Solid New IPhones Fail to Excite: Rich Jaroslovsky

Ever since the launch of the first iPhone in 2007, Apple has introduced one new model a year.

Now, for the first time, there are two: the new flagship iPhone 5s, and the lower-cost, colorful iPhone 5c, both of which arrive in stores Sept. 20.

After a week of using them, my view is simple: If you like Apple products, you’ll like these; if you don’t, you won’t.

With its ease of use, enormous wealth of high-quality apps and content and well-integrated online services, the iPhone still provides the best overall user experience of any smartphone. But while Apple has never introduced this many iPhones, it’s also never changed so little from the previous generation.

The 5s is the current iPhone 5 -- same size, shape, metal body and 4-inch Retina display -- with upgraded internals and one terrific new feature. The iPhone 5c is to all intents and purposes the current iPhone 5 housed in a new plastic body.

Both phones run iOS 7, a new version of Apple’s mobile operating system that becomes available today for downloading to iPads and older iPhones. The software’s look and feel have been overhauled, with flat, brightly colored icons replacing the more textured look of previous releases.

Users of iOS 7, which I’ll discuss at greater length in a separate column, will find some things different. For example, you now close an app running in the background by flicking a thumbnail of it with your finger. And they’ll find some new things, like iTunes Radio, which takes on the likes of Pandora and Spotify, and a new Control Center that gives you quick access to key settings -- something phones with Google’s Android software have had for some time.

Incremental Changes

But the phones themselves are mostly about incremental changes and perhaps about laying the groundwork for future, bigger innovations.

The most important new feature in both is the 5s Touch ID fingerprint sensor, which elegantly addresses a significant pain point for mobile users: security.

Mobile devices are increasingly the repositories of some of our most sensitive data. Yet most people don’t have passcodes set up, because it’s just too annoying to enter them dozens of time a day.

The Touch ID is built into the 5s home button. Once you’ve scanned your fingers -- I used both thumbs -- a light press of the button wakes the phone and simultaneously unlocks it. It works far better than any other biometric device I’ve used, not requiring your finger to be positioned just so. It makes security transparent and even pleasurable.

Mobile Payments

The Touch ID also works for purchases from Apple’s iTunes and App Stores, yet another small step -- after the Passbook feature introduced last year -- toward establishing the company as a force in the nascent field of mobile payments.

Apple is taking pains to reassure users that the fingerprint data, which is stored in mathematical form rather than as a graphical image, never leaves the phone. It’s stored in a special area of the new A7 microprocessor that powers the 5s, and Apple says it isn’t uploaded to its servers or anywhere else.

Apple says the A7 is the first 64-bit chip in a smartphone, something that’s of far more interest to technophiles than average consumers. But you may see evidence of the greater power in things like the complex graphics of some visually intensive games and the speed of the 8-megapixel camera’s autofocus. And, like a new motion processor, its value may become clearer as new apps take advantage of it.

Upgraded Camera

Speaking of the camera, it’s been upgraded with a larger sensor, wider aperture and a new flash for taking better photos in less-than-ideal lighting conditions. Images captured in a darkened restaurant were much warmer and more natural than on the current model.

The camera app has also been extensively reworked to add features like a burst mode for taking multiple rapid-fire shots and auto image stabilization. They work well, but will hardly be novel to anyone who’s used a recent Android device or even one of Microsoft’s Windows phones.

Other changes are similarly welcome if not revolutionary. There’s a new gold color (joining silver and gray), slow-motion video, an improved front-facing camera for better video calls using Apple’s FaceTime, and support for more non-U.S. carriers’ ultra-fast LTE networks.

Visible Changes

The 5c’s changes are more visible, if less significant. The big one is the new body. Though it’s plastic, there’s nothing cheap-feeling about it, and the cartoon-like iOS 7 somehow feels more at home when it’s surrounded by one of the five bright new colors: blue, pink, yellow, green and white. (Even the software’s background color is set to match the color of the case.)

The 5c’s other departures from the 2012 model are exceedingly modest. It, too, has the new FaceTime camera and expanded LTE support. Battery life should be about the same as on the 5 and 5s, good enough to easily get through a full day of normal use.

Otherwise, the biggest change is in the price. On the Verizon, AT&T and Sprint networks in the U.S., the 5s starts at $199 on a two-year contract for a model with 16 gigabytes of storage, while the 5c is the least expensive new iPhone ever: $99 for the 16-gigabyte version. On the contract-free T-Mobile network, the 5s starts at $649, the 5c at $528.

There’s nothing wrong with either phone. But there’s not much that’s pulse-quickening about them either.

(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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