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iPhone 5s review: Forward thinking, where?

The oft predictable Apple mixed things up a bit this year by releasing not one, but two handsets: the iPhone 5s and the 5c. As an incremental update, the flagship 5s borrows heavily from its predecessor which in theory would encourage many to play the waiting game for one more year to see what sort of new design Cupertino comes up with for the iPhone 6.

You wouldn’t know it’s an incremental update based on early sales figures, however. Apple managed to move more than nine million iPhones during launch weekend a few weeks ago and early reports suggest the 5s was the top-selling phone at major US carriers in September — surprisingly, it’s the cheaper 5c that is not doing as well. That said, there is some new technology inside the 5s that is partly responsible for its early success, namely the all-new 64-bit A7 processor and the Touch ID fingerprint reader built into the phone’s Home button. Vodacom sent over a review iPhone 5s for our leisure, so much it was not.

Hardware & Design

Only a couple of subtle design changes clue you in as to whether you’re looking at a 5s versus last year’s model. The new phone retains the same two-tone aluminum and glass construction, the same 4-inch Retina display operating at 1,136 x 640 pixels (326 ppi) and identical button placement.

The display looks as good as ever (although perhaps a tiny bit warmer than the iPhone 5) and while the 4-inch phone fits nicely in my rather gigantic hand, I really would like to have seen something larger from Apple. I suspect this will come with next year’s iPhone 6 as Cupertino has likely held onto the idea of a small, pocketable phone for about as long as they can. Something in the 5-inch range seems plausible as virtually every Android on the market now ships with a screen size in this range or larger.

If you’re coming from a 4s or a different brand of phone altogether, you’ll likely immediately notice how lightweight the iPhone 5s feels in the hand. It weighs just 112 grams yet given the superb glass and aluminum construction, it feels very solid although its squared-off edges aren’t the most comfortable when holding for a long period of time.

The headphone jack is still positioned on the bottom of the phone which may seem like an odd choice until you realize that whenever you put your phone into your pocket, you naturally do so with the top facing down. This would make listing to music with the included EarPods much more convenient although at other times, it could be a nuisance.

Only the redesigned Home button with embedded Touch ID sensor and the addition of a second LED flash on the rear of the phone indicate this is a new iPhone model. On one hand, this is a good thing as existing iPhone 5 accessories like cases will still work with the 5s, but at the same time, you aren’t getting a flashy new handset that will grab attention like a completely redesigned phone might.

The 5s is available in three different colors: Space Grey, Gold and Silver. Everything else – from the dimensions and the weight of the phone to the speaker grill layout – is identical to the iPhone 5.

The Touch ID fingerprint reader is built into the Home button. A metallic ring encircles the Home button which is a bit less concave and no longer has an icon printed on it. This sensor can be used to unlock the phone, thus eliminating the need to enter in a passcode each time you want to unlock the device (you do use a passcode, right?). Additionally, Touch ID can authorize iTunes purchases with a single tap.


My past experiences with fingerprint readers like the ones that shipped with notebooks for a spell had led me to the conclusion that they were little more than a gimmick. Touch ID has changed my mind. It is far and away my favorite feature on the 5s and is extremely convenient if you need to access your phone multiple times a day.

The initial setup process takes a minute or two to complete. You are asked to place a finger on the sensor and hold it for a moment then lift and repeat. During this time, the sensor is scanning the complex contours of your fingerprint and once complete, you’ll be able to use that digit to unlock the device and authorize purchases.

You can add up to five fingerprints – either all yours or the prints of someone you wish to share the phone with. The system is nearly flawless in its implementation as it will recognize a finger even if it is turned completely upside-down. I had several friends try to unlock the phone using their prints; all failed. The only time the system didn’t recognize my own print was if my finger was damp. Otherwise, it worked every time.

As we’ve learned in recent weeks, there are methods to circumvent the sensor but given the complexity of those measures, it’s not likely that it’d be worth the time and effort to do. And the good thing about fingerprints is that you can’t forget them like a passcode. What’s more, those concerned that Apple is building a database full of iPhone 5s users’ fingerprints don’t have to worry as all prints are encrypted and stored locally on the device in a secure area of the CPU.

My previous iPhone was white, my first non-black one ever, as I had heard about the scratching problems on the black version and decided to stay away. This time I went with the space grey version and have noticed no scratches whatsoever even though my iPhone, as always, goes au naturel. Space grey looks great and the elevated ring around the Touch ID home button adds a nice touch. However, let’s light a candle for the departed rounded square icon on the home button, which has been around since the original iPhone. The one disadvantage of no longer having the icon it that fingerprints, ironically, show up more.

As before, the iPhone feels great in the hand, light but solid, and although it’s easy to get jaded about the fact that the form factor didn’t change, it’s hard to argue with what works. There are many Android phones that get one or two things better than the iPhone, but nothing that puts the whole package together to seriously rival it as the best smartphone for most people. That’s not to say there aren’t cases where it makes sense to go with a different phone, but those are largely exceptions to the rule for most consumers.

One conclusion I have reached, however, is that it’s finally time for a larger screen size. Bigger screens are pretty much the only major advantage any decent Android phone has over the iPhone. I understand why Apple has hesitated, they value user experience more than most, and wouldn’t just make a bigger screen unless the experience could be maintained. My guess is with the new 64-bit A7, and the inevitably faster processor in 2014, they will finally be able to take away the last major advantage of Android devices. That said, a larger screen, in 2013, just isn’t worth the tradeoffs in an inferior Android user experience and ecosystem. This makes the iPhone 5s, despite being an incremental upgrade, a smart purchase for iPhone 5 owners, and a no-brainer for anyone still running and older iOS or Android device. At the end of the day, the iPhone 5s is an excellent phone, but whether it’s the right choice for you will depend on what you are looking for in a device. If a smallish screen and an ecosystem that’s still locked down substantially compared to Android isn’t a problem, the 5s is a great choice. If you desire a phone that pushes the bounds of tablet territory like a Galaxy Note 3 and you want more freedom over the OS, keep looking.


*Review device supplied to us by Vodacom 

Papi Mabele
Tech enthusiast at heart. Lover of all things digital. Papi is the founder of SA Vibe and has been sharing his love for gadgetry since 2010. Papi sees no need for wearable tech in his busy schedule and considers the Xbox One as non existant. He may come across as bias at times, and still holds a grudge at BlackBerry for creating the 8520.