A different kind of review
I want to try something new with some of my reviews. I wonder if some products are important enough to review initially, then look at again once we’ve spent more time with them in the real world to truly learn how their enhancements play out.
The iPhone 5 is just such a product, so I might as well start here. Since the core aspects were covered thoroughly by others, I want to focus mainly on what is important after spending not just a few days or a week with it, but weeks and months.
For being only the third time Apple has meaningfully redesigned the iPhone, the 5 feels like the most significant for a number of reasons. It’s not just the first time the iPhone got a new screen size, it’s the first time Apple capitulated on a smartphone battleground feature that competitors ran with. I’m pretty sure it’s also the first time Apple reversed one of its core tenets; that the iPhone is a supremely one-hand-able device.
I’ve used my iPhone 5 constantly since the October launch, and I’m cautiously happy about the new size. The obvious gain of seeing more on screen at once has worked out well, but count me in the camp of people not thrilled about the smartphone market’s so-far unstoppable march towards larger screens. I’m also testing a Lumia 920 Windows Phone, which has a 4.5 inch screen, and it’s impossible to tap the entire screen with one hand.
The iPhone 5′s display—now at an abnormally tall 4 inches—is in the gray area for me. I can reach most of it one-handed while cradling the bottom in my palm, but I find myself choking up on it much more often to tap things at or near the top of the display.
One thing that is completely out the window with this new form factor is the “one-handed thumb and middle finger balancing act,” which I usually used laying in bed before falling asleep. On previous models with 3.5 inch displays, I could hold the iPhone that way with one hand and tap everything with my index finger. Granted, I’m a short person at 5’8″, but that hold isn’t an option with the iPhone 5.
Besides the screen size, the iPhone 5 shed nearly 20 percent of its weight from the 4 design (137 grams/4.8 ounces) to get below even the 3G’s weight (112 grams/3.95 ounces versus 133 grams/4.7 ounces). I’ve followed phones and smartphones for over a decade, and the original iPhone became my favorite phone design ever for its fantastic construction. The iPhone 4 would’ve taken it if it weren’t for all that heavy glass.
The lightning promise and problem
To be honest, the new Lightning connector has turned out to be a mixed bag for me, though I’ll concede some of that is due to living in a Mixed iOS Household.
Over the years my wife and I have amassed and grown to depend on a number of charging cables and speaker docks all over the house. Of course, they all use the old ‘n busted Dock connector, which my wife still needs because she’s on an iPhone 4S and iPad 3. This means I’ve had to develop a mixed approach of changing my habits and replacing just some of our accessories.
So far I have bought five Lightning cables from Apple ($20 apiece), one new Bluetooth speaker ($100), two Lightning Docks ($40 apiece), and a Juice Pack Helium ($80). Now, one could argue that, had Apple stuck with the Dock connector but also what seems to be a standard M.O. of redesigning the iPhone every other generation, I would have had to buy a new Juice Pack battery case anyway.
But even if we knock off that $80, I’ve spent $280 just to get my new iPhone with the Wonderful New Plug to fit into my existing day-to-day workflow. I’m also not counting a couple of other non-essential adapters I picked up, like Apple’s mini-USB to Lightning adapter (so I can bring just one cable to charge both iOS and non-Apple devices) and the Lightning-to-HDMI converter (strictly a luxury to play my videos on HDTVs while on vacation). We also still have two other speaker docks in the house to replace someday, and we’ll most likely go AirPlay or Bluetooth.
Device plugs change over time, and the last time Apple did this was about a decade ago, so I don’t really have a problem. It’s just something to consider if you’re going to make the leap, especially if you have a fleet of Dock-compatible devices you use or rely on.
As for Lightning’s overall value? I’m not sure I fully see it yet. My Juice Pack Helium is a little smaller than I expected, and maybe Lightning had a part in that. It’s also pretty refreshing to not have to care about how I’m plugging in one end of a device cable—the industry took way too long on that dream. But then I go to plug in the other end, the USB side stuck all the way back in 1997, and Lightning’s glitz and promise fades a little.
The sweet, refreshing, golden nectar that is LTE
It’ll change your life. Not kidding. You can find benchmarks elsewhere, and for this kind of review I don’t really care about academic numbers. In my actual daily use, the leap from 3G to LTE feels at least five times better than going from EDGE to 3G. Sometimes it feels like I get better speeds than my home broadband. I almost always get far better speeds than your typical WiFi in major city coffee shops and libraries.
Fortunately, it also seems like Apple kept its pace of improving the iPhone’s battery life while adding major new hardware features. As you may remember, LTE arrived in the iPhone a little later than the competition, but Apple also insists on keeping the iPhone smaller and thinner than most of said competition, so it simply had less room to work with.
LTE is certainly more power hungry than 3G, but with medium to even some heavy usage, I generally still get a full day, sometimes even two, between charges, which is basically what I’ve had with every iPhone. I don’t think Apple’s ever commented on this, but I suspect that’s a general benchmark for pulling the trigger on things like LTE.
Finally, a headphone jack on the bottom
This might seem like an odd thing to mention, but I really have been jonesing for it. Most of the time, when I use my iPhone on a call or for music, it’s sitting on the desk or table next to my keyboard so I can read anything I might need on screen. I’ve always hated having to wrap the Apple headphone cable all the way around to the top of it, because that usually took up too much slack and made the cable get in my way.
Plus, placing and removing my iPhone from my pocket while using headphones finally feels right. The phone goes in upside down, headphones stick out properly, and pulling out the phone means it’s already oriented in my hand the right way and ready to go. It’s perfect now, please don’t change it, Apple.
Another bonus of this design, which I’ve confirmed with a source, is that moving the headphone jack to the bottom has notably cut down on the number of false positives for water sensor damage at the Genius Bar. In case you aren’t familiar, each iPhone has included two or three water damage sensors, one of which was in the headphone jack. This sensor could get erroneously tripped in a surprising number of cases, though, such as the simple act of checking your phone in the rain for the time or a bus schedule. A raindrop could and often did get in the headphone jack and trip the red flag. Even if you’re a headphone-on-top fan, moving the jack to the bottom saves Apple some unnecessary replacement units and users quite a few headaches.
Long story short
If you haven’t followed my writing for long, I’ve owned at least one or two phones over the past decade on every US carrier and relevant platform under the sun including RAZRs, Samsung dumbphones, that great LG series Sprint had, Symbians like the P900, Palm, Windows Mobile, Windows Phone, Android, and even BlackBerry.
When I think about the industry trend towards 4-, 4.5-, 5.0-inch and even larger displays, I’m not thrilled about it. I get that some industries or cultures believe “bigger is better,” but I hop off the train when it comes to trying to fit something in my pocket. Apple managed to design the iPhone 5 so it adopts some of this trend without growing bigger simply for the sake of it; the larger display is useful, not just larger, but I have a hard time seeing how it can maintain that balance while going much bigger. I hope things level out eventually and this size race slows down. Larger sizes are great for tablets, but you really can’t fit much more in my pockets without forcing me to buy all new pants.
The inevitable caveats of any device aside, between the LTE, the good balance between larger yet useful viewable screen space, and the much lighter design, my iPhone 5 is my favorite iPhone and cell phone ever.