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In depth review: Apple's iPhone 5s running iOS 7

The new iPhone 5s positions Apple's flagship iPhone as a "forward thinking" high end luxury device priced the same as the model it replaces. It differentiates itself as a smartphone with an advanced new 64-bit processor architecture that powers a novel Touch ID fingerprint sensor and easy-to-use new camera features.

iPhone 5s

iPhone 5s delivers four major enhancements over Apple's bestselling iPhone 5 (which was already both the world's top selling iPhone and top selling smartphone): the new Touch ID for security and convenience; new camera-related features in hardware and software; an advanced new multiple-processors architecture that combines the speedy new A7 and background-task efficient M7; and new radio baseband components providing broader LTE carrier coverage and compatibility.

It's a pretty significant update. Below, new features compared to iPhone 5 are highlighted in red. In parallel, the new iPhone 5s repackages the previous model with a larger battery (sporting 2 hours of additional 3G talk time, up to two more hours of LTE data and 25 more hours of standby) and the same expanded LTE carrier coverage and compatibility features of iPhone 5s, for $100 less.

To help account for its beefier processors, iPhone 5s gets a larger battery, weighing in at 5.96 Watt hours. At 3.8 Volts, that appears to offer 1570 milliamp hours, compared to the previous iPhone 5 battery which was 5.45 Wh or 1440 mAh. It appears to easily outlast an iPhone 5, despite packing a larger processor and faster processing units.

iPhone 5s, 5c features

What's new, #1: Touch ID

The most prominent external change is the new Touch ID fingerprint sensor. The Home button is now circled by a slightly inward-sloping metal ring (there to sense your finger's presence without a press) in the same finish color as the chamfered sides of the device (in Silver, Gold or Space Grey).

Rather than being slightly concave as previous iPhone Home buttons, the new sapphire Home button disc within the ring is placidly flat. Because the ring's edge lies perfectly flush with the front surface of the device and the button within is slightly recessed, it feels virtually identical to previous Home buttons.

The mechanical "click" action of the button feels the same, too, although its flat surface has a slightly nicer contact feel when depressed, similar to a high quality keyboard key. There's a slight optical illusion that makes the new Home button look smaller on the face of the phone, thanks to the color-accented metallic ring calling prominent attention to the button's periphery.

Touch ID

This results in a juxtaposition of Touch ID being both readily apparent and, essentially, invisible at the same time. Apple's software implementation of Touch ID is also intentionally invisible.

As Apple's software guru Craig Federighi noted in describing the feature to USA Today, there's no movie-style depiction of "scanning… authenticated!" with animations, buzzing or flashing lights for feedback. It just works: touch, unlock.

How Touch ID works

AppleInsider began reporting the potential functionality of AuthenTech's next-generation capacitative fingerprint sensor over a year ago as Apple urgently acquired the company and its advanced technology portfolio.

Setting up a new fingerprint is simple, as demonstrated last week in the hands on video of the process. The process seems to consistently work reliably, if you follow the instructions during setup.

I wasn't able to trigger any false positives to bypass the system, and false negatives seemed to be a result of focusing the setup on one part of your finger (the main pad, for example), then trying to unlock with just the tip.

If you get a "try again" rejection and correctly authenticate on the next touch, it learns from the process and enhances to your fingerprint profile, making successful recognitions progressively better. If you fail to login with a fingerprint five times in a row, it stops letting you try and insists that you enter the passcode.

Touch ID & security

All of the test scans I set up involving different users and different fingers were consistently accurate. This included fingers with scars and imperfections from healing wounds, of which I have plenty to test against. Touch ID is not a beta gimmick feature, it just works.

I was also able to get the system to recognize prints from a specific area on my palm, and toe prints also reportedly work, but I could not setup my nose, which some cold weather folks might like in the winter. Seems we don't have enough ridges and valleys on our faces for the system to identify. You can successfully configure a certain other appendage, but can't actually log in with him, just in case you were wondering about all of your available options.

A described bypass process involving lifting a user's print with a very high resolution scan and creating a 3D model fingerprint also requires some expert photo enhancement and cleanup of the fingerprint image, printing a transparency and then creating an offset print in latex. In ideal conditions, this lab process would appear to take hours. It's certainly not a simple hack, and requires a very high quality image of a known, specific print. Anyone attempting to use it would also only have five tries to get it right before locking out additional attempts. Powering off the device, or waiting more than 48 hours between Touch ID logins, also triggers a mandatory passcode login.

I attempted to create a simple wax print of a configured finger, but while I could craft a wax layer with a clearly discernible print, the system refused to even recognize it as an attempt, let along pass it as a match. In trying to spoof the system, it becomes clear how difficult of a task it actually is to try. Touch ID has not exactly been "hacked wide open," even if experts ostensibly may be able to fool it in the lab (if they first obtain a high resolution image of a configured print).

The limited value of such an expensive attack on Touch ID also limits the likelihood of it ever being attempted in the real world. On top of the basic time constraints, anyone who has their iPhone stolen can remote lock ("Lost Mode" in iCloud's Find My iPhone) or wipe the device. Once locked, the device no longer allows a fingerprint login attempt. If you go all the way to wiping it, the full disk encryption of the device is wiped.

iCloud Lost Mode

Using a fingerprint to unlock the device is equivalent to assigning a very complex password you don't have to call to mind to use. When you configure a new fingerprint, unique information about your print is stored in an encrypted "Secure Enclave" in the A7 Application Processor.

This takes advantage (apparently) of ARM's TrustZone architecture for secure data storage that is kept strictly separate from the general computing environment. This means that a rogue app you install by mistake can't access the data. It's also not stored or backed up to the network, so there's no potential for a snooping "man in the middle" attack.

Speaking to BusinessWeek, Federighi said of the Secure Enclave, "the main processor—no matter if you took ownership of the whole device and ran whatever code you wanted on the main processor—could not get that fingerprint out of there. Literally, the physical lines of communication in and out of the chip would not permit that ever to escape."

What Touch ID does

iOS 7 currently only exposes two features for the Touch ID sensor: Passcode Unlock and iTunes & App Store purchasing. This has allowed the company to focus entirely on getting the initial experience right, rather than unleashing a confusing blizzard of half baked feature concepts, or erring in other ways that, as Federighi added, "would be worse than never having done the feature at all."

In practice, being able to log in with a finger press is both a quick convenience and an intuitive mental simplification over having to manually type in a passcode, the same as having a proximity key that lets you get in and start your car without dealing with physical keys. This Touch ID convenience makes it much more likely that you'll use a passcode, and set your phone to lock immediately. Logging in with a finger touch is essentially just as fast as unlocking the phone without a passcode set

Initially, it felt a little foreign to touch the sensor to login. But after a day or two, it was strange to go back to an iPhone that required typing in its passcode. Apple says half of its users aren't using a passcode at all, and it's likely that even many of those who do, opt to set a delay period so they don't have to type it in every time they wake their device. With Touch ID, it's not a problem to have your phone locked all the time. Logging in with a finger touch is essentially just as fast as unlocking the phone without a passcode set.

While intrepid tech reporters have been frantically searching for evidence to prove their hunch that this is all just security theater that actually puts users at great risk for being violently maimed by thieves and can likely be worked around by the NSA's supercomputers or a lab of imaging experts, the reality is that the alternative is to either not use a PIN, or to rely on a simple 4 digit number that is quite easy to guess, or to configure a more secure passcode that will require an unreasonable effort to type in every time you wake your phone.

Apple's Touch ID certainly isn't designed to make your iPhone 5s impenetrable to spy agencies with billion budgets trying to stop you from amassing WMDs. But the reality is that Touch ID is more accurate, faster and more secure than a simple passcode, or the alternatives on the market: the easy-to-eavesdrop 'swipe to unlock' gesture used by Google's Android, or its gimmicky Face Unlock experiment. The latter provides a great example of how being first to market in a category (such as biometrics) is not better than being first to market with a great product.

Apple hasn't just beaten Samsung to market with workable fingerprint login as a feature, but it's made it known that Touch ID enhances security and is designed to deliver a great product, rather than being an invasive spyware tool designed to collect information about users and what they do, as Samsung demonstrated when it gave away a "free" music app in Google Play to its Galaxy customers. Who could trust Samsung or Google with their fingerprints after such shenanigans?

iPhone 5s

Using Touch ID with Activation Lock

Further enhancing the Passcode Unlock functionally of Touch ID is iOS 7's new Activation Lock capability, a new feature that activates automatically when you configure a device with a free iCloud account and turn on "Find my iPhone."

Activation Lock appears to link the device's activation process with its firmware ID and your iCloud account, so that if your device is stolen, a thief can't simply wipe it for quick and easy resale. Many stolen phones are collected for batch resale overseas, making U.S. carriers' blacklisting of stolen device IMEI numbers ineffective at addressing the problem. Apple's solution involves something it has that the Android platform does not: a centralized activation process.

The security afforded by Activation Lock is therefore similar to carrying a credit card instead of large amounts of cash. Crooks can still hold you up at gunpoint, but they can't be guaranteed a significant, quick and dirty payoff. Activation Lock an attack on criminal motive.

Effective security isn't a matter of building impenetrable systems, but rather of making successful attacks too expensive or difficult, while reducing the potential payoff to the point where the crime is simply not cost effective anymore. Activation Lock takes the current assumption that burgled or snatched iPhones can be easily wiped and resold for around $500 or more and throws a wrench into that business plan.

Apple has made Activation Lock available to every iPhone back to the 2010 iPhone 4 via the free iOS 7 update, which in just days has converted what appears to be around half of the entire installed base. Using Activation Lock doesn't necessitate a passcode on your phone, and turning off iCloud's Find My Phone isn't possible without your iCloud account. However, if a phone is unlocked, it could be possible for a thief to reset your iCloud password using access to your email and iMessage account.

Therefore, effectively using Activation Lock requires that you use a passcode. Touch ID erases the pain of doing so, allowing you to set a more complex passcode as well. This radically enhances the device level security of iOS users, both of their data and the resale value of their phone. Activation Lock and Find My Phone won't necessarily get your device back if its stolen, but it serves to put thieves on notice that a locked iPhone with iOS 7 is not an easy way to get $500 or more.

iPhone users should also configure iCloud / Apple ID to use "Two Step Verification," Apple's name for two factor authentication, which basically verifies password reset attempts by requiring physical access to one of your configured devices to get the verification message Apple pushes directly to that device. This prevents a remote user from being able to change your password by simply guessing, and allows users to remove verification access on a device that's stolen or gone missing.

Two Step Verification

Two Step Verification

Using Touch ID with iTunes & App Store

The other (optional) use of Touch ID is to authenticate purchases in iTunes or the App Store. Apple currently requires you to sign into your account to make a purchase, and sign in again after a 15 minute interval has expired. If you already have a secure Touch ID fingerprint configured, you can bypass signing in by turning on this new Touch ID feature.

Touch ID in iTunes

Touch ID in iTunes

When you first activate iTunes purchasing, it asks for your iTunes account password (above left). From then on, you can use your fingerprint instead (above right). Apple's priority for Touch ID was to secure users' devices, a task it had been working on for some time. However, the infrastructure behind Touch ID as a passcode clearly has broader applications, and the fact that Apple is launching it with iTunes support hints at plans for Touch ID for authenticating sales and adding security to other transactions.

While the media was initially enthusiastic about Google's launch of Wallet with NFC-tap authentication, there were too many security and compatibility problems in the poorly integrated, large scale rollout, resulting in both a collapse of the system and a big black mark against Google's credibility in managing digital payment transactions. More importantly, Wallet and NFC didn't really solve any real world problems. It simply replaced (in the U.S.) swiping a magnetic credit card with tapping a device. The only potential beneficiary was Google.

Touch ID immediately makes it more convenient for Apple's iPhone 5s customers to make online iTunes and App Store purchases. It doesn't require signing up for new accounts, and doesn't replace one easy swipe with another easy tap; it replaces a moderately annoying password prompt interruption with a finger touch. Once the company has more experience with how customers use it, it can move development forward.

What else Touch ID could do (but doesn't)

Outside of iTunes, there are other obvious applications for Touch ID, from authenticating purchases online to making purchases in person. Both would require a secure token infrastructure, because Apple will likely never allow apps (certainly not web apps) to directly access the Touch ID sensor.

"One place where that could be a bad idea," Federighi explained, "is somebody who writes a malicious app, somebody who breaks into your phone, starts capturing your fingerprint."

It is likely, however, that Apple could expand its existing payment system for iTunes to allow you to also send money or make purchases using a Touch ID-authenticated secure token that does not include any fingerprint data. Touch ID could similarly be used to digitally sign documents or verify your identity in other ways, likely in conjunction with its new iBeacons microlocation technology.

Additionally, the technology behind Touch ID can do far more than what Apple is exposing. It could be used as super high resolution touchpad controller, affording precise touch based gestures as shortcuts, were Apple interested in using it for this purpose. Additionally, configured prints from different fingers could be used to launch specific apps.

Source: Apple

One conspicuous omission is iCloud Keychain, a feature of OS X Mavericks that securely syncs your keychain of account passwords and other credentials between your desktops and devices (restoring a feature lost in the transition from MobileMe back in 2011).

The feature appeared in developer releases of iOS 7, but did not ship publicly, likely because Apple is still perfecting the software, and also because it requires new software on the Mac side, too. OS X Mavericks is expected to launch next month.

Apple's measured launch of Touch ID is realistically a good thing, as overloading it with too much functionality for the sake of novel "innovation" would distract from the core value of the new sensor: securing devices, clamping down on theft and speeding sales though iTunes. It would be disappointing if Apple doesn't carry this further over the next year and into iOS 8 however.

At the same time, it's disappointing that, equipped with such a simple authentication system, Apple didn't at least include the option to also secure features such as turning off WiFi or mobile data, or requiring authentication to turn the device off. Find My Phone has now been around for over three years. Most thieves know to power a stolen device off immediately. Leaving it forced-on in an iCloud-trackable state could help recover devices stolen by anyone other than an idiot.

As implemented, Touch ID delivers geek cred and elegant sophistication at the same time. It adds distinctive novelty to iPhone 5s, makes it far more likely that users will secure their phones and erases the annoyance of having to constantly unlock or sign into iTunes. As a reason to upgrade, it makes sense for users for whom device theft is a real possibility and who are tired of typing in a passcode. But it's not the only new feature of iPhone 5s.