published Thursday, September 19th, 2013

Review: iPhone fingerprint sensor worth extra cost

  • photo
    The iPhone 5S, left, and iPhone 5c are displayed Tuesday in New York. The 5S offers a fingerprint sensor, a better camera and a faster processor, while the iPhone 5C is largely last year’s iPhone 5 with a plastic back and a choice of five colors.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

CUPERTINO, Calif. — Passcodes are such a pain that I've relaxed the security settings on my Android phone. I'm willing to forgo the extra safety, just so I'm asked to punch in the code less often. When I got my hands on Apple's new iPhone 5S, one of the first things I tried was a feature that allows you to bypass the passcode using a fingerprint.

I had a lot of fun unlocking the phone over and over again. Who knew biometric authentication could be such a blast?

The fingerprint sensor alone is worth the extra $100 you'll pay for the 5S over an iPhone 5C. Both phones will come out Friday. In the week I've had with both, I've also been impressed with the better camera and slow-motion video in the 5S.

The 5C, meanwhile, is largely last year's iPhone 5 with a plastic casing instead of aluminum and glass. This isn't cheap plastic, but a type offering the slippery feel of a shiny ceramic tile. It comes in five colors.

Both phones come with iOS 7, the most radical change to Apple's operating system software for mobile devices since its 2007 debut. Many of the changes are cosmetic, but there are functional improvements such as easier access to frequently used settings and apps.

I will review iOS 7 separately. Many existing iPhone users won't need more than the free update, which Apple released Wednesday. Neither the 5C nor the 5S offers improvements on the screen size, which remains at 4 inches diagonally. But new features and new colors may draw you to one of these new iPhones.

-- IPHONE 5S (available in silver, gold or gray; starts at $199 with two-year service contract, or $649 without a contract):

When you set up the 5S, you're asked to tap the home button with a finger several times so the phone can create a mathematical representation of your print. To unlock the phone, you simply tap the home button, and the phone will compare the two taps. You can tap from any angle, even sideways or upside down. This fingerprint ID also works as a way to authenticate the purchase of apps and content within apps.

For security reasons, there are still times you'll need your four-digit passcode, including after 48 hours of inactivity and before adding a new fingerprint. If the phone fails to recognize your print, you can always use the passcode. I had trouble only when my fingers were wet or greasy. One evening, I ordered pizza with an oily pepperoni topping and ate it without a napkin. The fingerprint sensor worked after one slice, but not two. Indian naan bread also threw off the sensor.

Apple says it stores the print data on your phone, in a place that's inaccessible to other apps or to Apple's remote servers. The company also says it's not possible to convert a fingerprint from a police file into something the phone will recognize, as the sensor reads a sub-epidermal layer of the finger. And the finger needs to be live -- cutting off a thumb won't work.

I'm convinced Apple has given a lot of thought to security. If you're still uneasy about the fingerprint scan, you can stick with the passcode. The feature is optional.

Meanwhile, the 5S's camera takes better night and indoor shots. Although the main camera remains at 8 megapixels, individual pixels are larger and thus better at sensing light. The camera's shutter also opens wider to let in more light. For flash shots, the camera fires two bursts of light at once, each slightly different in color. The iPhone adjusts the combination of the two colors automatically to match ambient lighting.

I typically avoid using the flash in any camera because its strong burst of whitish light overpowers whatever's in the room. In a hallway with strong yellow light, for instance, the flashes on my high-end camera and the iPhone 5 made the walls white. The 5S, on the other hand, managed to preserve the yellow. I also got better skin tones on some flash shots taken with the 5S. Using the 5C, faces and arms looked more pale.

Night shots without the flash are also sharper. Sometimes, cameras overcompensate for low light by making the few points of light too bright. The 5S typically has those scenes properly balanced.

Of course, these improvements won't make all photos better. Many shots appear the same whether taken with the 5, the 5C or the 5S. In other shots, differences are subtle.

The 5S can also shoot slow motion video. You can choose the parts you want in slow motion and regular speed, and you can change your mind later. A burst mode lets you snap 100 shots in 10 seconds, compared with 40 seconds on the 5C. The phone picks out the best moments and filters out duplicates. The front-facing camera is better than the one on previous iPhones. It has larger pixels for low-light videoconferencing.

Many of these features are possible because of Apple's faster A7 processor. A companion chip, the M7, handles motion-related data without draining as much of the battery, something useful for fitness trackers. All this power is so new, apps taking advantage of them weren't available for me to test.

-- IPHONE 5C (available in green, blue, yellow, pink or white; starts at $99 with two-year service contract, or $549 without a contract):

Plastic colors aside, the 5C is mostly the same as the iPhone 5 it replaces, with the older A6 chip and a main camera that's not as good in low light. Because the chip is slower, it couldn't do slow-motion video or take as many shots per second. But it does have the 5S's improved front-facing camera.

The 5C is for those who really want the bright color. If you can afford the additional $100 and can do with silver, gold or gray, get the 5S instead. The fingerprint sensor will make security less annoying, and the better camera will be more useful in documenting life. A hundred dollars isn't that much when you compare it with the full price of the phone.


ABOUT THE NEW IPHONES

The iPhone 5S and 5C go on sale Friday at 3:01 a.m. EDT through Apple's website and at 8 a.m. local time around the world at Apple retail stores. Wireless carriers and other retailers plan to sell them, too. Initially, they're available in the U.S., Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, Puerto Rico, Singapore and the United Kingdom.

Apple is discontinuing last year's iPhone 5, but will still offer the 2011 edition, the iPhone 4S. That's now free with a two-year agreement.


Anick Jesdanun, deputy technology editor for The Associated Press, can be reached at njesdanunap.org.


Online:

Apple's iPhone site: http://apple.com/iphone

How iPhone 5S, 5C and older iPhone 5 compare

By ANICK JESDANUN

AP Technology Writer

CUPERTINO, Calif. — Apart from new colors, the exterior of Apple's new iPhones doesn't look much different from last year's model. The iPhone 5S is identical to the iPhone 5 in size and weight, while the iPhone 5C is only slightly bigger and heavier. The 5C also uses plastic instead of aluminum and glass.

Where the phones differ most is on the inside. The 5S has a faster chip, a fingerprint sensor and a better camera, and both new models are compatible with a greater range of 4G LTE frequency bands. Both phones also come with the new iOS 7 operating system, a major departure in style and functionality from the iOS 6 that came installed on the iPhone 5.

Here's a closer look at how features in the three phones compare:

-- Only the iPhone 5S has a fingerprint sensor. The home button of the 5S recognizes your prints and can use that instead of a four-digit passcode to unlock the phone.

-- The main camera on the 5S is better at picking up light, which is useful for night and indoor shots. Although all three phones have 8-megapixel cameras, individual pixels on the 5S are larger, and the camera's shutter can open wider. Combined, Apple says that translates to a 33 percent improvement in light sensitivity.

-- The flash on the 5S is better, too. Unlike other cameras, iPhones or otherwise, the flash on the 5S shoots two different lights at once -- one whitish and the other amber. The iPhone adjusts the combination automatically to account for ambient lighting conditions. That results in better skin tones and more natural colors, as the normal flash sometimes overpowers whatever light is naturally there.

-- The front-facing camera on both the 5C and the 5S are better. Although the cameras remain at 1.2 megapixels, the pixel sizes on both are larger.

-- The 5S can shoot slow-motion video and take up to 10 photos per second. The 5 and the 5C can't do slow motion. The 5C does allow for continuous shooting, but only at about 2.5 shots per second.

-- The A7 processor used in the 5S is faster than the A6 found in the 5 and the 5C. Apps and Web pages typically open a blink of an eye faster. The 5S boots about five seconds faster than the 5C.

-- The A7 on the 5S can handle data more efficiently with a 64-bit format, akin to what's found on desktop computers, rather than the 32 bits traditionally used in phones. Games and other graphic-intensive apps can take advantage of this. The 5S also has a companion processor, called M7, for motion-related tasks. That allows for fitness apps to run without draining as much battery. Apps taking advantage of either of these improvements are still being developed, though.

-- The 5S and the 5C are compatible with more 4G LTE frequency bands -- up to 13, instead of a maximum five before. That means the phone is more likely to work with higher speeds wherever you go. However, there are more than 40 cellular bands worldwide, the bulk for LTE, so a version bought in one country might not work for high speeds everywhere around the world. If that happens, you'll need to use the slower 3G and GSM networks.

-- Both the 5C and the 5S come with iOS 7, which offers a new look to icons along with new features such as a Control Center for easy access to frequently used settings and apps. Older phones can be upgraded to iOS 7 for free, starting Wednesday, although Apple says some features won't work with all models.

-- The 5S comes in a choice of silver, gold or gray, while the 5C is available in green, blue, yellow, pink or white. On the 5C, the background wallpaper on the screen matches the color chosen. If sunny yellow for the yellow model gets annoying, you can change it to Apple's standard wallpaper, or any photo of your choosing. Or spend $100 more for the 5S and the normal wallpaper that comes with it.


Anick Jesdanun, deputy technology editor for The Associated Press, can be reached at njesdanunap.org.

Review: New Apple iOS software has features to discover

By ANICK JESDANUN

AP Technology Writer

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — The changes to Apple's iOS software became apparent as I drove to the headquarters of the company's rival, Google. As I navigated using Apple's mapping app, I noticed one of my favorite attributes was missing: the directions for each next turn presented in green boxes that resemble highway signs.

Many of the changes in Apple's operating system for mobile devices are cosmetic. Gone are three-dimensional icons that mimic real-world counterparts, such as a magazine rack for the Newsstand app. They are replaced by larger, two-dimensional icons sporting abstract designs and pastel colors. Apple also extended that new look to many of its apps. In Maps, the green boxes are replaced with solid white across the top.

It didn't take long to realize that deeper down, the new iOS 7 software is the same as the one I've come to know.

The new software does have several functional improvements, but those could take time to stumble upon. The good news is that even if you never discover them, you can still use your device the way you did before. Apple Inc. started making the free update available Wednesday.

I'm covering the features specific to Apple's new iPhone 5S and 5C in a separate review. This one is about whether it makes sense to upgrade to iOS 7 on your existing iPhone or iPad.

The biggest functional change is the use of swipes instead of taps to access key functions. You can already swipe up from the bottom right side of the screen to quickly access the camera when your phone is in the lock screen. With iOS 7, you can also swipe up for the Control Center, which contains frequently used settings and apps. That's available whether or not the phone is locked.

Swipe down from the top of the screen to get recent notifications and the day's highlights, including the weather, appointments, reminders and stock quotes. Swipe down from the center of any home screen for a search box. From many apps, you can swipe from the left or the right instead of tapping the left and right buttons.

The Control Center is the most useful of the functional improvements.

From there, you can turn Airplane Mode, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on and off. Before, you had to find those switches in the settings. That would have come in handy for my flight to Silicon Valley last week for Apple's event introducing the new phones and software. Likewise, a Do Not Disturb feature is easier to access. It lets you silence incoming calls and messages, though you can make exceptions for certain numbers or for those calling repeatedly, in case there is a true emergency.

The Control Center also lets you easily control music playback and adjust the screen's brightness. It gives you quick access to a flashlight feature, the clock, a calculator and camera. My only complaint: You can't pick the apps featured and replace the calculator, for instance, with Facebook or Gmail.

I found the left and right swipes useful primarily within certain apps. In the Safari browser, I use it to return to the previous page. In Mail, I return to the list of messages after reading one. Again, these are all things I could do before with taps rather than swipes, but sometimes the swipe feels more natural.

The new software also makes it easier to manage multiple apps at once. Double click on the home button to see all open apps, each represented by a large image showing the app's content rather than just an icon, as was the case before. Close an app by swiping the image up. In the past, you had to hold down an icon and hit the minus button.

The Siri voice assistant is better, too. She sounds less robotic than she once did and can adopt a male voice. Siri is able to handle a greater range of commands, including adjusting settings and returning recent calls.

The most useful change is the ability to edit voice commands. I asked Siri how the Nets did, but she heard me as Mets. Instead of having to repeat the phrase over and over until Siri got it right, I simply hit "tap to edit." Then again, maybe she's smarter than me: The Mets are still playing, while the Nets don't start the regular season until Oct. 30.

Specific apps that come with iOS are also improved, including these:

-- The Maps app offers voice navigation for walking directions, though it still lacks biking and transit directions, as Google offers. The background of maps now dims at night so the screen light doesn't distract drivers.

-- Safari makes it easier to switch between open Web pages. Before, you got one page at a time and had to scroll through all to get to the last one. Now, all the open pages are presented like upright dominos, so that you can jump right away to one in the back.

-- The Camera offers eight filters to tweak photos the way you would on Instagram. But with Camera, you see what your filtered photo would look like before snapping. You can now take square photos, perfect for Instagram. In addition, photos you take are automatically grouped by trip and other attributes, so they'll be easier to find and share later.

-- The App Store offers suggestions based on your current location. I get an app for the American Museum of Natural History in New York when I'm a few blocks away, and apps for food delivery near my apartment in another neighborhood, where people with small kitchens don't cook.

A new iTunes Radio service offers free Internet radio stations, with buttons to easily buy songs you like on iTunes. I got my fill of 80s music with a Hits of the '80s station. I can create new stations based on songs or artists I hear, and I can move a slider between hits and discovery, the latter for more obscure tunes. Sad to say, few of the 80s songs were obscure, but that's a reflection of my listening habits and not the software. Unless you pay for the $25-a-year iTunes Match service, you'll get about four ads an hour.

Although I dismissed many of the changes as cosmetic, a few of them improve functionality. Gone are those familiar bars showing cellular signal strength. You see five dots instead. The idea is to create more space for actual content. In many apps, including Maps and Safari, menus automatically disappear until you need them again, again to leave more space for content.

These are all nice touches that make upgrading well worth it, especially for something free. You don't necessarily need a new phone.


ABOUT IOS 7 SOFTWARE

On Wednesday, Apple made the update available for free for the iPhone 4, 4S and 5 models, the iPad 2 and later, the iPad Mini and the iPod Touch released last year. It will also come with new phones, including the new 5C and 5S models out Friday. Apple warns that not all features will be compatible with all older devices.

To get it, just respond to the prompt when it arrives on your device over the next week, or go to "Software Update" in the settings under "General" if you want it sooner. If you don't want it, just ignore the prompt, though some apps in the future won't work on older systems.

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