Design & Hardware

With the 5s Apple bucks the industry trend of increasing camera resolution, holding to 8 megapixels while much of the competition drifts towards 13 megapixels and beyond. There’s a lot of misinformation about the tradeoffs between resolution and other aspects of image quality, and the truth is more complicated than “more is better” or “less is better.” Higher resolutions on the same sensor size can capture more detail (and allow for tighter cropping) if implemented well, seen in Samsung’s Galaxy S4. But image noise does tend to rise as the photosites are shrunk to fit more on a given sensor size. The 5s’ 8 megapixels provide enough detail for most applications, and support a reasonable amount of cropping for web resolutions, but not as much as some of the competition.

The iPhone 5s camera unit is located in the top left corner. Next to it you can see the new dual-LED flash unit.

The “more is better” rule does generally apply to sensor size, and Apple has added about 15 percent more light-capturing real estate to the 5s in comparison with the 5 (1/3 vs 1/3.2 inch). This is good news in theory, but we wouldn’t expect to see much difference in real-world performance from such a modest bump (consider that the Nokia Lumia 1020’s sensor, which is worth getting excited about, is around 400 percent larger than the more typically sized sensors in the 5 and 5s).  Any size increase is better than a poke with a sharp stick, though.

The 5s has a new F2.2 lens that’s a quarter stop faster than that of its predecessor. This is a barely perceptible real-world difference, but it does bring the lens within a negligible quarter stop of the fastest F2.0 lenses among the competition.

The 5s lens has also gone a bit wider than that of the 5, giving a roughly 30mm-equivalent field of view. This is a little tighter than the 28mm-equivalent territory that much of the competition now occupies, but it’s still a wide angle lens that’s better suited to fitting more in the frame than to capturing close portraits of individuals. For a flattering portrait, you’ll usually want to back up and crop rather than fill the frame with the subject’s face.   

The home button on the front ...
... and power and volume buttons are the only external controls on the device.

Pre-release rumors about the 5s indicated it would have a two-LED flash, but it turns out that that wasn’t the whole story. In fact, it features the first auto-color balancing flash of any camera. The light from a flash, LED or otherwise, is rarely the same color as the ambient light. This is particularly true when shooting in the warm tungsten light typical of indoor, nighttime scenes. With different colored light sources, white balance is almost inevitably going to be wrong for at least part of the image: the flash light may look bluish, or the ambient light may look orange. Professional photographers add translucent colored gels to their flashes to match the output color to the ambient light. The 5s tries to automate that practice by blending output from a white and an amber LED to better match the ambient light color. It’s a neat idea: in the flash section of this review, we’ll see how well it actually works. 

Quite a lot has changed in the imaging block, but the exterior of the 5s will look and feel very familiar to anyone who’s handled an iPhone 5. Keeping with the tradition of Apple’s “S” releases, the 5s is the spitting image of its predecessor. While phones continue to grow wider to accommodate ever larger screens, the 5s’ 4-inch display lets the phone sit comfortably in even the smallest hands.

The iPhone 5s is noticeably smaller than the Samsung Galaxy S4 and most other
top-end Android devices.

For better or worse, the 5s’ photographic ergonomics remain unchanged as well. The thin metal band of the phone’s edge doesn’t make for the most secure grip, and there’s still no dedicated shutter button. Either volume button will trigger the shutter. Since these aren’t two-stage buttons, there’s no half-press to lock focus and a fairly hard press is needed to take a picture, which increases the chance of blur-inducing movement. A case can help the overall handling: Apple’s new one feels nice.

The 4-inch screen is smaller than on most of the Android competition and at 326ppi comes with a lower pixel density. Nevertheless, the image is sharp and bright.

The 5s’ 4-inch display is small in comparison to the gargantuan screens on most of its competitors. From a photographic standpoint, you’ll feel this most when reviewing or editing images, and when simply showing people pictures and videos on your phone (web browsing and productivity apps also tend to work better bigger). A 5-inch screen has nearly 60 percent more area than a 4-inch display. That said, many people may actually prefer the conveniences of a smaller phone. The big screen trend has left the iPhone as essentially the sole flagship phone in its size class.

The 5s screen’s 326 ppi density is comparable to that found in slightly larger WXGA screens like those on Nokia’s Lumia series, but a good bit less than the 400+ ppi densities seen on increasingly popular full HD screen panels like those in the HTC One or Sony Xperia Z1. In real-world terms, the difference is noticeable but not dramatic, especially at normal viewing distances. The iPhone’s screen may be diminutive, but it’s plenty bright, with good visibility in full sun.