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Smartphone aficionados always have a laundry list of requests for their next device, but last year’s iPhone 5 addressed a couple of the biggest lingering ones—4G LTE connectivity and a larger display—with great success. As is often the case with the middle “S” releases, there’s nothing on the iPhone 5s that immediately stands out next to such enhancements, but the Touch ID sensor is a stellar security tweak, the camera is better than ever, and everything moves a little snappier with the 64-bit A7 processor, which should yield even more impressive results as developers explore its possibilities alongside the new M7 motion coprocessor. No doubt, it’s the most feature-rich and powerful iPhone to date, but those without a pending upgrade or pressing need for new tech might resist the urge to splurge.
Featuring the same build and dimensions as last year’s model, the iPhone 5s feels utterly familiar in the hand, though you have a couple of new presentational choices. While the silver (white) model is nearly identical to before, the space-gray option adds a sleeker touch to the previous black scheme, and the new gold model’s finish is subdued enough to avoid conveying garish opulence. Aside from the color scheme, each looks more or less the same as the iPhone 5.
Well, except for that silver ring around the Home button. Within is where the most evident new tech in the iPhone 5s is housed: the Touch ID fingerprint sensor. No longer is a four-digit code the only barrier between an unauthorized user and the contents of your handset. Hold a finger against the surface and the sensor picks up any registered print held in any orientation, swiftly unlocking the device with minimal hassle. Pressing the button and then keeping your finger held in place can skip directly to your home screen, saving both a moment and the old screen swipe.
Registering your fingerprint takes only a minute. You’ll tap and hold the button surface repeatedly as the Touch ID sensor reads the contours of your fingerprint, filling in the intricacies of your individual pattern as you shift the positioning of your digit. Aside from moments in which a finger was placed too much on its side and didn’t register, we were routinely through the checkpoint without hassle. Beyond the lock screen, it’s also optionally used in lieu of your password for App Store, iTunes, and iBooks purchases, and we’re excited to see what happens if third-party app makers are allowed to play with the tech.
What’s inside the iPhone 5s is also noteworthy, as the handset packs the first mobile 64-bit processor, putting it closer in architecture to a desktop computer than the average smartphone. The result is zippier navigation around the OS, along with faster-loading apps and greater graphics performance. That last bit is noticeable in Infinity Blade III, which adds an extra layer of detail to its already-lavish visuals, but few other apps and games are putting the processor to very noticeable use at press time. The potential is there for greatness, but as of now, the biggest upgrade is a nice speed boost throughout iOS 7.
“Potential” is also the key word used to describe the new M7 motion coprocessor, which now independently handles data from the gyroscope, accelerometer, and compass, and purportedly does so at a much finer level than before. Apple’s Maps, for example, can switch from driving to on-foot directions when you park and continue hoofing from there. The promised Nike+ Move app looks like a fantastic fitness motivator, but it’s not available as of this writing. Indeed, fitness apps will likely make the greatest use of the M7, potentially putting such digital options on par with physical pedometers and wristbands, but that’s mostly speculative for now.
We don’t have to guess about the quality bump on the iPhone 5s camera, however—it’s been notably improved over the iPhone 5’s version without adding to the 8-megapixel tally. The camera uses a 15 percent larger sensor to allow for a larger aperture, which lets more light than ever come into the frame and results in clearer, brighter shots. Moreover, the new True Tone flash—which features two differently colored LEDs that work in tandem—captures more natural low-light photos, meaning better results are likely no matter the current lighting situation.
They’re subtle enhancements, but noticeable ones when you compare similar shots taken on the iPhone 5c or past models. Plus, the A7 processor makes the iOS 7 camera app better than on any other device, with faster still-image captures, improved video frame rates, and several beneficial features—like Burst mode, which snags 10 photos per second and automatically picks the likely best of the bunch, though you can manually sort through the results. Auto image stabilization makes for better child and pet photos, in particular, plus there’s live video zoom and awesome slow-motion video recording, which shoots clips at 120 frames per second and plays them back at one-fourth the speed.
Even with the more powerful processor, battery life hasn’t been impacted; it’s a hair better than in the iPhone 5, and is rated for 10 hours of video playback, web browsing, or 3G talk time. The one clear disappointment is the lack of improved storage options; a device billed as “forward thinking” shouldn’t be stuck with a maximum of 64GB of memory as app and media sizes continue to balloon. It’s a rare knock on a device that takes the title of Apple’s best smartphone to date by introducing multiple worthwhile improvements, though compared to the last go-round, these tweaks might not warrant an immediate upgrade—not yet, at least.
The bottom line. With impressive new tech and an even better camera in tow, the iPhone 5s is another superb device, but it’s a subtler upgrade than the last.
A7 64-bit processor with M7 motion coprocessor, 4-inch 1136x640 Retina display, 4G LTE, dual-band Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, 8-megapixel 1080p iSight camera with True Tone flash, 1.2-megapixel 720p FaceTime camera, Touch ID sensor, Lightning port. Includes Lightning-to-USB cable, USB charger, and Apple EarPods
A7 processor makes for speedier navigation through iOS 7, plus enhanced graphics. Touch ID sensor is extremely cool and useful. iSight camera is even better than before. Very good battery life. Retina display and LTE quality just as strong as on iPhone 5.
Storage options haven’t changed. Small number of A7- and M7-optimized experiences at press time. Not as essential an upgrade as the last one.