Just because the new iPhone 5S comes in gold doesn't mean it's going to be “my precioouusssss!”
Apple's latest version of the popular smartphone may call out to many like the golden One Ring did for Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings,” but the fact is the new iPhone 5S is a good but not particularly stellar upgrade from the previous model.
Like every other year when the annual new iPhone comes out, the “S” model is only a modest improvement from the year before. It still has the same case, the same 4-inch screen, same mono speaker, and just one noticeable new feature.
I spent some time with the new model, and here are my impressions.
The biggest and most-talked-about addition to the iPhone 5S is a fingerprint scanner that is wisely placed on the phone's “home” button. Instead of unlocking your phone by inputting a four-digit code each time, you simply place your finger or thumb on the home button and it unlocks.
It's a brilliant idea for a phone, and most importantly, it works well. During the setup process, the phone asks you to place your thumb or finger on the button nearly a dozen times to train it to read your print. When it's done, it then can scan your thumb no matter what direction you place it on the button. You can train the phone to read up to five different fingerprints.
It's fast, too. You just hold the button for an extra second and it unlocks the phone. It never failed to work in my brief testing, and it never unlocked using someone else's finger.
One downside, however, is it doesn't let you unlock the phone from its sleep state with just one long press. Doing so instead calls up Siri, the voice-enabled assistant. You have to press it twice: once to get the phone out of sleep mode and again to unlock it. There should at least be an option to switch so one long press unlocks the phone.
The fingerprint sensor also works with iTunes when purchasing music, movies or an app in the App Store. Instead of inputting your password each time you make a purchase, you simply place your finger on the sensor. That's the real power of the fingerprint scanner — being able to use it for logins and passwords for sites and other e-commerce purchases. Once Apple allows third-party websites and services to use the fingerprint sensor, it will really be a useful tool.
Another big improvement to the iPhone 5S is in the camera. It's still the same 8-megapixels in resolution — after all, you realistically don't need more than that — but the camera sensor is much improved. The new sensor, coupled with a larger aperture, allows in more light so you can take better low-light photos. The pictures I took were noticeably clearer and detailed in lower light than the iPhone 5.
But it wasn't necessarily better than two other camera phones that excel with low-light photography — the HTC One and the Samsung Galaxy S4. The iPhone 5S now includes photo filters much like Instagram does, but there are not as many choices as some third-party apps or other smartphone cameras.
There also is now a better LED flash comprised of two bulbs — one that produces cool white light and another that flashes a warm amber color. Together, the flash bulbs can produce up to 1,000 variations in color temperature to more accurately reflect a dark scene. In my brief test of the flash, that seemed to be the case, but how often does someone really use a smartphone flash?
The most fun I had with the iPhone 5S' new camera was with its slow motion feature. It allows you to shoot 120 frames per second (digital SLRs only shoot slow motion at 60 fps) that looks flawless when played back. You also can pick which part of the video that plays back in slow motion, an incredible feat that makes it fun for action videos.
Perhaps the most noticeable improvement to the phone is in the software, a feature that is not exclusive to the iPhone 5S. The new version of the operating system, called iOS 7, is available for all newer iPhones, iPads and iPod touches, and it's big change in what iDevice owners are used to.
The icons are now flat, and the color scheme is brighter. There are some software improvements to the camera, including more features, such as square photos for Instagram and a burst mode that shoots 10 pictures per second then automatically picks the best picture in the group. That also worked well and seemed to find the best picture with the least blur and best framing.
I also like the way photos are now grouped in iOS 7. Instead of just one heap of pictures that you have to scroll endlessly through, it now groups them by “moments,” a combination of by day and place. That makes it much easier to find the photos you're looking for. You also can “scrub” through the photos with the long press of a finger to call up thumbnails of each photo.
Overall, the iPhone 5S is the best iPhone Apple has ever made. It's smooth, responsible, feels great in the hand, and the fingerprint sensor is a great addition that will really fulfill its potential once websites and services start using it.
But that doesn't answer the real pressing question. Instead, is it that much better than the iPhone 5 or other excellent smartphones out there such as the Samsung Galaxy S4 or HTC One?
Not really. If you own an iPhone 5, there aren't enough new features or upgrades to justify getting the new phone. If you like the bigger screens of other Android phones that Apple still has not gone to, then stick with those.
If history repeats itself, then next year's iPhone 6 will be the real upgrade.