The iPhone 5: the flimsy hardware takes the excitement out of the improved performance

Every year since 2008, the people at Parnasse, Orange France's highly-polished tech coaching team, arrange for me to be first in line for delivery of the new edition of the iPhone. This year was no exception-but as I walked out of their Champs-Elysées flagship store, first thing on Friday morning, with a shining new, black 64GB iPhone 5, the overall feeling was one of despondency, rather than thrill.

The screen: more apps on each page, hugely improved reading comfort, yet the phone still easily fits into a jean pocket

One of the things I'd most enjoyed about the iPhone, from the start, had been its size: the three-and-a-half-inch screen and 3:2 screen ratio seemed so ideal that the gradually rising press speculation about the advent of a wider screen that gathered momentum over the past year or so had made me rather uneasy. The last thing I wanted was a phone/tablet hybrid, effectively a device falling between two stools, in my pocket.

As it turns out, with the benefit of hindsight after using the device for a few days, the new screen is an unmitigated improvement: it fits just as easily into one's front jean pocket, if anything more easily than the thicker iPhone 4S. Most apps—Mail, Calendar, and generally any and all newspaper apps—make for much more comfortable reading in the new format. The extra row of apps is also a huge improvement: my home page now includes almost all the apps I use on a daily basis. The phone is also 20 per cent lighter than the 4S iteration, and this is very noticeable: I find it feels as if it almost flies out of my hand every time I use it.

Aesthetically, the iPhone 5 is an unmitigated downgrade

Aesthetically, on the other hand, I'm definitely unconvinced and wouldn't put the iPhone 5 in the same league as its predecessor: even in black, the new aluminium back doesn't have the simple elegance of plain glass. It also attracts a lot of dirt and is a pain to clean. I've already ordered a case from Beyzacases, which makes the smartest iPhone cases, to keep the device protected before it starts getting scratched: the fact is that aluminium is not as scratch-resistant as the stainless steel used in the iPhone 4 and 4S.

On the day I'm writing this post, my excellent friend Justin Blanton blogged to say he regretted having chosen a black iPhone 5 and actually took his back to the store and swapped it for a white one. I basically feel exactly the same, and although I won't bother Parnasse to swap mine, if you haven't got yours, I'd definitely go for white:

The aluminum on the black model is anodized/painted black pretty much everywhere but the front glass, and that layer of paint so easily scratches off that I shutter to think what these black models are going to look like after just a week of use by a "normal" person.

The white model is painted only on the mid-back portion of the body, and so the sides and chamfers, while still overly susceptible to nicks and scratches, don't advertise their warts as much because there isn't a glaring silver color sitting under a matte black coat.

The hardware is marginally improved in the new phone, though the coexistence of devices with different dock connectors is going to make our daily lives rather drearier

The transition to Lightning cables, too, however understandable given the thirty-pin connector used for the past nine years is technologically obsolete, is turning out to be a pain. I like docking my iPhone everywhere: on my desk at he office, and by my bed at night. Having to lie it flat feels like a regression, and Apple's apparent plan not to issue a dock for the device at all perplexing: I've backed ecoustik, a Kickstarter-funded third-party dock that actually looks quite attractive, but more will probably emerge in time. I ended up popping into the Apple Store on Saturday to buy a handful of $19 Lightning cables just so as to keep them plugged in alongside my existing 30-pin cables to charge my iPad and iPhone without needing adapters. The transition until all one's devices have been migrated to the new connecter is going to be a slow and painful one.

The new, A6 processor (Apple claims that the A6 doubles CPU and GPU performance relative to the A5) considerably improves performance: apps open faster and stability is noticeably better. Screen legibility and crispness, even when set to low levels, is quite a bit higher: Apple claims that the iPhone 5 has 44 per cent more color saturation, making photos, icons, videos, games, and other elements appear more vivid.

The camera isn't noticeably improved: Analysis by Chipworks reveals that the sensor is still provided by Sony and is similar—if not identical—to the Exmor R sensor in the iPhone 4S. Having said that, he slightly wider angle, and the improvements due to the dedicated image signal processor embedded in the iPhone 5's A6 processor, as well as improved software, mean the iPhone now takes superb photographs. I usually transfer them to my iPad for processing using Nik Software's excellent Snapseed processing app. The camera is also noticeably faster (Apple claims by forty per cent, but that may be slightly exaggerated). The larger camera button made possible by the bigger screen also makes photographs a lot easier to take. Low-light images are definitely much better than with the iPhone 4S: this is because Apple added a dynamic low-light shooting mode that automatically gets activated when light levels get below a certain threshold.

I can't comment on the LTE aspect of the iPhone 5 because France, where I now live, doesn't currently have a 4G-enabled carrier at all—but users in the US have been reporting download speeds of anything between 4Mbps and 10Mbps, which is pretty impressive. Battery life, however, as far as I can tell, is noticeably better, but I haven't tested it extensively.

iOS 6: Apple's mobile software has reached maturity

That leaves perhaps one final aspect: iOS6. The now-traditional concomitant release of new hardware and software always adds to the rather childish excitement one experiences at each new iPhone iteration. Most of my readers will by now have tried the new features out, so there's no point in attempting to make any sort of comprehensive review of them, particularly as with Apple's mobile OS now in the full bloom of maturity, the novelty comes in subtle improvements rater than bold strides. Still, a few of the new features do stand out.

I for one am not joining the ranks of the doomsayers regarding Apple's current Maps fiasco. If the choice had been mine, I wouldn't necessarily have embarked on it [i], but I suspect Apple will allot a massive amount of its rather substantial resources into righting the issue, which has quite justifiably earned it a fair amount of ridicule (when using the routing feature to take a metro trip in Paris on Saturday, Apple Maps gave my location as the South Atlantic Ocean). The eventual competition it will provide to Google will be a good thing in itself. And the addition of routing with the plug-in role devolved to third-party apps will, once it matures, provide a substantial improvement to user experience.

One other feature I'm a huge fan of is the new Do Not Disturb: it's subtly different from the Silent function connected to the physical switch on the side of the machine, and puts an end to the annoyance of being unnecessarily woken up for the pettiest of reasons, or for no reason at all, by anything from text messages to actual phone calls. You just decide once and for all what you want to sift out, and over what duration, and then just forget about it. The physical switch remains available for the distinct, but equally crucially necessary, function of stopping your phone from embarrassing you with noise during meetings, church services etc.

I've on the whole become quite addicted to Siri—I of course use the British, resolutely lower-middle-class male voice version, rather than the perkily cheerful American female most people reading this will be familiar with, but finds me quite impossible to understand. And while his rather drab accent is a tad irritating, as is Siri's reliance on a rather patchy server-side back end, I've grown used to using it for setting simple reminders (which then get pushed seamlessly to Things), appointments and wake-up calls. What people haven't quite realised, however, is that the list of things you can do with Siri has been significantly broadened with iOS 6. In particular, you can now send tweets with Siri, which I find quite enjoyable.

Another much overdue improvement that finally made it to iOS 6 is the App Store: you no longer get kicked out of the store when you complete an app purchase or update, leaving you free to carry it another operation—which, in practice, happens nearly every time. The store also no longer systematically prompts one for one's password—it still does so from time to time, and there's no way of disabling the feature, but it seems to only kick in when the store hasn't been in focus for a while.

All in all, whether you actually need to upgrade to the iPhone 5 from the iPhone 4S is pretty debatable: the improved hardware makes it worthwhile—but the flimsy materials arguably make it more of a downgrade than anything else. For me, they took much of the excitement out of an otherwise worthy set of small but useful improvements to the device.

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  1. This of course reminds one of Churchill's famous quip on hearing that Anthony Eden had decided to withdraw from Suez: 'I'm not sure that I would have dared to start it-but I certainly wouldn't have dared to stop it!' []