iPhone 4S vs iPhone 4 — should you upgrade? (UPDATE: Camera quality)

SEE UPDATE at the end of this article.

Many of my clients have asked me about the iPhone 4S, and should they upgrade….here is my take:

First, if you want the latest and greatest, by all means upgrade.

Second, if you have a 3G or older, absolutely upgrade. You will be amazed what the iPhone 4/4S range can do.

Specifically for owners of the current iPhone 4: This is an upgrade that Apple calls a “refresh” — that is, it doesn’t have a lot of major style upgrades, but it does have significant upgrades “under the hood”.  The phone is physically virtually identical to the iPhone4. Here is what you should consider if you are looking to upgrade:

1. The processor is faster. The chip in the iPhone 4 is faster (the same as in the iPad) so that programs, web pages, and other applications will open faster.  Ask yourself, though, is your iPhone 4 too slow?? Not a complaint I have heard from anyone.

2. The antenna is improved. If you live, or travel, to an area that the signals are strong, you won’t need the improvement. If you live in (say NYC, SF, etc) you will find that the antenna is much improved, and your signal will be stronger. Note for you AT&T University of Michigan fans — this will NOT mean you will be able to get a signal now inside Michigan Stadium during game day when 115,000 friends are all trying to use their phones at the same time. It will mean your signal will be stronger in general. (For my non-Ann Arbor friends, AT&T signals are pretty strong here in SE Michigan).

3. The camera has been improved to 8 megapixels. What does this mean? Well, your pictures will be much larger, and they will be much sharper with less pixelation (visible dots). For many users, it will mean being able to ditch your compact digital camera and use only the iPhone. For others, it would be a poor substitute. The zoom is digital, and marginal at best. There are no controls for speed, aperture, etc. Even basic compacts have that ability (not that most people use it). What it WILL do is give you sharp front-to-back in-focus shots. No artsy shots here (i.e. no blurred backgrounds in your portraits). Most casual camera users want everything to be sharp and clear so this is a great new feature in the iPhone 4S. I’ll try out my iPhone 4S camera as my sole camera on an upcoming trip and give you my verdict. Personally, I can already predict that it won’t have the quality and features that I usually want in a camera, but I’ll see what it’s like to use it for a few days and nothing else.

4. Siri, new to the iPhone 4s is ONLY available on the iPhone 4s and will not be available in the OS upgrade to older phones. In essence, it’s a much improved voice command system. If you use the current Voice Command on the iPhone, you will find that this does more (not only dial your contacts by voice control, but also set appointments and put them into your calendar). The jury is out on this one. People I know who have tested Siri state that it generally works fine. It can not spell and it makes many mistakes (i.e. it might get the date and time of your doctor appointment correct, but it sure won’t spell the name of the doctor correctly). I personally do not know a single friend of mine who uses the current Voice Command on the iPhone. I don’t know if this will change with the iPhone 4s and it’s Siri program, but I doubt it. Your mileage may vary.

5. The new OS software — this will be available as a free upgrade to all current iPhone users, so this really shouldn’t be a consideration for an upgrade.

6. Your contract — okay, let me warn you up front, the iPhone 4S is a “refresh” as I mentioned earlier. It will, however, come with a two-year contract. That’s not a big deal, and the carriers have allowed upgrades within the year at additional cost with extension of the contract. BUT, if Apple surprises people with an iPhone 5 next summer, say, you will not be able to upgrade as in the past. For many, this is not a consideration. For others it is.  There will be a non-contractual universal iPhone 4S released in November for the contract-phobes….but it will come at a much higher unsubsidized cost.

In summary: your desire to upgrade might not be in line with the reality of what an upgrade will actually bring. If you are not in one of the categories listed above that would make an upgrade a sure fire “deal maker” I would say that those with a current iPhone 4 have little reason to upgrade at present, and wait for the next iPhone update.

Personally: I am upgrading to the iPhone 4S and should have mine on Friday. Why? Well, you know I want the latest and greatest, but no, seriously — I am interested in the new antenna and the improved signal. I travel a lot and any improvement in the antenna will be an overall improvement for me. Second? My current iPhone 4 is worn out: there are cracks in the back, and it’s seen better days (although it’s only a year old)…I can pay the 150.00 at an Apple Store to have the back replaced, or I can spend a bit more and just get a shiny new model. I opted for the latter. I have my iPhone in my pocket  16 hours a day, so its been well used, to say the least.

Hopefully, this will give you some guidance as you decide if you need the newest model. For the most part, I say no. But there are exceptions.


On a recent trip where I did not take my camera and relied solely on the iPhone 4S, I can unequivocally say that the phone alone, even with 8 Megapixels, is NOT a suitable substitute for a decent digital camera. Photos taken directly out of the camera without any zoom are clear and basically sharp. You can not crop these photos or blow them up or they instantly become pixilated. In general, straight out of the camera, shot is fine — don’t mess with it for size or crop.

Transfer of photos is what it is: I refuse to use iPhoto, being a creature of habit with Bridge and Photoshop. so I transfered the photos through eMail, one by one, to my home desktop. It took half  hour and most of the camera battery to send the 15 shots to my desktop computer. This won’t be a problem if you transfer using iPhoto or through iTunes. I imagine it would be a problem if you turn on Photostream and rely on iCloud.

Other quirks: If you open the camera from the lock-screen and then try to use the + volume control as your camera shutter, it freezes up the iPhone. Don’t do this. Open your camera application as usual from the iPhone itself, not from the lockscreen. Apple is apparently aware that this can be a problem on cameras. Wait for a patch.

To zoom in, you need to pinch the screen (as if you are making the photo bigger) and it will bring up the zoom controls. These are quirky and it takes several attempts to zoom in. In general try NOT to zoom in. Zoom is 100% digital, and while it brings your subject closer, all it is really doing is zooming in digitally and pixilizing your shot.

So, to summarize: straight out of the camera, full size photos = usable and generally sharp, capture detail well. Zoom is worthless. And you can NOT use the iPhone 4S alone as your sole camera if you are in way at all interested in photography and not just simple snapshots of friends.

For comparison purposes:

Straight out of the camera, no zoom, interior, generally well-lit: result – pretty good

50 percent zoom, and then cropped for central 50%: result – unusable

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