iPhone 5 Review: The Next Edition of a Serial Saga
Writers of serialized fiction have to accomplish two things. They have to keep their audiences coming back for more of the same thing that got them hooked in the first place. And then they have to provide just the right amount of change or surprise that won’t upset those same loyal fans. The greats know how to do this, as evidenced by Charles Dickens and Alexandre Dumas, to name two of my classical favorites. Contemporary writers who create characters in those sorts of adventures build modern day reputations that can disappear in an instant, if they send their hero off into new realms, or if the stories don’t generate enough new twists. Tom Clancy, George R.R. Martin J.K. Rowling, and Lee Child, to name a few, have been very successful in keeping their following happy. Heck, Robert Ludlum was so successful that he managed to keep things going after he passed away, thanks to surrogate writers. But then, true fans notice the difference.
In some way the mobile tech and gadget world mirrors this kind of serialized fiction treadmill. Hero devices and software get created, develop a following, create future expectations, and everyone focuses on the next release almost as soon as they devour and dissect the latest creation.
Apple’s hero device is the iPhone. We are now into version 5 and the adventures continue. The iPhone’s story appears to be settling in with both its users and its creators. While some see this as a positive, there are some who are restless because there isn’t enough change. For better or worse, I’m one of those who follow Apple’s iPhone journey and budget myself to be ready for the next release. Yep. I’ve gotten my hands on an iPhone 5. I like it. And here are my thoughts.
The Boring Factor
While my mind is certainly subject to change, I’m still currently buying into Apple’s intents with its ecosystem, the core of which is the iPhone. I’ve been an iPhone owner since the 3G. I’ve purchased a new one each and every edition since. Like many, I felt the iPhone 5 (and iOS 6) didn’t offer anything really new in a spectacular sense once we found out that all the rumors about it were uncharacteristically true. Like many, I also think that the “evolutionary not revolutionary” iPhone 5 is a winning piece of hardware married to a familiar and maturing OS. I also think that it aspires to be more than it is capable of presently. I’m more than content with that.
Actually, now that I’ve had my hands on the device, I’m not just content, but I’m very happy about that. As expected there are surprisingly few “latest and greatest” new features. Those that do exist are extremely impressive. Some others not so much. Much of the rest provide me with that comfortable feeling that I get each year when I put on my favorite house sweater as winter is coming. The fact that on the second day of ownership following a first day filled with typical geek lust setting things up and experimenting, I quickly, and without much thought, returned to using the iPhone 5 in the way I had used its predecessor. That second day was a very busy day as it turns out. My workload required lots of iPhone usage on my part. Did I notice i had a new iPhone in hand? Yes, in the sense that it felt different. No, in the more important sense that I was able to accomplish all the tasks I needed to when I needed to, without hesitation or experimenting with a new feature. It was routine and a comfortable and efficient routine at that.
Some have suggested that this the emotional response is what Apple is aiming for. If Apple is not, perhaps it should be. If Apple is indeed thinking this way in a world with a gadget timeline where the apparent next new big hardware innovation may be Google’s Glasses and other wearable devices, I guess I’m a good fit for that thinking. New, but familiar. New enough that you feel like the ongoing investment is worth it. Familiar enough that you don’t feel like a virgin again.
Does this mean that Apple has solved all issues? Absolutely not. In fact, they haven’t even caught up with some of their competitors in some important areas. Does it mean the iPhone 5 is perfect. Nope. But for me, in early usage I’m enjoying using the device in the same way I have before. The narrative feels both familiar and new. While I’m discovering less than I used to with each new iteration, I’m liking that balance between the familiar and the new.
So, here a list of things I like and don’t like about the iPhone 5 and iOS 6. You can’t separate the two. But then, I think that’s the point.
The Very Bearable Feeling of Lightness
You wouldn’t expect that a few ounces would make that much of a difference. But with the iPhone 5 it does. So much so that you really need to hold it in your hand and put it in your pocket to understand this. Apple says the iPhone 5 is 20% lighter. I can’t quibble one way or the other with the accuracy of that number but this thing is light. When it comes to form factor design, and all it entails, Apple got this really right. Add to that, the speed and efficiency that the A6 processor brings to the table, and the increase in memory from 512MB to 1GB. What you get is this feeling that this is some sort of incredible Sci-Fi tech in your hand. I have read almost all the comments about the lighter form factor from others. I was prepared to be impressed. I was not prepared to be as impressed as I was.
Bigger Where it Counts (at least for me)
The market seems to like larger screens. Apple responded by increasing the screen size of the iPhone 5 by making it a bit taller but not wider. Readers here will know that I’m not a fan of the larger size screens on phones. I like a phone I can manipulate with one hand. That’s a very personal preference for all users and it is great that there are different device and screen sizes to choose from. Apple hit my sweet spot with the iPhone 5 in the way it choose to enlarge the screen in only one dimension. I can still reach where I need to on the screen using the device one-handed and that’s an important consideration for me. That said, the newer size does require some adjustment for me though and I still haven’t quite gotten a complete handle on it. While I can touch and tap things on the top and bottom of the screen easy enough, I haven’t yet found the grip that allows me to be as efficient using my thumbs to touch and tap things in the lower corners of the screen. Hopefully with time. As to that extra screen real estate, having an extra row of icons may seem like a small thing. Having that extra row added and used to display folders that can now hold more icons (16 instead of 12) reduces the number of screens I use and also helps my efficiency. Here’s hoping that in the future that extra space won’t get taken up by larger ads in Apps that use them.
I was not one who went crazy over the Retina screen on either the iPhone or the iPad. Sure, I noticed a difference, but it wasn’t as eye opening for me as it was for others. Apple’s display enhancements for the iPhone 5 are making a bigger difference to my eye than the Retina improvements alone ever did. Note of course that the Retina display is obviously a part of that. Images and text look clearer and more distinct and colors are indeed richer to my eye on the iPhone 5. I really like this display.
Speed, Speed, Speed
I mentioned earlier that the iPhone 5 is noticeably faster. The combination of adding more memory and whatever is inside the A6 chip have made a considerable and immediately noticeable difference. So much so, that for me this was worth the price of the upgrade. Apple has always had touch responsiveness right on its iOS devices with no lag and an immediate sense of action when you touch the screen. The only thing that is slow now is how fast (or slow) I can move my fingers across the screen when I’m scrolling or flipping through the pages of Flipboard. The device is faster than I can manipulate it. Most apps load faster and operate with a noticeable increase in efficiency. (Except for some of Apple’s apps like the App Store and the Podcasts App.) Let’s put it this way. If Apple is indeed about to introduce an iPad Mini on the market, then it better have the A6 chip in it. If not, I personally wouldn’t buy it. If Apple chooses to use an older chipset, like it has with its iPod Touch line, that would be a mistake now that we’ve seen just how blazing fast things can be with the A6. In fact, the iPhone 5 is making my iPad feel slower than I would like it to.
Do Not Disturb
Where has this feature been all of my life? Being able to flip it on when I’m in a meeting or taking a power nap is a wonderful asset. Being able to set up a time range to not be disturbed at night is a blessing. Best new iOS 6 feature bar none, in my opinion. Here’s a link to how to set up the Do Not Disturb Feature.
So Pretty You Need to Keep it Hidden
Louisa May Alcott in Little Women said, “Where’s the use of looking nice, when no one sees me but those cross midgets, and no one cares whether I’m pretty or not?” Given the complaints that we’re seeing about scratches on the black version of the iPhone 5, I’m guessing there are quite a few black iPhone 5 owners wondering if that pretty new design is worth it. I’m also guessing there are quite a few case manufacturers out there jumping for joy. My iPhone 5 came out of the box clean as a whistle without a scratch, unlike those of some others. I enjoyed how pretty it looked for a few hours while I kept the plastic adhesive on it and until I could pick up a case at the local Best Buy. The design of the hardware is really something to behold. The only problem is that quality control in Apple’s manufacturing process makes all of that effort to create something pretty seem like dressing up a beautiful bride hidden beneath a veil that you’re afraid to take off. Some have called this design jewelry-like. I commented more on that here.
Apple improved the sensor and/or the software that controls Auto-Brightness on the iPhone 5. It now works almost too well. I can visibly watch the screen dim as I go from one room in my house to the next with different lighting conditions. The reason I say it almost works too well is that occasionally in a darkened room the screen is so dim I have a hard time reading it without manually raising the brightness level.
The Lightning Connector
This is a big change for some, not so much for others. I’m in the latter camp. Yeah, I’ve got a few miles worth of 30 pin connectors scattered here and there. I’ve also broken one or two in my time. I like that the new Lightening connector is smaller and inserts without a reference to top or bottom. That said, after years of using Apple’s previous cables and more micro-USB cables than I can count, I find myself still looking to check what the correct way is to stick the cable in. Old habits die heard. Like everyone else I’ve ordered an adapter and I also picked up a couple of the Lightning to USB cables so I don’t have to carry one back and forth from work to home. I imagine within a year or so, I’ll have miles of these that will someday become obsolete as well. If Apple’s engineering of this was a key part in reducing the size of the device form factor I say Bravo.
This is an important issue for me. I can’t completely judge how Apple did with the iPhone 5 as I haven’t yet tested LTE as mentioned earlier. Some reports say that Apple did fine here. Some not. For what it is worth, I’m seeing a very tiny improvement over the 4GS. I’m prepared to accept similar battery life to the 4GS when the phone is using LTE, given how LTE reception puts a drain on the battery. I’m not prepared to expect less. I’d love to hear from GBM readers who can experience LTE on what they kind of battery life they are seeing.
Apple added Facebook sharing to iOS 6. You can now directly share some things to Facebook, Twitter, as well as various functions like printing or email. There is a share menu in Safari and in other Apps that lets you know to whence you may share. This is an area that Apple is seriously behind its Android competition. Some iOS Apps have built more extensive sharing capabilities between other Apps (Newsify, and Mr. Reader are excellent examples.) Most others have restricted choices (Flipboard on iOS) or only rely on what iOS provides. In Android, sharing is built into the OS and you have as many options as you’d like, depending on what you have installed on your device. Windows 8 looks to have better sharing capabilities as well. I may be wrong here, but I can’t find a way to share a YouTube video in iOS 6. (Remember Apple removed the YouTube App and Google offered up one of its own.) Apple has always lagged when it comes to the whole Social thing, and it is seriously lagging on the Sharing front as well. The perfect example of this is with an app I use daily, Evernote. While some iOS apps have tied into Evernote which is great. But as long as I have Evernote installed on an Android device I can share anything to it. Sure I can copy and paste into Evernote, but that Share Button in Safari is begging for more fruit to be hanging off of that tree.
I live in Virginia. I guess AT&T has something against states that begin with the letter V. When the first iPhone was released it was exclusive to AT&T. I remember that there was no AT&T coverage in Vermont, so iPhones were not being sold there. There is no LTE coverage listed on AT&T’s map of Virginia, and of course no word of AT&T’s plans. Indeed I was at Dulles Airport, in the outer DC suburbs, this week and there was no AT&T LTE coverage there. I have Verizon’s LTE on my iPad and there is Verizon LTE coverage in parts of my area including my home. But where i work, Verizon’s LTE doesn’t exist and its 4G is horrible. AT&T’s faux 4G works very well both where I live and work, and I can’t imagine AT&T will continue to overlook Virginia too much longer, so I stuck with AT&T. By the way, I keep LTE turned off on my phone to save a bit of battery life. I look forward to traveling to a state that doesn’t being with V some day in the future to trying this out.
The App Store in iOS 6
Problematic to say the least in my view. I wrote an article on this here. If Apple is slipping when it comes to the little details that have made its reputation, it is showing in the App Store in a very public way.
Oh, yeah, these things are phones. We sometimes make and receive calls on them. In my testing it appears that the new microphone array does indeed improve my voice quality on calls I make. Unfortunately, with the Bluetooth headset I use (Jawbone Era) there is a lag after I answer a call using that device that didn’t exist before. Thinking that may be an issue with the Era, I tested it with a friends Bluetooth headset and had similar issues. Note that if you use a headset or the new Earpods you don’t get any advantage from the new microphone array.
I like Siri and use it daily for some tasks. (Setting alarms and reminders, creating lists while I’m driving, etc…) I love the promise of Siri more than I like using it currently. Siri does a few more things this time around, most of which are not much use to me. Launching an App with Siri is a great addition that I’m enjoying taking advantage of. I’d love to see Siri advance much more than it has so far.
I have not noticed any real improvements or advances here. I have noticed that I can get the “purple haze” issue that many are complaining about. This issue happens when you take a picture with a bright light just out of the frame. The top part of the picture then has this “purple haze.” Some are attributing this to the new sapphire covering over the camera. I’m sure once news of the Maps controversy dies down a bit we’ll learn more.
Taking a Pass on Maps and Passbook
Speaking of Maps, I wrote about my thoughts on that topic here. In the meantime, Apple via a letter from CEO Tim Cook, has apologized for Maps not measuring up to Apple’s standards and has changed some of its marketing hyperbole about the App. At the same time Apple is now recommending users take a look at other third party mapping solutions. Maps may get better, but Apple needs to figure out what it needs to here, sooner rather than later. Maps is tied into iOS and isn’t just a direction finder. Some sort of mapping solution is going to be the key to any mobile OS in the future as we move closer and closer to more context and location aware and driven Apps. Like Passbook. Oh, yeah. That’s new too. Passbook is like acquiring a new coat in July. You won’t really get to know how much you like or use it until the weather gets colder. Built as a repository for loyalty cards and tickets to events, there just aren’t enough vendors participating yet to begin understanding what Passbook may or may not mean. Maybe one day we’ll know if Passbook works in some fashion or not. But as for now, it is an icon stored in a folder, or that winter coat hanging in a closet.
Both Maps and Passbook, like Siri before them, show that Apple has some intriguing and powerful ideas, but hasn’t yet figured out how to capitalize on them. On some level that’s OK, because this supposed next wave of context aware Apps is really just taking baby steps. On other levels, the OK factor is a little fudgy. Apple’s approach with its new things (devices, Apps, etc…) is to announce big. On the device front it usually succeeds with that strategy and not so much with its software innovations that promote new services. It’s been a long time since iTunes shook up the music industry. Not quite so long since the MobileMe disaster turned into iCloud. Which still isn’t a complete solution yet. The jury is still out on Newsstand and the iPad in terms of it changing publishing. Apple TV looks to still be a hobby (although I would argue that it is an excellent accessory for an iOS device.) iBooks seems to quickly be turning into an afterthought. Like Apple’s attempts into changing publishing and other media, Passbook needs buy in from a lot of outsiders. That requires a level of collaboration that takes time to build and when money is changing hands (no one is getting into this for free you know), Apple doesn’t seem to have the leverage it once had with the music industry, even with a large installed base of users with credit cards.
The iPhone 5 and iOS 6 show us that Apple understands what they’ve built leading up to this latest release, and that Apple also seems to grasp that radical change isn’t necessary for something that sales indicate consumers are quite happy with. I don’t envy anyone competing in the mobile tech sector. In an unforgiving mobile world where the pace of change is relentless, Apple can still lead on the hardware front, but has some catching up to do on the App and software battlefields. After creating such a phenomenon the pressure to deliver must be intense. Imagine George R. R. Martin having to deliver the next installment of Song and Ice and Fire under this kind of release cycle pressure. He’s not dealing with a supply chain or carriers, etc… He’s dealing with his imagination and words. Though many other serial authors do give us a new installment each year or with more regularity than Martin, as successful as they may be, I don’t believe most of those efforts will stand the test of time. (Not that Martin’s will either, but he sure stands a better chance.) I would guess Apple and its competitors would love to have the luxury of time that Martin has, but they don’t. The pressure to “wow” us while remaining faithful to what excited us in the first place has to be relentless. The iPhone 5 and iOS 6 show us that Apple can deliver the goods, still has quite a few things to figure out, and reminds us that Apple can indeed make some big mistakes along the way. We’re probably at the point that the slogan “it just works” can or should be retired.
The iPhone 5 with iOS 6 is an excellent next edition of the iPhone. The hardware is really
something to see. Scratch that, hold and use. Just don’t scratch it. I’m surprised I like it so much. The hardware/software marriage is exactly what we have come to expect from Apple. Like every mobile gadget it is not perfect and has some flaws and it may indeed be boring for some. But I’m more than content to call it a very comfortable and familiar, if not necessarily important, upgrade.