iPhone 5 lacks killer feature, still impresses

The iPhone 5 lacks one big killer feature. But, Bill Detwiler explains why the phone's hardware improvements and iOS 6, make the iPhone 5 an impressive device.

Photo by Apple

At a media event on Wednesday, Apple Senior Vice President Phil Schiller unveiled the iPhone 5. The new iPhone sports an Apple A6 SoC, 4" (diagonal) Retina display, LTE support, better cameras, and a completely redesigned docking connector. These features make the iPhone 5 a solid improvement over the iPhone 4 and 4S; but, none stands out as a killer feature. This doesn't mean the iPhone 5 is a lackluster phone — quite the contrary. I'll walk you through the hardware updates and explain why.

Larger, all-aluminum back cover: The new phone has an aluminum back cover and glass front. This is a significant design change from the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S, which have glass back plates. The iPhone 5 will be available in two colors — black and white. The white version has a raw aluminum back cover and the black version has a black anodized cover. The iPhone 5 is also taller (4.87 inches), thinner (0.30 inch), and lighter (112 grams) than the iPhone 4S.

  • Larger screen: The iPhone 5 has a 4-inch (diagonal) Retina display (1136x640 at 326 ppi). The new screen offers a 16:9 aspect ratio and 44-percent better color saturation that the older iPhone. If old apps aren't updated for the new display, they will run in letterbox.
  • Upgraded wireless: In addition to GPRS, EDGE, EV-DO, and HSPA+ data networks, the iPhone 5 will support 4G LTE. In the United States, LTE support will be available on Sprint, AT&T and Verizon. Along with LTE, the new phone supports 802.11 a/b/g/n in both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands and at data speeds up to 150Mbps.
  • Apple A6 SoC: The iPhone 5 is the first device to use the Apple A6 system-on-a-chip (SoC). There's no definitive word on whether the A6 contains a quad-core ARM Cortex A9 CPU or a dual-core ARM Cortex A15 CPU. Schiller did say that the A6 provides 2x faster CPU and 2x graphics performance. The chip is also 22-percent smaller and more energy efficient than the A5 processor found on the iPhone 4S.
  • Better battery life than for iPhone 4S: Schiller also touted the phone's improved battery life. According to Apple, the iPhone 5 will provide 8-hours of 3G talk time, 3G browsing, and LTE browsing. You'll get 10 hours browsing through Wi-Fi or watching video and 40 hours listening to music. If you charge the phone and don't use it (yeah right!), you should get 225 hours of standby time.
  • Enhanced iSight camera: Like the iSight camera on the iPhone 4S, the iPhone 5's rear-facing camera has an 8-megapixel sensor and provides a maximum image resolution of 3264x2448 pixels. But thanks to an image signal processor within the A6 chip, the new phone has spatial noise reduction and a smart filter—for better low-light performance and faster image capture. Lastly, the iPhone 5 has a panorama feature that combine single shots into one big photo. In additional to the improved iSight camera, the front-facing, "FaceTime" camera now shoots 720p HD video and has a backside illuminated sensor.
  • Lightning connector: As predicted, the iPhone 5 has a brand new connector, dubbed Lightning. The new connector has an 8-signal design and is 80% smaller than the existing 30-pin connector.
  • Headphone jack on the bottom: Another significant change from Apple's earlier iPhones, the iPhone 5's headphone jack is located along the bottom edge. Only the sleep/wake button now occupies the top.

Photo by Apple

Greater than the sum of its hardware components

Despite all the improvements, the iPhone 5 doesn't have a killer feature that makes it THE smartphone to have — at least not from a hardware perspective. The screen is bigger. But, the screens on Android devices have grown steadily over the past several years as well. It's thinner and lighter than past iPhones, but so are the latest phones from Motorola and Samsung. It supports 4G LTE. But, so do lots of Android devices. It has an A6 SoC, better camera, and longer battery life. Individually, none of these upgrades are a reason to rush out and buy the phone.

What will make the iPhone 5 a hit with consumers is the software and services ecosystem Apple has built around the device. From iOS and the App Store to iTunes and iCloud, iPhone buyers get a complete package — and one that the company is also upgrading.

Scott Forstall, Apple's senior vice president of iOS, said iOS 6 would contain more than 200 new features, including improved Siri functionality and the ability to make FaceTime calls over a cellular network. iTunes is also getting an update. Apple is giving the media app a new user interface and built-in iCloud support.

When combined, the hardware upgrades, new iOS 6 features, and app updates will be too attractive a package for many would-be iPhone 5 buyers to pass up.

Pricing and availability

The iPhone 5 will be available for pre-order on September 14th, and shipments will start on September 21st (US, UK, Canada, France, Germany, Australia, Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore). Pricing starts at $199 for a 16GB model, $299 for 32GB, and $399 for the 64GB version—all with a two-year contract.

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Bill Detwiler is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and Tech Pro Research and the host of Cracking Open, CNET and TechRepublic's popular online show. Prior to joining TechRepublic in 2000, Bill was an IT manager, database administrator, and desktop supp...

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