By Carlos Cruz Cordero

Photograph of the iPhone 5Apple has released the 6th generation of it’s popular smartphone, the iPhone 5.  Announced September 12th and released two weeks later, the iPhone 5 has developed an almost mythical status due to the high amount of anticipation, speculation and rumors that have preceded the phone’s release for the past two years.  Is it worth the wait?  Should you upgrade if you already have an iPhone?  Should you jump on the iPhone bandwagon if you haven’t yet?  The decision, ultimately, is yours.  Here are my thoughts.

When I first got my hands on the iPhone 5 I was immediately impressed by the feel of the device.  Despite being made of glass and aluminum, the phone feels light; so light that if it weren’t for the screen, it can be easily mistaken for a fake plastic mock up.  You might think this makes the phone feel cheap but it actually feels nice and comfortable.  To me, the iPhone 4 and 4S always felt like they were sliced off a slab of metal and glass.  They were small yet hefty.  You knew you were holding a machine and were always aware of the device.  With the iPhone 5, despite being bigger, it almost disappears in your hand.

I think Apple wants you to think less about the phone and more on the software running on it.  This is why the design is so minimal.  But when the display is shut off, you are only aware of the phone and it is gorgeous.  The edges shimmer like a jewel, especially on the white iPhone 5.  The metal back looks and feels solid.  No more hiding your beautiful phone behind an ugly case to protect the delicate glass back.

Screen grab of iPhone screen - including mapThe display is gorgeous.  Colors are richer and blacks are deeper than ever before giving you a higher contrast than previous phones.  Apple also made the display bigger while still managing to keep it looking slick.  The screen isn’t offensively big like the Galaxy Note or any myriad of Android phones and is a welcome size increase from the previous generation iPhones.  With all that extra screen real estate, using accessibility features like Zoom and Voice Over are much easier to control.

Inside, the phone is just as impressive.  With a CPU running at over twice the speed of the iPhone 4S (which wasn’t slow by any means) the iPhone 5 launches intense applications in no time.  Adding to the impressive speed boost of the CPU is the addition of true 4G LTE data speeds.  In some tests, the network speed of LTE is even faster than your home cable or DSL internet connections.

The cameras have also been improved with the front facing FaceTime camera sporting a beefy 720p HD sensor and the rear camera, while still being the same 8 megapixels as the iPhone 4S, gets an improved low light sensor and a truly scratch proof sapphire coating over the lens.

Maybe the only thing holding this phone back from absolute greatness is the latest version of iOS 6 which comes with every phone.

I feel as though I should almost write a separate review for iOS 6 but since it is tied at the hip to iPhone 5, it needs to be counted as a factor when assessing the phone.

VoiceOver
Screen grab of iPhone screen - phone featuresThere are many new small tweaks to VoiceOver which almost merit their own article so I will focus on the biggest changes.  Most notable is the integration of VoiceOver into Maps.  Now, you can zoom in and out of maps with a control in the Rotor.  Also, you can navigate the map you are looking at by points of interest.  Choosing “Points of Interest” in the Rotor will let you select locations near your current location by flicking your finger up and down on the screen.  Double tap or split tap to get information and directions to the selected location.  Finally, moving your finger along a street will tell you what streets intersect with said street as well as what direction the traffic flows and what bearing the street follows (east, west, north, south).

Apple has added punctuation options to the Rotor which allow you to control the amount of punctuation the screen reader mentions when reading back text.  You can choose from “none,” “some” or “all.”

Another addition to the Rotor is the “actions” options which allows you to perform actions on certain item which, without VoiceOver, require a gesture.  For example, swiping right to left over an email in your inbox without VoiceOver will delete that message.  In VoiceOver, swiping up when an email is selected in the inbox while the “Action” option is selected in the Rotor will also delete the email.

Touch typing has also been tweaked with addition of support for modifier keys like “shift” and “more.”  No longer is a double tap required for switching to numbers and symbols or uppercase letters.

Zoom
Screen grab of iPhone screen - do not disturbA small but very welcomed new feature is the ability to use Zoom at the same time as VoiceOver and Assistive Touch.  This really is a huge system change and works interchangeably with all accessibility features; Zoom + VoiceOver, VoiceOver + Assistive Touch, Zoom + Guided Access, etc.

Passbook
First, the good.  Passbook is an amazing new service in iOS 6 which collects all of your scannable tickets and coupons from several apps and stores them all in a digital wallet.  Buy a plane ticket from the American Airlines app and the e-ticket with a QR code is automatically saved to Passbook.  When you arrive at the airport to check in, your iPhone will automatically recognize your location and call up the e-ticket for you to scan at the check in counter.

FaceTime
At long last, with iOS 6, FaceTime is freed from its Wi-Fi prison and you can now place FaceTime calls from anywhere.  However, AT&T customers will have to pay extra for this feature while Verizon and Sprint customers can enjoy this feature at no extra cost.

Do Not Disturb
Do Not Disturb is also an excellent new addition to iOS.  This feature sends calls directly to your voicemail during predetermined times.  You also have the option to reply with a preset text message to any call.  Beyond the phone, Do Not Disturb will also allow you to set blackout times that will stop notification from buzzing your phone, like at night while you sleep.

Maps
The highlight of Maps is the addition of turn by turn navigation.  The navigation works flawlessly and is well implemented but is only usable for driving directions which is a disappointment for us pedestrians.

Apple is no longer using Google as the data source for the built in Maps application in iOS.  Now, Apple has made partnerships with other mapping companies to provide data for the Maps.  this is a major step backwards for a few reasons.

Screen grab of iPhone screen - MapsFirst, Maps no longer provides public transportation information.  While listed as an option for getting directions in Maps, you are forced to actually exit the application and use third-party dedicated public transportation apps like Embark or Hopstop.  While this is not an elegant solution, dedicated transportation app are much more feature complete than Google’s map data was for getting around an urban environment using trains and buses.  It would be nice to see Apple implement this so as the user doesn’t have to leave the Maps application into a different app with a different esthetic and user interface, which can be disorienting and, at times, jarring.

Where Maps really fails is with accuracy.  Google has a huge head start in cataloging and implementing data from across the world resulting in almost magical accuracy.  Unfortunately, Apple Maps comes nowhere near the reliability it once had when it relied on Google data.  Without a specific street address including city and state, Maps will almost always give you results that are nowhere near what you wanted.  For example, I searched for McCarren Park when I was in Brooklyn one day and was given a result nowhere near the actual location of the popular Williamsburg park.

There is a place within Maps to report errors and I can only hope that users will report them when they pop up but Apple shouldn’t rely on users to fix their bad data, especially on an app that isn’t in a beta stage.  With something like Siri, I can forgive incomplete features because Apple has clearly mentioned that feature as “beta” and from day one has asked users to help improve the quality of Siri.  But Maps is a supposedly finished project.  Apple CEO, Tim Cook, has openly apologized for the sub par performance of the new Maps and, in an uncharacteristically apologetic letter to customers, has asked for forgiveness and patience while the company improves the application.  Cook went so far as to suggest other, better, map applications for iPhone.

Guided Access
Guided Access is a new accessibility feature which allows users to lock functions of their iOS device and selected parts of the screen so that a people with motor function disabilities don’t accidentally exit an app by pressing the Home Button or alter settings by accidentally tapping on a section of the screen. 

Phone Keypad
Apple has inverted the colors of the keypad in the phone app.  What were once white numbers on a dark blue and black background are now black numbers on a white background.  This a small change but one which has severely effected low vision users who love the inverted contrast.  While this can be temporarily solved by adding “white on black” to the “Triple Click Home” option in the accessibility settings, it isn’t an ideal solution and adds a few extra steps to the number dialing process.

Wrap Up
When all is said and done, from a hardware perspective, the iPhone 5 is the best smartphone on the market.  If you are eligible for an upgrade you shouldn’t hesitate to get one.  If you aren’t upgrade worthy, the hefty early upgrade price of $649 is a steep price to pay for this device especially when you factor in that most of the new bells and whistles are from iOS 6 which will run on current iPhone 4 and 4S models.  Eventually, iOS 6 will get past these issues.  Apart from these quirks, the system is the most stable release of iOS and even makes the phone feel speedier.  I like it.

-- Carlos Cruz Cordero is The Personal Geek and accessibility aficionado.

 

 

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