Off the Beaten Track - playing with the iPhone 5S

In what is quite the unique review here at lgpOnTheMove, I now get to take an Apple iPhone 5S for a test drive. My opportunity to get a real hands-on with the smartphone was an unexpected turn of events, and only for a very brief time. Still, this was something that I had wanted to try out, and thanks to the genius of T-Mobile, I get to experience iOS and Apple's hardware design for the very first time.

This all a stark contrast to the HTC Touch Pro 2 I am still currently using as my main smartphone. The two handsets could not be more different in both hardware and software. Is it valid to make a comparison between the two? Can a top-end smartphone from 2009 still kick to the curb Apple's latest and greatest? Read on for my take.

PROS: Unique exterior, solid software, lag-free performance, carrier-unlocked, apps galore, fingerprint sensor, Siri, available accessories

CONS: Hefty price premium, non user-replaceable battery, minimalist keyboard, sub-par audio implementation, basic messaging functionality, inconsistent landscape screen support, capped data plans, limited Bluetooth services


Still impressive 5 years later
Launched in 2009 by HTC, the Touch Pro 2 was the successor to many similar Windows Mobile smartphones with sliding QWERTY keyboards. It was the smartphone of choice for professionals and enthusiasts, given the unmatched flexibility and functionality it offered compared to other handsets at the time.

I purchased my TP2 in the months just prior to it's discontinuation, with a slew of accessories to go with it. Chief among these were the wired remote control unit that allowed headphone use as well as a A/V output cable to connect with a TV for movie watching. Also included in my shopping cart was the desktop docking cradle with audio out, a car charger and a splitter for charging the TP2 with my Energizer XP8000 external battery when on the go. This really was the mobile road warrior's Swiss army knife.

Of course, Apple's iPhone took over the smartphone market and became the number one platform for mobile applications. Over the years, this has grown with Android, relegating Windows Mobile handsets to a position where the platform you choose (Windows Mobile, Android or iOS) will depend entirely on the apps you want to run on your smartphone.

This dilemma became apparent to me when attempting to enjoy Pandora on my TP2 - there is no official WM6.5 version of this app. Hacks exist, but their functionality is restricted, if at all they install and run properly.

A similar headache became obvious when I attempted to find backup software for my TP2 in recent weeks. These were in abundance back in the day, with desktop software available that allowed you to backup, view and manipulate the contents of your smartphone. One feature I particularly liked was the ability to archive text messages for reading later - vital for dealing with important information that I could sort by contact/date.

I did eventually find the backup software for my smartphone, but the desktop companion element was no longer being distributed. So while I could back up my TP2's entire contents to the microSD card, and save the backup file to my desktop, there was no way I could get into the file to view what was on my smartphone. Should I lose or damage my TP2, there would be no way for me to access my backed up phone numbers, messages, notes etc... without another TP2 to restore the backup to.


T-Mobile's Test Drive program is a 1 week deal where you get to use an Apple iPhone 5S on the carrier's network, no strings attached, and try out both device and service. This was an opportunity I simply could not pass up, so I jumped at the chance to get my hands on Apple's flagship smartphone and sample the carrier's LTE performance and footprint. Placing my order on a Wednesday afternoon, it arrived at my door by lunchtime Friday.

T-Mobile's timing for all of this is no coincidence either, handing out iPhone 5-esses literally weeks before a replacement handset from Apple arrives. It's certainly an ingenious way to clear excess inventory. I expect many users will no doubt be won over by their experience and keep their handset - a win/win for both T-Mobile and Apple.

The box you get sent
My particular iPhone 5S that I received was the 32GB Space Gray A1533 model, fully-unlocked, with a T-Mobile nanoSIM inside. In fact, I didn't have to call customer service, go online or even need to hook it up to a PC and mess with iTunes. The handset was set up and ready to go out of the box with the SIM already activated on T-Mobile's network with a working phone number. Now THAT'S how you hand someone a brand-new iPhone!

We've all read the reviews, played with the handsets in store, watched Sir Jony Ive give his spiel and seen the ifixit teardown, so there's no need for me to get into what makes the iPhone 5S what it is. But for someone who isn't familiar with the device at all and is using one for the first time, the first impression is highly positive. The device looks and feels very high-end, the UI runs very fluid, and the build quality of the mono-block machined aluminum body is first-class. It's only when you have it in your hand that you really begin to appreciate everything that Apple has put into it's design and software. While I won't say their price premium is warranted, I can see why this is the most expensive smartphone on the market.

My knowledge of iPhone accessories is minimal, and I've only barely skimmed the Apple store, but I do like what I see. In particular, I would get the desktop cradle with audio output, the HDMI adapter and a 12V car adapter. I also like the battery cases available since these serve double duty, protecting your smartphone and providing extra juice while on the go. And then of course you can go nuts with the selection of designer cases, arm bands, screen protectors, headphones, speaker docks etc... Every trip I take to CES reminds me that the iPhone is NEVER short on accessories.

All the apps I've either looked for or missed on my TP2 are available on iOS - that's a big deal when influencing my purchase decision. I'm also finding a lot of options that previously were only available in Windows Mobile. My long tenure with the Microsoft platform goes back to my first iPAQ experience in 2003, back when iOS and Android didn't even exist. As for backup software, I've found a desktop application that can extract the contents of iPhone backups made by iTunes. So far so good!

I'm also particularly impressed with the device's navigation capabilities. On a recent excursion to one of my favorite hangouts, I told Siri to "take me home". She correctly routed me around multiple known freeway on-ramp closures in the area and got me back on the route I needed. On another occasion, I was actually on the freeway driving while getting the address messaged to me by a friend who I was meeting. Cruising in the #1 lane, I simply tapped on the address, saw it appear on the map, and told Siri to "take me to this address". I arrived where I needed to be in time, and without getting lost.


Unfortunately, the voice and data buffet hit a snag very early on. T-Mobile's coverage in my location has been problematic for years (1-2 bars at best). I can never take a call on my TP2 because I simply cannot hear the other person due to their voice dropping out randomly during the conversation. I was hoping the iPhone 5S offered better reception but the culprit is not the handset, rather, it's the lack of a solid 5-bar signal where I live. I find it ironic being located smack bang in the middle of one of the biggest metropolises in the U.S. that I cannot make a phone call... in 2014.

Fast, yet capped
Mr. Legere - you have some work to do!

UPDATE: WiFi calling is featured in the latest iOS 8 beta 3 and supported by T-Mobile, which would solve the poor call quality issues noted above.

Speedtest showed paltry down/up speeds between 1.74/0.28Mbps and 4.48/0.05Mbps at my home location. Going outside my home to an area with proper coverage kicked those numbers up to 14.12/20.59Mbps - now that's the kind of LTE speed a guy like me can enjoy!

Taking full advantage of that wireless broadband speed is the iPhone 5S's mobile hotspot capability. I tried it out for a few hours each day with my netbook tethered over wifi and the experience was amazing. For years I've had to tote a separate mobile hotspot device along, but having this capability in my smartphone gives me one less gadget to carry and keep charged. In fact, I could easily fit the iPhone in my front shirt pocket, sit with my netbook in my lap, and get to work online oblivious of my surroundings - such is the lifestyle of the mobile road warrior.

But again, T-Mobile has thrown a spanner in the works. The data plan allocated for Test Drive phones is unlimited, but it caps mobile hotspot data at 3GB. 3GB is fine for that 1 week trial and is actually a good indicator to see if it covers your tethering needs, since that would translate to around 12GB/month. T-Mobile offers data plans that will give you unlimited smartphone data and 11GB of mobile hotspot data for $60/month, which is a reasonable deal. Alternatively, you can choose a combined pool of 21GB of smartphone and mobile hotspot data packaged for $100/month - handy if you tether daily. The downer with these options is that you will be forced to pay an extra $50/month for unlimited talk/text, whether you need it or not.

Since I don't need unlimited talk, my plan of choice would be a prepaid $30/month bundle with 100 minutes of talk and unlimited web and texts. Unfortunately, I learned that this specific plan doesn't include any mobile hotspot data.

If I could make a suggestion, it would be to tweak that $30 plan and add mobile hotspot functionality for 5 bucks more. A 5GB mobile hotspot data cap at that price would appeal to casual users.

I would also recommend T-Mobile add some less expensive post-paid talk/text options for "lite" users. There's absolutely no point whatsoever in me forking over $50/month when my current $8.33/month outlay luxuriously covers my talk/text needs. The carrier has a clear discrepancy when it comes to matching light talk/text plans with data.

T-Mobile tells us to "un-leash" the power of 4G LTE - that ain't gonna happen when T-Mobile is still differentiating smartphone data from mobile hotspot data, and not treating those bits and bytes the same.

Ultimately I think carriers should just offer more unrestricted data plans at an affordable price for those people who need it, and let them use that data however they want. A 50GB/month hard data cap would put the brakes on any abuse, yet give you plenty of headroom to stream video and other data-intensive tasks doable with a notebook. For even better control, speed-based pricing similar to home DSL/cable could also be a viable option.

I wish I could have kept the handset longer too. The seven days I had to play with it just wasn't enough time to try out all it's capabilities. I wasn't able to test the camera out at all, read any e-books, test the social media apps, and only on one occasion got to fire up FaceTime with a friend who happened to be free. As great an idea Test Drive is on T-Mobile's part, I would have accepted a $20 hit on my credit card to go for another week before returning it, for example.


Here's where the iPhone 5S's sparkle becomes a fizzle. While the device is amazingly exceptional in more than one specific area, it is also glaringly deficient in a notable number of ways. It's as if Apple's designers took the best elements of what make a smartphone stand out, threw them at a wall to see what sticks, and only implemented half of them.

Touch Pro 2 (left) vs. iPhone 5S (right)
A key example is the onscreen keyboard. While you can punch out messages surprisingly easily, it still lacks editing capability because the layout is missing the up/down/left/right cursor key arrangement. That makes composing longer messages a huge PITA, since you must land your finger between characters to place your cursor - an exercise in futility. More often than not, I'm having to delete an entire word or section and retype a bunch of letters. How Apple's designers missed this glaring omission is beyond me, because it also makes using the Notes app and Pages to write something beyond a few sentences just as difficult. A glimmer of hope may be iOS 8, which should allow for (better) third-party software keyboards.

Nothing beats a great keyboard slider
Keeping with the keyboard issues, I'm seriously questioning why Apple have yet to implement a sliding QWERTY hardware keyboard design akin to the HTC TP2. You get a spacious and ergonomic 5-row backlit layout, offering more keys, and won't cover up half the screen you're working on. Why should I have to resort to something like the Boxwave keyboard buddy case or a cheaply-made Bluetooth alternative? Why can't Apple produce a keyboard case accessory using their quality engineering and R&D? Enthusiasts and serious users crave such capability and functionality. An "iPhone Pro" with a sliding hardware keyboard would not only sell in droves, but convert many users like myself who have avoided Apple's handsets for this one reason. One size DOES NOT fit all.

h6315 iPAQ + clip-on keyboard
Should Apple want to maintain their signature monolithic design, an alternative hardware keyboard option would be a bottom-mounted clip-on accessory that directly connects through the Lightning connector. I had such a keyboard on my old H6315 iPAQ, and while not as ergonomic as the landscape slider, it did aid in punching out messages without the on-screen keyboard cannibalizing half the display. Such a solution would require only minimal redesign, if any, to the iPhone, and not affect compatibility with cases and charging docks. It would also negate the issues with many existing cheap Bluetooth keyboards - namely random disconnections and remembering to keep charged your keyboard battery - since it would physically connect to and get power from the handset.

Further compounding the issues with messaging is the lack of folders for organization. Messages are grouped only by contacts (no inbox/sent items), with a timeline view showing sent and received blocks much like an IM session. One of the things I like about the TP2 is that I can compose a message and save it as a draft to send later at a more opportune time, for example. That's not doable on the iPhone, meaning if you get interrupted while writing, you either have to cancel what you've written, putting time aside to compose your message again later or break your thought process by sending separate messages.

It's interesting to note as well that while many iPhone apps support landscape mode, the home screen itself only works in portrait mode. That's definitely not something you see on Windows and Android smartphones, and I don't quite understand the reason behind this limitation of iOS. Siri is another victim, and depending on your situation, may hamper your ability to view her "answers".

Customizable 10-band EQ
As an audiophile, my choice behind the TP2 was easy given the built-in audio EQ available in the HTC audio booster software. Unfortunately, Apple's alternative merely gives you presets to choose from, with no detailed sound-shaping functionality whatsoever. The iPhone 5S just doesn't "sound" like a high-end audio device, and that's a big letdown for me. Looking at the poor choice of 3rd party EQ solutions in the app store, I am saddened by Apple's ignorance towards audiophiles who demand a customizable EQ to get the most out of their high-end cans... and their high bit-rate music collection. Going further, it would be nice to see a real-time spectrum analyzer option in place of album art on the now playing screen. Gain control for various-impedance headphones would also do much to improve sound.

A wired remote with 3.5mm headphone jack
Very similar to my TP2, however, is the connector used to transmit audio. HTC uses an ExtUSB connector with the additional pins feeding the audio signal. Combined with the wired remote control, this lets me plug in any 3.5mm headphone and still retain call answer/end and volume controls. Apple would be smart to create a similar wired remote control accessory for their Lightning connector, retaining the control buttons and moving that 3.5mm connector off the handset and onto this accessory. Alternatively, with Apple's recent acquisition of Beats, a more modern wireless approach with control/volume buttons on the backs of the cans themselves could also be implemented, eliminating the cord completely. Such headphones, however, would probably not come cheap, and require frequent charging.

Does the battery life disappoint me? It's definitely possible to drain the iPhone 5S's unspectacular 1560mAh power source in under 6 hours when pushed, but it's a necessary trade-off when you look at how thin and pocketable the smartphone is. My TP2 is more than twice as thick, weighs about the same, yet I would never put it where I can stash the 5S, namely a back pants pocket or front shirt pocket. A sliding hardware keyboard design would open up the battery options for longer run times, even if that meant a slightly thicker/heavier "iPhone Pro". You can also plug in an external battery like my Energizer XP8000 and charge on-the-go.

Then again, one of the great benefits of user-removable batteries is the ability to also use extended capacity batteries. I recently replaced my original RHOD160 1500mAh battery with a Mugen Power 1800mAh cell - that's 20% longer run time in the same size package. Had I needed even more juice per charge, I could have picked up a 3000mAh or 4500mAh battery and a replacement back cover to accommodate the larger size. A 4500mAh battery in the iPhone 5S, if we go by Apple's numbers, would translate into a whopping 30 hours of talk time, 120 hours of audio playback and ONE MONTH of standby time, with an additional thickness no more than 5mm (12.6mm total). For many iPhone die-hards, that would be a killer handset, and may be as simple as Apple merely retooling the iPhone's back cover. Existing users could bring their phones in to an Apple store where repair personnel would perform the "swap".

Under $1/GB
And then you have the issue of storage. For many serious users, the lack of a microSDXC card slot is a major deal-breaker. Apple's $100 premium for every bump up in storage tier from 16/32/64GB flies in the face of flash storage prices. On the one hand, it makes sense when you look at how Apple lets you to move files to/from the device, controlling the process through iTunes for an optimal experience - I'm cool with that. But the flip side for end-users is that folks cannot expand storage on a smartphone that is already nearing it's capacity! Sure, you could use iCloud storage, but that tops out at 55GB and costs $100 per year to maintain - limited AND expensive.

One possible way to approach the storage issue would be to devise a method similar to how the nanoSIM is implemented. Use standard microSDXC SKU's but design a card tray with a locking pin to prevent unintended removal. By partitioning/formatting the card using iOS security encryption specific to the handset, removing the card would make it unreadable on a PC or other iPhone. So down the road, if that 16 or 32GB on-board storage is getting cramped, you could pop in a 64GB card and "merge" capacity. Or you could buy a potential 128GB iPhone and add another 128GB of flash memory for a whopping 256GB handset.

Your own personal media server
If you are like me, though, you will have already figured out the magic 3 letter word - NAS. Using the Buffalo WebAccess iOS app, I can save all the photos and video I record with my iPhone directly to my own personal cloud storage, and view them along with my entire HD movie and music collection... and bypass the need to sync with iTunes. For as little as $125, you could set up a compact single-drive NAS box with a very generous 2TB of capacity, all accessible from your iPhone. The money saved from paying for an iCloud subscription (and along with a higher-capacity 32 or 64GB iPhone) over just a short three years could amount to several hundreds of dollars - your NAS would pay for itself multiple times over.

Bluetooth is supported on the handset, but you cannot use it to zap files directly to a BT-enabled PC (AirDrop won't even do that with OS X). So transferring photos, for example, still requires either the use of iTunes (and a USB cable if away from home wifi) or an app that allows uploading to a common location that you can access with your PC. I have the blogger app installed, so I was able to directly insert the above Speedtest screen grab taken with my iPhone into this article, and immediately tweak it on my netbook for final use.

To summarize it all, Apple more than likely has the engineering prowess to create a fusion of HTC's Touch Pro 2 and the iPhone 5S, it's just a matter of them picking what smartphone elements THEY WANT users to have. And that's the sad part of the Apple story, since consumer demand and innovations by Apple's competitors is not something the engineers at Cupertino have ever responded to, save for when it tarnished the company's image. As handicapped as the iPhone 5S is, it's the handset that is "forced" to rule the smartphone market.

Of course, there's also that dark horse we haven't mentioned yet that goes by the rumored name iPhone 6. What improvements Apple has made to the iPhone 5S design may be worth the wait. I know for a fact that a larger screen, combined with Siri, would turn the iPhone into an awesome voice-activated in-car navigation device, but again, iOS needs more consistent landscape screen support. 


In my very brief and condensed experience in using the iPhone 5S, I have come away with mixed feelings. On one hand, I am blown away by it's physical design and fluid UI, it just looks and feels so high end. The sour taste in the mouth begins when you notice the software flaws like the absence of a proper audio EQ, limited messaging functionality and the lack of cursor control on the on-screen keyboard. The kick in the balls happens when you begin to experience battery issues requiring a trip to the Apple store for an expensive replacement, a cracked/damaged screen, or an even more expensive upgrade to a higher capacity model or iCloud subscription when your storage is full.

Let's not even talk about the $850 dent on your credit card for a 64GB unlocked model, or the $150/month you could be spending on a premium voice/data plan to get the most out of the device.

I do have to give major kudos to T-Mobile for their Test Drive initiative. It's great for anybody to be able to take not just the latest and greatest smartphone hardware to try, but experience the carrier's network speeds and coverage without the hassles of running a credit check, purchasing, returning, requesting a refund and making sure service is indeed cancelled. It's something other carriers would be wise to take notice of and also implement. Now if they could do this with some other smartphone models...

If push came to shove, and my TP2 were to stop working right about now, I would have no choice but to cave in and get one (iPhone 6 rumors aside). It IS the dominating mobile platform where every major smartphone app reigns, and because using an iPhone with other iPhone users gives you perks like FaceTime and free messaging. Given that there is no competing device that can match what the iPhone 5S can do, it would be wrong of me not to give it a recommendation, despite it's obvious flaws and numerous shortcomings.



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