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iPhone 5S ::Same look, small screen, big potential





The good: The iPhone 5S delivers an improved camera, a nifty fingerprint sensor, and a next-gen CPU and motion-tracking chip. Apple throws in the iWork app suite for free. iOS 7 adds some nice step-ups, too, including AirDrop file transfers and the Android-like Control Center.


The bad: External design is identical to that of the iPhone 5, including a 4-inch screen that looks downright tiny next to Android competitors. For now, the fingerprint sensor only works with Apple apps. The 64-bit A7 processor and M7 motion-tracking chip don't have killer apps yet. iOS 7 differences are potentially jarring for longtime iPhone users.


The bottom line: The iPhone 5S is not a required upgrade, but it's easily the fastest and most advanced Apple smartphone to date.



I'm tempted to call the iPhone 5S the iPhone 5P, for "potential." This is Apple's half-step year, a rebuilding year. It's telegraphed by the name itself: adding an "S" versus giving the phone a whole new name. The 5S introduces technologies that could transform the future of iOS as a computing platform, and maybe pave the way for future products in 2014. But it doesn't manifest these changes right off the bat. Its promises haven't come to fruition yet.

Last year's iPhone 5 was the best iPhone we'd ever seen. It met nearly all our wishes and expectations. It added tons of new features. It had LTE. What did Apple do this year as an encore? It added...a few new improvements. Enter the iPhone 5S, which along with the iPhone 5C mark the first time Apple's delivered two new iPhones in one year. But the 5C is really the iPhone 5 in color plastic. There's really only one new iPhone, and that's the 5S.

We wanted a bigger screen, an improved camera, and better battery life. Apple gave us a fingerprint sensor, an improved camera, and a faster processor. Faster is better, especially when battery life doesn't suffer, but the 5S doesn't feel like a shocking new product.





Apple does this every other year with iPhones -- see the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4S. It's a common occurrence in iPads and MacBooks, too: take a familiar form, and repeat. But, in a phone landscape dominated by rapid change, it can feel frustrating, even for a product we loved just 12 months ago. Even iOS 7, Apple's graphically overhauled operating system, feels different but not really all that shocking. Even the new colors -- gold and "space gray" -- are subtler than you realize.

That doesn't mean there aren't changes, but many of them seem like roadwork for the future; a cleverly ingenious under-the-home-button fingerprint sensor, a clearly better camera, majorly upgraded graphics, a motion-tracking M7 co-processor, and a new A7 processor capable of 64-bit computing are a lot of under-the-hood tweaks. But, after a week of using the iPhone 5S, it's hard to find situations that currently take advantage of these features, except for the fingerprint sensor and camera.

Check back in two months; after new apps emerge, maybe the iPhone 5S will start seeming like a truly new iPhone. But, for now, it's more of refined improvement. The iPhone 5 has gotten better. How much better depends on how fast apps and services can take advantage of the features...or whether we'll be waiting until iOS 8 to see them truly take shape.

Editors' note: We will continue to update this review in the coming days, based on subsequent testing. Ratings should be considered tentative, and may evolve as testing continues.





iPhone 5 and 5S. Can you tell the difference?

Design: Take the iPhone 5, and add gold (or 'space gray')

The iPhone 5 was a somewhat subtle but completely thorough redesign of the iPhone, from screen size to headphone placement. It introduced an aluminum frame, a thinner and lighter build, and came in two colors.






The 5S is a carbon copy, with some new color variations. You can get last year's white/silver color, or "space gray," which matches black glass and a darker gray anodized aluminum. And, yes, there's gold. But it's not like a prop from Liberace's home: it's mellow gold, more a champagne, or a light bronze. Paired with white glass on the back and front, you might have a hard time noticing the gold in the wild unless it was held in the sun. Of the three colors, I liked gray the best: the metal tones might do a better job hiding scratches, too, a problem I saw pop up on last year's all-black iPhone 5.






A year later, the iPhone 5's design still feels sleek and high-end in the 5S, great in the hand, and more compact than most competitor phones. But, it also has a smaller screen (4 inches) than most of its Android cousins. I love using a more compact phone, but competitors have found a way to make larger-screened 4.7-inch phones with excellent feel, like the Moto X, which has nearly edge-to-edge screen across its face. The iPhone 5S has a lot more bezel framing the display, and I couldn't help wondering if that screen couldn't be just a bit bigger.


A larger screen would have really helped this year: not because the competition has it, but because Apple's newest features and apps would put it to good use. I found editing and appreciating the improved photos and video recording, and even playing games, to be challenging; the better that graphics and camera quality get, the more you need a larger screen to appreciate them.

Configurations

There's no 128GB iPhone this year; you'll have to once again pick between 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB, at the same $199/$299/$399 prices. In the US, Sprint, AT&T and Verizon are the three carriers to offer the iPhone 5S under contract; T-Mobile sells the iPhone 5S in an unlocked, contract-free version that costs $649 for 16GB, $749 for 32GB, and $849 for 64GB.


All versions come with the same A7 processor.



Touch ID: The party-trick tech on the 5S

See that little home button down there? It doesn't have a square on it anymore. It's also flat and recessed, not concave. That's practically the only outward-facing indication the iPhone 5S offers to the world, but lurking under the button is the most interesting piece of iPhone tech in quite some time. Unfortunately, it doesn't do as much right now as I wish it could.

"Touch ID" is Apple's fingerprint sensor, a secret sauce of clever scanning technology that amounts to a home button that's now both capacitive and clickable. The fact it does both can be a little disorienting at first, but the clicking is what the home button normally does, while gently touching the sensor activates the fingerprint scan.





Touch ID's simple round button works on a simple press, versus a "swipe" gesture on a lot of previous fingerprint readers. The scanning technology, when it registers your fingerprint, encourages you to press from a variety of angles, so your fingerprint can be read even on its side or on an edge. It's fast: a simple click on the button and the phone unlocks, the scan happening invisibly. Most people won't even know it scanned them, but try another finger and you'll see that it worked.


(Credit: CNET )

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