As cliched as it sounds, iPhone 5s is touted as “the best iPhone ever” by most of the reviewers who were presented with a review unit of iPhone 5s by Apple a week back. The embargo was lifted earlier today and we now have heaps of iPhone 5s reviews from across the world the US. Overall, the stuff in these reviews are positive, with a few nits thrown around a bit. As with most iPhone reviews, the target audience seems to be the previous iPhone users, so the comparison is mostly with the older generation iPhones and not really with the top-of-the line Android or WP8 smartphones.

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Anyway, we have spent hours together in going through some of the iPhone 5s reviews from reputed publications, just to help you out ave time and make sense of what really these reviewers are trying to say about the new iPhone 5s, which goes on sale in few countries in less than two days.

iPhone 5s is mostly about the new Apple A7 processor along with its M7 co-processor, the new fingerprint sensor (Touch ID), the upgraded camera and the same old design. We shall see what the reviews have to say about these things.

Apple A7: The best smartphone SoC

Just a couple of days back, I wrote about how the Snapdragon 800 has become the new darling of Android flagship phones. Qualcomm has done immensely well to design a generic SoC as good (and at times better than) as the Apple A6X SoC. Apple has come out with force to take back the mantle with the A7.

It’d be an injustice to quote anyone other than Anand Shimpi, when it comes to the processors and performance. Thankfully, Apple cared to send him over an iPhone 5s, and we get to see what the A7 has to offer in terms of performance. It also tells us how confident Apple is, with the A7. Here’s what the man has to say about A7 and iPhone 5s:

The A7 SoC is seriously impressive. Apple calls it a desktop-class SoC, but I’d rather refer to it as something capable of competing with the best Intel has to offer in this market. In many cases the A7’s dual cores were competitive with Intel’s recently announced Bay Trail SoC. Web browsing is ultimately where I noticed the A7’s performance the most. As long as I was on a good internet connection, web pages just appeared after resolving DNS. The A7’s GPU performance is also insanely good – more than enough for anything you could possibly throw at the iPhone 5s today, and fast enough to help keep this device feeling quick for a while.

And about the 64-bit move, this is what Anand has to say:

The immediate upsides to moving to 64-bit today are increased performance across the board as well as some huge potential performance gains in certain FP and cryptographic workloads.

Yes, contrary to the popular understanding, there are some performance improvements thanks to the 64-bit move. Anand points out that the most used apps on iOS like Safari, Camera, Mail and other Apple built apps are 64-bit compiled and that translates into upsides in performance. Walt Mossberg though has a different opinion:

The iPhone 5s boasts something called a 64-bit processor, which means the system can process data in bigger chunks, and thus much faster. But I didn’t notice any dramatic speed improvement, partly because few apps have yet to be rewritten to take advantage of it.

No, I’d never suggest you take Walt’s views over Anand’s, but Walt isn’t too off the track here. He must be pointing towards the third party apps, the likes of Facebook, Instagram, Tweetbot and others, which are yet to make the 64-bit move for us to see dramatic speed improvements. Scott Stein from CNET sums it up nicely:

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.

If you are into the geeky side of things, I suggest you to go through the complete review of iPhone 5s from Anandtech. It’s stuffed with enough charts and benchmarks you can chew on for days. In short, iPhone 5s beats the competition (the likes of LG G2, Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One) in terms of web browsing (Sunspider benchmark) & graphics (GFXBench), but falls below LG G2 in 3DMark test.

M7 Motion Coprocessor gets high praises from most reviewers. Anand explains its role the best:

With the M7 servicing motion and sensor requests, the A7 SoC can presumably remain asleep for longer. Any application level interaction will obviously require that the A7 wake up, but the M7 is supposed to enable a lot of background monitoring of sensor and motion data at very low power levels.

We need to wait for some killer app implementations to see the true potential of M7 Motion coprocessor. Read what Scott Stein had to say two paras above.

Touch ID: Not a gimmick, but dumbed down

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What was initially passed off as a gimmick is anything but that. The fingerprint scan implementation on iPhone 5s is near perfect according to all reviewers. Here’s what Ben Bajarin had to say about Touch ID:

With the fingerprint sensor Apple has simultaneously made the device secure while also making the process to log-in that much easier and efficient. You may think it is faster to swipe to log-in. I’ve found the opposite. The fingerprint sensor registers so quickly that the device unlocks nearly as fast as I can push the button to wake it up.

He has a cool video to show how easy and fast it is to print to unlock, even faster than swipe to unlock

Engadget’s Myriam Joire puts back some sense behind its usefulness:

Sure, fingerprint scanners are cool to geeks like us, but are they really useful, or are they just a gimmick? Perhaps they’re a little of both, and besides, nobody’s going to force you to use it if you’d prefer a standard passcode or the ol’ slide-to-unlock gesture.

And there is some disappointment that Apple is restricting the usage of Touch ID to Apple built apps alone for now. Bang on Myriam.

We’d also like to see Apple open up the API, since there are plenty of app developers just waiting to take advantage of this feature.

Camera

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As I mentioned before, many iPhone reviews are oblivious with the fact there are smartphones outside the iPhone universe, and that’s come to the fore when dealing with the iPhone 5s camera. Many reviewers don’t bother to compare the 5s camera with the likes of Nokia Lumia 1020 or Sony Xperia Z1 or HTC One. Instead, they simply talk about how Apple’s new approach of increasing the pixel size ((1.5µm vs. 1.4µm) and lowering the aperture (f/2.2 vs. f/2.4) makes the camera better than iPhone 5. That’s true, but it’d have been much better to have a direct comparison between the top camera phones, rather than reading the mundane specifications about the new iSight camera on iPhone 5s.

Myriam Joire cares to mention a bit about how iPhone 5s fares in comparison to Nokia Lumia 1020 in low light conditions, albeit without proof.

… our sample shots still showed more noise and less detail than the same images taken with the Nokia Lumia 1020. The 5s also does a good job of reproducing color, but it’s not the best performer in this category, either.

Anand talks about the absence of OIS (optical image stabilization) on iPhone 5s which has become a standard on other flagship smartphones these days.

It’s not a surprise that the 5s doesn’t come with OIS as it’s largely the same physical platform as the outgoing 5. Still it would be great to see an Apple device ship with OIS

The True-tone dual-LED flash gets some attention from reviewers. To cut short, it works as advertised, i.e it helps to make photos taken with flash, a lot less horrible than before.

As you’d expect, most reviewers go gaga over the decade old Slow motion video capture feature made available by Apple in iPhone 5s. The iPhone records 720p video at 120 frames per second, and applies the Slo-Mo effect afterward, playing at 30 frames per second. It’s nothing new, but Apple’s implementation is perfect and makes it immensely easy for normal users to take slow motion videos. Not to mention, slow motion videos are going mainstream henceforth.

To get an idea, here’s a sample Slo-Mo video by Anand Shimpi-

I’m particularly disappointed to learn that the standard 1080p video captures are still at 30 FPS and not at 60 FPS as I was hoping. It’s not clear why Apple is restricting that, when they are providing 720p video capture at 120 FPS. Hopefully, future iOS 7 updates should fix that.

Design: Same old stuff

Most non-Apple bloggers are now complaining how they are unhappy with Apple sticking to the same old 4-inch design. Yes, being an odd-year “S” update with focus on performance upgrade, not many were expecting Apple to release a bigger iPhone, but the expectation disappointment over the screen size is evident in most cases.

Rich Jaroslovsky from Bloomberg is particularly unhappy with the iPhone 5s. The review video comes with a caption “Meet the New iPhones, Same as the Old iPhones“. His is by far the most (and only) negative review we came across today.

The 5s is the current iPhone 5 — same size, shape, metal body and 4-inch Retina display — with upgraded internals and one terrific new feature.

CNET’s Scott Stein too isn’t happy about the screen size

External design is identical to that of the iPhone 5, including a 4-inch screen that looks downright tiny next to Android competitors… 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.

Anand chimes in with his case for a bigger iPhone next year:

I still love the chassis, design and build quality – I just wish it had a larger display. While I don’t believe the world needs to embrace 6-inch displays, I do feel there is room for another sweet spot above 4-inches… I’m not saying that replacing the 4-inch 5s chassis is the only option, I’d be fine with a third model sitting above it in screen size/battery capacity similar to how there are both 13 and 15-inch MacBook Pros.

And he has a warning as well:

I still believe that users don’t really cross shop between Android and iOS, but if Apple doesn’t offer a larger display option soon then I believe it will lose some users not because of cross shopping, but out of frustration.

iOS 7 – a refreshing change

A part of the reason for Apple to take off the embargo for iPhone 5s reviews today and not two days later has to be the fact that iOS 7 is going to be released to the public today. Though the functionality is pretty much the same, iOS 7 looks and feels completely different when compared to iOS 6. There are new and improved features like the Control Center, Notification Center, Multitasking, Camera app, and iTunes Radio. Check out our article on the best iOS 7 features.

Engadget’s Myriam Joire has this to say about the new Multitasking look in iOS 7:

Multitasking gets a completely new look, and it appears to take cues from webOS, Windows Phone and even Sense 4… Sadly, it’s missing a “clear all” option

Walt Mossberg gives a big thumbs up for the iOS 7, except for one thing:

The fonts are sharper, finer and more delicate. Buttons and controls are thinner and lighter and, in the browser, they disappear or shrink to make a little more room for content. Overall, the effect is to make the 4-inch screen seem larger… My biggest disappointment is that there have been only minor improvements to the keyboard.

Conclusion

There is no consensus on this one, but most reviews say that iPhone 5s is an incremental upgrade over iPhone 5. Hardly anyone has the courage to recommend or not recommend it over the Android flagship phones. Mossberg terms it as a delight and concludes by saying iPhone 5s is the best smartphone on the market. But hidden somewhere within the article is this:

If you are an iPhone fan with any model older than the iPhone 5, the new 5s will be a big step up. If you own an iPhone 5, there’s less of a case for upgrading, unless you want the fingerprint reader and improved camera.

Engadget’s Mariam cares to share her thought a little better:

Frankly, though, if you currently own an iPhone 5, it’s hard to justify coughing up the extra cash for an early upgrade to get either one. And what if you’re not sold on iOS? If you haven’t seriously considered an iPhone before, there likely isn’t much in the 5s to make you change your mind.

Anand is unusually sitting on the fence recommending iPhone 5s to those who prefers iOS, and weird sentences like “In many ways it’s an evolutionary improvement over the iPhone 5, but in others it is a significant step forward.“. But he makes a very valid point which almost everyone else misses:

The lack of 802.11ac and LTE-A support also bother me as the 5s is so ahead of the curve elsewhere in silicon.

Ben Bajarin stresses more about the combination of iPhone 5s and iOS 7:

What I have realized is that although Android does many of the same things, the iPhone simply does them better. And with the iPhone 5s and iOS 7 it now does them a lot better.

Bloomberg’s Rich Jaroslovsky sums it up like this:

There’s nothing wrong with either phone. But there’s not much that’s pulse-quickening about them either.

Finally, having read all these reviews, I go back to what Mariam Joire says in her concluding paragraph and finds it to be the most accurate conclusion of all:

The 5s is a solid effort from Apple, but its true worth is yet to be determined. If developers come up with clever ways of using the 64-bit support, iOS 7 and M7 coprocessor to their advantage, the 5s has the potential of being the best off-year flagship phone the company has made. If not, a lot of people might just wait it out another year.

How sane! No wonder I quoted Mariam the most in this roundup. Will YOU be buying the iPhone 5s? Do let us know via the comment section.

Update: Video reviews!

CNET:

Engadget:

Bloomberg:

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Raju is the founder-editor of Technology Personalized. A proud geek and an Internet freak, who is also a social networking enthusiast. You can follow him on Facebook and on Twitter. Mail Raju PP. Follow rajupp