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iPhone 5S - Still the best, but no longer a leader

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Phones are fascinating. They live closer to our body than any other device other than the watch. And if your job doesn’t involve working on a PC, you probably use it more than any other “computer”. Because of our intimate relationship to these glowing bricks, we seem to become very emotional about what device we chose. I don’t think I’ve gotten more dramatic responses than when I praised Windows Phone or bought an iPhone 5S. 

 
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I’m not declaring war between platforms or saying that one approach is superior to the other. Android, iOS, and Windows Phone all have their strengths and weaknesses. We seem to get carried away trying to pick a singular winner. To be honest, it really doesn’t matter what you - or I - use at the end of the day. It’s just a window into services or information you’re looking for.

 
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The Nokia 1020 was, and is a great device. It’s quiet, honest and the finest Windows Phone money can buy today. In many ways, it’s been the most progressive of the platforms - a philosophical leader of sorts. Its design language has influenced the industry in profound ways and always gets praise from graphic designers. So, why did I get an iPhone 5S?

 
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The reason is simple. It was a handful of apps (Instagram, VSCOcam, 1Password, Fantastical, Twitterific) that are nonexistent or poorly executed on Windows Phone. If these apps don’t matter to you, you could be perfectly happy with the 1020. I've spent just over a week with the 5S and I've got to admit, it feels good to be using my favorite apps again. However, there's a lot more complexity to this battle. Read on...

 
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I was a bit late in logging into Apple's online store on launch day so decided to wait in line at the store instead of waiting weeks for my phone to arrive. The line was insanely long - surprising since negativity towards Apple has been greater than ever.

 
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The new window installations for iPhone 5S/C are impressive - unsurprisingly an Apple Store employee tells me that they’re a pain in the ass to install.

 

 
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Apple has been transitioning away from the shiny logo treatment to a flatter black one. Even the new 5Cs housings have this treatment.

 
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Next to the Nokia 1020. The iPhone 5S feels astonishingly thin, light and concentrated next to it.

 

 
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These two phones are completely different characters. The 1020 feels solid, human, yet rational in the classic Scandinavian sense (or Nordic to avoid technicalities). The 5S is crisp, precise, and jewel-like. Both of these have world-class designs and build quality, but the iPhone is at an unparalleled, deity status when it comes to execution. Apple spends more money than anyone on perfecting hardware, and it shows.

 

 
 
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The iPhone 5 used to have a lot of manufacturing issues with the diamond-cut chamfer edge. The 5S’ is flawless. Practice makes perfect.

 
 
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I can’t stress this enough - the 5S’s build quality is awe-inspiring. After being divorced from my iPhone for a few months, I’m appreciating its level of craftsmanship all over again. Most people won't notice or even care that it's crafted unlike any other phone. But if you can see its insanity, you'll love it.

 

 
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Although the new iPhone fails to deliver an exciting new design, it comes with a new exciting color - Space Grey. Yes, the gold model is the one everyone’s going crazy for but it’s probably not going to age well and seems a bit off-character for Apple. Trust me, Space Grey is where it’s at.

 
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The new gunmetal-like grey looks really really good. I was never completely in love with the “slate” color Apple introduced last year but think they nailed it this time. 

 
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I can't remember ever being so in love with a color. Space Grey brings the best of both worlds - it’s timeless like silver but is sophisticated as black. It’s quite possibly the biggest innovation of the iPhone 5S, and I mean it. Silver and black are becoming increasingly stale, and this is making Apple look fresh.

 
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One of my favorite changes with the 5S is the removal of the metallic garnish around the camera. Tasteful.

 
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The iPhone 5S’ Retina Display is as usual, great. I’m not sure if Apple’s improved it from the 5 but it’s flawless.

 
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Knowing that the chamfered edges got easily dinged on the 5, Apple has released new leather cases compatible with the 5 and 5S. They hug the phone snugly and offer really good protection.

 
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They’re thin and feel great in the hand. Most cases in the market are distasteful and poorly executed so it’s great to have Apple join the crowd.

 

 
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The inside is lined with microfiber. 

 
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The case isn’t perfect though, on high contact areas, the leather becomes dark and shiny. I have a bad feeling that it'll wear - not patina. This could be a problem with just the brown case but I’d go with black to avoid issues altogether.

 
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OK, now let’s talk about the elephant in the room. I (still) think iOS7 is ugly. No matter how many articles, justifications, and arguments I get sent about iOS’s new beauty, I just don’t see it. It looks childish, cheap and poorly executed. Am I saying that I prefer skeuomorphic design over flat? No. But I am saying that I prefer good execution over poor, and I don't think it's well executed yet.

 
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The thing that really bothers me is that iOS7 doesn’t bring anything new to the table. It takes visual cues from Android and philosophies from Windows Phone to simply skin the iOS we’re used to. Apple should be leading the industry with iOS but they've somehow ended up imitating everyone.

 
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It really looks like an aftermarket skin for iOS. I’m trying very hard to like it but I simply can’t. It’s brittle, confused, poorly proportioned and has unbelievably poor legibility.

 
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Apple’s very proud of creating depth through use of frosted glass. I think this also looks terrible.  I like it in theory - it profoundly affects the interface visually as you navigate through different content. The truth is that you’re left to look at blotchy pools of colors. It’s weird.

 
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Apple also likes to think that this Vista-era frosted glass helps the user understand the layers behind their current screen. I think simple transparencies and motion design do a better job of that.

 
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Something that I do like about iOS7 is its animations. I love the way you zoom in and out of apps - it’s a simple change that helps you understand where you’re going, and where you’ve been. There’s a problem here to though. The animations are way too slow - it’s like they’re set at half-speed. It makes even the blazing fast iPhone 5S feel slow to react.

 
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I’ve been using iOS since beta and though things have gotten better, I’m still not convinced by this new light Helvetica look. As far as I’m concerned, typography for UI should be completely focused on legibility. Helvetica is a very legible typeface but not when used at this lightness for everything from titles to body text. This is unquestionably bad typography and it’s too bad because iOS7 relies more heavily on type than ever.

 
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The light typography has polluted everything. For instance, because the letters of the keyboard are so thin, it’s harder to gauge if you're correctly typing on the keyboard. The lack of pronounced shadows also doesn’t help as everything blends together visually into blobs. I'm also finding it ironic that the mobile platform with the poorest legibility also has the smallest screens.

 
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Consistency is also poor. Most icons are super light and invisible while some are heavy and dominate the page, like the playback buttons in the video player.

 
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Touch ID's setup screens are well done though, and very pretty. By the way, Touch ID works flawlessly. It’s like magic. Apple has perfected and refined fingerprint detection to something that anyone can actually use. Bravo.

 
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Something that's surprised me about the 5S is poor battery life. With the Nokia 1020, I’ve always had at least 30% battery life left at the end of the day. With the iPhone, I’m always hitting redline. And don't tell me that it’s because I’m using my phone more than the Nokia. Even on a meeting filled day with light use of the phone, I received the 20% battery warning. I’ve recently turned off all push notifications, email fetching, and all automatic updates. My phone finally gets me through the day now but I feel like I’m compromising.

 
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One of the 5S’s biggest improvements is its camera. Although its got a larger sensor, it’s still not big enough to compete with the 1020’s. It shines with use of clever software though. It’s great at setting white balance and HDR is able to do wonders with what the limited camera provides. 

Here are a bunch of comparisons with the 1020, these photos are straight from the phones with no editing.

 

 
Both shot in full auto with flash.

Both shot in full auto with flash.

Apple's made a big deal about the 5S' dual flash. It does work but seems to be a biased towards the warmer side - probably optimized for portraits.

 
Both shot in full auto, flash off. iPhone in HDR mode.

Both shot in full auto, flash off. iPhone in HDR mode.

The 5S' smaller sensor is clearly noticeable in lower-light situations. Notice the increased noise and reduction of detail on the 5S' photo. It's highlights are well controlled though, thanks to HDR.

 
Both shot in full auto, flash off. iPhone in HDR mode.

Both shot in full auto, flash off. iPhone in HDR mode.

Once again, Nokia's photo smoother and sharper. The iPhone is clearly the white balance king though. 

 
Both shot in full auto, flash off. iPhone in HDR mode.

Both shot in full auto, flash off. iPhone in HDR mode.

The iPhone 5S does much better with plenty of light. The 1020's photo is still crisper but the difference here is trivial.

 
Both shot in full auto, flash off. iPhone in HDR mode.

Both shot in full auto, flash off. iPhone in HDR mode.

Once again, the 5S performs very well with plenty of light. It looks like the iPhone always shoots a bit too warm and the 1020 too cool.

 
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The 1020’s camera is clearly superior to the 5S’. But the thing is, the iPhone has better white balance and metering, which produces more balanced results. But for someone that’s willing to post process the images, the 1020’s massive sensor will give you much more to play with. There’s no clear winner here but I get the feeling that the 41MP sensor is overkill, and too complicated if the final destination for your photos is Instagram.

Talking about Instagram, you can see more samples from my iPhone 5S there. 

 

 
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I know, if you love Apple, you're probably upset that I'm not sold on iOS7. But here’s the thing, I’ve grown up with Apple and have praised their dedication and ideology more than anyone I know. If you’re one of those conspiracy theorists and trying to spread the word that I’m being paid to say bad things about iOS7, I just want to say that I’ve already convinced three friends to go out and buy an iPhone 5S. I'm only being harsh because I love.

 
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The iPhone 5S is a great phone. It’s the best iPhone ever made and you won’t regret buying it. But that’s a given. Of course it’s the best iPhone. Of course it’s worth the money. Fortunately, being the best iPhone is still enough to make it the best phone you can buy today. But the problem here has nothing to do with being the best phone. The problem is that Apple’s competitors are improving at a speed that’s far greater than them. The problem is that iOS is beginning to imitate Android, the innovation leader of the pack. The problem is that iOS is no longer pushing design boundaries with radical principles, Windows Phone is doing that.

It’s still the best, but no longer a leader. Frankly, it makes me a bit sad.