Introduction

I must confess that the last time I used an iPhone was three or four years ago. While I’ve followed the hardware changes from generation to generation, I’ve never really been able to write about the iPhone or iOS in detail. While objective data is great to work with, a great deal of evaluation relies on subjective experience. To fix this gap in knowledge, I received an iPhone 5s. After a month, I’ve really come to have a much more nuanced view of how Android and iOS compare, along with how Apple’s iPhone compares to the rest of the smartphone market.

At this point, the iPhone 5s is a phone that doesn’t need much in the way of introduction. After all, it’s been almost a year since it was first announced, and Apple is ready to announce a new iPhone within the coming months if their yearly release cycle holds. For those that need a bit of a refresh on the iPhone 5s, I’ve included a spec table below.

  Apple iPhone 5s
SoC Apple A7
Display 4-inch 1136 x 640 LCD sRGB coverage with in-cell touch
RAM 1GB LPDDR3
WiFi 2.4/5GHz 802.11a/b/g/n, BT 4.0
Storage 16GB/32GB/64GB
I/O Lightning connector, 3.5mm headphone
Current OS iOS 7.1.2
Battery 1570 mAh, 3.8V, 5.96 Whr
Size / Mass 123.8 x 58.6 x 7.6 mm, 112 grams
Camera 8MP iSight with 1.5µm pixels Rear Facing + True Tone Flash
1.2MP with 1.9µm pixels Front Facing
Price $199 (16GB), $299 (32GB), $399 (64GB) on 2 year contract

Hardware

The hardware is ultimately the foundation that software rests upon, so it’s a good place to start. While it’s easy to appreciate industrial and material design by just holding or looking at the phone, everything else requires some real hands-on time. One of the first things I noticed was that the feel of the buttons. Normally, I expect buttons to have a bit of slack before they actuate. In all of the buttons on the iPhone 5s, this doesn’t happen at all. Instead, the button only depresses when triggered. In the case of the volume and power buttons, the activation gives a clean click. On most smartphones I’ve used, the feel and sound of this activation tends to be a bit more mushy and subdued. The home button is the one exception here, which has a noticeably longer travel and less distinctive actuation/mushier feel but I suspect that TouchID is the reason for this difference.

The other difference that I noticed was the size. For a long time now I’ve had the opinion that this generation of Android smartphones have simply gotten too big to be comfortably used with one hand. I still think that the limit for flagship smartphones (not phablets) is around a five inch display, and no larger than the smartphones that we saw in 2013. This includes devices like the Nexus 5, HTC One (M7), and Samsung Galaxy S4, which are all comfortable in the hand and relatively easy to manipulate. As a result, using the iPhone 5s is a significant departure. Reaching the top left corner of the display is relatively simple compared to some of the smartphones on the market today. While physical size is a matter of preference, I suspect that total device width shouldn't exceed 70-71mm, and height is probably shouldn't exceed 140-141mm, although there's a great deal of leeway as the shape of the phone can make a phone seem larger or smaller than it really is. In the case of the iPhone 5s, although the physical size is easy to handle I definitely notice the effect of the smaller display when trying to browse desktop websites, view photos, and watch videos. Anyone coming from Android at this point in time will probably miss the large displays that Android OEMs tend to integrate.

Of course, display is one of the biggest aspects of the smartphone experience, and is more than just a matter of size. In many measures, the iPhone 5s display is great. There’s no overly wide gamut, noticeable saturation compression, odd green tints in grayscale, or excessively high contrast/gamma. However, the resolution itself is noticeably lower than the 1080p and 1440p displays I’ve gotten used to. This doesn’t seem to affect usability much, but some elements of the UI like the rotation lock symbol are noticeably aliased. I find that around 400 to 500 DPI is generally acceptable to avoid obvious aliasing, but there’s value to going to 500-600 DPI for those that want to use a display for VR or are strongly sensitive to even minor aliasing at 4-6 inches viewing distance. Anyone coming from a phone like the Galaxy S4, G2, or One (M7) will probably notice the fuzzier display but it's probably not bad enough to grate on the eyes.

The camera is another major surprise for me. While I’m no optical engineer, it’s clear to me that the camera output is relatively free of smudging from aggressive luminance noise reduction, and the low light performance is much better as a result. I also don’t seem any odd color casts in low light, or noticeable color/chroma noise. Issues like sharpening kernels, halos from unsharp masks, and other artifacts from poor post-processing just aren’t present. In general, Apple has managed to ship a well-tuned camera that seems to be a step above. While I'd like to see a move to larger sensor sizes, it's likely that the thickness of the phone is a gating factor.

Finally, TouchID, the fingerprint sensor on the home button of the iPhone 5s, was a revelation. For reference, I’ve tried the fingerprint sensor on the One max, Galaxy S5 LTE-A, and Galaxy S5 T-Mobile USA. In practice, I would rank them in that order as well, with the One max’s almost 100% reliability to the Galaxy S5’s hit or miss reliability. In general, I’ve found that swipe-based fingerprint sensors can have a good experience on a smartphone, but in cases like both Galaxy S5 variants the ergonomics of swiping on a home button are less than ideal.

While I understood that TouchID was a better solution because of its press and hold nature, the truly compelling aspect of Apple’s implementation has more to do with software than anything. With the systems I’ve used before, enrollment was absolutely critical. Poor data during enrollment would basically make it impossible to actually use the fingerprint sensor. This isn’t true at all with TouchID. While I mapped the center of my fingers relatively well in initial enrollment, I left the extreme edges unmapped. This was easily resolved by slowly edging towards the very edges of my finger to get it to unlock based upon a partial match. In short, it has only gotten better and faster with time. There’s no deliberate effort needed to unlock the device normally at this point, especially because it’s as simple as pressing down the home button and unlock is almost instant for full matches.

In short, the attention to detail on the hardware side is one of the best I’ve seen in this industry. While I would like a larger display and higher pixel density, even now I find very little fundamentally wrong with the iPhone 5s. Of course, it’s not possible to ignore the software side of things. After all, installing Android on an iPhone 5s isn’t realistically possible. While iOS 7 has already been reviewed, for the most part such experiences have been evaluated from the perspective of people that have used iOS extensively through the years.

Software and Final Words
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  • batongxue - Monday, August 25, 2014 - link

    How many people are really enjoying those low-level fiddling on Windows and Android?
    First developers, and then maybe some tech enthusiasts.
    Most people (I could confidently say well more than 90 percent) are users (not just average users, but pros in professions other than software developers) that utilize the functions, instead of wasting their time figuring out what every system file means.
    Reply
  • flamencoguy - Tuesday, August 26, 2014 - link

    Some people like to customize cars and some people customize phones. Personalization is great. We don't all want to look the same and dress alike. Reply
  • Alexey291 - Wednesday, August 27, 2014 - link

    you mean to say that some of the best selling apps (icons, launchers and themes) in android app store actually don't exist and never get used?

    Because for a lot of people (I'd bet for most) this is what customisation entails. Changing the launcher, the lockscreen and some icons and stuff.

    And honestly? You're wrong about 90% its more like 99.9%. And yet the said 99.9% STILL get to customise their phones without having to learn what every system file does :)

    The day you can change the launcher in ios (to something like that for example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QpjGAhXplmI ) without having to jailbreak or do anything more than download an app from the app store will be the day when ios would become a good o/s for me. :)
    Reply
  • mtbogre - Monday, August 25, 2014 - link

    "Anandtech has become very iCentric over the years. I recall the day the iPhone 5 came out they did 14 articles on it. So we are clear, that is not a typo - 14 articles. Any other phone gets 0 to 2 articles at the most."

    The reverse is more accurate. This site is completely dominated by Android coverage. Click on the "SmartPhones" tag and you'll see many times more stories on Android than iOS. Lots of stories on this site about phones I will likely never see and can't even buy. How many variants of the S5 got a full review in spite of the fact that they were essentially feature tweaks on the base?

    iOS and the iPhone account for fewer than 1/10th the volume of smartphone articles on Anandtech even though they have much greater than 10% share in the regions where this site is commonly read.
    Reply
  • akdj - Tuesday, August 26, 2014 - link

    Low level functionality? I own em both. Have since day one in '07. Don't forget Android's 'new' UI wasn't available for almost a full year later. iPhone 1,1 flopped the industry on it's head. Regardless of your opinions, 14 articles on the biggest, fastest, most adopted technology in the world doing a 180° turnaround, eventually bankrupting or elimating the top echelon in a flail swoop, seemingly belongs on an electronic-centric site, wouldn't you agree? Maybe Anand's crew saw the sea change before many of us? I own the Note 3 for my business. 5s for personal handset. I love them both but when it comes to 'apps' and the selections of software available between the two it's iOS that's leaps and bounds ahead of Android. It's unfortunate because I love my N3. But playing Asphalt 8 on both or using sketchbook pro, the obvious shortcomings in software optimization becomes apparent. With half the cores, clocked at almost 50% & ⅓ the RAM, my iPhone and iPads play games quicker, allow for significant flexibility with media; stills, motion, artwork or simple things like the continuity with my iPads and now OSx with 10.10

    As an obvious fan of both, I'd love to see Google gain some vertical/horizontal direction with the new APIs. I'm not sure a Chromebook is by most folks standards today a 'computer'. Without ubiquitous broadband or WiFi, LTE or a connect 'portal', it's worthless. Windows and OSx on the other hand, this ...at least in the short term IMHO is the direction we're facing. Just as we heard at WWDC, the vision to aggregate and integrate the iOS and OSx 'systems' to your toolbox, each knowing what the other is up to! Continuity. Handoff. Swift and Metal GPU 'low level programming, speaking of ...eliminating the overhead bulk of Open GL is big. And when I get to my laptop to finish manipulation in Lightroom, finish a .doc, or finalize/render my movie, I can as easily switch from iPhone or iPad to my desk/laptop for the horsepower and time/energy savings.

    I love the Note 3. I concur with just about every point the author makes. That said a month with either iOS or android is a tough period of time to adjust. I've had both since 07/09 respectively. Enjoy and respect each for capabilities but low level, SoC, ROMs or Roots ...@ 43 married,with kids and a family owners business going on three decades I don't have A) the time to play around in the depths of programming my phone and B) I HAVE to have consistency, reliability and efficiency. Each had on the iOS and OSx side of our tool box. My Windows 7 "& 8.1 systems, while they 'work' with Android as a 'disc' I've found the compatibility within Apple's Eco system to be heads and shoulders above Androids. Not Google's fault! Releasing open source code for a phone and tablet 'first' makes the 'back end' task look like a pair of Mt Everests stacked atop each other.

    This is also where I see Window's mobile OS becoming less metro and note functional with it's mothership, the full 64bit Win '9' or whatever it's going to be called. As a developer now for five years as well, we've released four iOS apps and the same four were attempted to port over to Android. Three worked. Two well enough. The third is still being worked ground up as we don't have the corporate EA credit card or back catalog of gaming rights, we don't play cover songs :-). Each of our apps is unique. That said if those on either side have been there for any length of time, investment in the software and apps becomes more obvious over time and with usage. Unfortunately the software for Android isn't there yet. Nor are the 'development dollars' unfortunately as I do want them to both succeed

    I suppose last I'd add the display size mantra. My N3 for media, writing, watching, drawing, even playing games is better than the iPhone because I'm 43 and can't read a damn thing anymore without my cheaters. Next level though, my new iPad mini destroys both for any of the above. For a front pocket, non obtrusive 'carry everywhere' phone, 5.7" is a bitch to pocket unless I'm in cargo shorts or pants. iPhone fits anywhere and everywhere. I like the 4.7" compromise but will hold til I see what Apple's new Phad...I mean Phablet's design looks like. With my clientele, the stylus is invaluable for sketching our rigging points, sign docs and credit cards, as well as handle the two duties in one. Both as a computer and phone. iPhone is a bit tougher but again, as the author mentions subtleties like the camera, workmanship and cosmetics, fluency of UI and it's 'lack of size or bulk' is and will continue to be many folks' choices moving forward.

    I also agree it's a cool time to be experiencing technologies fruits. To be blinded by iOS as an Android fan or vice versa one's missing the forest through the trees. A true 'geek' is excited by both. Just. Not. Low. Level. Programming! XDA is an incredible tool to have in your arsenal, but it's a bit more convenient if you don't like TouchWiz, re skin with NOVA, GO, or any pleothra of options to adjust the phone to your style. Looks like Apple is opening up a bit as well if you delve into the Xcode update :-)
    Reply
  • dj christian - Wednesday, September 3, 2014 - link

    The quality of iOS apps higher than Android. You'r kidding right? Most have been shittier compared to Android. Reply
  • vasboz - Wednesday, August 27, 2014 - link

    I believe this would be because Apple has a much larger adoption for the one device than any other device globally. Plus it attracts more viewers, hence more revenue from advertising etc.. These are just "touching" the tip on the iceberg of just how much more there is to it than what you see. Reply
  • stucktrader - Monday, September 1, 2014 - link

    If it comes across as iCentric to you... i dont see that at all...

    He pretty much laid out what he felt were quirks... pros and cons...

    The iPhone 5 does not need 14 articles... that is for sure...

    The Android world is filled with so many different OEMs... why would you be surprised that they only get 2 articles... that is EXCEPT for Galaxys...

    If anything... why is the world of Android so fixated on Samsung... when at times other phones are superior depending on the feature being highlighted... LG, HTC, SONY, etc...
    Reply
  • jahblade - Monday, September 1, 2014 - link

    In reference to ios vs android users. When I am asked which one is better I don't have an answer for that, I just simply echo in general your comment. Reply
  • primalxconvoy - Sunday, September 7, 2014 - link

    Without reading too much into this, I believe this:

    "Iphones are smartphones for dumb people, whereas Androids are dumbphones for smart people".

    What I mean is that with ios, even smart people don't need to think too much about using the device (or prefer not to) and can use the phone relatively easily for a limited range of uses.

    Android, by comparison doesn't really allow for ease of use and needs more thought our effort to get any particularly specific user-experience out of it. Users, perhaps, need to be "smarter" in order to get the most out of it (often using this party solutions to overcome problems).

    Another analogy is ios is to Disneyland, what Google is to Woodstock.

    In other words, Ios is restricted, expensive to get into, with long lines to get in (especially on release day), but everything that is featured there usually works well, with plenty of staff on hand to guide even small kids around.

    Android, by contrast, is open, fairly cheap and can potentially host amazing, world changing features, but the toilets don't work, the organisers are nowhere to be seen, the staff are all smoking pot somewhere, and most of the stalls and infrastructure are unfinished, with anything that does work usually being due to a third party vendor or artist taking it up themselves.
    Reply

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