For half a decade Apple made just one iPhone a year and each was at least in the running for the best phone of the season. This year is different but at one point it seemed so for the wrong reasons. For a moment there, we thought Apple may have ended up with no potential winner out of two runners in the race.
Never mind the 5c, it's an old phone in new clothes, but yes, we were that skeptical about the 5s at first. It has got to be the smallest update a new iPhone has brought since the whole thing started. Having lived with it for a while now, we see that the upgrades are small but well thought out and executed, for a greater improvement in user experience than the mere sum of the updates.
The A7 chipset is not meant to set a speed record, it's meant to run iOS 7 smoother than A6 ran iOS 6 and it delivers. Plus, the future-proofing of course. The camera doesn't go head first into the megapixel race, but meaningful upgrades to both the hardware and software make it one of the better cameras around. Even the fingerprint sensor is meant to be a quicker alternative to the four-digit PIN, rather than an NSA-grade security feature. Perhaps, different levels of access would've been a great addition.
Anyway, the iPhone 5s is what we want most phones to be - compact, premium-quality, some improved features, some to make life easier and an OS that works equally well for children, teenagers and adults.
Our biggest quarrel with Apple is the screen - a big screen (4.3-4.7", perhaps) is a must for a high-end smartphone with aspirations for multimedia consumption, gaming and productivity. The resolution could use an update too - the PPI was stunning in 2010 when the iPhone 4 was announced, not so much today. We guess we have to wait until iPhone 6 to, hopefully, get that wish granted.
What if the iPhone 5s is too pricy for you? The iPhone 5c is no alternative, you'd be better off getting a second-hand iPhone 5 (it's the 5c in the body of a 5s). And if you already have an iPhone 5, the upgrade isn't worth the $200 in the US (let alone other markets where the price is much higher). iPhone users with 4S and earlier are the only ones that could seriously think about upgrading, as the cumulative changes would be worth it.
Of course, Android has an answer to the metallic build of the iPhone 5s and it's the HTC One - with a bigger, sharper screen, optical image stabilization (OIS), more base storage, better audio, cheaper... no really, the iPhone 5s in Europe is €700 and the One is €500 (and that's for 16GB and 32GB respectively - equaling storage means the premium rises to €300).
The mini version, the HTC One mini, is a great alternative too. It's not much bigger than a 5s with its 4.3" screen and while not as powerful, with limited storage and no OIS, it's a great midrange option that comes at almost half the price of an iPhone 5s. If you think about it, you can get the One mini now and upgrade to its successor next year and you would have spent as much as the iPhone 5s costs.
The Motorola Moto X is the iPhone of the Android world in a way - it emphasizes user experience over raw specs (unlike the Samsungs, HTCs, LGs and Sonys) and it has its own unique personality thanks to its highly customizable build (you can even have a back panel made of real wood) and the always-on voice commands. With very slim bezels, it's not that much bigger than the iPhone despite its 4.7" screen, but it costs almost as much too.
The LG G2 is perhaps the most technologically advanced Android phone at the moment with a 5.2" screen that fits in the body the size of the HTC One, a 13MP OIS camera with 1080p video recording @ 60fps, robust 3,000mAh battery and much more. It's plastic-made and the software might be too highly customized for some.
The Sony Xperia Z1 has a 20.7MP camera with a large sensor (but no OIS), and a gorgeous 8.5mm glass and aluminum body that houses a 3,000mAh battery and can dive under water. The bezels are a bit over the top just as on the iPhone 5s, though.
If the iPhone 5s is the popular kid at school, the Samsung Galaxy S4 is the one whose parents buy it every toy in the store. It's no match for the Apple build quality, but the Galaxy S4 has a bigger screen, easy reparability, expandable storage and more features than you'll discover in a year of usage.
This one has a mini too, the Galaxy S4 mini. Its screen isn't as sharp as the iPhone's or One mini's and it's all plastic, but it has a beefier chipset and slightly better camera compared to the One mini and expandable storage. Oh, and a dual-SIM version too, something no iPhone has but some people need.
Finally, let's break out of the iOS/Android struggle for power and check the third horse in the race - Windows Phone 8. We mean mainly the Nokia Lumia 1020, with its amazing 41MP OIS camera with lossless zooming. The other WP phones are not nearly as interesting, but they don't have that camera hump either, which is 1020's biggest downside.
We quite like the Apple iPhone 5s - with layer upon layer of polish, the Cupertino creation is nearing a work of art. We may cringe at the small 4" screen, but it's actually the price tag that would have us walking past the Apple Store window.
It's the most expensive phone we have here, and by a good margin too, especially when you factor in the storage limitations. And that's in the US where pricing is relatively sane and carrier subsidies are the norm, in Europe things border on the ridiculous.
The iPhone 5s is an amazing phone within its own niche. The funny thing is that niche is only getting bigger - regardless of the fact that Apple keeps on falling behind Android flagships in the specs race and iOS hasn't been able to match the feature set of the Google platform for a while now.
As long as the cash keeps pouring in, Apple can go on and play its own game and make its own rules. Second year in a row and it looks like this may go on forever. The iPhone 5s will cruise through its term at the helm. The iPhone 6 is the next one we will be looking at to hopefully stir things up. In a good way or bad? In Apple's own way.