Looks are deceiving in this case, though. Under the hood, the iPhone 5S has a number of major improvements-especially to its camera-that make it a must-have purchase for some. For others, though, what the iPhone 5S has to offer makes it an optional upgrade.
Some elements of the iPhone 5S are the same as were present on the iPhone 5. You’ll find the same 4-inch Retina Display screen, the same form factor, and the same weight (3.95 ounces). There are some notable differences as well (more on the most significant ones in the next two sections). The battery offers about 20% more talk and web browsing time, according to Apple. There are also three color options rather than the traditional two: slate, gray, and gold.
Since the iPhone 5 was already a great phone, carrying over many features and similarities is a valuable foundation from which the 5S begins. Its major new features, though, are what position it at the cutting edge.
Features for Now: The Camera and Touch ID
These new features break down into two categories: those that are used now and those that will mature in the future.
Perhaps the most headline-grabbing feature of the 5S is Touch ID, the fingerprint scanner built into the Home button that allows you to unlock your phone with the touch of your finger. This should also provide greater security than a simple passcode, since cracking it requires access to a fingerprint.
Setting up Touch ID is simple and using it is much faster than unlocking via a passcode. It can also be used to enter your iTunes Store or App Store passwords without having to type them. It’s not hard to imagine this being extended to other kinds of mobile commerce-and how simple and relatively secure (though certainly not ironclad) that will make it.
The second major addition comes in the camera. At first glance, the 5S’s camera may appear to be the same as what’s offered by the 5C and 5: 8 megapixel stills and 1080p HD video. Those are the 5S’s specs, but those don’t nearly tell the whole story of the 5S’s camera.
There are a number of more subtle features that lead the 5S to be able to take substantially better photos and videos than its predecessors. The camera on the 5S takes photos composed of larger pixels, and the back camera has two flashes, rather than one. These two changes result in higher fidelity images and more natural color. When viewing photos of the same scene taken on the 5S and 5C, the 5S’s photos are noticeably more accurate and more appealing.
Beyond simply the quality improvements, the camera also has a pair of functional changes that move the iPhone closer to being able to replace even professional cameras (though it’s not quite there yet). First, the 5S offers a burst mode that allows you to take up to 10 photos per second by simply tapping and holding the camera button. This option particularly makes the 5S valuable in photographing action, something earlier iPhones-which had to take photos one at a time-could struggle with.
Second, the video recording feature is substantially upgraded thanks to the ability to record slow motion video. Standard video is captured at 30 frames/second, but the 5S can record at 120 frames/second, allowing for detailed, ethereal video images that seem almost magical. Expect to start seeing these slow-motion videos all over YouTube and other video-sharing sites soon.
For the average user, these improvements may be nice-to-haves; for photographers, they’re likely to be essential.
Features for the Future: Processors
The second set of new features in the 5S are present now, but will become more useful in the future.
The first such feature is the Apple A7 processor at the heart of the phone. The A7 is the first 64-bit chip to power a smartphone. When a processor is 64-bit, it’s able to address more data in a single chunk than 32-bit versions. This isn’t to say that it’s twice as fast (it’s not; in my testing the 5S is about 10% faster than the 5C or 5 in most uses), but rather that it can offer more processor power to intensive tasks. But there are two drawbacks: software needs to be written to take advantage of the 64-bit chip, and the phone needs more memory.
As of now, most iOS apps aren’t 64-bit. The iOS and some key Apple apps are now 64-bit, but until all apps are updated, you won’t see the improvements consistently. Additionally, 64-bit chips are best when used with devices with 4GB or more of memory. The iPhone 5S has 1GB of memory, so it can’t access the full power of the 5S’s processor.
The other feature that will come into greater use as third parties adapt to it is a second processor: the M7 motion co-processor. This processor is dedicated to handling data that comes from the iPhone’s motion and activity-related sensors: the compass, gyroscope, and accelerometer. The M7 will allow apps to derive more useful data and apply it to more-advanced apps. This, of course, won’t be possible until apps add support for the M7, but when they do, the 5S will become an even more useful device for physical interaction.
The Bottom Line
The iPhone 5S is a great phone. It’s fast, powerful, sleek, and packs in a number of compelling new features. If you’re due for an upgrade from your phone company, this is the phone to get. If you’re a photographer, I suspect that there’s no other smartphone that comes close to what the 5S offers.
If getting the 5S would require an early upgrade fee (such as buying the device at full price, which is about $300 more than the subsidized price), you’ve got a harder choice. There are great new features here, but they may not be great enough to justify that price. If you’d have to pay $500 or more for the 5S, and you can do so, you may want to wait for next year’s iPhone 6, which will likely deliver more new features and cost you less at the same time.