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iPhone 5S Review

iPhone 5S is Faster, new camera and a clever fingerprint reader. But is it enough of an upgrade?

While the Android world went big-screen, Apple stuck resolutely to its more pocket-friendly iPhone 5S. It may have been replaced by the larger iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, and the subsequent iPhone 6S and 6S Plus, but this phone is still on sale in many high street retailers, although once the next iPhone is released, we’d imagine this phone may fall by the wayside, only popping up smaller online stores. Still, it’s the last 4in phone Apple made and those with smaller hands or smaller pockets.

There’s also the iPhone 5se to consider. Yes, we’re clenching too at the thought of recommending a phone that might not even exist, but the rumours in this case are pointing towards a March 2016 launch for the 4in, colourful device. If you’re thinking about buying an iPhone 5s right now, it might pay to wait just a little longer to see whether the 5se is a legitimate product and how much it costs. After all, buying a two-and-a-half year-old device is always going to be a bit of a gamble.

One final thing to consider here is that the iPhone 5S is still compatible with the latest versions of iOS, including the very latest iOS 9.2.1. This means you get lots of benefits including better notifications, a better app switcher and the latest iOS design, which is important when you consider how old-fashioned some of the older versions of iOS looks. It’s inevitable that the 5S will eventually stop getting iOS updates, and that will happen sooner than with the iPhone 6, so that’s worth bearing in mind.

Build quality
On a first glance, there’s very little to tell this smartphone from the iPhone 5. However, the iPhone 5S remains a beautifully made and desirable smartphone and it’s an improvement on its predecessor in practically every way. Apple doesn’t skimp on premium materials here, as the metal body and Gorilla Glass covered screen still look and feel fantastic.

iPhone 5S Review

It’s not just the materials, but the attention to detail that catches the eye. Its precision-cut aluminium rear sits absolutely flush with glass panels that sit at the top and bottom. The smartphone’s neat bevelled edges are perfectly formed and the 7.3mm thick phone feels incredibly comfortable in the hand. Weighing just 112g, which still feels almost impossibly light when you pick up the smartphone for the first time, the iPhone 5S is incredible to look at and hold.

The iPhone 5S is hard-wearing, too, thanks to its tough aluminium body. We’ve been carrying our one around since launch and, aside from the odd minor scratch (mostly around the bezel), it looks as good as the day it was taken out of its box. We keep the phone in a sleeve case to protect the sides and screen, but the quality is still impressive to behold.

iPhone 5S Review

If you’re coming from a large-screen Android phone, the iPhone 5S does look a little small, but for all practical purposes it’s still a great size. It fits easily in one hand, letting you use it with just your thumb, while you can put it comfortably in any pocket.

iPhone 5S Review

The white model is the same as the iPhone 5, but the iPhone 5S is also available in space grey, which replaces the ‘black’ model of last year and has a purer grey case than the iPhone 5’s blue-grey model. It’s the gold edition that’s really different, though. Pictures don’t do it justice, as it tends to look quite garish, but in the flesh the champagne gold finish is altogether more subtle and classier.

Gold model aside, the biggest issue of the iPhone 5S’s looks is that to the untrained eye it doesn’t look as though you’ve bought a new phone, although Apple has at least eased the burden by taking the iPhone 5 off sale, replacing it with the plastic iPhone 5C instead.

iPhone 5S Review

There is one big clue that the phone you’ve got is the iPhone 5S: the metal-rimmed home button, which no longer has the familiar-looking square icon in it. As you’re no doubt aware, this is the brand-new fingerprint reader, Touch ID. With Touch ID, rather than having to tap in a PIN to unlock your phone, you can simply hold your finger over the sensor. If that sounds like a gimmick, it’s not: it’s actually a brilliant time saver and something that helps enforce security.

Touch ID
Touch ID can be programmed to recognise up to five fingers (they can be just yours or yours and trusted other people). All you have to do is hold your finger to the sensor repeatedly, while the iPhone 5S builds up an image of what your print looks like. You’re prompted to move your finger around, to get full coverage, and even to use the side of your finger so that you can use Touch ID from pretty much any angle. With that done, you’re ready to go.

iPhone 5S Review

Apple had some complaints when the phone first came out that Touch ID wasn’t particularly reliable. However, an iOS update has fixed that and made the fingerprint reader faster and much more reliable. Plus, you can help things along by registering the same finger twice, dramatically increasing the recognition levels.

We have to say that it works pretty much flawlessly, at any angle and, impressively, any rotation, so you can even tap Touch ID with your phone upside down to get it to work. We found that other people’s fingers couldn’t unlock the phone either. What’s particularly brilliant is how you can unlock the phone in one go: just click the home button to switch on the iPhone 5S, then release and hold to unlock it in one smooth move. The only times we have suffered any problems are with a wet finger, such as after washing our hands; for the most part, the sensor works brilliantly.

This ease of use shouldn’t overshadow the technological effort that has gone into creating Touch ID. It’s massively impressive that Apple has managed to fit the best fingerprint reader we’ve used underneath a button. Even better, you only have to touch the reader for it to work; with the Samsung Galaxy S5, you have to swipe your finger over the button, which isn’t quite as easy or as user friendly.

Perhaps more importantly, setting up Touch ID requires you to set a PIN for your phone, which is required after a reboot and to access key settings, such as adding new fingerprints. So, in adding easier-to-use security, Apple is also pushing people to be more secure in general.

iPhone 5S Review

Then, there’s the future of the technology. At the moment Touch ID can be used to unlock your phone and to buy from iTunes and the App Store, rather than having to enter your password. It makes sense that Apple will open this system up at some point in the future, at least to certain developers, so you could use your fingerprint to access your bank, for example. Nothing has been announced, but we’d be surprised if Touch ID isn’t used for more over the coming year.

Fingerprints are stored in the phone’s A7 chip’s Secure Enclave, where they’re not shared or uploaded to iCloud. This helps boost security and should stop the fingerprint reader being hacked. Of course, the system is not entirely fool-proof, but Apple quotes a 50,000-in-1 chance of someone being able to unlock the phone, which is still better than the 10,000-in-1 chance of someone guessing a four-digit PIN.

Screen
Given that the phone size hasn’t changed, Apple hasn’t changed the screen, so you get the same 4in 1,136×640 screen that was used in the iPhone 5. Again, you can get higher resolution, bigger screens moving to Android, but we don’t see the iPhone 5S’s size as a problem.

iPhone 5S Review

For starters, there’s plenty of resolution for web browsing and apps, with the interface disappearing off-screen when you’re reading pages, giving the full screen over to the current task. Next, the 326ppi pixel density is what Apple calls a Retina display. This means that when you view the screen at a normal distance, you can’t view individual pixels. In other words, everything looks pin-sharp and more resolution wouldn’t achieve anything, bar making icons and text too small to read without scaling.

Image quality is excellent, too. Apple has used a high-quality IPS panel and it’s still one of the best smartphone displays. It’s evenly lit, bright, produces excellent whites and vibrant colours, and the excellent viewing angles mean that you can see what’s on screen clearly from anywhere.

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