iPhone 5s Review: A Great Phone With Some More Forward Thinking Needed

PHOTO: iPhone 5s

"Forward thinking." That's the tag line you'll find splattered across Apple's iPhone 5s billboards or commercials. "It's not just what's next. But what should be next," the company writes about its latest phone on its website.

It's Apple marketing at its best -- flowery, affirmative, well-crafted phrases -- but on paper the phone is really just a set of updated specs from its previous iPhone 5. The iPhone 5s packs only three new noteworthy features: a faster 64-bit processor, an improved camera and flash, and a new fingerprint sensor. Oh, and, of course, there's that new gold color choice.

But when those features are combined with the iPhone 5s' beautiful aluminum design and high-quality Retina display, does the phone really pave the way for the future of smartphones? Does it set a new bar for the hundreds of other phones that will be released this year? Or is it just an example of darn good marketing?

The Good Changes
I can tell the difference between my iPhone 5s review unit and my own iPhone 5 in two ways -- the gold, shimmering hue on the back and the golden ring around the home button of Apple's 5s.

PHOTO: Gold iPhone 5s
Joanna Stern/ABC News
PHOTO: Gold iPhone 5s

Yes, the phone has the same elegant design as the 5, though that shouldn't bother anyone. It is still one of the most beautiful gadgets ever created. The only phone this year to even try to overshadow the iPhone's design and craftsmanship has been the HTC One. Just that one phone out of an interminable number of Android and Windows phone devices even came close to matching Apple's design prowess.

But where the iPhone 5s begins to show its first signs of forward thinking is with the fingerprint sensor now embedded in its home button. Called TouchID, the technology works just as Apple promised. Register up to five fingerprints, tap on the button and you're logged on to the phone. No need to input a password or swipe to unlock.

PHOTO: iPhone 5s fingerprint sensor
Joanna Stern/ABC News
PHOTO: iPhone 5s fingerprint sensor

It works extremely well, which is not something always said about fingerprint technology. Just try some of the ones on a Windows laptop, and you'll know that constant pop-ups and other malfunctions stand in the way of it being a seamless experience. That's not the case with Apple's solution, and it makes logging on to the phone much faster than entering a PIN or password.

The phone itself is also faster, or at least that's what Apple's 64-bit A7 chip promises. While some apps and games, including Infinity Blade 3 and Sing! Karaoke, have been built to take advantage of the processor, and the improvement over the iPhone 5 is clear when it comes to everyday activities such as launching apps or surfing the web, I haven't noticed a difference. Still, this is one fast phone; you'll be hard pressed to find lag, and it will give you the power you need in the years to come. Future thinking, indeed.

It's simply worth it for the better Instagrams alone.

The Camera
Apple says more apps will be on the way to take advantage of the faster silicon, but its own camera app is already tapping into that speed, including the slow-mo and burst mode features. Both of the new features are really fun to play with and add a lot to the already top-notch camera experience.

Click to see a comparison between iPhone 5 and 5s photos

And the improved camera sensor, which now captures more light, might be the biggest upgrade for most people. When it comes to performance in darker settings, especially in dimly lit restaurants, shots are noticeably better and clearer when taken with the 5s than with the iPhone 5 or 5c. Even photos I took on a bright sunny day seemed to look crisper.

The iPhone 5s' camera is one of the main reasons to buy this phone over any other out there. Yes, the Nokia Lumia 1020's 41-megapixel camera takes great shots, but it is a very chunky phone. And while the Galaxy S4 and HTC One take good shots, they do not capture photos as well balanced and crisp as the ones taken with the iPhone 5s. It's simply worth it for the better Instagrams alone.

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