iPhone 5S Hands-On Impressions

This year’s iPhone lineup split in two directions: You can purchase a lower-cost iPhone 5C, with a colorful case and the same processor as the iPhone 5, or opt for the high-end iPhone 5S, with a handful of flashy new features like thumbprint recognition and slow-motion video capture. Apple recently loaned us an iPhone 5S so we could determine whether this elite device is worth the extra money to average users.

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If what you’re looking for on your device is gaming compatibility, we think the iPhone 5S might be a little too advanced for the current crop of available apps. A representative from Apple suggested some games that have been enhanced for the iPhone 5S’s new A7 chip, like Infinity Blade 3, Sky Gamblers: Cold War, and Call of Duty: Strike Team, but these games also run beautifully on last year’s devices, and will look just as good on an iPhone 5 or 5C.

We’re certain that developers will continue to push the limits graphically on newer devices, but we’re not expecting any games that will only run on an iPhone 5S in the near future. However, if you’re still sporting a 4S or below, the longer screen size on the iPhone 5, 5C, and 5S is reason enough to upgrade.

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The 5S device itself is quite attractive, even if the official Apple case entirely covers up the gold or silver metal on the back of the phone. Our carrying case is a tan brown leather, which makes the iPhone 5S resemble a wallet, and feel like a chinchilla. Encasing your iPhone 5S in leather certainly makes it feel more like a living creature than a hunk of metal and glass, but the price of this protection is your ability to enjoy the glitzy colors. Perhaps someday, Apple will invent an iPhone that requires no additional case to keep it from cracking or scratching.

Besides the silver and gold finish, the other way you can identify an iPhone 5S on sight is by the redesigned home button, which now serves as a fingerprint sensor. When you first set up your new iPhone 5S, you can pick a finger or thumb to scan, placing it repeatedly on the sensor until it stores your biometrics. We had to scan one thumb twice to cover different angles, but you can store several different prints to allow your family members to use your phone, or so you don’t have to switch hands once you take the device out of your pocket.

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The fingerprint scan certainly seems very high-tech. You can pretend that you’re James Bond accessing an underground spy headquarters every time you check your email. While this feels secure, it’s also less convenient than just swiping to unlock, and you can still unlock the phone with a 4-digit passcode instead of using your prints. You can also use the fingerprint sensor to log into the App Store, but this feature is not ready for use in regular, real-world transactions.

If we’re lukewarm on the processor and fingerprint sensor, at least we’re pleasantly surprised by the iPhone 5S’s new camera features. Our iPhone’s camera is in constant use, and the 5S adds a rapid-fire feature that will take multiple photos if you hold down the shutter button. If someone in a group picture is blinking or looking off to the side, you can just pick the best image instead of having to retake the whole thing.

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We also experimented with slow-motion video on the iPhone 5S. Daily activities, like swinging a baseball bat or diving into a swimming pool, look much cooler when they’re captured in slow-motion. The iPhone 5S will automatically pick a moment to slow down the action, but you can easily adjust this by using a slider at the top of the screen. Like the panorama feature introduced in the iPhone 5, these new camera tricks are the most subtle yet gratifying features of the device.

Unless you feel empty without the latest Apple technology in your pocket, the iPhone 5S is not a necessary upgrade for owners of an iPhone 5. The fingerprint sensor is a novelty that doesn’t have much use yet, and the processor speeds aren’t noticeable without a new generation of graphically intensive apps. However, taking video is significantly more fun with the slow-motion feature. Our recommendation is to stick with the lower-end devices, and spend your savings on new apps and games instead.

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