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iPhone 5: Less heft and more power make it a winner

The iPhone 5. | CamerSpencer~Getty Images

The iPhone 5. | Cameron Spencer~Getty Images

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Updated: October 23, 2012 6:06AM

There’s a reason why people buy nice watches, even though a $10 watch tells time just as well as a $150 one (and, perversely, much more accurately than a $1,500 one).

A watch is an intensely personal item that you interact with several times a day. If it’s designed well, if it’s pretty, then it’s a superior value to the four-function LCD at the drugstore.

It’s the same reason why every new iPhone becomes an object of immediate fascination. The iPhone 5 is no different. It feels great. You almost don’t even want to put it back in your pocket. It’s a solid chunk of metal and glass that’s nonetheless noticeably lighter than its predecessor. There have been some thinner phones, but none of them had any remarkable features whatsoever other than “it’s thin.” Instead, Apple’s managed to delete a great chunk of the iPhone 4’s mass and heft while making the iPhone 5 even more powerful than before.

How much more? The iPhone 4S felt already felt plenty fast, and the iPhone 5 doesn’t feel much faster in common tasks (though apps seem to snap right open). Instead, the extra speed is best articulated by those few apps that tax the CPU to its greatest. iOS apps like iPhoto and iMovie, and the 3D city flyover feature of Apple’s completely new Maps tool, are all desktop-grade software.

The iPhone 5’s other two top-billed features are hard to get excited about. LTE mobile broadband has finally arrived, a year after becoming a standard feature on other phones.

Ditto for the 4-inch screen. Consumers have been consistently voting for larger displays, and now Apple’s given them what they asked for. Or have they? Is the iPhone 5’s screen really what they wanted? Rather than increasing both screen dimensions, Apple kept the width the same and made the iPhone 5’s screen longer.

It feels like a gamble. The benefit of bigger screens is almost entirely in their increased width, not their length. A wider keyboard is easier to type on. Books, web pages, and emails will have wider margins and they’ll be more comfortable to read.

Consumers who do lots of reading with their phones ought to check out a few larger-screened Android devices (such as the Samsung Galaxy S III or the HTC One X) before rushing to the Apple Store for an iPhone 5 this weekend. I loved the big screens of those phones so much so that I found reasons to keep using them long after my reviews were finished.

Another reason to wait a little bit instead of jumping into the weekend scrum and throwing elbows: If you’re already an iPhone owner, your existing dock accessories and cables won’t work with the iPhone 5 directly. The new iPhone uses a brand-new connector that Apple calls “Lightning.” It’s much narrower and thinner than the old-style connector, and it makes thinner devices like the new iPhone possible.

It does, however, mean you’re going to have to amass a collection of $29-$39 adapters if you want to continue to use your new iPhone 5 with your iPhone 4’s car dock and bedside speakers.

And though I swoon over the iPhone 5’s signature styling — picture the iPhone 5 sitting at one end of a canoe holding a parasol, and me at the other end playing it love songs on my ukulele — I must concede that it isn’t a resounding advantage. It seems as though everyone I see walking around with an iPhone 4 has put it inside a case. They surround its gorgeous metal design with a thick layer of cheap plastic, either to protect it from drops and scratches or just to make it look different from everyone else’s.

Even after spending only about an hour with the iPhone 5 so far, it’s clear that Apple’s produced a fine new edition to an already great phone.

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