Back to Mobile View

Skip to Content

The TUAW iPhone 5s Review: Two writers, two phones, one review

For the first time since the original iPhone was replaced by the iPhone 3G, we have a new iPhone (or in this case, a pair of new iPhones) taking the place of the previous generation rather than just acting as an upgrade. So, because of this unique circumstance -- and because we had multiple TUAW writers picking up the iPhone 5s on launch day -- we decided to do a special combo review, featuring the opinions of both Megan Lavey-Heaton (whose last phone was the iPhone 4s) and me, Mike Wehner (who is switching over from the iPhone 5). Enjoy!

Megan: I never felt like my iPhone 4S was a shabby phone, even when the iPhone 5 was introduced. For the first time since I purchased an original iPhone, I was satisfied to wait out my two-year contract. Even at the very end, just before I handed my 4S over to the Apple Store employee to recycle, I tweeted that it was a good phone.

Mike: To be completely honest, I didn't need a new phone. I was perfectly happy with my iPhone 5 -- aside from the fact that I wanted a bit more storage than the measly 16GB model that was the last available at my local AT&T on launch day -- and picking up the 5s was done partly out of curiosity and partly because I'm admittedly a sucker for the most powerful smartphone on the market. As I was already satisfied with the iPhone 5, I assumed the 5s wouldn't actually change the way I used my phone, but it turns out I was mistaken.

Immediate impressions

Megan: Damn, this phone is light. I was terrified of dropping the thing or accidentally flinging it across the room. It took me about a day not to miss the solid heft of the iPhone 4S in my hand.

Second impression: This phone is so fast that it catches you off-guard, especially if you're coming from a 4S or earlier. It's like the first time you used a SSD MacBook Air after using traditional MacBooks. John Gruber compares using the 5s to using the MacBook Pros of five years ago, and it's a great comparison. The performance is just that good.

In the past, I'd call up the Mail client and wait a minute or for the 100 or so emails that pop in on a weekday morning -- at least long enough for me to have a sip of coffee. Now, I barely reach for my mug, and my email is waiting for me. Apps that tended to take own sweet their own time to load, such as Tumblr, now do so immediately.

The iPhone 5s is also my first LTE phone, and I actually had to double-check to make sure that it was switching over to the WiFi network when I went to work. The phone speeds were so fast that I didn't realize I wasn't on WiFi for a bit.

Mike: The AT&T rep handed me the iPhone 5s while I was already holding my iPhone 5, and it felt like I was being handed a doppleganger of my old device. That's a long-winded way of saying that they look almost identical.

The only difference between the two is the slightly recessed Home button on the 5s, which now features chamfered edges and a flatter center surface. To someone who didn't touch the "old" home button a hundred times each day, that might not seem like a very big change, but for the iPhone faithful it's actually a noticeable tweak. The new Home button seems to click louder and with more authority than the old one, which is actually a welcome alteration. That said, iPhone 5 owners won't be able to tell a difference in weight or dimensions, because there is none.

Almost immediately upon actually playing with the device I noticed how speedy it is, even compared to my year-old iPhone 5. The thing is blindingly quick with just about everything. Icons respond immediately to touch and in apps or games where you need to drag items around the screen, there is no latency whatsoever.

I know you're thinking "But my current iPhone doesn't have latency to begin with!" And I understand, because that's what I thought as well, but as soon as I had a few minutes with the 5s I realized how wrong I was. Is this a game-changer? Of course not, but it's nice to be able to notice a measurable upgrade in power right from the very beginning.

This hasn't just brought an occasional smile to my face when messing around with menus, but it has actually made certain iPhone tasks less burdensome, and even enjoyable. For example, using Safari to browse the web while on the go was always a hassle. It's always been too slow and too unresponsive to be truly useful when I'm in a hurry. With the iPhone 5s and iOS 7's Safari, it's practically a treat. Checking comments on a TUAW story (which is something I frequently do when I'm away from my desk) was a two-minute task on my iPhone 5, but I can now whip through several stories in as much time as it took me to navigate to a single article on my old phone.

Touch ID

Megan: The scanner works as advertised. I programmed my thumb and off I went. It's extremely convenient. The only time the scanner hasn't worked for me was when I accidentally tried to unlock it with the wrong finger or when I hit the home button with the side of my thumb (an area that wasn't originally mapped). There's no time delay when using the Touch ID. It worked just as fast, if not a bit faster, than swiping and keying in a passcode. If anything, it's better because I don't have to stop and key in said passcode. But, I do like having that backup and have used it.

If anything was a hassle about Touch ID, it was my fault, not the software's. Thanks to muscle memory, I'd automatically swipe to unlock the phone instead of using Touch ID. Once the passcode screen appeared, I remembered to use my finger. It's getting better, but it'll take a few days to undo six years of muscle memory.

Touch ID is also used when you receive a notification on your lock screen. Touch the home button, and once the phone is turned on, you're sent to the location of the last notification to address it. I really wish you could just swipe to dismiss a notification from the lock screen, but that's an issue with iOS more than Touch ID.

Mike: You set up the Touch ID to recognize one or more of your prints, and then rest your finger on the home button in order to unlock your device without using a passcode. It's extremely fast, and you can almost always unlock your phone with your finger quicker than you would by typing in a code. Simply put, I was shocked by how well it worked.

Touch ID isn't sexy. At least it's not sexy in the way that "fingerprint scanner" makes it sound, and that's perfectly fine. When you place your finger on the sensor it doesn't say "scanning fingerprint" or anything of that nature, it just unlocks the device and takes you to the home screen. In fact, even if you mess up (like use a finger that's not set up for Touch ID) it doesn't even explicitly state that the print is wrong, it just says "Try Again." It's not flashy, it just works.

Camera

Megan: I was expecting a better camera when I moved up from the 4S, but I was blown away by how great the camera is. One of the first pictures I took was of the fountain outside work. It was my first time using burst mode and using the digital zoom that wasn't available on the 4S. The results were outstanding. The iPhone automatically determined which of the eight shots I took was the best, but it gives you a chance to choose another. With that, and subsequent tests of burst mode, the software did choose the best of the images. Burst mode happens so fast though that you suddenly have 8-10 shots taken before you realize it. Word to the wise: Make sure to clear your iPhone camera roll frequently if this happens, otherwise you'll run out of space quickly.

I'm not a fan of digital zoom, but I am impressed with the results from the 5s. As you can see in the photo above, the a lot of detail is captured in the water spray. It only has that soft focus-feel to a digital zoom shot along the edge of the building in the background, and the photo isn't pixelated as I've come to expect from most digital zooms. I might actually use it now, at least some of the time.

Likewise, the True Tone flash also lives up to its name. As you can see from the image above, the left was taken without a flash and the right with the flash on. The True Tone flash makes the cat's fur and my socks come out at the right colors without having to do any post-processing. But the low-light shot without the flash is equally as good, and I'm happy with both. I'm not a fan of using the flash, but if I need a fill light, I'll be more comfortable using this flash.

I tested the slo-mo video while my husband washed dishes, and it's incredibly easy to use. Shoot the video, and in post-processing, you can adjust the sliders to slow down certain segments of the video. I wish you could slow down more than one segment of the video.

Engadget observed that the slo-mo doesn't stick when you transfer the video to your computer, but it does if you upload to YouTube. I tried editing the video in iMovie on the iPhone, and likewise, the slo-mo doesn't stick there either or when I tried uploading to Facebook through the app. However, if I uploaded to Facebook by sharing from Photos, it retained the slo-mo. So, if you want to share those videos to YouTube, Facebook or Vimeo, you'll have to do it through Photos, which is a bit annoying.

Mike: I'm not a huge camera snob, so I've been reasonably satisfied with just about every iPhone camera since the 4s. I take photos of the most obnoxious things -- like my cats, for example -- so if I'm not at some sort of tech event, where I'd be taking my DSLR anyway, just about anything will satisfy me. Now, with that said, the iPhone 5s camera is quite a drastic upgrade from the iPhone 5 in ways I hadn't expected, even considering how much Apple talked them up.

Firstly, the lens works much better in low light, which is a problem that plagues just about every smartphone camera on the market. The camera on the iPhone 5s isn't perfect in this regard, but it's definitely a step up. Along with the addition of a dual-tone LED flash, taking photos in sketchy lighting is now a much more pleasurable affair.

But what really impressed me about the new camera is the slow-mo 120fps video mode. I've only used it on a handful of things so far, but I can already tell I'm going to have a lot of fun with this. I'm a huge sucker for slow-mo videos, and at 120fps, the videos the 5s can produce are actually pretty stellar. You can select the section of the video you want to slow to a crawl and save clips to YouTube (or Vimeo or Facebook), which I've already done enough to annoy some Facebook friends.

Battery Life

Megan: I charged the phone to 100% on Friday night and by Sunday afternoon, it had fallen to 20%. This included a couple hours of playing Chillingo's Order Up to Go, a game that normally chewed through my iPhone 4S battery. In the same amount of time it took for the 4S to go from fully charged to gasping for battery, the 5s only used 10% of its battery. So far, this matches TechCrunch's observation of battery use. But, to get the best gauge on it, though, I need to take the phone through a normal work week.

Mike: I started to get the feeling that my iPhone 5's battery life was beginning to decline, as many of them tend to after 12 months of practically non-stop use (I'm really, really hard on my mobile batteries). But even if it was, I don't think my iPhone 5, when new, had a battery that matches the 5s. Under normal use, the phone loses less than half its charge in a day's time, but under my own torture test I was able to drain it in 12 hours of gaming, constant fiddling, downloading, AirDropping, and so on.

If you've been satisfied with the battery life stats of iPhones in the past, you should be perfectly content with the iPhone 5s.

Verdict

Megan: If you're looking to upgrade from a 5, unless you're itching for the better camera or Touch ID, stick with the phone you have. While the new features are fantastic, it's not enough to prematurely upgrade your phone unless you have the cash to spare. If you have a 4S or earlier, then absolutely go for the 5s.

Mike: As a former iPhone 5 owner, I'm happy I made the upgrade simply for the additional power the iPhone 5s affords me. However, unless you're an avid player of the latest iOS games or absolutely can't wait an extra few seconds for a web page or email to render, you should be satisfied where you currently are. Touch ID is fancy and the new camera has some pretty cool new tricks, but these alone won't be enough to sway most current iPhone owners on their own.

If you have an iPhone 4s or later, I'd recommend an upgrade just for the sake of being able to use the latest apps (since the two-year mark is where some developers begin to ignore the older phones and focus only on the latest models). Overall, it's a fantastic phone, but when compared to the iPhone 5, it is indeed an incremental upgrade.

© 2014 AOL Inc. All Rights Reserved.