Last year’s iPhone 4S looked identical to 2010’s iPhone 4, leaving many gadget fans feeling glum. This time Apple has given the iPhone a fresh lick of paint, even if it’s hardly a major style overhaul.
The back of the phone is made from aluminium, with a recognisable stripe across the device’s rear that continues around the sides of the device. We found this to be extremely similar to the MacBook Pro’s metal casing, and so far it’s held up to the rigours of everyday life without picking up any scratches.
Although larger on the front, Apple has made the iPhone 5 lighter than its predecessor — it weighs just 112g, compared with the iPhone 4S’ 140g weight, and feels extremely light to hold. By comparison, the iPhone 4S starts to feel as dense as lead.
The slim build is down to changes in materials, and losing larger components like the 30-pin connector. The change from micro- to nano-SIM is yet another space saver, though the switch does mean shoppers looking to upgrade will need to hound their network for a new SIM card.
The iPhone 5 is thinner than the 4S, at an impressive 7.6mm thick.Â That might not sound like much, but compared to the iPhone 4S there’s a visible difference in thickness.
It has a tall, baton-like design, so while it’s not significantly wider than the 4S, it’s certainly longer. The steel bands around the phone’s circumference carry over from its predecessor, but the new stretched-out look means more room for the display, which now measures 4 inches on the diagonal.
The edges of the phone feel very different too — less metallic, almost plasticky. It has a different feel to it, less cold.
This marks the first time Apple has increased the size of the iPhone’s screen from the previously standard 3.5 inches, and while the difference is subtle, you’ll appreciate the extra real estate. As with the introduction of the retina display, you’ll notice this new feature most when you look at an older iPhone, with the iPhone 4S and 4 feeling small and hemmed-in by comparison.
The bigger panel means there’s room for an extra row of icons on the iPhone 5’s home screen and — because it has a 16:9 aspect ratio — you get fewer annoying black bars when you’re watching movies on your mobile. Movies shot in 21:9 will still play with black bars above and below the action, though as before you can zoom in by double-tapping the screen.
As well as ramping up the display size, Apple has bumped the iPhone’s display resolution. The horizontal pixel count remains the same — a healthy 640 pixels, but vertically you now get 1,136 of the blighters. Its pixel density is the same, at the retina display standard of 326 pixels per inch. That trumps the Samsung Galaxy S3, although that is much larger at a mighty 4.8 inches.
As you’d expect, Apple’s pre-installed apps make use of the extra screen space. In the Mail app, for example, with one line of preview text, you can see six and a half messages on screen, compared with five and a third on the iPhone 4S.
Current apps, however, won’t use all of the 4-inch screen, at least not until they’re updated to take advantage of the extra space. Until then they run in the centre of the display, with black bars at the top and bottom. Apps run fine this way, but you’ll definitely notice the difference. You probably won’t have to wait for major apps to be updated.
The taller screen means it’s no longer quite as comfortable to reach your thumbs from the home button all the way to the top of the screen. The iPhone 5 is more of a two-hander than its predecessor, and the change could encourage users — and app developers — to switch to landscape orientation.
4G in the UK
The iPhone 5 will work with the first 4G network to hit the UK, Everything Everywhere’s EE network. However, because it only latches onto the 1,800MHz spectrum band, the iPhone 5 will only work with EE’s network, and not with O2 and Vodafone’s upcoming 4G services, unless they sell their own version of the iPhone 5. It’s complicated, and there’s a lot we don’t know.
But 4G brings faster mobile browsing, with speeds that (theoretically at least) far exceed those of 3G. There are several other phones confirmed to support this new tech coming to the UK, including theÂ Samsung Galaxy S3 LTE andÂ Nokia Lumia 920.
Because 4G is so new to the UK, and because operators have been slow to get their networks running, most iPhone 5 owners won’t experience the LTE speeds the phone is capable of.
That said, it’s likely to be a year before all three major UK operators have 4G up and running, so you may never miss 4G on this iPhone. If you’re enthusiastic about trying the nascent 4G service in the UK, you’ll need to switch to one of EE’s 4G plans.
The iPhone 5 has an 8-megapixel camera — the same basic resolution as the iPhone 4S, though Apple has made tweaks to the technology within. This phone performs better than the iPhone 4S in low light, and has better video stabilisation.
Photos taken in dim or low-light conditions look clearer than they have before, although they’re still grainier than those taken in bright, direct light. The iPhone 5 can take pictures at speed too, and we were able to fire off multiple shots using quick tapping.
You can now take photos while shooting video, though unfortunately this feature doesn’t use the camera itself, per se, but instead takes a screen capture of the video. This means the aspect ratio is different and image quality is not as good.
Panorama mode is a new feature that knits together a 360-wide image, conducted by holding the iPhone 5 in portrait mode and turning it slowly. Panorama apps are not new, but we found that Apple’s take is — as you’d hope — easier to use and more refined.
The app itself talks you through the process, and the pictures look good, though our photos contained a few weird artefacts.
Apple has introduced a new processor, the A6 chip, which vastly improves upon the performance of the already-speedy iPhone 4S.
We’ll have more benchmark results before long, but it looks like the A6 processor is a significant step forward in speed — more so than the change from the A4 to the A5 processor.
The iPhone 5 gets warm (though never hot) during intense tasks. The heat didn’t appear to affect performance, but it’s something to note.
Call quality is improved, thanks to three microphones built into the bottom, front and back of the phone. In our tests those called reported a crisper, clearer call compared to the iPhone 4S.
The iPhone 5 is powered by iOS 6, the latest version of Apple’s mobile OS. Alongside improvements for existing apps and services, iOS 6 brings a number of brand-new features, not all of which are welcome changes.
The most significant change is to the Maps app. Apple has ditched Google, instead opting to create its own mapping service, which is both a good and bad thing. The revamped app includes turn-by-turn navigation, which performed well in our initial tests.
There are disadvantages, though. Street View is gone, replaced with a 3D Flyover tool that’s only available in some cities. Public transport directions have vanished too, leaving you with just driving or walking options, and because Google isn’t powering the search features of this app, we found business searches omitting results that were present in the old Maps app.
Google is making its since-ditched Maps app available for iOS, so you still have a way of getting to all those old features. We think you’ll own a couple of different mapping appsand switch back and forth.
With iOS 5, Apple baked Twitter into the very centre of its operating system. This time around it’s doing the same thing with Facebook. Expect to be able to post photos to Mark Zuckerberg’s social-networking site from the Photos app, and see your buddies’ birthdays automatically added to the iPhone’s Calendar.
Apple has partnered with Yelp to provide UK business listings for Siri. Whether this makes the voice-controlled assistant more useful for Brits is something we’ll be testing when we update this review with more UK-specific information, so check back soon.
FaceTime, Apple’s own-brand video-calling service, now works over 3G. That means you can take and receive FaceTime calls from people when you’re out and about, instead of waiting until you’re within range of a Wi-Fi signal, though beware of data charges.
Apple estimates you’ll get 8 hours of 3G talk time from the iPhone 5, and 8 hours for both 3G and 4G web browsing. If you’re watching a movie, expect 10 hours of juice, and 40 hours if you’re just playing music.
With a more powerful processor, bigger screen and lighter frame, we were naturally concerned about battery life, though our tests suggest that the iPhone 5 will last roughly all day, using a mix of features. The percentage indicator tended to parallel that of the iPhone 4S during the day, even though we were using the iPhone 5 more. Don’t expect more than a day’s battery life, though.
Lightning dock connector
Apple has a new way to plug your iPhone in. At the bottom of this freshly unveiled mobile you’ll spot a smaller connector port, which Apple dubs the ‘Lightning’ port. As well as being teeny-tiny, the charging connector for this socket will work whichever way up you plug it in, eliminating that annoying fumble as you try and cram a plug into its socket the wrong way up.
The downside, of course, is that any current chargers or speaker docks you own won’t work any more, meaning you’ll need to pay extra for an adaptor that will convert your chunky old connectors into the svelte new model. Despite the name, this new port isn’t actually any faster than the current option.
The iPhone 5 is an excellent smart phone, even if this upgrade is more about refinement than introducing exotic new features. If you want an enormous bells-and-whistles phone that’s exploding with features, then other mobiles (the Galaxy S3 springs to mind) offer that.
Needless to say, we wanted to see something we hadn’t thought of before, but that would suddenly seem indispensable. The iPhone 5 has no such novelty, but note that while tech enthusiasts understandably want to see promising new features, most phone shoppers will likely prefer this kind of polished revision.
It’s not a huge leap forward, but with a much improved design, iOS 6, a speedy processor and a larger screen, this is the best iPhone yet.
Editor’s note: This review is based on our sister site CNET.com‘s impressions and testing, using an American iPhone 5. This review will be updated shortly to include our UK-specific impressions and test results, which may change the overall score.