iPhone 5 'geometrically more complex' than older Apple smartphones: expert

Apple kept costs in line with last year's phone, even with LTE and larger screen

The iPhone 5 is "geometrically more complex" than Apple's previous smartphones, a teardown expert said after taking apart the company's newest device.

"Across the board, this is geometrically more complex, and very, very interesting," said Wayne Lam, senior analyst for wireless communications at IHS iSuppli, in an interview today.

iSuppli, which regularly disassembles smartphones and tablets to see which component suppliers are on the upswing, which have been dumped by designers and manufacturers, wrapped up its teardown today after getting its hands on some of the first iPhone 5 smartphones.

The research company's experts concluded that the iPhone 5 is the most complicated model yet created by Apple, in large part because of the inclusion of support for mobile carriers' faster LTE data networks.

"This is the most complex radio antenna design that I've seen on any phone I've examined," said Lam, referring to the iPhone 5's two antennas and the switching capabilities between the pair required to handle multiple LTE frequency bands.

Although the iPhone 5 is slightly larger than its four precursors -- it's about 7% taller, for instance -- it's even more jam-packed than older models.

"It's like a 3-D jigsaw puzzle in there," said Lam. "They've rearranged everything, ironed out the thickness of the battery, and gone with the smaller [Lightning] connector. It all goes along with the design tradition of Apple," he said, citing the company's reputation for elegance as well as for ditching older technologies and thus raising compatibility issues. "[Lightning] breaks a lot of compatibility, but it's much more functional," noted Lam.

Not to mention smaller.

Apple reduced the size of some components -- such as the docking connector -- to make room for new parts necessary for LTE, and for an audio amplifier chip three times the size of the one in the iPhone 4S.

But Lam kept returning to the iPhone 5's support for LTE as its most impressive engineering feat.

"There are only two antennas, but there are lots of ways to switch between the two," said Lam. "I was surprised at the level of engineering they had to go to."

To accommodate as many wireless partners as possible, Apple was forced to create two different models of the iPhone, Lam pointed out.

One, dubbed the "A1428," supports LTE bands 4 and 17, and is sold in the U.S. to AT&T subscribers. The other, A1429, handles bands 1, 3 and 5, and is sold to Verizon and Sprint customers in the U.S.

The two-model approach deviates from Apple's preferred strategy, which is to make a single model suitable for everyone, a tactic that, said Lam, "Gives Apple lots of leverage when they source components and drives really good prices for them," because of the volume of Apple's orders to its suppliers.

The move is reminiscent of the introduction of the iPhone on Verizon in February 2011, when, like now, it was forced to field two different hardware platforms.

iSuppli today also stuck to its preliminary estimate of the iPhone 5's "bill of materials," or BOM -- the total cost to Apple of the components used to assemble the smartphone.

The entry-level 16GB iPhone 5, said iSuppli, has a BOM of $199. With an estimated $8 in manufacturing costs, the total came to $207, a figure that doesn't include research and development, software, licensing and royalty fees, or marketing. At $207, the iPhone 5 is 5.6% more expensive to Apple than the iPhone 4S was last year.

The 32GB iPhone 5's total of $217 was 1% greater than the same iPhone 4S model, but the 64GB iPhone 5, at $238, was 6% less than the corresponding iPhone 4S.

Apple was able to keep the BOMs low, even with the debut of new LTE parts and the larger screen, because its memory costs have dropped between 46% and 49%, depending on the storage configuration, since the launch of the iPhone 4S.

"Beyond some of the high-profile changes that bring obvious benefits in performance and features, there are myriad upgrades and enhancements to virtually every component and subsystem in the iPhone 5," said Andrew Rassweiler, iSuppli's senior principal analyst of teardown services, in a statement Tuesday.

Lam again called out LTE as the biggest Apple achievement in the iPhone 5.

Apple's selection of the LTE frequency bands to support makes it a "kingmaker," said Lam. "No one has created a phone that has supported five bands," he added. "Apple is going to drive LTE."

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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