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Review: Apple's iPhone 5 running iOS 6

iPhone 5 adds a larger screen to a much lighter, thinner case, boasts dramatically faster 4G LTE mobile service, improves its cameras and is much faster in both graphics and core performance.

Last year, AppleInsider described Apple's iPhone 4S as a "refreshed iPhone 4" with three major features: a much faster processor, a new Siri voice assistant, and iOS 5 (which was not unique to the iPhone 4S). This year, iPhone 5 has leaped ahead in a wide variety of important respects, but its iOS 6 software is again available, for free, to upgrade the functionality of the iPhone 3GS, 4, 4S and newer models of the iPod touch and iPad.

If you're tempted to hang on to your existing smartphone, consider the benefits of upgrading to iPhone 5 (below in black, shown next to iPhone 4S). Because this year, Apple didn't just give the iPhone a minor refresh upgrade with a primary cool new feature. It's a dramatically better phone in nearly every respect.

iPhone 5

What's new in iPhone 5 hardware

So much is new in iPhone 5 that It may be easier to list the things that haven't changed. It's still 2.31 inches wide, and it's still the same price in the same three 16/32/64MB capacities. The physical buttons are the same, and it still has the same talk time and audio/video payback battery life ratings. Almost everything else has been updated, in many cases significantly.

iPhone 5

It's more than twice as fast, particularly in graphics. It has a larger 4-inch tall screen with a 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio. It's much lighter and thinner. It supports LTE in the limited areas that have launched it internationally, as well as the more widespread DC-HSPA that's similarly speedy for areas that lack LTE. It has better cameras, better WiFi and better battery life when browsing data, despite introducing LTE and dual band WiFi and using the faster A6 application processor.

iPhone 5 feature comparison

Late 2010 iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, iPhone 4S feature comparison

Apple's iPhone 5 updates virtually everything. However, it does so with a steady hand, cautious against changing the formula that has turned Apple from a freshman phone vendor in 2007 to the established global leader that everyone else in the mobile business is aiming to catch, just five years later.

Addressing the weak spots

Every generation of new iPhone (and its iOS) has appeared to be aimed at erasing the top three (and only the top three) complaints of the previous model, changes which have also happened to be the top three advantages held by competing products.

The second-generation iPhone 3G added 3G mobile service, GPS and lowered the price dramatically to match other smartphones, while iOS 2.0 added third party apps, enterprise features and push messaging, making the iPhone competitive with Palm OS, Symbian, BlackBerry and Windows Mobile.

The third-generation iPhone 3GS added more speed, RAM and a better camera capable of video, while iOS 3.0 added a sophisticated text selection method for copy/paste, MMS and tethering, Find My Phone and expanded Bluetooth support, again matching the top unique features that other mobile platforms and their devices held over the iPhone.

The fourth-generation iPhone 4 provided a much improved Retina Display, a faster processor, and a much better set of cameras with flash, while iOS 4.0 added Multtasking, FaceTime and Spotlight search, again bringing Apple's smartphone into parity with the formerly unique features of webOS and Android competitors.

Last year, Apple decided that the three weakest spots of iPhone 4 were its overall speed, camera and Voice Command. Apple subsequently released iPhone 4S with the same multicore A5 processor as iPad 2, a significantly better camera, and an entirely new voice interface in Siri, complete with dictation.

In software, Apple identified iOS 4's weakest spots as being its MobileMe cloud services, its forced attachment to iTunes and its modal notifications system, and fixed all three as the primary new features in iOS 5.

The primary deficiencies in iPhone 4S, compared to its nearest competitors, would have to be speed, display size and support for 4G LTE networks. In software, the weakest links in iOS 5 seemed to be social connectivity, maps/navigation, and electronic purchasing features. Here's what Apple has done to address these in iPhone 5 and its iOS 6.

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