It's finally here. To the delight of many subscribers, T-Mobile has debuted the iPhone 5 on its network. At a relatively affordable $149 up front, this device boasts a bigger 4-inch screen than its predecessor in a ridiculously thin and light design, as well as an improved camera. What makes the T-Mobile version particularly compelling is the carrier's new no-contract plans and HD Voice support. Although 4G LTE coverage is limited for now, T-Mobile's iPhone 5 is a very strong value.
Editor's Note: Portions of this review were taken from our Verizon Wireless review of the Apple iPhone 5.
Put simply, the iPhone 5 is a marvel of engineering. Apple stretched the screen from 3.5 inches to 4 inches while cramming in a higher-capacity battery and 4G LTE. The result is a design that weighs a mere 4 ounces and measures just 0.3 inches thick. Not only is the iPhone 5 the thinnest smartphone on the market, but it's about an ounce lighter than the iPhone 4S.
The 5-inch Samsung Galaxy S4 and 4.7-inch HTC One weigh 4.6 and 5.04 ounces, respectively, so you're trading a larger screen for a heavier device. The HTC One's glass-and-aluminum body nearly rivals the iPhone 5 in terms of build quality, but the S4's polycarbonate shell feels cheaper. However, only the S4 lets you replace the battery among these three phones.
The iPhone 5 is just as narrow as the 4S, so you can easily type with one hand. We had to stretch our finger a bit to reach the power button, but that's a minor quibble.
Another slight annoyance: The headphone jack is on the bottom, which means you're better off putting the phone upside down in your pocket. The good news is that the included EarPods make it easy to adjust the volume and pause and skip tracks with their built-in controls. The iPhone 5 uses a Lightning port, which now accommodates a wide range of accessories. Older add-ons require a $30 adapter.
Apple elongated the 3.5-inch Retina display of the iPhone 4S to 4 inches on the iPhone 5. At 1136 x 640 pixels, the iPhone 5 has the same pixel density as before, but makes room for more info on the screen, and added an extra row of app icons. In other words, there's less scrolling. In the Calendar, for example, you'll see your next five appointments instead of just three.
By now, most developers have optimized their apps for the iPhone 5's larger canvas. The new CNN app, for instance, has a new landscape view that lets you swipe through stories horizontally, and OpenTable has a slicker interface that lets you swipe quickly through dining options at the bottom of the screen.
The screen isn't just bigger; it's more beautiful. Boasting 44 percent greater color saturation, the new screen results in more vibrant-looking photos, games and more. Plus, because Apple integrated the touch technology into the display itself, icons literally look painted on.
By comparison, the S4 offers a full-HD Super AMOLED display that offered some of the most bold and colorful images we've seen on any smartphone. Just don't expect good outdoor visibility. The HTC One's full-HD Super LCD 3 display showed every wrinkle and pocket and explosive colors, and is brighter than the S4, but blacks could be blacker.
The iPhone 5 registered 525 lux on our light meter, which runs circles around the S4 (446 lux) and edges out the One (463 lux).
Despite the iPhone 5's thinner design, its dual speakers on the bottom pump out plenty of sound. We played Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" outside and were impressed that the sound didn't get washed out with all the outdoor city noise. Sound was a bit tinny when we pushed the volume to the max, so those looking to really rock out are better off using an external Bluetooth speaker.
iOS 6 and Interface
The brains of the iPhone 5 is iOS 6, which has a fairly plain interface but includes lots of features that will make your life easier. The improved Siri is a great example. You can now look up restaurants and book reservations via OpenTable, find out who won last night's big game and look up movie reviews. Siri's recognition isn't always accurate, but she's a lot more useful than she used to be.
There's a ton of other useful stuff in iOS 6, including Passbook, which lets you keep everything from plane tickets to coupons in one app. We especially like Shared Photo Streams for sharing multiple photos with friends and family in a few clicks. Friends and family can then like or comment on your pic, just like on Facebook.
Speaking of Facebook, the social network is now deeply woven into the OS, from contacts and calendar (be prepared to see a lot of birthdays) to the ability to post updates from Siri or Notification Center.
Apple got a lot of flak for releasing Maps before it was ready. The app had lots of outdated information and misspelled or misplaced locations. For example, when we tested Maps when it first came out, we searched for Brio Tuscan Grille in a nearby mall, and Maps returned a result that was for an animal hospital. Maps still isn't top-notch, but it has improved somewhat. When we searched for directions for a restaurant in Manhattan's Union Square, we received the correct route as well as turn-by-turn navigation.
Overall, iOS is robust and as easy to use as ever, but iPhone users looking for something more dynamic will have to wait until the fall for iOS 7. That update will offer a more modern aesthetic, a new Control Center for quickly accessing Settings and a WebOS-like multitasking feature. And, unlike on nearly all Android phones, you'll be able to download this update on day one.
The A6 chip inside the iPhone 5 promises up to double the overall performance and graphics power of the 4S. In most benchmark tests, the iPhone 5 demonstrated a sizable advantage over its predecessor. With a score of 1,671 on Geekbench, the T-Mobile iPhone 5 is 2.5 times faster than the 4S. It also beats Verizon's iPhone 5, which notched 1,590. However, both the S4 and the HTC One outpaced Apple's device, earning 3,234 and 2,639, respectively.
On Passmark, which evaluates everything from CPU and disk performance to memory and 2D and 3D graphics, the iPhone 5 scored a higher 3,874, compared with 3,414 for the Galaxy S4. To be fair, though, Passmark hasn't been optimized for the iPhone 5′s larger screen, so it ran in a smaller window. In other words, the test likely wasn't as taxing as it could have been.
Over the course of our testing, we observed that the iPhone 5's backside became warm when using GPS and playing games for more than 10 minutes.
One of the things we like about T-Mobile's network is that you can still enjoy 4G speeds when you're out of LTE range. You fall back to the carrier's HSPA+ 42 service, which offers swift downloads and decent uploads.
However, T-Mobile's 4G LTE network is just in the beginning phases of its rollout. Currently, the carrier covers only Houston, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Phoenix, San Jose, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. In comparison, Verizon's LTE network covers nearly 500 markets, AT&T's 4G network covers 237 markets and Sprint's 4G is in 88 cities.
We traveled to Baltimore to test out T-Mobile's LTE on the iPhone 5. Using the Speedtest.net app, the iPhone 5 averaged an extremely fast 18.3 Mbps down on T-Mobile's 4G LTE network. Upload speeds were just as impressive, at 8.3 Mbps. The device also loaded websites quickly.
The iPhone 5 loaded the mobile version of NYTimes.com in only 1.3 seconds, the mobile version of ESPN in 2.3 seconds and mobile CNN.com in 1.6 seconds. Laptopmag.com loaded in just 1.9 seconds. The Verizon version of the iPhone 5 was slower, loading the desktop version of NYTimes.com in 5.5 seconds, the mobile version of ESPN in 3 seconds, the mobile version of CNN.com in 5.5 seconds and Laptopmag.com in 5.2 seconds.
Back in our New York office, where we could only access T-Mobile's HSPA+42 service, the iPhone 5 still averaged a respectable 6.9 Mbps down and 1.8 Mbps up.
Apple did a nice job of updating its apps for the iPhone 5's larger display. For instance, in the Music app, you can now see the song progress, as well as the timeline and shuffle and repeat buttons, at the top of the screen. On the iPhone 4S, you had to tap the display to see these options. And in the Camera app, you'll see a larger shutter button and a toggle for the video and camera that is easier to activate because it's horizontal instead of vertical.
MORE: 25 Best iPhone 5 Apps
New apps, such as CNN and Flipboard, display more leading stories on the display so you can see more without scrolling, while ESPN lets you view more top scores. Pins on Pinterest showed up in vivid colors, and the constant stream instantly loaded. With more than 900,000 options in the App Store, it's easy to find quality apps in every possible category.
Although it has the same 8-MP resolution as the 4S, Apple says the iPhone 5's camera now captures photos 40 percent faster and offers better low-light performance. Like on the latest Android phones, you can also capture still images while recording video.
The coolest new camera feature on the iPhone 5 is also available on the iPhone 4S with iOS 6: panoramic shooting. Apple makes it pretty easy to compose sweeping landscapes, although you have to have a steady hand. The resulting photo is a whopping 28 MP.
When we compared all the top smartphones to see which one had the best camera, Apple's iPhone 5 snapped crisper, cleaner and more accurate photos than all of its competitors. Although its flash can be overpowering, the iPhone's camera performed the most consistently across the board, offering the most natural colors.
Nevertheless, other smartphone makers are creating more innovative camera features. The HTC One features an Ultrapixel camera, which leverages a larger sensor than other handsets and an f/2.0 aperture lens to capture 300 percent more light. And the Galaxy S4 comes packed with unique features, like Best Face Mode, which lets you choose each person's best smile and combine them into one image. Eraser Mode lets you replace moving objects in the background.
The iPhone 5's 1080p camcorder also impressed us. A clip we shot of New York City traffic was smooth and detailed, without a hint of tearing or pixelation. The front HD FaceTime camera also did a better job of capturing our face indoors, with richer and warmer colors.
The iPhone 5 has a slightly higher-capacity battery of 1440 mAh (up from 1430 mAh on the iPhone 4S). In the LAPTOP Battery Test, which involves continuous surfing over 4G at 40 percent brightness, the iPhone 5 lasted 6 hours and 10 minutes. That's slightly longer than the Samsung Galaxy S4 in power-saving mode (6:05 on Sprint, 5:54 on AT&T) and 4 minutes longer than the 6:06 smartphone category average. The HTC One lasted 6:20 with its power-saving mode on, so all three handsets are in the same ballpark.
Call Quality and HD Voice
The T-Mobile iPhone 5 is the first version of this device to support HD Voice in the U.S., and uses wideband audio technology to eliminate muffled voices and background noise. During a test call to another HD Voice device on T-Mobile's network, our caller sounded extremely crisp, and her voice sounded richer than your typical wireless call. The distorted sound we sometimes experience on other smartphones disappeared.
However, if you're talking to a Verizon iPhone 5 owner from your T-Mobile iPhone 5, you won't experience HD Voice, even though your device supports the technology. HD Voice only works if you're calling another compatible device on T-Mobile's network. Other options include the Galaxy SIII and S4, the HTC One S, the BlackBerry Z10 and the Nokia Astound.
Plans and Pricing
The iPhone 5 is available through T-Mobile for $149.99 up front, and then $20 per month for 2 years for the hardware. If you cancel the wireless service, the remaining balance on your phone becomes due. If you want to pay up front, the device is $629.99. In comparison, the iPhone 5 for Verizon costs $199 with a required two-year plan.
T-Mobile charges $60 per month for a 2.5GB data plan that also includes unlimited talk and text. If you add in the cost of the device, you'd wind up paying $2,070 over two years. The Unlimited Nationwide 4G plan costs $70 monthly, or $2,309 after two years when you include the device.
If you were to purchase the iPhone 5 from Verizon for $199 and opted for a 2GB plan, you'd pay $100 per month over two years (for the line access fee and shared data plan). That comes out to $2,600, or $530 more than you'd pay on T-Mobile for its 2.5GB plan. The total for a 1GB Mobile Share AT&T plan would be $2,479 (or $409 more than T-Mobile), while the 4GB plan would run you $2,839.
Those new to Sprint get to pay just $99 for the iPhone 5, and unlimited voice and data costs $109.99 monthly. That means the total after two years for this plan on Sprint would be $2,738, compared with $2,309 for T-Mobile. If you can live with 450 voice minutes, though, you can pay just $79.99 per month for unlimited data for a total of $2,018.76. That's cheaper than T-Mobile's 2.5GB plan with unlimited voice.
Now that you can get the iPhone 5 on all of the Big Four carriers, what's your best option? Overall, T-Mobile's version is a very good value because it costs only $149 up front and saves you money over the long run, especially versus AT&T and Verizon. Plus, only T-Mobile's version offers HD Voice, provided you're gabbing with someone else who owns an HD Voice-capable device. The trade-off is that you get less 4G LTE coverage than on other carriers.
T-Mobile also offers the Galaxy S4 ($149 up front) and the HTC One ($99), both with 4G LTE. The Samsung Galaxy S4 has more innovative features and a bigger -- but dimmer -- screen. And the HTC One combines a larger display with an Apple-like design for a lower price than for the S4 or iPhone 5.
Some may want to wait until the fall to see what the next iPhone has in store, but if you're in the market for a smartphone now, you can't go wrong with the iPhone 5 for T-Mobile. You get an amazingly thin and light design, strong performance and access to superior apps, all for a wallet-friendly monthly price.