Apple iPhone 5 review: first look

12 Sep 2012

As is now customary, the internet was smoking hot with guff and nonsense this week, to the point where even the mainstream press was joining in. Thank heavens it can all stop now (at least until the next time), as the iPhone 5 is officially here, and we were at the London launch to get our hands on a brand new sample.

The design

As expected, the iPhone 5 is not all that different in look from its predecessors, but it has been stretched lengthways to make room for the 4in display. The biggest thing you get from holding it is that it's thin. So thin. It feels light and easy to hold, yet still manages to keep the premium feel thanks to the two-tone anodised aluminium finish. The silver band around the edge is gone, but you can still see some lines where the antenna breaks are. The Apple rep wouldn't comment on signal issues, unsurprisingly.

The new Lightning connector is small, and the speaker grilles are now much clearer for a moodier look, but the design isn't a huge departure. If you already own an iPhone you know what to expect.

Performance

It’s tough to gauge performance over a few minutes without your favourite daily apps installed, but the iPhone 5 certainly felt snappy enough in use. Apps sprung open quickly, and we nipped between them with ease.

What we can comment on is the screen, and it looks to be up to Apple's usual high standards. Even under harsh lights it's blindingly bright, and the colours jumped out of test photos and videos. The extra real estate quickly becomes natural, and having seen apps that aren't optimised - with black bars at either end - it's nowhere near as jarring as it could have been. In fact, if you buy the black model you'll stop noticing them after a minute or so.

We asked whether developers will know have to produce multiple assets for their apps and were told they would, but the process has been automated as much as possible. We were assured developers will find it easy, although we'll wait and see what third parties say in the coming weeks.

iOS 6

The new OS brings several key changes, but whether they’re all improvements remains to be seen. We say that because Apple has ditched Google Maps for a TomTom alternative. The good news is that from what we saw it works beautifully - the new 3D features are brilliant, with Big Ben pan and zoomable with great results. The bad news is we didn't actually see it do any navigating, as we were sat in a room in Kings Cross. First impressions were good but we'll leave this one to the full review.

The new panorama feature didn't sound particularly innovative when it was announced, but seeing it in action is much, much better. Start it up and a rectangle appears over the feed from the camera, with a line across the middle. As you pan across the scene, an arrow bobs up and down on the line to tell you if you're going too fast or too slow. It's a remarkably simple solution to a testy problem, and the results of our quick pano - of a bunch of middle-aged men slobbering over iPhones - was a little warped but had excellent detail. It works everything out on the fly, too, so the results come in seconds.

We were intrigued by Passbook when it was first announced, mixing together a TripIt-style travel assistant with similar services for shops, cinemas and other entertainment. Seeing it in action - again with a pre-loaded set of samples, some of which were US-centric - we're not just intrigued, we're impressed. The way the tickets stack up makes for a great interface, and each one opens with all the information needed, some adding QR codes for scanning by officials when you reach a destination. We were told apps will be able to add Passbook integration, but for now you'll have to add things manually from email receipts and invoices.

Finally, Apple has refreshed the look of its stores. The iTunes Store and App Store now have a more dynamic front-end, with larger icons and a cleaner feel. Goodness knows they needed the update. Navigation was perfectly smooth over the launch area's Wi-Fi, and there's no doubt the whole look is easier on the eye. Again, we'll have to properly use this in anger before we can judge.

Is it any good?

Short answer: yes.

Long answer: Samsung fans will say it's not a big update, and it's certainly not as groundbreaking as Tim Cook thinks, but this is a genuine step forward for the iPhone. The size feels just right - it's bigger but without feeling bulky - and the handling of existing apps is not nearly the problem some were fearing. Some will complain that much of the excitement comes from the software - Passbook, the Maps app, and the neat panorama feature all look like great additions - but that's just progress. If the older phones get them too, that's good, right?

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