Buy an iPhone 5 or Wait?

There are some technological features which jump out as definitely worth buying, and others which beg patience.  To be truly compelling, the set of features has to provide a starkly noticeable change in experience and capability.  Based on the preliminary leaks, it doesn’t appear that the changes in iPhone 5 will be a big enough for a lot of iPhone 4S owners.

The camera on the current 4S is excellent.  When the original iPhone was introduced, it wasn’t acceptable as a general point-and-shoot camera replacement.  In 2009, the iPhone 3GS was pretty good and could sometimes take photos that didn’t look like they were taken on a phone.  The iPhone 4 was an improvement, but it wasn’t until 2011 with the upgraded optics in the 4S that the phone could finally serve as a serviceable point-and-shoot camera replacement.  The 4S camera is considered one of the best phone cameras available, and unlike the generations before it, it isn’t in dire need of an upgrade this time.

The iPhone 5’s bigger screen will be nice, but it won’t be the type of dramatic change we saw between the early non-retina displays and the ultra-sharp current models.  The current Retina display set the standard for the industry, and even though subsequent competing phone displays are bigger, they aren’t much better.

Audio improvements would be nice for video recording, but for general use, the iPhone’s audio is already decent.  Like the expected camera and screen upgrades, any audio improvements will likely be incremental.

The more interesting changes are in data transfer.  For me, the faster LTE mobile data is not such a big deal since I’m generally on WiFi, and it’s still a bit early to make wide use of NFC.  Also, even though we can expect good-looking design improvements, it’s hard to beat the case design and form factor of the 4/4S — it’s the type of aesthetic triumph that doesn’t come along too often.  Apple has its work cut out to improve upon it.

So, for the owner of a Siri-less, old-optics iPhone 4 or lower, the upgrade is an easy choice, but from a 4S, the benefits are for the most part incremental.  Most likely, I’ll skip this iteration and look forward to the next model.  When coupled with the current upgrades, maybe the 2014 model iPhone will provide even more feature synergy… but that’s a long time from now considering how fast phones evolve.  Nearly a year after purchase, I’m still pleased, not just satisfied, with the iPhone 4S.  And that’s without the forthcoming upgrades in iOS 6.