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iPhone 5: First analysis from the lab

Before the real tests begin, we pore over the facts so far

Topping the previous phone’s crowning features has become the expectation with the arrival of each new Apple iPhone. It’s part of our upgrade culture. The people demand a revolution! 

Read all our iPhone 5 news, reviews and advice

Because so many innovations have steadily trickled into one pocketable slab of damned usefulness, we keep coming back, expecting more and more again each time. Easy then to dismiss the iPhone 5 as a taller iPhone 4S with a new plug.

Apple is not daft. It knows not to radically remix a winning formula, especially when the best ideas for the smartphone’s outline and essence have already been distilled into earlier models.  

The new height means a bigger screen though, snapping into a true 16:9 aspect ratio for widescreen distractions; it’s the pragmatic way to expand screen estate while still, I suspect, keeping the whole handset easily accessible with one hand. And that can be more important that willy-waving with 4.5in and larger semi-tablets that sell as telephones. 

iPhone 5 end

Attention to the human-device interface is found in various new audio systems, starting with an intriguing triple-mic assembly. This promises better fidelity through some kind of beamforming, a variation from earlier two-mic noise cancelling. 

As well as a new audio coprocessor tucked inside, we’re told there’s support for Wideband audio, using more advanced data comms technology. It should expand the frequency range of the spoken voice to make conversation more life-like. ‘Over 20 carriers worldwide at launch’ doesn’t yet spell out if any UK network will unlock the facility though. 

The Wideband audio tech is not an Apple first, but given the handset’s impeding uquity it should really encourage more networks to look into enabling the service. 

New earphones promise better sound too, and we look forward to seeing if the aptly named EarPods will make the Apple-supplied items the comfortable go-to choice, rather than an accessory hastily upgraded. ‘They rival high-end headphones that cost hundreds of pounds more’ is a very bold claim we look forward to putting to the test.

Then there’s also talk of improved speakers, with five little magnets in each. Old iPhone’s speaker was not bad at all, so I wonder what benefits we’ll hear here.

iPhone 5: Vocal interface

A good vocal interface is essential for Siri, now it’s steadily expanding in scope. It remains to be seen to what extent the motor industry, for example, will warm to voice control technology in its new vehicles. If it works reliably and effortlessly in the car, a new level of verbal interaction will swell this most personal of device’s influence.

For the UK, we first needed more location-aware integration; the all-important mapping capability, that should let Siri at least tell you were you are, may finally have arrived in iOS 6.

iPhone 5: Quick Plug

A new docking plug is inevitable in the drive toward simplicity. So many of the pins in the venerable 30-pin design were redundant, so not unlike the move to a nano-SIM which shaves extraneous deadwood, the engineers couldn’t resist a rewrite into a tidier design. 

iPhone 5 and Lightning cable

And one that looks easier to handle – with an eye on the importance of the opposable-thumb experience, you can pop the plug in either way round. No more squinting at the cable to read which side is up. Straight in, either way, simple. 

What’s this, limited to decade-old USB 2.0 speed? Now that USB 3.0’s come of age, the much faster conduit would have been welcome in this new cable. Particularly since the Apple’s own Macs have finally adopted USB 3.0. But no, Lightning is relegated to its USB 2.0 flavour, judged by the currently offered new Lightning cables.

We still wonder if some of the big-picture design decisions were led by the heart rather than the head. Do we really need a thinner phone? If it gets much slimmer, it’ll need to be fabricated from titanium, not aluminium, to withstand being sat on in the back pocket.  

Why not use the 12% of saved internal volume from the new profile to keep it the 4S’ thickness, then increase the battery’s size and capacity? Decent smartphone runtime must remain the priority, and even though the iPhone has trumped almost every Android phone since the launch of 2010‘s iPhone 4, there’s always room for improvement.

Yet the move to the new and more efficient Apple A6-branded ARM processor means even longer battery life than the iPhone 4S, claims Apple. If that pans out, we’ll be impressed. And note that no specification of this new Apple A6 are published. Dual-core? Quad? Clock speed...? Not as important as how fast the phone actually feels.

The move to aluminium construction may be a step in the right direction though; and not just by helping to lose headline grams from the all-up weight. It’s the hoped-for possibility of a more handleable object for the fingertips. Hardened glass front and back didn’t just lend the iPhone 4 chic obsidian bling – it could make the handset a slippery slab. The iPhone 5 is now built around an anodised aluminium backplate that may just allow a tad more purchase.

But will it be as durable? The iPhone 4 and 4S have stainless-steel bands running around them. It’s unclear at present if the antennae around the iPhone 5, in the same positions as the iPhone 4S, are still steel. Or is the whole metal sub-assembly now aluminium?

iPhone 5: the new nano-SIM

As expected, the iPhone 5 is taking an even smaller SIM card than the already diminuitive micro-SIM. 

But that nano-SIM is still going to be an inconvenient speed bump to quick’n’easy switching until we’ve traded in or sliced up our current SIMs. And there's no guarantee a trimmed-down micro-SIM will fit, as the new nano-SIM is slightly thinner.

iPhone 5: Faster downloads, no time to use them?

Everything Everywhere obviously timed its announcement of impending LTE wireless in the UK with some precision. So the iPhone 5 with be able to hop onto EE’s embryonic 4G network. That creates a great three-way shoot-out between three of the key platforms’ poster-child handsets: that’s the Samsung Galaxy S III for Google, Nokia Lumia 920 for Microsoft, and now the iPhone 5 for Apple. Once again, battery life will be watched hawklike to see if more speed means less runtime. Apple is specifying eight hours life on LTE, the same as with 3G, another coup if it delivers.

All these questions we hope to answer in our full review of the Apple iPhone 5, which will be updated over the following days.

So the iPhone 5 really might be something more than a tall iPhone 4S with a new plug. The people may demand a revolution every upgrade season. But Apple may just have supplied what the people need, not what they say they want. And that’s a powerful evolution on the theme of iPhone.

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