Photo by Robert Cardin

How does the iPhone 5 stack up against the competition?

The iPhone 5 has finally landed. Shipping with iOS 6, and packing a bunch of nifty new features, this latest iPhone is a major upgrade to the world’s most popular smartphone. But while the iPhone redefined the smartphone industry, Apple’s competitors have been busy the past couple of years doing some innovating of their own.

As TechHive’s Android expert, as well as an iOS user (hey, I’ve got an iPad!), here’s my take on how the iPhone 5 is shaping up against the smartphone competition.

A big-screen brawl

The iPhone 5’s most notable feature is its new screen. It’s still as sharp as the Retina display on the iPhone 4 and 4S, but the iPhone 5’s screen adds some height to come in at four inches diagonally. That makes it the largest iPhone screen yet, expanding apps and adding an extra row of icons to the home screen. Because the screen has a 16:9 aspect ratio, you can now play most widescreen videos without any letterboxing. And by growing the iPhone 5 by height but not width, Apple ensured that this iPhone is just as comfortable to hold and to use with just one hand as any previous model.

A 4-inch screen is big in iPhone terms, but it’s minuscule compared to the some of the screens available on Android and Windows Phones. Many top-of-the-line smartphones now ship with 4.3-inch displays, and the recently announced Nokia Lumia 920 tips the scales at 4.5 inches. And, even though Apple’s Retina display is top-notch in terms of quality, many other phones have comparable high-resolution displays that look just as good.

The bottom line: The iPhone 5 offers the biggest iPhone screen yet, and that’s a good thing. But if the size of your phone’s screen is the most important feature to you, consider the Motorola Droid Razr M or waiting for the forthcoming HTC Windows Phone 8X. Both phones have great looking displays, and offer a bit more room for your fingers to do their tapping.

Camera clash

The iPhone 5 has an 8-megapixel camera—similar to the one in the iPhone 4S—but with a new sensor and lens. Apple claims that the iPhone 5 is better at taking photos in low-light environments, and the indoor photos I took seem to back up the company’s claims. My indoor shots looked much better than similar ones I’ve taken with other high-end smartphones. As I type this, our lab is putting the iPhone 5’s camera through our official image-quality tests, but I think it’s safe to say that the phone’s camera can more than hold its own against most Windows and Android phones currently on the market. The Lumia 920’s PureView camera and the LG Optimus G (with its 13-megapixel camera) may be able to best the iPhone in terms of image quality, but we’ll have to wait until those phones are released before we can make any sort of judgement.

Compared to its competitors, iOS’s camera app is pretty bare. With iOS 6, Apple has added a panorama mode—a feature Google added to Android last year with Ice Cream Sandwich. If you just want to take pictures fast, Apple’s approach works well. But if you want to tweak your ISO, set scene options, or use a timer, the default camera controls in Windows Phone and Android have iOS beat. iPhone users with a need for photo tweaking will have to find third-party apps to replicate the standard features of other phones.

iOS and the rest

All of the major smartphone operating systems have their strengths and weaknesses, and which one is right for you really depends on your personal needs. Much like every iOS release before it, iOS 6 is simple and works well (you can read Dan Moren’s in-depth review for more). Even if you’ve never used a smartphone before, it’s an easy-to-understand experience. iOS’s lack of endless menus and toggles means that non-technical users are less likely to be overwhelmed. Windows Phone offers a similarly simple experience, though it replaces the “grid of icons” view that you find on both iOS and Android with Live Tiles—squares that auto-update themselves to give you information at a glance. Android doesn’t look as pretty as iOS or Windows Phone, and it’s far from simple or spare, but it allows you to deeply customize your device to your liking.

Unlike Android and Windows Phone, both of which have received major visual revisions in the past year and a half, iOS 6 doesn’t look that different from the original iPhone OS from five years ago. So while the iPhone 5 may feel modern and hip, its OS is more comfortable than cutting-edge. In fact, several of the newest iOS features were responses to features in competitor operating systems. Notifications, a feature that came to the iPhone in iOS 5, was obviously inspired by Android—but the implementation isn’t as useful. iOS 5 and 6 added native Twitter and Facebook support to Apple’s OS, something that Microsoft has been doing for a while now with Windows Phone.

So what’s the biggest advantage that iOS has over its competitors? One word: Apps. Right now there are more apps currently available on iOS than there are on Android or Windows Phone, and most of the hottest apps come to iOS first before being ported to other operating systems. Simply put, there are more and better apps on iOS. If you love apps, iOS is still the place to be.

LTE and battery

iPhone users will be excited that the iPhone 5 has access to the high-speed LTE data networks offered by Sprint, Verizon, and AT&T. But those carriers have been selling LTE-compatible phones for a while now, making Apple users a bit late to the party. But now that the iPhone is here, it seems to be equivalent to other LTE phones in terms of speed.

One of the reasons Apple may have decided to hold off for so long on implementing LTE in the iPhone is because of the impact early LTE chips had on battery life. Most of the first generation of LTE phones had extremely poor battery performance when on LTE—you could only go for a handful of hours before having to plug your phone into a wall. As LTE chips have improved, so has LTE phone battery life. Most LTE phones can get five or six hours of normal use before their batteries need to be recharged. If the iPhone 5 can live up to Apple’s claimed eight hours of use while running on LTE, that’s nothing to sneeze at.

But just as LTE chips have improved, so has battery technology. A new generation of Android phones, most notably Motorola’s Droid Razr Maxx and Razr HD offer close to 21 hours of battery life, with Motorola claiming that its Motorola Droid Razr Maxx HD can go for over a day while on LTE. Of course, these phones are also larger than the iPhone 5—Apple’s traded some battery size in order to keep the iPhone 5 thin and light. In the end, consumers will need to choose between a small phone with above-average battery life and a large phone with spectacular battery life.

So does the iPhone 5 measure up?

For a while now, Apple’s competitors have been making hay with their larger screens, faster networking, and excellent cameras. With the iPhone 5, Apple has provided a strong response. This is a state-of-the-art smartphone that’s fast, thin, and light. Apple only releases one iPhone a year, so the company makes decisions about how to balance screen size, weight, battery life, and numerous other factors.

Meanwhile, Apple’s competitors offer a variety of phones with different specs that can appeal to different users. And both Windows Phone and Android offer different approaches that may appeal more to some users than iOS.

The iPhone 5 is a polished piece of hardware that can take on any other smartphone out there. It does exactly what it was designed to do: Appeal to a mass market of consumers who want simplicity, slick hardware, and a good combination of features, size, and battery life. It’s a great phone, but it’s not for everyone. Early adopters and those who want to live on the bleeding edge of technology may well find that Android and Windows Phone devices might fit better into their lives.

Assuming that the next iPhone won’t arrive for another year, Apple’s competitors are now on the clock. Over the next year, Apple is going to sell a whole lot of iPhone 5s—and Apple’s competitors are going to try their best to dethrone the champ. With the constant arrival of new high-powered Android phones and the imminent landing of Windows Phone 8, the next year is going to be a lot of fun to watch.

Updated at 9:13am PST to correct camera specs

Product mentioned in this article

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  • Apple iPhone 5
    $340.00 (When Rated) via Devices Now

    The iPhone 5 lives up to expectations. It's got a very fast processor and support for fast LTE networking, and is noticeably thinner and lighter than previous iPhones, while offering a larger version of...

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