First look: The new iPhone 5S impresses

Virtually all of the big changes are inside, but they point to a bright -- and speedy -- mobile future

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That's often what Apple does: Even though it's not always the first to roll out "new" technologies, it's almost always the first to implement them in a way that fits existing lifestyles. The most obvious example: Touchscreens existed before the iPhone arrived in 2007, but Apple devised the right combination of hardware and software to make them new and exciting, and -- most of all -- usable on a daily basis.

Touch ID on iPhone 5S
Apple's Touch ID offers a security measure that will be embraced by everyday users and IT departments alike. (Image: Michael deAgonia)

Why 64-bit matters

While I was wrong to initially dismiss the potential for a fingerprint reader, I did and do think that the iPhone 5S's move to a 64-bit processor (and iOS 7's ability to work in tandem with the new hardware) is a big deal. It does deliver a performance boost, but most of those improvements will come from software updated to take advantage of it.

As it has for past iPhone updates, Apple boasted that this iPhone is the fastest yet. And it is, since this is the first phone with full hardware and software support for 64-bit technology. In the two days I've been using my new iPhone 5S, it does feel faster than the previous model. But you'll only really notice that improvement under specific circumstances: App animations don't happen any quicker, but the gap between them and content loading is decreased.

For instance, the boot-up times of the iPhone 5 and the 5S were generally within a second or two of each other. The iPhone 5S booted in about 27 seconds, while the iPhone 5 booted in 28; both consistently boot in under 30 seconds and almost always within a second or two of each other.

Loading third-party apps on either phone took about the same amount of time, but things became a little more interesting with the apps recompiled to take advantage of the 64-bit A7 chip.

For instance, Night Sky 2 -- it's among those apps compiled in 64-bit -- clearly gains speed during startup. It launches in 2.7 seconds on the iPhone 5S, compared to 4.6 seconds on an iPhone 5. Although 1.9 seconds may not sound like much, it's still an indicator of the kinds of speed gains we're likely to see as more apps are updated.

A better test of the new architecture is the new game Infinity Blade 3. For this quick test, I rebooted both devices and launched the game before running any other apps. From the moment I launched the game until the introduction animation ran, I found the iPhone 5S to be surprisingly faster than its predecessor. On first launch, the iPhone 5S needed 47 seconds to clear the loading screen and begin the animation, 14 seconds faster than the iPhone 5. For the second launch, I rebooted the phones again before launching the game. The iPhone 5S reloaded the game in 17.8 seconds compared to 48 seconds for iPhone 5. On the third attempt, the iPhone 5S needed 19.8 seconds, the iPhone 5, 37.9 seconds.

That's a significant gap in speed between the iPhone 5S and its predecessor, though, as I noted, performance very much depends on whether software was specifically written for the new 64-bit architecture. Apple is clearly thinking ahead with the hardware changes in the 5S, and is focused as much or more on applications to come as on those already available.

A few final thoughts

As happens every time I get a new iPhone, I've been inundated by people wanting to see and hold the iPhone 5S, especially to test the Touch ID sensor. For the past few days, I've watched people smiling as their fingerprints are rejected, before they turn the phone over in their hands to check out Apple's latest.

I should note that there are already reports that the Touch ID security feature can be defeated, but the hoops someone would have to jump through to hack into the phone -- lifting fingerprints, making a fake print using latex -- are complicated, if they even work at all. For me, this doesn't change its usefulness; it's just a reminder that no security function is 100% foolproof.

I'll be spending the next week or so putting the 5S though its paces, and will soon present a more detailed look at how it and its new features fare in day-to-day use. But I like what I've seen so far. And considering how fast the first batch of iPhones sold out across the globe, I'm sure I'm not the only one.

Michael deAgonia, a frequent contributor to Computerworld, is a writer, computer consultant and technology geek who has been working on computers since 1993. You can find him on Twitter (@mdeagonia).

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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