If you're shopping for a new iPhone, Apple gives you not just one, but three options to choose from. Do you splurge on the flagship iPhone 5s, with its cutting-edge fingerprint sensor? Do you save a few bucks, and get the colorful and capable iPhone 5c? Or maybe you sign a two-year contract and get the aging iPhone 4s for "free?" Let Gizmag help you decide, as we compare the features and specs of the three iPhones available in 2013-2014.
Update: The new version of this comparison, featuring Apple's 2014 lineup, is now live.
The iPhones 5s and 5c are almost the same size, though the 5c is 18 percent thicker. The older iPhone 4s is seven percent shorter than the two newer models.
All three iPhones, though, are much smaller than most of the Android phones you'll see on your local store's shelf. The iPhones 5s and 5c may look big next to the 4s, but just check out the 5s next to the huge Galaxy Note 3 to get some perspective.
The iPhone 5s is the lightest of the bunch. If you've ever used an iPhone 5 (which has been sent packing for the Shady Pines retirement home for iPhones), then the 5s is the exact same size and weight.
Believe it or not, all three phones are made of different build materials. We have the aluminum iPhone 5s (again just like the retired iPhone 5), the "unapologetically plastic" iPhone 5c, and the iPhone 4s, with its two plates of glass sandwiched around a stainless steel band.
Apple focused more on color in its 2013 iPhones, especially with the pastel-like iPhone 5c.
All of the iPhones' displays are small compared to their high-end Android competition, but the 4s' screen is positively puny. All three have very sharp (326 pixels per inch) Retina Displays, so nothing to worry about on that front.
The Touch ID fingerprint sensor is the iPhone 5s' killer feature. If you like to protect your phone's data with a passcode, Touch ID lets you do that without, well, having to actually enter a passcode. Hold your finger on the home button for a second or two, and – Eureka! – the gates will open. Any fingerprint that isn't on your trusted list will need that passcode to get in.
Don't be fooled by the megapixel counts listed above: each camera gets better as you move from right to left. The iPhone 5s' shooter is improved in low-light photography, and adds a burst mode that automatically chooses the sharpest shot.
The iPhone 5s' camera also sports a second LED for its flash ("True Tone"), which supposedly leads to more accurate skin tones when conducting flash photography. In our experience, the most obvious difference was that it saturated subjects a bit more than single-LED flashes do.
Another selling feature for the iPhone 5s' camera is its new slow-motion video feature. It's great for capturing action shots of your kids, pets, or fleeing purse-snatchers. You'll need a third-party app to record slow-mo on the older iPhones.
This is another category where the above specs don't tell the full story. The iPhone 5s is by far the fastest of the three, though the 5c is also a very zippy phone. The 4s seemed fast when it hit store shelves two years ago, but it's going to be a little laggy compared to the other two.
The iPhone 5s has a new M7 chip, which is dedicated to processing motion sensor data. Sound geeky? Well, all you need to know is that it lets you use fitness apps and accessories (like the Nike Fuelband, Jawbone Up, or Fitbit Flex) without sucking the life out of your iPhone's battery, assuming they all update their software for the M7.
On a side note, the M7 chip is also likely paving the road for a future Apple smartwatch.
If you want to max out your storage with a hearty 64 GB, then the iPhone 5s is your only option. For most customers, though, 16 GB or 32 GB should suffice. The mere 8 GB found in today's iPhone 4s might get a little tight if you store lots of pictures, music, videos, and games.
Apple often manages to eke out some of the best performance in any smartphone (at least with its latest model) without relying on tons of RAM.
The two newer models support speedy 4G LTE mobile data speeds.
The old iPhone 4s maxes out at HSPA+ speeds for GSM carriers (like AT&T or T-Mobile in the US), which are faster than 3G, but slower than LTE. If you're on a CDMA carrier (like Verizon or Sprint in the US), then the 4s only supports slower 3G.
If the above capacities don't mean anything to you, have no fear. The iPhone 5s should have the longest battery life, though the 5c should be very close. The 4s lags behind, but still has pretty solid uptimes.
All three iPhones run the new iOS 7, with its fresh flat design and parallax transition animations. All three iPhones, of course, tap into the well-stocked App Store as well.
When the iPhone 4s launched two years ago, it was the only Apple device that included the Siri virtual assistant (summoned with a long-press of the home button). Today all three iPhones have Siri, and its accompanying voice dictation.
The iPhone 5s just hit store shelves. The iPhone 5c did too, but its guts are almost identical to 2012's iPhone 5. The 4s, as we mentioned, originally launched in late 2011.
Starting prices (on-contract)
There still isn't a truly budget iPhone option, but you can save a few bucks on the 4s. Just remember that the up-front price you pay is a mere drop in the ocean compared to the thousands you'll spend over the course of a two-year contract.
Note that the above (and below) prices are in US dollars.
Starting prices (off-contract)
If you don't like to be tied down, you can always pay full price to get your iPhone with no strings attached. Just be prepared to pay the pretty pennies listed above.
Wrap-upIn years past, the newest iPhone was almost always the best choice. And while the iPhone 5s is still the best of this crop, the iPhone 5c still gives a strong showing. If you don't care about the fingerprint sensor, slow-motion video, or improved camera, then maybe the candy-coated colors of the iPhone 5c will be the best fit for you.
The 4s, meanwhile, is merely hanging around so Apple can have a free on-contract option. Just remember that it lags far behind its siblings, and it only shaves US$100 off the price of the much better iPhone 5c.
If you're leaning towards the flagship model, then maybe perusing our iPhone 5s review will help you to make up your mind, eh? Or if you want to cast your net a bit wider, you can see how the 5s compares to the Galaxy S5 or check out our Smartphone Comparison Guide.