iPhone 5s review

Apple’s premium handset for 2013 is the iPhone 5s. It builds on what people have liked about the iPhone, but doesn’t make many radical changes. Was an iterative release the right step for Apple?
See also:

iPhone 5c review
iPhone 5s vs Lumia 1020 vs iPhone 5: Camera Shootout

iPhone 5s: On the plus side

Apple releases a new iPhone every year, except this year, when they released two. I’ve had a little over a week now to test out both the slightly-less-expensive iPhone 5c and the premium iPhone 5s, the successor twins to the highly successful iPhone 5. If you want my opinion on the iPhone 5c, you can read that here.
The iPhone 5s comes in three colours; white, “space grey” (an apt description for the colour of my hair if I let it grow out) and gold. When the colours of the iPhone first leaked out, I was a little surprised by the gold, simply because it looked as though it would be rather gaudy. That’s the exact model I’ve been testing for a week now, and I’ve got to say that I’m surprised at how generally good it actually looks. The gold tone isn’t too overpowering, which means it looks classy rather than blingy, and that — in my estimation — is a very good thing indeed.
The fingerprint sensor isn’t the final word in security, but I think it manages the balance between security and accessibility quite well. Fingerprint images are genuinely quite fun to input on the iPhone 5s, and pickup is usually quite swift for enrolled fingers. I was somewhat concerned that you could lock yourself out of your phone if it suffered damage to the sensor (or, I suppose, if you suffered an accident and mangled your fingers), but it’s backed up by a mandatory passcode, so there’s always a way in.

In hardware terms, Apple hasn’t shifted away from 16/32/64GB of non-expandable storage, but it has upgraded the processor to what it’s calling the A7. That’s a 64-bit chip — the first you’ll find in a smartphone — alongside a motion processor that it’s calling M7. M7 should enable fitness and health tracking apps along the way, although at launch there’s not much it’s doing straight away. At 112 grams, it’s the same weight as the now discontinued iPhone 5 model, and it’s got the same 1136×640 326ppi display screen as well.
The iPhone 5s features an 8 megapixel camera, which is numerically the same as last year’s iPhone 5, or this year’s iPhone 5c. There’s a difference, however, because the iPhone 5s’ camera features individual pixel sensors that measure 1.5 microns across, which is “large” in that context. It’s the same kind of idea behind the camera in the HTC One (still my favourite Android handset of 2013), although that features 2 micron pixel size but with only a 4 megapixel count. Enough with the mathematics! How do the pictures look?
To test that, I took a number of photos with the iPhone 5s, the same shots with an iPhone 5 and many (but not all) of the same shots with the obvious high-end contender, the Nokia Lumia 1020. In order not to blow this page out to ludicrous extremes, I’ve collected those in a separate article which you can read here.
The short version? The iPhone 5s shoots well, and quickly, and I’m genuinely a bit torn as to whether I’d rather have it or the Lumia 1020 in my pocket when it comes to shooting duties for the speed alone.
The iPhone 5s runs on iOS 7 and if you’re a long-term iOS user, be ready for a few surprises. There’s a slight learning curve to iOS 7, including some features that are very welcome such as the quick access to the Control Center, universal view for most apps — which means no more stitched leather — and generally swift performance. I’m yet to put an iPhone 5 through its paces with final iOS 7 code, so comparison is hard to absolutely quantify in a straight operating system sense.
Still, with apps head to head, the iPhone 5s flies along at a solid rate, launching games more quickly, rendering pages with aplomb and staying responsive at all times. I’ve heard stability complaints about iOS 7 on existing devices, but at least for the iPhone 5s so far, it’s been rock solid. With the prospect of 64-bit code, there’s legroom for this to get even better — but as I’ve noted previously, it’d be a mistake to review any tech product on the basis of future features; you’re getting what you get now, so that’s what you should focus on.

iPhone 5s: On the minus side

Apple rates the battery within the iPhone 5s as being capable of up to 8 hours of Internet use, as well as talk time figures that, as the years go by, become increasingly irrelevant. That’s a fair figure, but not an exceptional one, which means that, like the iPhone 5 it is quite feasible to run it flat within a day.
I’m generally pretty brutal with phones when it comes to battery use, which is the polite way of saying I probably spend too much time staring at phone screens, and could make it through the day on the iPhone 5s, but never through more than that. There’s some obvious physics at play here; while a smaller screen means less power draw, it also means less space out the back to pack in batteries. By way of contrast, the only phone I can regularly get two days out of — and that with careful use — would be the gargantuan Samsung Galaxy Note II.

The gold version surprised me -- in that I didn't hate it.
The gold version surprised me — in that I didn’t hate it.

There are all sorts of wishlist items that aren’t in the iPhone 5s. There’s no NFC. There’s no expandable storage, or for that matter a 128GB variant, although Apple do offer that to iPad users. It’s also the first iPhone that you can’t get in black, unless you slip it into a black case. It’s totally an aesthetic call, but I found the “Space Grey” iPhone 5 to be a bit on the utilitarian and drab side.
Then there’s the pricing issue.

iPhone 5s: Pricing

Apple pitches its iPhone products as premium devices, and the iPhone 5s is very solidly in that camp. For outright purchase, an iPhone 5s will cost you $869/$999/$1129 in 16/32/64GB variants.
Telcos used to rather heavily subsidise iPhone contracts, but it looks like those days are behind us.
Telstra’s pricing for a 16GB iPhone 5s starts at $78/month with $600 “worth” of calls, unlimited texts and 1GB of data for a minimum two year cost of $1872.
Vodafone’s plan pricing for a 16GB iPhone 5s starts at $72/month with infinite national calls and texts and 1.5GB of data for a minimum two year cost of $1728.
Optus is, at the time of writing, yet to announce its plan costings, but it would be highly surprising if they ended up being markedly different from Telstra or Vodafone.

iPhone 5s: Fat Duck Verdict

Does the iPhone 5s deliver enough? I guess that depends where you’re coming at it from. Like previous s-suffix iPhones, the impetus for upgrade if you’ve got last year’s iPhone is a little sketchy, especially if you’re still on contract, although there’s a much better argument here than with the iPhone 5 to iPhone 5c shift.
If you’re heavily invested in the iOS ecosystem and using an iPhone 4S or earlier, the leap is immense, and, budget permitting, well worthwhile. It may be tempting to opt for the cheaper iPhone 5c, but the difference is remarkable for what would over two years end up being just over five bucks per month on the outright purchase price.
There’s one sector that the iPhone 5s utterly owns in the wider smartphone space, and that’s the smaller, more pocketable device arena. Tastes vary as to whether you prefer a larger screen or not — and I’m sure there are some iPhone users out there pining for 5-6″ displays — but the simple truth is that outside the iPhone 5s, if you want a smaller phone with plenty of power, you’ve got no cutting edge choices at all. The most powerful Android phones are all 5 inches or larger. The same is true in the Windows Phone camp, and while Blackberry offers nicely pocketable phones, they’re hardly powerhouses.
The iPhone 5s sits nicely in the premium smartphone space; while it’s not an absolute change of direction for Apple, it’s a very good phone indeed.

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