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Ihnatko deciphers Apple's dueling iPhones

Apple announced two phones today. One of them seems to be mostly a response to the needs of the international phone market.

The other one seems to underscore the idea that to put an immensely powerful CPU in a phone is akin to instilling a medieval army that with an immovable faith that their cause is just and they are performing no less than God’s will. If you have that one thing, every possible objective will fall into place.

First off: the iPhone 5C, which was thoroughly leaked in the weeks before the announcement. Here in the US, consumers are barely aware that some phones cost more than others thanks to carrier subsidies. If you care about owning the latest hardware, the Hot New Phone will be yours for $200 to $300 depending on capacity, no matter who manufactures it. Last year’s phone will be a hundred bucks, and some of the more venerable models are free with contract.

That’s not the same around the world, where pricey iPhones need to compete with Android devices that are so cheap that they’d come stapled inside magazines for free, if there were still such things as magazines.

Though the plastic case of the $99 iPhone 5C must certainly cost less to source and manufacture than the aircraft-inspired claddery of the iPhone 5, you can’t say that this feels like a cheap phone in any way. Apple fans have often criticized competing devices for using plastic in a compact tablet or a phone. Well, now no less an authority than Jony Ive himself has described Apple’s choice of materials as “beautifully, unapologetically, plastic.”

The 5C is an utterly seamless plastic tub around a steel frame (doubling as an antenna), sealed with a glass touchpad. It feels like there isn’t more than nine molecules of air inside the thing. It’s an impressive, solid device that feels great in the hand and has the appearance of enameled metal.

It’s a cool phone. Available in five colors (blue, white, green, yellow, and pink … sorry, Batman, no black on this one). Apple also offers a collection of five high-quality fitted cases in black, white, yellow, green, and blue, studded with holes that allow the original body colors to shine through for a two-toned effect.

I imagine that this is Apple’s white flag on the iPhone case issue. Steve Jobs famously carried his iPhone uncased because it was such a beautifully designed object. Sure, it’s gorgeous. But people want a phone to look and feel like “their” phone instead of Apple’s.

These cases and phone colors seem to me like Apple negotiating with consumers. “If we can’t talk you out of putting our phone in a case, can we at least get you to use a case that doesn’t look like a piece of junk?”

Though the 5C sure looks like last year’s model, it has enough new features to make this a quite tasty phone. This isn’t “last year’s phone, reduced in price to $99” or even “the iPhone 5, rearticulated with cheaper materials and construction methods.” It’s a new thing. The main camera appears untouched but the chat camera is much improved. Battery life is said to slightly better than the iPhone 5, and it seems to support every LTE radio band that exists.

No surprise there. This is, emphatically, Apple’s world phone, the company’s attempt to make it as easy as possible for anyone in the world to own an iPhone.

Apple didn’t need to explain what the “S” stood for in the name of the new iPhone 5S. Clearly, it’s Speed.

I find that speed is the typically the least interesting feature of a new phone. I’ll run a benchmark on a new phone out of dumb obligation (and noting how many times the maker used the word “speed” during my briefing). Fine. Yes. I find that the numbers that are supposed to be higher and the numbers that are supposed to be lower are higher and lower, respectively.

But how, precisely, does the faster CPU make a phone better? Bravo for being the first to get the latest Snapdragon processor in a handset, but after people like me file our reviews and move on, who notices or even cares?

Here’s why I love Apple: speed actually matters. To Apple, there’s no point in putting in a faster CPU unless it makes the phone better. And “it’ll do things faster” isn’t necessarily a good enough reason.

The makers of Infinity Blade III were the single non-Apple presenter during the longish media event. They were there to show off how much better the game is thanks to the presence of a CPU with double the graphics processing power of a phone that was released just a year ago. Heat distortion effects, lens flares, and detailed textures and structures that made me remind myself that the live-play demo I was watching on an enormous screen was bring driven by a phone. A dang phone.

The Apple-designed A7 CPU is behind the improvements in the iPhone 5S’s camera, too. Nokia has built a truly amazing product by wrapping phone hardware around an immense sensor. The iPhone 5S gets there by having enough number-crunching power to run a series of “what ifs” on what’s coming through the lens before you tap the shutter.

It’s using 15-point autofocus. It’s taking white balance readings. Exposure readings. By the time you tap the shutter, the iPhone 5S has already looked at every alternative and figured out The Right Way To Go. And then it invisibly takes a sequence of photos and selects the best one for presentation.

Hold the shutter button down, and it’ll shoot bursts of 10 frames per second … recording every last frame at full 8 megapixel resolution, analyzing the pile, and flagging the ones that it thinks came out nice. The Nokia does image stabilization by surrounding the lens with little motors that optically stabilize the imagine platform. The iPhone 5S does it by taking a batch of photos and presenting the one with the lowest visible camera shake blurring.

The video portion of the camera shoots slow-motion video at 120 frames per second. Thanks to the A7, it can play it back at normal speed and offers you the chance to highlight certain passages (groin, meet railing) to drop into super-slo-mo for playback.

Apple’s tossed some new hardware into the mix: new 5-element lens, brighter f2.2 maximum aperture, larger sensor pixels. One of the most welcome is a new two-element LED flash. One LED shines warm light and the other is cool. By balancing the two, the iPhone 5S can throw the correct color light on the subject and avoid making your kids look seasick all the time.

All of this sounded great and of course I’m required to say “… let’s see how well all of this works, in practice.” But it’s well in keeping with Apple design. The goal is to take better photos and to make that happen with the press of a single button instead of with a pile of controls and menus. It’s frighteningly elegant.

The A7 also seems to be the key to the iPhone’s marquee new feature: fingerprint recognition.

Why do so many people fail to use the passcode features on their phones? Because entering a code every time you use your phone is a pain in the butt … particularly if you just want to dip into the device for a few seconds to check on something.

Unlocking your phone via biometrics seems like a great solution. So why don’t all phones have this feature? Because yikes, it’s never been done well. I find that these features usually work either too well (in the sense that my phone is so secure that even I can’t unlock it) or are easily bamboozled. Google introduced a facial recognition passcode system that works great in every scenario except the one where someone just holds the phone up to a photo of you.

Biometric authentication is a great idea. But it has to Just Plain Work, every damn time, or else it’ll be relegated to the Scrapheap of Good Intentions where most of the new software features on a Samsung phone wind up.

The familiar home button of the iPhone 5S is actually a fingerprint reader. The first hint that something’s different: this is the first iPhone that doesn’t have the rounded app icon shape printed on it. Hidden inside is a 500 dpi scanner that images the surface and sub-epidermal characteristics of your finger.

To wake and unlock an iPhone 5, you click the Home button as usual but then rest your finger against it after it pops back up again. In a fraction of a second — not so much time that I even noticed — the phone is unlocked.

Training the iPhone to recognize a fingerprint is simple and yet satisfyingly thorough. The setup process asks you to keep tapping the button as the system refines its understanding of your fingerprint. Then, it asks you to do it again, using the edges and tip of your finger to ensure that it can authenticate you from any angle.

It was so easy that I was able to train it within just three minutes. And while I didn’t have all that much time to try to trick the sensor there in the demo room, it worked flawlessly on the finger that I’d trained and not at all on any of my other fingers. You can train it to recognize up to five digits.

Did I worry about handing over detailed scans of my finger to a phone that I didn’t own? Nope. The phone destroys all copies of the data it collects as soon as it’s read your finger … and your fingerprint data isn’t backed up to the cloud.

(This is consistent with Apple’s overall privacy and security policy. They intentionally fail to retain any data related to the security of your phone that they don’t actually need. That way, they haven’t retained anything they might one day be forced to hand over to law enforcement … such as the encryption keys to your secure data.)

Apple thinks so highly of the accuracy and security of their fingerprint authentication system that they’ve even attached it to the iTunes Store. You can authenticate purchases with a fingerprint. That’s exclusive to the iTunes Store for now but it’s easy to imagine Apple extending this to Passbook-enabled apps some day, as well as using fingerprints to unlock the iCloud Keychain feature of iOS 7.

There was another neat tidbit in the presentation. Like the Moto X, the iPhone 5S has a subsidiary processor that does nothing but pay attention to the phone’s sensors. Here’s another bog-simple concept that could become key to any number of neat features.

Top of that list? Fitness. Imagine your phone keeping track of your daily activity — so many steps walked, so many steps run, so many hours spent sitting, so many stairs climbed — without keeping the main CPU lit up all of the time. Fitness apps need constant streams of data like salads need ham, cheese, and bacon. Without that, is there really any point?

The iPhone 5S — in shale, white, and a new understated gold color — will be available on September 20 at 2012 iPhone 5 prices: $199 for 16 gigs, $299 for 32, and $399 for 64. The 5C will ship on that same date but preorders begin on the 14th.

I’m pro-consumer, not pro-Apple. That said, nothing urges me to rise to the company’s defense like hearing somebody claim that Apple has stopped inventing, stopped innovating, stopped improving. That’s hogwash.

Yes, indeed: the iPhone 5S looks like the old iPhone. Its most visible feature is the new color, with the fingerprint authenticator a second and the third most-visible new feature barely twitching the needle of the average observer’s percept-o-meter.

But I like to explain the iPhone’s evolution by comparing its launch to the launch of the Space Shuttle. The first few years were filled with gutshaking rumbles and shattering roars and islands of dense smoke and a lance of fire that leaped up for miles in the sky. It’s exciting stuff and a great show.

Because that’s what it takes to launch a spacecraft. Now, the iPhone is in a safe orbit. At this point, Apple is demonstrating that the point of the previous five years was the pursuit of productive spaceflight, not to just generate a light and sound show.

The same problem of limited perception eventually grounded Apollo. Launch three people into space, then, two of them walk on the moon for a bit, then they come back? Seen it. What’s next? Forget about the fact by the end of the program NASA was able to put the lander exactly where they wanted it, bring additional vehicles to extend the range of their exploration, and spend the better part of a week on the lunar surface instead of just a few tense hours.

By Apollo 17, NASA had gotten so good at running these missions that they could send the first scientist-turned-astronaut up there, taking a seat normally occupied by an astronaut-turned-scientist. Amazing things became possible because NASA got so good at what they’d done before.

Sometimes, greatness is dull on the surface. The iPhone 5S looks like last year’s iPhone 5 but everything Apple has added to the inside of the thing creates new opportunities for consumers and developers.

The iPhone will certainly have a longer run than the Apollo program. Both were paid for with taxpayer dollars. But Apple gets money from people rather more directly and willingly than NASA does.

(Postscript: can I say, conversationally, that Apple seems to be looking at my iTunes playlists and steadily booking all of my favorite performers to play at the end of their press events? I have seen Tony Bennett, Foo Fighters, U2, and now Elvis Costello in quiet, intimate settings. My strength is as the strength of ten men for I do not allow these favors to influence my reporting, etc., but still, this is as good a place as any to mention my idea of Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr replacing The Who’s deceased bass player and drummer.)

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images