iPhone 5s review: 6-months later

The iPhone 5s launched roughly 6 months ago. It was greeted by the usual ennui over its unchanged design and un-embiggened screen, and skepticism over the real-world utility of its Touch ID fingerprint identity sensor and 64-bit Apple A7processor. The iSight camera was well received, even though some mourned the lack of optical image stabilization, and the new color option became the subject of late night jokes. Then it launch and Apple once again couldn't keep it on the shelves; it was veritable gold rush.

I published my original iPhone 5s review ten days later. Spoiler: Even though it was similar in so many ways to the iPhone 5, it was also better in many ways that really counted. Since then I've been using my iPhone almost every day, all day, for 6 months. So, has anything ended up being any better or any worse than I first experience? Has any of the hardware broken down or the software improved? Half a year later, how is the iPhone 5s holding up?

iPhone 5s anodization endurance

Even though the iPhone 5s, like every s-type iPhone, looks almost identical to the previous year's model, there are a couple of differences. Aside from the new bi-color flash element, Apple replaced the scratch-and-chip prone slate gray finish of the iPhone 5 with a new space gray finish, and added an all-new gold finish to the palette as well.

Black is the hardest color to anodize. By the spring of 2013 my slate gray iPhone 5 looked as battle-scarred as a Corellian star freighter. The slate gray, which is less charcoal and more gunmetal, has held up much, much better. Chips are less frequent and when they, or scratches, occur, theyr'e less noticeable. So, while the color might not be as close to black as some may like, the durability has been significantly improved.

The silver iPhone 5 held up exceptionally well. Scratches and chips could only be seen at certain angles and in certain lighting. The silver iPhone 5s is identical and the gold has proven to be the same as well. My gold iPhone 5s has been naked for most of its existence and, slight wear and tear aside, you'd be hard pressed to know it wasn't new from a distance.

Whether or not you like the idea of Apple sticking with a similar design two years in a row, the extra time has let them really nail the aluminum unibody finish. With the iPhone 5c bringing back the plastic and the iPhone 6 rumored to be bringing in the even tougher sapphire glass, it'll be interesting to see just how much further Apple can push device durability in the future.

iPhone 5s: Apple A7 benefits

Everything you need to know about Apple's all-new 64-bit A7 system-on-a-chip, and the next generation Cyclone processor

With the Apple A7 system-on-a-chip (SoC), Apple not only got to 64-bit on mobile first, but got there far ahead of everyone else. That led to some consternation from other manufacturers and confusion from the media. For customers it led many to wonder how much, if at all, it really mattered.

Yes, the cleaner instruction sets and greater register counts enable developers to make better, faster apps. Yes, now that we've seen the iPad Air and Retina iPad mini launch with the same chips we can see how it'll also enable Apple to get their entire 2013 iOS device lineup on the same, incredibly powerful, more future-proof platform.

For the customer, however, the Apple A7 is a monster of a processor that not only drives the iPhone 5s smoothly but, by virtue of its secure enclave and image signal processor (ISP), enables things like Touch ID, Burst Mode, Auto HDR, dynamic exposure, and more.

If you remember how long it used to take for the iPhone to save HDR images, seeing the iPhone 5s do so instantly is one of the most visual, most impressive demonstrations of just how much a chipset can make a difference.

Apps that take full advantage of the A7 "Cyclone" CPU being 64-bit, like video and audio editors, are still few and far between. The games that take full advantage of the A7 GPU, specifically OpenGL ES 3.0, look great but that has no real baring on game play.

Performance, identity, photography, and everything else enabled by the A7 is something any iPhone user can appreciate, even after 6-months when it's taken completely for granted.

iPhone 5s: M7 motivator

Fitbit update adds support for M7, more

Apple's first coprocessor, the Apple M7, is focused on motion (accelerometer, magnometer/digital compass, and gyroscope). For a long time the iPhone has known where it was in space — how fast it's moving, in what direction, and at what orientation — and could record that information every time it was woken from sleep. That was okay but left a lot of gaps. With the M7, the iPhone 5s can record that information almost all the time. That led to some initial privacy concerns but Apple had explicit permissions and an on/off toggle in place right from the start.

I wasn't certain how valuable the M7 would be. I had a dedicated fitness trackers from Nike, Fitbit, and Jawbone, so did I really need my phone?

Turns out, absolutely. Thanks to the M7 when I install a new fitness app I'm no longer starting from scratch. The M7 is already storing about a week's worth of my motion data and it can load that right into the new app. Likewise, if I switch apps, I don't start all over again. I get that week-long buffer. Decoupling recent data from individual apps not only lowers the barrier of transition but increases motivation. The minute I launch that new app instead of seeing a blank screen I see my activity for the last week and I immediately want to start moving again.

6-months later, I've come to rely on that.

iPhone 5s: Touch ID reliability

Touch ID not working after updating to iOS 7.1? Here's how to fix it!

A lot of fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) followed Apple's introduction of the Touch ID fingerprint identity sensor. Some worried it would be frustrating to use. Others that it would beam your fingerprints straight to government surveillance agencies. But Apple took their time with Touch ID and made a really smart implementation that involved a capacitively-trigged, high resolution sensor locked to a specific A7 chipset that keeps data out of RAM or any part of the accessible OS. In the 6 months since launch Touch ID has been susceptible to what every basic biometric fingerprint sensor is susceptible to — laboriously created fake fingerprints — but there have been no reports of TouchID data being compromised.

There were, however, frequent reports of TouchID becoming less and less reliable over time. A software issue, Apple fixed it in the iOS 7.1 update released earlier this month.

I've been using Touch ID constantly since launch. It worked roughly 95% of the time before the update and is the same if not better now. For those who were experiencing degradation, Touch ID is significantly better now than it was before.

When Touch ID does still fail is when any form of water or moisture has come into contact with my finger. That's a known issue with these types of sensors in general but also hopefully something that can be improved in the future.

Like I said in my iPad Air review, Touch ID is so good it now takes me several excruciating seconds to remember it doesn't exist on other devices, like the iPad, and then a few more to manually slide-to-unlock with a passcode — wait for it — like an animal.

iPhone 5s: iSight camera quality

Unlike Nokia or HTC, Apple haven't gone with big, bulging lenses or optical image stabilization systems for their iSight camera. They've gone with modest, high quality optics and backed it up with state-of-the-art image signal processing (ISP). It's what they did for every iPhone since the iPhone 4 and it's what they've done again for the iPhone 5s. It's what lets the iPhone go shot-for-shot against cameras with better hardware and more than hold their own. It's also what lets them do all the auto white balancing, focusing, sharpening, etc, all powered by the Apple A7 chipset. It's also what allows for 120fps 720p slo-mo video.

I've used slo-mo infrequently over the last 6 months, mostly as a party trick or to entertain my godkids. They love not only watching things fall down in bullet time but listening to their voices being distorted as well. It's cool. It's fun. But what's made a far bigger difference for me is the improvement in every day photography.

The iPhone 5s just captures better pictures in more situations. Burst mode means I can often get a clear bit of action or a group photo where no one is blinking. Dynamic exposure means I can get a panorama that doesn't look like Harley Quinn, lost to shadow on one side and bleached out on the other. Even the TrueTone bi-color flash on the iPhone 5s, which I try to avoid using whenever possible, really does produce better color balance in the situations where I have no other choice but to use it.

One of the biggest improvements is also one of the most recent. Thanks to iOS 7.1 and Auto HDR, I no longer have to think about the dynamic range of a scene or fuss with settings and miss the moment. I just leave it on and the pictures turn out great.

Auto HDR specifically means, 6 months later, the iPhone 5s iSight camera is even better for me than it was at launch.

iPhone 5s: Voice and data consistency

After 6 months of heavy use, iPhone 5s voice and data has been an improvement over previous generation iPhones but only slightly. Most of the time it handles dropping from LTE to 3G or even EDGE and back with utter transparency. Sometimes it drops and while it claims to remain on-network data has stopped working. Very rarely I've lost signal or not been able to return to LTE at all. Then I have to reboot to get back on the network. Again, that's not a new problem, but it's not been solved yet either.

Likewise the excessive heat and battery drain that comes from poor signal areas when the iPhone blasts the radio into the stratosphere trying to get and keep a connection. It happens far less frequently for me than with previous iPhones but it still happens, most often at airports or at conferences with big buildings and heavy congestion. It's especially bad when roaming, which I'd hoped would no longer be the case thanks to the newer generation chipsets.

These are all boundaries-of-technology issues. In normal, day-to-day usage the iPhone 5s is screaming-fast on LTE. I've been getting between 40 and 90mbps down and 15-30mbps up. When I tether I quickly forget I'm on LTE — it's quite often faster than Wi-Fi.

Voice has been fine as well. I did have an occasional issue where I couldn't hear hear the person I called for a few seconds after they answered but iOS 7.1 fixed that.

A far bigger change over the last 6 months, at least for people in the U.S., has been the new early upgrade and family rate plans pushed by T-Mobile and reacted to by Sprint, AT&T, and Verizon. Some of them are outright double-dip scams. Others can save you some real money.

iPhone 5s: Battery life

What's on Peter's iPhone right now!

iPhones keep getting thinner, keep getting more — and more powerful — features, and yet Apple keeps the line at 10 hours for battery life. It's some form of eldritch might, I'm certain. As a result, over the last 6 months, my iPhone 5s has been just as good at keeping a charge as my iPhone 5, iPhone 4s, iPhone 4, etc. before it.

It still faces the same challenges, many of which are enumerated above, and it can vary a lot depending on which apps are running and how many services are in use (GPS, Voice over IP, and others still hit the battery like a freight train). In some perfect world Apple would detect when an iPhone was draining faster than normal and either restart whatever background radio or app was causing it, next-generation OS X Mavericks battery shaming-style. But we don't live in that world yet.

On a clean install of iOS 7 or iOS 7.1 on an iPhone 5s, however, I'm still getting almost as long a charge now as I got 6 months ago. That's not a fair measure, of course, since most people won't do clean installs and the longer software is running, the more often it's been restored from backup, the greater the chance errors might pop up. That said, on a restore I'm getting very similar results, though occasional drains happen with slightly greater frequency.

Overall, you should expect great battery life on an iPhone 5s not only the day you buy it, but for months and months thereafter. If you're not getting it, there's a problem and one that can and should be addressed.

iPhone 5s: iOS 7.1 fixes and new features

iOS 7.1 review

iOS 7.1 arrived almost 6 months after the launch of iOS 7 and the iPhone 5s. It fixed longstanding problems like the TouchID reliability issue as well as the frequent and frustrating Home screen crashes. It also introduced new features like Auto HDR and re-introduced old ones like the Month/List combo view in Calendar.

The short version is iOS 7.1 makes the iPhone 5s better and more stable. The long version is:

iPhone 5s: The bottom line... 6-months later

iPhone 5s review: 6-months later

Overall the iPhone 5s is as good a phone now as it was when I first bought it back in September of 2013. In many appreciable ways it's even better. Some of that is thanks to bug fixes like the Home screen crash patch or the Touch ID degradation patch, but some are due to new features as well like Auto HDR and the improved iOS 7.1 interface changes.

New competitors like the Samsung Galaxy S5 and HTC One (2014) will be launching soon but I find myself even less interested in them this year than I was their progenitors last year. That's not because I don't like or even envy some of their features. On the contrary, I love that companies less conservative and focused than Apple are trying all sorts of amazing things. It's that my phone is something I've come to depend on even more over the years. It's not my primary computing platform yet but it's getting closer all the time. Because of that, because of how important it is to me, Apple's consistency and quality have become even more important.

I can and have gotten by on other phones over the last few months, including the Nexus 5 and Lumia 1020, but it felt like just that — getting by. I don't need or want to waste time with customizations or lumps that feel like bricks in my pocket. I just want to pull my phone out, find the app I need, and do what I want to do with it easily and reliably.

And 6-months later, that's exactly where the iPhone 5s excels.

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

  • Very nice write-up. I agree with everything you stated, because I too am having the same exact experience with my 5s today. I think the 5s is the iPhone "perfected". It struck a wonderful balance between performance and build. I really can't see where the phone could possibly go from here, other than better hardware like the sapphire glass. Even a bigger scree - I don't really care about. I think the display on this one is just fine. But I also have a Macbook and iPad, so I guess a larger screen is useless for me.
  • I love this article. My battery life is still amazing from day 1. And auto HDR. Amazin.
  • Speaking of the M7, do a lot of fitness apps use it? I need to find a good one. Sent from the iMore App
  • Very complete and well written write up. Hits all the salient points that are missed with just a feature spec comparison.
    Fluid and oily is how I described my use of my iPhone 5S
  • @ djstarion I use Runkeeper and Runtastic. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, but I believe both can use data from the M7. And, on my non-M7 iPhone 5, the two apps differ in their walking mileage estimations by roughly 10%. That's 0.1 mile discrepancy for every mile walked and/or hiked. I still don't know which one is more accurate. Also, either of these apps drains the battery pretty fast. Either app burns up about 10% to 15% of battery life per hour. And running them concurrently doubles that drain, of course. I'm really looking forward to getting an M7 (or M8) equipped iPhone "6" this year.
  • You should check out Argus :)
  • "... and Apple once again couldn't keep it on the shelves; it was veritable gold rush." And once again this was good news for Apple. Much better for their bottom line to sell the high-end, high-margin models. But why is the 5S out-selling the 5C by something like a 4:1 margin? I think it boils down to these three things: 1. TouchID
    2. Gold
    3. All other improvements I'm thinking side-by-side comparison in an Apple Store, with a sales person describing the 5S and 5C to a non-techie. Not necessarily a techno-geek comparing specs and features in online reviews. No, I think it's the showroom appeal of the 5S that gives it the "wow factor" win over the 5C. In a side-by-side comparison of the 5S and 5C, I'm pretty sure TouchID is capable of sealing the 5S deal all by itself. The 5C (and all iPhones before it) gives you an unhappy choice: 4-digit numeric passcode, longer alphanumeric passcode, or no passcode at all. We were forced to choose either convenience or security. TouchID gives us both. Boom. I think Gold is another major reason why 5S outsells 5C. The Director of Engineering at a startup I'm working at took one look at a gold 5S, said "I want that," and got it. It's sort of blingy but still tasteful. It was the biggest visual differentiator the "tock" year of the traditional two year iPhone "tick-tock" cycle, and you don't need any side-by-side comparison with the 5C to know whether you want Gold or not. And when you want it, you *want* it. Boom. Also, I lumped "All other improvements" into a separate category from TouchID and Gold. Because not everyone cares equally about the M7, camera upgrades, 64-bit processing, etc. People who *really* want a better camera will go for the 5S. People who *really* want a better and more efficient fitness-related motion tracking system will go for the 5S. People (like me) who are deeply impressed by 64-bit processing capability will go for the 5S. People who don't care about any of that stuff will be impressed by TouchID and/or Gold. The M7, camera, and 64-bit CPU aren't necessarily "wow factors," but they're definite advantages over the 5C.
  • Geez, your English could sure use some work. Typos and grammar errors all over lol. But indeed, this article very well sums up the viability of the 5s after 6 months of being public. I remember getting my 5s last year and truly being amazed. It's build quality and design is something we've come to expect from an Apple product. What really sparked me, however, was the accuracy and speed of it's under-the-hood specs. The M7 chip was well polished and Touch ID was very responsive; only failing on me a few times that I can remember. The HDR mode in cameras also impressed with better pictures and the A7 chip provided a better gaming experience for graphically demanding titles such as Infinity Blade and the like. Coming from an iPhone 4, I was truly blown away by how such a small device could deliver such blazing speeds and unbelievable power; albeit at the cost of battery life. I will say however, that there are some core features that I really wish iOS 7 would've came with, some pretty basic features at that. But then I remember it took 4 years for Apple to implement copy and paste for iOS, and then it starts to make sense. Apple likes to take time with their products and so patience is all but a necessity for their users. But even so, I still find the 5s to be the greatest smartphone on the market for me. It does everything right without any compromises, and the result is a wonderfully crafted smartphone that still reigns supreme. It's design build used in tandem with the beautiful translucency that is iOS 7 helps deliver a visually stunning and satisfying experience not found in any other device. It is for this reason that collecting iPhones has become something of a tradition for me. Its a tradition that continues strong through the iPhone 5s, and I will be getting the iPhone 6... Sent from the iMore App
  • Dude, you need to grammar and spell check your posts. Also, I'm sure no one would dispute how busy you are, but do people actually use their phones to accomplish the majority of their computing work? If so, I must admit that the importance of computing and advancement of technology has hit a peek and is definitely declining.
  • or "peak".
  • I've tried the 5s camera only a little and seriously, I don't notice any difference between this and standard 5 (the one I have)! The 5s takes in more light in the lense? That's all? Well, if that's the case I just increase the brightness in any edit app. And I do serious intagramming photography and I do can't see any difference in between these two phones. Please, correct me if anyone experience different :) Sent from the iMore App
  • You can increase brightness all day long editing picture after the fact but all thats going to do is make it "foggy" or "hazy." Getting more light in up front = more detail and improved quality without editing.
  • That depends on the pics original state. If it's in daylight I don't need to increase it but ofc it also matters how the sunlight is used. Overall; the quality in the 5S isn't better, just the light it let's in and, like I said, can be fixed with edit app in iPhone 5 to make it equal:) Sent from the iMore App
  • It's the fact that you included the word "eldritch" in there that impresses me. Sent from the iMore App
  • very eloquent indeed... I like the fact that this word is eloquent in itself :P
  • Great write up Rene. My Gold iPhone 5s is still my "go to" device. Even though I like the "bells and whistles" and the ability to totally customize my Galaxy Note3, when I need to get something done, I reach for my 5s...."IT JUST WORKS".
  • When you say a clean instal of iOS 7, does that mean you have nothing downloaded and you have to re-download what you want? Sent from the iMore App
  • I take my phone for granted now as my defacto computer. If they jump to a bigger screen for the 6, I might have to buy it in between carrier upgrades. I would like to see them add a power saving mode like I saw on the S5 I believe. I'm sure if anybody can make the screen bigger and not make the overall phone footprint bigger it's Apple. Don't use the Touch ID but maybe down the road. OIS for the camera and a sapphire screen would be awesome. Safari works great but I would like to see iCloud get some enhancements. Check the site daily, keep up the good work!
  • One thing I am waiting for in the iPhone is NFC-capability. If Apple adds that feature to their next generation iPhone, I'm all in for a new phone. Some people say they won't add NFC because they stated in a keynote that with Airdrop, there would be no need 'to bump your phones against each other'... Though I don't know how payment or ticketing solutions should be possible with Airdrop. Another feature I'd love to see in any phone is DAB+ radio. I know - it's never gonna happen ;)
  • Apple appears to be investing heavily in iBeacons.
  • "Likewise the excessive heat and battery drain that comes from poor signal areas when the iPhone blasts the radio into the stratosphere trying to get and keep a connection." I remember when I had my Blackberry Storm 2 this was a bad problem for me as well because of where my office sat in the middle of town, smack in the middle of old buildings with no gaps between them. I was getting about a half day out of my battery if I was lucky until someone came up with an app that kept the phone from constantly searching in bad areas. I know you can put it in airplane mode or cut data off but that was not an option when I was in and out of the office several times a day. Maybe some in the Jailbreak community could hook us up with something like this? Thinks are better now that I work in different place but i could use it at times and I do mean more than once a week.
  • Come on, the 1020 doesn't feel like a brick in your pants. I get the reference to setting up Android, tis tedious, and with my ADHD, I'm changing it every few hours. Very nice write up, and although I'm an amdroid/Windows user, the 5s was the fort iPhone that made me consider switching. *Slow claps for Apple* and to have a device, look and run like new 6 months in deserves another clap. Posted via the Android iMore App!
  • "Come on, the 1020 doesn't feel like a brick in your pants." Indeed. It does not feel like it was made for a child... 5S is getting too small. And it is so slippery and lightweight that it is awkward for a normal guy to quickly get out of the pocket, for instance. That would not be so much of an issue if you could drop that thing, but that is *not* what you want to do with an iPhone!
  • Uh, did you know that the Motorola Razr and most flip phones were all smaller than the iPhone 5 and nobody claimed that they were too difficult to get out of their pocket. Before Apple, the whole world was on a race to see who could make the smallest phone. You are such an obvious Apple Hater.
  • I like the fact that the 5S is super thin. I have it an a protective case but even then its slim.
  • I have yet to find a difference between my 5S and the old 5. They are the same phone. Perhaps, if my TouchID scanner worked also in practice, I might notice a difference, but, nah. 5S has fixed none of the 5's issues, which were unreliable Maps, poor first-party Apple apps and services (you need a 3rd party app for everything, i.e. this is no WP), and poor battery life. On the positive side, they managed not to botch up anything that worked well on the 5. After all, it is the same device.
  • I hate you Rene! Not really but I'm jealous of your LTE speeds. Nice read. Sent from the iMore App
  • Great write up. I love my 5s & Touch ID & Burst mode are two features I use a lot (especially now 7.1 has sorted out Touch ID). Really looking forward Touch ID coming to the iPad Mini.
  • The Slate Gray may show nicks a little easier but it is also easier to touch up than the space gray. On a Slate Gray, you can simply cover up a nick with a permanent black Sharpie marker. Not so on the space gray, it'll be too obvious.
  • All I can say about this article is "I agree completely" .
  • Wait for it...Like an animal. Haha I say this now. People think It's hilarious. They just don't know I stole it from Rene on iMore. So I get away with it. :D haha
  • " I just want to pull my phone out, find the app I need, and do what I want to do with it easily and reliably." +1 on this I too have tried various platforms(Android.,BB 10 ,Windows) but nothing beats the simplicity of iOS!
  • Very fair article Rene. My iPhone 5s is Still as Awesome as it was the very first day last Year, when i got it from T-Mobile. But this Year i do hope that Apple Makes a Larger screen Model, and if they do, i will be Upgrading 4 sure. (Apple makes the best Consumer Electronic Products IMHO).
  • I recently dumped my Blackberry Torch for this iPhone 5S and so far I am very happy with its performance.
  • Great review! Sent from the iMore App
  • Great write up I love the quality of Apples products and the reliability. Wasn't a fan til about 2 years ago when my little brother turned me on to the iPhone 4s and ever since then I can't even think of buying another competitors phone. To me the 5s is still awesome and fast as the day I bought it new. In fact so impressed by the 5s that I bought the iPad Air and I am very impressed as well. Sent from the iMore App
  • Who cares I have iPhone 5 and I will wait to get iPhone 6 as long as it gets a 5 inch screen, if not I'm switching to the NEW HTC ONE, that's metal sweet better than those plastic Galaxy phones. Sent from the iMore App
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  • Who? Sent from the iMore App
  • I have a 5 still... Somewhat contemplating a 5S (especially after great write-ups like this one) but at this point I may as well wait for the 6. Sent from the iMore App
  • Great write up. As a android user from the beginning and currently using a nexus4. I can say that after residing this review I will happily move to iOS and iPhone 5s or the new iPhone 6 when released. I would love a phone that has less restarts and something look like a phone.
  • I have the iPhone 4 (not a 4s) that I bought a couple of years ago. It's slow...it often has a noticeable delay in typing in my passcode, opening a folder, or launching an app. Really thinking about getting the 5S, maybe when the price drops after the 6 comes out.
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