A customer compares an iPhone 4s to the new iPhone 5. AP file photo
Updated: November 9, 2012 7:15PM
Apple only produces one new phone a year. This year, they’ve changed the size and shape of the screen, which was a constant on every phone they’d ever made. This fact alone is enough to certify the iPhone 5 as the most radically new iPhone ever.
But we’ll get to the larger screen. Let’s start with the physical design. When I write a review of a new iPhone, there’s usually a 1 in 2 chance that I’ll lead off by swooning over the design. Dear God, yes, it’s embarrassing. I read my previous reviews and feel like I’m standing on a small salon stage in Victorian London. I’m wearing a brown crushed-velvet suit. I’m holding the new iPhone in one hand, and a fresh, perfect lily in the other. I can’t stop blathering on and on about Aesthetics and Beauty.
And yet, I go ahead and do it anyway. I can’t help it. There are few consumer devices that look and feel as good as an iPhone. All of the pieces fit together impeccably. Nothing rattles. The dimensions seem tailored to my hand. I look at the chamfered edges and I wonder how long it took Apple engineers to work out the exact angle. Whatever; the angle’s great and I wouldn’t change it by as much as three tenths of a degree, honest, because Apple seems to have hit upon exactly the right answer.
Apple says it’s 20 percent lighter than the iPhone 4S. My fingers say “Wow, that’s much lighter than I’m used to.” And it’s intriguingly thin. I’ve tested other smartphones that only seem as thin as the iPhone 5. Apple, it must be said, arrived at 7.6 mm without cheating. There’s no ugly bump-out for the camera or the battery. It’s just a smooth sheet of glass on top, and a smooth expanse of aluminum on the bottom with pigmented glass up top and down below (where the antennas are).
This seems like as good a spot as any to talk about the so-called Scratching Issue. I will not dignify it with the “-gate” suffix. Some owners have been complaining about scratches on that back plate. Some have even noted that their new iPhone 5 had a few nicks fresh from the package.
The iPhone 5 is more scratch-prone than its predecessor. Let’s not forget that the iPhone 4S consists of a frame of stainless steel sandwiched between two sheets of aircraft glass. I don’t think the iPhone 5 has any particular issue. The sample iPhone 5 I’ve been using has stood up fine after a week of use. And can I even talk about a scratch on the iPhone 5 without mentioning the scars that my Samsung Galaxy S III has accumulated over the past few months?
I can understand the complaints. A scratch on an iPhone 5 is a little more heartbreaking because it’s such an aesthetically pleasing object. I know, I know: the iPhone 5 is just stimulating the pleasure-receptive reptile parts of our brains. But our brains have those reptile parts for a reason, right?
One last observation: the iPhone 5 is still available in white or black. This time, black is different: there’s no chrome or light-colored metal anywhere on the device. You get a black screen set in a black bezel set in a black frame with a black back. I love it. Next to the white model, the black iPhone 5 almost seems like a whole different product.
Yes, my admiration for the iPhone 5’s design is deep and sincere.
And at this point, I must sheepishly put down the lily, take off the velvet suit, take a deep, cleansing sigh, and state the obvious:
These aesthetic points of the iPhone 5 won’t matter much, eventually. The so-called “scratching” problem doesn’t matter, either. Because almost every purchaser of a new iPhone goes through three phases:
1) They swoon over the beautiful design.
2) They marvel at its magnificent fit, finish, and aesthetics.
3) Then they put it inside a thick, heavy $12 plastic case. Which is where the device remains for the rest of its life.
I’m just urging myself and everybody else to maintain a sense of perspective about the iPhone’s appearance and thinness. Noticing what kinds of devices people are using, and how they’re using them, is a reflex action for me. I almost never see an iPhone that isn’t wrapped in a case.
People like to protect their investments. And, because the Humans are a baffling and peculiar species, they would rather make their iPhones look unique than stick with the same gorgeous design that everybody’s iPhone 5 has.
Can I at least put one leg back in the velvet pants and conclude by saying “True beauty is so precious that even a momentary glimpse of it, to a weary soul, is worth a full legion’s efforts”?
Onward to the quality of the screen. Other phones have displays that are perfectly fine. Some are impressive. The iPhone’s screen? A triumph.
The color performance of the iPhone 5’s 1136x640 screen is so impressive that it trumps other phones that have “true” 720p HD resolution. I run two specific movies on mobile devices to test two specific things. Pixar’s “Up” shows off the iPhone 5’s ability to show an explosive range of intense colors without losing any of the lighting, shading, texture, or other details of the image. And if you want to test the contrast and dynamic range of display, fire up “The Godfather.” The iPhone 5 had no trouble showing scenes of men in black tuxedoes dipping in and out of shadows and in and out of warm lights overhead.
The screen’s performance is partly due to new technology that removes layers between the pixels and the surface of the display. It has the side-effect of making images look as though they’re truly printed on. The display’s marvelous color and contrast is matched to its 326 pixel-per-inch display which delivers a visual experience as close to that of an expertly-printed color photo as you’re going to get this year.
The display is also plenty bright, which was easy to see when I used the iPhone 5 alongside other phones. The new iPhone is much easier to read in direct sunlight than the Samsung Galaxy S III and a couple of other Android phones I was fiddling with last week.
And now, the size.
Yes, the size.
(No, I’m not stalling about the size. Don’t you feel foolish for even suggesting such a thing?)
About the size.
Five years have passed since the iPhone was first released. During that time, other handset makers have released a wide menagerie of phones in every size and configuration. Consumers have responded by showing a strong interest — perhaps even a preference — for larger screens.
Apple had to react to this development somehow. One reaction would have been “We spend much more time thinking about phone design than any consumer. The iPhone’s original size is exactly right. We’re sticking with it.” Which would have been perfectly OK.
Or, they could have said “The iPhone revolution has enabled a fantastic array of digital content to handheld devices. The iTunes Store sells HD movies and TV shows, books, and games. The iPhone’s original screen is no longer adequate to present all of this amazing content at their full advantage. So we’ve enlarged the screen.” Also OK.
In the iPhone 5, Apple’s chosen to maintain the iPhone’s classic width and elongate it to a widescreen aspect ratio.
This isn’t the right answer. It clearly isn’t the wrong answer, either.
Like the other two...it’s just An Answer.
Keeping the iPhone’s width the same has just one inarguable advantage over the “overall enlargement” option: the keyboard is still narrow enough that most people can type with the thumb of the hand they’re holding the phone with. Imagine yourself standing on a street corner in the rain, holding an umbrella and trying to locate an address on a map. The iPhone 5 works much, much better in Umbrella Mode than the Galaxy S III and its 4.8-inch display.
I take issue with the idea that the iPhone 5 is still easy to operate one-handed, however, or that this elongated screen is fundamentally a better choice than the conventionally larger screens on many Android phones. My thumb can cover the full width of the iPhone 5’s keyboard nicely. But though it can reach into almost every nook and cranny of an iPhone 4S app interface, the top of the iPhone 5 is inaccessible unless I bobble the device around in my hand a little. Hell, if that’s within the rules, then even the SGIII can be operated with one hand, can’t it?
(There are many ways to skin a cat, too. I can’t reach the right edge of the Samsung’s keyboard comfortably. But it has swipe-style typing, so I don’t actually need to tap all of the right letters anyway.”)
I’m just not a fan of longer screens. See, every time we talk about the advantages of a larger screen, we’re actually talking about the advantages of extra width, not length. The keyboard is wider, so it’s much less cramped (I can type much faster on the SGIII than on an iPhone). When I’m using the Kindle app, the margins are wider, I don’t need to turn pages as frequently, and the page is more comfy to read. The wider screen makes any kind of reading more comfortable...emails and webpages, too. If your phone spends a lot of time in a cradle on your dashboard, you’ll find that you can see more of the map, and the interfaces of your en-route apps are easier to read and to operate.
The only kind of media that’s enhanced by the iPhone 5’s longer screen are movies. Even then, it’s only an advantage when you turn the iPhone 5 on its side...so that the longer screen becomes (yes) a wider screen instead.
Lastly, is “one handed operation” such a dominant usage mode that it should limit the shape and size of a phone? I use my phone in many ways under many conditions over the course of a single day. I’m not always running through an airport and trying to pull up a gate number while pulling a carryon bag behind me.
But as I said: no one screen size or shape is specifically “right” or “wrong.” But it’s still going to be a big factor in how an individual consumer will respond to the new iPhone. People are fussy about how they expect their phones to function. The loss of real one-handed operation, and the benefits of a “true” larger screen, are significant enough points to cause me to urge people to try out an iPhone 5 firsthand before ordering one. The iPhone 4S remains on the price list, after all. An owner of an iPhone 4 or 3GS might prefer to forego the higher CPU and wireless speeds of the iPhone 5 in favor of an improved phone that’s the same size as the one they’re used to.
Old apps run just fine on the iPhone 5: iOS 6 just fills in the unused screen real estate with black bars. New apps that target the iPhone 5 are supposed to adjust their interfaces to suit any device. When Apple’s own Music app is running on an iPhone 5, for example, a horizontal line of buttons gets a horizontal stripe of the screen all to itself, instead of being drawn on top of the album art.
iOS 6, and updated versions of Apple’s iLife and iWork apps, use the longer screen to deliver “the same app, only with more stuff.” The app launcher has another row of icons; the scrollable lists in Mail are longer; iPhoto can fit two rows of image thumbnails instead of just one.
It’s not terribly exciting. Now that hundreds of thousands of developers have iPhone 5s, though, we’ll see a lot of new ideas on how to best use the extra space over the next few months.
I’m still cold on this longer screen...but maybe I’ll warm to it. Despite the attention-getting, endorphin-releasing pleasure of an iPhone’s design, its beauty steps into the background and the device becomes a discreet container for the apps that run on them. The face of an iPhone screen is utterly unmarked, save for a small, thin-ruled shape on the Home button that quietly reminds you to push it when you want to go back to your app launcher. That’s not an accident.
You’re not meant to love, or even particularly notice, the shape of the iPhone’s screen. You’re meant to love the apps that draw on that canvas. Apple’s done its part of the work. Now it’s up to developers to emphasize the unique strengths of the widescreen choice, and wear down skeptics like me.
Next time, I conclude my three-part look at the iPhone 5 with a look at its CPU and wireless speed, plus its remaining features and some buying advice.