Apple's iPhone 5: The Price of Thin

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There is a new iPhone, it's called the iPhone 5, it has a larger screen and it supports 4G LTE wireless broadband. That much you should have guessed.

But the smartphone Apple introduced today (available Sept. 21 on AT&T, Sprint and Verizon Wireless for $199 and up on a two-year contract) brings less obvious changes worth discussing.

Most important among them: battery life, cited by Apple as eight hours of continuous Web browsing over LTE (Long Term Evolution). The Cupertino, Calif., company cites just six hours of 3G browsing on last year's iPhone 4S — making this the first time I can remember battery life improving with an upgrade from 3G to LTE.

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Manufacturers of LTE Android phones that struggle to survive a day on a charge should be embarrassed by that.

Apple also thought differently (if you will) with the iPhone 5's larger screen. Instead of expanding it in every dimension — something Android vendors have been taking to extremes in devices such as Samsung's Galaxy Note and Galaxy Note II — Apple built up rather than out. That is, the iPhone 5's 4-inch, 1136 by 640 pixel display is taller but no wider than the 3.5-in. screens on older iPhones.

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Apps not updated for these changed proportions will appear in letterboxed form; I expect that to be a temporary and swiftly fixed inconvenience. But I don't know that reading will ever feel much different with the phone held upright.

The iPhone 5's camera has the same 8-megapixel resolution as the one on the iPhone 4S, but Apple touts updated hardware and software that allow for quicker shots and better quality in low-light situations. Phone cameras have historically been awful in those aspects.

It also includes an instant-panorama mode that catches up to what Android phones have included for a while. Apple forgot to credit its competition for any inspiration.

The iPhone 5's designers somehow also made this device thinner and lighter than the 4S: about .3 inches thick, .07 thinner than its predecessor and just under 4 ounces, or about an ounce less than before.

But to pull off that triumph of miniaturization, Apple took a scalpel to compatibility.

The iPhone 5's new "Lightning" dock connector is, Apple says, "more durable" and works even if you plug it in upside down. But it doesn't work with the enormous universe of old cables, accessories, speakers and car kits without a $29 adapter that doesn't come in the box. If Apple was going to make that kind of switch, couldn't it have adopted the micro-USB standard everybody else uses?

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On the inside, the iPhone 5 uses a "nano-SIM" card instead of the micro-SIM of the 4 and 4S. This makes the new model incompatible with existing SIM cards — all to save about .0037 cubic inches of space. That fact seems to have gone unmentioned in Apple's keynote (which went on to feature a badly needed refresh of its bloated iTunes application and a new line of iPods).

One more thing didn't get much attention in Apple's keynote, but maybe the company doesn't feel the need to brag about this anymore. With its history of consistent software updates for older iPhones — most will get the new model's iOS 6 software on Sept. 19 — Apple has given iPhone 5 buyers confidence that they, too, will be supported for years to come.

Android vendors have left their users with no such assurance. They should end their sorry habit of abandoning older phones before they race to make new ones any thinner.