Review: Apple’s iPhone 5s, iPhone 5c and iOS 7

Apple is never going to be a company that makes a phone for everybody. But with the iPhone 5s and 5c, Apple is finally offering new models for two different types of somebody.

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Apple's iPhone 5s (left) and iPhone 5c (right)

For all the ways in which the world of technology changes at a breakneck pace, there are plenty of respects in which it hardly seems to change at all. Here’s one: There’s never a shortage of people who are absolutely positive that Apple must do something right away — usually involving adding a feature or hitting a price point — to avoid being rendered irrelevant by the rest of the industry.

Here’s another: Apple seems to take active pleasure in ignoring those people. While it sometimes does stuff in the general ballpark of addressing the competitive issues at hand, it does so on its own timetable, and usually not in the exact fashion the chorus of experts insists is absolutely necessary.

Long ago, the theory emerged that Apple needed to offer not an iPhone but iPhones — multiple models, including a budget-priced version. The theory turned into a rumor that such a move was imminent. Instead, the company continued to introduce only one iPhone a year, and catered to the price conscious by keeping older models around at lower prices.

But now, years later, Apple is doing something in the general ballpark of addressing the competitive issues folks thought would force it to introduce multiple iPhones. And hey — whaddaya know! — it’s done it on its own timetable, and not in the exact fashion the chorus of experts insisted was absolutely necessary.

What it’s done, for the first time ever, is unveil two distinctly new phones at once: the iPhone 5s and the iPhone 5c. The 5s is a new iPhone of the traditional new-iPhone sort, improving on last year’s model at the same starting price of $199, with a two-year contract. The 5c fits into the lineup where last year’s model has traditionally sat, starting at $99. Both go on sale this Friday in the U.S. from all four major wireless carriers.

Let’s look at the software first, shall we?

Apple’s new mobile operating system, iOS 7, comes on both new iPhones as well as new iPads and iPod Touches, and is available as a free upgrade for recent-model iOS devices. It’s the most sweeping makeover Apple has ever given its mobile software, and is therefore at least as newsworthy as the hardware it runs on.

Until now, iOS has retained nearly the same look as the software Steve Jobs demoed onstage back in 2007 when he announced the original iPhone. It was full of textures, gradients and other fussy little details designed to mimic aspects of the real world. At times they went way, way over the top, like the shredder which sliced Passbook tickets to smithereens when you deleted them.

iOS 7 — the first version overseen by Apple’s minimalism-loving hardware guru Sir Jonathan Ive — deep-sixes nearly all of this fancy stuff. The clean new look is far more of a digital counterpart to the streamlined aesthetic of Ive’s hardware work: black text, simple colors and lots and lots of white space. Most of the pizzazz is provided through animation and transparency effects.

In iOS 7, just about everything which could look different than it does in iOS 6 does look different. It’s a little as if someone remodeled a house and replaced everything from the front door to the silverware.

Me, I wouldn’t have squawked myself if iOS had kept its old interface indefinitely: There are few features as valuable as familiarity. iOS 7 is just so plain different that it requires some adjustment, and you’ll need to train your thumb to perform a few gestures differently. (Getting to the Spotlight search feature, for instance, now involves dragging down on any home screen rather than swiping to the left on the first home screen.)

Life in iOS is different enough that for the first time, I’d recommend that owners of existing iOS devices wait to perform an update until they have some free time to acclimate themselves to the new experience. Still, I think that most people will like it once they’ve gotten comfortable.

Visually, iOS 7 is so overwhelmingly new that you might slip into the assumption that it’s short on substance. And as usual with iOS upgrades, operating-system junkies will have a list of features they’re sorry Apple didn’t add. (Me, I wish it allowed for more customization — such as the ability to pick something other than Safari as the default browser — and made the on-screen keyboard smarter.) Actually, though, there’s lots that’s new — none of it revolutionary, but much of it awfully handy. Such as:

  • Swipe up from the bottom, and you get a new feature called Control Center, reminiscent of similar features on Android phones. It lets you do stuff like adjust brightness, switch Airplane Mode on and off and control music that’s playing in the background. There’s even a built-in flashlight, which leverages the camera’s flash.
  • In iOS 6, it’s easy for the Notification Center to get so overloaded with alerts from your apps that it’s intimidating rather than useful. In iOS 7, new “Today” and “Missed” views grind down the volume of information into something you can actually parse with a quick glance.
  • Double-tapping on the home button lets you bop back to recently-used apps, as before. But now you see jumbo-sized thumbnails of their screens as well as icons. In a feature that Palm’s late, lamented WebOS originated and everyone else has been ripping off ever since, you can drag any one of these thumbnails off the edge of the screen to close the app in question.
  • The new Photos app makes it far easier to swiftly find photos you’ve taken in the past, even if you’ve got thousands of them. It lets you skim through tiny thumbnails, clusters pictures into groups intelligently geo-tagged with their location — such as “San Francisco — Financial District” — and allows you to jump directly to a particular year in the past.
  • The camera app now has Instagram-style filters built in, as well as a square-picture option that was presumably designed in part for Instagram fans (although I prefer to think of it as “Polaroid mode”).
  • Siri, Apple’s voice-controlled assistant, has learned a bunch of new tricks. Her voice now sounds less robotic, and if you’d prefer her to be a him, you can switch to an equally personable male voice. The service also calls on new sources of content, including Bing (sorry, Google fans) and Wikipedia, and is more likely to show you information directly rather than bumping you out to another app.

All of the third-party apps I tried with iOS 7 seemed to work fine: That’s a relief given that major operating-system upgrades often break existing software. But programs will retain their old-school interfaces until their developers update them to match iOS 7. (That’s true even of Apple’s own iPhoto, iMovie, Pages, Numbers and Keynote — five extremely useful apps, which now come for free on the 5s and other iOS devices.)

O.K., enough about iOS 7 — on to the iPhone 5s.

If you pay even glancing attention to Apple’s iPhone launches, you know what the company does in odd years such as 2013: It releases an iPhone which keeps the screen and industrial design of the previous model, but which packs a faster chip, a better camera and other technical improvements. So it shouldn’t shock you that the 5s is a dead-ringer for the iPhone 5, with the same 4″ display, but that it’s faster, takes better pictures and incorporates new technologies. (You do get a new color choice: gold, along with a silver version and a gray one that’s lighter in color than the iPhone 5 variant most people thought of as being just plain black.)

But here’s a surprise: The most significant new thing in the iPhone 5s may be a security feature. The phone’s home button now doubles as a fingerprint sensor, via a feature Apple calls Touch ID. It’s optional, but I can’t imagine anyone not wanting to use it, since it makes securing your phone and entering your iTunes password not only painless, but very nearly fun.

Training Touch ID to recognize your fingerprint or thumbprint involves tapping your digit on the sensor repeatedly, adjusting the angle and varying your grip as you go. (You can train the sensor to recognize up to five prints — I taught it about both of my thumbs — and they don’t have to all be on one person’s hands, which is handy if you want to give your spouse access to your phone.) The phone still makes you set up a four-digit passcode just in case, and it stores the fingerprint info on the device — not in the cloud — for security reasons.

Anyone who’s owned a laptop with a balky fingerprint scanner knows that making the technology work is no cakewalk. The 5s’s scanner works remarkably well. I’ve used it dozens of times so far, slapping my thumb against the home button without making any effort to be precise. Only once has it failed to identify my thumbprint on the first try. At the moment, it only lets you unlock your phone and sign into iTunes; other capabilities, such as the ability to log into password-protected websites, will presumably show up at some point.

The second most significant thing about the iPhone 5s is its camera. It’s got 8 megapixels, just like the iPhone 5 did. But if you’re not yet convinced that the quantity of megapixels doesn’t have much to do with the quality of photographs, the 5s is an education in why this is so true.

Apple increased the sensor size, the size of the pixels and the size of the aperture, all of which make for better images, especially in low lighting. It gave the camera a new kind of flash, with a white LED and an amber LED that can be used to handle a thousand different lighting environments, according to Apple. It added image stabilization to reduce blur from jittery hands and moving subjects. And if you hold down the shutter button, the camera will shoot off ten pictures in quick succession — then choose the one it thinks looks best.

There’s also a new slow-motion mode, which captures 120 frames a second. After you’ve saved a video, you drag around little dividers to specify which parts should be played at normal speed, and which should be in slo-mo. At first blush, I worried that Apple was succumbing to Samsungitis — a word I just made up to describe the tendency to stuff a phone’s camera with features that sound neat but aren’t all that useful in real life. Then I remembered that only weeks ago, I was playing with the Sphero robotic ball and wanted to shoot it in slo-mo. I did, but only by buying a third-party app that isn’t as simple to use as the 5s’s new feature.

We’re fortunate enough to live in an era of phones with great cameras. It’s possible that Nokia’s Lumia 1020, with its 41-megapixel sensor, is the best of the bunch in terms of raw technical specs, and it takes outstanding photos. But smartphone picture taking is about multiple things: the quality of the camera and flash, the available features and whether they add practical value or merely gimmicky clutter, and the speed with which you can go from deciding to take a photo to having taken one. The iPhone 5s is the smartphone I’d most want to have in my pocket if photo taking were important to me.

A couple of other improvements to the iPhone 5s involve really technical matters, and are somewhat theoretical until apps show up to take advantage of them. The phone uses Apple’s A7 chip; as usual, the company is boasting that it’s up to twice as fast as its predecessor. And as usual, even though the difference may be perceptible, it’s not like anyone disliked the previous iPhone on the grounds that it was too slow.

This time around, however, the new processor isn’t just faster. It’s also based on 64-bit technology rather than the 32-bit version used by other iPhones and all other smartphones. That lets it handle intensive number-crunching jobs more quickly, but also requires that apps be rewritten in 64-bit versions. Fancy 3D games such as Infinity Blade III, which was part of Apple’s media event, should benefit, as may heavy-duty video and photo programs.

But the 64-bit capability is less about immediate benefits to 5s owners and more about Apple kicking off the process of moving the whole iOS platform ahead. If the iPhone 8 or iPhone 9 run amazing apps we can’t even imagine right now, it’ll be in part because the iPhone 5s started the 64-bit transition.

The other improvement that’s a really technical matter may have more short-term impact. The 5s sports a new chip called the M7, devoted entirely to logging data from the gyroscope, accelerator and compass. It can then relay that data to apps, informing them about the phone’s movements — even whether you’re walking, running or riding in a car. And it can do that while the phone’s in your pocket while the main A7 chip stays powered down, preserving battery life. It opens up the possibility of Fitbit-like apps, but with the iPhone serving as the, well, bit. Nike is working on an M7-ready fitness app called Move; others will probably show up, too.

As usual when Apple announces an iPhone, there’s been a fair amount of moaning that the new model isn’t different enough from the old one, and will therefore leave the iPhone as just another smartphone. It’s true that the competition is fiercer than ever and that lots of rational people prefer Android — or even the scrappy underdog known as Windows Phone — to the Apple way of doing things.

And then there’s the matter of screen size. More than ever, it’s a bright line that runs between the countries of iPhoneland and Androidica. If you think that the 4″ display on the 5s (and 5c) is skimpy, that’s a perfectly reasonable stance, and you’ll be happier with an Android phone such as Samsung’s Galaxy S 4 or HTC’s One. The biggest argument for the iPhone’s size, diminutive by current standards, is that you can easily use the phone with one hand without fear of spraining your thumb.

But you know what? The iPhone 5 was already the most polished phone on the market, and the wares in the App Store still beat those in Android’s Google Play. (Even when there’s an Android version of something, which there usually is, it often shows up long after the iOS version is available.) When it comes to the things Apple cares deeply about — and which matter to plenty of smartphone users — the iPhone 5s is a meaningful advance on the iPhone 5, and comfortably ahead of any phone that doesn’t have a picture of a piece of fruit on its backside.

As for the iPhone 5c, it may be a whole new kind of iPhone, but it’s also a pretty simple one to understand.

It’s the technology from the iPhone 5 stuffed into a plastic shell — available in five vivid colors — with a few minor updates such as a better front-facing camera and a heftier battery. For all the ways in which the 5s has a technical edge over the 5c, there are only a couple of great big immediate benefits you give up by choosing the 5c:. It doesn’t have Touch ID, and it doesn’t have the improved camera with the better sensor, smart flash and slo-mo mode.

Jony Ive implicitly acknowledged that plastic doesn’t exactly have the world’s classiest reputation when he was moved, in a video Apple showed at its media event, to defend the 5c as “beautifully, unapologetically plastic.” And indeed, it’s a really nice plastic phone — on a par with Nokia’s plastic Lumia handsets, which have never felt chintzy, and much more solid-feeling than the iPhone 3G and 3GS, the only previous plastic iPhones. iOS 7 looks particularly nice on it — Apple even customizes the color scheme of the home screen to match the shade of the 5c you bought.

People always say that Apple products are designed in a way that makes the hardware and software seamless, but I’m not sure if that’s ever been as true as it is with the 5c.

Now, $99 (with a two-year contract) is not exactly a breakthrough price for a smartphone; there are plenty of Android models around with more features for the price. (You don’t even have to pay it to get an iPhone: Apple is keeping the two-year-old iPhone 4S around, with 8GB of storage, intending for it to be offered for free on contract.) And the $100 you’ll save if you choose the 5c over the 5s is peanuts compared to the cash you’ll turn over to your wireless carrier over the course of a two-year contract.

But I suspect that the iPhone 5c will find a large and enthusiastic audience of people who crave the iPhone’s simplicity and style, don’t care much about specs and are not members of the Bigger Screens Are Better Club. People like my brother-in-law, who’s never owned a smartphone until now, but who’s already pre-ordered the 5c.

Apple is never going to be a company that makes a phone for everybody. That’s fine, because everybody who isn’t smitten with its products has other worthy choices. But with the iPhone 5s and 5c, the company is finally offering new models for two different types of somebody. Just as important, anyone with an iPhone 4, 4S or 5 can upgrade to iOS 7, Apple’s freshest thinking on what a smartphone operating system should be in 2013 and beyond. Which means that the news isn’t just about two new iPhones. It’s about a whole new iPhone, period, and millions of people who thought they had old iPhones will be along for the ride.