clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Why 2014 will be a great year for iPhone users

Apple fans have conditioned themselves to believe in the sanctity of the “tick and tock” nature of annual iPhone releases. If the name of this year’s phone’s name uses the “iPhone” & (n+1) template, it must be a revolutionary device, something worthy of being commemorated with a new tattoo.

But if it’s just “iPhone” & (n) & “S”? Meh.

The iPhone 5s lays that prejudice to rest. It’s not just an exciting phone: it’s exciting even relative to other iPhones, which is a much more competitive category.

Every new iPhone has improved upon the previous release but only three of them truly changed the definition of what an iPhone is and what it can be. The original, like Alan Shepard, gets into the hall of fame by being first. The iPhone 4, because of its astonishing, showoff-ey (in a good way) design and its camera, which was the first phone camera to take legitimately great photos instead of acceptable shapshots.

I’ve spent about two weeks with Apple’s new flagship and it seems clear that the iPhone 5s is just as significant to the advancement of the iPhone as those other two. The iPhone 5, upon reflection, was the “tock.” It had improvements that didn’t go beyond its technical features; its longer screen was just a longer screen, and its slimmer, lighter design was just pretty.

The new features of the iPhone 5s, aren’t just features; they feel like extensions of the major new release of iOS that the new phone was built to run. It’s difficult to think of one without thinking of the other. Together, they represent a tilling of six years of productive soil and a preparation for the future.

A New CPU

Most of what I enjoy about the iPhone 5s is due to its fast new A7 processor. I don’t often single out the CPU in my reviews of Android phones because Samsung, HTC and the like almost never find a way to express that power to the user. It feels more responsive? Yeah, but that might be due to improvements in the OS. Generally, the only times the user of the phone can “see” that power are when he or she is gaming, or (God help them) running a benchmark test for a product review.

The A7 doesn’t make its contribution by making the phone faster, though yes, it does do that thing. Apple claims that the 5s is twice as fast as the 5, and some quick tests bear that out. The really big deal is in the masterful way that Apple has articulated that power, in the form of user-facing features.

Any phone can have a fingerprint reader, but without something like the A7 it’d either be so inaccurate to be useless or so slow as to be unusable. iOS 7’s camera moves and transitions emphatically make sense on the iPhone 5s because they’re “Retina quality.” That’s my term, not Apple’s. They flow so smoothly in response to input that the eye and brain “read” them as the natural reactions to physical action instead of a user interface element. I’m sorry that iOS 7 underperforms on older iPhones and encourage people to go to an Apple store and try it on an iPhone 5s: there, it really makes sense.

And the iPhone 5s camera is an amazing thing. The excellence of iPhone cameras has always centered around that one button: “press this, and the iPhone will figure out the rest.” The A7 and its graphics coprocessor allow the 5s apply solutions that would have killed the performance — or the battery — of a lesser phone camera.

More about the camera later. The A7 also enables a leap forward in gaming. “Infinity Blade” (travel exotic lands, meet interesting and fantastic people, and then kill them with swords) is generally accepted as the benchmark test for iPhone gaming and I am duty bound to play the new A7-optimized edition on two iPhones, with and without the new CPU.

The difference is akin to seeing a fantasy movie shot on an independent feature budget and one shot with the money and resources of a studio making a summer blockbuster. Same story, same characters, same animation, but there seemed to be little need for restraint in adding details to the models or lighting and atmospheric effects to the scene.

To a more casual gamer like myself — I’m a big fan of racing games and the ones where aliens march down from the top of the screen in orderly rows — the 5s would easily quash my desires for a console system. With the 5s hooked up to my Apple TV-equipped HDTV, gaming felt like a “no compromises” experience.

64 bits

Apple has touted “desktop-class 64-bit architecture” as a marquee feature of iOS 7 and the 5s. What does it mean to the user? Not much. 64-bit data paths allow a computer to move numbers around inside more efficiently,. This, after a couple of layers of abstraction, benefits you in the same way that your life gets better when the teacher’s lounge at your kid’s middle school gets better coffee. The teachers are less cranky, they don’t take it out on your kid’s work quite so much, you spend less time with your daughter at the kitchen table helping her address all of the red marks on her report about corn, and hopefully turn that “C-…Why are you even here? Not in this class…I mean on this planet” into a B+ and a half-hearted apology for having made her cry.

(It also increases the top limit of how much system RAM the iPhone can address. The more RAM you have, the less frequently the CPU needs to move chunks of data between fast system RAM and slow storage … so apps that transact lots of data run faster and it also improves multitasking).

M stands for Motion

All phones have sensors that allow them to figure out if the device is moving, and even what kind of motion that is. But phones don’t do anything cool with that data because if the CPU stays awake and keeps checking its sensors every second, then the battery quickly die a deathly death.

Which is why fitness apps that track how much you’re walking and moving and encourage you to become more active aren’t very useful; they can’t stay open throughout the day.

The 5s is the second phone of the year that thinks sensors are so important that a whole separate low-power processor should be continuously monitoring them, and I hope it becomes an industry-wide trend. A phone that’s always aware of its surroundings, and uses that data to figure out what context it’s in at any given moment, is a much better beast.

iOS 7 delivers some form of motion awareness. Your iPhone can understand if it’s sitting still, in a moving car, or if the user is walking, for example, and can communicate that to any app that wants to know (provided you haven’t chosen not to disclose that info to apps). So if you’re driving, the iPhone won’t bother inviting you to join the open WiFi network of the Panera Bread near this traffic light.

The new M7 motion coprocessor in the iPhone 5s enhances those iOS 7 functions and also allows a new generation of health and fitness apps to flourish. The iPhone 5s can count your steps and keep an eye on your sleep cycles around the clock without troubling the main, high-power CPU.

I’d love to see Apple (or third-party developers) exploit the M7 processor more fully. The first phone of 2013 to embrace this sort of design was the Moto X. You don’t even need to wake it; take it out of your pocket and the screen lights up with info … maybe even the info you were looking for. When well-executed, this kind of feature allows a phone to anticipate your needs and meet them without any button-pressing whatsoever.

Camera

How excited am I about the 5s camera? So excited that I’ve just deleted a hunk of this review that’s roughly the same length as everything I’d written up to that point.

For the sake of sanity, I’ll break out my blow-by-blow praise into a separate piece.

If not for the existence of the Nokia Lumia 1020, I would say with quickness and confidence that it’s the best cameraphone on the market. And to be fair, the Lumia has so much “real camera” hardware in it that it’s at the extreme upper limit of what you can call a smartphone.

Apple made all of these improvements without changing the style or size of last year’s iPhone. It’s a joy to shoot with and takes fantastic photos … again, largely due to the influence of the A7. The strength of the iPhone camera has always been about pressing one big button and then trusting the phone to figure out how to build a great photo.

With the A7, the iPhone 5s can instantly perform dozens of image processing tricks that creates (for lack of a better word) a fake photo that’s far more natural looking than what it would have created by simply exposing the image sensor to light and then writing the numbers into a JPEG.

And its 10 frames-per-second is so quick, and creates images of such high quality, that it changes how I take photos. Why simply hope that you clicked the shutter at the right moment when you can easily capture all of the moments and then choose the best frame later?

Fingerprint Sensor

I wrote in depth about the TouchID sensor last week. To sum up: it works, it’s fast, it’s safe, and you should definitely use it.

But I’d only had the iPhone 5s for a couple of days when I wrote that. I test many phone features and then turn them off after a day or two, after it’s proven that its sole contribution to the experience was novelty.

Well, I’m still using TouchID. Apple implemented this one correctly. It’s a simple gesture, it works instantly and reliably, and before long I simply started expecting my iPhone to be unlocked by the time I raise it up to my eyes. It’s a real winner.

I did have one additional thought: I wonder what Apple or third-party developers could do with the simple fact that the Home button can now register both “button click” and “finger rest”? What if, for instance, resting your finger on a sleeping phone meant “Wake up just a little bit and present me with a screen of useful information so I can drop you back in my pocket if nothing important is happening at this moment”?

Just a thought. I imagine that the sensor is so intimately wired into authentication that (for security purposes) it can’t ever be repurposed for anything else, even if it’s not actually being asked to read a fingerprint.

The Gold One

Apple has killed the fun of referring to the iPhone as being available in “Vader Black” or “Stormtrooper White.”

They’re “space gray” and “silver.”

And now there’s also “Threepio Gold.”

(Take that, Apple!)

Apple asked me which finish I wanted on my review unit and of course I asked for a gold one. I felt like I needed to see it up close and, more importantly, live with it for a few days before I could form an opinion.

I’m surprised at how much I like it. It’s elegant and sophisticated, not garish and tacky. Think “Hepburn Gold” (Katharine or Audrey), not “Kardashian Gold” (take your pick). The purpose of this finish is to create something beautiful, not underscore your conviction that anything you’ve spent more than $X for needs to attract as much attention as possible.

Apple has also released a line of leather cases that makes the iPhone look like the interior of a fine sports car (said in a good way), protects the back and sides of your iPhone from scratches, and prevents people from figuring out that you got tired of waiting for your local Apple Store to get some more gold 64 gigabyte iPhones in, and bought a silver one instead.

And The Rest

That’s about it for the remarkable features of the 5s. Everything else carries over from the 5. Battery life appears to be unchanged, phone reception is also unremarkable (which is a good thing).

As an occasional world traveler, I’m pleased to see that the 5s supports more of the international LTE bands. If I’m going to pay AT&T additional fees for international data roaming, I’d at least like to get my morning comic strips at an stately speed.

Apple has also improved the front-facing iSight camera. It’s now, like, a real camera, with better low-light sensitivity. Why bother improving a chat camera? Because your parents love you and want to see the apples in those gorgeous cheeks of yours. Also, if you couldn’t convince your friends to join you on a road trip to visit the famous Birthplace Of Bob Elliott Museum And Historical Center in Boston (huge, glass tower in the middle of the city … I think they rent the bottom four floors to the John Hancock Insurance Company but the other 56 are all Bob), at least your self-portrait with the bust of Harry Backstayge will be worthy of hanging on your wall.

And yes, in a marketplace where a 4.8” Android phone that once seemed gigantic is now almost mainstream, it’s still the same size as before. Same width as always and a little longer. It’s still not a bad size. I prefer my 4.8” Samsung Galaxy S3, but then I have the huge, beefy mitts of a rustic manly man who makes his living with his hands.

(Shut up. What did you think I was typing with?)

But if Apple is going to continue to produce only one screen size for the iPhone, they certainly can’t alienate at least half of the population by making a phone that can’t be one-handed very easily.

I also think Apple truly believes in this screen size. Which is fine.

But I’m keen to see what size they go with next fall. Apple has always acknowledged the voice of the marketplace; big Android phones sell well because lots of people want them. If they go one more year without producing a properly large iPhone, then they’re clearly agin the whole idear. Which would be a big mistake.

Right, the iPhone 5c

And then there’s the device which, undeservedly, will definitely be referred to as “the other iPhone.”

I was pleased and surprised by the two things that this $99 phone isn’t. It isn’t last year’s technology, and it isn’t a cheap phone.

Is it better than the iPhone 5? Most assuredly yes. It has the same world LTE coverage as the iPhone 5s and the camera is a marked improvement.

(Chiefly in low-light. The iPhone 5 had a “special” mode that never worked properly for me; I’d consistently get blurry, shaky images. No such problems with the 5c.)

Otherwise, this is the same kind of phone as the iPhone 5.

The rumors of a low-cost plastic-bodied iPhone were rampant in the months before the announcement, prompting some to wonder how Apple would pull that off without compromising the iPhone’s high-end cachet.

“Plastic” doesn’t mean “cheap-feeling.” This feels like a premium product. Solid heft and a tight assembly without any gaps or creaks. And a coating over the plastic gives the whole thing the appearance of enameled metal, not plastic.

Apple chose an interesting, slightly creamy palette of colors. But it’s a pretty line of phones, and Apple’s line of fitted cases is a clever nod towards people’s desire for a custom look. Cutouts throughout the cases allow the body color to peek through, allowing for a nice range of combinations.

They fit so closely to the body that it’s hard to pull them off, which is what you want. I noticed something interesting, too: if you accidentally put it on upside down (so that the cutouts for the camera, flash, and microphone are down instead of up) … those three openings are still unblocked. One of the decorative holes lines up around it.

That’s likely just a coincidence. But I can’t completely discount the idea that someone who works at Apple would think of that. Can you?

Future Phone

The iPhone 5s is a truly great phone. Like most great devices, it makes you think of how great it’ll be in the future as well as how great it is today.

Right now, I see a an attractive phone with a terrific camera, a fingerprint sensor that makes my life less annoying 60 times a day, gaming abilities that make me want to play more games, a mobility sensor that despite my worst instincts will probably encourage me to exercise more, and enough raw speed that iOS 7’s complicated cinematic user interface effects seem like an instinctive an unobtrusive feature.

And that’s certainly good enough. I also can’t help but imagine what we might see over the course of the next year. Apple doesn’t add features to impress reviewers. They add features because they have larger goals in mind … and not all of those goals are revealed alongside the launch of a new device.

My overall impression is that the 5s is meant to do much, much more than it’s doing right now, and that 2014 is going to be a great year for iPhone users.