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Review: Apple's iPhone 5 running iOS 6

5 is for 5exy

The first change was to modernize and enhance the now two year old iPhone 4 design, giving it an expanded display without ruining its signature look, pocketable portability and one handed usability. Along with a larger screen, the new case design of iPhone 5 (below in black, under the shorter iPhone 4S) shaves of substantial heft in its thickness and weight while also packing advanced mobile capabilities and a much faster processor.

iPhone 5

When Apple released iPhone 4 in 2010, Steve Jobs mused, "you gotta see this in person. It is one of the most beautiful designs you've ever seen. This is beyond a doubt, the most precise thing and one of the most beautiful we've ever made. Glass on the front and rear, and steel running around. And the precision that this is made, it's beyond any consumer product we've ever seen. It's closest kin is like a beautiful old Leica camera. It's unheard of in consumer products today. Just gorgeous. And it's really thin."

iPhone 4 raised the bar for sharp looking smartphones, particularly given that the model it replaced was plastic and simple. iPhone 4 was precision and new, and established itself as the thinnest smartphone on the market (below, next to the now thinner iPhone 5). Over the last two years however, rivals have introduced even thinner phones, and at the same time, have worked to find other differentiating features.

iPhone 5

In particular, this has focused on 4G LTE data service. However, the first generation of chipsets to support LTE took up lots of space and ate up lots of battery. This shifted smartphones from their former direction of getting smaller (like the 2009 Palm Pixi) to, necessarily, increasingly larger designs that packed bigger and bigger displays in front of their bigger chipsets and bigger batteries.

While Apple had optioned a veritable lock on the global supply of affordable, high quality 9 inch panels for iPad, display makers had an abundance of screens too large for phones and small for iPads. So they started making larger phones and smaller tablets to see if they'd sell. These large screen phones and extra large "phablet" hybrid devices get a lot of attention in the press, but according to Google's own metrics, they aren't actually that popular.

Only 6.5 percent of active Android users have "large" screens (4 inches or larger). The majority have what Google classifies as "normal" sized screens, in "high" or "extra high" pixel density. That indicates, as AppleInsider first observed in last year's review, "The market for big screen phones is not really that significant, and that the devices people pick from the various Android offerings are very close to the limited selection of models Apple chooses to sell."

So rather than following the herd by releasing a big screen phone, Apple took on the task of making the iPhone 4 design more useful and more desirable, resulting in a taller (but not wider) screen and a new case design that could accommodate the chips and battery needed to accelerate and extend the iPhone brand without delivering a bulky, two handed compromise.

iPhone 5

5 is for 5trange

The result, for daily users of an iPhone 4/4S, is initially a weird one. The new iPhone 5 feels oddly light (it feels like an empty case compared to the iPhone 4S) and its tall screen seems downright weird. There's more room for things like menus (which in Music playback below, don't have to disappear anymore) and other screen content, and the user interface itself is stretched in some places.

The familiar Home screen is now a full row of icons taller, while in Safari, swiping between tabs shows you an extended preview of each loaded page. It takes a couple days for this unfamiliar new screen size to feel comfortable, but it's immediately useful. You can see more. It's not just a stretched version of the iPhone's old display; it's an extended edition of the Retina Display, with 176 additional lines of pixels.

The iPhone 5's taller Retina Display doesn't just show more invisible-to-the-eye pixels. It also uses a new design that incorporates the touchscreen into the display itself, resulting in a thinner package with fewer layers. The advantage is that the screen has better colors and clarity. It's readily apparent when holding it next to an iPhone 4S, which already had a beautiful screen. Colors on the iPhone 5 look brighter and more saturated, while those on iPhone 4S look a bit grey in contrast.

Once the odd novelty of the taller screen begins to wear off, you won't ever wish for a shorter screen that shows you less. Unlike typical big screen phones, you're not really sacrificing portability and usability just to get a bigger display. Apple has achieved a functional balance between offering more pixels and not making the device feel larger.

iPhone 5

The new iPhone 5 design feels pretty strange until you acclimate to its new taller outline and lighter heft, but once you do another strangle shift occurs: the iPhone 4/4S will begin looking old and bulky, like an iPod from ten years ago that seemed really cool at the time but now looks like it belongs in the Museum of Modern Art. The difference is that the iPhone 4 design isn't really a decade older; Apple's newest design just makes it seem that way.

5 is for 5maller

A big reason for iPhone 5 feeling like a decade-long generational leap over iPhone 4 is that the new design feels much lighter, thinner and crafted with a new level of precision. Its diamond polished edges that give it a subtle jeweled look that makes it feel like an expensive luxury gadget rather than the metal banded "old Leica" design of the previous two years of iPhones.

A new unibody design helps iPhone 5 achieve its new thinness, but credit is also due to Apple getting rid of the 30-pin Dock Connector that iPods and iOS devices have had since 2003. In its place, the company has introduced a new Lightning connector that is smaller, more physically robust and can be plugged in either direction.

iPhone 5

While having fewer pins, the new jack serves multiple purposes ranging from the charging/syncing of standard USB 2.0 to providing HDMI and VGA video output. The new connector is also designed for the future, with enough pins to conceptually support USB 3.0. Recall that the old 30-pin connector learned new tricks throughout its 9 years on the market, including the ability to output HDMI and VGA signals that the first iPods and Docks couldn't support.

Lightning isn't competition with Apple's new Thunderbolt, and isn't likely to find its way to Macs or other products like the Thunderbolt Display. Lightning isn't a replacement for USB, it's an enhancement to USB that give it a multi use jack capable of things USB can't do on its own (including video output).

Unlike Mini DisplayPort, it's also not a new alternative to HDMI or VGA. It's not really a new protocol or type of interface at all, but rather a new physical connection that can adapt as desired, replacing the need to cover iOS devices with a variety of ports. In that sense, it's exactly what the old 30-pin Dock Connector was, just shrunk down, streamlined and made easier to attach.

iPhone 5

Why now? The new Lightning port allows for much thinner designs, and Apple has already replaced many of the iPod/iPhone's connectivity needs with software. You don't really need a docked connection to sync; to buy or update your apps or music or videos or iBooks; or to deliver audio or video or pictures to your HDTV set. With WiFi sync and iCloud and AirPlay, the main reason for plugging in Lightning is to charge the battery.

The downside of having a new connector is that you'll need new cables. Apple supplies one in the box. You won't need new charging adapters, because it still uses (an includes) a regular USB power plug. If you have existing docks like an integrated clock radio or boom box device that sport a 30-pin iPod connector, you might need to get a new Apple-supplied 30pin-Lightning adapter for that. The general trend in the industry is toward wireless streaming, however, so you might want to jettison that old Dock along with the iPod or iPhone you'd been using it with.

The golden age of the 30-pin dock connector has waned, and thankfully, Apple plans to replace it on third party devices primarily with AirPlay rather than trying to make the world buy a bunch of new docks (and appliances with new dock connectors) in the Lightning flavor. The company has even said it has no plans to introduce a new Lightning dock.

iPhone 5

If you're thinking about getting upset by this new change, consider the mobile device world outside of Apple, where even the brands that have gotten rid of their proprietary connectors to standardize on small-sized USB connectors firstly don't have a standardized placement of the port enabling universal physical docking, secondly have either mini or micro versions of USB and, thirdly, need to separately provide a micro-HDMI port for video output (if supported). That means more cables covering less functionality, and the nature of your cables is likely to change every time a new phone comes out.

If you can't afford to buy some new $20 Lightning cables, you probably shouldn't be blowing $700 on a new smartphone. Wait around a year and buy somebody's old iPhone 5 at a pawn shop when iPhone 6 comes out.

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