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iPhone 5 vs iPhone 4S: Our in-depth comparison

iPhone 5 vs iPhone 4s headerThe iPhone 5 is the latest entry in Apple’s smartphone line. Whether you are filled with desire or feeling a little underwhelmed by its lack of evolution, there’s no doubt about the demand. With over 5 million sold in the first three days, Apple has another smash hit on its hands. Even with supply issues, Apple is expected to sell around 50 million iPhone 5 handsets by the end of the year.

If you are looking to upgrade, there’s no doubt the iPhone 5 will be on your radar, but what about last year’s iPhone? The iPhone 4S was no slouch and if you picked one up you may be wondering whether an upgrade to the latest model is really worthwhile. Alternatively you may want to take advantage of the deep discounts the old iPhone models enjoy whenever a new kid hits the block.

Join us as we break down the iPhone 5 versus iPhone 4S comparison into individual categories to help you make the right choice.

Before we get started you might want to check out our full iPhone 5 review and our iPhone 4S review. Just remember that those review scores are a product of their times and relate to what was available on the open market when each phone was released.

Design and construction

There’s really no mistaking the distinctive look of the iPhone line, but it has evolved and matured a great deal since the original 2007 release. The iPhone 5 looks a lot like an iPhone 4S that has had a growth spurt. It is 4.87 inches tall compared to 4.5 inches and it is 0.30 inches thick compared to 0.37 inches. When you pick it up you’re struck by how light it feels. The iPhone 5 weighs just 3.95 ounces, which is almost a full ounce lighter than the iPhone 4S.

A larger screen and a slimmer form factor have been achieved without compromising on the materials and quality. The iPhone 5 has a brushed aluminum back instead of glass. It is also significantly tougher than its predecessor and has been trouncing the competition in drop tests.

The controls are much the same. The familiar home button is present and correct, the power button is ever so slightly smaller on the iPhone 5, and a Nano-SIM has replaced the Micro-SIM in the iPhone 4S. You’ll also notice that the lightning port is significantly smaller than the old 30-pin dock connector.

Winner: iPhone 5

Feel

With two devices so similar the feel comes down to a couple of minor points. The iPhone 5 is lighter and yet it still feels like a premium construction. The brushed aluminum backing is also more comfortable than the glass backing you’ll find on the iPhone 4S, not to mention less prone to smears and fingerprints. The only place where the iPhone 5 falls down is the power button. Despite the fact that the phone is taller, Apple has left the power button on the top and it may now be a bit of a stretch for some people.

Winner: iPhone 5

Screen quality

You have a 4-inch Retina display versus a 3.5-inch ‘Retina’ LCD display. Both are rated at 326ppi. The iPhone 5 is 1136×640 pixels and the 4S is 960 x 640 pixels. That extra height definitely counts, although in the short term, many apps will have a black band at the top and bottom rather than stretch to fit the new resolution. Movies can now play in 16:9 without letterboxing, which is great.

The iPhone 5 doesn’t just have a taller screen, though; it also boasts warmer colors, greater clarity in direct sunlight, and wider viewing angles.

Winner: iPhone 5

Operating system

If you’ve made the upgrade to iOS 6 on your iPhone 4S, then you’re running the same operating system as the iPhone 5. That extra display height enables the iPhone 5 to display an extra row of icons and more content in some apps, but there’s really no other difference between the two phones.

Usually there is a new, exclusive software feature with a new iPhone release. The iPhone 4 got FaceTime and the iPhone 4S got Siri, but the iPhone 5 doesn’t really have anything particularly notable, except for a new Maps app and Passbook (which we’re still struggling to figure out).

Winner: iPhone 5 (for its extra icons)

Audio and video

In terms of content, you have exactly the same options, but there are a couple of differences when it comes to audio and video. As mentioned before, the taller screen allows for 16:9 movies to play on your iPhone 5 when you view it horizontally, which is a nice improvement.

Then there’s the new EarPods that ship with the iPhone 5. They are designed to fit your ears more comfortably and they offer much better sound quality than the earphones that came with the iPhone 4S. The bass is better, although true audiophiles will still want to buy good quality earphones or headphones separately. Another tweak is that the audio jack has been moved to the bottom of the iPhone 5 probably because the new lightning port opened up some space there.

Winner: iPhone 5

Cameras

On paper, you have exactly the same 8-megapixel rear-facing camera, but in practice the iPhone 5 does boast a few improvements. For ideal lighting conditions you’ll be hard-pressed to see any difference, but in low light conditions the iPhone 5 camera comes into its own. The LED flash seems to be better and there’s less noise in shots. There have also, apparently, been improvements to its HDR capabilities.

They both support 1080p video recording, but only the iPhone 5 can take photos while you are recording video. The basic quality is also slightly improved thanks to better noise reduction, white balance, and image stabilization, but the difference is subtle. Improved compression means that HD video on the iPhone 5 is 20 percent smaller.

Two other differences worth mentioning are that the iPhone 5 camera is faster to capture a photo and that the new sapphire crystal lens is incredibly tough, making it difficult to scratch.

When we flip over to the front-facing FaceTime camera there’s an obvious improvement. A 1.2-megapixel camera capable of 720p video recording has replaced the VGA camera.

Winner: iPhone 5

Hardware specifications

The iPhone 5 is obviously a jump up from the iPhone 4S when it comes to raw processing power. The new A6 processor is way faster than the A5. The RAM has also been increased from 512MB to 1GB. The phone boots up faster; it loads apps faster; it runs games faster. The improvement in general performance is very noticeable.

Winner: iPhone 5

Voice and LTE data service

The iPhone 5 boasts three noise-cancelling microphones for improved call clarity. It also supports HD Voice, but not on Sprint’s network. We’re still waiting to hear whether any carriers stateside will support HD Voice, but it has been confirmed on 20 carriers elsewhere in the world, including Everything Everywhere in the UK.

Now you can also enjoy 4G LTE on your iPhone and the improvement is vast. If you use a lot of data then this will be a major enticement for you. Even for casual web browsers the increased speeds for web pages opening are immediately noticeable. How much of a benefit that LTE support is for you depends on your carrier and where you live, but those LTE networks are growing larger every day so it’s a great feature to have.

Winner: iPhone 5

Charging/connecting accessories

At last we reach a category where the iPhone 4S can win. The decision to switch to the new lightning port for the iPhone 5 means that all your old accessories aren’t compatible. The Lightning to 30-pin Adapter will cost you $30. If you want to splash out for a replacement charger setup then you’re looking at $38 versus $30 for the iPhone 4S. If you have a range of docks and other accessories that you’re attached to then this is just an extra cost.

Winner: iPhone 4S

Battery life

When it comes to basic 3G talk time, both devices are rated at 8 hours. However, the iPhone 5 will give you 8 hours of browsing on LTE or 3G, versus 6 hours of 3G browsing on the 4S. It also squeezes an extra hour of Wi-Fi browsing in at 10 hours and it should support an extra 25 hours of standby time, according to Apple website.

In practice you aren’t going to notice much of a difference in battery life, but the fact it has a bigger screen and it’s lighter makes that slight improvement for the iPhone 5 quite impressive.

Winner: iPhone 5

Overall winner: iPhone 5

The iPhone 5 is clearly the overall winner, as you would expect. The real question is how much better is it? It really depends on what you want from your phone. If you are set on an iPhone, but you don’t need cutting edge performance and you want to save a bit of cash then the iPhone 4S could be the better choice for you. Everyone else should go for the iPhone 5.

Is it worth upgrading from the iPhone 4S? Well, probably not. You get all the benefits of iOS 6 anyway and the iPhone 5 really isn’t a major leap forward. A few employees here at Digital Trends still use the iPhone 4S with iOS 6 and it doesn’t feel noticeably slower, as phones sometimes do after being upgraded. If you still have a year on your contract, we recommend you wait it out and check out the iPhone 6.

Winners by category:

• Design and construction: iPhone 5
• Feel: iPhone 5
• Screen quality: iPhone 5
• User interface: iPhone 5
• Operating system: iPhone 5
• Audio and video: iPhone 5
• Cameras: iPhone 5
• Hardware specifications: iPhone 5
• Voice and LTE data service: iPhone 5
• Charging and connecting accessories: iPhone 4S
• Battery life: iPhone 5

10 to one makes it pretty clear: the iPhone 5 is better than the iPhone 4S.