Oh dear...


— 3:09 PM on November 8, 2012

Well, I've done it now. Like a mistreated spouse returning to his abuser, I've crawled back into Apple's aluminum, glass, and white polycarbonate arms—I've gone and bought an iPhone 5.

That would be a completely unremarkable purchase if I hadn't updated this very blog a month ago with a long tirade about Apple's failings. At the time, I was sick of Apple Maps, sick of Android users getting cool features I didn't have, and unimpressed with what I'd read about the iPhone 5. After considering my options carefully, I became determined to grab whatever Nexus phone Google cranked out next.

What the heck happened, then?

Funnily enough, the biggest factor was actually walking into an Apple Store and trying an iPhone 5. Within less than a minute, I realized Apple has done a pretty poor job of advertising this thing. Yes, the iPhone 5 has a larger screen. Yes, it's got LTE connectivity, a slightly thinner design, and new earbuds, too. But what makes the iPhone 5 amazing is how frickin' fast it feels. Web pages and apps load in the blink of an eye. Multitasking is almost seamless. Every corner of the user interface responds instantly with silky-smooth transitions. It's really a sight to behold, especially for someone upgrading from a two-year-old phone—as most prospective iPhone 5 buyers probably are.

I played with some Android phones immediately afterward, but none of them gave me that same sense of flawless fluidity. Not even the Galaxy S3 felt quite as quick. It didn't help that the TouchWiz user interface looked as ugly and messy as ever. Even my girlfriend, who's been using a beat-up HTC Desire with Android 2.2 for the past couple of years, commented on how uninspired the Galaxy S3's software looked. (This was with Ice Cream Sandwich, by the way. Jelly Bean still isn't out officially on the S3 here.)

I went home perplexed, thinking the upcoming Nexus 4 would perhaps be better. As more and more details leaked out, though, it became clear that this wouldn't be a premium phone like the iPhone 5 or Galaxy S3. With a $329 contract-free asking price, no LTE support, and just 8GB of storage on the base model, the Nexus 4 has turned out to be more of a lower-cost, no-frills alternative to the Apple and Samsung flagships. That's fine, of course. Good on Google for offering a reasonably priced, contract-free smartphone that doesn't suck. To someone both able and willing to spring for the iPhone 5, though, the Nexus 4 doesn't look like a very credible alternative.

I mean, just look at AnandTech's performance preview. The Nexus 4 trails the iPhone 5 by a wide margin in most graphics and web browsing performance tests, and its battery life is markedly worse. This is no iPhone 5 killer.

So, it came down to the iPhone 5 and the Galaxy S3. In one corner, I had the fastest and most finely crafted smartphone on the market—an exquisitely designed piece of technology so thin and light it almost felt like a plastic prop. In the other corner, I had ugly software and an even uglier PenTile display wrapped inside a bigger, heavier phone made out of actual plastic. Choosing option B would entail a trip through the time-consuming world of custom ROMs, and I'd be stuck with PenTile's fuzzy-looking fonts, too.

I chose option A.

The honeymoon lasted about 24 hours. All of a sudden, I realized the phone had a dark, yellow smear at the top of the screen. The smear was particularly noticeable in the Kindle app, which shines a light on display uniformity issues by hiding UI elements, including the status bar.I Googled around and found forum posts advising me to wait a few days, because apparently, the yellow patch was a dab of glue that hadn't fully cured yet. I waited. The yellow smear stayed.

After nearly a full week, I took my phone to the Apple Store. I set up an appointment at the Genius Bar, waited about 30 minutes, and was finally greeted by a long-haired technician wearing a pair of those weird Vibram toe-shoes. (You know the ones.) I described the problem, but under the store's bright fluorescent lights, it was barely noticeable. Worse, I'd noticed that other iPhone 5s on display also had a slight yellow haze at the top of their screens. Some humming and hawwing ensued, and then the technician told me, "Yeah, to be honest, I don't really see it."

Then he offered to replace the phone anyway.

I asked if I could compare the replacement to my phone. "Sure, no problem," he said. The replacement wouldn't start up fully without a SIM card, so he went and fetched a spare SIM from the back and gave me free rein to load up white screens and compare the phones side by side. Ultimately, we agreed there wasn't much of a difference. But the replacement looked slightly better, so I asked if I could keep it. "Sure," said the Apple Genius with the weird toe-shoes. While he was filing the paperwork, I asked if the replacement was a refurb. "Nope, it's a brand-new phone," he said. "We don't actually have refurbs yet."

A few minutes later, I walked out of the Apple Store with a new iPhone 5 fresh from the factory—and the realization that Apple has some of the finest after-sales support on the planet.

Sadly, my adventure didn't end there. The replacement iPhone 5 turned out to have slightly wonky color calibration. Grays were reddish, some hues were oversaturated, and contrast seemed lacking compared to my previous iPhone 5. I hadn't noticed any of those things in the store, but they started to bother me over the next few days. I was even more miffed when I realized the headphone jack was mounted at a slight angle. Eventually, riddled with shame at my pickiness (and maybe some amount of undiagnosed OCD, too), I visited another Apple Store and asked if I could get the phone swapped out again.

The technician who greeted me this time wasn't wearing weird toe-shoes, but he was just as accommodating. He told me the display was within spec, but the slightly slanted headphone jack was "good enough for him" to justify an exchange. Again, a brand-new iPhone 5 fresh from the factory was fetched from behind the counter. Again, I asked to compare my faulty phone to the replacement, and again, the technician obliged.

The replacement I received is utterly perfect. The screen has a beautiful, warm color temperature, which is only slightly cooler than that of my desktop monitors (and TR North's iPad 3). Grays look gray, blacks look black, the backlight doesn't leak, and at maximum brightness, images are shockingly clear and vivid. Next to it, my iPhone 4's screen looks like an old 1980s TV—all murky, washed-out, and bluish. My new iPhone 5 is so perfect, in fact, that I'm now terrified of dropping it and breaking it

I wouldn't have to cry myself to sleep if that ever happened, though. I ponied up $99 for AppleCare, which now includes a provision allowing for up to two instances of accidental, user-inflicted damage. Over the next couple of years, I can break my phone twice and, each time, get a replacement for only $49.

I went back to play with the Galaxy S3 earlier this week. After obsessing over the iPhone 5's color calibration and display imperfections for days on end, I noticed not without amusement that both S3s on display had wildly miscalibrated screens, with pale-green whites and overblown colors. Also, up close, the side-effects of the PenTile subpixel layout were just as obvious and ugly as I remembered. Text looked noticeably fuzzy compared to the iPhone 5's beautiful IPS panel.

I'm still not totally happy with where iOS is at the moment. The Maps app remains imperfect. Although I've finally found a great public transit app ("Transit"), I wish bus and train directions were built-in again. The Mail app is still missing some features, like full conversation view and Priority Inbox, and the new App Store interface feels clunky. That said, after spending some time with recent Android phones, I get the sense that iOS still offers a cleaner, smoother experience overall. I also feel like Apple offers a level of polish the competition lacks, and using another platform would leave me with more grievances—not fewer.

It's no contest on the hardware side, though. The iPhone 5 actually feels too light, but the construction is anything but cheap. While I was still getting used to the weight, the phoned slipped out of my hand, bounced on my desk, and landed on my carpet. The phone was unscathed, but the anodized aluminum band left a noticeable gash in my desk. This thing is built out of metal and glass, and there's no mistaking that fact when you run your fingers along its ridges, buttons, and panels. Also, like most other Apple products I've owned, the iPhone 5 is so beautifully made that I sometimes pick it up just to admire it.

Finally, Apple's support staff has displayed a tremendous level of care and attention to user satisfaction. Being able to walk in with a minor, almost frivolous issue and come out less than an hour later with a brand new phone is pretty incredible. Maybe Apple Geniuses are simply compensating for quality control issues—and certainly, getting a perfect iPhone 5 the first time around would have been great. However, other phone makers also ship lemons. Would any of them exchange a product on the spot because of a minor cosmetic flaw or a problem their technicians can't replicate? I doubt it.

One last thing. After getting the iPhone 5, I relieved my girlfriend of her crummy HTC phone and gave her my iPhone 4. Those two handsets felt pretty similar when we got them a couple of years back, but the HTC has aged rather poorly. It never got any official updates past Android 2.2, and it's gotten slower and slower over time. I tried rooting it and installing Jelly Bean, which took me the better part of a Saturday afternoon, and the result was almost unusably slow. Unofficial Android 2.3 ROMs were about the best I could do, and they still felt somewhat sluggish and choppy—though better than the stock ROM. Meanwhile, the iPhone 4 happily runs iOS 6 with no coaxing or hacks, and it feels considerably faster and more responsive than the Desire—surprising, considering the two devices came out literally one month apart and were pretty comparable at the time.

That, plus my abysmal experience using a friend's Nexus S running Ice Cream Sandwich, suggests Apple phones stand the test of time better than their peers. Considering I don't plan to upgrade again until 2014, I definitely find that reassuring.

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