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iPhone 5 vs. iPhone 4S vs. iPhone 4

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September 30, 2012

iPhone 5, iPhone 4S, and iPhone 4: which is the best for you?

iPhone 5, iPhone 4S, and iPhone 4: which is the best for you?

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The budget iPhone: rumormongers have obsessed out the possibility for years. Though Apple hasn't – and likely never will – manufacture a new iPhone just to tackle the economy market, the company has covered that segment nonetheless. The recipe is simple: continue selling previous years' iPhones in decreasing increments of $100.

Rather than complicating its product lineup with an "iPhone Lite," Apple is now selling last year's iPhone 4S for $100 and 2010's iPhone 4 for free (with new two-year contracts, of course). This gives Apple an "in" with economy-minded shoppers and emerging markets – without betraying its premium allure.

So, on store shelves this year, the iPhone 5 is joined by its previous two ancestors. There's no question which phone is the best - the iPhone 5 is a phenomenal smartphone – but is it worth saving a few bucks on one of the older models?

Specs aren't everything, but they can suggest a device's raw capabilities. With healthy grains of salt in hand, let's see how the last three iPhones compare:

Dimensions

Dimensions of the three most recent iPhones
Dimensions of the three most recent iPhones

The iPhone 5 is longer and significantly thinner than its identical-looking forerunners. This means that it's more comfortable to hold, and it practically disappears in a pocket. This is only accentuated by its aluminum back: the backs of the iPhone 4S and iPhone 4 are made of glass.

Weight

The iPhone 5 is significantly lighter than its predecessors
The iPhone 5 is significantly lighter than its predecessors

The iPhone 5 could have easily been called the iPhone Air. The two older models feel like paperweights after using the incredibly light iPhone 5.

Display

All three iPhones sport 326ppi Retina displays
All three iPhones sport 326ppi Retina displays

Though the pixels-per-inch (PPI) are identical, the iPhone 5 display gains an extra half-inch of real estate. This ups the resolution and shifts the aspect ratio to an oblong 16:9. Longtime iPhone users may find it strange at first, but will soon appreciate the extra room for apps, photos, and web pages.

Apple also opted for a thinner display in the new model. Combining a layer of touch sensors also brings those pixels closer to the surface. The company also boasts of 40 percent greater color saturation in the iPhone 5.

Processor

The A6 in the iPhone 5 offers unprecedented performance
The A6 in the iPhone 5 offers unprecedented performance

There are noticeable boosts of speed in each successive model. The A6 chip in the iPhone 5 is a screamer, breaking smartphone benchmark records. Though the A6 was originally believed to run at 1GHz, 9to5Mac and TLDToday report that it dynamically clocks itself up to 1.3GHz (it may also underclock too, to save power).

The iPhone 4S still performs well for a modern smartphone. The two-year-old iPhone 4 is a bit sluggish for 2012 standards.

RAM

The iPhone 5 doubles the 512MB of RAM in the older models
The iPhone 5 doubles the 512MB of RAM in the older models

The iPhone doubles the RAM of its two predecessors. This is another factor in its blazing-fast performance.

Storage

The discounted iPhone 4S and iPhone 4 models offer one option each for flash memory
The discounted iPhone 4S and iPhone 4 models offer one option each for flash memory

Though the older iPhones originally shipped in different storage models, the cheaper models sold at present are more limited. The $100 iPhone 4S offers 16GB, while the free iPhone 4 gives you 8GB.

Wireless

LTE comes to the iPhone
LTE comes to the iPhone

The iPhone 5 takes Apple's handset into true 4G speeds, with LTE (where available). Actual LTE download speeds can range from 8Mbps to upwards of 40Mbps, with low latency to boot. It may be faster than your home broadband connection.

The older iPhones are confined to slower 3G speeds, though AT&T likes to label the HSPA+ 14.4 in the GSM iPhone 4S as "4G." I prefer to call it "3G+": faster than other 3G, but not in the same league as LTE.

In the US, Verizon can brag of the best coverage and widest LTE footprint, AT&T promotes its faster 3G speeds and growing LTE network, and Sprint - though its LTE is in infancy - is the only carrier to offer unlimited data.

Battery

Battery life is similar on all three models
Battery life is similar on all three models

Uptimes are similar across all three devices. That doesn't, however, make this category a wash: maintaining battery life while improving performance and adding LTE is no small feat.

Camera

The iPhone 5 camera is a subtle - but pointed - improvement over the shooter in the 4S
The iPhone 5 camera is a subtle - but pointed - improvement over the shooter in the 4S

The camera in the iPhone 4S was a big leap ahead of the shooter in the iPhone 4. The difference between the iPhone 5 and the 4S is relatively small. Apple did improve a key area in the iPhone 5: low-light shooting.

The front-facing (FaceTime) camera also got an upgrade in the iPhone 5. This was likely done to make video calls look better on the longer screen.

Intangibles

Each option brings something different to the table
Each option brings something different to the table

You could call the iPhone 5 the Rolex of smartphones. Its combination of lightness, thinness, performance, and beautiful design make it a significant upgrade.

One key upgrade that the iPhone 4S offered over the iPhone 4 was Siri. In addition to the faster speeds and improved camera, the virtual assistant is the top reason customers chose the 4S over its older sibling. iOS 6 adds to Siri's capabilities, letting it book dinner reservations, check movie listings, and get sports scores.

The only reason to choose the iPhone 4 over its successors is to save money. Considering that in September of 2011, you could have argued that the iPhone 4 was the best smartphone on the market, free in 2012 isn't a bad buy.

Summing Up

So do you splurge for the latest and greatest, or save a few bucks with Apple's older budget iPhones? That's your decision, but remember that the upfront cost is merely a fraction of what you pay during a two-year contract. Also consider that buying the iPhone 4 today means you'll be rocking a four-year-old smartphone when your contract ends.

To see how the iPhone 5 compares to other top handsets, check out our 2013 Smartphone Comparison Guide.

Elements of images sampled from Rolex, MomsGetReal, Wikipedia [1] [2] [3], BiggTech, Garrett on the Road, and Apple

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About the Author
Will Shanklin Will Shanklin is Gizmag's Mobile Tech Editor, and has been part of the team since 2012. Will has a Master's degree from U.C. Irvine and a Bachelor's from West Virginia University. He currently lives in New Mexico with his wife, Jessica.
  All articles by Will Shanklin
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14 Comments

Great write up Will, a really detailed view of each of the iPhone generations. Personally I will stick with the 4S for now as the iPhone 5 hasn't really grabbed my full attention. I think the main factor is that I know a few people who have had to reluctantly send back their phones to Apple due to technical faults with the screen and/or Wi-Fi - slightly worrying don't you think?

Mimo The-Mobile
1st October, 2012 @ 01:26 am PDT

Apple clearly are still making great products but tech getting lighter and more powerful (the A6 is a fantastic CPU) on a yearly basis is hardly shocking...

I love the use of the word "significantly" used in this article. "Significantly thinner" - Whoop, whoop - 7.6mm down from 9.3mm - 1.7mm difference, or, rummaging through my own pockets, almost exactly the same thickness as my Barclays Debit card that I keep inside my own phone's protective cover so I'll always know where it is. Praise be that Apple saved me this thickness otherwise I might not be able to get my fat hand in my pocket to pull my brick out.

The 5 is also "significantly lighter" than the 4... empties pockets again and digs out set of scales and weighs loose change in pocket, 50p, 2x 2p and 20p coin, weighing in at... 25g - wow - thank the Lord the iPhone5 weighs so much less otherwise I might struggle to lift my legs...

You're absolutely right to compare the iPhone5 to a Rolex though - because in the watch world there are watches which are thinner, more technically capable and more expensive than a Rolex, but they lack that "in your face", "look at what I've got"-something that both Rolex and the iPhone5 have in handfuls.

I'm baffled why anybody might want a "new" iPhone4 even for free. Depending on contract there are lots of other phones available for free with 2yr contracts that are at least as capable as the iPhone4 and more so depending on what you want to use them for (like storing your music collection - you're going to struggle with an unexpandable 8GB on your iPhone4 compared to most other non-Apple phones that have micro-SD slots taking up to 32GB).

Surely the point of owning an Apple product is that initial rush of standing in a queue, the sense of belonging, being one of the chosen in those first few hours or even days of product release? Surely in the cold light of day a year old Apple iPhone is, well, just another phone?

DaddyHoggy
1st October, 2012 @ 05:10 am PDT

Great review, but I'm still an Androidian.

Don't forget that there is nothing that's completely "free" in the world; you pay for it in the end!

agulesin
1st October, 2012 @ 06:49 am PDT

Gizmag compares new iPhone 5 with 4S and 4, with both continuing to be available at greatly reduced prices. One aspect not mentioned is the current problem with Apple's own map system. By staying with the 4S until that is straightened out, current map applications remain available.

I would recommend that a new prospective iPhone user who wants access to a good map program to go with the now lower priced 4S until Apple sorts out the problems with its own map program.

Leonard Lloyd
1st October, 2012 @ 10:34 am PDT

Jut as important as choosing the 4S, Leonard, is remembering NOT to update to iOS 6, which is what actually causes the replacement of Google's excellent Maps app with Apple's disappointing Maps app.

DavidB
1st October, 2012 @ 02:07 pm PDT

I don't care if the iPhone 5 turns water into wine... until I can get one unlocked (with no contract) I won't be buying one!

Ken Dawson
1st October, 2012 @ 08:28 pm PDT

ill stick with the s3...quad-core cpu, nfc, and GOOGLE MAPS

Erlord Ofthe Afterscape
2nd October, 2012 @ 06:58 am PDT

While I freely concede that the 5 is faster on paper, a prospective customer should go to Best Buy or someplace where the 5 and 4s are next to each other. I did this today and tried launching several apps side by side. Yes, the 5 has a faster CPU speed but honestly I could not see that much difference. Calendar was only slightly slower by a half second. Everything else seemed very much the same. After all, I doubt anyone is going to be doing scientific calculations or programs on their phones. So speed is probably not going to be THAT critical. The speed thing reminds me of the speed wars that the desktops went through. It's a phone, who cares if one is a half or full second faster...?

One thing I noticed on the 5 that the 4s didn't have we're scratches! By choosing Aluminum for the case material, Apple chose something that while not as breakable, it is also still susceptible to damage.

I chose to upgrade to a 64GB 4s (white) as soon as the price dropped and saved $100.00. With care, as in not dropping, my phone it will look as good 2 years from now as the day I took it out of the box. Will you be able to say the same for the 5?

Yes, LTE would be nice but it also means going through your data plan faster!!! Yikes, that can add up quickly.

The longer size of the 5 also means that it will be longer than the standard shirt pocket.

So, my humble recommendation is that you get yourself more storage space for $100 less on a very decent 4s while you still can!

Hal Howell
5th October, 2012 @ 02:48 pm PDT

My iPhone 4 isn't the fastest. I'm still happy with it and i don't see really a point for buying the iPhone 5. I will stick with the iPhone 5S 2013

Martina Wodnik
7th December, 2012 @ 06:28 am PST

I also still have an iPhone 4, and although the iPhone 5 is intriguing, I don't logically see the point in exchanging a great little phone that does exactly what I need it to do....this 4 has been fantastic!

And being that I have jailbroken it. and added some really great enhancements to it, (i.e. PhotoSynth for panoramic photos, Google Voice for a Siri like experience which I find even more useful and cloud storage services which enable an additional 50GB of storage and can stream as well), I have breathed new life and utility into my iPhone 4! :)

So, by learning about what your phone can do, you can save even more money and make your phone live a much longer service life than Apple would have you believe possible. :)

thebigguy1
27th December, 2012 @ 07:32 am PST

Any thoughts/predictions for the iphone 5s to come out? I need a new phone and want an iphone. I am likely described as a basic user don't always need the latest and greatest technology, though I do know I want the iphone. I thought about the 4...for free, then the 4s...for $100. However, when made plain the 4s will be 3 years old in 2 years. Is that so bad?

akaspr86
21st March, 2013 @ 11:58 am PDT

The New iPhone 5S is better looking than its ancestors and it has some of the sticking features that makes it the most popular device in the market of smart phones.

Nickadam
1st April, 2013 @ 11:50 pm PDT

I went with the iPhone 4, It was free, but to me a phone is a phone, and for a guy who rocked an iphone first gen up until yesterday...I really can't complain with this! I've watched youtube comparisons and the newer iphones beat the older ones (4s vs 4) by like 5 seconds, and no way am I paying extra money for that, the iPhone 4 is a beautiful device. The only thing I was worried about was if apple was going to cut of latest iOS support for it before my contract was up because that's what makes me sick about apple, is how fast they out mode things.

over all though. I got my 4 yesterday and I'm happy.

Joe Matthew
4th April, 2013 @ 07:24 pm PDT

So where is the part where ANYONE actually compares the phones ability to work as a PHONE? Where is the comparison of the receivers and signal rejection. A smartphone is still a PHONE! otherwise why not just get a iPod?

William Pociengel
11th April, 2013 @ 08:51 am PDT
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