The often predictable Apple messed up a little this year by releasing not just one but two phones: the iPhone 5s and the 5c. As an incremental update, the flagship 5s borrows heavily from its predecessor, which in theory would encourage many to play the waiting game for another year to see what kind of redesign Cupertino comes up with for the iPhone 6.
However, you wouldn't know that it was an incremental update based on early sales. Apple managed to move more than nine million iPhones a few weeks ago on the launch weekend. Early reports suggest that the 5s was the top-selling phone with all four of the major U.S. carriers in September – surprisingly, it's the cheaper 5c that isn't doing as well. Even so, there are some new technologies in the '5s that are partly responsible for its early success, namely the brand new 64-bit A7 processor and the Touch ID fingerprint reader built into the phone's home button.
Hardware & design
Just a few subtle design changes will tell whether you're going for a 5-series model compared to last year's model. The new phone has the same two-tone aluminum and glass construction, the same 4-inch Retina display with 1,136 x 640 pixels (326 ppi) and identical key assignments.
The display looks as good as ever (although it may be a bit warmer than the iPhone 5) and while the 4-inch phone fits nicely in my small hand, I really would have loved to see something bigger from Apple. I suspect this will happen to the iPhone 6 in the next year as Cupertino likely stuck to the idea of a small pocket-sized phone for as long as possible. Something in the 5-inch range seems plausible, as virtually every Android on the market now ships with a screen size in this range or larger.
If you come from a 4s or any other make of phone, you will likely immediately notice how light the iPhone 5s feels in the hand. It weighs only 112 grams and feels very solid due to the excellent glass and aluminum construction, although its angular edges are not particularly pleasant when held for a long time.
The headphone jack is still on the bottom of the phone. This seems like an odd choice until you find that of course you always do it upside down when you put your phone in your pocket. This would make listing music with the included EarPods a lot more convenient, although it could be a nuisance at other times.
Only the redesigned home button with integrated Touch ID sensor and an additional LED flash on the back of the phone indicate that this is a new iPhone model. On the one hand, this is a good thing as existing iPhone 5 accessories like cases will still work with the 5s. At the same time, however, you don't get a flashy new handset that will grab the attention of a completely redesigned phone.
The 5s is available in three different colors: Space Gray, Gold and Silver. Everything else – from the phone's dimensions and weight to the layout of the speaker grille – is identical to the iPhone 5.
The Touch ID fingerprint reader is integrated into the home button. A metallic ring surrounds the home button, which is slightly less concave and no longer has a symbol printed on it. This sensor can be used to unlock your phone so you don't have to enter a passcode every time you want to unlock the device (you use a passcode, right?). In addition, Touch ID can authorize iTunes purchases with a single touch of a button.
My previous experience with fingerprint readers, like those shipped with notebooks for a spell, had led me to conclude that they were little more than a gimmick. Touch ID changed my mind. It's by far my favorite feature in the 5s and extremely handy when you need to access your phone several times a day.
The initial setup process takes a minute or two. You will be asked to place a finger on the sensor and hold it for a moment, then lift up and repeat. During this time, the sensor scans the complex contours of your fingerprint. Once you're done, you can use this digit to unlock the device and authorize purchases.
You can add up to five fingerprints – either all of your fingerprints or those of someone you want to share the phone with. The system is almost flawless in its implementation as it recognizes a finger even when it is completely upside down. I had several friends who tried to unlock the phone with their triggers. everything failed. The only time the system didn't recognize my own pressure was when my finger was wet. Otherwise it worked every time.
As we've learned over the past few weeks, there are methods to bypass the sensor. However, given the complexity of these measures, it is unlikely to be worth the time and effort. And the good thing about fingerprints is that you can't forget them like a passcode. Additionally, those concerned about Apple creating a database of fingerprints from iPhone 5 users needn't to worry as all the prints are encrypted and stored locally on the device in a secure area of the CPU.
The only flaw I discovered is that Apple forces you to choose either Touch ID security or a passcode, but not both. For the extremely security-conscious users out there, two-factor authentication could have brought a little more security.
The other noticeable new hardware feature is the dual-LED flash, which is part of a system Apple calls True Tone. Apple claims that the added amber / warm light flash can be used to create more accurate skin tones when taking photos with the flash. It is located directly below the original flash in a vertical orientation. The phone evaluates the lighting conditions in real time and flashes with different intensities in order to achieve the best possible results.