Should you upgrade to the iPhone 5?

Lex Friedman
14 September, 2012
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When Apple introduced the iPhone 5 on Thursday—with its taller screen, faster networking, and new Lightning port—iPhone owners everywhere faced a common question: Is it worth an upgrade?

As with so much in life, the answer is a definite maybe.

Apple will start accepting iPhone 5 pre-orders today, but before the virtual lines start queuing up across the internet, you’ll need to decide whether you’ll be one of the eager early adopters out to get Apple’s latest smartphone.

To determine whether an upgrade to the iPhone 5 makes sense for you, you need to consider a few factors: cost, what you have now, and what you’d really get out of the upgrade.

Out with the very old, in with the new 

If you’re still using an iPhone 3GS, iPhone 3G, or the original iPhone, good heavens, yes: It’s time for an upgrade. The upgrade from your older iPhone to the iPhone 5 will feel a good deal like when you upgraded from whatever random mobile phone you were using to the iPhone in the first place.

Apple’s upgrades to the iPhone in the years since the iPhone 3GS are legion: You get the Retina display, with crisper text and sharper visuals everywhere; significantly faster wireless and cellular data connections; a substantially improved camera—not to mention a front-facing one; and a dramatically speedier device over all. The iPhone 5’s speed gains will feel even more impressive to folks who’ve grown accustomed to the relatively pokey performance of Apple’s older iPhones.

Also worth noting: iOS 6, which arrives on September 19, won’t work at all on the original iPhone and the iPhone 3G. On the iPhone 3GS, you miss out on many iOS 6 features, including shared Photo Streams, FaceTime, Siri, Panorama photography mode, and Offline Reading List.

Unless you only very recently got your iPhone 3GS, your upgrade pricing coming from an older model iPhone should be reasonable. Now is the time to upgrade. The price should be right, and the benefits are plentiful.

4 scored back several years ago

The decision for iPhone 4 owners is less clear-cut. The iPhone 4 remains a powerful iPhone. Like the iPhone 3GS, though, it misses out on numerous features new in iOS 6: Siri, FaceTime over cellular, and Panorama.

Siri’s still in beta with iOS 6 and the iPhone 5, but it’s increasingly powerful. Any Siri envy you felt for iPhone 4S users will only grow stronger once the proliferation of the iPhone 5 begins.

But software differences aren’t the only things iPhone 4 users will miss out on compared to folks wielding the iPhone 5. Besides the immediately apparent difference—the larger screen—the iPhone 5 offers a variety of distinct upgrades over the iPhone 4. Take the processor, for example: The iPhone 4 uses Apple’s A4 processor. The company says that the A5 chip in the iPhone 4S offers seven times faster graphics performance and twice as speedy CPU performance. The iPhone 5 uses an A6, which Apple says offers twice the graphics and CPU performance of the A5. That puts the iPhone 4 to iPhone 5 processor improvements around 14 times on the graphics side, and four times on CPU tasks. That’s big.

Couple the software features and processor boost with the iPhone 5’s camera, audio, and networking improvements, and there’s a compelling case to upgrade to the iPhone 5.

4S or not 4S: That is the question

The last bucket of potential iPhone 5 upgraders is, of course, those who own what—until this week—was Apple’s top-of-the-line iPhone.

If you own an iPhone 4S, it’s tough to make the case for you to upgrade to the iPhone 5. First, let’s look at all you don’t miss out on: Unlike other old iPhones, there are no software aspects of iOS 6 that the iPhone 4S misses out on. It gets all the features of Maps, FaceTime over cellular, Siri, and the newly-announced Panorama feature.

Thus, the case for upgrading from an iPhone 4S to the iPhone 5 is strictly a hardware one: The iPhone 5 has the bigger screen, twice the CPU and graphics performance, upgraded networking, and slightly longer battery life. Both the front- and rear-facing cameras on the iPhone 5 improve a bit over the iPhone 4S’s offerings.

But—at least until you first saw the iPhone 5—it’s likely that the iPhone 4S’s screen never felt particularly cramped, and your FaceTime correspondents likely didn’t complain during video chats that your end lacked high definition video.

Don’t misunderstand: While we haven’t yet had the opportunity to review the iPhone 5, all signs point to its being another satisfying upgrade on the iPhone line. But Apple’s comfortable path of evolutionary upgrades by definition means that you can generally sit out an in-between iPhone upgrade without feeling like you’re missing out on too much.

Since no iPhone 4S owner has yet owned that device a year, the upgrade pricing will be steep, and the real-world improvements from the iPhone 5 will impact you less than they will other customers with older iPhones. It’s probably okay to sit this one out if the unsubsidised price tag for a new phone gives you or your bank account pause.


3 people were compelled to have their say. We encourage you to do the same..

  1. Steve says:

    I have the 4s and probably wont be upgrading, was actually a little dissapointed with the 5. The screen and look are nice but not really a big improvement on the camera and no upgrade on the storage either. With this upgrade they should have just named it 4SS

  2. AussieMacUser says:

    I think, in the real world, most of us are on two-year contracts with one of the carriers, and the cost of paying out the contract to get a new iPhone early is prohibitive. So the choice is easy.

    My wife and I merely alternate who is getting the latest phone each year when the contract expires. The pricing from the carriers usually means that we can pick up the new phone with no change to our monthly payments. In addition, the other partner is only one update out – and that really isn’t a problem.

  3. Carolyn says:

    Thank you for this article! I can’t wait to upgrade from my 3GS! I have been waiting for this 5!!! Thank you again

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