Edward C. Baig, USA TODAY
NEW YORK - It's perfectly reasonable to assume that anyone thinking about buying a new iPhone when the latest devices hit retail on Friday would fixate on the hardware itself, especially with Apple trotting out two new models.
Apple is unleashing colorful handsets called the iPhone 5c, priced at $99 to start with a contract. And a brand new $199-on-up flagship phone, the iPhone 5s, brings with it beefy 64-bit computing power, a souped-up camera and the feature most people are pointing to, the Touch ID fingerprint reader.
But the biggest change to come to the iPhone arrives with iOS 7, the operating system at the heart of the newest handsets. As of Wednesday, it can also be downloaded to freshen up the iPhone 4, iPhone 4S and the now discontinued iPhone 5 as well as some iPads and the iPod Touch.
Taken in totality, the features new to the iPhone 5s make what I consider to be the best smartphone on the market even better, helped enormously by Apple owning the entire end-to-end experience. In my view, iOS is still simpler to use than Android, and made even simpler in iOS 7. Apple releases the new operating system for all of its phones at one time, while Android updates come to devices in a more scattered fashion. And Apple still claims the most apps.
That said, I highly regard many of Apple's Android and Windows Phone rivals. Nor am I blind to what Apple didn't do and the fact that the company is playing catch-up with some features.
It would have been nice, for example, for Apple to include stereo speakers like those found on the latest HTC One rather than the mono speakers in the newest devices. The truth is, folks mostly listen through headphones or external speakers anyway.
I'm a little more disappointed that Apple stubbornly stuck to a 4-inch Retina display when many Android competitors offer 5-inch displays or larger. Sure, there are trade-offs with larger screens, but since Apple has already bolstered consumer choice with two new iPhones, would a third model have been that much of a stretch?
Of that second new model, the iPhone 5c may have a cheap price, relatively speaking, but there is nothing cheap about the phone. Plastic be damned - the phone feels good in the hand. Apple says it is built around a steel frame that doubles as an antenna. And, yes, the color designs - my test unit is blue - look cool, too, complemented by matching wallpaper.
Apple didn't cheap out on the inside, either, though the technological improvements in the 5c are fairly modest - better high-definition FaceTime camera, bigger battery, more LTE wireless options.
The iPhone 5c is a little heavier than the sub-4-ounce 5s and doesn't claim the premium pedigree of its pricier metallic sibling, which comes in gold, silver or space gray. To me, the 5s is the iPhone to have (if you've got room in your budget), even though I consider the additions to the hardware to be more evolutionary than revolutionary. But that doesn't mean you won't appreciate them.
Here's a closer look at new features on the iPhone 5c, 5s and iOS 7.
• Photography. While the 8-megapixel camera in the 5c is very good, the shooter in the 5s is the one to brag about. It, too, is an 8-megapixel camera, but the pixels are larger, among other improved optics, resulting in excellent pictures.
Of course, there's vibrant competition among camera phones nowadays, and companies such as Samsung, HTC and Nokia, among others, can already claim "been there, done that" with features Apple is just getting around to.
One fancy feature in the 5s is a burst mode that lets you snap up to 10 pictures a second and up to 999 in a single burst, terrific for shooting action. You can keep each snap if you want, but the iPhone helps you prune the selection by suggesting the best photos. But other devices, including Samsung's Galaxy S4, also let you take a burst of shots on the quick.
Another feature in the 5s, auto image stabilization, can help a jittery photographer compensate for the shakes, by combining into one the best of four images. It works in video, too.
You can also shoot slow-motion videos in the 5s and determine which part of the video to play back in slow-mo - this, too, we've seen in other phones.
One thing not seen elsewhere is the True Tone flash system in the 5s. It is based on two flashes working in tandem to automatically determine the intensity and best combination of flashes. I got generally lovely results taking flash photos, though I noticed it sometimes took an extra second or so before the camera actually took a picture.
• Touch ID. The vaunted fingerprint reader built into the home button on the 5s isn't merely a clever gimmick but something that's actually useful for unlocking your device. I was able to unlock the phone with the thumb on my right hand while holding an umbrella in the rain with my left. Before, I had to fumble with a passcode. Moreover, it's now more convenient to buy stuff in iTunes and the App Store using fingerprint authentication.
You do have to train Touch ID by gently pressing and releasing the Home button multiple times, but it won't take long. Apple lets you authenticate up to five fingers (you or a person you share the phone with), and you can always type in a passcode if the phone fails to recognize your paw three times in a row.
Apple hasn't opened up Touch ID yet to outside app developers, something I'd like to see happen sooner than later. The company has also delayed release of a feature called iCloud Keychain that would let you store all your Web passwords in the cloud. So in the future you might be able to use your fingerprint to get past all your Web passwords, making Touch ID potentially more powerful.
• Faster processing. Apple claims the A7 chip in the 5s is twice as fast as the A6 in the iPhone 5 and the 5c, with a new M7 motion co-processor sharing the load. The M7 can tell when you've parked your car and resumed traveling by foot, automatically switching the Maps app from turn-by-turn navigation to driving directions.
Consumers may not see much immediate benefit out of the 64-bit processing power in the 5s, the first mainstream smartphone to achieve that computing milestone. But the phone is faster, and you'll likely see improvements playing certain games, or when you're processing images. Developers are drooling over 64-bit. No less a tech authority than Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey told USA TODAY, "It's such a big deal that it's easy to forget. There's this whole huge shift in the personal computer industry from 32 to 64, and it's amazing that within just 10 years we're doing the same with the phone."
• What about the apps? There are more than 900,000 iOS apps. And while apps are designed to be backward compatible with prior versions of the operating system, it's possible you may encounter a bug here or there during the transition to iOS 7, though I haven't encountered any major issues. It also may take awhile for developers to fully exploit the translucent and motion effects inherent in iOS 7.
• Battery. I didn't conduct formal battery tests on either new phone, but Apple claims you'll do about the same or even better in some cases compared with the iPhone 5. Both devices made it through an entire day of mixed use.
• Adjusting to iOS 7. For all the chatter about what Apple has or hasn't included in its latest phones, the most radical alterations arrive with iOS 7. Fonts have been redrawn (not to everyone's liking, I'm sure). Apple scrapped the "skeuomorphic" design long associated with iOS in favor of a more modern translucent experience. I think most people will come to embrace it. For example, the Notes app used to resemble a lined yellow notepad. Now, there's a much cleaner off-white screen.
Among my quibbles: A dedicated ".com" key on the Safari keyboard that had been on prior versions of iOS 7 is no longer visible, that is until you press and hold down the "period" key. Fortunately you don't actually have to type ".com" as frequently these days to land on a Web page.
But the positives by far out-duel the negatives, starting with aesthetics. The built-in weather app doesn't merely tell you what it's doing outside, but it shows you - you see animated clouds, raindrops or reflections from the sun.
The multitasking feature for switching between running apps is greatly improved. You can now summon Spotlight search by swiping down from any home screen.
The friendlier Notification Center at your beck and call is useful, too; its now available on the lock screen.
Control Center is arguably the handiest new feature. It appears on any screen when you swipe up from the bottom of the device. It gives you fast access to brightness controls, wireless networking settings and utility apps such as the calculator and flashlight. You can also turn on AirDrop, a feature new to iOS that lets you wirelessly share photos, pictures, contacts and other files with people close-by who have iOS 7-capable devices.
The edge-to-edge design of iOS 7 means you can see more of a Web page on the screen. And Apple combined what had been separate fields for the Web address and Search in Safari into one field, matching browsers on PCs and Macs.
Apple's chatty personal assistant, Siri, no longer has to be a she. And she/he does a better job of displaying search results. Siri can also return calls, or turn on Apple's new iTunes Radio. ITunes Radio isn't necessarily better than Pandora or a host of other music services, but just having it in iTunes, a place so many music fans store their libraries, would seem to give Apple a major advantage.
I can strongly recommend either new iPhone but especially the 5s. But with iOS 7 dressing up your current device, you may not have to upgrade right away.
@edbaig on Twitter. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Disclaimer: Baig is the co-author of iPhone For Dummies, an independent work published by Wiley.