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As Apple Faces the Critics, 'Magical' iPhone 5S Is Getting All the Love


The colorful 5C and the fingerprint-scanning, 64-bit 5S go on sale on Friday. Are you buying one? Here are thoughts and insights from early reviews to help you decide.

On September 10, after months of rampant Internet speculation and leaks, Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) officially unveiled its next generation of iPhones, including the high-end, fingerprint-scanning 5S, and the colorful, lower-end (but still not cheap) 5C. Although Apple only made pre-ordering available for the 5C, which means you'll have to line up if you want to get a 5S on its first day, both phones will launch on Friday. As such, reviews have flooded the Internet.

Let's begin with the colorful 5C, available in white, pink, yellow, blue, and green.

First of all, as for the letter "C," it doesn't stand for cheap -- with a two-year contract, the phone has a pricetag of $99 for the 16GB model and $199 for the 32GB; unlocked, it comes in at $549. Many reviewers seemed uncertain as to what demographic the 5C is being marketed to. Noting that the 5C is "an iPhone 5 in a pretty new hat," Alex Kidman of the Australian Broadcasting Corp. wrote, "I'm honestly not sure outside of the heavy fashion crowd who, for one reason or another, might just want color and not actual features. When it was announced and outright pricing emerged, the only glimmer of hope was that telcos would take it on board in a heavily subsidized fashion, making it a better value pick."

On the other hand, the aesthetics of the 5C have also been praised as an integral part of the new phone's appeal. As David Pogue wrote for the New York Times, "The 5C's case is polycarbonate, lacquered like a glossy piano. Better yet, its back edges are curved for the first time since the iPhones of 2008. You can tell by touch which way it's facing in your pocket."

Technically speaking, faint praise was given to the 5C's slightly improved battery life. As part of her review for AllThingsD, Lauren Goode directly compared the 5C to her old 5, after she used both for Web browsing and making calls, with screen brightness set to the same levels. As she wrote, "When my iPhone 5 dies on Saturday night, the 5C had 17% battery power left." In summing up the 5C, she described its improvements as "evolutionary, not revolutionary."

The Telegraph's Matt Warman praised the phone as a "stroke of marketing genius" in how it rivals other iPhones, saying that it is really a "great replacement for an [iPhone 4] or [4S]." Writing on the phone's over all appeal, he noted, "It's younger, and while it may only be slightly cheaper it will appeal to new markets perhaps just enough to keep consumers away from the temptations of rivals for a little longer. If you've got an iPhone 5, it's hard to see why you should buy a 5C."

Despite this significant limitation, Warman believes that the new phones' greatest feature is its novelty, however slight. He wrote:

If you want a new iPhone but have been tempted to go elsewhere, this is the most convenient, easiest option. Apple will tell you it's great; they're right. It's a great, more affordable reason not to go Android (NASDAQ:GOOG). And it's a great replacement for a 4 or a 4S, whose glass many owners will have broken but put up with. Plastic is cheaper for Apple to make, more durable - and more novel. Its novelty, rather than new features, is the 5C's major selling point.

The 5C in its case: notice the word "non?"
And now, for a personal observation: Apple has designed its own cases for the 5C, which have circular holes on the back to let the 5C's color proudly show through. The problem is related to the word "iPhone," written on the back of the phone. When the case is put on, the word is partially hidden and therefore looks like "non." So, as I'm looking at the images of the multicolored 5C in its multicolored case, which allow for a mixing and matching of color schemes, I can't help but notice the word "non" staring back at me. For a company as detail-oriented as Apple, this is a surprising design flaw. Or maybe it was intentional -- who knows?

Let us now move onto the 5S, which, on the whole, received slightly higher praise.

Scott Stein of CNet described the phone as "easily the fastest and most advanced Apple smartphone to date."As for the letter S in the title, he would rather it be a P, for potential. He wrote, "This is Apple's half-step year, a rebuilding year. It's telegraphed by the name itself: adding an 'S' versus giving the phone a whole new name." He has a point: The step from the 4 to the 4S was indeed smaller than that from the 4S to the 5.

(Also see: The Biggest iPhone 5S Feature Nobody's Talking About.)

The highest praise for the device was reserved for its hardware specs, and particularly its all-new A7 processor and M7 motion controller, which Anand Lal Shimpi of AnandTech described as "futureproof." At TechCrunch, Darrel Etherington praised the phone's powerful 64-bit processor, which is the first of its kind for any smartphone. He wrote that its processor will make the 5S "more appealing as the software ecosystem catches up."

One spec failed to win Shimpi over, and that was the screen. She wrote, "While I don't believe the world needs to embrace 6-inch displays, I do feel there is room for another sweet spot above four inches." Apple did not increase the size of the screen at all from the 5 to the 5S, while competitors Nokia (NYSE:NOK) and Samsung (OTCMKTS:SSNLF) are bringing so-called "phablets" (phone + tablet) to the market, some with screens actually over six inches. There has got to be some middle ground between the iPhone and the new wave of phablets, and Apple should look into finding it.

Perhaps one of the 5S's most talked-about features has been its fingerprint scanner, which allows users to unlock their phone and make purchases through iTunes and the app store, all by simply scanning their thumbs. As Etherington wrote for TechCrunch:

At first glance, it's easy to dismiss the fingerprint sensor as a whiz-bang feature designed to attract eyeballs and do little else. But this isn't that. The fingerprint sensor... feels like a mature feature that actually enhances the overall experience of using an iPhone in a noticeable way that you encounter very frequently.

And does the fingerprint reader work consistently? Said David Pogue for the New York Times, "The best part is that [the fingerprint reader] actually works -- every single time, in my tests. It's nothing like the balky, infuriating fingerprint-reader efforts of earlier cellphones. It's genuinely awesome; the haters can go jump off a pier."

Pogue actually focused most on the 5S's new camera, which he boldly wrote will "mean more to you." According to his own experimentation with the 5S versus the 5, "Lowlight pictures are better on the new phone. Clearer, brighter, better color." He added, "Flash photos look much better. No longer will your loved ones' skin look either nuclear white or Avatar blue."

Some of the more negative commentary focused on the battery of the 5S. As T3's Luke Peters wrote, "In our real-world testing, we found the iPhone 5S mimics that of its predecessor -- great in standby, draining when using 3G/4G and performing graphically intensive tasks.... For now, it looks like you'll need a portable battery pack in your pocket if you intend on hammering your new iPhone 5S all day."

The "magical" and "supremely compelling" 5S.
And how does it compare to its new little sibling, the 5C? As Vincent Nguyen of SlashGear wrote, "Would we pick the iPhone 5S over the iPhone 5C? In a heartbeat. The camera, convenience, and performance increases make that a no-brainer decision for smartphone power users." He described the 5S as "magical" and as a "supremely compelling device."

In conclusion, reviews for both devices are mostly positive, though the high-end 5S has received stronger praise. Ultimately, reviewers seemed unsettled by the modest innovation of Apple's latest iPhone iterations. Bloomberg's Rich Jarkslovksy was hard on the two phones, writing that they simply "fail to excite." He noted, significantly, that Apple has never issued more than one iPhone at a time, and that "Apple also never changed so little from the previous generation."

However, for his silver lining, he suggested that Apple's "incremental" changes really were all about potential, "laying the groundwork for future, bigger innovations."

Follow me on Twitter: @JoshWolonick and @Minyanville
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