Everyone’s talking about the iPhone. It’s all we’ve been writing about for days. And now it’s finally here. Apple’s iPhone 5S has both features we totally anticipated – like a new gold shade – and stuff we never saw coming – like the new dedicated M7 motion processor.
But how much of it actually matters?
Diehard tech fans will have their own opinions, but if you’re an average smartphone user, Apple’s marketing can make it hard to tell. We combed through the iPhone 5S’s most notable features to break down which are worthy of your admiration and which are just lame. If you’re considering the new iPhone – or just want know what you’re talking about when it comes up at the bar tonight – here’s an honest cheatsheet to all the features.
The “Touch ID” fingerprint sensor on the iPhone 5S could be a peek into the future of smartphones. The Home button on the new iPhone (which has a fancy ring around it) doubles as a new kind of fingerprint scanner. If you let it, the iPhone will allow you to use your finger as a unique key to unlock your phone and avoid entering passwords in a few other places, like the App Store.
Assuming it works well (we’ve used to fingerprinter readers that don’t, and others that can be fooled with a Xerox machine), it could eliminate the need for passwords and enhance the security of everyone’s phone. It may also help deter thieves. Right now, phone theft makes up as much as half of all crime in major cities like New York and San Francisco, but phones that won’t work without a fingerprint wouldn’t be worth much to thieves.
Aside from the Moto X, we don’t know of another phone with a processor dedicated to sensors. Apple has included a separate sidekick processor that will constantly monitor the motion sensors – accelerometer, gyroscope, and digital compass – inside the 5S. This is really cool. It means that the 5S can always monitor motion data, even while it’s sleeping and without draining the battery like a normal phone. There aren’t a lot of uses for this yet, but now fitness-type apps can monitor and access a ton of real-time data for you. Apps can always know if you’re running, walking, or driving. Apple gives the example of a Maps app automatically switching from driving directions to walking if it detects that you’ve parked and left your car. This M7 chip will make the iPhone a lot smarter and will let app makers (and Apple) craft some very cool new experiences. Siri could actually become a program you want to use.
If you buy an iPhone 5S because you want to own a gold phone, you’re kind of a tool. Sorry. But from what we can see and what we’ve heard, the gold coloring on the iPhone 5S doesn’t look awful, like we thought it might. So … that’s less awful, right? The only real purpose this color serves it to let the world know that you have a fancy new iPhone 5S. It’s now one of three coloring options for your fancy high-end iPhone. If you want colors that will induce more seizures or possibly glow in the dark, you may want to opt for an iPhone 5C.
James Bond fans, you’re the real winners here. With a gold finish and a fingerprint sensor, you could literally have a Goldfinger phone.
The iPhone 5S will have one of the best cameras on the market, but the competition is stiff. With phones like the Nokia Lumia 1020 and its 41-megapixel camera floating on store shelves, there isn’t much an iPhone can do to impress these days. The new iPhone supposedly has a better flash, a burst mode, and can record videos in super high frame rates, so you can watch them in slow motion. Sadly, Apple is playing catchup on almost all of these (and other) new camera features. The HTC One, Galaxy S4, Nokia Lumias, LG G2, and Xperia Z all have comparable camera features, and Nokia’s phones blow all the others away when it comes to low-light performance (see: not needing a flash at all).
The new iPhone 5S camera looks fantastic, and the app is great, but there’s nothing to brag about. The camera’s sensor size isn’t breaking records, its burst mode has been done (and isn’t something you’ll really use), and it packs only 8 megapixels compared to 13-megapixel shooters, which power most flagship Android phones. Apple also brags about “bigger pixels,” but unless Apple is gonna call them “Ultrapixels” HTC has the iPhone beat. Again, cool camera, but hard to brag about.
Apple is taking a step forward by embracing a 64-bit ARM processor, but will it outperform the quad-core and octa-core Android phones out there? We don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter. Trying to debate processing power is getting old. Apple is bragging that the iPhone 5S is the first phone with a 64-bit ARM processor inside it. That’s probably true (we’ll take it at its word), but it isn’t going to make much of a difference to you. Like all new iPhones, this one is about twice as fast as the iPhone before it. It’s just how things work. ZDNet argues that many new features, like the Camera app and fingerprint sensor, require the 64-bit architecture. That’s great. But like high-powered Android phones, there’s a limit to how fast your processor really needs to be. Most of the apps and games in the App Store will not begin to take advantage of the iPhone 5S’s special processor for at least a year or two, when more iPhone owners have 64-bit capabilities.
Basically, your iPhone will run fast and this processor helps it scan your thumb. Don’t try and brag about it until there is a game or two that blows all Android games out of the water. You may have to wait a while, though Infinity Blade 3 is looking pretty cool.
There are a lot of cool new things in iOS 7, but it won’t win you many exclusivity points because everyone who owns an iPhone 4+ is going to get it. It’s a hugely needed visual upgrade to the look of the iPhone software, and has a few new features, but there isn’t a lot to brag about if you’re comparing it to any Android phone. Most of Apple’s new features (which again, are great!) have been in Android a while, like improved multitasking, better folder support, and a Control Center menu that easily lets you turn services like Wi-Fi on and off. Everything looks a lot nicer though, so iPhone 5S owners, you’re back on a modern platform that isn’t filled with shiny buttons and gradients straight out of 2005.
Verdict: Apple’s catching up
Don’t go spend your savings upgrading early, but if you were considering an iPhone, the 5S is a good reason to stick with Apple next time you renew your contract. No, the hardware doesn’t look different, and the screen’s not bigger, but Apple has put some really cool hardware and software upgrades into it. If the fingerprint sensor works as well as it looks like it works, in a few years almost every smartphone and gadget may have one. And hey, if all else fails, you can still be the first person on your block to own a gold phone. Gold status, man.