Android has attacked the iPhone more viciously than ever this year, resulting in the HTC One X and Samsung Galaxy S III attempting to aggressively snatch back market share. Apple needed to reply with something special, something game-changing – and here it is.
The iPhone 5 is longer, leaner, faster, packs super-quick 4G networking and the brand-new iOS 6 operating system. It's probably the most leaked and most speculated-upon gadget in recent times.
But it does seem to be missing that one knockout feature that would guarantee its place in the smartphone history books. Has it done enough to be a chart topper again?
This is the first iPhone without a 3.5in screen, and the first to adopt the 16:9 widescreen format preferred by Android rivals. The width of the screen is the same as ever, and has the same resolution as the 4S (640 pixels), but the height has been increased from 960 to 1136 pixels, yielding a 4in display with the 'retina' credentials of its predecessor. It's not quite 720p HD, but it's not far off (roughly 80% the number of pixels, fact fans).
The screen somehow feels closer than ever. A new manufacturing process means the touch sensors are now one with the LCD, which means the whole assemblage is thinner. It's still incredibly crisp, and it's more colourful. Blues and purples particularly ping, compared to the 4S, and photos look that bit shinier as a result. Compared to the yellowish Samsung Galaxy S III, whites are whiter and colours generally more natural.
The biggest change, of course, is the extra space. When moving from an older iPhone, the taller screen seems a little peculiar at first, but it's a matter of minutes before you wouldn't go back. We reckon it's a sensible size: 4in in a 16:9 ratio is just about big enough for movies on the move, and the extra space accommodates an extra line of apps and a few extra entries in lists and calendar views, all the while staying small enough for comfortable one handed use.
Could Apple have usefully gone bigger? The Galaxy S III suggests it could, particularly for films and games, but Apple has its smaller-handed users to consider, and the resolution would also have had to increase to retain that retina moniker. Oddly, the extra space isn't utilised by the landscape keyboard, which just has a couple of grey buffers to either size. A missed opportunity.
Also, it's only Apple's own apps that take advantage of the extra screen space right now. Existing apps are confined to the central area of the screen with black 'untouchable' strips at either end, but essential iOS downloads are bound to be updated to fill the whole iPhone 5 display sooner than you can say 'widescreen Angry Birds Space.'
iDesign and build
Glance at the iPhone 5 and it could very easily be a 4S: the flat edges and rounded corners are iconic to the point of being a little bit dreary. The back is where the action happens, as the glass has been mostly replaced by a panel of wraparound aluminium, leaving only glossy top and bottom strips.
On one side there's a slightly smaller (and less substantial-feeling) lock/mute switch next to the recognisable volume controls, while on the other there's a slot for the new Nano-SIM - if you're planning to upgrade to the iPhone 5 you're also going to need a new SIM card.
Pick it up for the first time and the reduced weight and thickness is rather striking. The 112g weight and 7.6mm thickness mean it's neither the lightest nor slimmest phone, but it's not far off, and it is noticeably more pocketable than the Samsung Galaxy S III.
All told, the handset doesn't feel that aluminium-y, certainly not in the way a MacBook Air does, but the quality of finish is exemplary, particularly around its diamond-cut edges. It looks and feels as though the iPhone 5 has been styled for stealth rather than showing off, but we suspect that will please as many people as it disappoints.
We're torn as to whether it's an improvement over the 4S, though. On the one hand, it's a fresh look, and that back panel is drop-dead beautiful. On the other, the 4S' extra weight lends it a more substantial feel, and we worry about how long the 5's anodised finish will stay pristine. Let's call it a draw.
Thunderbolt and Lightning, very very frightening? If you've just bought a pricey iPhone dock it might be, because the iPhone 5 has ditched the almost-10-year-old 30-pin connector and replaced it with the tiny, all-digital Lightning connector, which means your new phone isn't going to fit.
Apple is launching two adapters, but they're expensive at $A35 and big enough to at best ruin the look of your sound setup, and at worse ensure it doesn't fit at all.
But change is occasionally necessary, and Lightning is certainly more elegant than the 30-pin. It's reversible, it feels robust, and on the bright side it means we can expect a whole raft of new docks in the near future (Apple announced partnerships with audio luminaries Bose, Bowers & Wilkins and JBL on launch night). Lightning-to-HDMI and Lightning-to-VGA adapters are also planned.
Straddling that Lightning port is a pair of tiny chassis screws, and beyond that are two sets of machined grilles, covering a microphone and a speaker. The latter won't get anyone body-popping, but it is loud and clear enough for hands-free calls, sat-nav instructions and irritating everybody on the bus. The 3.5mm headphone socket is, for the first time in iPhone history, on the bottom edge rather than the top.
But what should you plug into that headphone socket? Apple would implore you to try out the all-new EarPods, which come as standard. They look great, and they're a huge improvement over the old bundled buds, but they're not perfect. Apple has opted for one-size-fits-all comfort, so the EarPods sit outside the ear canal rather than burrow right in. That means there's very little noise isolation, so you'll be able to hear everyone around you is and they'll be able to hear you listening to Luther Vandross.
If you're the make-do type when it comes to headphones you'll be getting far better sound quality from your bundled buds this time around, but if you have even a passing interest in sound quality you should budget for a better pair.
The new processor, Apple's A6, makes a palpable difference to the overall speed of the iPhone 5. Compared to the iPhone 4S there are shorter in-app loading times, smoother 2D and 3D graphics and a general reduction in waiting when you're zipping around from one app to another.
Siri opens immediately, adding attachments to email is completely lag-free, the camera is up and running almost instantly, and that chip means it's now also capable of snapping a full-res shot during 1080p capture. If that doesn't sound quite exciting enough, allow us to be more definitive – this is the fastest, smoothest, most seamless smartphone experience money can buy.
A little bit of casual benchmarking using the GLBenchmark Egypt High test yielded a score of 6766, while the iPhone 4S got 1158. The Offscreen test was closer: 16681 vs 8346. This looks like a lot more than day to day usage bears out, but it suggests that there's headroom for the iPhone 5 to do some pretty impressive stuff.
On paper the iPhone 5's snapper looks very similar to the iPhone 4S' – same 8MP resolution, same f/2.4 lens. But there have been upgrades. 1080p video is excellent for a phone, matching the Samsung Galaxy S III's footage in good conditions and beating it whenever the lighting conditions throw up challenges such as high contrast or general gloominess.
The iPhone 5 is equally capable when capturing stills, with a neat new Panorama feature and the ability to dig up detail from twilight and indoor scenarios that's remarkable by smartphone standards. Just look at these sample images for a comparison: iPhone 4S above, iPhone 5 below.
On the downside, the lens is still in the wrong place. It looks neat tucked into that corner, but it makes the phone hard to handle in landscape mode – and it's all too easy to blot out vital footage with a drifting digit.
Even more familiar than the iPhone 5's design is the grid of apps that makes up its iOS homescreen. The way iOS works hasn't really changed since 2007, and iOS 6 sticks pretty rigidly to the programme. While certain of us are among those looking for a more fundamental update that would give the iPhone a 'living' feeling as seen in Android's widgets and Windows Phone's live tiles, beneath iOS 6's familiar looks are a number of handy tweaks.
There are obvious touches, such as the 'New' flash that appears across across the icons of any app you've just downloaded, and the sticky gum visual that stretches from the top of the email app as you drag down the list to pull in new messages. Then there's the new 'Do Not Disturb' feature hidden in the settings menu, which allows you to specify how contactable you are to different callers.
Social features have had subtle upgrades, too. Facebook is now just as integrated as Twitter, allowing you to post photos direct from the (also subtly upgraded) Photos app and using Siri. Friends' birthdays appear in Calendar and phone numbers in Contacts.
The shared Photo Stream can be set to send a notification to your nearest and dearest whenever you add a new photo, Facetime now works over 3G as well as Wi-Fi, and there's a VIP inbox into which messages from your chosen contacts are automatically filtered and that notifies you whenever you receive an important missive. Just as usefully, you can now assign different email signatures to different accounts.
Nothing is exactly revolutionary, though. Apple has decided that iOS isn't broken and so hasn't issued a fix. To be fair, it's a brilliantly intuitive operating system to live with; it's just that the widget-based homescreens of Android are more exciting, more instantly informative and more, well, new. For now this link in the iPhone's chain is holding, but it's weakening.
App Store and iTunes
Both the onboard iTunes and the App Store apps have been given a refresh and now look much more like their desktop counterparts, pulling in more information on each page and reading less like a list. There are now numerous flickable carousels to browse and tabs to click on for more comprehensive user reviews and ratings. As with many of the iOS tweaks, these changes are so intuitive that you might not even notice at first, but in the long-run this is a slicker, more user-friendly and better looking digital shopping experience.
As for apps in general, they mostly run with those aforementioned untouchable black bars – but that doesn't stop the variety and quality on offer being head and shoulders above those on Android and Windows Phone. The huge pile of entertainment and productivity that is the App Store remains iOS' killer feature.
Much has been made of the severance of Google Maps from iOS 6, and rightly so – navigation is now a fundamental feature of the smartphone experience. Google Maps got the heave-ho so that Apple could introduce its own map app, and for users the switch is something of a mixed blessing.
The headline feature is 'Flyover', which introduces interactive 3D city models. Coverage is currently limited to a handful of cities worldwide, and the practical applications of the tech are limited.
On the other hand, Maps can also be used as a full-on sat-nav, with voice-augmented turn-by-turn navigation, ETA, live traffic updates and more. It's decent, but a distance behind Android's Google Maps in terms of its search skills and knowledge of the vagaries of local dead ends and one-way systems. Better than the Gmaps of iOS 5, but still behind the competition.
iOS 6 has also brought with it some neat new features to make Siri far more useful. For example, we asked the poorly constructed question "What are the best films showing around here later on today?", and Siri almost immediately presented us with a list of films showing that evening in our two nearest cinemas, ranked according to their score on Rotten Tomatoes.
4G and connectivity
Possibly the iPhone 5's most trumpeted feature is 4G LTE, theoretically capable of pulling data from the ether at up to 100Mbps. This theoretically tops out at 42Mbps, compared with the iPhone 4S' 14Mbps HSPA, and while we got nowhere near either speed, the 5 was noticeably faster loading pages on the go than the 4S was.
There's also a boost for home users thanks to dual-band wireless-n Wi-Fi. Again, this makes for extremely nippy downloading – in our experience, the iPhone 5 installed new apps in about half the time that the iPhone 4S took.
Call quality is supposedly also top-of-the-line on the iPhone 5, although we have to say, we didn't notice. It supports HD Voice services, using a better audio codec to make speech clearer. Again, we didn't get to test this, but as it was, phone calling seemed just fine. There was no noticeable 'death grip', and the dialler has also been neatly redesigned for the bigger screen.
If you were hoping Apple was going to give NFC the shot in the arm it so desperately needs, we have bad news – waving your iPhone at the contactless pay machine will get you nothing but odd looks from staff.
However, Apple has added an app to iOS 6 called Passbook, which allows you to keep all of your loyalty cards, gig tickets and boarding passes in a single, digital wallet.
Passbook is also location- and time-aware, so will fling up your boarding passes when you're at the airport or show you your cinema tickets just before the show. In theory, anyway – it wasn't live at time of testing.
In our tests the iPhone 5 lasted just as long as its predecessor, and you can expect to get 8-10 hours of normal use out of it and up to five hours of heavy use, watching YouTube over Wi-Fi for instance. Most will need to charge it every evening, but eco-users could eke out an extra day.
So, is the iPhone 5 worth the money? Absolutely. And has Apple done enough to reclaim the top smartphone spot with the iPhone 5? It has, but not quite in the imperious style of the past. Android has gained so much in the last 12 months that the iPhone went from being unbeaten in years to being beaten twice in the space of a few weeks, and its live widgets and open platform will continue to sway people towards the Samsung Galaxy S III or HTC One X.
But while the iPhone 4S was beaten, it wasn't beaten by much, and the refinements and upgrades it's undergone to produce the iPhone 5 are enough to see Apple overthrow the Android upstarts. It might not floor you in pictures, but in the flesh, the iPhone 5 is a delight.
And if it feels just right, it performs even better, with flawless operation and a screen that's downright stunning. It's not flashy and it's not radical, but it is a significant improvement over what was an already excellent device, and it still has the best selection of apps available on any handset. All of that adds up to the best smartphone on the market - at least for now.