The launch of a new iPhone long ago passed from mere product introduction into the realm of cultural phenomena. Still, underneath all the hype, the iPhone 5 really is just a new smartphone. A terrific new smartphone.
Arriving in Apple stores Sept. 21, the new model lacks any single gee-whiz breakthrough, like the Siri voice assistant introduced with the iPhone 4S. But the new version brings it up-to-date in a host of areas, particularly speed, without sacrificing the things that made it special in the first place.
The iPhone 5, which in the United States starts at $199 for a model with 16 gigabytes of storage on a two-year contract, unquestionably retains the title of handsomest phone you can buy. The fit and finish really are more like a fine wristwatch, as Apple boasts, than a gadget you might shove into pocket or purse.
Bowing slightly to the trend toward bigger displays, the new screen measures 4 inches diagonally, compared with 3.5 inches on all previous iPhones. That makes it, at 4.87 inches, slightly taller than its predecessor. But it maintains the identical width, changing the screen’s aspect ratio to 16:9, the same one used in movies, and allowing an extra row of app icons.
Meanwhile, it’s 18 percent thinner than the 4S -- Apple says it’s the thinnest on the market -- and, at 3.95 ounces, 20 percent lighter.
The result is a phone that’s compact and feather-weight, yet, thanks to the materials used in its aluminum-and-glass body, conveys a sense of solidity and feels great in the hand. It also comes with newly redesigned headphones called EarPods that are the first ever from Apple that don’t either immediately fall out of my ears, hurt or both.
The most controversial hardware change in the iPhone 5 is bound to be the new, smaller “Lightning” port for accessories and charging. It’s much easier to use than the previous 30-pin connector, and it doesn’t matter which side of the plug is up. That’s a real blessing for those of us who fumble constantly with the micro-USB plugs on many other phones.
On the other hand, using it with speaker docks and other accessories built for earlier iPhones and iPods could add up. An adapter costs $29, and the kind of cable included in the box, which allows it to be used with most car- and wall-chargers, will cost $19 if you want to buy an extra.
One of Apple’s underappreciated abilities is its sense of timing. It often isn’t first with new technologies, waiting until it can bring something special and Apple-like to the table.
With the iPhone 5, the most obvious something-special is how fast it is and how long it runs at those speeds.
The new model is the first iPhone to run on the new 4G LTE networks being rolled out by carriers. These networks aren’t everywhere: Of the three major U.S. carriers offering the iPhone, Verizon Wireless has by far the broadest coverage, with AT&T trailing and Sprint just getting started.
But if they’re in your area, you’ll find the iPhone 5 roaringly fast -- far zippier than any previous iPhone at downloading Web pages, uploading photos, installing apps and doing pretty much anything that requires an Internet connection. My AT&T test unit routinely registered download speeds 5 to 20 times faster than a 4S running over the slower network that AT&T confusingly labels “4G.”
Over the last year and a half, Samsung, HTC and Motorola, among others, have already come out with LTE handsets running Google’s Android operating system. But many had a secret weakness: power consumption. Because LTE requires more juice, they either delivered sub-par performance compared to 3G phones, or grew to sometimes ungainly dimensions to accommodate a bigger battery. By contrast, the iPhone 5 on LTE actually exceeds the battery life of the iPhone 4S on 3G.
What you’ll get in the real world depends on how you use the phone. In my case, even with the screen set to maximum brightness, I was able to download a movie over Wi-Fi; use the new Apple mapping-and-spoken-navigation app on two car trips; text, Tweet and use the camera’s neat new panorama mode to shoot photos at Stanford’s upset football victory over the University of Southern California while watching video highlights from the San Francisco Giants baseball game over LTE; and, oh yeah, make some phone calls. At the end of a very long day, I still had 10 percent of the battery left.
The iPhone 5’s speediness isn’t confined to the Internet. Its new Apple-designed A6 chip and revised iOS 6 operating system make functions like opening apps and scrolling through screens faster and more fluid.
Of course, the iPhone 5 maintains compatibility with Apple’s vast universe of songs, videos and an app catalog that now exceeds 700,000. But one app in particular is worth paying close attention to.
With iOS 6, Apple has replaced the previous Google Maps application with one of its own. The new app is gorgeous, and provides built-in, spoken turn-by-turn navigation.
But my initial test unit was too easily confused, especially in urban areas. At one point as I was driving south on San Francisco’s Embarcadero, it thought I was going north; at another point, it mistakenly thought I was on Fremont Street, a couple of blocks away. I encountered a similar issue walking in downtown San Francisco.
Moreover, the rear of the phone grew noticeably hot when the GPS system was in use for an extended period, though I didn’t notice any undue impact on the phone’s battery life or performance.
Apple says some heat buildup is to be expected given the demands of the GPS system, and that my experience with the app’s inaccuracy was unusual; it provided me with a second unit that seemed to do better. Still, users should be wary until they’re convinced the new app is as good as the one being booted out to make way for it.
In the end, the debates over the iPhone 5 will be as endless as the lines waiting to buy it starting Friday. Apple-bashers will say the screen is too small, compared to giants like Samsung’s Galaxy S III. And they’ll bemoan the absence of a Near-Field Communications chip, which among other things can be used for mobile payments. (Apple says there isn’t yet enough consumer demand to warrant including it.)
And they’ll have some valid points. The iPhone 5 is by no means perfect, and we’re lucky there are a lot of really good smartphones on the market.
But only one great one.