iPhone or something else: Which phone should you get?

Just because Apple has released the new iPhone 5 doesn't mean you have to race off and get it. Crazy, I know, particularly coming from the biggest iPhone enthusiast site on the web, but that just goes to show you how true it is. When the time comes for you to get your next phone, whether it's today or next year, and iPhone or something else, you should look at what's on the market and decide what best suits your needs.

Upgrading from an older iPhone

If you're currently using an older iPhone, especially an original iPhone or iPhone 3G your contract has likely long since expired, you device has long since fallen out of OS updates, and you can and should get a new iPhone at the discounted price. Pricing starts at zero (0) dollars for the iPhone 4 on most carriers. Do it.

If you bought an original iPhone 3GS, the same advice applies. Even though the iPhone 3GS can run iOS 6, it can't run it well. If you bought an iPhone 3GS in the last year, you may or may not qualify for full upgrade pricing, but it's worth checking just in case. The difference even between an iPhone 3GS and an iPhone 4, much less iPhone 5, are stratospheric.

For iPhone 4 owners, the same advice applies. If you can get full upgrade pricing, a $100 iPhone 4S is a nice upgrade and a $200+ iPhone 5 is a fantastic upgrade.

A new iPhone will run all the same apps and play all the same content as your old iPhone, only far, far, far better.

Upgrading from an iPhone, iPhone 3G, iPhone 3GS, or iPhone 4 is almost a no brainer.

Upgrading from an iPhone 4S to iPhone 5

If you're using an iPhone 4S, the upgrade question is much less clear. You're probably still on contract with your carrier, and these days they're not always rushing to give you an early upgrade or full discount. (Pro tip: Call straight into the retention department, don't bother with regular customer service, and make them understand your paying the every month for the next few years depends on them helping you get a new phone today.) And that's once you decide it's even worth it. Here's what you'd get with the iPhone 5:

  • LTE/DC-HSPA radio for super fast internet. If you hate waiting for web pages to load, or if you do a lot of tethering, it's hugely worth it.
  • 16:9 wide screen. If older iPhone screens were always too small and too cramped for you, you might like the longer one on the iPhone 5.
  • It's faster and better. For some people performance and/or appearance matters. The iPHone 5 is twice as fast as the iPhone 4S, and it's got a new, two-tone design. You'll spend less time waiting for apps, and all your friends will know you have the new phone.

In other words, the iPhone 5 is not a compelling upgrade for iPhone 4S users unless it fixes a specific problem like LTE or screen size.

Upgrading from Android, BlackBerry, webOS, or Windows Phone to iPhone 4S

If your current phone of choice runs Android, Windows Phone, or is a BlackBerry, here's where it gets tricky. If you're not on contract, it's easier. If you are, you need to weigh the pros and cons and see if the features you get outweigh the penalties you'll have to pay.

  • The iPhone 5 isn't as customizable as Android, so if you like widgets and replacement keyboards and ROM flashing, you'll be disappointed.
  • The iPhone 5 doesn't have BBM (BlackBerry Messenger), so if that's what your friends use you'll be out of touch -- and out of luck. iMessage will let you talk with other iOS users in an SMS/MMS type way, and there are cross-platform apps, but none of them are BBM.
  • The iPhone 5 only comes in one style. No sliders, no flips, no hardware keyboards of any kind, and no option for a bigger than 4-inch screen.

But iPhone has a lot going for it as well.

  • The iPhone 5 has multiple layers but the first layer is so incredibly easy to use that the most non-tech savvy of people, people who are moving up from feature phones, can pick it up and get going with it immediately. At the same time it's highly appealing to expert and veteran smartphone users who want to spend their time getting things done, not getting their phones to do things.
  • The iPhone 5 has iTunes and now iCloud, which does a lot of what iTunes used to but without the cable, lets you easily sync your existing content and also gives you access not only to the App Store but iTunes music, movies, TV shows, podcasts, iTunes U (University) and overall more content in more parts of the world than any other service.
  • The iPhone 5 gets software updates whenever Apple pushes them out. There's no waiting for manufacturers or carriers to decide if they're going to bother giving them to your phone or not. They just work.
  • The iPhone 5, if you live near an Apple Retail Store and you have a problem with your phone, can often be fixed on the spot. There's no passing the buck between carrier and manufacturer, there's no sending your phone away for lengthy repairs. You make a Genius Bar appointment, you show up, they fix your phone or swap it for a new one (if you're still under warranty or Apple Care). They'll also help you set it up and teach you how to use it. If you're new to phones, this is the single best reason to go Apple.
  • The iPhone 5 ties into Apple's entire ecosystem. Apple itself creates a ton of other products to supplement the iPhone, including Mac computers, iPods, iPads, a ton of software, and much, much more.

It's also important to realize that a lot of phones can change a lot over the course of a year. New devices will just keep arriving, so make sure you check for the latest

If there's some limitation when it comes to the iPhone that you can't live with, or if you just don't like Apple, don't get an iPhone. For example, if you like to tinker and want your phone, your way, don't get an iPhone.

Otherwise, get an iPhone. For most people it remains the best first smartphone on the planet.

Upgrading from a feature phone to iPhone 5.

Pretty soon all phones will be smart phones. It's inexorable. There are only two real questions. One is when you become part of the transition -- now when you choose to, or later when you absolutely have to. Two is what phone you'll transition too. Data charges on a smartphone will mean significantly higher monthly bills, though enable you to do far more than you could on a flip or candybar phone.

Given that it's inevitable, once you decide to take the smartphone plunge, the iPhone is a great place to start. It can be as simple as a feature phone if that's what you want, or as powerful as a true pocket computer,

Either way, it's a great choice.

iPhone 5 buyers guide

Have something to say about this story? Share your comments below! Need help with something else? Submit your question!

Rene Ritchie

Editor-in-Chief of iMore, co-host of Iterate, Debug, Review, Vector, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Reader comments

iPhone or something else: Which phone should you get?

32 Comments

Great article. However, you should probably give some fair advice in the feature phone section. That advice should include the higher priced (data-based) plans a user is likely going to be forced to face if they move from a feature phone to any smartphone these days. It's something worth thinking about especially when you consider the cost of those plans over a 2-year contract.

I agree with you. Because believe it or not people there are a lot of people that are still using feature phones. I know of three people looking to upgrade from a feature style phone to a new iPhone and I made them all aware or the price differences of services. I also mentioned that there will most likely be others costs of owning a smartphone. Such as buying accessories, applications and other content that they normally wouldn't do on a dumb or feature phone.

This article assumes that everyone has enough money to spend on expensive iphone and the contract plans.

If you have a feature phone and have no intentions of ever owning a smart phone, you don't belong here anyway. Data plans are not "forced" on anyone. It's the price of admission into the park if you want to go on the rides.

Don't belong here? It's a "buyer's guide" of sorts. If you get a smartphone on many carriers these days, data plans ARE forced upon you. Perhaps for you the "price of admission" should never be considered when comparing "parks", but for many others, it is. Some of these plans call for monthly bills that are sometimes in the range of 30%-60% higher than their feature phone plans...that might be an important thing to consider.

Why no one mention jailbreak ??? *If there's some limitation when it comes to the iPhone that you can't live with, or if you just don't like Apple, don't get an iPhone. For example, if you like to tinker and want your phone, your way, don't get an iPhone.* ,,,, WTF.... there is always a jailbreak for that !!!

Actually is there any one who is using a featur phone these days!! And what do u think from changing from and iPhone 4s to iPhone 5 is it worth it!! I love to but it some times doesn't make sense!! The majore difference is LTE to mee! What do u all think?

lots of people. my father for one. everyone's not paying attention to phones. it's a tool: an appliance to get a job done for most.

Well more like asking for free admission to the park saying you're not going to ride the rides, just watch.

It's the price of admission to get in; if you want a smartphone you buy data. If $15 extra is too much per month to pay (for the lowest data plan offered if you truly would not use it) then you likely have no use for a smartphone to begin with.

So, when considering upgrading to a smartphone, a user should NOT consider the fact that their cost will increate an extra $15/month ($360/contract)?

No one is saying that a user shouldn't pay to play or anything like that. The point was, if you're writing a buyer's guide-type article, then give the user the information they need. This was done in all the other categories of this article except the feature phone section. Why is it so unreasonable to expect some people to factor in a higher payment (even if it's just $15) when considering purchases?

BTW, that $15 turns into $60 for me on my family plan. If I were considering moving my family from feature phone to smartphone, I would most surely consider the extra $1440 I'd have to shell out for the contract in this case. I'm not starving or anything, but an increase of $1440 is still a sum I'd at least make sure I'm willing to commit to. To each their own.

Again, pay to play.

If you don't want to pay the approx. $10,000/year for gas and insurance you don't buy a Ferrari, period; you go buy the Prius and pay approx $3-4,000/year for gas and insurance to own a car.

That is your choice to make, and if you dont think it is worth the cost, then that is a personal decision. It is your choice to choose go with the Prius/feature phone.

But the system is not broken because you dont want to shell out the additional required cost to have the nicer toy.

Taharka never said anything about "broken". This is an article about switching from various 'other' phones to an IP5. He merely, and correctly pointed out that that feature phone analysis might have, probably should have, discussed the data cost. That's all. Now we have a bunch of folks making noise and disrespecting comments. Very unfortunate. Maybe Rene, or an iMore moderator might pop in to remind folks to play nice. (Cue attacks on me in 3 2 1 . .)

Again, no one is forcing you "into the amusement park". But since we're on the subject, have you ever seen someone walk into one, buy a balloon and leave? No. Anyone entertaining a smartphone understands or is TOLD it requires a data plan. I have never seen a carrier representative FORCE someone to buy a smartphone. Its still a voluntary choice.

Again, this is not about justifying the cost of a data plan. If you get a data plan, you should pay for it. We agree on that point. My point is that if you read a buyer's guide, the cost of one option over another is something worth mentioning as it has a direct effect on the person who will be faced with the choice. Look at the outrage Sprint customers experienced when they were forced to pay a $10 "data fee" for certain smart phones. Whether you are willing to pay it or not is not the issue here. All I was requesting of Rene is to include information about that just like he included comparative information in the other sections. He even mentioned cost differences in the "Upgrading from an older iPhone" section.

Not sure why you can't see this, but ok. I'll leave it alone. Hopefully Rene will choose to include the information.

Really good article. I'm tired of hearing about all the iPhone haters vs. all the Droid haters. There's room for both types of smartphone. Choose the one that you like and go with it. There are a lot of great options out there. The iPhone has some pros and cons, and Android phones or anything else have their pros and cons. People should just buy one they like and use it as best as they can.

I agree. I was a blackberry user for years. I wanted more so I tried a Droid. Didn't like it. Now I am on Apple products. Crack berry Kevin has a smartphone hierchy of needs and he will tell you get the smartphone that works for you. Nothing against BlackBerry or Android. BlackBerry still has a special place in my heart but Apple just works for me right now. In a year it may be different. People need to quit hating, b!tching and moaning. Get what you want and leave everyone else alone. Apple and Google/Samsung, though they are publicly at each others throats, love them or hate them, must be doing something right. If you don't believe it check the financial reports.

not exactly an unbiased selection guide for choosing a smart phone. If someone is here actually trying to decide, they should go somewhere else.

While I'm sure this is stating the obvious, Rene`, as a current BlackBerry user-that will definitely upgrade in November to the new iPhone 5 when my eligibility arrives-the biggest challenge I will face is losing the physical qwerty keyboard. But the lack of ecosystem should easily make up for it. I'm currently on OS6 with BlackBerry, and I'm really starting to notice the lack of support. If I'm on Twitter and a friend post an Instagram picture I cannot view it. The browser is just that poor at this point. Not to mention that I can't get Instagram! While I realize, at the end of the day, that the app is not exactly necessary it would be nice to at least have the choice. I can't wait. I will just have to relearn how to type on a cell phone after using tactile input since 1998. Maybe you can hire me as a new perspective... :)

The unfortunate thing is that none of the comparisons look at the quality of the apps.

I have both a 4S and a Droid X2. Because I occasionally swap to the DX2, I've installed the same apps on it (like Path, Flipboard, Yelp, Calengoo, .....). I have found that most of the apps on Android are less stable. I have also found that almost all the apps on Android are lower quality or have less capabilities. It all adds up to a much worse user experience on Android.

Putting a bigger screen on an Android phone is like putting lipstick on a pig.

For a true comparison, use both platforms for a few months at least to get past the spec sheet and see how you really like them.

Oh yeah another one is being able to Attach files from other services like Dropbox or skydrive through text which I guess is a mix of of the OS/Apps.

Why isn't there the option/opinion of switching from an iPhone to an Android or Windows devices? I have 3GS, and I must say the iPhone 5 was very disappointing to me. I'm not saying that I'm going to switch, but I have considered it.

I have an iPhone 4 right now and after finding out the screen is 4" only and taller, I automatically passed. I was expecting a taller and wider screen that is bigger than 4" like the Galaxy S3 but you let me down. And we all know the following year's iPhone (iPhone xS) won't be a major change to the hardware maybe just a bit faster or a slightly better camera so I'll look be looking forward to see what Apple has to offer on the iPhone 6. Until then I'll be upgrading to a Galaxy S3. Sorry Apple, the screen 4" only and taller was a deal breaker for me, I was expecting it to be bigger and wider say atleast a 4.3". Hopefully you'll impress the many who have been disappointed by this on the iPhone 6 including myself.

Good job Rene . The article is well written and thought out. I can't say 100% for sure until I hold a Iphone 5 in my hand and look it over in person but I believe you just talked me into passing my 2 month old galaxy s3 to my daughter and using here upgrade in November to get me an iPhone 5. I need to be as close to 100% certain as I can be because I will be stuck for 2 years with whatever I get at that point.

Great article! Glad to see it was fair and didn't just bash other platforms. I love my apple products but I'm also not embarrassed to say Android has some great features/devices as well.

I'll be switching back to iPhone and the iPhone 5 from Windows Phone. I entered the contest so hopefully it's sooner rather than later. Otherwise my wife has been kind enough to let me use her upgrade in November.