Tim Cook may have said he was “doubling down” on secrecy for Apple, but that didn’t stop the world from knowing the existence of the iPhone 5c and 5s months before their unveiling today. Yes, the rumors were true: Apple has replaced the iPhone 5 with a plastic, colorful model that is meant to be sold at a lower price and appeal to a younger market. This comes out along the new flagship, which attempts to bring internal innovation to an otherwise visually identical phone. Despite the fact that we knew this was an “S Year” and a poorly kept secret at that, Apple gave a good showing. Like always, their presentation was just good enough to keep me excited. So what did they show?
The iPhone 5c
“c” doesn’t stand for “cheap”, it stands for “color.” Despite the iPhone 5c being a cheaper model using last year’s specifications, Apple is not positioning this as a entry-level iPhone. For that you have the iPhone 4S, which is now free on-contract. The iPhone 5c has a durable, colored polycarbonate shell that wraps the entire body of the phone. It has the same high-build quality of Nokia’s Lumia phones (may their memory be a blessing) and features an internal steel structure that maintains strength.
Despite not being made of the aluminum and glass Apple is known for, I have to say the iPhone 5c looks pretty good. Plastic is not in and of itself a bad thing. Nokia does it well. Samsung does it poorly. Apple’s implementation looks sleek and very functional. The color options are really nice as well. As a side note, the standard wallpaper will match the shell color on each new iPhone 5c.
The internals are nearly identical to the iPhone 5: the A6 processor with two 1.3 Ghz “Swift” processing cores, 1GB of RAM and the triple-core PowerVR SGX543MP3 graphics engine. Compared to today’s flagships on the Android side it’s nothing amazing, but the A6 is still a great chip and doesn’t feel too slow. The screen is the same, the cameras nearly identical, same WiFi, LTE and the lightning cable.
You can get the iPhone 5c starting September 20th for $99 on contract with 16GB of storage. A 32GB model sells for $199.
The iPhone 5s
How do you improve upon “the best iPhone yet” in one year. Apple invests billions of dollars into a supply chain for each major revision of the iPhone. Because they are the sole proprietors of iOS, it’s the iPhone or bust. There are no other OEMs of iOS to diffuse market pressure. Apple doesn’t have the economies of scale of a company like Samsung or LG or Sony and don’t own the means of production. They can’t completely throw out the flagship after a year. So Apple developed the “S cycle”: a second model that uses the industrial design of the previous revision with better internals and some eye-catching new feature. The 3GS doubled the processor speed and added video recording. The 4S again doubled processing power over the 4 and added Siri. Now we are at the iPhone 5s: the same visual design, but with something new.
There are two major changes to the iPhone 5s, and I naturally want to start with the SoC. Last year, Apple introduced the A6 processor as “twice the CPU speed, twice the graphics” and then swiftly went on to the next slide. We eventually learned that the A6 was far more important than Apple lead on: it was a custom-built CPU architecture using the ARM instruction set called “Swift.” It lead to tremendous improvements in performance and could have been the most powerful CPU core this side of the Cortex A15 if Apple wanted to clock it higher. It was a landmark change for Apple kept behind the scenes: the company was now building its own CPU architectures, with excellent results. Where Apple would go from there was the next question. They could follow trends and go quad-core or speed up the core. These seemed like the logical choices.
They chose none of the above.
The A7 SoC inside the iPhone 5s is the world’s first 64-bit processor inside a handheld smart phone. Not since the days of the G5 has Apple made such a significant statement about CPU architecture and done what no one else has. 64-bit processing is the next step for ARM, the company which Apple sources its chips from, and leads to remarkable performance improvements. 64-bit processors can address more than 4GB of RAM, they can process data in 64-bit chunks instead of 32, they have twice the amount of registers for storing instructions and twice the floating point performance. Apple says that the A7 is again twice as powerful as the A6, meaning that Apple has very possibly retaken the performance crown. It is 40 times more powerful than the original iPhone.
Apple’s choice is significant because they did not bow to pressure from other chip builders. Qualcomm and Samsung have been building quad-core chips for years now, believing that the secret to more performance is more cores. It is, but only sometimes. Mobile applications are still not very scalable above two cores. More importantly, when ARM announced their 64-bit architecture last year (called ARMv8), it meant end-of-life for the current architecture: ARMv7, which Apple, Samsung and Qualcomm base their chips off. Instead of wasting development time on more ARMv7 chips, Apple moved right ahead and beat everyone else to 64-bit.
We don’t know anything else about A7 yet, but we can assume it is still dual core, though much faster and with much more powerful cores based off the Cortex-A57, which was expected to first see commercial introduction in 2014. RAM is not confirmed but should be around 2GB. Graphics come to us from Imagination again, this time the 6th generation “Rogue” core that adds OpenGL ES 3.0 support for better graphics effects. Epic Games announced Infinity Blade III which will take advantage of the 64-bit processing and new graphics technology. Apple has also rewritten iOS 7 to take full support of 64-bit processing and has updated the SDK so developers can build 64-bit apps as well.
The other major improvement is the introduction of TouchID. It’s an advanced, optical fingerprint scanner that sits where the home button is. Wrapped around a colored steel ring, the technology uses a high resolution optic to scan fingerprints at a “sub-epidural” layer, actually using capacitive touch to measure the subtle differences between ridges in your finger. It actually works and it’s really fast. It’s much faster than entering a passcode and can be used in many situations over that of a password, like when purchasing music or apps.
The iPhone 5s also comes with a new camera, using a larger sensor and f/stop that allows for better low light performance. There’s a 10fps burst mode and a 120fps slow-motion mode when recording video and a new dual-LED flash. An internal motion chip called the M7 helps when working with motion gestures and stabilization.
It comes in a new gold color that is less garish than we expected.
So in the end the 5s and 5c were exactly what we expected. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s not too bad though. iOS 7 is enough of a significant update that everyone’s phone will feel new and fresh come September 18th.