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The iPhone 4S upgrade decision: 4 things to consider

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So the iPhone 4S (s aapl) is real and arriving Friday, Oct. 14, with pre-orders beginning this Friday, Oct. 7 (at 12:01 a.m. PDT, according to reports). That doesn’t give you much time to figure out whether or not to upgrade, if you want to be among the first to get the device. We’re here to help.

A lot of factors are involved in choosing a new device, and people might be understandably reluctant to drop a lot of money on new hardware now, given the current global economic climate. How you use your device will also ultimately determine whether new features are worth the investment. So consider the following before making up your mind.

Is your contract up?

Carrier subsidies are a huge boon to cell phone buyers. With subsidy, the new iPhone 4S costs between $199 and $399, depending on how much storage you want on your device. Off-contract pricing in the U.S. hasn’t yet been announced, but in the Canadian store, it’s listed as starting at $649 and going up $100 for each additional level of onboard flash storage, topping out at $849 for the new 64 GB tier. U.S. prices should be in the same ballpark, if they don’t match those exactly.

A difference of $450 is going to be a difficult pill to swallow for most. Unless a brand new iPhone is a valid business expense for you, or necessary because your existing phone is actually broken or failing, you probably shouldn’t upgrade if you can’t get the subsidized pricing unless you’re really interested in Siri, but let’s take a look at that particular buying incentive.

Siri looks good, but so did FaceTime

Siri plays well in Apple’s promo videos, and it was impressive during the Apple presentation Tuesday, but those things don’t necessarily make it a must-have. Many are pointing out that using Siri in public will be downright awkward, and there’s also the comparison Stacey drew to FaceTime: How many will actually use Siri with any kind of frequency or consistency?

If Siri is the only reason you’re thinking about upgrading, then taking a step back and waiting might be your best course of action. Siri isn’t going anywhere, after all, and a couple of months of it being on the market might give us a better idea of its usefulness in everyday situations.

Will you be upgrading anyway?

Some might be tempted to consider upgrading an older iPhone (a 3G or 3GS, for example) to an iPhone 4, given that device’s lower starting price point. But if you’re already going to be upgrading, and likely locking in to a new contract anyway, consider that by the next time you become eligible for a phone you’ll be two devices behind instead of just one. That isn’t working out so well for 3G owners right now, since software support ended with iOS 4.3.

A faster processor and dual-core graphics might not seem like big advantages today, but the gap will widen; the iPhone 4 will become slower and less reliable with each subsequent software update, while the iPhone 4S is better able to take advantage of its increased power. Even if you think you can live without Siri, a better camera and faster networking (which will also only get better and make older devices look worse as time passes), you should seriously think about paying up for the iPhone 4S.

How important is your carrier?

If your choice of carrier is a key factor in prompting an upgrade, then now’s a good time to move to the 4S. Sprint (s s) availability is going to be great for some, especially considering the availability of unlimited data plans on that network. If you want a new iPhone because you’re looking to improve your network reliability, then the 4S is an especially good choice because of the new, speed-boosting dual-antenna design.

In summary: The iPhone 4S isn’t a disappointing upgrade, no matter what tech pundits and analysts may say. But just because it isn’t disappointing doesn’t mean it’s right for you. Before you decide to stay up late and hit the iPhone pre-order page, consider the above, and should you think of anything else that’s worth considering, share it with us in the comments.

23 Responses to “The iPhone 4S upgrade decision: 4 things to consider”

  1. This is an interesting article … It’s true Siri sounds good but so did FaceTime I hate FaceTime on my country.. N the same processor is in the iPad 2 is that so faast you won’t to upgrade to a 4S … The cam well I’m more than satisfied with the cam the iPhone has eve thoug the optics would be bettermost of the features will be available on the iOS 5 duhh!!
    I’m gonna wait for a iphone5 this upgrade is not worth it :(

  2. thraxisp

    Canada is worse. All of the carriers have quietly changed their upgrade without penalty period from 24 to 30 months. Unless you are pgrading from an iPhone 3G, you are paying a penalty that is about half of the ETF fee.

  3. To be honest, Siri sort of scares me. It/he/she has the stock robot voice used for every movie where the robot tries to take over the world. First reaction from the iPhone 4S video introduction was fear, honestly. Why Siri? Iris spelled backwards. Very bizarre to me, I just don’t see where it is coming from.

  4. No actually, Sire *is revolutionary – Facetime never even appeared to be, nobody that was tech savvy thought that it was that going to be great. Just something that other products have done for a long time. This is really a flawed comparison.

  5. Charlie Sierra

    The best upgrade option I’ve discovered is to buy an “unlocked” 4S for ~$650 and then get the new T-Mobile unlimited data/text/100 voice minutes $30/month no-contract plan. That’s at least $50/month cheaper than my ATT contract which means I breakeven on paying more for the phone up front in just 9-10 months and then I’m home free ie. w/o a contract when the real NFC/LTE iPhone 5 comes out next year. See ya, ATT.

  6. Cold Water

    I was quick to doubt FaceTime, and its thud in the market isn’t much of a surprise, but Siri is different. That voice command hasn’t caught on with desktops, or with Android (despite good transcription) isn’t an indictment of it as a tool. Yes, it’s totally awkward to talk to a computer, but we do this with our phones all the time. Granted, it does take a certain kind of person to don a Bluetooth headset for especially unnatural, one-sided use.

    My only question is whether it will be pluggable, like the Just Type feature in WebOS. They’re just wasting our time if it only hooks into first-party apps.

  7. Brandon

    I am extremely bummed AT&T isn’t offering its upgrade special that they had when the iPhone 4 released. I had to pay just $20 to break my contract and upgrade from my 3GS to the 4. I was hoping the same thing would happen this time for the 4S, but I guess that isn’t even going to be an option. Sigh…I guess it’s just time to suck it up and get my contract status ready for the iPhone 5.

  8. Brandon

    I am extremely bummed AT&T isn’t offering its upgrade special that they had when the iPhone 4 released. I had to pay just $20 to break my contract and upgrade from my 3GS to the 4. I was hoping the same thing would happen this time for the 4S, but I guess that isn’t even going to be an option. Sigh…I guess it’s just time to suck it up and get my contract status ready for the iPhone 5.

  9. But is the faster networking only for the ATT 4S, as I keep hearing suggestions about? Or will speeds be as fast for us Verizon-ers that would like to upgrade to an iPhone and can’t decide on a 4 or 4S because of this little piece of uncertainty?

  10. Should there be a concern about only having 3G and not 4G? Most Android phones are now 4G. I really like the iPhone and currently I have a Blackberry. I do work on a Mac and own an iPad.I’m eligible for an upgrade but my concern is 3G and 4G and should I be concerned about that?

    • 4G is faster but the chips are larger and only fit into larger phones. They’re incredible battery hogs and have significant mass production units. (More than one Android launch has failed to meet deadline over 4G radios).

      To the end consumer, you won’t notice much difference unless you heavily use your 3G already.

      Personally, I use 3G very rarely and opt instead to use wifi, which uses DRAMATICALLY less battery than 4G (and even 3G) and still beats the pants off 4G in terms of speed (as long as your internet connection is good).

    • No. Letters don’t mean anything, the issues are download speed and battery life. LTE seems to suck batteries dry and the 4s 3G download speeds of up to 14m on HSPDA are more than enough. Consider this… I have 3G and get 3m or so… and can’t find a need for more, esp when I’m data capped.

  11. Tom Boucher

    really don’t get why people say FaceTime is a failure. I have been using it like crazy to stay in contact with my little ones who don’t know what a phone is. My now two year old gets super excited if I call via FaceTime while traveling. It’s not as exciting to talk to adults because we’ve been conditioned to do many things at once, but with kids, they get it much better than most adults. They don’t care how they look and all that, they just know they get to talk and see someone. on my iPad 2 it’s a bit clunkier in that I can’t get a decent angle but with the iPhone I love it.

    • John Harrington, Jr.

      I think FaceTime is a failure for some and a huge hit for others just because no 2 lifestyles are the same. Just re-watch some of the commercials…having kids, being in a long-distance relationship, living far away from your parents…these types of things make FaceTime so much more appealing. Most people live close enough to the people they communicate with via phone that they can wait until they are face-to-face to actually talk that way. That’s where the difference lies. But Siri doesn’t require the interaction of two separate phones or people–it requires your phones interaction with you–a much easier thing to do and no WiFi signal required ;)

      Why so Siri-ous? Watch the video/comments and the bottom of this post and you’ll see what I mean:

      • Edward Kovarski

        I think the biggest issue for FaceTime adoption is that it is also an exclusive Apple feature – It doesn’t really help me when my parents use a PC with Skype.

    • Stan Tarnovsky

      – video calls are niche, mobile video calls has even less use
      – FaceTime is not cross-platform, Skype is (it’s pretty much omnipresent) – why would one use FaceTime over Skype?

    • If Siri passes the Turing test for the average consumer, gives them that suspension of disbelief, then I’d say they’ll be using it far more than you think. It’s one thing to give commands in a rigid procedural programming environment and another to just have a conversation with a “friend”.