iPhone 4S, iPhone 4, or iPhone 3GS: Which should you get?

iPhone 4S, iPhone 4, or iPhone 3GS: Which should you get?

Maybe you've decided to get an iPhone but you're still not entirely sold on the $199+ iPhone 4S. Maybe the $99 iPhone 4 or free-on-contract iPhone 3GS seem like cheaper options? Fair enough. That's why Apple currently has 3 iPhone models on the market, with 3 different levels of specs, and at 3 price points.

Over the lifetime of a contract, you'll be paying a couple thousand dollars, so it's important to run the math on this and see what suits you best. Let's do that now.

2011 iPhone product line

For the last few years, when Apple's introduced a new iPhone, they've kept the previous year's model around, with reduced storage, and at a reduced price point. This year, they've kept the last two years' models around, and they've reduced the price point of the oldest one to zero.

iPhone 3GS 8GB - Free on contract

2009's iPhone 3GS with 8GB of storage fills Apple's budget smartphone slot right now, and fills it at the lowest price point ever. It's still a good phone, especially compared to the typical candybar or flip feature phones (dumb phones) that typically come free with carrier contracts. It still has the App Store and the Safari browser, and most of what iOS 5 has to offer.

What it doesn't have is a crystal clear, pixel-free Retina display, a front-facing camera for FaceTime video calls, the ability to shoot HD video, and the premium build and power of the higher end models.

If you literally have no money in your pocket walking in and really want an iPhone, if you're shopping for a teen and don't want to risk a higher end phone, if you're brand new and just dipping your toes into the smartphone market and don't want to dip too deeply, iPhone 3GS can be a good starter smartphone.

iPhone 4 - $99 on contract

2010's iPhone 4 with 8GB of storage is Apple's new low-cost iPhone option. Externally, it's almost identical to the new iPhone 4S, so much so that almost no one will be able to tell which one you have at a glance. It has the same Retina display and front-facing FaceTime camera for video calls, along with a snappy Apple A4 processor and a good quality, 5 megapixel camera capable of shooting 720p HD video. It also runs almost everything iOS 5 has to offer.

What iPhone 4 doesn't have is the 2x faster, 7x more graphically powerful Apple A5 processor, the great 8 megapixel, 1080p camera, or the artificially intelligent Siri voice control system of its newer, better brother. Also, 8GB of storage may not get you very far with a device this good at gaming, media, photos, and video.

If you absolutely can't scrape together the $199 needed for an iPhone 4S, but want something better than the iPhone 3GS, this is your middle ground. With the new software update, it's still a great iPhone. It's just not the best iPhone any more.

iPhone 4S - $199 and up on contract

2011's iPhone 4S is the new king of the hill, the new flagship in Apple's line of mobile devices. It has everything the previous generations had to offer and more. The new Apple A5 processor gives it 2x the speed and 7x the graphics power of the iPhone 4. The new camera gives it 8 megapixel photos with more light sensitivity and better sharpness, and 1080p video. The new Siri voice control system provides a natural language interface so you can literally talk with your iPhone, ask it to do things for you, and it will answer back and do them.

Apple offers iPhone 4S at three price points depending on the amount of storage:

  • 16GB - $199
  • 32GB - $299
  • 64GB - $399

If you know you want a top of the line iPhone, with every feature and function Apple provides, then you want an iPhone 4S. If you're not sure which iPhone 4S you want, or on which carrier, or in which color, then fret not, we've got you covered.

Up-front savings vs. total cost of contract

Before you make up your mind, it's important to remember that while the iPhone 4GS is free and the 64GB iPhone 4S is $399, all of those prices require a 2 year contract in the US (other countries may have longer or shorter contract terms).

When you combine voice and data plans, text and other packages, the total cost could easily work out to $2000 or more over those 2 years.

$100 or even $399 isn't as big an amount when you consider the 24 month carrier commitment and total cost of ownership of your phone.

Any questions?

If you're still not sure, hit up our iPhone Forums to get the help you need to make up your mind.

Have something to say about this story? Leave a comment! Need help with something else? Ask in our forums!

Rene Ritchie

EiC of iMore, EP of Mobile Nations, Apple analyst, co-host of Debug, Iterate, Vector, Review, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Reader comments

iPhone 4S, iPhone 4, or iPhone 3GS: Which should you get?


Man, how many of these type posts are there going to be? lol.
Black or White: http://www.tipb.com/2011/10/07/black-white-iphone-4s-color-choose/
16, 32, 64 [great pic choice BTW; lol]: http://www.tipb.com/2011/10/07/16gb-32gb-64gb-iphone-4s-capacity/
At&T, Sprint, Verizon: http://www.tipb.com/2011/10/06/att-verizon-sprint-iphone-4s-choose/
Should you? http://www.tipb.com/2011/10/06/iphone-4s/
This makes 5. Your blog your rules. lol. Just feels excessive and overkill.

I can never understand the stupidity of people who refer to 'free phones'. the 3GS IS NOT FREE, these are all 'deposit' prices dependent on further payments.
Why doesn't the writer simply state the total cost of ownership as a real price? This is the oldest con in the mobile world (I remember an Orange phone offering 1p per minute calls, the first day I ran up a bill of 50p per minute because I made a mistake and called my friend who had sold her phone and bought a Vodafone without telling me...).
Put real costs up front and stop helping the con artists - this is NOT real or normal English, it is marketing propaganda.

I'm getting my iPhone 4s full retail in a couple of months. My upgrade isn't until 2/13 too far,and I did the math. I could potentially keep this phone 2 to 3 years so it will be worth it to pay that ,for me, of course.

I like the iPhone line so far. But I gotta say this 4S thing is a joke. They are just repackaging the same phone. They got the media in there pocket to brainwash the sheep into thinking they are some how deficient by not buying a new phone. This is like when windows put out Millennium Edition. If this is what life after jobs is like then I say no thanks.
It just shows you how important jobs was to apple. He is apple and just as he got sick and could no longer offer the level of innovation as before you end up with iPhone 4S. Why put your money into this when clearly it is apple that is now going on life support.

If you think the 4S is "life after Jobs" you're crazy. It's got his finger prints all over it ( simple usage and elegant looks ).
Not everyone is sold on the new phone. I love my iPhone 4 and am passing on the upgrade. I'll pick up a new phone next time around.

I am going to do exactly the same buddy ! Pass this time and get the five next year.
Besides I'm well happy with my iPhone 4 anyways.

It didn't really need more update than it got. What else should have they done?
I agree that if you already have an iPhone 4, you might skip this round... so? It's a great product for one buying a new phone, and you can save a bit if it's extras aren't worth it to you (by not upgrading, or by getting an iPhone 4).

So funny, "repackaging the same iPhone" and "Apple that us bid going on life support". Please go back to upload pics of your feet to Facebook.

I thought that might have been the case. lol. Thx for the response.
Cool on being just about done. Overload was setting in. :-)
Oh and I'll prob be getting all three to dev against [a few apps coming down the pike].

Nice post. but a 24 month contract is not just to pay the phone, the data/minutes/sms and your commitment is the real value of the contract for the carrier, not the phone.

I totally agree, but you mean 3GS, not 3G. I always buy phones off contract. Can't stand those overpriced contracts that commit you to a phone for 2 years, and if you want to leave or accidentally break your phone, you suddenly owe them $400. I'm going to buy a 4 used and use it for a year, sell it to my friend, and buy the 5 unlocked.

i want to purchase a iphone can u tell me which one is the best iphone 3gs or iphone 4 its my number+923235313970

I am sticking with the 3GS that I got last year I Love it and have no reason to want to upgrade unless I got some sick deal

I still have my original iPhone because I can't seem to part with it and it is great as a music player. I bought a 3GS and sold it for $199 and got a 4 for $150 when Radio Shack had them on sale last Christmas. So I made $49. I really want the 4S because it truly is a step up from the 4 with the camera, SIRI, etc. My quandary is the darn $250 contract fee this time around. I can get $294 for my 4 from Gazelle with the Costco code so that will help, but I sure would like to get a 32gb for the camera space. It was hard not to preorder yesterday, but hopefully by the 14th I will have made up my mind on what to do!

iPhone 4S is designed to replace the 3GS. Look at it that way and the 4S is a massive leap forward. Next year, the 2012 iPhone will be a massive leap forward from the iPhone 4 which it is designed to replace.
Apple knows that iPhone users are locked into 2 year plans and most of us aren't willing to pay the early termination fee every year. Hence the tick-tock new-update iPhone product cycle. Easy enough to understand, no?

Thank you. Finally somebody with sense. I have a 3GS, wasn't eligible for iPhone 4 upgrade price in 2010. This is a huge upgrade for me. Quite frankly, I prefer to be on "S" cycle since they've worked out the kinks (i.e. antenna, etc.) associated with a totally new design!

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I seen a gay faggit talking to his phone out loud in front of cashier at McDonald's he looked like a brain dead moron with his 4s

The entire contract cost is irrelevant to this analysis, its the marginal cost of a new iphone, because if you have a phone already, presumably you won't be talking or texting more suddenly because you got the iphone. I recognize that some people are on pay-per-use phones, and they would need to consider full contract cost. So for current phone users on a plan and upgrade eligible, the only change is the difference in mandatory data costs, which is a max of $30 assuming no prior data usage. So for someone with a phone already, the total extra cost is $ 720 plus taxes.
Now its ludicrous to say that someone who can't afford a $200-$400 upfront cost has no business making a $2000 contract spread over 2 years. Someone can easily have a budget that allows $80 in monthly phone expenses but might not be able to justify $300 in upfront costs on top of that. This is why there are phones in different price ranges.

I have a iPhone 3GS and I FREAKEN love this phone?! JUST CAUSE IT'S OLD MEANS NOTHING! It gets the Job done its fast and a iPod, browser, YouTube streaming, device thing...IOS5 is great on this iPhone once in a while it will act up but nothing to serous! My mom got me this phone as a birthday gift when money was extremely tight so in claims it is when you can't afford a iPhone 4! But I can't seem to break my self free from this model it's...cozy nice iPhone that fells right to me, even if it doesn't have 2 cameras or doesn't have a A4 chip or Retina display IT STILL HAS IOS5 APPS SAFARI IMESSAGE EMAIL and so much more I LOVE THE IPhone 3GS :)

Oh, iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S, two of the most popular smart phones ever created. Although they are quite similar in a lot of aspects, their differences are quite significant. Indeed, they come from the same iPhone 4 series, but their differences are truly worth considering. Let’s begin with their price. For an iPhone 4 at 8GB, it has a price tag of $99. For the iPhone 4S, its price varies with its drive size; a 16GB, a 32GB, and a 64GB is priced at $199, $299, and $399 respectively. Moving on, let’s take a look at its hardware.

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