iPhone 5: Balancing Performance, Battery Life and Size

Will the iPhone 5 be faster? Smaller? Or both?

The Apple rumor mill went into high gear this week, spinning out this gem: Apple ordered 15 million iPhone 5 units from manufacturer Pegatron in time for a fall launch. Apple already unveiled iOS 5 at its worldwide developers conference earlier this year, which leaves only the iPhone 5 hardware as the real mystery.

Smartphones generally balance performance, battery life and size, and I’m hoping the iPhone 5 will lean toward better performance. The growth of performance-hungry apps such as augmented reality ones have been stunted under the current iPhone hardware. You can’t run more than two apps without running into performance headroom problems.

“If you want to navigate while listening to music, the phone will struggle with that,” says tech analyst Rob Enderle. “Once we have some performance headroom, you’ll likely see the shift to even thinner devices again.”

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Battery life has been another thorn in the iPhone’s side. The poor battery life has spawned an industry of battery-booster products, as well as tips on preserving battery life. Even worse, the iPhone battery is in a constant state of decay and will eventually need to be replaced. Yet Apple has made swapping a new battery a difficult, if not impossible, process by locking down the casing with tamper-resistant pentalobular screws.

“In short, the three vectors – performance, battery life and size – are far from ideal,” Enderle says.

There’s a good chance Apple will make small hardware improvements to the iPhone 5, such as improving the screen and glass design to prevent breakage. The iPhone 4 has been criticized for cracking easily.

"The iPhone 4 breaks more," says Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, a Website that provides free repair manuals and advice forums mostly aimed at Apple products. (Check out Cracking the Case of the Troublesome iPhone 4 Glass.)

On the flipside, a case can be made that the smartphone hardware may be reaching a point of diminishing return – that is, the iPhone’s hardware no longer being worth the jacked-up price tag. Consider the ubiquitous desktop: Truth is, few “power” users came close to using the full potential of these pimped out machines.

We already know that the sheer volume, for example, of apps on the App Store is a poor indicator of the quality of the store. I once thought about putting together a list of the worst iPhone apps, a counter-story to my list of 15 best iPhone apps for newbies. But where do you start? There are a lot of really dumb apps out there.

This issue of quality is exactly what comes to mind admidst the recent chatter that Apple might be leaning toward a slimmed-down iPhone, forsaking performance and battery size. The thinking goes that consumers want a more convenient phone (think: iPod Nano) that runs only a few of their most important apps.

Could Apple deliver a slimmed-down iPhone that’s more powerful than the iPhone 4? “It would be nearly impossible to do both given the current technology,” Enderle says. “Still, Apple does do things that have seemed impossible, and that would be the home run.”

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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