The iPhone 4S upgrade decision: 4 things to consider

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So the iPhone 4S 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 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.

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