Conveniently, Apple decided to launch a new iPhone at almost exactly the same time that my current mobile phone contract ended. The various leaks and rumours meant that we basically knew what we were in for – a larger screen, support for 4G LTE networks and a new dock connector – but until yesterday we didn’t know for sure what major changes were afoot.
The new iPhone 5 has a faster processor, called the A6, which is supposedly even better than the processor in the latest iPad, so it should be faster, and, crucially, more energy efficient. As a result, it has better battery life than previous models despite supporting LTE – Android LTE phones have been known to have pretty miserable battery life so this is welcome.
The screen is 176 pixels taller, but the same width, so it now supports the 16:9 aspect ratio and should mean no more black bands when watching films or TV shows in that format. Those extra pixels also mean that your home screen has room for an additional row of apps – up to 6 from 5. So instead of having four full screens of apps on my phone, I’ll be able to have, um, 3 and a bit screens. The downside of this is that all of your apps will need to be updated to support the new screen size; in the meantime, they’ll run with black bars at the top and bottom. Expect a flurry of updates appearing in the App Store over the next few weeks.
The larger screen means that the iPhone 5 is a little taller than its predecessors, all of which have, until now, had broadly the same form factor. However, the handset is somewhat thinner than before, and around 20% lighter – a welcome improvement on the iPhone 4 which is a bit on the heavy side.
The other main improvement are the cameras. On the front, the so-called Facetime Camera is now a 720p HD camera, rather than the old 480p one, so you’ll be able to take duck-faced pictures of yourself on Facebook at a higher resolution. On the back, the camera is still 8 megapixels, as with the 4S, but the A6 processor in the iPhone 5 will allow for more image processing which should make pictures better without increasing the size of the lens. I doubt it’ll match a decent compact camera or SLR but, as the saying goes, the best camera is the one you have at the time.
More on LTE
This is the first proper 4G iPhone, and comes only four years after the first 3G iPhone. As it happens, there will actually be 3 different iPhone 5 models for different networks, as detailed on this page on Apple’s web site. Us Brits will get the ‘A1429 (GSM)’ model – it’ll support 3G on all of the current networks and 4G on EE, the new brand launched by Orange and T-Mobile’s parent company on Tuesday. This is the only 4G network active in the UK, and even then, it’s only in major cities – EE claim it’ll cover 40% of the population, but to me that seems a bit optimistic.
This model, nor any of the other two models, will support 4G on O2 and Vodafone when they eventually launch their 4G networks, according to TNW. The plan is that they’ll be using the 800 and 2600 MHz bands, and they’re not listed on Apple’s web site. Of course, there is a precedent for Apple launching a different model of a current phone – the CDMA iPhone 4 was launched in early 2011 for Verizon users – and, in any case, Ofcom hasn’t even started the auction process for these bands yet. Three, the network that I use, will use the same bands as EE for their LTE service, but not until late next year.
Having three iPhone 5 models is a change in plan for Apple – as mentioned, there were two iPhone 4 models (CDMA and GSM) but only one iPhone 4S model which could work on either. I assume that in order to keep the size of the handset down, reduce the complexity of the antenna and/or ensure the phone has decent battery life, that Apple decided the three separate models were necessary. Of course, they will all work in exactly the same way and I doubt users will notice any difference, but it does mean that, in the US at least, you won’t be able to buy an iPhone 5 on Verizon and then put an AT&T SIM card in it.
The new Lightning connector
Another anticipated change, based on various leaked photos, was the new connector, which Apple has called Lightning (after launching Thunderbolt last year). It replaces the iPod Dock Connector, which has been included on all iPods, iPhones and iPads (bar the iPod Shuffle) since 2003. On the one hand, I can understand why Apple wants to change the connector – of the 30 pins offered by the old connector, only a few are still used (many were for FireWire which is no longer supported by current iDevices), and the large socket takes up a lot of space that can be used to reduce the size of the handset. It can also be inserted either way, unlike the current connector which only goes in one way.
But it means that any accessories that you have which use the old 30-pin connector will now need an adaptor, which you’ll be ‘pleased’ to hear, costs a mere £25, or £30 if you need one with a short cable – third-party adaptors aren’t available yet. This probably means that your new iPhone won’t fit any existing docks you may have. The new connector is also used by the new iPod Touch and iPod Nano that were announced yesterday, so this is clearly the direction that Apple is going, and I reckon the iPad will follow suit next year.
By the sounds of it, Apple hasn’t made the connecting cable longer, even though this is apparently the one thing that everyone wanted. Also, despite having connectors called Thunderbolt and Lightning, Apple haven’t produced a Thunderbolt to Lightning cable, which is very, very frightening, Galileo. And it’s ‘only’ USB2, not USB3 – but frankly I don’t think the iPhone needs to support USB3 just yet as the speed difference is very minor for small amounts of data. Unless you’re regularly using your iPhone to film HD video, which most people aren’t.
Some other features were anticipated, and indeed have appeared on competing handsets, but not on the iPhone 5. Near-Field Communication (NFC) is one – an increasing number of Android phones have this, partly for transferring data but also for things like mobile payments or acting as a smartcard for carrying tickets and boarding passes. But it’s an early technology that, certainly in the UK, isn’t well-supported. It’s worth reading this article by Rory Cellan-Jones, the BBC technology correspondent, about the problems he had in May using mobile payments. I doubt Apple has completely ruled out NFC but it may be waiting for the technology to mature first – if it’s as frustrating to use as the article claims, then Apple won’t want NFC affecting the iPhone’s user experience.
So is the new iPhone worth getting?
For me, yes – probably. Since I’m out of contract, I should be able to get the new phone with little or no upfront cost, provided I agree to stay with my current network (Three) for another two years – although Three haven’t yet announced their iPhone 5 deals and probably won’t until tomorrow at the earliest. On the other hand, I could stick with my current phone and get a cheaper SIM-only contract, although it needs a new battery which will cost £55 and mean I could be without a phone for 10 days. Horrible, I know.
The iPhone 5 isn’t much of an upgrade to the 4S, but it is to the 4. Compared to the iPhone 4, the 5 has a much better camera, support for HSPA+ as well as LTE, Siri, larger screen, slimmer and lighter, and a much faster processor. And, some of the new features of iOS 6, like turn-by-turn navigation in maps and Facetime over 3G, won’t be available to iPhone 4 users. To me, it seems clear that Apple have aimed the iPhone 5 at existing iPhone users who want to upgrade, and users of feature phones, rather than those already in another smartphone ecosystem like Android or Windows Phone.
Of course, you aren’t me, so whether the phone is worth getting is your choice. Brits will also need to decide whether it’s worth switching networks to EE to take advantage of its 4G LTE service – personally, I won’t, as it’s not active in either of the places I live in and work in, and T-Mobile and Orange both have worse 3G coverage in my home town than Three.
I’ll leave you with this opinion piece from Adam Banks, editor in chief of MacUser magazine.