Why the New iPhone (Almost) Doesn’t Suck

The iPhone has never really been my first (or second, or third, etc.) choice of smartphone.  The recently released iPhone “5” has certainly not changed that opinion.  To be fair, however, it is a step (or several) in the right direction.  There are some interesting changes and angles here that haven’t seen as much press as they perhaps deserve.

Krait by any other name

Arguably the most significant change in the iPhone 5 is the new 32nm A6 SoC (system-on-a-chip).  Allegedly the A6 is a custom Apple-designed CPU core, coupled with an Imagination Technologies PowerVR SGX543 MP3.  The GPU provides almost exactly twice the graphics horsepower of the A5’s SGX543 MP2, due to an increase in clock speed form 200 to 266 MHz.  There’s nothing particularly interesting about that; more pixels demand more power, though one could argue that Angry Birds would have run just fine at the higher resolution with the previous configuration.  Power consumption is roughly the same due to the move from a 45nm manufacturing process to Samsung’s new 32nm HKMG process (essentially smaller, more efficient transistors).

So lets focus on the CPU core.  Analysis of the shipping iPhone 5 shows that the A6 runs its two CPU cores at 1.3 GHz, and that they implement the ARMv7s instruction set (meaning they can’t simply be higher-clocked versions of the A5’s Cortex-A9 cores).  At the same time, they can’t be Cortex-A15 simply because their aren’t any Cortex-A15 cores ready for consumer devices yet.  So that leaves a custom architecture, such as Qualcomm’s Krait core.  Krait implements the new floating point capabilities of ARMv7s, provides higher performance per clock than A9 while maintaing lower power consumption than early A15 implementations.  This sounds like exactly what Apple was looking for in the A6’s CPU cores, so the logical conclusion would be that they simply licensed Krait from Qualcomm.  While this is certainly a possibility, Qualcomm has never licensed its custom ARM designs to third parties in the past, nor given any indication that they intended to start doing so.  That means the A6 CPU core was most likely custom-designed in-house by Apple engineers, though we’ll probably never know for certain unless Qualcomm specifically denies licensing Krait for the A6 – Apple isn’t big on releasing specifications of their SoCs, and they usually require any IP licensors to be similarly tight-lipped.  Regardless, it’s a very efficient design, delivering great performance while maintaining most of the battery life of the earlier A5 designs.  The memory controller in particular has received a substantial overhaul, giving overall performance roughly four times as fast as the A5’s and outperforming even the ubiquitous MSM8960 (dual-core Krait) and Samsung Exynos 4412 memory controllers; this is what leads to the impressive Geekbench score, as a lot of Geekbench’s final score comes from memory tests.

So the processor is definitely among the best in the industry.  It’s no match for Qualcomm’s latest, of course – the new Adreno 320 is slightly faster than the SGX543 MP3 and supports more features, and APQ8064’s quad-core, 1.5 GHz Krait CPU naturally demolishes the A6 in threaded tasks – but for (probably) Apple’s first in-house design, being crammed into a 4” phone, it’s an impressive feat.

Small is the new big is the new small

The other major change for the new iPhone is, of course, the display.  The 4-inch, 1160×640 IPS display would have been an incredibly impressive piece of kit in 2010, but in 2012 it seems positively blah.  The pixel density isn’t top-of-the-line – that honor goes to the Sony Xperia S and its 4.3” 1280×720 display.  The sheer size isn’t anything to write home about – if anything, a mere four inches seems downright tiny compared to the Galaxy S III and HTC One X with their 4.8” and 4.7” displays, respectively.  And of course there’s the new Galaxy Note II with a gargantuan 5.5” display.  The color gamut and contrast ratio aren’t spectacular either, compared to Samsung’s SAMOLED HD panels and HTC’s SLCD2.  The black levels at maximum brightness are some of the worst ever seen in a smartphone.  And a traditional IPS-LCD just seems so average these days.

That isn’t to say there aren’t compensating factors, however.  The biggest advantage of the new iPhone’s display is that it has some of the best color accuracy ever seen in a smartphone display.  Out of the box, it’s calibrated better than many high-end desktop LCDs, with an average ∆E (difference between the displayed colors and the AdobeRGB standard, measured at various points and saturations, then averaged together) of around 2.  For comparison, my desktop’s IPS LCD shipped with a ∆E over three times that high out of the box.  The new iPhone’s display is also blindingly bright, topping out at around 560 nits.  This makes it fairly easy to see in direct sunlight, despite the lack of a refractive coating like Nokia’s ClearBlack.  Of course, such brightness comes at a price, which is paid in the iPhone 5’s absurdly bright blacks and in higher power consumption.

At the end of the day, there is a market for a smaller high-end smartphone, and while the displays of previous iPhones were positively microscopic, the 4” iPhone 5 would seem to fill that niche nicely.

Finally, an iPhone that can survive more than a 2” drop

While many have criticized the iPhone 5’s design as “safe,” I suspect they don’t know just how right they are.  At first glance, it seems very little has changed about the chassis design between the iPhone 4S and the new 5.  Upon closer inspection, however, two very important modifications have been made.  The first is that the glass back is gone completely, replaced by an aluminum enclosure that should endure a few tumbles with ease.  Perhaps more significantly, however, is that the front glass no longer extends all the way to the edge of the phone, stopping instead a millimeter or short and allowing the beveled aluminum edge to make first contact with the ground.  This seems like a very minor change, and by all rights it is, but it’s a critical one nonetheless.  The previous design had the edge of the glass extending right to the likely contact point.  Gorilla unbranded aluminosilicate glass that happens to be produced by Corning is very resistant to scratches and cracking from facial impact, but the chemical strengthening process leaves the glass even more brittle than normal.  So when the very smallest edge of the glass strikes a hard surface like, say, a concrete sidewalk, the entire pane develops a massive spiderweb crack.  Such are those pesky laws of physics.  So with this one seemingly minor change, Apple may have finally solved the iPhone’s single largest structural flaw.  Now hopefully they’ve also figured out how to make power and home buttons that will work for more than a year.

Why I still can’t recommend one

So given the above thousand words of praise, certainly the new iPhone is a fantastic handset that you should rush out and buy, yes?  Well…no, not at all.  At the end of the day, I’m afraid the iPhone 5 has a terminal, inoperable cancer called “iOS.”  Despite the frenetic pace of ripping off features from Android, Windows Phone, and anyone else who left the front door unlocked, iOS still lacks too much basic functionality and has too many baffling design choices to be tolerable.  The unavoidable splaying of all installed applications over the desktop is an obvious candidate, making the iPhone’s UI look like a computer used by a 13-year-old girl.  The fake multitasking (which only allows applications to continue running a small set of predefined background operations when not in the foreground) is just too limited next to Android’s desktop-class preemptive multitasking.  The social networking “integration” is still half-assed next to Windows Phone’s (and barely on par with Android’s, which has been present for years).  Mobile Safari’s constant drive to fudge battery life tests and Sunspider scores causes it to break some websites.  The locked-down nature of the system blocks real third-party competition with the stock browser, email, etc.  There are no widgets or live tiles.  lolmaps.  There’s no direct access to the file system, or way to transfer files over bluetooth or a local network.  Being thrown back out to the desktop with each application install is as pointless and bizarre as it always has been, as is being prompted for your AppleID password every time you go to update free applications you’ve already installed.  But the worst, most atrocious and pig-headed design fault is a seemingly simple one: there’s no back button.  Combined with the awkward psuedo-multitasking, this makes day-to-day use of iOS as a power user an exercise in frustration.  Are you browsing a web page when you get a text message or email?  Well, you can answer the message by tapping the appropriate option on the notification, sure.  Now how do you get back to the web browser?  Double-tap home and then hit “Safari,” of course.  Sure, on an Android or Windows Phone device you could just hit “back,” but clearly you’re too dumb to handle more than one button so use this obviously much more intuitive method that involves multiple clicks and taps!  God have mercy on your soul if the app you’re in when you receive that message hasn’t been specially coded to handle the fake multitasking (or simply can’t be due to the limited nature of said “multitasking”).  Oh hey, about how that App Store flings you back to the desktop every time you hit “Install app”: now you get to scroll all the way back to whatever page the App Store is on an open it again, or use the aforementioned awkward multitasking.  It’s so maddening you could hurl the phone in frustration.

At least it could probably survive that now, though.  Then again, so could the upcoming Lumia 920, which I have on good authority has a back button.

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