2 Weeks with iPhone 5s

Watching the iPhone evolve from the first version, released six years ago, I’ve seen the device mature and grow year after year. It was incredibly liberating to possess a device in your pocket that could connect you to your email, all of your friends, family and business contacts, allow you to browse the full web (except for Flash, of course), and interact with apps and content via a smooth, reliable touch screen. The 3.5″ screen felt massive compared to my Razr phone, and most other cell phones of that time.

Here we are six years later, and that device has become more powerful, thinner, lighter, and capable of accessing hundreds of thousands of available apps and games. The cell phone forever changed, and now the trend seems to be pointing towards larger and larger screens. 3.5″ feels archaic and cramped now.

My girlfriend and I have been using the iPhone 4S since October of 2011, when it was brand new. We have been on a steady 2 year upgrade schedule (mostly due to our carrier contracts). From iPhone, to iPhone 3GS, to iPhone 4S, and now the 5s. This has been nice, because even though we miss out on the brand new form factor and “newness” of the redesigns (iPhone 4, iPhone 5), we get the “S” models, which include not only that new design, but usually that x-factor bonus feature or features — “blazing speed” on the 3GS, Siri on the 4S, Touch ID, 64 bit A7, M7 on the 5S. Typically, camera improvements are more profound on “S” models, and taking quality pictures is a huge priority for both of us as well.

After 2 years with the iPhone 4S, I was definitely ready for an upgrade. Let’s see what the 5s has to offer…

The 4 Inch Screen

I’ll be the first to admit, while the 3.5″ screen didn’t necessarily bother me, I did encounter times where a larger screen would have been nice. I’m a die hard believer in owning a phone that can be comfortably operated with one hand. This is my opinion based on my usage needs and of course others are entitled to their own.

I’m often multitasking, trying to do something on my phone while walking, holding coffee/the dog’s leash/any number of other random things, and not being able to use it with one hand would be a deal breaker.

Having used the 5s now for a couple of weeks, I am very much enjoying the 4″ screen. I think it’s a great compromise of having a larger screen while still being able to comfortably use the device. I think I could even go to 4.5″, but anything larger than that would be too much for me.

Weight and Performance

The first thing I noticed about the 5s, other than that extra half inch screen feels more significant than I thought it would, is how light it felt in my hand. It felt like a hollow store display that didn’t have any innards. But I can testify that this phone has plenty of guts! After having several mini heart attacks thinking I’d left my brand new phone at the store because it didn’t feel like it was in my pocket, I became used to the weight (or lack thereof) and began to focus on how fast this phone is.

Tasks that used to take ages (converting an iMovie project, mixing down a GarageBand project, downloading thousands of files through Dropbox, etc) all absolutely scream on this phone. I’m blown away by the performance. Loading web pages is practically instant. Loading apps is instant. Waiting for content to refresh (an eternally annoying plague on our iPhone 4Ss) seems to have all but been eliminated (no doubt thanks partly from the background app refresh features of iOS 7).

I remember on the iPad 1, when GarageBand first came out, I would routinely be interrupted by a dialog box that locked me out of the program and displayed an agonizingly slow “Optimizing” progress bar. See “Rocket in My Pocket” on this article for a reminder: http://arstechnica.com/apple/2011/11/garageband-for-iphone-8-track-studio-in-your-pocket/

To go from that experience to what the A7 processor delivers currently is bananas. This phone truly feels like a top of the line laptop from just a few short years ago. Think about that. It fits in your pocket. It goes all day on one charge. And it even makes phone calls! What sorcery is this?

On the Road (Maps, Siri, Performance, Battery Life)

My iPhone 5s was delivered a couple of days before a road trip I had scheduled, which was perfect timing as I was looking forward to taking it on the road with me to give it a full test. On the road it performed very well, allowing me to listen to my music and podcasts, as well as directing me with turn by turn directions via Siri (which worked extremely well aside from 1 or 2 minor hiccups). I was able to take lots of very high quality pictures, test the slow motion video recording (which is a lot of fun), and of course keep in touch with everything via phone calls, email and texting.

I love that the turn by turn now automatically goes into a night mode after sunset, making the screen far less jarring on your eyes when navigating at night. I also love how the notification sounds that come through while listening to music or on the phone are much shorter, and don’t turn the music down quite so low. This is a good balance between allowing you to continue listening to your music/podcasts, and knowing when a notification comes in.

While out of town I used turn by turn daily (always via Siri which was strikingly fast, within half a second of asking my request it was providing me with recognition of my request and getting the correct details). This is a tremendous improvement, as Siri on my 4S directly after updating to iOS 7.0 seemed like a huge step backwards, both in reliability and functionality.

All in all the iPhone 5s performed perfectly for me while out of town, and I was well pleased with it. The only thing I found that was a tad annoying was that the battery life wasn’t as good as I would have liked to see. Not every day, but several days, I had to plug it in during the day just to make it until bed time. Now, there are two caveats to that. First, the iPhone was brand new, and as such I was playing with it a lot, experiencing and enjoying all of the new features, and not wanting to put it down. This drained my battery much faster than “normal use”. Second, I was staying up very late, so “bed time” was typically 3am-4am, while still waking up around 8am-9am. So realistically, I was getting pretty good usage out of a single charge. The battery did drain just a little faster than I was comfortable with, and I hope that future iOS updates will work to improve the battery life more.

Touch ID (Fingerprint Scanner)

I was one of those people who never locked my phone with a passcode. My girlfriend didn’t, either. I work from home, and do minimal traveling, but even so the risk of losing our phones or having them stolen was a real one, and not having any sort of security on those devices always made me nervous. I just never liked having to type in a passcode every time I unlocked my phone, and even more so, I figure a 4 digit numeric passcode is so easy to bypass, that I wouldn’t really feel secure without the advanced passphrase option.

Now, with the 5s and Touch ID, I have enabled a strong passphrase to unlock my phone. This fourteen character passphrase would be a nightmare to type in every time I unlock my phone, but it does make the thing extremely secure. The idea of having this strong security combined with the convenience of not having to enter it in every time I unlock my phone sounded perfect, and in practice it has been very nice.

So far the scanner has worked very well for me, with a few exceptions. The first several days I had it, I would routinely be prompted to “Enter Passcode to Enable Touch ID”, which was very annoying (mostly because of my super strong 14 character passphrase). I had not restarted the phone, it just seemed to prompt for this randomly. A few other times, I would get the “Try Again” error several times in a row and this would kick me to a prompt to enter my passcode as well. However, the last week and a half or so, this has not happened. Maybe once or twice I’ve been promoted to enter my passcode, but all in all the Touch ID is working great for me. I will occasionally get the “Try Again” message but then removing my thumb and placing it back down quickly unlocks the phone properly.

Unfortunately, my girlfriend has been having more issues. It seems that several times a day, without fail, it is prompting her to enter her passcode. This has been very annoying for her, understandably so. We are going to try re-learning her fingerprints, as well as adding a couple other fingers (she only has her thumbs currently), so if the “Try Again” message happens, she has a backup option (such as her index finger). I am hoping this will improve the consistent issues she has been having with Touch ID. It could also be that her fingerprints aren’t as distinct as mine, or easily readable by the sensor. She is often painting or using glue for artistic and crafty activities, and it’s possible that glue or paint on her thumbs is throwing off the sensor, though it has struggled to unlock for her even at times when she did not have anything on her thumbs. We will be monitoring the issue and speaking with Apple if it continues.

Overall, I think the Touch ID is a fantastic feature, and works very well for me. If we can get it working as reliably on her phone, then it will clearly be a winner. Not having to type in a passcode (or longer passphrase) to unlock the phone or make a purchase from iTunes/App Store is a huge convenience factor. So much so that I already try to unlock our older phones and iPads by pressing my finger on the home button and waiting… and waiting… and oh yeah! No Touch ID! Whoops. I’m hoping Touch ID makes it to the iPads next year, once the supply constrain isn’t so severe.

iOS 7 and iCloud

When I first got the phone, restoring it from my previous backup was a breeze. It only took a few minutes, and -POOF- like magic, all of my old apps, content and settings appeared on the new device. What a wonderful experience. I still remember the old days when getting a new iPhone meant re-configuring everything from scratch. At the time it was fun and novel, and I enjoyed it, but now I truly appreciate the convenience of just hitting restore and having everything automatigically taken care of for me.

iOS 7 is a really huge update, and there have been countless debates about whether or not it is a good update. I am in the camp of thinking it is a great update, with a few niggles and of course the standard “1.0” issues. As a software developer, I can appreciate that, and will wait patiently for updates to fix things. I’ve posted my thoughts on this blog about iOS 7, so I won’t get into that. Suffice it to say that iOS 7 was clearly meant to run on the iPhone 5s, and it has been running very nicely on our new phones. With the two latest updates (we’re up to 7.0.3 now), I have seen marked improvements across the board in battery life, reliability & stability, and bringing back features and simplifying tasks.

One thing I immediately did after the 7.0.3 update came out, was go to Settings – General – Accessibility and turn on the Reduce Motion setting. All of the animations and physics effects were very cool for a short time, and then quickly became annoying simply because they were too slow. Turning these off has greatly improved the speed, and made my iPhone 5S feel much faster than it initially did. I am grateful for that option, thank you Apple.

Other issues with the iTunes Store, Siri, apps crashing etc seem to have been polished up nicely. More and more this is feeling like a robust, stable update and I am enjoying all of the thoughtful new features.

iCloud seems to be working okay, though Photo Stream seems unreliable. Many times I will snap a few pictures, go to my Mac to grab them from iPhoto, and they are simply not there. Pictures in my Photo Stream are several weeks old, even though I’ve taken plenty of pictures since then.

Another frustration that both my girlfriend and I have had, is the constant “Not Enough Storage to Complete iCloud Backup”. I’ve looked at both our phones and cannot figure out for the life of me why even though we both have 5GB of iCloud storage each, and only have about 1-2GB in the camera roll, that our “Next Backup” will take 5.5GB, 6GB, or even more. Besides pictures, the only thing being backed up is application data, system settings, and our text messages. Why the heck would that data be 3+GB?? This issue never happened to either of us on iOS 6. I will be doing some more research into this problem and I hope I can solve it soon. Not having nightly backups of our devices is troublesome, and this needs to be fixed!

The M7 Motion Coprocessor

While not an active feature that you can interact with regularly, I am really enjoying the functionality that the M7 provides. I’ve been using the Pedometer app, which has provided me with useful insight into my workouts and daily activity.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that Pedometer, and the newly released Nike Move app, were able to pull motion data from before the apps were even installed. So I have movement data all the way back to the first day I got the phone. Very cool!

It seems pretty darn accurate, and has showed no negative impact on my battery life, even with using several apps that utilize the coprocessor. I think this is a great win for Apple, and I look forward to playing with more apps that take advantage of this feature as they become available.

Picking a Case

Even though covering the sleek, thin, lightweight iPhone with a case seems like heresy, I’ve always cased mine. I’ve seen (and experienced) too many iPhones with smashed screens after being dropped.

I also find the body of iPhones to be too slippery for my liking. They feel great initially, but the minute it slips out of your hand or slowly slides off your jeans when you set it on your leg, you may wish for a slightly grippier surface.

Finding a case that provides adequate protection (especially of the screen) while not defeating the slim and light design of the iPhone is hard. I’ve had good luck with the OtterBox Impact case (though all of their others are far too heavy, bulky and annoying to deal with). Unfortunately there isn’t an Impact case out for the iPhone 5s yet.

After searching for awhile, I was able to find a case that I thought was comparable. We ordered two Spigen cases hoping they would work well. I was pleasantly surprised when they arrived, and I find it much better than the Impact case. It is slim, light, has a lip on the front to protect the screen when dropped, provides just enough grip, and looks very handsome on the iPhone (both space grey and silver).

My only gripe with the case is that, like most iPhone cases, it provides limited access to the headphone port. It works fine for the included EarPods and other slim headphone cables, but bulkier cables (like those found on high end headphones and some car aux input cables) don’t fit. I’m going to see if I can file down the connector on my car aux cable, but if that doesn’t work I will replace the cable with a slim fit one. I’m tired of always having to deal with this issue.

Bottom Line

The build quality, weight, size and performance of this phone are all top of the line. Battery life has been improving as iOS 7 learns my usage patterns and I slowly get to a point where I don’t have to constantly unlock the phone and admire it. The 4″ screen seems like a great compromise of size and usability. Any larger and I would begin to wrestle with the size when using one-handed, which is a requirement for me.

I am constantly impressed by the design of iOS 7 and the speed of the A7 chip. The M7 provides great functionality that previously was unavailable or caused significant battery drain.

All in all, the iPhone 5s is a great upgrade, and if you’re coming from an iPhone 4 or 4S, it’s a no brainer. Aside from a few hiccups (mostly attributed to the 1.0 nature of the brand new iOS 7), this phone has performed admirably and I look forward to spending the next 2 years with it.