iPhone 5 Review: The Experience

If you’re curious about iPhone 5, you’ve read some good reviews already. I find many of them, in attempt to be comprehensive, focus mostly on features and not as much on the overall experience the device provides to the user. (John Gruber probably wrote the most on the subject in his review.) Features are nice, but unless they translate into a better experience, they simply don’t matter. After a full day of using the device, here’s what the experience’s like:

This is THE iPhone. Before I go into details, the single most clear experience I’m having is that of the phone being a perfect iPhone. Hardware-wise, Apple simply nailed it. The phone gives the experience of, “we’re done with major hardware changes, let’s focus on the software now”. Sure, I’d like some hardware-related tweaks eventually like even better battery life, an even better camera, a single version of the phone that operates on all LTE bands, and maybe NFC (if useful), even stronger glass, even more scratch-resistant materials, and wireless charging. But I don’t feel like the design, weight, or thinness need any more improvement. Will I complain if the phone is even lighter next year? Of course not. It’s just that it doesn’t feel at all heavy or thick anymore. And it’s beautiful. Here, Apple truly nailed it. Steve would have been very proud to introduce this phone on the stage.

Light. Sorry, I meant LIGHT. The half a dozen or so reviews I’ve read that mentioned just how light this phone is weren’t enough to prepare me for the time I picked it up the first time. My brain knows it’s only a 20% reduction in weight. But the experience is, it weighs half of what my iPhone 4S weighs. I let about 5 people play with my phone so far and they all shared the same experience. One of them was shocked, “Wait, this is only 20% lighter? I was going to guess 40%, at least!” This is an extremely amusing illusion, especially to someone like me who enjoys psychology and brain science. It’s known that having conflicting sensory data results in experience that’s not actually accurate and is exaggerated in one way or another – we’re wired that way. My best guess: the combination of taller size and (conflicting) thinness and lightness, as well as less-slippery materials, create a sensory illusion that makes the phone feel even lighter. Galaxy S3 has a similar feeling – too light for its size. It’s possible that the weight is distributed more evenly inside the phone, too – that always makes an object feel a little lighter given same total area of contact with skin. Overall, it almost feels fake. If I have bought this thing while in China, I’d have thought I got a knock-off product. At first the experience is, “this is weird” and “hmm, this doesn’t feel as solid/substantial as iPhone 4S.” But several hours into it the experience changes to, “wow, this is just awesome, and iPhone 4S is heavy.”  Lumia 920 may check off a few more checkboxes, like NFC, but its coming to the market with a huge disadvantage of size and weight. After using an iPhone 5, I wouldn’t want to go back to anything heavier or thicker than it.

Fast. Very fast. There’s a distinct experience of not having to wait for anything. All animations in iOS are accelerated, yet are even smoother. Camera app launches much faster. Facebook’s news feed updates nearly instantly on app’s load (and the app loads nearly instantly, too). The 4S was fast, too, but there was a second of lag between app opening and news feed being updated. It’s almost all gone now. Safari loads pages significantly faster, too – the same 1-second or so lag for each page is now gone. It may take 2 seconds to load complex web pages, but you get some text to read almost instantly so you don’t really care that the page keeps loading in the background. This isn’t LTE-related, either – you get the same experience of everything loading faster on wifi, too. All menus open without any lag (4S had a fraction-of-a-second lag for some menus). Remember how clicking Share by Email on a photo would take about 1-2 seconds for the e-mail client to load? Not anymore.

A subtle example: do you remember how, if you slide a text message on the lock screen, it unlocks the phone and goes directly to Messages app? On my 4S, the screen would go black for a fraction of a second and the Messages app window would “zoom-in” onto screen. During that effect the rectangle that is “zooming in” to full screen would be blank and you wouldn’t see text-message normally until the effect ended. Now, the Messages app loads instantly so you see actual text message during the zoom-in effect. Another side-effect of this speed – switching apps is much less of a chore. Yes, iOS still doesn’t have live updating tiles or widgets, but you won’t mind switching apps nearly as much simply because apps load and pull data off the network so much faster.

Fluid. iPhone always had the smoothest user interface of any smartphone. The touchscreen has always been very responsive. But now… now it’s just an extension of your finger. For one, it feels like the screen is closer to your finger, like many have mentioned. But it also scrolls even smoother, responds to touch even quicker. You won’t notice this until you use the phone because iPhone 4S had already felt as smooth as can be. Until you try iPhone 5, that is. The experience here is “effortless”. If before you had to glide against the screen (however lightly), it now feels like you’re just guiding your figure right above it. The touchscreen is very, very responsive and the interactions are even smoother and easier.

Other, less noticeable new experiences:

– Mute switch is thinner and feels cheaper at first. There’s a more audible click when you flick it. I flicked in many times to test if it bends, etc., but it’s still solid. After a while it starts feeling normal. It never feels like it’s going to break, though.

– Volume up-down buttons produce a slightly stronger click and are slightly harder to press. That should prevent accidental pressing inside of pockets, though.

– Home button has a slightly different “click” also. But in a good way. It feels like it springs back up a tad quicker. The experience is that I feel I can click it a bit faster than the previous home button, and it feels more solid also.

– Switching between portrait and landscape modes is near-instant regardless of what app, whether a video is loading or not, etc. Overall the experience is that of OS being able to handle more things at the same time.

– EarPods are definitely better. I’d say more than enough for most people; i.e., there’s no urge to upgrade.

– The shut down and startup are noticeably faster.

– All graphics-related elements within apps work significantly faster. For example, CNBC RealTime app shows your lists of stocks at the top as a rotating semi-wheel. Clicking the next list or especially skipping 2-3 lists ahead would cause a little lag. Now it’s very fast and smooth. For example, skipping 2 lists ahead would take about 1.5 seconds on 4S. It now takes maybe half a second.

– High-end games like Wild Blood look gorgeous and run without a hiccup.

– Siri feels a lot more useful. I still want it to know more, but it responds quicker and understands me better and overall is a great way to interact with the device. I found myself using it more for many trivial tasks.

– Stock weather app uses extra screen real-estate to always show hourly forecast. Same thing in many other apps, and the overall experience is of having to make fewer taps.

– Not having to worry about which way the cord plugs is a great experience. I don’t even look at the bottom of the phone when plugging it in.

– Headphone jack on the bottom is a good move – dropping the phone into a pocket is easier now, since the natural tendency is to drop it in top-first.

– LED light is much brighter.

– Screen colors are better and the experience of reading anything is more pleasing now.

That’s about it so far. The phone is amazing. Not saying there are no good other phones, such as Galaxy S3 or Nexus or One X. It’s definitely an OS preference. I prefer iOS right now (and am heavily invested in the ecosystem) and iPhone 5 is without a doubt the ultimate iOS device so far. A big jump forward in day-to-day experience.