iPhone reviewers weigh in: 5S still 'best' but competition mounting

Wilson Rothman and Suzanne Choney
The new iPhone 5S with fingerprint technology is displayed during an Apple product announcement.
Getty Images

The reviews are in, and the new iPhones are winning early praise from testers who got the iPhone 5S and iPhone 5C last week. As expected, these reviewers sang the praises of the new hardware—particularly the premium 5S with its new fingerprint scanner and improved chip and camera.

However, from most reviewers, there's a sense that despite the superior craftsmanship, the iPhone is getting caught up in the crowd of smartphones like never before.

(Read more: For Apple, mum's the word on iPhone 5C pre-orders)

In the words of The New York Times' David Pogue, "Maybe the age of annual mega-leaps is over."

Pogue's piece is the best review of them all. He sings the praises of the 5S but puts its successes into context. He makes fun of the fans and the haters who expect every year to bring something unexpectedly magical, but acknowledges that, with the lower-end 5C, even Apple wasn't exactly going for an innovation award.

(Read more: Apple is now a no-growth 'value trap': Doug Kass)

"It's a terrific phone. The price is right. It will sell like hotcakes. ... " But, he adds, "just sheathing last year's phone in shiny plastic isn't a stunning advance."

Pogue ends on a key point: "The iPhone is no longer the only smartphone that will keep you delighted for the length of your two-year contract—but it's still among the few that will," he writes.

(Read more: Apple goes plastic and colorful with new iPhone line)

While the iPhone 5C has been available for pre-order since last Friday, both it and the 5S go on sale in Apple stores, retailers and carrier locations on Friday. With a two-year contract, the 5C—which comes in yellow, blue, green, pink and white—starts at $99. The more advanced 5S—in silver, gold and "space gray" starts at $199.

USA Today's Ed Baig was more blatant in his positioning of Apple's newest phones versus the company's "Android and Windows Phone rivals," and acknowledged that there are some areas, such as the new burst-mode photo-shooting feature, where Apple is even "playing catch-up."

Make no mistake, Baig declares the iPhone 5S the best, singling out the camera, the Touch ID sensor and the new A7 64-bit processor, "the first mainstream smartphone to achieve that computing milestone." He even liked the 5C—"Plastic be damned—the phone feels good in the hand." But Baig expressed disappointment that "Apple stubbornly stuck to a 4-inch Retina display when many Android competitors offer 5-inch displays or larger."

Engadget's Myriam Joire went a step further: In a pleasantly exhaustive piece, she details all the ways in which the iPhone 5S improves over its predecessor, while taking time to delve into LTE bands, milliamp hours and chip instruction sets—facets the other reviewers didn't mention. Nonetheless, her assessment pigeonholes the iPhone into a new (but not altogether desirable) category:

"For anyone who needs copious amounts of screen space, a 4-inch display likely won't cut it, but to be fair, the 5S is the best small phone you can get," she writes. "We can't think of any other device with a display smaller than 4.5 inches that even comes close."

Walt Mossberg of The Wall Street Journal and All Things Digital took a different approach in his review. Though he wrote a tighter summary of the hardware, he spent most of his time discussing the Touch ID fingerprint sensor, which he calls "the biggest step ever in biometric authentication for everyday devices."

(He did discover a bug during his evaluation: "Sometimes, while trying to use a finger to authenticate an online purchase, the phone asks for a password. Apple says it expects to fix this bug very quickly.")

Mossberg discusses several other aspects of the 5S, and proclaims it the "best smartphone on the market," but he doesn't discuss the iPhone 5C—or any phones that may compete with either of the new iPhones.

Sound bites

The reviewers did have choice things to say about the iPhone 5S's newsmaking features as well as the perks of iOS 7, Apple's revamped mobile operating system.

On the Touch ID fingerprint sensor:

"First digital device I've seen with a simple, reliable fingerprint reader—one you can confidently use, without a thought, to unlock the device instead of typing in a passcode."

"It's nothing like the balky, infuriating fingerprint-reader efforts of earlier cellphones. It's genuinely awesome; the haters can go jump off a pier."

On the new camera and "True Tone" dual-LED flash:

"The shots we took with the 5S were consistently better than what we took with the 5: they were sharper, with finer details, more natural colors and far less noise."

"All my pictures were slightly sharper than on the iPhone 5 and low-light pictures were much less washed out by the flash."

"I got generally lovely results taking flash photos, though I noticed it sometimes took an extra second or so before the camera actually took a picture."

On the new chip:

"In general, the 5S is noticeably speedier; apps load faster and everything just feels zippier. The greatest improvement, however, is in gaming."

"The system can process data in bigger chunks, and thus much faster. But I didn't notice any dramatic speed improvement, partly because few apps have yet to be rewritten to take advantage of it."

On the operating system overhaul:

"If we're reaching a point of diminishing returns in hardware breakthroughs, the software breakthroughs are only just getting under way."

"The biggest change to come to the iPhone arrives with iOS 7. ... In my view, iOS is still simpler to use than Android, and made even simpler in iOS 7."

—By Wilson Rothman and Suzanne Choney, NBC News