2013's most anticipated smartphone was supposed to be “the most amazing iPhone yet”, but Just like old times screen didn't get bigger, and the design hasn’t changed. Apple’s mid-cycle S updates are always about the little things: faster internals, a better camera, more memory. That doesn't mean there aren't changes, but many of them seem like roadwork for the future; a cleverly ingenious under-the-home-button fingerprint sensor, a clearly better camera, majorly upgraded graphics, a motion-tracking M7 coprocessor, and a new A7 processor capable of 64-bit computing are a lot of under-the-hood tweaks.
Even a year on, the iPhone’s design is still the benchmark
The 5S is a carbon copy, with some new color variations. You can get last year's white/silver color, or "space gray," which matches black glass and a darker gray anodized aluminum. And, yes, there's gold. Paired with white glass on the back and front, you might have a hard time noticing the gold in the wild unless it was held in the sun.
A larger screen would have really helped this year: not because the competition has it, but because Apple's newest features and apps would put it to good use. I found editing and appreciating the improved photos and video recording, and even playing games, to be challenging; the better that graphics and camera quality get, the more you need a larger screen to appreciate them.
The 5s features a 4-inch, 1,136 x 640 Retina display with a pixel density of 326 pixels per inch, a brightness rating of 500 nits and an 800:1 contrast ratio. Again, more of the same.
The Standout feature of the iPhone 5s, Touch ID
Introduced to replace passcode authentication for unlocking the phone and making iTunes purchases, Touch ID is a joy to use. Once recorded, Touch ID has 360-degree, readability of registered digits, meaning it’ll unlock your phone no matter what way up you’re holding the handset. The key selling point, however, is the simplicity and speed of identification. Apple says Touch ID only stores your fingerprints in special encrypted memory on the phone itself, where the data is accessible to neither Apple’s servers or the NSA, nor to anyone else.
Top of its class Specs and Performance
Apple’s spent more time talking about the 5S’s specs than I’ve ever seen the company do in the past, but the improvements are hard to evaluate. In benchmarks, the new A7 processor is spectacular, but there is no problematic performance issues on the 5 or 5C either.
The M7 "motion coprocessor" is maybe even more interesting than the A7 itself. It’s designed to collect data from the accelerometer, gyroscope, compass, and others, and to use that data to determine the state of your phone without sucking battery life. The processor means the 5S knows if you’re driving; it knows when you stop driving and start walking; it knows when you haven’t picked the phone up for a few hours, and it can stop downloading new email so often because you’re either sleeping or you left your phone at home. This is another feature with only a few implementations — Maps changes the type of directions it gives you depending on whether you’re walking or driving — but my mind’s reeling with the possibilities. What if Twitter could update every time I picked up my phone, because the first thing I do is always open Twitter? What if location-based apps like Foursquare weren’t such battery hogs? We can only dare to dream.
“Forward Thinking”, Apple’s talking about the new processors and the touch ID, potentially the most game-changing features. It might change the way we think about mobile.
Undoubtedly, the best Camera
Unlike many megapixel-packing smartphones (41-megapixel Lumia 1020, 13-megapixel Samsung Galaxy S4 and Note3) the iPhone 5S camera stays at 8 megapixels, the same on paper as last year and even the year before. The 8-megapixel iPhone 5 was the best smartphone camera on the market — and the 5S is even better. Apple just took a great camera and improved both the hardware and software. Its sensor is slightly larger in size, which means each individual pixel is slightly bigger and collects more light. That means better low-light performance and crisper shots all around, and it delivers.
There’s a new burst mode: it shoots 10 frames per second, and then either automatically selects the best of your photos or lets you choose your favorite. The new processor also enables slow-motion video, letting you shoot 720p at 120 frames per second and then play it back at a quarter speed. There are some other new camera features as well: Apple’s added live filters in the camera app, which are interesting but not quite as artistic as Instagram’s, zooming is now possible while you’re recording video, and there’s automatic digital image stabilization.
Apple has made a big change to the built-in LED flash, too, doubling its size and creating an intelligent "True Tone" flash that senses the photo environment and serves up the appropriate flash tone from separate white and amber LEDs.
While we spend more time talking about its specs and features, and using games and apps, the iPhone 5S is still a phone — the good news is that Apple has not forgotten this, call quality is excellent.
The iPhone 5S is, without a doubt, the best phone Apple has ever made. The processor’s faster, the camera’s brighter, and the software’s a little smarter. But there’s a downside to forward thinking. Apple’s made a phone that’s going to last, that appears to be ready for whatever technical innovation the industry develops or crazy games we decide to play. But until those things come along, that preparedness can feel very much like Apple’s simply made minor changes. Today, the 5S is but a minor improvement over the 5, with only the camera and perhaps Touch ID truly counting as purchase-worthy upgrades. But as Apple learns to make use of its motion processor, its 64-bit operating system, and its fingerprint sensor, and teaches its developers to do the same, the 5S will get far better.