What does the iPhone 5 offer journalists?

specialises in smartphone reporting for the BBC Academy

This post was updated on 28 September (additions in italics):

The launch of the iPhone 5 yesterday has implications for journalists that are perhaps incidental to Apple’s marketing aims but potentially significant nonetheless.

We can view the changes from the previous iPhone in two related but distinct parts: the hardware of the phone itself - the size, camera, battery and so on - and then the operating system that runs the phone and makes everything work.

I’ll look first at the hardware.  

The phone is 8mm longer than the 4S model, which means that accessories such as cradles or attachments used with the earlier models won’t work. But new cradles and attachments will surely come onto the market before long.

The increased size means the screen is slightly larger: 4 inches diagonally. Critically, it now shares the 16:9 aspect ratio of a television screen.

This should see the amount of video consumed on the iPhone increase – great for news organisations that make video for smartphones.

There’s another small but important change for journalists (or indeed anyone) recording video on an iPhone 5: you no longer need to tap the screen briefly twice to ensure you know what you’re recording. With previous iPhones, when recording video the screen did not show exactly what was being recorded, unless you double-tapped. With the iPhone 5 being 16:9, this is no longer necessary.

If you’d like to read a very detailed blog post about the changes to the camera on the iPhone 5.

Something else which should increase video consumption is the 4G network that the iPhone can connect to. It’s about five times faster than the 3G currently available, meaning there’ll be a smoother viewing experience with less buffering for news consumers streaming audio or video.

It will also allow journalists in the field to send material faster, with three caveats. Firstly, only one UK provider, EE, has the 4G network the iPhone 5 can use. Secondly, there are slight differences in 4G globally, meaning that a journalist deployed abroad with a shiny iPhone 5 has no guarantee it will connect to a foreign 4G network. And thirdly the iPhone 5 is not the only smartphone that’s able to use these quicker networks.

The main back-facing camera has been tweaked a little: it can take photos faster (vital for a journalist who wants to capture the moment). It also has a new ‘low light’ mode – a much needed change as previous iPhones fared badly in poor light.

There’s also a ‘panoramic mode’, so images such as this by the BBC’s  James Longman can be taken without using third-party apps. (This, however, has long been a feature of many high-end Android smartphones.)

The front-facing camera has been improved considerably, heralding better quality footage from reporters who need to do a piece to camera, talking to the screen they can see.

There’s also improved video stabilisation (although it’ll still be as of nothing compared to using a good tripod). 

Apple is claiming a longer battery life, as it does for every new device. But the underlying problem remains: unlike with most of its competitors, you can’t remove and replace the battery when it’s run down. Instead, you have to carry external chargers. But a better battery should be good news for a journalist wanting to use the device for longer in the field.

You might not think that redesigned headphones could make a difference to a journalist, but they might – although it’s not yet entirely clear if they will. And there’s nothing to indicate whether the microphone attached to the cable has been similarly improved. If it has, that will be good news, because currently that mic is too poor for broadcast and our journalists are advised not to use it. Instead, they’re advised to use either the mic at the bottom of the phone or an external device. 

But there are now three mics on the phone, which should raise the quality of recorded audio.


Having now had a chance to try out the microphone on the new headphones, it DOES make a difference, as there’s a slight improvement in the mic’s sound quality. It’s better than the one on the iPhone 4/4S headphone cable, but, even so, it still makes the voice sound less bright and clear as when using the internal microphone.

Tests also showed that the internal microphone captured more ambient, background sound, and in most circumstances it’d be better to use this and not the mic on the headphones supplied with either the iPhone 4 or 5. 

Another change is that Apple has moved where the microphone is when recording video - it’s now right next to the camera lens. For the front-facing camera, it’s in fact embedded in the earpiece where you listen to phone calls, while for the back-facing one it’s the tiny hole in between the lens and the light. This means that only a contortionist would be able to cover the microphone with their fingers while recording video.

If you’re recording audio, the mic remains in the same place as on the iPhone 4 and 4S - on the bottom of the phone to the left of the charging port.

In a follow-up post I’ll look at the implications for journalists of the iPhone 5’s operating system. But first a note about why I’m paying so much attention to this particular model when there are clearly so many other smartphones on the market.

I readily confess that I didn’t write a blog post about the launch of Samsung’s latest flagship model, nor that of Nokia.

You may well ask why.

I would argue this is not favouritism but recognition of a simple reality: despite the wide range of manufacturers, from Samsung to LG to Nokia to Sony to HTC and beyond, most media organisations have chosen Apple as the smartphone of choice for their employees. The Wall Street Journal’s WorldStream initiative is iPhone-based. The company behind USA Today has taken a big bite of Apple, as has the Guardian.

Indeed, if you know of a media organisation which has issued Android or Windows phones to its journalists, please do let me know.

The BBC has also focused efforts on the iPhone, developing an app to record, edit and deliver content directly into our newsrooms across the UK. 

Finally, unlike Google’s Android or Microsoft’s Windows 8, the iPhone’s operating system is not fragmented across devices and manufacturers. What journalists can do with it will be the subject of my follow-up post.