app that used to be there.

Apple has owned up to their Maps being bad and they are actively fixing their service (I have actually seen my university campus coverage get populated with roads). In the meantime, they have an App Store category for third-party maps apps, some of which are paid while some are free.

Now, whether or not the Maps problem will affect you depends on a lot of things. It depends on the country you’re in. If you are not in the US or if you feel you are in a less-Internet-represented country, check this page out. Maps actually works with many small countries as well, but the list is short. Check it out before you buy the iPhone.

Secondly, asking Siri for places to buy a jacket, get a haircut or to dispose of the dead body may not get you appropriate results. But this is not a problem everywhere and Apple is fixing maps. Results for these things are not very bad in my area, although I am on the outskirts of San Diego. Maps is otherwise a pleasant experience to use. It loads fast and has a fresh new look that’s different from the regular old Google Maps.

Another issue with Maps is the lack of public transit directions. However, this may or may not be a problem if you are in a developed corner of the world. If you are in a major US city, the free HopStop app should have you covered (it also works in a few Canadian cities, London, Moscow, Paris and St. Petersburg). It integrates with Maps and choosing “route” through HopStop in the Maps app switches to the app and shows you bus/train/whatever directions directly. If HopStop doesn’t work in your city, go to the Apple store, find an iPhone, look for directions and select public transit. You will see a list of apps from the Store that work with Maps. There may be free ones that will work for you.

Other general use experience and nitpicks (fun stuff)

iPhone 5 feels very comfortable in the hand. First of all, it’s very light; when you first pick it up, it almost feels like a toy. However, it has the necessary bulk and does not feel like a very cheap device. It has a premium feel when held in the hand, which is mostly because of the metal/glass body design.

I also have a very nit-picky problem. When I saw one of the many leaked photos once, I decided it was fake because the Apple logo on the back was a bit too high up. But it turns out, it was real. The Apple logo is slightly too high up for my taste. /firstworldproblem

If you want to know about a particular aspect of the device or if you have any questions, write me in the comments and I may add the answer here to improve the review.


That was the iPhone 5. It’s a brilliant device in my opinion, although I am torn between whether or not the tall, yet narrow form factor is good. It’s very easy to use one-handedly, but a larger screen would bring it on par with what other manufacturers are doing and make for a better web browsing experience.

Note: The following list is not a summary of the whole review. You should still read the whole thing. These are some things that stand out to me.

I’m impressed by

  • Impressive high-resolution screen with brilliant colors
  • Weight and thickness
  • Gorgeous build
  • Very quick battery charging and long life
  • Very scratch-resistant body (your mileage may vary)
  • Siri

I don’t like

  • New Maps app (for now)
  • Siri is still missing essential functionality
  • iOS is still the same
  • No breakthrough features
Let’s wait to see what Apple will do with the seventh-gen iPhone. Will they fix the naming system and call it “the new iPhone”? Will they push the Apple logo down?