Review: Yes, the iPhone 5 is improved - but it's still just a phone

TORONTO – The iPhone 5 is just a phone.

Sometimes it bears repeating, given the inescapable hype that surrounds just about every product launch Apple orchestrates.

If you knew nothing about technology, you might reasonably assume that Apple’s new phone must be a revolutionary technological marvel, based on the breathless news coverage that started months ago and TV footage of long overnight lineups for the gadget.

But the iPhone 5 is just a phone. A great one, yes, and arguably the best you can buy right now. It’s certainly the best Apple has ever produced, a seemingly slight but marked upgrade over its already powerful predecessor. But the iPhone 5 doesn’t represent a paradigm shift in mobile technology, there’s no killer feature that renders the iPhone 4 or 4S — or other high-end competitors made by the likes of Samsung — obsolete.

But it still must be said that Apple has taken a phone that was already at the top of its class and undoubtedly made it even better.

The improved look and feel of the iPhone 5 is immediately apparent. It’s a shiny, slick device with a luxurious look to match its hefty price tag. Compared to the previous iPhones, it’s been stretched out vertically by just under a centimetre, which allowed Apple to increase its screen size by about 1.25 centimetres diagonally, giving it the 16:9 aspect ratio used for high definition video. The extra-tall screen means there’s an additional row of icons on the home screen, more of a web page is displayed before having to scroll and watching a HD movie fills the screen fully. But as of now, not all apps have been optimized for the new display, so users may find black bars at the edges of the screen in some apps. Some consumers may be disappointed that Apple didn’t make the new screen even larger. Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S III has a screen that’s a full two centimetres larger when measured diagonally and while bulkier to handle, it’s still manageable to carry around and stick in a pocket. I can’t say one screen size is better than another, it’s a matter of personal preference.

Apple also boasts its new phone is 18 per cent thinner and 20 per cent lighter than the last iPhone. The iPhone 5 does feel like it’s a hollow shell compared to the iPhone 4S. But while it’s no doubt a technological feat, practically speaking, its feather-weight feel isn’t really a feature.

Like with most new models, the processing power has got a major boost in the iPhone 5, giving it the potential to be twice as fast as the iPhone 4S. In reality, app programmers still haven’t had a chance to really take advantage of that extra power, so the iPhone 5 doesn’t actually work twice as fast as the last phone. But it is noticeably quicker in responding to most tasks, including launching apps and using the web browser.

Part of the zippy web browsing experience is linked to the phone’s ability to tap into a newer kind of high-speed mobile network called LTE, a major step up from 3G. At the best of times, LTE even smokes most residential Internet connections. At home, I subscribe to a plan that lets me download data at up to 16 megabits per second, while a test on Rogers’ LTE network produced speeds that were occasionally three times as fast. The blazing speed isn’t always appreciable during web browsing but it’s evident when tapping on a video link. Try browsing through the video section at the New York Times, where gorgeous-looking video opens instantly and requires no buffering whatsoever. The iPhone 5 isn’t the first phone to connect to LTE networks and most smartphones going forward will have that connectivity option. Just be warned that watching video over mobile networks will quickly chew through your data plan and streaming too much can be very costly.

One change that’s sure to annoy longtime users of Apple products is the new slimmer Lightning connector, used for plugging in a power cord or connecting to iPhone-compatible peripherals. Those who invested in iPhone docks, alarm clocks or have a surplus of charging plugs won’t be able to use them with the iPhone 5 without purchasing an adapter. Apple’s cheapest sells for $35, so here’s hoping generic-brand adapters start flooding the market soon.

The other major knock against the iPhone 5 is that it no longer has Google Maps data baked into its software. Apple has gone with another supplier for its maps and it’s clearly inferior. Still, despite a major backlash suggesting the new maps app may be unusable, it really isn’t that bad. There are plenty of reports of major errors in the mapping data and embarrassing graphic glitches but it generally has the basics covered. Its ability to provide turn-by-turn directions makes separate GPS units unnecessary. And if users really miss Google Maps, it’s still available within the browser and a link to the website can be added to the home screen.

The iPhone 5 also comes preloaded with a new version of Siri, the voice activated personal assistant, which can now respond to queries about local points of interest, provide directions, check sports scores and search for movie screenings. But it remains a very hit and miss experience, which means it’s not always a time saver and is often an annoyance. During testing, Siri frequently couldn’t understand when I said “Toronto” and often thought I was referring to Trenton or Toron Tow. On the other hand, dictating emails generally worked very well, with only the odd mistake that needed correcting. Apple continues to say that Siri is in “beta” mode, meaning they don’t consider it a fully polished product and more of a work in progress.

There’s no such thing as a perfect product so belabouring any of the iPhone 5’s few negatives is really nitpicking. It’s a powerful pocket-sized computer that browses the web, runs apps and games, takes great photos and video, and works like a MP3 player, GPS and TV screen. It also makes phone calls.

But it must be said that its two predecessors, the iPhone 4 and 4S, still stand up remarkably well to the latest and greatest. Both can be loaded with iOS 6, the latest operating system for iPhones, iPod Touchs and iPads, although many features won’t work on the iPhone 4.

There are Apple users who will always want the newest model, so the decision to upgrade will be automatic. Those who recently purchased an iPhone 4S may want to fight any jealousy they might be harbouring and hold out at least another year to see what Apple comes out with next.

For a first time smartphone user who doesn’t read tech blogs and is still learning the difference between a megabyte and gigabyte, I’d suggest there’s a strong case to be made for going with the still very-capable iPhone 4, which offers incredible value given that it’s basically free when signing a three-year contract. The biggest two features missing on that phone, Siri and FaceTime video chatting, are certainly non-essential. The iPhone 4S lacks LTE connectivity but can do most else that an iPhone 5 can do, albeit maybe a little slower. It’s only $80 on a three-year contract. Or for $100 more you can buy the new iPhone 5 on contract, which is clearly an improvement over the other iPhones but for the average consumer, maybe not by much.

Or you can go the more expensive route and purchase an unlocked phone without a contract, which frees you from getting stuck with one mobile provider for three years and allows you to travel with the phone and buy a local pay-as-you-go SIM card to avoid costly roaming fees. The incentive to save money by buying an older iPhone is even greater when looking at unlocked models. The iPhone 4 is $450, the iPhone 4S costs another $150 more, and the iPhone 5 ranges between $700 to $900. That’s a lot of money for technology that falls out of fashion so quickly.

At those prices, consumers might want to remind themselves: it’s just a phone.