iPhone 5 hands-on: Slim is in

back of a white iPhone 5
The matte aluminum back of a white iPhone 5.

While the iPhone 5 rumors were popping, I couldn't help think this was just some kind of stretched out iPhone 4S. During the keynote presentation, I was impressed by the features but couldn't help continuing on this path: Would it just be the same? 

Well, when I finally got the thing in my hand, even for a few minutes, I was delighted to discover how different it is.

iPhone 5 vs iPhone 4S
An iPhone 5 (left) next to an iPhone 4S.

Yes, the iPhone 5 is thinner and lighter than the iPhone 4S, but not in a plasticky way that would suggest some of Samsung's smartphones. If the iPhone 4S represents the heft and machined precision of a handgun, the iPhone 5 has the impossible physique of a laser blaster. It's light and thin in the way that the future should be.

The back of a white iPhone 5.
The back of a white iPhone 5.

The matte finish on the smartphone's back is a blessing and a curse. I like that there's a lot less glass here for me to shatter, but the way it looks takes away from the pure elegance of the iPhone 4 design: Two panes of shiny glass, separated by a steel border. I find that the white iPhone 5 (above) looks a little washed out, less bold, where the black version (below) is smarter, if perhaps more masculine than its predecessor.

The side view of a black iPhone 5.
The side view of a black iPhone 5.

The taller screen is not as gangly as I has thought, and when I saw a clip of "The Avengers" on it, I could appreciate why the design decision was made. Movies aren't my No. 1 activity on my phone, but the 16x9 ratio is a major standard for movies and more, so it just makes sense.

white iPhone 5 in hand
The white iPhone 5 doesn't feel too much larger in the hand, and the screen makes sense.

There's a springiness to the phone's interface that suggests the stomping A6 processor, but I couldn't load up anything that let me really see the polygons fly. Also, part of that smoother operation could be iOS 6, because much of it — for instance, the Music app — has been retooled to better interact with iCloud and iTunes.

What was a fun thing to test out, even if I never use it in real life, is the camera's Panorama feature: You just hoist the phone aloft and pan across your field of view, and you end up with a seamless panoramic image, suitable for framing (if you're any good at photography, that is — alas, I am not).

Wilson Rothman is the Technology & Science editor at NBC News Digital. Catch up with him on Twitter at @wjrothman, and join our conversation on Facebook.