iPhone 5 – Verizon has a hit!

Battery life differences between 4G LTE and 3G. Plus, what really makes one smartphone better than another.

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By Cary Chin
My iPhone 5 was delivered to my door as promised on Sept. 21. The UPS guy had a truck full of them, and seemed quite happy to be getting so much attention as he was making his rounds.

As with every other iPhone, I carefully unboxed it with some anticipation, but somehow I felt like there was less excitement this time around. After 5 years of iPhone mania, was the luster starting to wear off? Certainly the margin of differentiation between the iPhone and its competitors has become very small—from the hardware perspective, smartphone features sets have become fairly standard, with each generation leapfrogging the competition in certain areas, and lagging in others. On the software side, between iOS and Android, the difference between 600k+ apps and 400k+ apps is hardly interesting. If anything, I’m starting to revolt against the plethora of apps, and find myself really liking the idea of a clean, simple interface that could access the information from any app in a common fashion, and eliminate about eight pages of apps that I constantly have to organize and flip through. Hmmm…I could write that app, and call it something like…“Netscape Navigator”!

Sorry, back to the iPhone 5. I’ve tried most of the new features and read many reviews, and I think most people are feeling the way I am. The new Maps app in iOS 6 definitely is right around “beta” level in quality, but having 10 million users definitely is an effective way to raise the quality level quickly. I stopped using my previous turn-by-turn navigation software (Navigon) to try out the new Maps, and aside from a few occasional bugs, it works fine for me. But I admit I’m mostly driving around within a 50-mile radius of Cupertino, so I’d expect that part to be well tested. Other new features have been well reviewed elsewhere, so I won’t bother to repeat all that stuff.

On the power efficiency side, I’ve seen relatively few complaints about battery life on the Internet. That suggests Apple’s claim of “better battery life than the iPhone 4S” is pretty much holding up. My tests showed that to be true, as well. Playing my standard “Star Trek” movie on the iPhone 5 with brightness and sound turned down consumed about 0.65Wh of energy, slightly less than the 0.69Wh on the iPhone 4S. Cranking up the brightness to maximum required 1.47Wh of energy, yielding display power of around 320mW. This is slightly more than the 280mW for the iPhone 4S, but almost exactly proportional to the increased size of the display (1136×640 vs. 960×640), so no surprise.

Screen size difference between iPhone 4S and iPhone 5.

Adding sound was interesting. The iPhone 4S required an additional 270mWh of energy for maximum sound, but the iPhone 5 required and additional 760mWh of energy. The sound levels were about equal, and after some extended blind testing, the judging panel agreed that the sound quality was slightly better on the iPhone 5, but the differences were very subtle (at least as played through the speakers).

The iPhone 5 is also a great platform to conduct experiments on energy requirements of LTE vs. 3G. I tried to collect some of this data on the latest iPad, but found that because my energy measure resolution is only 1% of the battery capacity, the iPad’s huge battery tended to wash out my measurements. The iPhone 5 has a 5.45Wh battery, 8 times smaller than the 42.5Wh battery of the new iPad, effectively increasing my measurement resolution by that factor of eight.

I ran streaming tests using a 138MB version of Star Trek, in WiFi, 3G, and LTE modes, and got rather surprising results. All three tests consumed nearly the same amount of energy, differing by only +/- 1% of the battery capacity (0.55Wh). WiFi was the most efficient at 1.58Wh, then 3G at 1.64 Wh, and LTE at 1.69Wh. I’m definitely not seeing evidence of the common Internet claim that LTE is a power hog. The iPhone 5 has a new Qualcomm chip that combines all communications into a single chip. It appears that a by-product of the integration is that the energy draw of the different modes of communication has become very similar. More experiments would be interesting here.

After living with my iPhone 5 for nearly 4 weeks, by far the feature with the biggest impact isn’t an iPhone 5 feature at all. Nor is it a feature in any app. It’s the fact that I’ve finally taken the opportunity to switch networks from AT&T to Verizon. For the first time, I can make a phone call in and around my house without dropping a call. For the first time, I can drive to work streaming a radio station on my phone, and not drop the connection the entire way. For the first time, I can receive calls and email on my phone in my office. I have nothing against AT&T in particular, and I’ve read enough reviews from other areas in the country to know that AT&T and Verizon coverage in any particular area can go either way, but in the Palo Alto area, Verizon is the winner, and the impact that has on the user experience is dramatic.

The smartphone playing field has become pretty level in the last couple of years. It’s clearly easier to add and improve smartphone hardware features, and build up software apps and libraries, than it is to improve wireless coverage. The winds are changing again.

—Cary Chin is director of marketing for low-power solutions at Synopsys.