Jeff Gelles: There's a lot to like about the new iPhone

The iPhone 5 is lighter, faster, and has a larger screen. JUSTIN SULLIVAN / Getty Images
The iPhone 5 is lighter, faster, and has a larger screen. JUSTIN SULLIVAN / Getty Images
Posted: September 14, 2012

Longer. Thinner. Lighter. Faster. Larger screen. Better camera. Same price and colors - black or white, that is.

No product stirs more buzz nowadays than a new Apple iPhone, and Wednesday's unveiling of the iPhone 5 punctuates the point. Yes, I plead guilty to participating, though I'm plainly torn in two directions - eager to get my hands on one and also a wee bit embarrassed to care.

At one pole are analysts such as the Yankee Group's Carl Howe and Tim Bajarin, president of California's Creative Strategies Inc. After trying out the new iPhone at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Gardens, each volunteered a strikingly similar analogy for the new glass-and-aluminum smartphone.

"It actually feels like a piece of fine jewelry - it's that well-designed," said Bajarin, calling the phone more elegant than the series of predecessors Apple has released each year since 2007. That was when Apple first turned sci-fi fantasy - a powerful computer in everybody's pocket - into something a lot closer to fact.

Howe said the new iPhone "has a lot of dazzle to it," and described its beveled edge as "sort of like something you'd see on a Tiffany design."

And at the other pole? Competitors, critics, and others who disdain Apple aficionados as "fanboys." The truth is, I'm a big fan of Apple products - I love my Macbook Pro, iPhone, iPad, and iPod. But one skeptical voice that grabbed my ear on iPhone 5 Launch Day was that of satirist Andy Borowitz, who joked that a single new feature of the phone - Apple counts more than 200, including a redesign of its frustratingly mediocre earbuds into "EarPods" - "gives shape and purpose to previously empty and meaningless lives."

OK, a little perspective is warranted, folks - though I don't mean to suggest that Bajarin, Howe, or anyone else wowed by Apple's latest invention lacks it. This is a new iPhone, not world peace.

Why care at all? Because the iPhone, and every smartphone that has followed it, has truly changed the way people live, work, and play - at least for those of us fortunate enough to afford one. It may sound like a slogan, but that's why the parodies bite.

Howe predicts that when preorders start Friday and the new iPhones arrive in stores a week later, the iPhone 5 launch will double Apple's astounding success last fall, when it sold more than four million iPhone 4S's in three days. Here are six upgrades delivered by the phone and iOS 6, the new operating system that will also work on some older models, that help explain why:

Longer, thinner, lighter. There's no "perfect size" for a smartphone or anything else, but Howe is convinced Apple hit a sweet spot with its new dimensions, which include a 4-inch-diagonal screen, half an inch bigger than previous models. Apple did so while keeping the phone's width constant, adding about three-eighths of an inch to its length, and making the phone about one-fifth thinner and lighter.

The result is a noticeably larger screen, ideal for HD video's proportions, on a phone that still fits comfortably into the same size hands as before.

More power. Built-in features such as an improved Siri "intelligent assistant" - not to mention those half-million available apps - all need computing power to run. Apple says the new phone's A6 chip is "up to twice as fast" as its predecessor.

The new Maps. What can that speed do? Howe says it was immediately obvious when he tested Apple's new Maps tool, which includes turn-by-turn directions, real-time traffic adjustments, and even a "Flyover" feature that allows you to move from navigation to exploration "as you zoom, pan, and rotate around a city and its landmarks."

"It's a whole different thing than the previous maps app, because it's just so fast," Howe said. "It feels very responsive and very natural."

Speedier data. The iPhone 5 will work on the fastest cellular data networks available - the LTE networks being rolled out by all the major carriers - as well as on a faster, 5-gigaherz WiFi band. Apple says LTE should deliver data at speeds of up to 100 megabits per second. That kind of performance may be wishful, but it's a major upgrade from previous iPhones' limit of 14.4 megabits per second.

Forrester Research's Charles Golvin said the faster WiFi standard will make a large difference too, when iPhone users are in reach. "Very few, if any, mobile phones support the higher-frequency mode," he said.

FaceTime-over-cellular. Apple's refined video-calling app, previously limited to callers using WiFi, will now work over wireless networks, though some AT&T Mobility customers won't be happy with the upgrade. That carrier says the feature, said to consume about 3 megabytes of data per minute, won't work for legacy customers who remain on unlimited-data plans. To get it, they'll have to switch to a metered-usage plan - or to a competing carrier, such as Sprint, that means what it says when it offers "unlimited data."

A better camera. There are too many improvements to mention on the latest Apple iSight camera, including its 8-megapixel image capture. But Bajarin said Apple's computing skills are the real key.

"Apple enhances the software so much that the image is superior to any other smartphone camera out there," he said. On one image of a bee buzzing over a flower, "you could actually see the veins in the bee's wings."


Contact Jeff Gelles at 215-854-2776 or jgelles@phillynews.com.

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