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iOS 8 on the iPhone 4S: Performance isn’t the (only) problem

iOS 8 on the iPhone 4S: Performance isn’t the (only) problem

New OS wants screen space and processing power that the old phone doesn’t have.

by Andrew Cunningham – Sept 17 2014, 8:26 a.m. CDT | FROM

iPhones have about a year to be top-of-the-line. Then they have a year to be the modest-but-capable midrange model. After that, they become the free-with-contract choice. And then, in their last year, they enter that no-man’s-land where they’re still getting software updates but are no longer being sold.

2014 is the year the iPhone 4S was told to pack up its things and move to the retirement home. As a going away present, Apple gave it iOS 8, which in all likelihood will be the last major version upgrade it gets.

For the last two years, we’ve taken the oldest phone supported by each new iOS update and looked at what you stand to gain (and lose) by installing the update. We were impressed by iOS 6 on the iPhone 3GS, but iOS 7 on the iPhone 4 came with some serious compromises. The 4S has stayed pretty speedy over the years, but how does iOS 8 treat it?

Missing features

The iPhone 4S gets many of iOS 8’s biggest additions, including support for extensions and most of the improvements to Apple’s built-in applications. That said, it’s missing out on several features that depend on newer hardware:

  • AirDrop
  • TouchID
  • Handoff for applications, though iPhone call forwarding to other devices works fine
  • Support for OpenGL ES 3.0, the Metal graphics API, and 64-bit ARMv8 apps

In addition to that list, keep in mind that the iPhone 4S is much slower than any other iPhone Apple currently sells. It uses 2.4GHz-only 802.11n Wi-Fi, lacks LTE, and uses an Apple A5 chip that only offers about a quarter the raw performance of the Apple A7 in the iPhone 5S (the A8 in the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus widens this gap yet further). iOS 8 doesn’t leave the iPhone 4S behind, but you’ll pick up quite a few features by moving to something newer.

3.5 inches is not that many

The iPhone 4S was Apple’s last to use the original 3.5-inch iPhone screen size, which is now the smallest of four different phone screens that Apple supports. iOS 8’s new stuff is all about fitting more information on those larger screens, whether we’re talking about predictive typing, new Mail sorting options, Notification Center widgets, or Spotlight suggestions. The 4S’ screen has always been small, but iOS 8 can make it feel cramped.

Look at the Mail app, for example: you give up one strip of horizontal screen space to fit the typing suggestions and another strip at the top to show that Mail compose “windows” can be minimized to let you dig through the rest of your inbox. Both features work on the iPhone 4S, but they also leave you with only a very small bit of screen for what you’re writing.

If you don’t mind (or actively prefer) your 4S’ screen size, by all means, continue to enjoy it. You’ll just have to do more scrolling than you do on and iPhone 5 or an iPhone 6.

Needs more speed

We want to open this section by saying that iOS 8 on the iPhone 4S is nowhere near as bad as iOS 7 on the iPhone 4. That OS ran so slowly and looked so different on the iPhone 4 than it did on any other device that it was obvious the hardware was struggling to keep up.

The iPhone 4S made the jump to iOS 7 relatively gracefully, though, and it’s fine with rendering all of the fancy transparency and translucency effects. We were expecting speed to stay roughly the same in the jump from iOS 7 to iOS 8, more or less as it did when we moved from iOS 5 to iOS 6 on the 3GS. Testing some application launch times under both operating systems reset those expectations.

Should you upgrade?

Despite the problems we ran into, we think the answer for most people will still be “yes.” And if you happen to be using an iPhone 5 or iPhone 5C, the next-newest iOS 8 devices, go ahead and upgrade without fear; we didn’t notice any of the same speed problems on those phones that we did on the 4S.

iOS 8 is a big update, and it comes with a lot of big features. Although the iPhone 4S misses out on Handoff, it can still run extensions like widgets and third-party keyboards, two things iOS users have been awaiting for a long time now. By holding off on iOS 7, you were mostly just missing out on a redesign, but with iOS 8 there’s good stuff here that you’re going to want if you can get it. Ideally you wouldn’t have to trade features for performance, but in our opinion getting the new stuff is worth putting up with the small slowdowns you’ll experience.

If you’d prefer to play it safe and wait for a future 8.0.1 or 8.1 update to improve performance on older devices, that’s fine too—we hope that Apple makes it a priority as it continues to work on iOS 8.