Personal Technology

Troy Wolverton: New iPhones come up short

TROY WOLVERTON, Silicon Valley personal technology columnistOctober 15, 2013 

  • IPHONE FLAWS

    • Unable to talk and surf simultaneously on Verizon or Sprint.

    • Battery life remains the same as last year’s model, which is too short.

    • Storage space comes in the same amounts at the same prices, which is too little at too high a cost.

    • New fingerprint sensor does little more than unlock your phone — and introduce a new security risk.

When it was announced, Apple’s new iPhone 5C was panned for being too costly and its sibling, the new iPhone 5S, for being little different from last year’s model.

But on closer inspection, they may be even more disappointing.

That’s because the new phones fail to address long-standing complaints about the iPhone lineup. There’s no truly big-screen iPhone. The battery lives of the new devices are still relatively short. And, perhaps most damningly, the new iPhones still can’t talk and surf simultaneously on Verizon or Sprint.

What’s more, the hallmark feature of Apple’s new flagship iPhone 5S, its fingerprint detector, now appears to be little more than a gimmick that actually introduces a new security problem.

For many consumers, the biggest drawback of the new iPhones is likely to be their inability to make phone calls and transmit data from the Internet on the Verizon and Sprint networks. The shortcoming has its roots in the technology underlying those carriers’ networks.

This limitation wouldn’t be as big a deal if there weren’t a solution to the problem — there is — and if it weren’t becoming so peculiar to the iPhone alone. For example, on Verizon, Apple’s iPhones are the only LTE-enabled smartphones that can’t talk and surf at the same time on its network.

But that shortcoming is just one of several instances where Apple has failed with the new phones to address long-standing customer complaints or desires — or to keep up with the competition. Neither of the new phones sports a large screen like those that have become common on Android-based phones. And despite pre-show rumors to the contrary, the iPhone 5C is not the cheap iPhone many expected. Indeed, Apple seems to be conceding that market; unsubsidized by a carrier, the iPhone 5C costs $550, which is hundreds of dollars more than you’ll pay for many unsubsidized Android phones.

Also, the new devices have no more battery life than the iPhone 5, which simply doesn’t last long enough. And the new iPhone 5S comes with the same amount of memory as its last four predecessors — at the same prices. That’s unfortunate, because there’s a need for more built-in memory on these devices as consumers take more and more pictures and videos on their phones. But Apple doesn’t allow users to plug in a memory card, and its cloud-based photo service only stores pictures, not videos, and only backs up the most recent 1,000.

But even one of the new hallmark features of the new iPhones comes up short.

The iPhone 5S is distinguished in part by its new fingerprint sensor, dubbed Touch ID by Apple. Apple is pitching Touch ID as a better way to secure iPhones; instead of typing in a passcode to unlock your phone, you simply touch your finger to the home button.

The problem with Touch ID is that it does little else.

One of the big potential uses of a technology like Touch ID is the ability to personalize a device for individual users. Indeed, Touch ID will recognize up to five individual fingerprints.

But because the iPhone doesn’t support multiuser personalization, everyone who unlocks a particular iPhone gets the same view — and the same access to the same group of apps and data. Unless you remember to turn off access to such functions before handing over your phone, your kids can read your email.

Touch ID likely has lots of appeal to app developers, who might like to use it to verify users. But Apple isn’t opening up the sensor to outside programmers, so you won’t be able to use Touch ID to log into your bank account or even into your Facebook app.

Touch ID does have one other feature right now besides allowing users to log into their phones. It can be used instead of a password to verify purchases in Apple’s iTunes and App stores.

But there’s a good chance that you won’t want to turn on the feature. That’s because if you do, any fingerprint that can be used to log into the phone can also be used to make purchases in Apple’s stores — on your account. My daughter, who likely couldn’t guess my iTunes password, could, with Touch ID, suddenly have the ability to make purchases on my phone by just tapping her thumb. A former spouse who took your phone could stock it with music, movies and apps — at your expense.

To be clear, I’m not dismissing the new iPhones or advising people not to get them. Both iPhones are sleek devices. The new iOS software looks like it’s going to make the gadgets even easier to use. The iPhone 5S has new slow-motion and burst-mode camera features.

But you should be aware of how the new phones also come up short.

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twolverton@mercurynews.com, @troywolv

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