It has become a regular fixture of the calendar. Each year, around the same time, Apple releases a new version of its popular iPhone. Last year we had the iPhone 4S, and the year before that the iPhone 4. Last month, Apple introduced the fifth version, which, while it has a similar appearance, is much thinner, lighter and faster than its predecessors.
Previous iterations of the iPhone have been well received. This year, however, the iPhone 5 was slammed for its apparent lack of innovative features – analysts and users alike expected a revolution instead of an evolution. For example, the iPhone 5 features a new four-inch screen with a resolution of 1136x640 pixels at a time when competitors such as Samsung pack much larger screens into their latest models. Yet Apple explains that these large screens can become uncomfortable to operate with one hand, and the Cupertino-based firm is mostly right. The size of this new iPhone's screen is more than adequate, while it offers a better viewing experience for movies, for example, when used in landscape mode.
The iPhone 5 is also thinner and lighter, something that's not necessarily apparent when you look at product shots online. You have to hold one in your hand, after months of using the comparatively heavy iPhone 4S, to realise how light this new model is.
Inside the device, Apple is using its latest dual-core A6 processor, which makes the iPhone much faster than its predecessor, just like the iPhone 4S improved on the iPhone 4. And while it might not be too noticeable when you're using a conventional app, users will feel the difference when they play graphically complex games, but also when they are using the camera.
The camera is similar to the one on the iPhone 4S. It uses the same eight-megapixel back-lit CMOS sensor and a five-element f/2.4 lens. Yet with the improved processor and the larger screen, the experience of using the iPhone 5's camera has been improved drastically – and most notably in low-light situations.
Called the ISO boost – which offers a sensitivity of up to ISO 3200 compared with ISO 800 for the iPhone 4S – the feature kicks in automatically when the iPhone detects that an image is being shot in dark conditions. Using a process called pixel binning, the iPhone combines the data of several adjacent pixels to increase sensitivity and offer an image with less noise. The feature allows for clearer images in low-light settings but is a far cry from what any digital SLR can offer. And while Apple could have decided to keep this setting for its own camera app, it has made it available to third-party app developers. As a result, the Camera+, ProCamera and Camera Awesome apps, among many others, have been updated to take advantage of this new feature, which is unique to the iPhone 5 (the iPhone 4S will continue to shoot images at a sensitivity of up to ISO 800).
The other noticeable improvement is the speed of the camera. Thanks to the new processor, the camera app loading time has been reduced to a little over a second, with users able to shoot images as quickly as they can touch the on-screen shutter button – I was able to shoot 29 photos in just 10 seconds.
The iPhone 5 is pre-loaded with the latest iOS 6 operating system, which brings some new features, such as panorama mode. This mode, which has become a familiar feature on Sony's and Samsung's compact cameras, lets users shoot a panoramic image without the need to stitch pictures together. By holding the iPhone in portrait mode and selecting the panorama option, users will see instructions appear on the screen. To shoot your panorama image, you just sweep the phone from left to right. The app will tell you if you're moving too fast, or if you're not stable enough, and the image will be created automatically once you have reached the right edge of the screen. If you want to create a smaller panorama, you can stop recording at any time by pressing the on-screen shutter button. This feature is also available to iPhone 4S users who have updated their operating system to iOS 6.
What else is there to say? The iPhone can now recognise up to 10 faces in a single image, and shoot HD video from both of its cameras (the rear one can shoot 1080p video, while the front-facing camera records at a maximum resolution of 720p). Like its predecessors, the iPhone 5's camera shutter can be controlled using the + volume button on the side of the device or via the remote control that most headphones now include. In the latter case, these headphones can prove especially useful if you want to operate the camera from a distance for shake-free shots, for example.
Finally, we need to address the purple haze issue. As noted soon after its release, the iPhone 5 has a strange purple haze when a light source appears just outside the frame. I've noticed this issue as well and, in most cases, had to reframe my image to make it disappear. However, this phenomenon is not unique to the iPhone 5 – it was in the iPhone 4S, albeit less pronounced, as well as in competing camera phones.
Without adding fuel to the ongoing debate about the role of smartphones in professional photography, the iPhone has become one of the most popular cameras in the world. One look at Flickr's Camera Finder is proof enough, with the iPhone 4 and 4S coming on top of all cameras used on the site and the iPhone 5 quickly gaining ground – unsurprisingly. The iPhone 5 is an excellent all-around pocket camera that can shoot good-enough images in the right conditions. In low-light situations, nothing will beat a good DSLR, but that's not a surprise, and isn't something we can expect from a smartphone at the moment.
For more about the iPhone 5, visit www.apple.co.uk.
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