Thoughts on the iPhone 5 and new iPods

Apple introduced the iPhone 5 and new iPods on September 12. I haven’t had a chance to play with them yet (they won’t be in stores until next week), but I have seen the introduction event and read reviews of the pundits who have had an opportunity to play with them. I’d like to share my thoughts about Apple’s next generation of iDevices.

iPhone 5

The iPhone 5 has an all new design from the iPhone 4S but it is an evolutionary design, not revolutionary. Everything is better (e.g. faster CPU, LTE, bigger screen, thinner, less weight) but nothing is radically different than earlier iPhones. And that’s fine. Current iPhone owners upgrading to iPhone 5 should feel at home. The layout of the phone is the same (except for the headphone port being on the bottom). iOS 6 doesn’t have a different look and feel from earlier versions. So, anyone familiar with using an iPhone can just pick up an iPhone 5 and use it. It should be a better experience as the phone is faster (2x processor speed), has LTE (for ridiculously fast wireless speeds), and a larger screen.

Many pundits have described the iPhone 5 as “boring” and “safe”. That may be true, but why is that bad? Millions of people are familiar with iPhone and are, more importantly, very happy with it. I’m sure Apple will sell a bazillion of them (give or take a jillion) and it will become the most successful smartphone since the iPhone 4S.

The Hardware

The new phone is thinner and lighter than previous models. From the specs it doesn’t sound like a big difference, but almost everyone who has handled one says it is noticeably thinner and lighter. A frequent comment is that it is almost too light as if feels like it is hollow. I’m sure it is something you get used to quickly.

I’m glad the new design does not have a glass back like the 4 and 4S. The glass looks nice but shatters easily if the phone is dropped. The 5 has an aluminum back. I’m curious to see how prone it is to denting and scratching though.

The Screen

The most noticeable new feature of the phone is its new screen. The iPhone 5 has a 4″ screen compared to the 3.5″ screen every previous model has had. The new screen is the same width as earlier ones but is longer giving it a 16:9 aspect ratio. Not only is this good for movies, which are 16:9 formatted, but apps should be able to display more information. Apps will need to be updated to take advantage of the space, so look for updates to come out soon as developers rush to change their code. Older apps will function as before but with black bars on the top and bottom.

The screen is not only larger but is one of the reasons the phone is so thin. There is a new process that bonds the touch sensor to the glass which reduces thickness. That’s great, but I’d like to know how durable it is. I’m sure we’ll see drop test videos as soon as the device is available. Previous iPhones did not survive these tests well. (See here.) I’m hoping iPhone 5 is more durable.

Battery

Another important issue is battery life. The iPhone 5 has a faster CPU, bigger screen, and LTE, all things that usually require more power yet Apple claims the 5 has slightly better battery life than the iPhone 4S. I think we’ll have to wait and see if that is actually true. As I recall, the iPhone 4S had battery life issues when it was introduced, and I wouldn’t be shocked to hear similar things with the 5.

Wireless Networking

Unlike the iPhone 4S, there are separate versions of the iPhone 5 for GSM (AT&T) and CDMA (Verizon & Sprint) networks. You will not be able to move a device between carriers like you could the 4S. Verizon and Sprint owners should know that even though the phone supports LTE, you cannot use voice and data at the same time meaning you cannot web surf while making a voice call. This not true of all LTE phones, but is a result of compromises made in the iPhone 5’s hardware design. (See here for a detailed explanation.) It is disappointing this wasn’t handled in the 5. Is it a deal breaker? Some pundits think this a big deal while others do not. Personally I don’t think so but it would be nice to be able to use the net while on the phone. In practice I very rarely had to do that.

Speaking of networks, travelers should know that the iPhone 5 uses a new type of SIM card called a nano-sim. The nano-sim is (as you probably guessed) smaller than the micro-sim in the iPhone 4 and 4S. This means you will not be able to easily find SIM cards for the iPhone 5 and you cannot swap cards with other phones. This may be an issue for travelers who rely on this to get connectivity in foreign countries. Nano-sim is a standard so it will eventually become less of a problem.

The iPhone 5 introduces a new smaller dock connector called “Lightning”. This port replaces the 30 pin port that has been used for about 10 years. The new port is much smaller and has the benefit of allowing the cable to be plugged in either way. The downside is that all of your old cables and accessories won’t work with the new devices. Apple will sell an adapter (for $29!!!) but it won’t work for all uses. Power and syncing will work, but audio may not. Be prepared to re-buy accessories. This new port will be on all new iOS devices going forward. (see below)

iOS 6

The iPhone 5 comes with iOS 6. The latest version of iOS will be available for older iPhones (and iPods and iPads) starting September 19. iOS 6 has many new features, but is not radically different from iOS 5. Two things people should know about iOS 6 are the new maps application and the loss of the YouTube app.

Maps. Apple’s relationship with Google has deteriorated since the release of Android, and Apple has been looking for ways to stop supporting Google services. Apple’s new maps application does not use Google maps but their own data. How good, bad, or otherwise is hard to tell right now. Matching Google Maps functionality is no small feat as mapping is one of Google’s strengths.

For the first time Apple’s map application will provide turn by turn navigation (sorry Garmin!) so iOS users will finally have a feature that Android users have had for years. Missing from Apple Maps is transit information (trains, buses, etc.). City dwellers will miss this feature. Apple Maps features an API so that third parties can provide this information with extensions to Apple Maps but it will be up to the individual to get these extensions. This may be an advantage at some point as Google is having a hard time securing this information in some markets as cities are refusing to provide it. If you cannot live without Google Maps, take heart as it is rumored that Google is preparing its own Google Maps iOS app so you will be able to choose which mapping solution works best for you.

YouTube. Apple has removed the YouTube app from iOS 6. The YouTube app has not changed much (or at all?) since the original iPhone in 2007. Again, Apple is trying to get away from Google services and  dropping this app is a natural result of that. YouTube addicts don’t have to worry though as Google has already released to the AppStore a new YouTube app which is much better than Apple’s in many ways. The UI is better and it plays videos the old app could not. The price for that is that you now have to view ads.

What was missing from the 5?

So now that we know what iPhone 5 is, what did it not have that I expected or hoped for? There were two things I was hoping for but didn’t really expect.

NFC support was the one I really wanted but it looks as if we’ll have to wait at least another year for that. NFC is usually associated with mobile wallets and mobile payments, and I can understand why Apple would want to stay away from that mess right now but NFC has lots of other uses too and Apple could have done some useful things with it. For example, the Samsung Galaxy S3 lets you trade contact information and pictures by bumping phones.

Wireless charging was the other feature I wanted. Although not crucial it is a neat feature more and more phones have (e.g. Galaxy S3 and Lumia 920). I would love to put my phone on a pad next to my bed as opposed to having to find a loose cable and plug it in.

No Surprises

To those of us who follow the tech industry, and especially mobile, the biggest surprise about the iPhone 5 was how accurate all of the leaks were. We’ve beens seeing pictures of the case, screen, motherboard for weeks now. It is too bad as it made the whole event a lot less interesting. Earlier this year Tim Cook said they were “doubling down” on security at Apple but that must be like how HP doubled down on webOS I guess. Pro Tip: whenever a CEO says they’re “doubling down” on something it means the opposite.

As for the software, iOS 6 was introduced publicly at Apple’s developer event, WWDC, in June. There wasn’t anything that was shown on September 12th that was not shown back in June so there were no surprises here either.

Price and Availability

Pre-orders for the iPhone 5 started on September 14. The device will be available at retail on September 21. Pricing for the iPhone 5 is the same as it was for the iPhone 4S (and 4, and 3GS, and 3G). The two year on-contract price is $199/$299/$399 for 16GB/32GB/64GB versions. The off-contract, full retail price is $649/$749/$849.

If you’re reading this and didn’t order one yet you missed your chance to get one delivered by September 21 as Apple, AT&T, and Verizon have already sold out of stock. Deliveries are now estimated at “two weeks”.

RIP iPhone 3GS

With the introduction of the iPhone 5, the previous models move down the line pushing the iPhone 3GS into history. The iPhone 4S with 16GB will be $99 with 2 year contract (which is a pretty good deal) and the iPhone 4 with 8GB is now free on contract. That the iPhone 4 is on the bottom is significant because, unlike the 3GS, the 4 is available with GSM and CDMA. This means Verizon and Sprint can offer the iPhone for free. Verizon said they are only selling LTE devices, so I wonder if they will offer the lower end iPhones at all?

I do want to take a moment to comment about the 3GS now that it is no longer being sold. The 3GS was first released in June 2009 and was a cutting edge device at the time. That phone was sold for four years and received four iOS upgrades. By today’s standards it is a very low end smartphone, but how many other phones have sold for more than one year? How many received more than one OS upgrade? It was a truly remarkable device.

Should I upgrade?

As always, the answer to that question has to do with where you are in your current contract. If you’re in the middle of a contract you will not be update at the $199/$299/$399 cost. AT&T and Verizon have early upgrade fees depending where you are in your contract but they are $200 more than the new contract fee making a new phone $399/$499/$599. That’s a lot to upgrade.

If you are eligible with your carrier for an upgrade I’d say go for it. The 5 is the best iPhone yet. If you’re in an area where you can get LTE service with your carrier then you really do want update. Web surfing, downloading apps or music will be noticeably faster. The speed of LTE is amazing.

iPods

The big surprise of event to me was to see how much attention Apple is still spending on iPods seeing how it is a shrinking business. Apple showed off an all new iPod Touch and an all new iPod Nano indicating they think it is still a significant business.

iPod Touch

The new iPod touch (the 5th generation) is essentially an iPhone 5 without the cellular radio in a different case. This is a welcome upgrade as there was no upgrade to the Touch last year when the iPhone 4S was introduced. The iPod Touch always seemed like the crippled sibling to the iPhone, and that’s still true, but with the 5th version the differences aren’t as severe. I expected it to have the same screen as the iPhone 5 (it does) and a better CPU (the dual core A5 is much better than the the single core A4 of the old Touch, but not as good as the A6 in the iPhone 5) but I was happy to see the camera get a significant upgrade. The cameras in the 4th gen iPod Touch are… well… just horrible. Just good enough to remember where you parked but not for taking real pictures. It sounds like the new Touch gets the same optics as the iPhone 4S in front of a 5MP sensor. That’s 3MP less than the iPhone 4S and 5, but 5MP is still decent for photos to print. The Touch now comes in colors which is much better than the chrome back of earlier models that were very prone to scratching. And, of course, the Touch uses the new Lightning port.

This is all great, but it comes at a cost. The new Touch starts at $299 for a 32GB version. Yow! That’s a lot of money for a device marketed primarily to kids as a game system. You can still buy the 16GB 4th generation at $199 but that is two year old technology.

The iPod Touch has the potential to be an important game machine. With the CPU upgrade and AirPlay capabilities, the Touch has necessary software and hardware to compete in this area.

iPod Nano

The iPod Nano got a complete makeover too. The square nano that people were wearing as watches is gone and replaced with what looks like a tiny iPhone. The $149 device sports a 2.5″ touch display. FM radio is included with the ability to skip back, which I always thought that would be a great idea. (I should have patented it!) The nano also has a pedometer built in which should make it a hit with joggers. The Nano uses the new Lightning port for charging and syncing.

Conclusions

The iPhone 5 is a worthy upgrade to the 4S. It is not a major change to the platform, but a solid incremental update improving the hardware and software. It also catches the iPhone up to the competition by adding features other phones already offer such features as LTE, larger screen, and turn-by-turn navigation. If you want one, you shouldn’t wait very long as they will be hard get for a while as demand will be very high.

The 5th generation iPod Touch appears to be solid device for those who want an iOS device but do not want a cellular contract, but the $299 price seems prohibitively high to me. It puts it out of impulse buy range, and seems like more than you would want to spend on a device your kid will lose or break. You could get a Kindle Fire HD or a Nexus 7 and still have $100 left over for that price.

The new iPod Nano appears to be a decent media player for those who aren’t interested in apps. The radio and pedometer features indicate that Apple sees a market in those who exercise and wants to provide a solution for it.

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About Lee J.

Mobile Guy!
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