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Review: Apple iPhone 5 for AT&T

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Sep 23, 2012, 7:29 PM   by Eric M. Zeman

The Apple iPhone 5 is without a doubt the best hardware to reach the market this year in terms of design, engineering, and manufacture. It is an incredible smartphone that pleases from nearly every angle. Even still, it's not perfect.

Form 

The Apple iPhone has become so ingrained in the consciousness of American popular culture that you probably already know if the iPhone 5 is for you or not. Ever since its 2007 debut, the iPhone has been a constant fixture on TV, in the movies, at the office, or in the stadium. Apple has sold more than 200 million of them. They are everywhere, and most people are familiar with the iPhone. But Apple is a polarizing company, and people tend to love Apple products or loathe them. That begs the question, how do you feel about the iPhone 5? Let us help you figure it out.

Body

The iPhone 5 is a stunning achievement in design and engineering. From a distance, it may look like a common oblong slab, but upon close examination it is clear how much thought and work Apple put into designing it. No other phone manufacturer has crafted so fine a piece of hardware.

To be quite frank, I didn't think I was going to like the iPhone 5. The leaked photos that have littered the web over the last few months were unappealing to me. I didn't like the elongated look, nor the two-tone colors on the back. Now that I have one in my hand, the design choices made by Apple make a lot more sense to me.

The first thing I noticed when picking the iPhone 5 up is the weight. There's nothing to it. It's as if you're playing with a toy, not a $649 (that's the full retail price) piece of electronics. Apple says the iPhone 5 is 18% thinner and 20% lighter than the iPhone 4S, and you can tell right away when you use it. The lack of weight is incredible, and the slim profile is impressive. It's so thin and light that it simply disappears when you put it in a pocket. You can forget about it completely.

 

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As with the iPhone 4/4S, the materials of the iPhone 5 are top-of-the-line. The fit and finish of the manufacturing is absurdly good. There isn't a single phone available for sale today that offers the same high-class feel of the iPhone 5. The front is glass, the back and sides are aluminum, and the back has two glass panels (one at the top and one at the bottom). The aluminum has a matte finish that contrasts with the shiny glass panels. Apple switched from the glass back of the 4/4S to aluminum in part to make the iPhone 5 thinner and lighter, but also to make it less breakable. With so much metal built into the design, it should be more durable than the iPhone 4/4S were.

Where the iPhone 4/4S had sharp edges, the iPhone 5's back corners have been softened by angled cuts of the aluminum frame. The glass-and-aluminum sandwich look of the iPhone 4/4S is gone. The seam between the glass panel on the front of the iPhone 5 and its aluminum frame is practically invisible. These design choices make the iPhone dramatically more comfortable to hold and use. Toss in the thin profile and trimmed weight, and it's a wonder Apple had any room on the inside to stuff the (impressive) guts that power the iPhone 5.

One thing that I have come to dislike about the iPhone 4/4S design is the way the small 3.5-inch display looks on the front of the phone. The bezel is too thick, and it calls attention to just how small the screen is. That effect is gone on the iPhone 5. Thanks to the larger 4-inch screen and reduced bezel, the balance looks better all around. The iPhone 5 still has the single, physical home button below the display. This is the one aspect of the iPhone 5's hardware that feels just a wee bit on the cheap side to me. The travel and feedback of the home button are excellent, but it makes a loud "clack" when pressed that just doesn't sound as good as it should.

The volume buttons are on the left edge, exactly where they were on the iPhone 4/4S. The volume buttons are little circles that are separated by about a centimeter. The "up" volume button doubles as a camera shutter button. The travel and feedback of these buttons is perfect, and their shape makes them easy to find without looking. The little flip switch to turn the ringer on and off is there, too, and works perfectly. The lock button is all by itself on the top of the iPhone 5. It also has excellent travel and feedback.

The headphone jack has been moved to the bottom of the iPhone. I have mixed feelings about this choice. I prefer the headphone jack to be on top, but I can understand the reasons behind the relocation. Apple altered the antenna design, and needed the space at the top of the phone for certain components. Apple also decided that putting the port on the bottom makes more sense for people who like to stick their phone in their pocket with the top pointed down.

Of course, one of the biggest changes on the iPhone 5 is that Apple has done away with the decade-old 30-pin connector in favor of the new Lightning connector. Apple has once again ignored industry standards and chosen its own design over that used by the rest of the wireless industry. Simply put, it's annoying. There's no good reason for Apple to choose this new proprietary port over micro-USB other than to rake in more money.

All that griping aside, the Lightning connector is much easier to use than the 30-pin connector was. The 30-pin had to be inserted a particular way, but the Lightning connector is reversible; you can stick the plug in any way you want and it won't hurt the iPhone. The cable itself has a slightly smaller profile, and is easier to wrap up and store because there's no longer a big, bulbous 30-pin connector at the end.

As with all iPhones, the iPhone 5's battery is inaccessible. You can't swap it out or pull it.

Last, the iPhone 5 uses a new nano SIM card. It's a brand new design, smaller even than the micro SIM card used in the iPhone 4/4S. You can not switch the nano SIM into another phone without the use of a third-party adapter (sold separately). Obviously, Apple doesn't expect that many iPhone users will ever pull their SIM card out. In order to eject the SIM card you need to use a small paperclip or similar tool.

There's no denying that the iPhone 5 is an outstanding piece of hardware. I haven't reviewed a single phone this year that comes even close in terms of quality and craftsmanship.

Performance 

Screen

What's not to like about a bigger Retina Display? The iPhone 5 is the first iPhone to break from the traditional 3.5-inch display that Apple has used since Day 1 for each subsequent generation of iPhone. The iPhone 5's display is the same width as previous generations (640 pixels), but a bit taller (1136 pixels, compared to 960 on the iPhone 4/4S). The result is a display that now has a 16:9 aspect ratio. Even by growing to four inches, the iPhoen 5's display is still much smaller than that of the Samsung Galaxy S III or the HTC One X, both of which offer 720 pixel HD displays. Personally, I was hoping Apple would go bigger than 4 inches, and would use the 1280 x 720 standard for HD content. It didn't. As it is wont to do, Apple chose its own pixel count.

The new display's aspect ratio matches much of the content available from the iTunes Store, such as movies and television shows. The Retina Display's pixels are packed so tightly that picking out individual pixels is near impossible. The iPhone 5's screen may not have the colorful brilliance of Samsung's Super AMOLED screens, but the iPhone 5's LCD is the sharpest out there, and still exceedingly bright. I found that using the auto-brightness feature worked well when transitioning from indoors to outdoors. It amped up the brightness when I walked outside, making it easier to see, and did the reverse when indoors to conserve power.

The biggest benefit to this taller screen is that you see a little more of everything on the iPhone. You can see more emails, more of your Facebook timeline, more of your Twitter feed, and so on -- as long as the apps have been updated. Apps that haven't been customized to the iPhone 5 yet can't fill the entire screen. Instead, you get black bars (88 pixels each) above and below the content. It's a letterboxing effect, and it looks crummy. Unoptimized content practically swims on the front face of the phone.

Signal

The iPhone 5 has an entirely new radio and antenna design, and is the first iPhone able to access and use LTE 4G networks. I tested the AT&T version of the iPhone 5.

Signal performance on AT&T's regular HSPA 3G network was a bit mixed. Most of the time it would show the same number of bars that other AT&T devices showed. Every so often, however, it would completely freak out and drop the network altogether for a second or two before jumping back to full strength. I saw the iPhone 5 drop to AT&T's EDGE network several times, which is something I haven't seen any phone do in a while. I was not all that impressed with data speeds over AT&T's HSPA+ network. It peaked at 4.6Mbps down, but averaged closer to 1Mbps down. Uploads peaked at 1.4Mbps, but average 0.6Mbps. That's pathetic.

It was a different story under LTE 4G coverage. I drove to an office park that I know has AT&T LTE 4G coverage. Given that it was 10PM on a Saturday night, my guess is I had the entire LTE cell to myself. I saw peak download speeds of 28Mbps and peak uploads of 8Mbps. Averages were closer to 15Mbps and 4Mbps. When I drove away from the LTE 4G coverage area, the transition to HSPA coverage was seamless, but speeds dropped immediately.

The iPhone 5 didn't miss any calls, nor did it drop any, even in weak signal areas. I attempted to give the iPhone 5's antenna the "death grip" (a.k.a, obstruct the antennas with my hands), but it had no impact.

Sound

The iPhone 5 is the best iPhone yet for making calls. Sound quality is significantly clearer than on the iPhone 4S running on AT&T's network (in the exact same location). The clarity of the earpiece is much improved, as is the volume. The iPhone 5's speaker is the loudest for an iPhone, though it's not the loudest phone we've tested. The iPhone 5's noise cancellation tech worked well, as those who I called were able to hear me clearly even though a loud television was blaring in the background on my end of the call. My parents never sounded so good through a cell phone. Calls also sound good went routed to the speakerphone, which was clear and loud(er). The iPhone 5's speakerphone is not as loud as the best, but the combination of good quality and good volume means calls sound particularly good. Ringers and alert tones can be set to very loud volumes, and the vibrate alert (which can be customized!) is very, very strong.

Battery

Apple claims to have made all sorts of power-management tweaks to the iPhone 5, which also happens to pack the largest battery of any iPhone. It will last one full day no doubt. Even under heavy usage (and I mean heavy!), it lasted for a full 24 hours. I used the iPhone to check email, check RSS, take pictures, shoot video, upload images to Photo Stream, make calls, send tweets, play games, read the news, and download, install, and set up all my apps/accounts. I used the heck out of it, and it still had more than 20% power after 24 hours. Power users will probably want to charge every night, but it won't be necessary all the time.

Basics 

The iPhone 5 runs iOS 6. For a full run down of all the new features in iOS 6, see Phone Scoop's separate review of iOS here.

iOS 6, on a base level, performs just the same as every other version of iOS since 2007. The home screen holds apps or folders that are arranged in a controlled grid. Aside from rearranging the order of the apps/folders on the home screens, you don't have all that much control.

The notification shade lets you quickly view your missed calls, text messages, emails, Twitter and Facebook notifications, and gobs of other incoming missives. The Notification Center gives users a modicum of control over how alerts are presented on the home screen, how many are queued in the notification shade, as well as alert sounds, whether or not they light up the lock screen, etc.

The only shortcut available on the lock screen is for the camera.

Wallpapers and ringtones, buzzers and alerts can all be configured how you want.

iOS 6 on the iPhone 5 performs like a bat out of hell. It's simply the fastest mobile OS -- and fastest phone -- there is. It's faster than a speeding Steve McQueen driving a Ford Mustang through the streets of San Francisco.

 

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Calls and Contacts

The iOS phone app itself has barely changed over the years, and it's the same with the iPhone 5. The look of the dialpad has changed with iOS 6, that's about it.

One of the things that bugs me most is the iOS contact app. It's so visually dull. In Android and Windows Phone, the contact app offers thumbnails of your friends on the main contact screen. It adds some variety and flair. Not so with the iPhone contact app.

The list of favorites is just that, a list. Android offers tons of widgets for contacts, some of which are really useful and interactive. iOS has nothing like that. Windows Phone lets you Pin individual contacts to the home screens. You can't do that in iOS, either.

 

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Messaging

Phone Scoop's review of iOS 6 offers a lot of insight into the new messaging features of the iPhone 5, including iMessage, Email, and Facetime. Beyond those features, the iPhone is a capable device for staying on top of all your communication needs.

 

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Extras 

Music

The iOS music application is about the same as it was when it first launched. It received a minor visual refresh this year, but nothing about it is all that spectacular or noteworthy.

Music sounds excellent when channeled through my favorite pair of headphones. Speaking of which, the new earpods from Apple, which are included with the iPhone 5, are a major step up from the crummy earbuds that Apple used to offer. They fit better in the ear, and sound leagues better. They're not good enough to make me give up my Shures, though.

 

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Video

The iPhone 5 can play back anything downloaded from the iTunes Music Store, as well as movies that you choose to sideload via iTunes (as long as there's no DRM involved). I watched Prometheus on the iPhone 5 and it looked fantastic. The 16:9 aspect ratio provides just a teensie bit more room for movies to stretch across the screen.

The YouTube app is no longer included with the iPhone. Thankfully, Google has made it available separately from the App Store. It's actually pretty good, but a bummer that you have to search it out yourself. The one sort point that might upset some people is that the YouTube app no longer supports AirPlay.

It's also worth downloading the Apple-developed Trailers and iMovie apps from the App Store. Trailers is free, but iMovie costs $4.99. The Trailers app does pretty much what the name says, and offers both SD and HD trailers for all the current and upcoming movies. iMovie can be used in conjunction with the iPhone 5's video camera to edit together little video creations.

 

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

Camera

The camera app adds one excellent feature, but otherwise works the same as it did in iOS 5, iOS 4, etc.

The one new feature is the panorama mode. It works differently from what you might have seen on Android devices. Once you select panorama mode, you hold the iPhone 5 vertically. The software puts a box in the middle of the screen with an arrow pointing to the right. You can switch the arrow to face the other direction if you wish. You have to shoot the panorama by sweeping the iPhone from the left to the right or right to left. The app guides you through the process. You can take panoramas up to 270 degrees wide. That's three-quarters of the way around a full circle. It's a neat tool, and offers up to 28-megapixel full-size images. The panoramas I shot looked great, and were far more detailed than those I've taken with Android devices. The tool works better with static scenes. If you have people moving around, you'll notice they might be missing limbs in the final image. It worked equally well for close-up scenes and far-away scenes. Also, it stitches images together better than any other panorama tool I've seen.

The camera can be opened from the lock screen, and the Up volume button doubles as a shutter button. It's dead simple to use.

Oh, and it is the fastest camera phone ever. It blows every other camera phone away in terms of speed. It focuses instantly, captures the photos in a blink, and gets you back to the camera and in shooting mode in well under a second. It's insanely fast.

 

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Photos

The iPhone 5 has a 8-megapixel camera. It has been improved with better low-light capabilities, a lens that lets in more light, and other nerdy engineering tweaks. I thought colors were accurate and exposure was dead-on. Focus was a bit soft here and there, though. I shot some images on a cloudy day, which means there was pretty even lighting. The photos that I shot on a bright and sunny day were more consistent at getting white balance, exposure, and focus all correct. The iPhone 5 even did well with some indoor shots. More detail was visible in dark regions that other phones might have missed. By all accounts, it is an excellent camera.

 

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Video

The iPhone 5 shoots video at 1080p HD resolution. It looks great. I thought exposure was perfect, white balance accurate, and focus good. Moving objects were smooth and appeared natural with no stuttering or jerky movements. Sound captured while recording video sounded bright and clear.



Gallery

The iOS gallery app gets a little bit better every year, and this iOS 6 is no exception. The big change this year is more control over the Photo Stream function, which we detailed in our full review of iOS 6. The app offers minimal editing control (crop, rotate), and includes the full array of sharing options available in other parts of the operating system. That means you can send photos to Twitter or Facebook, email or MMS, or a printer.

If you're serious about editing photos on your device, spend $4.99 and download Apple's iPhoto for the iPhone. It has a multitude of features for manipulating photos after the fact, and includes a wide array of brushes, effects, and other tools. It's probably the best mobile photo editing app available.

 

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

Apps

The iPhone App Store now has more than 700,000 apps. Do we really need to say anything else here? Apple's app ecosystem for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch is unequalled. Go dive in and have fun.

Bluetooth

The iPhone 5 supports Bluetooth 4.0 with low energy (LE), which means it’s compatible with an array of Bluetooth-based sensors such as heart rate monitors, blood sugar monitors, and other health-related doodads that might want to talk to your phone. Of course, you can also pair the iPhone 5 with mono and stereo bluetooth headsets. I found audio quality of both to be excellent. Oh, and you can pair with some accessories, such as Bluetooth keyboards.

Browser

Apple really sped up Safari's performance. It absolutely flies on the iPhone 5. You can talk about Sunspider benchmarks and other obscure tests all day long if you want to. I'm telling you it's gotta be the fastest browser available. It loads pages in a blink, and they look really, really good on the iPhone 5's display. It's noticeably quicker than the iPhone 4S, and also bested Chrome running on an HTC One X. Safari also has new syncing capabilities that will bring over your open tabs from the desktop version of Safari and load them on the iPhone.

 

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Clock

The iPhone's lock screen hasn't changed much, but it still offers a decent-sized digital clock up at the top that can be used as a watch replacement.

Game Center

If you're the type to play games in a socially connected way, then Game Center is for you. It supports multi-player over-the-network gaming sessions and serves as a portal to all your gaming needs. it is easy to set up a profile and start engaging with friends (or total strangers, for that matter), and enjoy gaming with others.

GPS

The iPhone 5 ships with the brand new Apple Maps app. We looked at Apple Maps in detail in our iOS 6 review. The GPS radio itself performed just fine. Using Apple Maps, I was able to locate myself to within about 10 feet. The only problem is the speed. Sometimes it found me in an instant; other times it took close to a minute to pinpoint me. Hopefully this is a software bug and not something specific to the GPS hardware of the iPhone 5. Most phones provide an exact location in less than 20 seconds.

Newsstand

Apple put a magazine-consumption app on the iPhone last year called Newsstand. It is present on the iPhone 5, as well. It works with the App Store and allows you to download and read magazines on your iPhone. Buying and/or subscribing to magazines is painless if you have an iTunes account all set up.

Passbook

Passbook is Apple's new app for replacing tickets, coupons, and loyalty cards. See our full rundown of Passbook in the iOS 6 review.

Siri

Siri is much better, but still not perfect. See our full rundown of Siri in the iOS 6 review.

Wrap-Up 

The iPhone 5 is an impressive smartphone, but it's not without its faults. Nothing in this world is perfect, not even stuff designed and made by Apple.

The hardware is absolutely killer. You can't buy a more well-made smartphone than the iPhone 5. Everything about the iPhone 5 is leagues ahead of the competition in terms of materials, fit, and finish. The new, taller display provides extra room for content on the screen without pushing the iPhone 5 into the too-big-to-use category of devices.

As for basic performance, battery life was excellent and call quality the best. I was disappointed with signal performance and the uneven HSPA+ speeds on AT&T's 3G network. Those crummy speeds were mitigated by AT&T's LTE network, but remember that AT&T's LTE footprint still only covers about 65 markets. The camera produces excellent still and video results, and the iPhone 5 is one of the best devices out there for listening to music, watching videos, playing games, and (gasp!) being productive when the time calls for it.

iOS 6 is better than its predecessors, but still leaves out some features that are offered by competing platforms. The lack of home screen customization is disappointing, as is the essentially powerless contact app.

For Apple fans and iPhone lovers, the iPhone 5 is an easy decision. Go out and buy it right now. If you're undecided about upgrading from an iPhone 4S, yes, it's worth it for the larger display and faster wireless speeds. If you're coming from a competing platform, prepare to be impressed by the hardware.

The iPhone 5 is easily one of the best phones to reach the market this year.

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Comments

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Subject Author Date
"Everything about the iPhone 5 is leagues ahead of the competition" MarryTheNight Sep 23, 2012, 11:56 PM
Why compare Apple to Apples? Why not Apples to Galaxy S 3s? Blazeitup Sep 29, 2012, 3:54 PM
wow how much did apple pay you? ajac09 Sep 23, 2012, 7:58 PM
America the land of your choice. GeekBro Sep 26, 2012, 12:44 AM
I think it's fascinating that the initial response from most outlets was lukewarm, Captain Ahash Sep 24, 2012, 10:27 AM
hardware?? dadayk12 Sep 23, 2012, 7:56 PM
Review was overboard on the ubiquitous design Rusty Shackleford Sep 25, 2012, 12:49 AM
In terms of design?????????? Mark_S Sep 23, 2012, 9:59 PM
In reality DAntiVirus Sep 24, 2012, 12:04 PM
Everyone Magnagarde Sep 24, 2012, 2:37 PM
and remember, when posting something in PS against apple ... alpaca_camel Sep 24, 2012, 6:55 AM
 
 
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