iPhone 5S review

Apple's first iPhone with Touch ID is now a solid budget buy

iPhone 5S review
A phone that's more than a iterative update

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The iPhone 5S was Apple's attempt to stay at the sharp end of the smartphone market, and it's ostensibly an iterative update compared to the the two iPhones that followed it, which represent a real leap.

Detractors will point to the identical shell (colors aside) of the iPhone 5S and claim that it's not much more than a rebadged iPhone 5 (nope... that's the iPhone 5C, people) but to do that misses the point of this new device.

We liked

If you want to match the iPhone 5S spec for spec with other smartphones, then it's a difficult task - but it misses the point of Apple's device.

Below the surface Apple put together one of the most cutting-edge smartphones around in late 2013, imbued with a top-end camera and a really innovative feature with Touch ID.

There's only so much that smartphone manufacturers can do to differentiate these days, and while Apple can't expect consumers to be wowed by the same shell, it can expect to get some interest in the sharp camera and gives a sense of relief with the A7 chip.

The M7 chip is a really cool tool for developers to play with, although it still hasn't realized its full potential in terms of the the Health app and third-party tie-ins.

One bit of the iPhone 5S tech which definitely isn't out-dated is the 64-bit element of the A7 chip: it makes things like camera use so much faster, and facilitates the increased security in Touch ID.

We disliked

I'll start with a different refrain: the screen technology on offer here is what upsets us most. Those people who upgraded from the iPhone 4S back in 2013 would have been disappointed to find they were getting the same screen resolution, albeit a bit stretched out.

In its own iPhone 5S world, the screen is just fine and looks great and clear – just as long as you don't clap eyes on one of the larger devices out there (like the iPhone 6 pair).

I do want to applaud Apple for sticking to its guns and offering up a decent choice for those that like a smaller display, but this is already too big for one hand, so a little more real estate wouldn't go amiss. The iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus upgrades are evidence that Apple agrees.

And then there's the price. Some reviewers don't seem to think this should be taken into account, that the mere fact Apple can command such a high cost for its phones, both on contract and SIM-free, and still sell millions shows this is a moot point.

Perhaps it was less of an issue when Apple was such a market leader, but now there are at least four worthy competitors out there, and they all cost less. Even taking the price drop into account the iPhone 5S still looks pretty expensive.

I can't see what lives in the iPhone 5S to justify it having been the most expensive phone on the market when it was released, although I do recognise the effort that's gone into the premium design and spec list for the 5S. Even in 2016 it remains at the pricier end of the scale considering the age of the technology.

Battery life is also little suspect for my liking, and you might want to considering buying a second charger to carry around when using the iPhone.

Final verdict

The iPhone 5S was, predictably, the best iPhone ever from Apple, but what's intriguing is just how much I enjoyed using this evolutionary device.

There's always a degree of apathy towards any kind of 'S' device from Apple, as it's historically just the same thing made a little bit better. But while it's true that the advances on the iPhone 5S are few, the ones that are there are very impressive indeed.

64-bit apps are now standard, and the A7 processor is clearly capable of some very heavy lifting.

Although we're over two years since launch and there still aren't that many high-power apps available to take advantage of this chip – which makes sense given there's not really enough RAM to support it.

The camera is improved impressively, taking some excellent shots with minimal backlift needed from the user, and the Touch ID sensor is the first real step into biometrics on a smartphone, and one that Apple has succeeded in implementing.

The new iOS 9 has helped things a great deal, adding features here and there, fixing bugs, and opening up possibilities for Touch ID and the M7 co-processor.

It's no longer the best iPhone on the market – that would have to be the iPhone 7 and even larger iPhone 7 Plus – but the iPhone 5S still has a place in the Apple ecosystem. For fans of smaller phones this is still the best option Apple has to offer, although as it ages, its place in that ecosystem will become ever more perilous.

The combination of iOS 10 to freshen things up with a powerful core and great camera mean this phone should be considered on its own considerable merits, and while the relatively high price will continue to put many off, anyone already wedded to the iPhone bandwagon, or even just on the fence, will find much to enjoy in a phone that's a lot more than an iterative update.

First reviewed: September 2013

Gareth Beavis
Formerly Global Editor in Chief

Gareth has been part of the consumer technology world in a career spanning three decades. He started life as a staff writer on the fledgling TechRadar, and has grown with the site (primarily as phones, tablets and wearables editor) until becoming Global Editor in Chief in 2018. Gareth has written over 4,000 articles for TechRadar, has contributed expert insight to a number of other publications, chaired panels on zeitgeist technologies, presented at the Gadget Show Live as well as representing the brand on TV and radio for multiple channels including Sky, BBC, ITV and Al-Jazeera. Passionate about fitness, he can bore anyone rigid about stress management, sleep tracking, heart rate variance as well as bemoaning something about the latest iPhone, Galaxy or OLED TV.