- Review Date: 09.21.13
- Bottom line: The iPhone 5s may be small, but it's packed with more power than any other smartphone on the market today. It's the best bet for anyone who wants a future-proof, forward-looking phone that runs an unbeatable array of apps.
- Pros: Incredibly fast processor. Excellent camera. Easy-to-use Touch ID fingerprint sensor. Unmatched app selection.
- Cons: Small screen for an industry-leading smartphone.
The iPhone 5s ($199 for 16GB with contract) is a tiny phone with a lot of room to grow. It's amazing how a 4-inch, 4-ounce smartphone is now considered small, but that's the world we live in. Underneath the diminutive hood, though, lies fearsome power. It's what's below the surface, not what's on the outside, that makes the iPhone 5s our Editors' Choice.
The secret is that, more than any iPhone since the iPhone 3G (when Apple's App Store was introduced), it's a platform rather than a product. Three of this phone's key advances, the A7 processor, M7 motion coprocessor, and the Touch ID fingerprint sensor, are being used less now than I suspect they will in the future. That makes the 5s the best bet for anyone who wants a future-proof, forward-looking phone that runs an unbeatable array of apps.
Physical Features and Wireless and Call Quality
At first glance, it's tough to tell the 5s and the iPhone 5 apart. At 4.87 by 2.31 by 0.3 inches (HWD) and 3.95 ounces, it's the same size and weight. The materials are very similar, too: glass front, aluminum edge, metal-and-glass back. All the buttons are in the same place, so you can use iPhone 5 cases with the 5s, as long as the Home button is uncovered, and the camera cutout is large enough to accommodate the new dual LED flash. It looks like the glass will be just as breakable here, so you'll probably want to cover the phone up. Here are our favorite iPhone 5s cases.
The 4-inch, 1,136-by-640, 326-pixel-per-inch Retina display is now one of the more disappointing aspects of the iPhone experience. It's needle sharp, but the 5s panel is exactly the same as last year's model, when most competitors are ranging between 4.5 and 5 inches. I'm no fan of huge handsets, but as more people use their smartphones as their primary portals to the Internet, there's room to make that window a bit bigger while still keeping it single-hand friendly. The Moto X masters this feat.
The other physical changes from 5 to the 5s are pretty subtle. The little square in the middle of the Home button is gone, because the button is now the Touch ID fingerprint sensor. I found that using the sensor created a little bit of a smudge in the middle of the button, which is the first time I've seen a fingerprint smudge fit with a phone's design. On the back of the phone, the little round flash is now a longer oval.
This creates a dilemma for 5s owners, and it's part of why the gold color is in such high demand: People who paid for a new phone want it to look like they have a new phone. Our test phone was Space Gray, which is a bit different from the black iPhone 5, but it might not be enough to satisfy those looking for an easily discernible difference. They're going to have to wait for the gold model, which is harder to get, but is attractively low-key and not as gaudy as you might imagine.
We tested the iPhone 5s side by side with the iPhone 5c, Verizon iPhone 5, and the Samsung Galaxy S4, our other Editors' Choice, in midtown Manhattan. In a series of speed tests, the iPhone 5s generally got the same disappointing LTE results of 1-3Mbps down and about 1Mbps up that the iPhone 5 scored; Verizon's network has been super-saturated lately, and we're even getting sub-1Mbps download results, which are EVDO Rev 0-class.
In our office building's basement, we made test calls and ran data speed tests with the iPhone 5, 5c, 5s, the LG G2, and the Samsung Galaxy S4. All the phones showed one circle or bar of 2G coverage. The Galaxy S4 had the least trouble connecting calls, followed by the two newer iPhones, then the iPhone 5, and lastly the LG G2.
Sound quality is good, not great, as is typical with iPhones. The earpiece is loud enough, and there was a bit of sidetone, but conversations were marked by harsh sibilance, and there's no way to tune the audio like you can on the Galaxy S4. Transmissions, on the other hand, sounded great on the other end of the calls thanks to excellent noise cancellation, and the relatively powerful bottom-ported speakerphone. The iPhone 5s, like previous iPhones, had no problem connecting to a Bluetooth headset and activating the Siri voice assistant.
It became obvious that call quality was limited by the network when we compared a standard Verizon voice call to Apple's FaceTime Audio, which uses the data network. On Verizon's voice network, people sounded clipped and sometimes computerized. On a FaceTime Audio call over our Wi-Fi network, voices became much richer; we heard the person on the other end breathing and typing on a keyboard as he was talking.
On the other hand, FaceTime Audio requires a data connection with decent quality of service, which the carriers don't currently guarantee. In a park in midtown Manhattan with three circles of LTE signal, we were able to connect voice calls, but couldn't get FaceTime Audio to work because the data connection was too slow, and too saturated.
The 5s comes in five models, of which two are on sale in the U.S. Verizon and Sprint use the same model (which supports CDMA) and AT&T and T-Mobile use the same model (which doesn't). The phone supports all of Verizon's, AT&T's, and T-Mobile's frequency bands for 3G and LTE service, but only one of Sprint's three LTE bands, the 1900MHz band. That's going to create problems for the Sprint iPhone, as the company is trying to use a combination of 800MHz, 1900MHz, and 2600MHz LTE to balance speed and coverage. So far, the LG G2 is the only Sprint phone able to take full advantage of the carrier's LTE bands.
By default Verizon's iPhone will roam globally on the fastest 3G networks it can find. Verizon unlocks the SIM card slots after 60 days if your account is in good standing, so you can pop in a foreign nano-SIM.
You get Bluetooth 4.0, GPS, and dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n, just like on the iPhone 5; the two wireless buzzwords missing are 802.11ac and NFC, neither of which are widely implemented in the U.S. yet. And just like other Verizon iPhones, this model can't do simultaneous voice and data; while our other Editors' Choice, the Galaxy S4, can. The 5s uses Apple's new Lightning connector, so if you're moving up from an iPhone 4 or 4S, you'll need to upgrade your accessories as well. Apple includes its surprisingly good-sounding EarPod earbuds in the box.
We're currently testing battery life, but so far, it looks to be similar to the iPhone 5's talk time at just about 10 hours. That's shorter than leading Android-powered smartphones like the Samsung Galaxy S4, but the iPhone 5 has a smaller screen, which demands less power than 5-inch displays do.
Touch ID Fingerprint Sensor
The Touch ID fingerprint sensor is a perfect example of Apple innovation: The company took a technology that previously existed, but sort of didn't work and never caught on, and made it easy and mainstream. It's starting small, but I suspect Touch ID is going to be the most important and most heavily emulated feature on this phone.
The first thing you need to know: It works simply and reliably. You can enroll up to five fingers (and yes, they can be from different people.) You wiggle your finger around on the sensor for a while so it can capture an image. Then, when your phone is asleep, you can just touch the Home button to wake it up. There's not that much more to say, which is great. During testing, I found it worked with different fingers, in different orientations without any problems.
I never used a passcode on my phone before, but I found that with Touch ID, I started to think about security. The difference between multiple taps to enter a passcode and a single touch-and-hold motion to unlock your phone is huge.
The sensor seems secure enough; your fingerprint data never leaves the phone, as it's stored locally on the A7 chip. It is never shared, backed up, or transmitted anywhere.
Right now, the sensor only unlocks the phone and enters your iTunes password for purchases. Though Apple won't say so, it's pretty obvious to me that the next step will be to integrate it into Safari, and offer a third-party API that would function like a LastPass-type system for all of your passwords across the Web.
Before you freak out about security, that API probably wouldn't be able to touch the fingerprint data itself; it would basically say "run a fingerprint check and return yes or no, please." Also, Apple has not actually done this. But I suspect it will, and so I think Touch ID could be a really big deal.
The A7 Chip and Performance
Along with the Touch ID sensor, the other major underutilized advance in the 5s is the new A7 processor. Simply put, it's a beast. If you want the most technical detail possible, AnandTech has one. I'll do some quick translation into English here.
The A7 is a dual-core processor running at 1.3GHz per core, but that doesn't tell the real story. The A7 uses a new, more efficient instruction set, a larger cache, and wider registers. It can push more data through its pipe at once. The result is dramatic improvements in benchmark performance, even compared with the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor running at 2.27GHz.
On the cross-platform Geekbench 3 benchmark, the 5s more than doubled the iPhone 5's performance and beat the Snapdragon 800-packing LG G2 on integer, floating-point, and memory bandwidth tests. On Web tests, Apple's highly optimized Safari bowser also comes into play; the iPhone 5s did better at both Browsermark and Sunspider than any Android device running Chrome, even tablets.
Very few apps are designed to take advantage of the A7 right now, and most iPhone apps are designed to function well on the iPhone 5 and slower devices. So it's going to be hard to find apps where the difference is obvious; even Apple could only come up with a handful.
In one of them, Autodesk's Pixlr Express Plus, the iPhone 5s was 50 percent faster than the iPhone 5 at applying filters to images, smoothing a picture in 2 seconds rather than 3. Trimming and preparing a video for email in the Photos app ran in 9 seconds here compared with 16.4 seconds on the iPhone 5.
The A7's advantages are also literally cramped by the relatively small 4-inch, 1,136-by-640 screen. A gorgeous new game like Infinity Blade III simply has less to show on the small panel than it would on larger competing phones.
I really suspect that the A7's power will blossom on the next round of iPads, both in productivity and gaming. The chip may be more than a phone this size needs.
Hidden in the phone—literally hidden, as teardowns can't find it—is the new M7 motion coprocessor. The M7 handles sensor input so the A7 can take some naps and save battery life. The battery life effect you'd see here would occur when, say, you're using fitness gadgets like the Nike+ Fuelband
A Brand New Operating System
I won't go into much detail on iOS 7. We have a full review, where it earns 4.5 stars and an Editors' Choice. That review doesn't address the big green robotic elephant in the room, though, so I'll do that here.
Android is superior when it comes to user customizability and offering a wide range of hardware. iOS still has the edge on consistent APIs and on enabling third-party developers to make money, though, which means that many popular apps still either come to iOS first or are iOS exclusives.
To use a few prolific examples, much-loved kids' app developer Toca Boca makes 20 iOS apps, while only two are in Google Play. Japanese game mega-developer Square Enix makes 60 iPhone apps and 21 Android apps. Electronic Arts? 87 iPhone apps and 34 Android apps. Android exclusives tend to be utilities and hackers' tools. iOS exclusives tend to be wider-appeal games, productivity, and design apps.
Android has better notifications and, in version 4.3, a really useful multi-user mode. iOS has a faster Web browser and a better voice assistant. Android lets you arrange your furniture (ie—customize your software), and on the flip side, also lets Samsung, AT&T, and their ilk arrange your furniture. Apple tells you to trust Jony Ive, which is great for people who don't want to have to arrange their own furniture. We can go back and forth like this all day...
The iOS experience also includes reliable, annual software upgrades and support from Apple's network of brick-and-mortar Apple Stores, which tend to be more helpful than wireless carrier stores.
And the 5s will let you take advantage of all of the 900,000+ third-party apps in Apple's App Store, and you now get the iWork productivity suite (including Pages, Numbers, and Keynote), iPhoto, and iMovie for free, in addition to iBooks. iOS 7 prompts you to download them all in one shot the first time you hit the App Store on the phone.
Multimedia, Photos, and Videos
Apple aced multimedia playback a long time ago, and there are no surprises here. If you like the way iPhones handle media, you'll be happy. If you don't like it—say, you want Mass Storage support—you'll still be dissatisfied. I'll save details of iTunes Radio and Apple's media apps for our in-depth iOS 7 review; there's no new media hardware or format support in the 5s.
Expect about a 7.3GB bloatware load on your Verizon 5s; our 64GB model had 56.7GB available. That's slightly heavier than the load on a T-Mobile iPhone 5 running iOS 7.0, which had 6.8GB. In any case, I recommend getting the $299 32GB model, which offers best balance of price and storage. The 16GB unit offers very limited storage space. And, as usual with iPhones, there's no card slot for expansion.
The 5s still has an 8-megapixel camera, but it's completely new. I'm okay with the 8-megapixel resolution; the 13-megapixel cameraphones on the market tend to shoot images which look oversharpened rather than improved. Beyond 8 megapixels, it looks like the next big jump is to super-sensors with lossless digital zoom, like you see in the 41-megapixel Nokia Lumia 1020.
Instead of just adding pixels, Apple got smart: It increased the pixel size and aperture to improve low-light performance and reduce noise, a trick that HTC performs well in the One. The result is brighter images without a loss of clarity.
I took a bunch of test shots indoors and outdoors, in good and low light, with an iPhone 5, a 5s, and a Samsung Galaxy S4. The iPhone 5s's new sensor improves dynamic range and sharpness. It won't work wonders: Bright sky backgrounds will still wash out without HDR, as they will on every cameraphone. But it brings out more shadow detail without brightening up the whole image, and it keeps images clear without oversharpening effects.
In a test shot of a store awning across the street, the 5s rendered small text razor-sharp while both the iPhone 5 and the SGS4—with their smaller pixels—showed fuzz around the edges of letters. In a daylight macro shot, the slightly better dynamic range is visible, with a little more color detail on a flower petal. The S4, oddly, captured completely different colors in the surrounding leaves.
In an indoors, low-light shot, the 5s showed the least noise and oversharpening effects by far. I'd warn you, though, that on both the iPhone 5 and 5s it is possible to shoot before you get focus lock. That makes for blurry images. Wait until you see the yellow focus square to hit the shutter.
An outdoors, night shot also really showed off the camera's advantages. Here, the Galaxy S4 and iPhone 5 both brightened up the shot, giving it a yellowish cast. The Galaxy S4's image looked soft, and the iPhone 5s was quite noisy. The iPhone 5s's night shot was sharper, better balanced, and less blurry.
Apple also replaced its single-LED flash with a dual-LED TrueTone flash that's supposed to fix the colors in flash images. I had trouble seeing the advantage in our lab tests, though. While the 5s did much better at locking focus in a low-light shot than the 5 did, the powerful flash completely washed out my face. The Galaxy S4, in that case, gave the best skin tone. I saw a similar effect when taking a flash shot of an African-American coworker; while the Galaxy S4 made his skin a rich brown, with the 5s it looked ashen (and the 5 had trouble getting any sort of focus lock at all).
The camera app adds a 120fps slow-motion video option, and square and panorama modes for photos. You can toggle the flash and HDR, and add one of nine color filters. That's about it, though. While I don't miss Samsung and LG's many gimmicky photo modes, I'm still peeved that there's no way to shoot photos or videos in anything less than maximum quality. That makes video about 100MB per minute, a pretty hefty load to carry.
The 5s has no trouble recording 1080p videos at 30 frames per second in good light or bad. In low light, though, you may need to tap the screen to reset the focus if you're changing your depth of field mid-capture.
The front-facing camera hasn't changed much from the iPhone 5. It still takes 960-by-1,280 stills and 720p video. In good light, it captures at 30 frames per second; in low light, it dropped to 24 frames per second in my tests.
If you use the slow motion recording mode, there's a built-in editor that lets you easily choose which parts of the video to show in real-time and which parts to show in slo-mo. If you download the video directly to your computer, the whole thing reverts to real time. You have to email, AirDrop, or otherwise transmit it from the gallery app to save it with the slow motion effect.
The iPhone 5s isn't the phone for everyone, but it's the phone for a lot of people. The key, as always, is the combination of Apple's clean design, no-worry interface, still-unbeatable selection of apps, and industry-leading customer support. Combine that with the most powerful processor available in a smartphone today, the fastest Web browser, and the second-best camera (after the Nokia Lumia 1020, which has other problems), and you have a killer smartphone with potential to gain features over the next year. Also, it comes in gold.
The iPhone 5s gets our Editors' Choice on Verizon Wireless, but it isn't our only winner. The Samsung Galaxy S4 offers a very different path: It's much more user-configurable (down to the battery and memory), and has a much bigger screen, slightly better reception, and simultaneous voice and data on the Verizon network, but it comes with a heavy-handed software design. And it lacks all of those exclusive iOS apps and the potential represented by the A7/M7 CPU combo and the Touch ID sensor.
We can easily recommend the 5s over the $99 16GB 5c because of its faster processor and better camera; the $100 extra you'll pay up front is less than 4 percent of the dosh you're likely to shell out with Verizon over two years, and within a year I suspect you'll see some apps that demand the A7 for best performance.
Finally, if you're an existing iPhone owner, should you upgrade? Apple tends to design its phones so that must-have upgrades occur every two years, and the 5s is no exception. If you have a 4S, get a 5s immediately. If you have an iPhone 5, which is now discontinued, by the way, wait until those compelling new apps which demand the A7 processor begin to appear. They'll come. (And by then, you'll probably be able to get a gold one.)
This review is in partnership with PCMag.com.