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printed September 18, 2014
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Review: Apple iPhone 5s

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Screen

Perhaps the biggest disappointment about the iPhone 5s -- at least to me -- is the display. Apple carried over the same 4-inch, 1136 x 640 pixel screen from last year's iPhone. There's absolutely nothing wrong with the LCD panel itself. It is incredibly bright, razor sharp, and shows accurate color. The Retina Display's pixels are packed so tightly that picking out individual pixels is near impossible. The auto-brightness feature works very well when transitioning from bright environments (such as outdoors) to dark environments (indoors). Everything about the screen is exceptional, apart from the size.

Apple has resisted pressure to increase the size of the iPhone's display. According to Apple CEO Tim Cook, the company doesn't want to sacrifice one-handed operation of the phone. That's a valid point. Some phones, such as the Galaxy Note line from Samsung, have screens that are so large the device becomes awkward to operate. Most of today's leading Android devices have 5-inch screens and full 1080p resolution. However, not only is the iPhone's screen among the smallest of most modern flagship smartphones, it also has the fewest pixels. For example, the iPhone has about 727,000 pixels, while a 720p HD screen has about 922,000 and a 1080p HD screen has 2.1 million pixels.

The size of the iPhone 5s display won't appeal to everyone, despite how good the quality actually is.

Signal

We tested an AT&T-specific version of the iPhone 5s on AT&T's network around the metro NYC area. The iPhone 5s performed on par with other AT&T devices tested in this region of the country. The iPhone remained connected to AT&T's network throughout our review period. It always showed an HSPA+ or LTE connection, depending on what was available. It never dropped to EDGE, even in areas that I know have poor AT&T coverage. More to the point, the iPhone connected every call I dialed on the first attempt and it never dropped or missed any calls. Further, data speeds were solid across the board, and appreciably quick in areas with good LTE coverage.

Sound

The iPhone 5s is a decent device with which to make phone calls, but it's not the best. The quality of calls sent to the earpiece was a bit scratchy in my experience. Voices were overly sharp and crackled from time-to-time. The volume produced by the earpiece was good, but not great. I was able to hear calls during a busy street fair and when at a noisy coffee shop, but screaming kids in the same room were easily able to drown it out. The speakerphone produces much better volume, but the quality nosedives a little. The 5s speakerphone was easily heard when in a car or my office, but there was even more crackling and distortion in the sound. Ringer volume is heavily dependent on which ringtone you choose. For example, the "Classic Phone" is loud enough to make your ears bleed. But some of the new ringtones in iOS 7 - while really lovely - are much harder to hear in even moderately quiet environments. The vibrate alert is strong enough to get your attention when the phone is in your pocket.

Battery

After testing the iPhone 5s for three full days, I'd say it has average battery life. It should get most people through most of a day, but will chew through battery life quickly with heavy use. I found that it lasted a minimum of 11 hours, but at most 15 with moderate use. I used it in areas with a mix of HSPA+ and LTE, and had the screen brightness set to 50% throughout my testing. I left both the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios on, as well as GPS, and used the device heavily to check email, Facebook, RSS, and Twitter throughout the day. I also played some games, watched some video content, and listened to music. As with all iPhones, you're going to need to learn to manage its power useage. Apple doesn't offer any special battery-life-management features, so you're on your own to figure it out.

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