Over the past several weeks and months, I can't tell you how often I've gotten the question, "When is the new iPhone coming out?'" We now know the answer to the question: Apple delivers the brand new iPhone 5 on Sept 21. The obvious follow-up question: "Is it worth it?"
My true answer must wait until I've had a chance to put the iPhone 5 through its paces. But the new iPhone, unveiled Wednesday, looks awfully inviting from my vantage point. Like many people, I've had an iPhone 4 that has frankly grown stale. But I also postponed the purchase of a new smartphone -- waiting to see what Apple would do.
The iPhone 5 has the same Retina display as on its predecessor. But Apple finally upped the screen size to 4 inches, from the 3.5-inch display that was on all the earlier models. That permits a fifth row of app icons on the home screen. It's still a smaller screen than the display on many rival Android devices. But the extra real estate is welcome just the same, and the device -- which I got to pick up at the demonstration area set up after Apple's press event here -- felt comfortable.
Choosing a screen size is always a balancing act against the overall physical dimensions and design. The iPhone 5 is just a little taller than the iPhone 4S, but it is still, Apple says, the thinnest and lightest iPhone ever made. It is 18% thinner, in fact, than its immediate predecessor. And the iPhone 5 is one-fifth lighter than the 4S. It is made entirely of glass and aluminum.
As had been rumored and as I had hoped, the iPhone 5 can tap into speedy wireless 4G LTE networks. Apple will be working in the U.S. with AT&T, Sprint and Verizon Wireless, as well as several other carriers in Canada and overseas.
Apple says users will get up to eight hours of talk time off its battery, and 10 hours of video playback, with improved battery life for most of the ways you use the phone.
The iPhone 5 comes in black and silver or white and slate aluminum and will be available for preorder on Friday. Prices range from $199 for 16 GB to $299 for 32 GB and $399 for 64 GB. (With a contract, the iPhone 4 will be free; the iPhone 4S will cost $99.) The new iPhone runs off a new zippy A6 chip, Apple says, meaning you can launch photos, music and various apps much quicker. I'm eager to compare this with earlier models. More highlights:
iOS 6. At the core of the iPhone 5, of course, is the previously announced iOS 6 software upgrade, and there's a lot here. (IOS 6 comes to older devices on Sept 19.) Apple is late to the party with turn-by-turn audio directions, an iOS 6 feature that has been on Android phones for a while. Third-party developers have helped fill the void on the iPhone up to now. But better late than never, and the built-in Maps and directions in iOS 6 are very sweet. A fly-over feature in Maps lets you zoom in to get virtual photo-realistic tours of an area. Apple demonstrated the feature during the event by zooming in on London's Big Ben.
IOS 6 includes enhancements to Notification Center and Safari. Through iCloud Tabs, you can access Web pages that were open on your computer back home. Among the new Mail features is the ability to make certain senders your VIPs, so you can easily access their mail amid the junk.
Apple has also made improvements to Siri, letting you ask the phone's chatty virtual assistant for sports scores and movie recommendations and to launch apps.
Facebook has been implemented throughout iOS 6. And you can make a FaceTime call over the cellular data network -- previously it was just Wi-Fi. Apple says there are more than 200 new features in iOS 6.
Passbook. I'm particularly high, at least in theory, on another iOS 6 addition called Passbook, a repository for boarding passes, movie tickets, coupons and such. You can even display your boarding pass from the iPhone lock screen. How it works in the real world remains to be seen. In some respects, it represents Apple's answer to the digital wallet. Apple is obviously not a big believer in so-called NFC (near field communication) technology that is in some Android and other devices. NFC is not part of the new iPhone.
Photos. According to Apple, the new iSight camera performs better, even in low light. Apple says it can capture pictures 40% faster than before. Apple's Phil Schiller joked about the pictures you can take with the new camera: "Kids look happier." With the new phone, you can also capture panorama images. It's a feature found in some point-and-shoot cameras. On stage, Apple showed a stunning 28-megapixels panoramic image of the Golden Gate Bridge. I took my own panorama shot of the crowd in the post-press event demo area.
Apple says video stabilization has been improved. It has added Shared Photo Streams, a feature that, as the name suggests, is a new way to share images with friends. The company also said it improved the front-facing FaceTime camera.
Audio. The phone has three microphones, one on the front, one on the back, one on the bottom. Apple says the speakers are better, too. The company has used new "wideband audio" technology to bolster sound by filling up more of the frequency spectrum and has incorporated noise-cancellation technology it says will reduce background noise when on a call.
The dock connector. Now, a controversial topic: Apple has employed the same 30-pin dock connector for its iPods, iPhones and iPads for about a decade. Of course, these days there are lots of other ways to connect -- Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi syncing, USB. Now Apple is evolving the connector to something called Lightning, playing off the name of Apple's other emerging connector, Thunderbolt. The new connector is 80% smaller, and Apple says it's more durable. It helped the designers keep the iPhone 5 smaller. Apple is working with Bose, JBL and others, so expect dock-connector accessories by the holidays. But what of all the accessories you have that use the older connector, such as the one in your car? Those won't fit any longer. Apple is coming out with a $29 adapter that would let you hook up those other devices, but it's yet another gizmo you might have to carry in your bag and could potentially lose. Expect some short-term inconvenience.
EarPods. More than 600 million earbuds from Apple have been shipped through the years, and I've never been particularly fond of them. So I'm eager to try the newly designed EarPods that Apple plans to ship with the iPhone 5 and with the latest iPod Nano and iPod Touch devices, which were also announced Wednesday. EarPods include a small microphone and remote and provide, Apple claims, a more natural fit.
ITunes and iPods. Separate from the iPhone 5-related announcements, Apple spent some time talking about cleaner new versions of iTunes for iOS and for computers. Among the enhancements: You can now see the contents of your music library and playlists at the same time. One potentially useful, if not overly exciting, feature is called Up Next. Yes, it lets you know what's about to play next (though you can rearrange the order). Apple improved the new miniplayer that appears when you're doing something else on your computer. You can search from within the miniplayer. ICloud is built right into iTunes, so you can pick up watching a movie right where you left off.
The new iPod Nano is 38% thinner, multitouch, has an FM tuner with live pause and a 2.5-inch display. Widestream video is coming back. Bluetooth was added. And it has the Lightning connector. Apple says it offers up to 30 hours of battery life.
Changes are also coming to the iPod Touch, especially popular with gamers. It is thinner, weighs 88 grams and has the same 4-inch display as the iPhone 5. It has a faster A5 dual-core chip and superior graphics.
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