Old to the new:  The iPhone 4S (left) compared to the iPhone 5 (right).

The iPhone 5 has created quite a frenzy since Apple officially revealed the redesigned device at last Wednesday’s press conference in San Francisco.  The latest phone is taller and thinner than last year’s iPhone 4S and has a larger 4.0-inch display compared to the 3.5-inch display of its predecessor.  But with all of the cosmetic, internal, and software upgrades that Apple has promised the real question is whether the new model is worth your money. 

I reached out to Brian X. Chen, technology reporter for The New York Times, about whether the proposed changes should change the mind of the consumer.  Chen’s vast mobile background includes three years at Wired Magazine, a stint at MacWorld magazine, and being the author of “Always On: How the iPhone Unlocked the Anything-Anytime-Anywhere Future–And Locked Us In,” a book he released last year explaining how the invention of the smartphone has led to serious social and economic ramifications on our culture.  After being mentioned by NY1 last week for a recent article he submitted to The Times, exploring how the new iPhone 5 accessories will lead to higher costs for users, it made perfect sense to ask Chen to be our Apple adviser.

What’s the biggest improvement that you see in the iPhone 5?

Mainly the big feature for everybody, of course, is the longer screen.  I think it would be beneficial in some ways for people to watch video in a bigger screen, to use applications more easily and get good photos of course.  I wouldn’t say that this is a very compelling upgrade between the 4S and the 5.  I don’t really think Apple intended it to be that way because these things are meant to be upgraded every two years.  That’s why our contract goes up and we are eligible to upgrade to a new device at a cheaper price.  So I definitely think it’s more of an upgrade for people who have a two-year old iPhone or maybe a three-year old iPhone and even older than that.  The one-year upgrade is for people who are fanatics.

Did anything shock you about last week’s press conference?

What was surprising about this iPhone was that there was such a lack of surprise.  In the past years, there’s always been a surprise feature that nobody knew about.  Like last year it was Siri.  The year before that it was the screen and how high-resolution it was.  This year, everybody knew everything about the device before it came out and I think that has to do with the new leadership in Tim Cook not being as aggressive about keeping a lid on the secrets at Apple.  I’m sure that Steve [Jobs] was more aggressive about chasing down where the leaks were coming from and reprimanding people.  What was most interesting to me was just how uninteresting the iPhone turned out to be because we already knew everything.

You may be right but I think the average consumer was shocked.  I think you have unique access that the general public does not have.

Yeah, you’re right.  I don’t think it’s going to matter that the secrets came out.  To me, my reaction as a journalist was that I sort of felt funny at the lack of surprise.  I’m used to Steve Jobs and his one more thing and I guess you could say that I miss Steve Jobs because he made it a bit more dramatic and more like a magical unveiling in some ways. 

For the person who currently owns the iPhone 4S, does the iPhone 5 present much of a difference?

It’s not much of a difference besides the screen. The 4S is already very fast.  It’s really capable.  It’s already a really solid device and I doubt that most people that have a 4S are going to be looking at the 5 saying, “Oh, I need a bigger screen.” It’s really going to be the people on the older devices.  They tend to feel slow now because expectations have changed a lot and we want faster and faster devices.  One thing to point out is that it’s not really hard for Apple to convince us to upgrade to a new phone anymore because the iPhone has reached such critical mass.  It’s the most popular smartphone in the world and for years if you have an iPhone, and I have an iPhone, we’ve been collecting apps ever since the app store came out since 2008.  We spent a lot of money buying into software and we are not going to let go of it because we can only use this software on the iPhone.  At this point, Apple doesn’t even need to try really hard to make people want to buy a new iPhone and adding a bigger screen might just be enough.

Both the iPhone 4S and the iPhone 5 come equipped with an 8-mexapixel camera.  Apple says that the iPhone 5’s camera has improved.  Can you explain that a little bit?

The way the iPhone is optimized is using the software to do things like optical image stabilization and that’s to reduce the camera when your hand is troubling for example.  For a while, Apple has been evolving the camera to use pretty advanced techniques to make it really easy because a lot of us are not very good photographers and starting with the iPhone is when amateur photographers started making photos look really good on a phone.  And one of the most underrated parts of the iPhone is just how easy it is to take photos and how Apple made it that way.  The fact that you can tap on a screen and choose where to focus an image was a brand new thing for basically everybody and that’s something worth highlighting.   

There’s going to be some tough decision-making for people who will be desperate to get this device even if they are already locked into a contract.

I’m sure there are going to be plenty of people who are obsessing over this device and still want to get the new one even though they are not eligible for it.  I think that’s a small population.  There’s probably a good 20 percent of fanatics who have to have the newest thing.  But overall that $600 price is pretty steep and is not going to be very easy for people to digest.

What’s your advice to the consumer who is on the fence about whether to purchase the iPhone 5?

I would advise everybody to be rational about the whole thing because every year Apple is going to put out a new iPhone and every year it’s going to introduce some interesting capability and if you really just don’t have a compelling need to spend more money then I would say just wait a while.  It’s fine if it’s been two years.  If you spend an extra $200 or maybe $300 and you get a new iPhone then fine.  But if you are spending more than that and going out of your contract then it’s probably not a good idea.


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