NEW YORK — If you run your finger over one of the joints where plastic and metal meet on the rim of the iPhone 5, you feel just the slightest hint of the seam. The materials have been machined to blend into one another with astonishing, jewel-like precision.
This is the essence of Apple: creating a product that looks and feels so good, you just know it has to be good.
The iPhone 5 lives up to its looks in the sense that it's the best iPhone yet. It's also the biggest overhaul to the line since the release of the 3G, four years ago. Compared to other high-end smartphones, however, it's more of a catch-up move.
The iPhone has a winning recipe already, and Apple's upgrades are careful and thoughtful. Beyond the beauty and thinness of it, there are no new hardware features you can't get with other phones.
For instance, the screen is bigger, but not big. It's the first time Apple is increasing the screen size of the phone, from a diagonal of 3.5 inches to one of 4 inches. The width has stayed the same, so the entire increase has come from making the screen taller.
Other smartphone makers have increased their screen sizes in the last few years, after realizing that a big screen is something customers like — and something Apple had refused to provide. Samsung's flagship Galaxy S III has a 4.8-inch screen, for instance.
The taller screen means that third-party apps will be hemmed in by black bars until the developers get around to updating them for the new dimensions.
The other major upgrade in the iPhone 5 is that it now comes with the ability to connect to LTE networks in the United States, Canada, and a few other countries. These are the latest, fastest data networks, and they'll make a huge difference, at least for Sprint and Verizon customers, who have been stuck on the relatively slow, older networks of those carriers (though Sprint customers will be hard pressed to find any LTE towers — the company has just started building out the network). For AT&T customers, the difference will be noticeable but not as big.
When it comes to LTE, Apple is trailing the pack. The company skipped the first generation of LTE-capable chips, which went into competing phones as far back as a year and a half ago, because they were too power-hungry. Now that the chips have improved and LTE is a near-standard feature in smartphones, Apple is coming on board.
Apple is pushing the envelope on screen technology by adopting a display that eliminates one glass layer. Ahead of Apple's announcement, company watchers were betting it would use the space freed up by the new technology to increase the battery size for the benefit of LTE users, keeping the size of the phone the same.
But Apple has actually made the phone considerably thinner, while keeping the stated battery life at an impressive eight hours of LTE usage.
This, along with obsessive attention to fit and finish, makes for an exquisitely tight, light phone that seems perfect for the hand. The iPhone 4S suddenly looks chunky in a Stalinist way, and the Galaxy S III looks cheap and plasticky.
One victim of the slimmed-down body is the old connection port. It was just too big to survive. Apple has replaced it with a much smaller port it calls "Lightning." This means the iPhone 5 won't fit into your iPod dock. Old charging cables won't work, either. You'll have to buy an exquisitely overpriced $29 adapter from Apple or wait for knock-offs.