Review: iPhone 5 not terribly innovative, but still a smart package

The iPhone 5, the latest iteration of Apple's popular smartphone, goes on sale in Canada on Sept. 21. Peter Nowak got an exclusive look at the iPhone 5 a couple of days before its wide release. While it's not a huge progression from the 4S, he says it is still an impressive device.

The iPhone 5 may be Apple’s most divisive gadget yet. Since it was unveiled last week, tech geeks have derided it as disappointing and lacking in innovation. Without any big new advances, it’s being seen as only an incremental improvement over the previous iPhone, the 4S.

Yet many analysts expect the new device to beat all kinds of sales records. Apple itself on Monday said pre-orders had topped two million in 24 hours, or double what the 4S did in the same amount of time last year.

Evidently, consumers don’t care whether the iPhone is innovative or iterative. In all likelihood, they’re going to make it a huge seller – and thus one of the year’s biggest gadgets – when it’s officially released on Sept. 21.

So, after spending nearly a week with the iPhone 5, how does it stack up?

The guts

The most noticeable change is its size and weight. The iPhone 5 adds an extra half inch to its screen size, bringing it to four inches diagonally, so it’s a little taller and more suitable for watching videos in proper widescreen format. It has the same width, though, so it’s still comfortable to use with one hand – and thumb.

The weight difference is very pronounced. At 112 grams, it’s 20 per cent lighter than the 4S, but when holding both at the same time, it’s easy to think the difference is even greater. The iPhone 5 is amazingly light and slightly thinner, too, mainly because its main shell is now aluminum, rather than a big chunk of glass.

Apple says its new A6 dual-core processor has twice the power of the previous A5. In benchmark tests using the PassMark app, that certainly appears to be true. The iPhone 5 does everything — from computations to 3D rendering to opening apps — faster than the 4S, in some cases at double the speed.

The iPhone 5 isn't a massive progression from the iPhone 4S, but it nonetheless has all the up-to-the-minute features you could want in a smartphone, says tech reviewer Peter Nowak. (Reuters )

The new device also boasts eight hours of web browsing time on its cellular connection, versus six on the 4S. The battery did indeed perform better in my tests, but it’s impossible to tell at this point how well it will hold up over time.

The engine

One of the big selling features is Long-Term Evolution (LTE) connectivity, currently being rolled out in Canada by Bell, Rogers and Telus. All three carriers, as well as their respective sub-brands (Virgin, Fido and Koodo), will be selling the iPhone 5 when it launches.

It’s still relatively early for LTE, so speeds are inconsistent. While the networks offer theoretical maximum downloads in excess of 100 megabits per second, Canadian carriers are promising speeds closer to the teens and twenties.

The results I saw in downtown Toronto varied greatly, ranging as low as two Mbps to as high as 22 Mbps. With each attempt, however, I also simultaneously tested the 4S and in almost every case, the iPhone 5 clocked considerably faster speeds.

The dashboard

The 4S is renowned for having one of the best – if not the best – cameras on the market (for a phone, of course). Its successor, which has improved image stabilization and better low-light processing, is the new king. The iPhone 5 takes better photos in both bright and low light, with sharper detail and colours. Photos and videos also look crisper on the new device’s screen, which has stronger colour saturation.

One of the best new photo capabilities in the updated iOS 6 operating system — also being made available for older iPhones — is panorama mode, which creates one long horizontal photo. It’s a nifty feature that other phones already have, but it’s fun nonetheless.

Pictures taken with the iPhone 5, right, have sharper detail and colours than those taken with the iPhone 4S, left. (Peter Nowak/CBC)

One downside to the taller screen is that existing apps are not yet formatted for it, so they float in the centre with black space around them. In the case of a typing-heavy app such as Twitter, it’s easy to misjudge where you’re supposed to tap – I kept missing the space bar with my thumb. It’s a problem that will persist until developers update their apps.

Location, location, location

In the case of maps, the iPhone 5 hits and misses. Since Google and Android are now its mortal enemies, Apple has ditched the Google’s map data in favour of GPS provider TomTom. Devices running iOS 6 will thus have Apple’s new Maps app, which isn’t as good as its Google-based predecessor.

The new app is functional and includes transit stops, but these are incomplete. While there are plenty of streetcar stops marked in Toronto, for example, some subway stations are inexplicably missing. Real-time traffic data, for Toronto at least, is also almost non-existent. It also doesn’t include Google’s popular Street View, so you can’t swoop down to take a pedestrian-level view of locations.

A spokesperson for Google says the company intends to make its mapping data available "regardless of device, browser, or operating system." If Apple allows it, Google is likely to release its own map app for iOS 6 and fight it out for supremacy. Consumers can only win in such a scenario.

Apple’s app is not without its appeal, though. The "flyover" feature, which renders buildings in photo-realistic three dimensions, is stunning and considerably better than Google’s own version. For Canada, the downtown cores of cities including Toronto, Montreal and Calgary have been rendered.

Future potential

One of the most potentially useful new features of iOS 6 is Passbook, a repository for tickets, coupons and vouchers. Businesses such as airlines, sports teams, retailers and movie theatres can design tickets and email them to iPhone users, who then store them in the Passbook app. The tickets have bar or QR codes for scanning and can be made location-aware. An airline boarding pass, for example, can pop up when it’s close to an airport and stay on the user’s lock screen until used.

There’s no way of knowing which Canadian businesses, if any, will jump on this potential, but it will be great if they do. Having such documents in one place is much more convenient than fishing around in your email inbox for them.

And oh yes, there’s Siri. The robotic voice assistant can now use location data for Canada, so it can tell you where the nearest Thai restaurant or movie theatre is, if asked.

The accessories

The iPhone 5 heralds the launch of Apple’s redesigned "EarPod" headphones. The new ear buds, which look like miniature hair dryers, do indeed provide richer sound than their predecessors.

The most controversial thing about the new iPhone, however, is its connector port, which is a fraction of the size of the one on existing iPhones, iPods and iPads. While the smaller plug, called "Lightning," is a welcome move, it requires an additional adapter to work with existing accessories such as audio docks and car chargers.

While the majority of cellphone makers are moving toward common mini-USB connectors, Apple still insists on going it alone. Forcing the purchase of new and unique chargers and accessories is bad for consumers and the environment.

The numbers game

There’s no two ways about it: the iPhone 5 isn’t cheap, especially in Canada. Unlocked versions without a monthly contract range from $699 to $899, depending on storage capacity, while signing onto a three-year deal brings the cost down to between $179 and $379.

It’s a small fortune for a phone that Apple is making big profits on. According to Reuters, the company is seeing margins of up to 58 per cent on iPhones, or double what it is making on iPads, which consumers generally don’t buy through wireless providers.

Carriers, who subsidize the phone with contracts, are therefore passing those charges on to consumers. Some have already moved monthly data limits downward on new plans in anticipation of the iPhone 5; while a $50 plan used to net 500 megabytes of usage, it now only gets 100 or 200 MB. However, some are allowing customers to stay on existing plans – it’s best to check before buying.

Canadian carriers are also unique in requiring three-year contracts, with two-year the norm elsewhere. This has spillover effects to other smartphone makers, who believe that if their devices are just as good, they can demand similar subsidies.

Lastly, the list price on all iPhone 5 models is $50 more than in the United States. A spokesperson for Apple didn’t comment on why.

The bottom line

Given the iPhone 5’s sales expectations, it’s clear that many consumers just don’t care about the pricing. It’s simply a must-have gadget.

Other manufacturers’ phones have newer, more innovative technologies in them – wireless charging or near-field communications that allow for data sharing by tapping phones together – but few if any inspire the obsessive devotion that Apple does.

Few have also been able to bundle everything together – music and video content, hardware, software and apps – into a simple and elegant total package. The iPhone 5 may not be terribly innovative, but it does deliver that package better than any previous Apple product, and better than just about any other smartphone.

One of the best new features on the iPhone 5 is the ability to take panoramic photos, like this one shot in Dundas Square in Toronto. (Peter Nowak/CBC)