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How Useful is the iPhone 5s?

iPhone 5s

A lot of websites have done a great job of describing in painstaking detail the new hardware and software of Apple’s iPhone 5s and accompanying iOS7 update. I want to take the analysis a step further and ask just one question about all of these shiny new improvements: How useful are they?

The word “useful” means different things to different people. To me, something is useful if it does one or more of the following:

  1. Serves an important purpose in a more efficient manner than another tool.
  2. Saves me time, money, or effort.
  3. Increases my overall level of happiness or satisfaction.

So with this in mind, I’d like to evaluate the new hardware and software features. I will try to keep my analysis as unbiased and objective as possible. I’ll evaluate on a 0-5 scale, with 0 being “Useless” and 5 being “This Could Be Life Changing”.

The New 5s Hardware

  • New Colors - 0
  • Better Camera - 1 : If your life/business revolves around taking pictures, you probably own a DSLR or high quality camera. For casual phone photos, the old camera works just fine. One could argue that the “better” photos from the true tone flash would make you happier.
  • Fingerprint Sensor - 1 : It’ll save you the hassle of remembering passwords to unlock your phone and make purchases in the iTunes store, but a fingerprint is only useful as a method of identification, making the application of this hardware pretty limited. I see a worst-case scenario unfolding where the NSA starts a fingerprint database off data from the Apple servers (I write this while adjusting my tin foil hat). Update: Already Broken
  • A7 Chip - 3 : An inevitable step in the CPU arms race. The 64-bit architecture will be able to support more RAM and complex applications bringing us closer to bridging the gap between smartphone and PC, but it really isn’t particularly useful at the moment with the overwhelming majority of software designed for a 32-bit CPU. Here is a very good analysis of the switch from 32 to 64-bit architecture. The GPU and CPU are apparently 2x faster than the A6 though which is always a good thing, warranting a 3.
  • M7 CoProcessor - 1 : Saves you some battery life by working in tandem with the new A7 chip.

Total HARDWARE score: 6 out of 20

The New iOS7 Software

  • Flat Design - 0 : Regardless of whether or not you like the redesign from an aesthetic standpoint, it doesn’t increase the utility of the phone, no matter how much Apple would like to claim that it will help you pick the phone up “for the first time and already know how to do the things you want to do”. Many users complain of decreased usability, sloppy bugs, and a less intuitive design. This is all subjective of course, with many articles written in favor of the new design.
  • Control Center - 2 : A much needed access point for some common toggles: wifi, airplane mode, do not disturb, flashlight. This might save 2-3 minutes of interaction time per week (generously). It also obviates the need for third party flashlight apps, woohoo!
  • Notification Center - 2 : This is basically an aggregation of the calendar app, the weather app, Facebook birthdays, and the stocks app. An easy way to get an overview of information, that eliminates another 2-3 minutes per week.
  • Multitasking - 1 : Saves a couple of seconds of refresh time if you tend to check apps at the same time every day. Makes the process of closing background apps slower than it was previously.
  • New Camera Modes - 1 : As stated previously, if you really need access to filters and a better flash for work, invest in an actual camera. This is not going to come close to DSLR level photography, and you can get a free app to post-filter photos or crop them into squares.
  • Photos - 1 : Good for someone who has thousands of pictures on their camera and needs them grouped by date/location so they can quickly show a friend. Saves a good amount of time in a very specific situation.
  • iCloud Photo Sharing Feature - 1 : Functionalities are the same as any group chat application, such as Whatsapp or Groupme, but without the ability to send messages, split bills, send voice memos, etc. Plus it only works between iPhone users. The interface looks cleaner though and it saves you upload time as it automatically pushes your “shared stream” to your friends. Just make sure you’re using Snapchat to send those naughty selfies or your friends might be in for a surprise.
  • Airdrop - 1 : Saves you the minor hassle of sending a photo, pass, or contact card through email, SMS, or Dropbox. Requires a wifi connection and a partner with an iPhone 5 or newer.
  • Safari - N/A : Can’t say much about it because I never used the old Safari. The new Safari keychain feature looks useful - it stores all of your passwords and credit card info, but it requires you to have a Mac running OS X Mavericks to access its full syncing functionalities. It’s also not available yet.
  • iTunes Radio - 2 : The major advantage that iTunes radio has over Pandora is its seamless integration with the iTunes store, making purchases quicker and easier (which is really just a benefit for Apple). It also has less ads than Pandora, and the ability to choose between Hits, Variety, and Discovery for a slightly more curated experience. I still believe in the power of last.fm and 8tracks, but this is definitely a well-thought out and executed app. Saves me song-purchasing time and makes me happier through useful content curation choices.
  • Siri - 1 : A new, more human voice. Added search functionalities for twitter, bing, and wikipedia. A waveform reassures you that Siri is listening to you. No switching between Safari and Siri to answer questions. These are all pretty minor updates to what could be a much more useful feature.
  • App Store - 1 : The new app store lets you search for apps relevant to your location. This is an extremely specific feature that I can only see being used by tourists. The new Kids category of Apps could be useful for a parent or educator, but it’s ultimately just another drawer in the app store designed to boost purchases of kid-targeted apps. Automatic app updates can cause a lot more harm than Apple's perceived benefit of not having “to bother” with updates and “no more little red badge begging for your attention”. What happens when your Facebook app auto-updates to the new version that’s riddled with bugs and you were perfectly happy with the old one? Fortunately you can turn auto-update off in the settings. Not much utility added with this update, but a 1 for location-based app searching.
  • Find My iPhone - 0 : This could be a great feature if it weren’t for gaping security hole that allows a very easy workaround for iPhone thieves.

Total SOFTWARE score: 13 out of 55.

Summary

The iPhone 5s offers little to no improvement in utility over the iPhone 5.

The most useful new hardware feature is the twofold improvement in speed. The rest of the hardware updates are quite useless, with the fingerprint sensor actually going a step beyond useless, adding unnecessary complexity and security issues to a system that was fine beforehand.

iOS7 isn’t much better. The aesthetic changes are a step sideways, not forward, which is neither good nor bad. It’s just different. The conversation here is one of personal preference and taste, not of function. The most useful feature of iOS7 has to be the control center. The rest of the updates add little to no utility to the overall phone experience.

As an iPhone and Mac user, it saddens me to see the great Apple engine of innovation grinding to a halt. Design that was once smart and intuitive has been sacrificed for trendy overhauls and gimmicky hardware. I really don’t mind the transition from skeumorphic to flat - I just wish that it had been packaged with something that was actually useful. The fact that I couldn't give any of the new features more than a 3 suggests to me that Apple is seriously struggling to come up with improvements to the iPhone. Meanwhile, they are sitting and twiddling their thumbs on top of the largest pile of cash on earth.

Or maybe I’m just really hard to please - I would blame Apple for making me this way by constantly improving the utility of their products by leaps and bounds. Either way, I'm not buying the new iPhone 5s. The cost far outweighs the benefit.

Next Up: Can Google step up and offer us something amazing with Google Now? To be discussed in another post this week.