Welcome to the bifurcated future of Apple smartphones: aluminum vs. polycarbonate, gilded vs. candy-colored, fingerprint scanner vs. fingerprint magnet, 64 bit vs. 32 bit, high end vs. low end, expensive vs. slightly less expensive, iPhone 5S vs. iPhone 5C. Post–Steve Jobs Apple clearly recognizes the one-size-fits-all approach is a losing proposition; add the company’s perpetuation of its now free (with contract) iPhone 4S to the parade, and you’ve got the Cupertino trifecta.
Or do you? The iPhone 5C, basically an iPhone 5 wrapped in colorized plastic, while cheaper when viewed as a core iPhone, isn’t as budget-priced as most predicted (predicted being punditry’s euphemism for wishfully projected). And the 3.5-inch (8.9 cm) iPhone 4S, while still competent in the performance department, looks pretty squeezed in 2013 contrasted with the 4-in. (10.2 cm) iPhone 5 family and embiggened phones from competitors like HTC and Samsung.
Which leaves the souped-up iPhone 5S. Time to spring for one? Here’s the pros angle:
Your contract’s up.
Bullet point, meet Captain Obvious. If you’re due for an upgrade, you can get your foot in the door with a 16-GB iPhone 5S for just $199, same as I did when I bought my 16-GB iPhone 5 a year ago. If you’re thinking the $99 16-GB iPhone 5C looks tastier, price-wise, think again — the iPhone 5S’s feature and performance leaps are probably worth at least the $100 gulf. Were I off contract, I’d buy the iPhone 5S in a heartbeat, no ifs, ands or buts.
You want to play the most graphically advanced games as smoothly as possible.
The A7 processor beating at the core of Apple’s iPhone 5S sounds like a mobile beast. According to Apple, it’s up to twice as fast as the already peppy A6 processor found in the iPhone 5 and utilizes over a billion transistors (without getting any bigger). I’d just be guessing about Infinity Blade III’s performance iPhone to iPhone, since no one’s benchmarked it yet, but doubtless more advanced games are on the way, and if you plan to hold on to the 5S for a full two-year contract cycle, you won’t be as far behind the curve if you choose to skip the iPhone 6.
You need a better low-light camera.
This one’s a stretch, because the physical improvements are more like tweaks, but for optics wonks, the iPhone 5S’s iSight camera (rear facing) is slightly larger than the iPhone 5’s, its f-number dropping from f/2.4 to f/2.2 (lower is better), which basically means it’ll outperform the iPhone 5 in low-light situations. It’ll also do auto image stabilization, allowing you to take multiple photos at once and combine the sharpest parts of each. It has a more nuanced flash, and you can access a new burst mode (hold the shutter to snap up to 10 frames per second) or use a SloMo camera app that lets you shoot video at up to 120 frames per second at 720p.
You desperately want a gold (or silver, or — uh — “space gray”) iPhone.
Hey, some people still buy jewelry, so I guess having an iPhone in bling colors is important for someone out there.
And now, the dimmer view:
You already own an iPhone 5.
This one’s a rule of thumb: never buy the phone that comes after the one you last bought. If you have an iPhone 5, the iPhone 5C is pointless, while the iPhone 5S is to your phone what the iPhone 4S was to the iPhone 4. The faster processor, the better low-light camera, the fingerprint scanner — all modest improvements, not must-haves like a leap to AMOLED-screen tech might be, or a width bump to hit a 5-in. (12.7 cm) diagonal.
Unless you’re carelessly wealthy, in other words, there aren’t enough reasons — especially if you’re on contract, which you probably are, since the iPhone 5’s only been with us since September 2012 — to make the incremental switch.
64 bit is meaningless right now.
People still conflate memory address and data-path widths with metrics like processor speed, seeing the bigger numbers and assuming they mean faster in terms of raw integer or floating-point performance. I blame the Nintendo 64, sporting a number mostly designed to p.r.-hassle Sony’s 32-bit PlayStation and Sega’s dual 32-bit processor Saturn.
A 64-bit processor offers significant benefits if you want to address more memory, but applications have to be written to take advantage of its architecture. Don’t fall for the marketing hype: the A7 processor’s 64-bit-ness is about future-proofing, which is an argument for waiting and giving developers a chance to catch up.
Battery life’s probably no better.
All Apple’s said about the iPhone 5S’s battery life so far is that the A7 processor delivers more without draining the lithium-ion pond any faster. Translation: battery life’s probably about the same as the iPhone 5’s.
Secure fingerprint scanners aren’t necessarily secure.
When I was with a Fortune 500 transportation company in the early 2000s (and post-9/11), I worked with a security team looking into biometric authentication tools (consumer-grade fingerprint-scanning technology has been around for over a decade in consumer tech — it’s hardly as “innovative” as Apple’s Phil Schiller suggests). When I left in 2004, the company was still looking for something secure enough. As security analyst Bruce Schneier aptly puts it in an op-ed for Wired, “Your fingerprint isn’t a secret; you leave it everywhere you touch.”
I’m not saying a fingerprint scanner on a smartphone can’t be interesting or cool or a smidgen more convenient (or safer while driving) for authentication than tapping out a pass code, but don’t kid yourself: fingerprint scanners are eminently hackable, and buying an iPhone 5S for this feature alone, mistaking it for Batman- or James Bond–caliber tech, is a bad idea.
Your contract isn’t up.
Have $649, $749 or $849 burning a hole in your pocket to pay the out-of-contract full price for the 16-GB, 32-GB or 64-GB iPhone 5S respectively? Me neither.