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Review: The iPhone 5 and Apple’s Subtle Evolution

Tue, 09/25/2012 - 6:57am
Andrew Berg

The hype around Apple products has entered the realm of myth. It’s almost better to be Samsung or HTC these days if only because the expectations heaped upon those companies are nowhere near the hopes and dreams invested in Apple products.

Consider that Samsung was shouting from every mountain top that it had sold 5 million Galaxy Notes in five months. Now Apple announces that it has undershot analyst expectations with sales of 5 million iPhone 5s in under a week. It’s for this reason that many will miss the subtle revisions inherent in the Apple iPhone 5, as well the underlying implications this device has for the smartphone market. iPhone 5

When new Apple products are launched, consumers are understandably concerned less with the big picture than they are with their own wish lists. But Apple is wise beyond its consumers, which lies at the core of its success. Cupertino shoots for the center with a neat balance of elegance and market smarts and most of the time manages to hit its target. The iPhone 5 is no exception, and for every end user that gripes about how little has changed on the device since the iPhone 4S, there’s two that will recognize (even if it takes a month) the quiet method behind Apple’s genius.

It’s Lighter
While 32 grams less than the iPhone 4S may not sound like a lot, it feels like a lot, and the difference in weight is the first thing every customer is going to notice when they remove the iPhone 5 from its box. At first I found it a shock. For many, the extra, if satisfying heft, of the iPhone 4 or the 4S was a sign quality and craftsmanship. The weight of the 4S’s Gorilla Glass front and back felt like a luxury compared to its lighter-weight competitors on the Android side of the aisle.

Alas, it was time to trim some of the fat, and it’s meant some pretty “heavy” blowback on the part of some end users. An article posted on Gizmodo notes just how much some of those users really loved their heavier iPhone, complaining in many instances that this new model feels like a “toy.” Still, after walking around with this phone in my pocket for a few days, I’m quite pleased that I occasionally forget that it’s there, and I think given time to adjust, many users who think they don’t like a lighter phone will change their mind.

One quick note on that aluminum backing, which is one of the key reasons that this iPhone is lighter than its predecessors: it marks up easily. Granted, it’s a relief that you won’t have to deal with a pane of shattered glass if you drop this phone back-side down; unless you put a case on this one it’s going to show daily wear and tear.

It’s Taller
I didn’t expect to be as blown away by the lighter weight of the iPhone 5 as I was. Neither did I expect to be as unimpressed with the taller screen. Honestly, if a larger screen is the sole reason a user was moving to the iPhone 5, I’d tell them to stay put. This isn’t the phone you’re looking for. I think Apple increased its screen size, to the limited extent that it did, for two reasons. First, they wanted to put “larger screen” in the carefully kept columns where the media pit the iPhone’s specs against the Android phones’ specs. Second, and perhaps most importantly, they needed the real estate, for things like that camera and LTE modem. 

It’s Faster
Much was made of Apple’s A6 processor, but on this note, I think we’re starting to hit the point at which our senses don’t notice much of a difference. When scrolling or flipping through pages the iPhone 4S and the iPhone 5 feel about the same. That said, there are probably efficiencies that the A6 allows that aren’t immediately apparent to the end user. For instance, downloading multiple items while simultaneously browsing the Web appears to be much quicker than on the 4S.

We’ve hit the point with processors in mobile phones that the PC space hit years ago: they’re not as important to the end user anymore. Sure, Android will still be pitching quad-core and maybe more, and to some extent Apple will play along. However, even in its Mac desktops and laptops, Apple has historically shot to improve performance by optimizing its operating system. It’s doing that with the iPhone 5, and I’m guessing that you’d be hard-pressed to find a big difference between a quad-core Android and the A6.

WirelesshEROLTE
It was a done deal that the new iPhone would have to have LTE, and even though I knew that my carrier doesn’t currently offer LTE in my area, I’m glad the iPhone 5 supports it (at the advice of my customer service representative, I’m patiently awaiting the addition of future markets in the first quarter of 2013). What this new iPhone highlights is the unsettled state of 4G on the carrier side of things, which is illustrated by continuing rollouts, inequality amongst the providers in actual coverage and a lack of any roaming agreements either domestically or globally. Add incompatibility issues to the mix, and we can safely say that LTE is a relatively young technology.

I could easily argue that LTE was the most important new feature on the iPhone 5 about which consumers are completely indifferent. The marketing of 4G is a mess, and I’m inclined to say Apple was right to wait on including LTE in the 4S. The average consumer doesn’t have a clue what LTE means. God help AT&T customers, who look at their phones and see the 4G symbol next to their iPhone’s network indicator, which only means that they’re picking up HSPA+. They would actually see LTE if they were picking up that flavor of network. Meanwhile, Verizon is pitching 4G LTE, and Sprint and Clearwire are only now beginning to reassess what WiMAX means in an LTE world.

The point is that while LTE might have been a big deal for the media, it isn’t such a big deal for the average iPhone user, which is a shame. Users should know what LTE could mean for their device and at the moment they don’t because the term 4G has been rendered meaningless, if subjective. Imagine if horsepower in cars was a subjective term! User should know what LTE means because it’s the most robust network technology being deployed today, outperforming everything except perhaps for T-Mobile’s HSPA+42 network. 

Camera
Apple hasn’t missed a beat with its camera, and when paired with the most innovative, high-quality selection of photography apps in any market, it simply can’t be beat. While improvements in this area over the 4S were slight beyond 720 HD video capture and panoramic mode, I feel like it says something that even without any major additions, this is still the highest-quality, easiest-to-use camera available in a smartphone today. I can’t say enough here. 

The Maps Debacle
Apple had to address Google’s noticeable presence on the iPhone at some point. That they picked to yank the native Google Maps app (as well as YouTube) in one fell swoop is definitely a disappointment. I liked the very accurate Google Maps, with its slick transit directions, as much as the next guy. And if I were a user in a larger city like San Francisco, I’m sure that loss of this feature in deference to the much buggier, beta-like Apple Maps, would be more of disappointment for me.

I’ve tried Apple Maps locally and it got me where I needed to be. Still, the widely publicized inaccuracies and shortcomings of what is a staple feature on any smartphone, including a lack of any transit directions, are unacceptable. That Apple was willing to pull Google Maps at this stage in its development only proves to me how desperate they are to rid themselves of any reliance on Google going forward. And that fancy 3D satellite mode? Well, I’m guessing that’s a look at what’s to come, and was probably also just enough to divert the gaze of those Apple users who are admittedly sometimes easily distracted by aesthetics alone.

The Lightning Connector
If I had to pick my favorite part of this iPhone, it would be the form factor. It’s thinner, lighter and easier to handle. If I had to pick my least favorite part of this phone, I would jump up and down and scream shame on the Lightning Connector, Apple’s new charging cord.

While I’ll take Phil Schiller’s word  that this new connector is here to stay for years to come, I’d also demand of him, what next? Should we prepare for another non-standard, proprietary accessory that thumbs its nose at anything even resembling a green strategy and makes obsolete millions of plastic cords and connectors around the planet? Or will we see Apple push its Lightning Connector on others the way it did with its design for the nano-SIM, which the European Telecommunications Standards Institute recently adopted after heavy pressure from Cupertino.

I have no idea the technical reasons behind this new connector, beyond the fact that this was a space issue. Neither do I think wireless charging is changing the world (yet), but I am baffled as to why Apple didn’t go with the industry-standard mini-USB connector. In my opinion, the Lightning Connector is unfriendly to the planet and an unnecessary fleecing of end users.

Who Should Jump?
Many iPhone 4S users might be happy sticking where they’re at if they’re not entirely sure they need LTE, and if they’re OK operating on their slightly smaller screen. Those iPhone 4 users eligible for a carrier subsidy would be getting a marked improvement in the iPhone 5. At $200 on contract for the 16GB model, the iPhone 5 is a bargain considering other competing Android and Windows Phone devices are currently running upwards of $250 to $300.

You can save all those heated, spec-related arguments that champion the Galaxy S III’s NFC capability, or larger screen and processor. The subtle evolution of the iPhone proves Apple is confident in the loyalty of its customer base. It’s also a hint that the smartphone war is no longer about hardware. The iPhone 5 is the strongest indication yet that consumers are selecting devices primarily based on software and user experience. 

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