The new iPhone 5 is remarkably light, with a gorgeous display and blazing speed. Those are the first things I noticed in the order I noticed them when I pulled my new iPhone out of its box. The lasting impression is equally positive; the iPhone 5 is not 100% good stuff, but it is a fantastic smartphone overall, and there is little about it to complain about.

The real question is whether, if you are looking for a smartphone, this is the one to get.

I’ll talk about the iPhone 5’s new features, discuss the things that distinguish it from the competition, and try to answer that question.

Price and features

Like the previous iPhone, the 5 starts at $199 on AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon with a 2-year contract. That’s a pretty compelling price for what I think is inarguably the best smartphone on the market. Of course, you won’t find too many smartphones for more than that, these days. Keep in mind, though, that a monthly smartphone plan will run you about $100 per month on any of those carriers, for any smartphone. It’s the monthly fees that will get you, after all, not the up-front cost of the phone.

Hardware and design

Fit and finish

Several reviewers have gone ga-ga over the iPhone 5’s fit and finish. The manufacturing process apparently involves a lot of lasers and cameras and super-micro tolerances. So what does that mean? The iPhone 5 is very well put-together, especially considering it is constructed of aluminum and glass that have to be fit together as seamlessly as possible. And in Apple’s world, as seamlessly as possible means just plain seamlessly as often as not.

But that doesn’t mean you will get a perfect phone. The aluminum and glass on the back of my iPhone 5 aren’t lined up perfectly, and the sleep/wake button wiggles a bit, with a noticeable gap between the button and the casing. So yeah, it’s not perfect, strictly speaking.

On the other hand, it blows away the fit and finish on my trusty Nexus One, which I thought was amazingly well-built when I opened the box, and has held up extremely well over time. And it’s just noticeably better than my wife’s iPhone 4, which looked flawless to my eyes just days ago.

Size, weight, and display

What you are far more likely to notice the first time you pick up an iPhone 5, though, is the weight. It is astonishingly, unexpectedly light — but still solid-feeling. As most phones are getting bigger and heavier, the iPhone 5’s weight loss is welcome, as is its slightly taller screen.

Let me just put this out there: I hate the trend towards bigger phone screens. Adding an inch or so of diagonal size to a phone’s display makes very little difference to the amount of information you can fit on the screen (especially since most apps don’t actually put any more information on bigger screens), but results in a big, heavy object you have to carry around. And, of course, you can’t easily operate a big hunk of screen with one hand.

Nobody but Apple seems to understand this; everyone else is slapping ridiculously-large screens onto their high-end phones, which is one of the reasons I just bought an iPhone. Big screens on phones are stupid. The iPhone 4/4S — and my Nexus One, for that matter — were the perfect size in my book. The iPhone needed a bigger screen about as much as it needed a VGA port.

The comparison to the Nexus One is not completely inappropriate, by the way. At the time, it was also the cutting edge. And the iPhone 5 is, astonishingly, about the same size.

That said, I like the extra size of the display on the iPhone 5 just fine. First, because the phone itself didn’t get much bigger. But the extra pixels are nice when you are looking at documents or lists, even if none of the apps I use take advantage of the extra space to do anything useful. Apart from the size, the new screen is simply gorgeous. With the Retina pixel density and less between your finger and the pixels, plus all kind of little boosts in color and quality, this is the best smartphone display available anywhere.

Cameras, EarPods, and other stuff

One of the things I was looking forward to the most was the camera. iPhones have great cameras as a rule, and this one is no exception. I use my camera all the time, for snapping pictures of receipts, business cards, court records, and when I used to do construction defect litigation, for site inspections. A good camera is a powerful tool for a lawyer, and it helps to have a good one with you at all times. This one is more than just good; unless you really need high-quality pictures, you won’t need anything but your iPhone 5.

The front camera is now in HD, which is nice for Skype and for self portraits, if you are into those sorts of things. The new EarPods headphones are a nice improvement over the previous earbuds. Sound is great all around, in fact — I had no trouble drowning out the airplane drone on a recent trip to North Carolina. And the new Lightning connector is nice, but it means your old docks and accessories are mostly useless. Sorry.

LTE

Okay, there is one other thing worth mentioning on the hardware side: LTE. The iPhone 5 now supports LTE, the newest and fastest wireless data protocol. It feels as fast or faster than the wi-fi in my home and office. I went with Verizon, and I’m honestly amazed at the speed of everything. This may be the iPhone 5’s real killer feature (yes, I realize other phones use LTE). Just be sure to check coverage in your area before choosing a carrier. AT&T’s LTE coverage is pretty weak, compared to Verizon’s.

So, to sum up the hardware: light, just the right size, gorgeous display, awesome camera, and blazing speed.

Software

iOS 6

While iOS has been bumped to version 6, not much has changed. Maps is worse, although I’m sure it will improve quickly. Passbook is a new place to store loyalty cards, boarding passes, and store cards, only it isn’t very useful, yet. There are small but welcome upgrades to things like the notifications panel that aren’t very exciting, either.

In other words, iOS remains a very good operating system for a smartphone, but the upgrades won’t blow you away.

And as an operating system, iOS just isn’t head-and-shoulders above Android anymore. It is more polished, sure, but also less flexible, and that creates tradeoffs. Android’s keyboard, for example, is okay out of the box, but you can upgrade it to SwiftKey and make it kick butt. Unfortunately, SwiftKey isn’t even available for iOS because Apple doesn’t want you to be able to pick your own keyboard.

You can’t change the default email client, calendar, or browser in iOS, either, which is annoying if you prefer Chrome to Safari, or Gmail to the build-in mail app. Or, if you want to share something somewhere besides Facebook or Twitter from an app that doesn’t support it. (I really want to share pages from Safari to Pocket, for example, but the only way to do that is by email, a clumsy workaround.)

Apps and ecosystem

While I don’t love everything about iOS, the App Store remains the standard by which mobile ecosystems are judged. Most apps land there first, and many never even get to Android or the Windows Phone app store. Even those that are cross-platform are often better-designed and more feature-full on iOS. There are notable exceptions to this, however. Evernote, Google Maps, and Google Voice are just a few examples of apps that are better on Android. Apps that require sharing to function, like Pocket and Buffer, are more convenient to use on Android, too.

The choice between platforms is generally a non-issue where app selection is concerned, but a few will choose based on an app or two that can only be found on one platform or the other. For lawyers, though, the App Store is the best bet. Rocket Matter, MyCase, and Total Attorneys have great iOS apps, and none for Android. Fastcase has a research app for iOS. And there are dozens of other legal apps on iOS, none of which are available on Android.

If you want options, you are probably better off using an iPhone.

Performance

Coming from a 2 1/2-year-old 3G smartphone, I am predictably blown away by the speed of the iPhone 5 on LTE. But it is not just me. The iPhone 5 is nearly twice as fast as the iPhone 4S. Stats aside, I am quite satisfied. This thing jumps from one task to the next as quickly as I could wish, and rarely even hints at lag or stuttering.

Perhaps more importantly, the iPhone 5 just screams on LTE. Where I used to always think twice before pulling up a website on 3G, I no longer worry about it. My phone no feels faster than my laptop with a solid wi-fi connection. I’m not exaggerating, either. LTE transforms a phone from a stunted portal to the Internet to the first thing you are likely to reach for when you need to look up contact information for a courthouse, hotel, or another lawyer (or just browse the Lawyerist LAB). And I mean that. In the days since I got my phone, my laptop has been all but ignored.

Who should buy an iPhone 5?

If you have an iPhone 4 or earlier, it’s a good time to upgrade. You are missing out on the Retina display, the larger screen, and LTE, plus all the other goodies, from speech recognition and Siri to a seriously good camera.

If you are using an older (~2 years or more) phone of any kind, I feel the same way. this is the best smartphone for sale, and $200 is a pretty reasonable price.

If you have a late-model Android handset, though, I don’t see a compelling reason to switch. Android (assuming you are using Ice Cream Sandwich or better) is very good, and if you are happy with it, you might as well stay put.

But if you are using a Blackberry, switch now. That rusty ship is sinking. Don’t ask questions; just do it.

If you are still using a regular old cell phone (or don’t have a mobile phone at all), and you are wondering if your law practice is suffering because you aren’t up to date, don’t worry about it. You would probably enjoy owning an iPhone despite your stubborn refusal to get one, but you probably aren’t losing money or clients without one.

Summary

iPhone 5

Reviewed by Sam Glover on .

Summary: The iPhone 5 is a fantastic phone, for lawyers or anyone else. It’s definitely worth the upgrade, at least for anyone with an iPhone 4 or earlier.

Breakdown:

  • Price and features: 5
  • Hardware and design: 5
  • Included software: 4
  • Performance: 5

Overall score: 4.75 (out of 5)