Initial thoughts on the iPhone 5

Designing and developing a new iPhone every year has to be one of the most difficult things Apple does. Essentially, it has to take the world’s most popular smartphone, not to mention its biggest money-maker, and make it different enough so people will buy it, but not so different that it messes up the obviously-winning formula.

That’s a tall order. And it was probably even tougher this year due to seemingly higher expectations and stiff competition from Samsung, and others.

So was Apple able to pull it off?

For full disclosure, I should probably say that as I’m writing this, I’m checking Twitter on my iPad and frequently refreshing on my Mac in hopes that my iPhone 5 pre-order status has updated. To say that I’m biased would be an understatement — though I wouldn’t necessarily call myself an Apple fanboy. I just enjoy things that work well.

Ok, now that that’s out of the way, let’s take a look at Apple’s new handset.

The hardware

Whether you’re a fanboy or not, you have to admit that Apple makes some of the best hardware in the smartphone space. Or in any space for that matter. There’s a reason why the PC market is seeing an influx of aluminum laptops with black keyboards, and why HP’s new Spectre computers look oddly familiar. Apple knows hardware.

And it proves this once again with the iPhone 5. It’s extremely thin, and light, and it’s made out of top-notch materials like glass and aluminum (no cheap plastic casing here). If you’ve watched the promotional video, you know what kind of attention to detail went into designing  the handset, and what kind of precision goes into producing it.

I also like the new display, though I’ll admit, I was hoping for something a little bigger. My girlfriend has a Motorola RAZR, and the extra screen real estate is nice when you’re doing stuff like browsing the web. But, I imagine Apple didn’t want to risk making the phone too big to fit in pockets, or to operate with one hand. So 4-inches it is.

As for the new iPhone’s other upgrades, the A6 announcement was a nice surprise. A lot of folks were expecting another variation of the A5, but Apple introduced a whole new processor. And judging from the early reports, it’s quite speedy. LTE wasn’t really a shocker, and neither were the camera upgrades. The FaceTime camera was long overdue for an update, and I wasn’t expecting anything more than an 8MP iSight. I don’t think that 10 and 12MP sensors are available at the size and price Apple needs right now. The 4S camera is really good, but I’m hoping the 5 takes better low-light shots.

The only thing I was somewhat disappointed in, in regards to the iPhone 5’s hardware, was battery life. While it’s decent, considering the addition of the larger screen and LTE, I was hoping Apple had made some sort of breakthrough in battery tech that offered much more than what it does. We’ll have to see how it performs out in the real world, but as it stands, the new iPhone has less than half the standby time as the Galaxy S III.

As for the new dock connector, Lightning, I think Apple got it mostly right. It looks modern, seems like it’s going to be durable, and I love the fact that it’s reversible. It’s a bit weird that it’s not USB 3.0 compatible. But otherwise, kudos. I’m willing to bet that the people who are upset that Apple changed the plug are the same ones who got mad when they quit making VHS tapes. It’s called progress. The 30-pin connector has been around for more than a decade, which is insane considering how fast technology evolves.

The software

If there’s one aspect of the iPhone 5 I’m not particularly impressed with, it’s the software. iOS 6 seems a bit dated compared to the latest updates from Windows Phone and Android. And, whether these things are on your wish list or not, there’s still no third-party widgets, or toggles for system settings, like Bluetooth, outside of the Settings app.

In fact, iOS 6 doesn’t contain much at all in the way of significant new features. There’s the new Maps app, which looks pretty, and finally offers voiced turn-by-directions. But it’s nothing to write home about. Neither is the Facebook integration, nor the Siri enhancements, though both are nice-to-haves. To be honest, I’m probably more excited about finally being able to set an iTunes track as my alarm clock than anything.

That being said, I can’t wait to see where Passbook goes. I look forward to the day when I don’t have to carry around a physical wallet, or at least anything but my driver’s license. And I think that Passbook, if Apple plays it right, could get us to that point. I also like the new Panorama picture mode a lot. Apple implemented it in a really smart way, with no user-image-stitching required, so I’m actually pretty anxious to try it out.

The verdict

Again, I’d say Apple really nailed the hardware part of the iPhone 5. It’s sharp-looking and powerful, and it’s noticeably thinner and lighter than its predecessor. I get that some people feel that it shares too many design elements with the iPhone 4 and 4S, but the truth is there was no reason for Apple to rebuild the handset from the ground up. That’s something you do if a product’s not doing well, which is obviously not the case here. Asking Apple to redesign it now is like asking someone to double-down on an Ace and a King in Blackjack instead of taking the 21. Why risk losing if you’ve already won?

The software, on the other hand, isn’t near as impressive. Amongst the live tiles and widgets of other mobile platforms, iOS 6 feels old and boring. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll take the App Store and stability (fluidity?) of iOS over Android any day. But I must admit, after playing with iOS 6 a bit this summer, I was left wanting more. I’m assuming that since iOS 5 was such a big release, Apple used iOS 6 to sort of tighten things up. So I’m hoping that there are going to be some new features in iOS 7 that really wow me.

In the end, what Apple needed to accomplish with the iPhone 5 was create a handset that was different enough from last year’s model so that people would want to buy it, but not so different that they’d mess it up. And I think they more than pulled it off.