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Hands on with the iPhone 5

The iPhone 5s have landed in our offices. Before we go off for more extensive examinations, here are a few preliminary reactions after getting our hands on the thing.

The screen

Because the iPhone 5 is the same width as previous models, it feels familiar in some ways. But then, when you reach up for that topmost corner to hit a Back button or to pull down Notification Center, there's a strange sense of wearing shoes that are just slightly too big. By the same token, going back to an iPhone

Making the screen taller, but not wider, is actually kind of brilliant. What do we do with our phones? Read emails, webpages, Twitter streams, and so on. Now there's more room for all of that, without stretching things to wacky proportions.

Apps that have already been optimized for the larger display--such as Apple's own apps--certainly feel roomier for it. It's exactly what you'd expect, and it's nice. Apps that have not yet been updated feel funny: There are black bars at the top and the bottom. Even on one of the white models, though, it's easy to forget the bars are there: they blend in with the dark screen.

What's strange, though, is what happens to the iPhone's status bar in these apps. In most apps, the status bar is immediately above the app itself, and then there was black space above it. But in one app we tested, the status bar was at the very top of the screen, then there was some black space, and then the contents of the app were displayed. Turns out this is what happens when some parts of an app have been updated for the iPhone 5, but not others. If an app hasn't been updated at all, the status bar sticks to the app and the black bars extend above. The worst case scenario is that developers will just stretch their apps up-and-down; there's plenty of space to really retool their interfaces, if they wanted to do so.

If you painstakingly organized your home screens, it's time to redecorate. Now that you can fit a fifth row of apps on your iPhone 5, you'll need to make new decisions about which apps go where. Or, we suppose, you could leave everything exactly the same and have a gaping empty row across the bottom of each screen.

The body

While the iPhone 5 is noticeably taller, the change is actually less dramatic than you might expect. If you regularly clad your iPhone in a battery case, for example, the caseless iPhone 5 may well be shorter than what you're accustomed to.

The height difference is also a personal thing: If you're accustomed to sliding up a finger to trigger the Sleep/Wake button, that may now take more effort than it did before; you may have to slide the phone down in your hand to access that button, whereas before it was always within reach. The Notification Center can be a real stretch.

As we've all heard, the iPhone 5 is as surprisingly light (3.95 ounces). There may be no such thing as too light, but some may find that it feels like a toy: it's surprising, when you turn the iPhone 5 on, to realize that a device this light is actually a real phone, and not just a plastic replica that you give your kids to play with. For years, there's been a notable difference between the weight of iPhones to their comparable iPod touches; the difference between the iPhone 4S and the iPhone 5 feels that dramatic.

The case

As opposed to the iPhone 4 and 4S, which had a kind of "ice-cream sandwich" construction, with two slabs of glass around a steel frame, the iPhone 5 has edges that are ever so slightly beveled inward--chamfers, if you want to use the technical term. It gives the phone a slightly different feel in the hand, one that doesn't press quite as sharply into the palm as the previous phones.

In the past, iPhone color choices have been pretty limited: The iPhone 3G either had a black back or a white back, but that was it. The iPhone 4 came in black and (eventually) white, front and back, but the shiny metal band around the device was the same regardless of color choice.

With the iPhone 5, the two phones really are different. The white model most closely resembles the iPhone 4/4S, with a white front and back and the silver metal band. But the black model is completely different. It's like the Spinal Tap model iPhone 5: How much blacker could it be? None more black. The front and back have black glass, yes, but the metal band and metal strip on the back are both "slate"--a metallic matte black. The switches are black. Even the box is black, with "iPhone 5" printed in shiny black lettering. If the white-and-silver iPhone 5 is Gandalf's iPhone, the black-and-slate model is Darth Vader's.

And it's gorgeous. Not everyone will want to embrace the Dark Side, but the black metal on the black glass really ties the design of the phone together in a way that the iPhone 4 didn't.

That connector

The first thing some of us did when our new iPhones arrived was try to plug it into our Macs using an existing dock connector cable. It only took a second for us to realize, "Hey, dummy, that won't work!" and dig out the Lightning adapter in the box instead. We're not the only ones who will do that, we bet.

You might also pause to see if you have the Lightning plug oriented the right way, just as we did with the old connector. Which, of course, you don't need to do: it works either way. (Some of us plugged and unplugged the connector a couple of times, just for the novelty of it.) We never paid much attention to where we put our iPhone cables: We always had a couple stashed here and there around the house. You'll likely have just one Lightning cable for the time being; watch it closely.

The shocking thing about the Lightning cable is just how small it is. We know: Apple said that it was a lot smaller. But it's actually kind of hard to pick up; it's not much wider than the cable to which it's connected. To insert it in the iPhone, you need to hold the connector squarely between your thumb and index finger. So even though there's no fiddling around with the connector's orientation, you'll have to retrain your muscle memory.

Other observations

The speakers seem noticeably better--or at least, louder--than they were on the 4S and 4. Part of that may be the changes in phone's volume and shape, which could provide more open air in the case. They're still no match for a good pair of headphones, but you can probably get away with watching a YouTube video without everybody around you saying, "What? What did he say?"

The Home button is distinctly stiffer than in iPhones past. It has a sturdier feel and seems to require a firmer touch than Home buttons of yore.

The improved front-facing camera--now in HD quality--is quite welcome, particularly for FaceTime calls.

Overall, while it feels like a very significant and substantial upgrade, it also still feels like the same old iPhone. For many of us, that's a good thing.


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