Thinking of buying a new iPhone 5, even though you still have that iPhone 4S? I can’t blame you. As a 4S owner myself, the same thought has been coursing through my noggin since the new phone was announced last week. But is it really worth it? Let’s take a look at how deep the upgrades really are.

Size

The difference in size between the two? Just half an inch vertically and just over an inch deep. The iPhone 5 is thinner than the 4S, lighter, and has a longer 16:9 widescreen display, something phones have been implementing for a few years now but Apple has only today caught up with.

This screen increase is actually a good step for the iPhone, if only to make media more pleasant to watch and games better to play. With a wider screen, movies and TV shows don’t need to be limited and the whole display can be used. Furthermore, as a thinner, lighter device, the iPhone 5 will be better to hold in the hand, in the pocket, or in a bag.

Winner: iPhone 5, which retains the same width but is thinner, lighter, and has a longer widescreen display.

Appearance

Both phones look great. To this day the iPhone 4/4S design is considered one of the best of any phone, though it is a tad easy to break thanks to the front and back glass panels. The iPhone 5 partially remedies that with an aluminum back, but the major difference in appearance is actually the finer points of the phone. The edges, the contours, the overall shape. It’s all machined with such precision that it makes phones like the Samsung Galaxy S III, which is an incredible device but certainly not stunning visually, look like cheap plastic.

In a sense, this makes the iPhone 5 stand out even above Apple’s two year old design. Sure, the iPhone 4/4S looks great, but it doesn’t have the sheer level of precision that the 5 does.

Winner: iPhone 5, which is brilliantly polished with extreme refinement to the iPhone 4/4S’ original design.

Display

Let’s be blunt; the only difference between these two displays is the actual size, and perhaps a slight boost to the color contrast. Apple’s iPhone screen is already excellent, and it has been with every iteration of the phone; the new iPhone 5 isn’t going to be massively better. It’s just bigger, and for media, that makes the screen a big deal.

Winner: iPhone 5, with a bigger 16:9 widescreen display.

Operating System

Under normal circumstances I’d have tossed this section out, but with the outcry over Apple’s new Maps app, many users may decide against upgrading, at least initially. So iOS 6 or iOS 5.1.1? To be frank, my iPhone 4S is still on iOS 5.0.1, because I never found the upgrades in 5.1 or 5.1.1 worth upgrading to. Sure, I tested iOS 6 on other devices, but that particular build of iOS is very stable and doesn’t really require anything special.

What does iOS 6 offer? A more comprehensive Siri database to query from (which makes no sense…it’s mostly server-based, so new queries should be ready at anytime, regardless of the phone’s firmware), improved social media functions with Facebook and Twitter integration, a few enhanced camera features like the panorama mode, and others. However, for the vast majority of users these upgrades won’t make much of a difference, if any at all.

No, the biggest concern for anyone thinking of holding onto their current version of iOS, whatever that may be, is app updates that require iOS 6. Right now all of Apple’s own apps require iOS 6 to upgrade, which includes plenty of free apps most of us have (and plenty use) like Find MyiPhone, Cards, iBooks, etc. Sure, these apps and any others requiring iOS 6 to update will run without a hitch on older OS versions, but they won’t be upgraded at all without upgrading your firmware. And, frankly, if the only reason you aren’t upgrading is because of Google Maps, remember that it’s available as a webapp too. A far better webapp than the never-updated gMaps for iOS.

Winner: iOS 6, if only because apps are the most important part of the iPhone, so app support reigns supreme.

Processor

Last week we talked about how the iPhone 5′s A6 would use a new ARM chip design. It turns out I (and everyone else) was wrong. Same design, but with heavy modification from Apple. Still, the new chip is in fact better, as the first reviews and benchmarks already show. There’s no real question about it.

To further prove the point, while writing this article Christen went to play with the iPhone 5 and has two ridiculously high benchmark numbers for us: 182755 in Browsermark, and 1024.3 in Sunspider. Both of those scores are the best we’ve ever seen, on smartphones and tablets alike. We’ll leave them out of our standard benchmark scheme until we have our own unit to play with under test-ready conditions.

Winner: iPhone 5, which has a newer, albeit similarly designed A6 processor.

Storage

There’s only one thing that really infuriates me about the iPhone 5, and that’s flash storage. Not only is it still ridiculously expensive, it hasn’t changed much since the iPhone first released. In fact, it’s identical to the iPhone 4 and 4S and even the 3GS. I have an idea Apple, let’s not charge $100 for the same flash memory for four years because, you know, prices actually go down.

Winner: Tie, storage capacity and pricing is identical.

Wireless Connectivity

If you’re on Verizon or Sprint, then the iPhone 5 is in fact a big deal, though more specifically to Verizon customers. The 4S and all previous iPhones only supported 3G, and the GSM version of the 4S supported HSPA+, what AT&T calls 4G. AT&T customers won’t notice a big difference; 4G speeds are typically 8MB/s down, 1MB/s up, whereas LTE speeds vary from 2MB/s-20MB/s down and 0-10MB/s up. In general LTE is faster on AT&T, though the faster network in some areas does demand more traffic while the 4G speeds are very good, just on another network. 4S users in LTE areas will notice an increase in their own data speeds, but a major decrease outside of LTE areas.

But on Verizon, suddenly iPhone 5 owners will have access to LTE, which covers a major portion of the US population. In LA, it is by far the best cell service available, though it isn’t nearly as widespread as AT&T’s 4G network. At the very least, if you’re sticking with Verizon then you’ll at least have access to the fastest growing and most widely used LTE network in the country. So even if you don’t have LTE yet, its possible you’ll get it pretty soon, or at least far sooner than AT&T or Sprint.

As for Sprint users…LTE is available in about five cities nationwide. They’re the smallest of the three, and they’ll have the hardest time rolling out their LTE network. So if you’re looking for increased data, the iPhone 5 won’t help.

Winner: iPhone 5, which supports LTE.

Camera

The camera is another area of disappointment. It’s not that the camera hasn’t improved, though by the numbers it hasn’t. Same megapixel rating, same lens speed…the only major change is the lens glass itself, which is important but not nearly as important as a number of other factors. Now photography on the iPhone 5 is expected to be better, no doubt, but it isn’t a major jump like from every other new iPhone. The update is so iterative, it’s almost sad.

Let’s just say that it’s indeed a better camera, but how much better is going to be slight.

Winner: iPhone 5, which is slightly better than the iPhone 4S.

Battery Life

This one I can’t even fathom. iFixIt determined that the iPhone 5 has a 1434mAh battery. The iPhone 4S has a 1432mAh battery. Yet, even with a new processor, larger display, LTE, and iOS 6, somehow the iPhone 5 is rated to have the same battery life as the iPhone 4S on the more power-demanding LTE network instead of traditional 3G networks.

How is this possible? Why isn’t the iPhone 5′s battery significantly larger? Reviews are stating that the iPhone 5 does just about as good as the 4S, but I find this not just hard, but almost impossible to believe. To be accurate, it would mean that iOS 6 is significantly less power intensive than iOS 5, and that anyone upgrading, even with all of the new features and regardless of which phone you’re actually on, should see improved battery life.

Besides for the fact that this has historically never happened with Apple, nor should it happen, the whole idea that battery life has improved even slightly with a battery that’s only 10mAh more dense is preposterous. Yet every review available thus far states exactly that.

So either every reviewer has thus far worn their “I love Apple” goggles while typing or Apple has figured out a way to change the way lithium-ion batteries work.

Winner: Tie, until I can find out why every review thus far says the newer phone with more stringent power requirements and a battery that’s only 0.75% larger.

Carriers

No change

Winner: Tie, no change.

Price

Another major disappointment: the price is the same. We’re still paying the exact same amount while Apple is making ~$550 per 16GB iPhone, or an even larger percentage on the larger capacity models. Now I don’t care how much Apple is charging…but their app machine is no longer fit for just 16GB. Apple should either make the base iPhone model 32GB, or lower the price of upgrades to $50, so at least if someone wants 32GB they don’t have to spend $300 initially.

Furthermore, because the iPhone 5 now uses a new connector, actually using any previous accessories requires either a $30 adapter or not using that accessory, period. Buy new ones to match the new Lightning connector. So while the price may seem identical, it has in fact become more expensive to purchase and use an iPhone 5 compared to the 4S and older iPhone models.

Winner: iPhone 4S, which is less expensive considering accessories that don’t support the new connector.

Overall Winner

It was obvious from the start that the iPhone 5 would outperform the 4S in nearly every way. So that was never a critical issue when it came to determining which phone was better. What is critical is whether it’s worth upgrading from the 4S to the 5. That’s why instead of just our traditional point system, I’ve included the new chart below. It works like this: instead of awarding a point to everything, consider each point as 100%. That is what’s available, compared to what was offered in the past. That is to say, if it’s a 10% improvement, then one will show 1 while the second will show 0.9; it’s a 10% improvement over the previous model. So let’s see how that looks.

Quite different, no? That’s because this isn’t a question of one device versus the next. It’s about whether upgrading is worth it. And worse yet, most 4S owners can’t actually upgrade for a discount immediately because the iPhone 4S released in mid-October, meaning plenty (myself included) purchased it in the months following the release.

What it essentially means is that while the iPhone 5 may, on paper, look like a far better phone, the differences across the board aren’t necessarily all that impressive when compared to Apple’s own iPhone 4S. The biggest improvements are to the processor and adding in LTE, the latter of which will make the iPhone 5 worth upgrading to if you need faster data speeds. Though know that if you’re on a CDMA network (Verizon or Sprint) you can’t talk and use data simultaneously. The technology is available, just not on the iPhone 5.

So is it worth it? For the vast majority of iPhone 4S owners, no, especially if you’re on AT&T. If you’re on Sprint, it isn’t worth the jump either because the company’s LTE network won’t get too far until next year, when the next iPhone model releases. For Verizon users who must have their iPhones and want better data speeds, this is the best and only way to get it. For anything else, stick with the 4S. It’s plenty fast and capable enough to keep you going until the next iPhone release.










James Pikover

 
Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.