The iPhone 5: A Smartphone Of Extraordinary Grace [Review]

After months of rumors and speculation, the iPhone 5 is finally here, featuring a thinner, lighter design, a taller 4-inch display, LTE, the new Lightning connector, redesigned EarPods, and more. It’s the first major iPhone redesign in twenty-seven months, and the first iPhone ever to change the aspect ratio of the device, to have LTE, to use a new connector or to have new headphones, but despite this, many have criticized the iPhone 5 for being boring.

What’s the truth? Is the iPhone 5 dull, or is it a major leap forward for Apple’s most iconic device? We’ve spent the weekend reviewing a 64GB white-and-silver iPhone 5 on Verizon’s LTE network, and put it through its paces. Here’s what we thought.

Table Of Contents

• Page One: Introduction & Table Of Contents
• Page Two: Design & Feel
• Page Three: Display
• Page Four: Aspect Ratio
• Page Five: Performance
• Page Six: Lightning
• Page Seven: EarPods
• Page Eight: Conclusion

Design & Feel

The iPhone 5: A Smartphone Of Extraordinary Grace [Review]

Apple’s latest magic trick, the iPhone 5.

A lot has already been said about how thin and light the iPhone 5 is, but it really can’t be overstated. The iPhone 5 is so light, you won’t even believe it’s a phone at first. It’s practically ephemeral.

Weighing just one hundred and twelve grams, the iPhone 5 is lighter than the iPod touch was just two years ago. To me, that’s just a marvel: I remember back in 2010 picking up an iPod touch and wondering if Apple would ever be able to make an iPhone that felt this good in the hand. Now they have, and it’s just incredible. The device is so light that the first time I picked up my new iPhone 5 out of its box, I ended up pulling at it too hard and spastically hurling it across the room. The iPhone 5 makes the iPhone 4S feel like a lump of dark matter.

The iPhone 5 makes the iPhone 4S feel like a lump of dark matter.

The iPhone 5: A Smartphone Of Extraordinary Grace [Review]

Incredibly thin and light; exquisitely balanced.

Likewise, the iPhone 5 is improbably thin. Although it’s by no means the thinnest smartphone out there, it’s markedly less fat than the iPhone 4S. From the side, the iPhone 4S was an antenna sandwiched between two thick panes of glass: the iPhone 5 is just the antenna.

The impact is profound. My girlfriend put it best when she compared the feel of the iPhone 5 in her hand with the iPhone 4S I’d just handed down to her: “This is like picking up your first MacBook Air after lugging around a MacBook Pro for years.”

One of the things that really impresses about the iPhone 5, though, is how well balanced it is. Although it is incredibly thin and light, the device feels evenly weighted at every point. It’s an easy to overlook thing, but it makes the iPhone 5 feel just incredible in the hand: solid and substantial despite its lightness.

The iPhone 5 is like picking up a MacBook Air after lugging around a MacBook Pro for years.

The iPhone 5 trades in the iPhone 4S’s glass backplate for a two-toned aluminum back. There are a lot of practical advantages to this approach, not least of which is strength, but what was less clear to me before I actually had an iPhone 5 in my hands was whether or not I liked the new look.

It turns out, I do. Very much. I like my iPads black and my iPhones white, so I ordered the white-and-silver iPhone 5. This was a harder decision to make than in the past, because in photographs, something looked a little off to me about the white iPhone 5, especially compared to the sleek, stealthy black model. Luckily, this was illusory: while perhaps not as photogenic on the web, the white iPhone 5 is a creature of grace to the black model’s Dark Knight.

The iPhone 5: A Smartphone Of Extraordinary Grace [Review]

I still prefer my wood backed iPhone 4S, but the return of an aluminum back makes this the best feeling iPhone since the original.

As for the aluminum, I’m glad to see it come back to the iPhone 5. I always loved the way the original iPhone felt in your hand. Aluminum is just a pleasant thing to touch: the way it warms up in contact with your skin, the slight thrill of abrasion as you stroke its invisible static field. That it’s tough is just another benefit: with the iPhone 4, you pretty much had to use a case, because it could be cracked from dropping on both the screen and the back. Between the new, tougher Gorilla Glass used in the iPhone 5 and the aluminum unibody construction, the iPhone 5 was clearly designed to be used without one.

But can it be? It’s too early to tell, but some early reports suggest that the aluminum back of the iPhone 5 is easily susceptible to scratching. I think these fears may be blown out of proportion. I tend to sloppily cram my phone into my pocket with my keys, and the first time I did so with the iPhone 5, I was horrified to see a scratch on the back when I pulled it out of my pocket. It turned out to be a lot of panic over nothing: I was able to buff it out simply by rubbing it with my thumb a few times. I noticed a similar effect in the chassis of the Retina MacBook Pro, and can only speculate that Apple is using some sort of anti-scratching technology in their unibody process.

Time will tell if the iPhone 5 can really be used without a case or not. What is for sure, though, is you won’t want to use one. It seems a crime to take a design marvel like the iPhone 5 — a device so thin and light and well balanced and so pleasing to feel — and put it in a sarcophagus. In the Museum of the Touch, the iPhone 5 is a Michelangelo.

In the Museum of the Touch, the iPhone 5 is a Michelangelo.

Display

The iPhone 5: A Smartphone Of Extraordinary Grace [Review]

The iPhone 4S display looks grimy compared to the iPhone 5.

Over the last couple of years, Apple has become synonymous with quality displays. Starting with the incredible revelation of the iPhone 4’s Retina Display, Apple has specialized in making their displays more beautiful than the competition. While Retina displays haven’t come to all of Apple’s products yet, it’s clearly the future: when you look at one of their devices, Apple wants the screen itself to look like what’s on it is more real and alive than the competition.

The iPhone 4 was the first step towards this goal. Like digital camera makers before them, Cupertino started by cramming the iPhone 4’s display with as many pixels as possible, doubling the resolution to a then-unheard-of 960 x 640 resolution. According to Apple, this meant that from 10-12 inches away, the iPhone 4’s Retina display matched the “resolution” of the human eye, making pixels too small to be individually discerned (this actually isn’t true, but there’s no doubt it was a vast improvement).

The iPhone 5: A Smartphone Of Extraordinary Grace [Review]

There’s more to display quality than just pixels.

The iPhone 4 and 4S Retina display had some small problems, though. According to display expert and DisplayMate honcho Dr. Raymond Soneira, the colors tended to be undersaturated, with too much contrast. The display also reflected about 8.1 percent of the light that bounced off of it, making it harder to see in bright light. The temperature of colors on the display was a little too blue, while the color gamut was only about 64 percent of what it should have been, with small color shifts and large brightness drops when viewed from angles other than having been seen head-on.

In other words, just like in digital cameras, there’s more to image quality than just resolution. With the new iPad and the Retina MacBook Pro, Apple solved most of the above problems. For the iPhone 5, Apple has rolled all of these improvements into their smartphone. The result is a display that looks every bit as vivid and bright and inky and colorful as the Retina MacBook Pro, just in the palm of your hand.

The blacks feel as if they have been painted on, and the brights shine.

Look at an iPhone 5 display, then look back at the screen on an iPhone 4S. It’s enough to make you say “bleccch.” Compared to the iPhone 5’s screen, the iPhone 4S looks washed out, dim to the eyes, as if there were a thin layer of grimy dish water between the glass and the panel. I’m not an expert in display quality, so the scientific tests I’ll leave to the likes of Dr. Soneira, but the effect is profound: colors are more colorful without being luridly oversaturated, and there are more of them. (Phil Schiller claims that, unlike the iPhone 4S’s meager 64%, the iPhone 5 runs the entire color gamut.) The blacks feel as if they have been painted on, and the brights shine.

The iPhone 5: A Smartphone Of Extraordinary Grace [Review]

The iPhone 5’s in-cell touchscreen.

Perhaps all of this talk of color gamut and contrast misses the point, though. The starkest improvement in the iPhone 5’s display isn’t that it has better colors or brightness or contrast, but the fact that it no longer seems to be light just shining out from under glass. Instead, the effect of using an iPhone 5 is as if you are looking at the surface of a painting upon glass. It’s absolutely beautiful.

The effect isn’t imaginary, either: it’s the result of a couple of major technological improvements of the iPhone 5. The first is Apple’s use of Gorilla Glass 2 for the screen, which is 20% thinner than its predecessor. The second is the new In-Cell touch technology used in the iPhone 5, which combines the LCD and the touchsensing layer into one. What this all means is that what’s on your iPhone 5’s screen is actually closer to your eyes than it once was and separated by less glass.

We have no doubt that in the iPhone 6, Apple will find a whole new way to wow us when it comes to display quality. But if the ultimate goal of display technology is to make the screen in front of your eyes like looking through a window to another world, Apple has taken that window and flung it open.

Aspect Ratio

The iPhone 5: A Smartphone Of Extraordinary Grace [Review]

No more bars.

The iPhone 5 is the first iPhone to really shake up the original, iconic design that Steve Jobs introduced to a cheering crowd in January 2007. It’s still self-evidently an iPhone; no one would ever mistake it for any other phone, even if it was turned off. But for the first time since the original, Apple has changed the display this generation, giving it a new aspect ratio without changing its width.

The iPhone 5: A Smartphone Of Extraordinary Grace [Review]

This is the size Steve Jobs envisioned the iPhone as always being.

Adding 186 pixels in height to the iPhone 5’s display isn’t much in the grand scheme of things, so this might seem like a subtle change, but the effect is still stark. Apple has been masterfully refining the iPhone’s core design every two years not just to change things, but to make the display truer to Cupertino’s original vision of what such a device should be. Any change to the way it looks head on needs to be taken as Apple rethinking the iPhone from the ground up.

Each iPhone so far has been a step closer to the ideal mobile computer Steve Jobs originally envisioned back in 2008. That means it gets faster, it gets thinner, it gets lighter; the software matures; new processes allow Apple to construct it of ever more durable materials. But nothing changes just because, and head-on, each iPhone should look the same: a 3:2 square of glass and a single iconic home button.

This year, for the first time ever, though, the new iPhone doesn’t look like the iPhones that came before it from the front. It’s taller. Why?

This year, for the first time ever, the new iPhone doesn’t look like the iPhones that came before it head-on. It’s taller. Why?

The most commonly cited reasons for the iPhone 5 becoming taller this generation are that it allows the iPhone 5 to more comfortably compete with 4+ inch smartphones from the competition and that it allows users and developers to take advantage of a more industry standard 16:9 aspect ratio on their smartphones. The former reason is hard to swallow: Apple has not been feeling the hurt from 4-inch competitors. Which leaves us the experience. Is a 16:9, 4-inch display experientially better than a 3:2, 3.5-inch display?

After a few days of using the iPhone 5, I’d say yes. More vertical room allows for more text and information to be displayed on the iPhone 5, which means less scrolling. In Tweetbot, more tweets display; in a web browser, you can see more of a web page in a go. There’s less thumb fatigue all around. Notification Center banners take up less of the display when they pop-up, as does Launch Center when you hit the home button twice. The result is a greater sense of immersion in the app you’re in. More app icons fit on the homescreen and in folders. If you are typing in a text field, the onscreen keyboard takes up less of the vertical area of the display, allowing you to see more of what you’re typing. It’s not an earth-shattering improvement, but it is a real one.

The iPhone 5: A Smartphone Of Extraordinary Grace [Review]

The iPhone 5’s new aspect ratio does have a lot of practical advantages.

But if a longer 16:9 display is really a better experience than a 3:2 display, why stop there? There have been a number of funny parodies of the iPhone 5’s added length, culminating in the brilliant “Longest thing to happen to iPhone since iPhone” video, but these parodies are making a sound point. If 16:9 is so much better than 3:2, why stop there? Why not even longer?

One possible clue is that a 16:9 aspect ratio is HD video widescreen, which allows you to watch most widescreen videos without letterboxing. And it’s true that on the iPhone 5, watching a widescreen video is a more immersive experience: the video takes up all of the display with no banding, resulting in a more efficient and easier-on-the-eyes video experience than afforded by previous iPhones. Videos just take up more of the screen, proportionally, than they once did. Again, it’s a real improvement.

The iPhone 5: A Smartphone Of Extraordinary Grace [Review]

The iPhone’s original aspect ratio was the same as 35mm film.

Another reason that Apple originally chose a 3:2 aspect ratio has to do with photography. 3:2 is the same aspect ratio as 35mm film. Apple knew from the beginning that photography was going to be an important feature on the iPhone, and designed the display to embrace it. It’s worth noting that the iPhone 5 still takes photos in a standard 35mm aspect ratio, letterboxing the photos when displayed on the new device. 16:9, on the other hand, is the aspect ratio of the HD video standard; a more comfortable fit for using your display as a camcorder. As more people use their phones to shoot high-quality 1080p HD video, changing the aspect ratio with the times just makes sense. You now get the best of both worlds: a proper 35mm aspect ratio for photography, and the use of the entire display as a viewfinder for when you’re shooting video.

So are these the reasons Apple increased the length of the display? I doubt it: clearly, Apple felt strongly that a 3:2 aspect ratio screen at 3.5-inches was the way to go for a smartphone display. Despite Apple’s happy assurances to the contrary, a 4-inch display makes it harder for people with normal sized hands (like mine) to operate the phone one handed with a single thumb. It’s not a big deal, but especially in apps that have buttons at the top left corner of the screen, you have to change the way you’re holding your iPhone to easily reach it, or stretch your thumb a little more than is necessarily comfortable.

Personally, my belief is that the true reason Apple had to change the aspect ratio of the device this generation was because of LTE. LTE has a number of problems inherent with the standard when it comes to isolating the antenna which make it particularly problematic when it applies to small mobile devices. LTE antennas get better reception in bigger devices. Since LTE also makes greater demands on a device when it comes to battery life than 3G, it makes sense to increase the aspect ratio of the display to help with isolating the antenna and to make room for more battery.

Apple thought through the implications and embraced the happy experiential accidents that emerged from making the iPhone 5 longer.

One of the things that puts Apple’s design ethos in an entirely different sphere than the competition is that they know how to turn problems into features. Apple bided its time with LTE, only introducing it to the iPhone when they were ready. When they did finally decide to introduce it to the iPhone 5, they knew they needed to make the device bigger. This much the likes of Samsung, Nokia, Motorola and HTC have already done. But what Apple did was think through the implications: they kept the width of the device the same, so it felt the same in the hand, and embraced the happy experiential accidents that emerged from making it longer.

Was the iPhone always supposed to have a 16:9 display? I seriously doubt it. But now that it’s here, it’s here for good. And it feels like this is the way the iPhone always should have been.

Performance

The iPhone 5: A Smartphone Of Extraordinary Grace [Review]

This chip screams.

The iPhone 5 is fast. Really, really fast.

There have been a lot of exhaustive tests showing just how fast the iPhone 5 is. It’s got a Geekbench score of 1640, compared to the iPhone 4S’s 628. That makes it a more powerful computer than any Apple Powerbook, and faster than any other smartphone on the market.

Technically, all of these advances come courtesy of the new A6 chip, a 1.2GHz dual-core CPU with PowerVR tri-core SGX543MP3 graphics. Apple rightly brags that this makes the A6 twice as fast as the A5X, but it’s even more of a technical feat when you consider this is the first Ax series chip that Apple has designed and built from the ground up, and it has managed to beat even more established ARM chip makers like Samsung to the punch by bringing the first Cortex-A15 class processor to market.

Experientially, though, these numbers mean nothing. So let’s talk about how the iPhone 5 feels to use.

Again, the answer here is fast. Really, really fast.

Launching most light apps feels almost instantaneous, so fast that the very animation of launching the app seems to be slowing everything down. Compared to the iPhone 5, the A5X-toting new iPad seems incredibly slow.

The iPhone 5: A Smartphone Of Extraordinary Grace [Review]

The iPhone 5 took twelve seconds less to boot up Infinity Blade II than the third-gen iPad.

Here’s a comparison that puts it all in perspective. On the new iPad, launching the graphically intensive game Infinity Blade II takes thirty-four seconds, twenty seconds of which is made up of unskippable opening credits. On the iPhone 5, launching Infinity Blade II takes twenty-one seconds, twenty seconds of which is made up of unskippable opening credits. If you take the credits out of the equation, Infinity Blade II takes fourteen seconds to load on the third-gen iPad; it takes one second to load on the iPhone 5.

That comparison’s a bit disingenuous, because developer Chair is likely doing all sorts of preloading of assets in the background during Infinity Blade II’s credits, but it makes the point: the iPhone 5 simply destroys the new iPad when it comes to performance in even the most system-intensive apps.

There’s also LTE to contend with, an iPhone first. If you’ve never experienced LTE, you’re probably in for a shock. Not only is LTE orders of magnitude faster than 3G, but it probably is faster than your home wireless network. To assign hard numbers to the speed improvements, using Speedtest.net, my iPhone 4S on Verizon only ever managed about 2 Mbps down per second. On the iPhone 5, using LTE on Verizon, I get 18.25 Mbps. My home WiFi maxes out at around 15 Mbps most days, and I have really good home internet. LTE just destroys.

The iPhone 5: A Smartphone Of Extraordinary Grace [Review]

From top to bottom: 3G, my home internet and LTE on the iPhone 5.

The iPhone 5 is fast. Really, really fast. And what’s most incredible about it is that it manages to be so fast while improving upon the battery life of its predecessor.

With WiFi, Bluetooth and LTE on, looping a video constantly, I got about ten and a half hours of battery life out of the iPhone 5 in a single charge. That’s just hugely impressive: this is the first iPhone I feel like most people won’t have to charge every night.

There are other performance improvements in the iPhone 5, like the new camera which is better in low-light situations, but these improvements are marginal. All you need to know is this.

One last time. The iPhone 5 is fast. Really, really fast.

Lightning

The iPhone 5: A Smartphone Of Extraordinary Grace [Review]

Made for Lightning.

Apple’s 30-pin dock connector was an amazing piece of technology that you probably never thought much about. When Apple designed it, they created a skeleton key that would allow them to unlock a multi-billion dollar “Made for iPod” licensing business, and like tumblers in a lock, all those pins did something, allowing an incredible range of accessories to interact with the iPod, iPhone and iPad while keeping things cheap.

It was time to move on from the 30-pin dock connector.

That said, the 30-pin dock connector was ten years old, and it was showing its age. More than a third of the dock connector’s pins were completely superfluous, and many of the rest were either dedicated to maintaining legacy support for a small subset of niche accessories or replicated functionality Apple can now do through AirPlay. The old dock connector was also one of the most likely parts of any iDevice to break. Worse, it was large and bulky, a massive element that needed to be crammed into Apple’s increasingly thinner and battery hungry devices. It was time to move on.

The new dock connector is called Lightning, and the hallmarks of its design are this: it’s a fully digital and reversible 8-pin connector that is actually smaller than microUSB, and more robust to boot, featuring multiple digital pipes that an accessory can call upon at the same time.

In the short term, Lightning — although undeniably more elegant than its predecessor — is going to be an annoyance to most iPhone 5 buyers. Apple has just made all of the existing 30-pin connector cables in your house irrelevant, which means you’ll probably be sinking money into replacement cables. If you have iPhone accessories you rely upon, they won’t work unless you purchase an expensive adapter, and even then, you might lose functionality. Worse, that adapter’s not shipping until next month, and Apple’s welched on pre-order promises to give everyone who buys an iPhone 5 an adapter for free. What the fuck, Apple.

The iPhone 5: A Smartphone Of Extraordinary Grace [Review]

Lightning and the old 30-Pin Dock Connector compared.

These are all real complaints, but they aren’t issues with Lightning per se: it’s the angst that comes from parting with something you’d come to rely upon, coupled with a general callousness in the way that Cupertino is addressing that divorce. Few would deny that it was time for Apple to move on from the 30-pin dock connector, but it’s testament to the incredible success of Apple’s “Made for iPod” empire that the divorce is so painful. Can you imagine anyone mounting this sort of hue-and-cry if Samsung changed its proprietary connector? Nope, because Samsung changes their connector like a schizo all the time.

It’s hard to quantitatively review Lightning right now, because there’s not much to do with it except sync and charge your iPhone 5. In that regard, it works just as well as the old 30-pin dock connector, and like the 30-pin connector, it is still limited to USB 2.0 speeds, at least for right now. How well it will work with accessories both new and old and what possibilities Lightning opens up, it’s just impossible to say. Lightning’s still too new.

The iPhone 5: A Smartphone Of Extraordinary Grace [Review]

Tiny.

What I can say, though, is that Lightning is an incredible design for a connector. It slides into the iPhone 5 with an affirming click, and you simply don’t have to think about it, because it’s fully reversible (an important trait in a design this small, as it would otherwise be maddening trying to figure out which way is up… a constant annoyance with microUSB). The edges of the Lightning connector are rounded, so you don’t need to worry about scratching your iPhone’s veneer with it. Since all of the Lightning connector’s pins are flush with the plug, there’s no chance of them being accidentally bent and rendering either the Lightning connector or a Lightning accessory non-functional. And the thing is tiny: I could fit six of them on the area of my thumb nail alone.

Apple isn’t handling the Lightning transition very well. In some ways, it’s as if your Dad came home and told you he’d not only divorced your fat, comforting mother and married a supermodel, but that if you wanted to go give your mom a hug, you’d need to wait a month and pay the cab fare yourself. But Dad’s new supermodel wife is still pretty sexy, and she can do a lot of things your old Mom can’t.

I won’t strain this analogy any more, since it’s starting to get accidentally creepy, but the point is this: separation anxiety aside, Lightning is here to stay. It’s a connector designed for the next ten years, not the last ten years, and there’s every reason to believe that Apple’s “Made for Lightning” business will be every bit as successful as it ever was.

Lignting is a connector designed for the next ten years, not the last ten years.

Give Lightning time. In the meantime, it sure is pretty to look at.

EarPods

The iPhone 5: A Smartphone Of Extraordinary Grace [Review]

A big step up.

“Sound is so important to the way you experience an Apple product,” says Jony Ive in Apple’s official video promoting their redesigned pack-in headphones, the 2001-ish sounding EarPods. “So we wanted to make a headphone that was absolutely the very best it could be.”

This statement should be news to anyone who has crammed Apple’s absolutely unbearable pack-in headphones into their ears at any point over the last ten years. If Apple cared about how headphones sounded, they certainly never showed it: their default earbuds were atrociously designed shards of aural and physical pain, with terrible, tinny sound, absolutely no bass response and an ergonomic design worthy of its own condemning press release from Amnesty International.

I was absolutely positive I would detest the EarPods. I actually think they’re pretty okay.

The EarPods are far, far better. I’m tempted to follow that with a zinger, like “… but then again, jagged shards of glass connected to spark-spurting, uninsultated copper wire would be better.” But I have to be honest: I was absolutely positive I would detest the EarPods. I actually think they’re pretty okay. If you heard the venom I’d spit at them before I tried them, you’d know that this is high praise.

Let’s not get sucked in by Apple’s hyperbole, and look at this from a more balanced perspective. With the EarPods, Apple needed to solve a few problems. Their pack-in headphones were widely loathed pieces of junk. They sounded terrible and they were incredibly uncomfortable for most users. Apple could fix those problems in a number of ways, most notably by embracing a more traditional in-canal earbud design, but not while maintaining the profit margins Apple has come to expect, nor maintaining the previous earbud’s design simplicity.

Apple’s EarPods are the solution. Like the previous in-ear pack-in headphones, they are made of a single blob of plastic. They are easy and cheap to mass-produce, and while Apple’s shipping them free with every iPod and iPhone sold, they want thirty bucks for them at retail. Unlike last time, however, they have been designed to take in-ear comfort into account.

“The human ear is so unique. No two are alike. Making one headphone to fit everyone’s ears would be like making one pair of shoes to fit every body’s feet. I mean it’s impossible. But that’s exactly what we’ve tried to do with the new EarPods,” says Jony Ive in the same video linked above (the emphasis is mine).

Personally, I think the EarPods pass the comfort test in a way that wholly elluded their dreadful predecessors. While I couldn’t stand to have the old earbuds in my ears for longer than a single song, I was comfortably able to keep the EarPods in my ears for a couple of hours at a time. This is no mean feat. While I think the sound quality of some of the premium ear buds in my collection is massively better than that of the EarPods, those are all in-canal headphones, which I’ve always found slightly uncomforable. The EarPods, on the other hand, loosely fit into your outer ear using the cartilage for support. For me, the feeling of the EarPods is almost like not wearing headphones at all. I have slight complaints about that — it always felt like the EarPods were simply going to fall out of my ears at any given moment — but there’s no denying that it’s a preferable experience to having ear-fatigue after a few minutes. It should be noted, though, that despite Ive’s boasting, EarPods won’t fit everyone well: they did just fall out of my girlfriend’s ears when she tried to wear them.

The iPhone 5: A Smartphone Of Extraordinary Grace [Review]

The EarPods use some of the same principles as this subwoofer to achieve their bass.

The sound quality of Apple’s EarPods is less interesting. There’s no denying that the EarPods sound much better than their predecessors. Bass was a big weak point of Apple’s previous headphones, which always sounded muddy and indistinct at best, non-existent at worst. The new EarPods are designed with this weakness in mind. Usually, earbuds don’t have good bass unless they can form a tight seal with your ear: namely, in-canal headphones. With the EarPods, though, Apple has poked tiny holes into the stem and outer casing to allow air to continuously cycle through the headphones while they sit in your ear. These holes enable the speaker diaphragms inside tthe EarPods to move back and forth without an inner vacuum stunting the bass response. If you’ve ever bass reflex speakers, the theory there is similar.

So bass is pretty good. For a lot of people, that will be enough. The rise of Beats is testament to the fact that for most people, sound quality in a pair of headphones is determined by having as much bass as possible, end of story. For me, this is a bizarre perspective: the equivalent of thinking the only taste that matters in a meal is sweet, when there’s also sour, bitter, salty, and umami. That said, there’s no denying that the new EarPods have pretty good bass response, although you’re still going to be able to get better bass from a well-fitting pair of in-canal earbuds.

In other regards, though, I found the EarPods to not sound so great. In particular, I noticed some distortion and a general tinniness in the mid-range, especially at louder volumes. For free pack-in headphones, that’s acceptable: most people would never notice it.

There’s some distortion, but most people will never notice the EarPods’ faults.

So what’s the verdict on the EarPods? Unlike any of Apple’s previous pack-in headphones, the EarPods are pretty good. They’ve got pretty good bass response and are extremely comfortable to wear. But Apple’s previous headphones were all marked by a terrible plug and cord design that guaranteed that they had a lifespan of months, and Apple’s done nothing to change that this generation. That means that you’ll probably be replacing your EarPods in the next few months if you use them with any degree of regularity, in which case, we’d recommend you not buy the EarPods again: there are Amazon ($36.97) in the same price range, and even a $10 pair of in-ear buds sound better overall. You’re not a sucker for spending $30 for the EarPods, but you can do much better.

Conclusion

The iPhone 5: A Smartphone Of Extraordinary Grace [Review]

The iPhone 5.

When the iPhone 5 was first officially unveiled by Apple on September 12th, it was met with collective yawns by a hardened tech press that had seen every aspect of its design leak over the previous six months.

If you were one of the people bored by the iPhone 5 when it was announced, I’d ask you to head to your local Apple Store or ask a friend for theirs. Pick it up. Play with some apps. Try the LTE. If you still think the iPhone 5 is boring, I simply don’t know what to say: any tech lover who could find this phone to be anything less than the most exciting piece of tech of the year has to be suffering from either an ennui or a cynicism that could only be measured on a cosmic scale. What would impress you?

In my first impressions, I asked how Apple can possibly top this phone in two years time. The truth is, I don’t think they can. There will be iPhones more advanced than this one. There will be iPhones that are thinner and lighter. That’s Apple’s way. But I don’t think there will ever be an iPhone that is a more perfectly realized vision of what an iPhone should be now than the iPhone 5 is.

Earlier in this review, I referred to the iPhone 5 as a creature of grace. I want to say it again, because it’s a pretty thing to say that matches in its simplicity and beauty the object which it is describing. The iPhone 5 is a creature of grace. It’s exquisite.

Related
  • ddevito

    Where are your sections for:

    poor durability building materials
    Light leakage
    Rattling battery

  • brownlee

    Where are your sections for:

    poor durability building materials
    Light leakage
    Rattling battery

    No where. Because those problems are imaginary.

  • Tallest_Skil

    No where. Because those problems are imaginary.

    You’re an administrator! BAN this freak! He hasn’t made a single post in which the truth was anywhere near it! His sole purpose here is to lie about Apple to modify public opinion!

  • ddevito
    Where are your sections for:

    poor durability building materials
    Light leakage
    Rattling battery

    No where. Because those problems are imaginary.

    https://discussions.apple.com/thread/4337007?start=0&tstart=0

  • Ed_Kel
    No where. Because those problems are imaginary.

    You’re an administrator! BAN this freak! He hasn’t made a single post in which the truth was anywhere near it! His sole purpose here is to lie about Apple to modify public opinion!

    I just posted links PROVING these issues do indeed exist. Check yourself before embarrassing yourself.

    Dude, give it a rest. As with any manufacturing process, there are bound to be a few hiccups. These problems are not widespread. Apple will fix it and everyone will move on from it. I suggest you do the same.

  • ddevito
    No where. Because those problems are imaginary.

    You’re an administrator! BAN this freak! He hasn’t made a single post in which the truth was anywhere near it! His sole purpose here is to lie about Apple to modify public opinion!

    I just posted links PROVING these issues do indeed exist. Check yourself before embarrassing yourself.

    Dude, give it a rest. As with any manufacturing process, there are bound to be a few hiccups. These problems are not widespread. Apple will fix it and everyone will move on from it. I suggest you do the same.

    You and all the other crazed fanatics are back peddling. And I love it. Had this been a flagship Android phone I’m sure you fanboys would be all over it. I’m just making sure everyone is aware of what is going on is all.

  • Macky Suson

    I just love how people fight and try to look forward of getting bad news from Apple. Well, let me tell you this. I love Apple products not because people are talking about it, well it’s a plus that a lot of people are talking about it, but that’s not the main point.

    About the map, Apple’s map can shitty as hell right now, but was Google’s Map perfect when it was just starting? I don’t think so. Google’s map is plain and boring. That’s why back to iOS 5, I paid for an App called Gothere.sg which has a better interface and more accurate than that Google Map. I respect Android users being contented with a copy cat OS. Yes it’s a copy cat and I don’t need any proven article to post here because I know most every one is aware about that. They’re map is boring because they just keep updating… that’s it. Updating. Have you heard about Google Map Developers transferring to Apple? That’s right… it’s because they want something challenging and that is making a new world of iMapping.

    My first Android was Samsung 7″ the one with the huge screen for a phone, 2010 model. Battery… f***ing King of Drain. Apps? King of Foreclosure! and then I sold it. I bought the Acer Iconia after that with the “claimed” better OS, but the difference? Nothing! I wasn’t happy about it. That’s why I decided to buy an iPhone 4. Camera? Not good. Call experience, not good. But I was happy, because at least I can open Twitter, Facebook, Skype, YM, and some good games without foreclosing every time I used it… and then iOS 5 arrived. And it was hell lot better…. And there, I knew, I was gonna stick to it. I love the integration, Find My Phone, Find My Friend, iCloud, iMessage, Facetime and by that time… it was the fastest and consistently reliable OS, iOS. And I bought iPad 2. And Macbook Pro. And iPod Touch, because it was easy for me to synchronize my contacts, mail, notes and calendars. And I can sync it with iTunes wirelessly… and I was happy with that… why? It’s because it’s just getting better and better… and better…. and better. And here comes the copy cat “Shamesung” which they’re followers, who can merely afford iPhone or just born being bullies who coined iSheep. Until now, I don’t understand how it was invented… and I don’t bother knowing it. Why, because I just don’t care.

    Finally, I love my Apple products…. and no one could tell or dictate me, not to love it. And I will not stop using it because of the Map. The Map is just getting started. And I know for sure, with the Turn by Turn and Flyover and with the developers who are starting to develop something for Transits, sooner or better, it’s gonna be great.

    P.S, I am Asian and Siri and I are now best of friends. And I got an iPhone 5 on’ it’s first day. I AM VERY HAPPY. So haters just keep hating…. because I don’t care. ;)

  • brownlee

    ddevito, I’m not going to review issues that are not present in my device, but point taken: a small number of users are having these issues. We’ve been posting about them on the front page. I think you can make your point without spamming link after link in the comments here, though, so I’ve deleted all of your link comments but the one, which I think makes the points you want.

  • ddevito
    No where. Because those problems are imaginary.

    You’re an administrator! BAN this freak! He hasn’t made a single post in which the truth was anywhere near it! His sole purpose here is to lie about Apple to modify public opinion!

    I just posted links PROVING these issues do indeed exist. Check yourself before embarrassing yourself.

    Dude, give it a rest. As with any manufacturing process, there are bound to be a few hiccups. These problems are not widespread. Apple will fix it and everyone will move on from it. I suggest you do the same.

    When a company takes the stage and tells the world how much better they are at designing and making something expect nothing but the best. Anything else gets scrutinized. Deal with it.

  • ddevito

    ddevito, I’m not going to review issues that are not present in my device, but point taken: a small number of users are having these issues. We’ve been posting about them on the front page. I think you can make your point without spamming link after link in the comments here, though, so I’ve deleted all of your link comments but the one, which I think makes the points you want.

    Fair enough, but you replied saying the issues were imaginary :)

  • SupaMac

    @brownlee, girlfriend? I thought you lived with your inamorata. I liked that word better. :)

  • BryanElliott

    Nice wallpaper. Can you point me to the source Mr. Brownlee ?

  • Ed_Kel

    @brownlee – @ddevito has been flagged as a troll 363 times. When the HELL will you block him?! How can people respect a site that its own administrators don’t respect enough to keep clean?! We come here for news and thoughtful engagement with fellow readers yet lately, and with ddevito’s 363 flags, we have been bombarded with thoughtless degrading comments. Start handling your site or you’ll begin to loose your readership.

  • FriarNurgle

    Can’t wait for mine to get delivered.

  • ddevito

    I just love how people fight and try to look forward of getting bad news from Apple. Well, let me tell you this. I love Apple products not because people are talking about it, well it’s a plus that a lot of people are talking about it, but that’s not the main point.

    About the map, Apple’s map can shitty as hell right now, but was Google’s Map perfect when it was just starting? I don’t think so. Google’s map is plain and boring. That’s why back to iOS 5, I paid for an App called Gothere.sg which has a better interface and more accurate than that Google Map. I respect Android users being contented with a copy cat OS. Yes it’s a copy cat and I don’t need any proven article to post here because I know most every one is aware about that. They’re map is boring because they just keep updating… that’s it. Updating. Have you heard about Google Map Developers transferring to Apple? That’s right… it’s because they want something challenging and that is making a new world of iMapping.

    My first Android was Samsung 7″ the one with the huge screen for a phone, 2010 model. Battery… f***ing King of Drain. Apps? King of Foreclosure! and then I sold it. I bought the Acer Iconia after that with the “claimed” better OS, but the difference? Nothing! I wasn’t happy about it. That’s why I decided to buy an iPhone 4. Camera? Not good. Call experience, not good. But I was happy, because at least I can open Twitter, Facebook, Skype, YM, and some good games without foreclosing every time I used it… and then iOS 5 arrived. And it was hell lot better…. And there, I knew, I was gonna stick to it. I love the integration, Find My Phone, Find My Friend, iCloud, iMessage, Facetime and by that time… it was the fastest and consistently reliable OS, iOS. And I bought iPad 2. And Macbook Pro. And iPod Touch, because it was easy for me to synchronize my contacts, mail, notes and calendars. And I can sync it with iTunes wirelessly… and I was happy with that… why? It’s because it’s just getting better and better… and better…. and better. And here comes the copy cat “Shamesung” which they’re followers, who can merely afford iPhone or just born being bullies who coined iSheep. Until now, I don’t understand how it was invented… and I don’t bother knowing it. Why, because I just don’t care.

    Finally, I love my Apple products…. and no one could tell or dictate me, not to love it. And I will not stop using it because of the Map. The Map is just getting started. And I know for sure, with the Turn by Turn and Flyover and with the developers who are starting to develop something for Transits, sooner or better, it’s gonna be great.

    P.S, I am Asian and Siri and I are now best of friends. And I got an iPhone 5 on’ it’s first day. I AM VERY HAPPY. So haters just keep hating…. because I don’t care. ;)

    Yet another iOS migrator who bases his/her opinion of Android on two of its worst products. That’s like getting an iPhone 4 and saying iOS6 sucks.

  • brownlee

    @brownlee – @ddevito has been flagged as a troll 363 times. When the HELL will you block him?! How can people respect a site that its own administrators don’t respect enough to keep clean?! We come here for news and thoughtful engagement with fellow readers yet lately, and with ddevito’s 363 flags, we have been bombarded with thoughtless degrading comments. Start handling your site or you’ll begin to loose your readership.

    I don’t moderate the forums, that’s Buster’s job. You’ve got a point, though: that’s a massive amount of trolls. Consider him banned.

  • Drmstix303

    John, killer review man!

  • brownlee

    Nice wallpaper. Can you point me to the source Mr. Brownlee ?

    Sure. Here you go:

  • CharilaosMulder

    What I’d like to hear some opinions on:

    1. Apple ditched stainless steal in favor of aluminum. Doesn’t this make the iPhone feel cheaper BECAUSE it’s lighter? And isn’t aluminum a much weaker material, therefore making the iPhone more prone to scratches?

    2. anyone else afraid there won’t be a huge “made for lightning” market? I mean there WAS a huge almost-monopoly market for the 30pin, but will the same happen to lightning or will accessories shift towards USB?

  • RageAndSin

    You guys need a new website to aggregate everything that isn’t in regards to mac… oh i dunno maybe “cultofiPhone”

  • HausnerPL

    This isn’t a true review it a song of praise to the iPhone…. Not a word on the competition, i can’t see any flows pointed… Read it if you already wont to by iPhone 5 if you doubts and/or wont really learn something go somewhere else….

  • Pat Smith

    sorry, but frankly this is a huge disappointment. it merely catches up to Android. i have had the original iphone, 3gs, and the 4 and after seeing how little innovation went into this phone switched to galaxy s3. it may be the best iphone but it is NOT the best phone.

  • RadTech5000

    Nice review, I just got my new iPhone 5 blk today I’ll be letting you know what I think of it.

  • BlakeCole6

    just as Brenda responded I’m in shock that a stay at home mom can profit $6326 in 4 weeks on the computer. did you look at this page(Click on menu Home more information) http://goo.gl/oTwrO

  • Mojo_LA

    How will they make the iPhone 6 better? An OLED screen. Because they require no backlight (the organic pixels are self luminous) this kind of display would easily make the next iPhone thinner, lighter and give back at least 20% more battery life. AND it would look far better; more refined color, perfect black levels (when the screen goes black the pixels turn themselves off) so no more murky grey “black” screens and ultra vibrant whites. So, this change alone would do what all iPhone 5 reviews think are impossible: make the next phone even thinner, lighter and have a better looking display. And the jump from 10 to 12 hours battery life would be huge! OLED is undeniably the display tech of the future, let’s hope Apple adopts it into their phones and iPads sooner rather than later.

  • Mojo_LA

    I’m still using a 3Gs because I skipped the 4 – the rumors of a larger screen didn’t materialize and it seemed elementary that the 5 would finally have it. Between that and antenna gate I decided to save my upgrade and wait for the 5. Now that it’s here, I’m very tempted, but can’t help but wonder what improvements the inevitable 5S will bring. Buying a 3GS was the best decision anyone could have made – that little S increased the lifespan of the phone by several YEARS; the 3G was phased out and went unsupported two years ago – the 3GS is still alive and kicking!

    Anyone else tempted to wait for the 5S? I suppose I can wait a few weeks and see if any major issues like Antennagate show up; if not, the 5 right now seems like a good bet. I mean the new chip is so fast it’s hard to imagine the 5S being THAT much faster, or the Phone itself being obsolete as quickly as the 3G was.

  • Tallest_Skil

    How will they make the iPhone 6 better? An OLED screen.

    Not happening, period.

    AND it would look far better; more refined color, perfect black levels

    Sorry, but that’s also completely incorrect.

    OLED is undeniably the display tech of the future

    I deny it. It’s the tech of people who want an easy way out.

  • Mojo_LA

    I’d like to know what makes you say OLED is not better than LCD. I’ve SEEN OLED screens in action (and not just on a phone) and they are everything I said. Oh I did forget one other thing, OLED has NO MOTION SMEARING. Even fast LCD panels have a little ghosting when items move, but OLED does not have this issue. The way I see it is OLED has the image quality of the best CRT but with the convenience of LCD (ask any video person and they’ll agree, CRT screen are better than LCD. LCD only took over because it was thinner and lighter).

    So your comment is an utter fail, unless you prefer your picture without true black, super high contrast (OLED has essentially infinite contrast range, LCD cannot compete), better color and thinner and lighter.

    There have been less than perfect OLED screen put into some phones, but those were early OLED panels – the tech keeps getting better and better. Go look at one of LG’s soon to be released 55″ OLED TVs and after you’ve held a magnifying glass up to the screen, let me know what flaws you manage to find in a display that drops everyone else’s jaw.

    Oh and ANOTHER thing I forgot to mention – OLED has no viewing angle issues. Even LCD screens that claim “wide viewing angle” change contrast, brightness and color as soon as you move even an inch of center. If you have several people standing aound an LCD screen they all see a different picture! OLED does not have this problem and, again, it’s like watching a CRT or a movie screen – no matter what angle you’re at, everyone sees the same picture.

    And I said they are thinner and lighter, but when you see just how thin and light you’re going to freak. That 55″ TV is maybe an eighth of an inch thick and weighs only 16 pounds. You can hang these things on the wall with thumb tacks, no more heavy duty braces needed (that’s what happens when you don’t need a backlight assembly anymore).

    Sorry dude, it IS the way of the future. Every single person who sees one will want one and there isn’t a single thing LCD has in it’s favor. By this time next year a 4″ screen will be essentially perfect and Apple WILL utilize them. It’s one of the few ways they have left to make the phone thinner and lighter and use less power. Soon no one is going to be using LCDs and Apple is known to be ahead of the curve, so I predict they’ll start using them BEFORE the general public is savvy to them.

    But please, go ahead and share your REASONS for saying I’m wrong, not just contrary, trolling anti-comments.

  • blairh

    John, I really hated parts of this review. I’m sorry but dear God sir, you go overboard at times.

    For starters, this part drove me crazy,

    “The device is so light that the first time I picked up my new iPhone 5 out of its box, I ended up pulling at it too hard and spastically hurling it across the room.”

    I seriously doubt this happened. And if it did, you should be embarrassed. I was using an iPhone 4 since it hit the market, and I received the iPhone 5 on the 21st. While I certainly noticed the lighter weight, this concept that it’s so light that you might fling it across the room at first touch seems utterly ridiculous.

    While you did bring up the scuff issue that I and others are having, you didn’t give it the proper attention. I have the black iPhone 5 and with extreme care I’ve accumulated close to a dozen nicks in the chamfered edges without a case. iFixit confirms how prone this specific areas is to scuffs/scratches/nicks. I wish you and other reviewers would simply state this. It appears Pocket Lint is the only *professional* review to point this out. Also, telling others that the 5 can and should be used without a case is a mistake. (Gizmodo is guilty of this too.) Yes, I love the look and feel of the 5 naked, but I’m also aware that using my phone in such a manner is going to result it an accumulation of countless scuffs along the chamfered edges. The consumer needs to determine if they are okay with this or not. (I’m not, and I’m now using a case and waiting for a bumper to arrive in the mail.)

    You also absurdly asked here and before how the iPhone could POSSIBLY get better. Man, this one irritates me the absolute most. Let me clearly lay out some improvements for future iPhone’s.

    1. A slightly wider screen. Keep the height, but allow it to be a touch wider. It would improve the size of text in portrait and not be difficult to use with one hand. The problem with the SIII and those other large screens is that it’s almost impossible to reach the corners with one hand without shifting it up and down in your hand. Apple can and should give us a slightly larger screen in the future. Ideally 4.3″ IMO keeping the 16:9 aspect ratio.

    2. An LED notification light. Why do reviewers never mention this? It’s a fantastic feature found on countless other smartphones.

    3. The ability to use the screen with gloves on. (The Lumia 920 apparently allows this.)

    4. A coating on the chamfered edges that won’t make scuffs and the like so inevitable. Again, I have close to a dozen after a week and before using the case I was handling my 5 with extreme care.

    5. The changes above are all with respect to hardware. How about some obvious software improvements moving forward like the ability to toggle screen brightness and wi-fi without going into settings and with the use of Siri.

    Despite it’s flaws, I love my iPhone 5. But I don’t think it’s nearly as flawless as your review makes it out to be.

  • skfalco

    Very solid and good review Mr Brownlee i agree with you in most points but there is one… i mean apple won’t make an iPhone better in everyway and more advance? That sounds like a challenge… but a challenge pointed to Steve.. honestly Tim cook let the iPhone out without 1 feature that would be the killer one.. i mean think about the 4… that was a revolution or previous models every other smartphone in the market would be afraid of the 3GS, the 4 etc, right now… i bought an iTouch and i feel i’m not losing anything vs. the iPhone 5, yes the processor, but hey my One X does a pretty solid job and looking at the numbers with JellyBean… the A6 is NOT the fastest one and with Vsync of course not the smoothest experience right now, The camera well maybe yes it’s the best right now but lumia 920 is just around the corner.. so =( i’m an apple and android fan but as of right now apple did a pretty good job, just not good enough, we miss you Steve, but apart from that, very good review =)

  • Mojo_LA

    I think quite a few people have chimed in about the new aluminum casing. As far weight goes, I agree that a little weight makes something feel solid and sturdy, but Apple has a pretty good track record about high quality construction. I think the iPhone 5 is sort of like the “iPhone air.” When the MacBook Air was introduced, it was incredibly light yet still sturdy and difficult to break. I’m sure the 5 will be the same.

    As far as scratches go, well, this is a textbook case of not being able to have your cake and eat it too. Anything you take with you everywhere you go and use constantly for years on end is going to get scratched and nicked, it’s as simple as that. Remember, Apple (and everyone else) makes these things shiny and pretty so they will inspire lust on the showroom floor. They want people in the Apple store to look at the phone, hold it in their hand and say “I must have this.” What happens after you buy it is of very little concern to them. But let’s be real, if you want to take your iPhone everywhere you go and use it all the time it’s going to get scuffed up, it’s unavoidable no matter WHAT it’s made of.

    On the other hand, if you slap on a screen protector and a case, guess what? It will stay nice and shiny forever. I’ve had my 3GS since the first month it came out and when I take it out of the case it still looks as good as new. And don’t whine “but if you put it in a case no one can see how pretty it is!” Well guess what, when the thing is in your hand or pressed up against your face no one can see it anyway!

    So either stick it in a case and protect it(and every time you drop it you’re going to be SO glad you bought that case) or go naked and enjoy the shiny for as long as you can. But worrying about it is pointless.

    As far as the new connector goes, of course everyone is going to remake all their accessories and everyone is going to go out and buy new speaker docks and new gizmos that won’t work (or work well) with the adaptor. Remember, for millions of people, the iPhone 5 will be their first iPhone, so it’s not an issue for them! For the rest of us, it’s the price of progress.

    Your comment about accessories shifting towards USB is a little confusing. If they start making USB speaker docs, I don’t think ANY phone will work with them! Besides, USB would be slower and not offer the same level of control as a lightning connector. And now I’m going to stop writing about the possibility of USB accessories for the iPhone because it’s not ever going to happen!

    What I’d like to hear some opinions on:

    1. Apple ditched stainless steal in favor of aluminum. Doesn’t this make the iPhone feel cheaper BECAUSE it’s lighter? And isn’t aluminum a much weaker material, therefore making the iPhone more prone to scratches?

    2. anyone else afraid there won’t be a huge “made for lightning” market? I mean there WAS a huge almost-monopoly market for the 30pin, but will the same happen to lightning or will accessories shift towards USB?

  • ToniPan

    3 Months with my new iPhone 5 and i always enjoy the sound quality when I capture videos or sound.

    The only problem is that everyone walking around with the same iPhone after 3GS.. I purchased a carbon sticker from http://www.coolcasing.com
    and i don’t get bored from the same exactly design over and over.

About the author

John BrownleeJohn Brownlee is a Contributing Editor. He has also written for Wired, Playboy, Boing Boing, Popular Mechanics, VentureBeat, and Gizmodo. He lives in Boston with his girlfriend and two parakeets. You can follow him here on Twitter.

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