Observations after a week with an old iPhone 4

Mike Rohde
Feb 1, 2016 · 6 min read

Last week I was giving my son a bath, when he decided to include me in the fun by dowsing me with bath water.

The iPhone 5s in my pocket got wet and would not charge or boot up.

I debated a few options: replace my dead iPhone 5s with another 5S, upgrade to an iPhone 6s, or switch carriers with all of the deals available right now. To buy myself time before jumping to any new phone, I switched to an old iPhone 4 and ran an experiment.

My experiment: how would an iPhone 4 work for a week in place of a modern, more powerful iPhone 5s?

Back to the Future: my iPhone 4. I’ve always loved its industrial design.

Starting from scratch

Because the 16GB in the old iPhone wasn’t big enough to hold 64GB of apps, photos and other stuff from my iPhone 5s, I decided to start with a factory-fresh version of iOS 7 and only install the apps I needed, as I needed them.

This was my most insightful decision, because as the week wore on, I realized I was only using about 30% of the apps I’d installed over the years on that iPhone 5s.

Here are the results from my week with the iPhone 4:

Hardware observations

The iPhone 4 is a timelsess design. It was strange handling the smaller-sized iPhone 4, but I immediately noticed its weight and solid build quality. It didn’t take long for me to love the industrial design of the iPhone 4.

I like the combination of glass front and back with metal banded sides. One day late in the week I tried to use a case, but took it off an hour later, because the device felt so good in my hand without it.

Speed wise, the 4 was slow running iOS 7. I realize the old hardware wasn’t designed for this new OS. However, and with a preference tweak and fewer apps, it wasn’t a big deal.

The camera quality was noticeably worse than my 5s. I was surprised by this, but also came to appreciate the jumps in quality Apple has made with their camera lenses and software to run them.

The retina screen was still great to look at. It took a day to get used to the shorter height, but that screen looked great even if I’d lost a row of icons.

It was strange adapting to he headphone jack on top. It’s funny how little differences like this are amplified after you’ve grown accustomed to new locations for things like headphone jacks.

I came to appreciate the design of the new lightning connector. The old 30-pin connectors are big and only work one way. I’m very thankful for the smaller, two-sided lightning connector design of modern iPhones.

Battery life was just enough. I used the iPhone 4 all day long, with a charge in the evening. I was surprised the battery still worked so well.

I missed Siri. I was surprised how often I wanted to use Siri on my phone or Watch, only to remember that it wasn’t an option on the old iPhone 4.

I really missed Touch ID. Immediately I noticed the lack of Touch ID. I’ve come to see how much I use this fantastic feature of the 5s.

My Apple Watch apps wouldn’t work with the 4. However I did see iMessage somehow sending messages to the Watch via bluetooth.

Hardware bottom line: the iPhone 4 is a beautiful and functional piece of hardware that worked well as an everyday phone. It did 90% of what my iPhone 5s, and it performed those tasks pretty well.

Software observations

Many of my new apps wouldn’t run on iOS 7, but old versions would. However, for most of them I was offered an older version of the app that was compatible with iOS 7. My biggest loss was Overcast, which did offer an iOS 7 version, but would not operate. I switched to Instacast instead.

Every other app that was most critical had an older version that worked fine with services like Twitter and Instagram. I loved this little accommodation for users of older iPhones.

iOS 7 on an iPhone 4 is noticeably slow. It’s not deal-breaker slow, but I noticed stuttering when panes would open, and when zooming to a screen when an app opened.

My solution was limit the number apps on the phone and to turn off Reduce Motion in Settings > General > Accessibility. The slower processor speed did not detract from getting things done, however.

I noticed UX and UI differences between iOS 7 and old apps. Of course, as a UX/UI designer I’m paid to notice things like this. Again, it made me appreciate how much of a jump iOS 7 was from iOS 6, and at the same time, how much I appreciate the little details added to my current apps and iOS 9.

Software bottom line: the iPhone 4 and iOS 7 are a pretty good, if slow package. I was able to do all the tasks I did with the iPhone 5s, and found older, working versions of every app I love, save one (Overcast).

Overall impressions

I appreciate how much the iPhone 4 did for me. I realize after a week with an iPhone 4 just how much of what I enjoy in my more modern iPhone 5s was defined in that early phone design.

The hardware and software of the iPhone have come a long way in 5 years. Little details like the lightning connector, speed of the processor and screen size remind me how much I love my iPhone 5s running OS 9.

It’s funny how these little details sneak up on you over time.

I’d added lots of crufty apps to my iPhone. As a designer in the software space, I like to try new apps pretty often.

Unfortunately I haven’t been as good at removing the apps I don’t use. Realizing I could get away with just two screens of apps was a real eye-opener.

Overall bottom line: I really liked the iPhone 4 after being away from the design for 5 years. It dropped right into my daily workflow and did a pretty good job replacing the iPhone 5s for 90% of my tasks.

Back on the iPhone 5s again

In the end, I’ve replaced my dead iPhone 5s with a new iPhone 5s at the Apple Store. Access to my Apple Watch and a few of the features, like a better camera, speed, Touch ID, and Siri brought me back.

Still, I appreciated a chance to use a simpler, smaller, 5 year old phone as a daily companion. The contrasts with my newer iPhone 5s became crystal clear after a week living with an old iPhone 4.

After restoring my apps, I’ve spent this weekend deleting a metric ton of crufty apps I never use—and it feels great. Seeing how simple my iPhone 4 could be has inspired me to keep my new iPhone 5s light and trim.

Best of all? I know that I can run an old iPhone 4 long enough to make a wise decision, should my son manage to give it a bath again.


Bestselling author Mike Rohde writes about sketchnoting, design, and visual thinking.

Mike Rohde

Written by

Designer. Bestselling author of The Sketchnote Handbook The Sketchnote Workbook. Illustrator of REWORK, REMOTE, $100 Startup. Founder of Sketchnote Army.



Bestselling author Mike Rohde writes about sketchnoting, design, and visual thinking.

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