Apple iPhone 5 in front of the smartphone pack

When Apple introduced the iPhone 4S last October, you could sense the initial disappointment. Many people were longing for an iPhone 5. The iPhone 4S that came instead may not have represented a dramatic upgrade, but it was a snappy handset with an excellent camera and a sometimes-obedient virtual digital assistant named Siri. It went on to become the best-selling iPhone to date.

The iPhone 5 should keep Apple at the front of the smartphone pack. But choosing it versus a top-of-the line Android alternative isn’t a cut-and-dry decision.

The iPhone 5 should keep Apple at the front of the smartphone pack. But choosing it versus a top-of-the line Android alternative isn’t a cut-and-dry decision.

Nearly a year later the iPhone 5 is upon us. And what I detect this time is lust. The feelings are unlikely to diminish once buyers get their hands on the iPhone 5 Friday, or whenever their pre-ordered phones arrive.

The iPhone 5 is a winner that should keep Apple at the front of the smartphone pack. But choosing iPhone 5 vs. a top-of-the line Android alternative isn’t a cut-and-dried decision, especially if you’re partial to a jumbo display, such as the one on the big, bold and beautiful Samsung Galaxy S III, an Android rival for which I’ve had high praise.

The new iPhones cost $199, $299 and $399, for models with 16GB, 32GB and 64GB respectively, on top of customary two-year wireless contracts.

At the core of the new iPhone is iOS 6, the mobile operating system software upgrade that will also be made available free (as of today) on older iPhone models dating to the 3GS. Apple says there are more than 200 new features in iOS 6, but the ones you’ll most likely notice include audible turn-by-turn navigation in Maps, a digital wallet called Passbook, Facebook integration, VIP status for your important mail senders, and a greater voice for Siri. Of course, the arrival of iOS 6 begs the question of why owners of older iPhones who get the upgrade gratis would choose to invest in the new hardware?

Some great new features

For starters, and not to be underestimated, iPhone 5 is the first iPhone to tap into speedy 4G LTE networks, from AT&T, Verizon Wireless and Sprint in the U.S. Samsung and other rivals may have gotten to LTE first. But LTE (Long Term Evolution) placates iPhone devotees who grew tired of relying on creaky 3G wireless networks when a Wi-Fi network was unavailable. It was a pleasure browsing the Web on the iPhone 5’s Safari browser in the cellular fast lane. What remains to be seen, though, is how LTE performs at peak times under the strain of all the new iPhones hitting the network. Also, be mindful of data consumption on LTE; faster speeds mean you may gobble up more data.

IPhone 5 also has a speedy new Apple-designed A6 chip that makes the device even more responsive than before, up to twice as fast as the A5 chip on the 4S, Apple says.

What’s more, the handset easily lives up to Apple’s marketing spiel as the “biggest thing to happen to iPhone since iPhone.” Apple means it literally. For the first time since the original smartphone came to market in 2007, the iPhone gets a display larger than 3.5-inches. The new screen, 4-inches diagonally, exploits the stunning Retina display technology that first showed up on the iPhone 4.

Apple manages to produce the larger screen without penalizing the consumer with a bulky design or poor battery life. The new iPhone is just a shade taller than earlier models but with a width the same as the 4S. And it is 18% thinner and 20% lighter than its immediate predecessor.

The move to 4 inches feels right for the iPhone, though it looks like a dwarf side-by-side with the 4.8-inch display on the Samsung Galaxy S III, arguably the best of the Android breed. I was able to display more than four extra paragraphs reading the same newspaper article on the Samsung as opposed to the iPhone 5. On the other hand, the iPhone screen appears sharper and brighter, and the phone is easier to carry.

Samsung is countering with its own ad campaign: “The Next Big Thing Is Already Here.” But Samsung’s Big Thing is taller, wider and more than 0.7-ounces heavier than iPhone 5, though only a whisker thicker.

IPhone 5 devotees will appreciate the extra row of home screen icons made possible by the 4-inch display, although you are still limited to 11 of those screens. The larger screen on iPhone lets you display five days of calendar entries when the phone is held sideways compared with three on the older models. And you can watch widescreen high-def movies without “letterboxing” (the black bars that frame the movie).

Apple says there are more than 700,000 apps to choose from in Apple’s App Store. But Android is narrowing the gap; Google claims more than 600,000 apps in its Google Play store.

Testing Maps, Passbook

Not every move Apple has made will please consumers. You’re already hearing a drumbeat of complaints from the people who’ve spent a bundle on chargers, car kits and other accessories that won’t fit into the newly designed proprietary Lightning connector on the bottom of the phone, at least without a $29 adapter that’s compatible with the 30-pin connector that’s been in use for about a decade. The new connector is 80% smaller and reversible; that is, you can’t plug it in the wrong way. Apple says it’s more durable, too. But you can’t blame folks for making a fuss, given the hassle and added expense some will face. Of course, most of these same people will probably buy the darn phone anyway and do so, I suspect, with glee.

Put me in that camp. I’ve been testing iPhone 5 for a week and want one, too. On the back of the device is the same anodized aluminum that Apple uses in its notebooks. My black-and-slate test unit has pigmented glass along the top and bottom. Apple is also selling a white-and-silver version that uses ceramic glass instead. The surface is made of sapphire crystal whose sturdiness, Apple says, is second only to diamonds. Suffice to say Apple’s designers treated iPhone 5 like a crown jewel.

My test device runs AT&T’s flavor of LTE, the only U.S. model that lets you talk and surf at the same time. Verizon, though, has the much broader LTE network, by a long shot. The chief selling point for Sprint, an LTE newbie whose network coverage lags behind the other carriers, is that it offers unlimited-data pricing plans.

I didn’t run a formal battery test. Apple says that battery life on iPhone 5 is better than on predecessor models, with up to eight hours of talk time and 10 hours of video playback. On my first full day of testing though — when I made several calls, had the display cranked up high, and hit the new Maps app with audio turn-by-turn navigation pretty hard — the battery pooped out after an early start by about 4:20 in the afternoon. On subsequent days under normal mixed use with an “auto-brightness” setting turned on, I easily made it well past evening hours. As with earlier iPhones, and unlike, say, the Galaxy S III, the battery cannot be removed. Nor is there a memory slot that would let you expand storage as on the Galaxy. Samsung claims more than three hours extra talk time than iPhone 5.

The newly designed Maps app arrives preloaded as a key component inside iOS 6. Google had beaten Apple to the punch with audio turn-by-turn directions for Android. Apple has generally done a very good job with its own turn-by-turn feature, which I tested driving in San Francisco and the greater New York City area. The Maps app includes real-time traffic and accident alerts, and a feature called Flyover, photo-realistic 3-D imagery of landmarks as you zoom in over major cities.

I couldn’t test the new iOS 6 Passbook app with real coupons, boarding passes, gift cards, movie tickets and other items you’ll be able to store inside the iPhone’s “digital wallet.” But using fake ones I got a good idea of how Passbook works. There’s a world of potential here. Passbook makes use of knowing the time and your location. Arrive at the airport, for example, and your boarding pass is supposed to appear, even from the lock screen. Passbook can even alert you to gate changes.

With iPhone 5, Apple eschews the NFC (Near Field Communication) technology that rivals, notably Google, are using on their own digital wallet initiatives. The infrastructure for NFC still has a long way to go.

A word about photos, Siri

I was generally impressed with the quality of photos and videos that I shot on the latest device. New to iPhone 5 is a panorama feature that lets you shoot an image up to 240 degrees — useful for capturing wide scenic vistas. As you methodically spin around to capture such an image, the iPhone uses an onscreen arrow to guide you.

You can snap one picture to the next on the iPhone very fast, though iPhone 5 lacks the burst feature on Galaxy S III that lets owners of the Samsung take up to 20 consecutive shots in seconds. Another clever Galaxy feature missing on iPhone 5: the ability to quickly take eight shots and choose the “best shot” among them.

Through iOS 6, you can easily post pictures to Facebook. Or you can take advantage of an iCloud “shared photo stream” feature that lets you share a set of photos inside the Photo app on another iOS device. I successfully tested it with an iPad.

I was delighted with the audio quality on voice calls, including the speakerphone. IPhone 5 has three microphones.

If you can’t take a call, you can reply on the spot with a pre-canned or custom text message (“I’ll call you later,” “I’m on my way,” etc.). The Galaxy, though, has a cool feature that lets you call the person you are texting with just by lifting the phone up to your ear.

In the year since Siri became a household name on the 4S, Apple’s chatty voice assistant has come a long way. She can now open apps upon request. She can deliver sports scores, movie trivia, compose your Facebook status and help you make a dinner reservation. Siri’s still not perfect, however. When I asked her to “recommend a good Chinese restaurant” she responded with a list of Chinese restaurants with the name “Good” in them. But Siri outperformed a similar feature on the Galaxy in my tests.

Apple supplies a pair of its new EarPod headphones with the latest iPhone. I’ve never been fond of older Apple earbuds, which I had trouble keeping in my ears. The new ones haven’t fallen out of my ears yet, and they do feel more comfortable.

People have always had lofty expectations for the iPhone 5, especially as the competition stiffens. In delivering a fast, attractive, LTE-capable and larger-screen handset, Apple has met those expectations with a gem.


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