When Apple unveiled the iPhone 5 last month, many tech pundits called it “boring.” I was one of them. In fact, I was so bored that I called the iPhone boring way back in July, on the basis of the lackluster new mobile operating system that Apple announced at its developer conference. After I got a few minutes with the iPhone 5 after Apple’s press event, I wrote that it was “a very impressive device.” But those words appeared under the headline, “No, This Is Not the Best iPhone Ever,” a conclusion that was prompted by my annoyance about Apple’s new, proprietary dock connector. The company should have gone with a universal connector, I argued. By making that unfriendly move, the firm had “screwed over” its most loyal customers, and missed a chance to build a truly perfect device.
Now, almost a month later, it’s time for me to get something off my chest: I’ve made a huge mistake. I’ve had the iPhone 5 for about a week and a half, and I’m still annoyed about the dock connector thing. But it’s a small problem, and in retrospect I was wrong to allow myself to become overwhelmed by dock-based frustration.
That’s because, in all other ways, the iPhone 5 is the best phone ever to grace the earth. It beats every single rival on just about every metric you can think of, including speed, battery life, and especially beauty and workmanship.
I’ll go even further: When I pick up the iPhone 5 and examine it closely, I find it difficult to believe that this device actually exists. The iPhone 5 does not feel like a product that was mass produced. In a strange way, it doesn’t feel like it was built at all. This is a gadget that seems as if it fell into the box fully formed. If you run your hands around its face, you scarcely feel any seams or other points of connection; there’s little evidence that this thing is a highly complex device made from lots of smaller things. Instead it just feels like a single, solid, exquisitely crafted piece of machinery, and once you pick it up you never want to put it down.
Manufacturers call this “build quality,” and Apple made a big deal out of it at its press event. But I dismissed it: I’ve always appreciated the build quality of Apple’s devices, but I could not understand how better manufacturing would change the iPhone in an appreciable way. After all, every other iPhone was built really well, too. But the only way to appreciate how much more solid the iPhone 5 feels is to use it for a few days—and, crucially, to use it without stuffing it into a case. (Really, you should never use a case: The phone is made of aluminum, so it’s less likely to break than the old, all-glass models. If you’re going to get a case for the iPhone 5, you’re ruining its best feature—it’d be like losing a bunch of weight and celebrating by donning a fat suit.) Compared to the iPhone 5, all other products will feel cheap. Even Apple’s products: When I hold my Macbook Air, I now notice gaps between the bottom cover and the body, or the ugly way the screen is indented into the frame. I can’t think of any other mass-manufactured product I’ve used that was as perfectly crafted as this phone.
I could have remained silent about my reversal. It’s been weeks since the iPhone 5 went on sale, so there’s no real point in my writing a review—dozens of critics, and more importantly millions of actual customers, have had a chance to use the device, so the opinion of one more tech writer isn’t really a big deal. But I decided to speak up after reading John Gruber’s review of the phone. Gruber, who runs the blog Daring Fireball and is an obsessive chronicler of Apple, argued that the tech critics like myself weren’t adequately valuing niceness, his word for how solid the iPhone 5 feels in your hands. He wrote:
The bored-by-the-iPhone tech press/industry experts surely value niceness, but they do not hold it in the same top-tier regard that Apple does. They are not equipped to devote an amount of attention to niceness commensurate with the amount of effort Apple puts into it. Apple can speak of micron-level precision and the computer-aided selection of the best-fitting of 725 identical-to-the-naked-eye components, but there is no benchmark, no tech spec, to measure nice. But you can feel it.
When I first read this I thought it was bullshit. But now I understand what Gruber means. With the iPhone, Apple is building products at a level of quality that may be unprecedented in the history of mass manufacturing. But the only way to know what that means for you, a user of the phone, is to pick it up and feel it, because objectively it does not sound like a big deal. If I tell you the greatest thing about the iPhone 5 is how it “feels,” you’ll accuse me of being a superficial aesthete who cares more for form than function. You don’t care how a phone was built or how it looks; you just want it to work. But I think that argument misses something important about what it means for a phone to “work well”: When you’re holding a device all the time, how it feels affects its functionality. Or, as Steve Jobs might say, how it feels is how it works.
All top-of-the-line smartphones on the market today do pretty much the same things. Since they’ve all got similar specs—superfast LTE networking, great cameras, great displays, app stores that carry most of the apps people want—the only reason you would choose one over the other is personal taste. If you like a wider screen, you might go with the Samsung Galaxy SIII. If you like Windows’ more informative start screen, you’d go with something made by Nokia. The iPhone’s unique comparative advantage is build quality: If you want a phone that is a pleasure to hold, one that just looks and feels better, there’s no equal on the market. No other phone is even close.
And it’s not like you’re sacrificing anything by choosing the iPhone 5 for the way it looks and feels in your hand. In addition to being beautiful on the outside, it’s also great on the inside. It’s the fastest phone you can buy. Its camera is fantastic. It’s got more apps than you’ll ever need. Its display is unbeatable. And so on and so on—on “function” alone, the iPhone is no slouch. But where it really kills is form.
Now, one final thing. I know what you’re thinking: What about Apple Maps? Actually, that’s not right. If you’ve read this far and you’re skeptical of my argument that the iPhone 5 is amazing, you’re more likely wondering, WHAT ABOUT APPLE’S @##@%$! MAPS?
That’s a fair point. As has been amply documented, Apple’s new app is not good at all. But I don’t think this is a huge problem, even though I use Maps all the time. That’s because the flaw is temporary. Google is working on a new maps app for the iPhone, and when that’s released in a month or two, pretty much all of your mapping troubles will be solved. (“Pretty much” because Apple won’t allow third-party apps to register as default services on the phone, so when you click an address in another program, the phone will still open Apple’s rather than Google’s maps; that will be a hassle but not a fatal problem. I do wish Apple changes that policy, though.)
If you’re unwilling to take it on faith that the maps situation will be solved soon, I’d suggest waiting a couple months to see if the iPhone’s map problems get resolved. What I wouldn’t do is buy a competing phone, now, just because you don’t like Apple’s maps. Mapping is a software problem; it is almost certainly going to be fixed. But any other phone you get now will have hardware that’s inferior to the iPhone 5. And that flaw will be permanent.