Every iPhone has been a great iPhone – and nearly all of them have been excellent. Love ’em or hate ’em, Apple knows how to make fantastic devices.
So, 10 years after the first model launched, how to rank them? If we merely lined up the 15 distinct models in order of excellence the list would end up just being a chronological affair from oldest to newest, with the possible exception of the odd iPhone 5C or SE.
No, what’s needed here is context. Many of these phones have been game-changers in their time, ushering in hardware advancements, new ways of interacting with gadgets, and software additions that became indispensable. And with that in mind we’ve considered their impact and influence, the quality of competition and any major flaws, in addition to obvious factors such as form and function.
Now, on with the show…
15) iPhone 5C
The iPhone 5 was a brilliant phone when it was released in 2012, and it was still pretty great when Apple dressed it up in plastic and knocked a chunk off the price in 2013. And those colours! Whether or not you liked them, you have to admit they were daring (or utterly mad) picks by Apple.
But as the only iPhone ever released specifically to be a “lesser than” model, it was hard to drum up too much enthusiasm for its release. It was a year-old iPhone housed in cheaper materials to save a chunk of change, yet it was still a pricey Apple device. If it was your first iPhone, the 5c was probably still one heck of an introduction. But for the rest of us, it just couldn’t stack up.
14) iPhone 3GS
When the iPhone 3GS launched in 2009, it was certainly a notable enhancement over the prior iPhone 3G. The “S” stood for speed, and it was surely felt: the 3GS ran upwards of twice as fast as its sluggish predecessor, plus it added a better camera – with video capabilities! – along with voice control.
But in the historical context of core iPhone upgrades, it’s arguably the least consequential of the bunch. It doesn’t help that it’s sandwiched by the upgrade to 3G data on one end and the iPhone 4’s beautiful design and Retina display on the other. If you got the 3GS, you surely appreciated the upgrade. If you didn’t, well, you didn’t miss that much.
13) iPhone 4S
Here’s another “S” upgrade that was very nice at the time, but ultimately not as critical in the grand scheme of things. The iPhone 4s built upon the revolutionary design and Retina display of the original iPhone 4, with enhancements to the camera and graphics capabilities. And the revised antenna design avoided the issues some encountered on the iPhone 4.
But the biggest feature addition was that of voice assistant Siri, which… let’s face it, didn’t end up being as useful as it initially seemed. Still, we have to give the 4s props for one thing: longevity. It’s received the iOS 9 upgrade this year, four years after its initial release, making it the first iPhone to stay active for that long.
12) iPhone 5S
Whereas the iPhone 5c took the iPhone 5 and made it feel cheaper, the iPhone 5s started from that same device and made it markedly better. The Touch ID sensor was the most obvious perk, offering innovative security functionality that worked startlingly well (even if not perfect), but the upgrade to a 64-bit processor also allowed for glossier game and app experiences.
That said, the iPhone 5s launched at a time when Android makers were pushing into phones with much larger, sharper screens, and Apple’s phone couldn’t help but seem a little dinky by comparison. It was still a great device; it still is today, to be sure. But after the brilliant iPhone 5, the 5s couldn’t help but seem a little too familiar.
11) iPhone 6S Plus
Like the iPhone 6s elsewhere in this list, the 6s Plus doesn’t bring massive changes over its predecessor. Still, it offers the complete iPhone experience, including a 3D Touch screen and super-fast fingerprint scanner.
It also has the bonus of optical image stabilisation, which results in better low light shots and more stable video recording – something which the iPhone 6s lacks. Its battery life is also impressive, and has us reaching for the charger less than any other iPhone before it. It’s still bloody massive though.
10) iPhone 7
Before its release, rumours abounded that Apple was going to wave goodbye to the humble headphone port on the iPhone 7 – which is exactly what happened. Besides a few heckling headlines, though, did it make much difference? Well, apart from needing a pesky peripheral to use standard jack-equipped ‘phones, the rest was business as usual.
Sure, the iPhone 7 saw a raft of upgrades and it’s still a fabulous smartphone – but much of that was about building on what had gone before.
The screen was improved, the home button refined and the range of finishes expanded – not to mention the 7’s quicker chip and longer battery life – but it’s definitely a case of refinement over revolution. We still gave it five stars, though.
9) iPhone 6s
The term ‘evolution not revolution’ is thrown around almost as often as the over-used ‘Keep calm and…’ message, but – as with the 7 – it applied well to the iPhone 6s (and its larger 6s Plus brother).
Apple’s 2015 flagship looked almost identical to its predecessors which, granted, was no bad thing, given how sleek and handsome it was. The main changes were hidden beneath the iPhone 6s’ aluminium body, the most notable of which was Apple’s 3D touch display.
The new screen responded to pressure as well as touch, letting users playback Live Photos, resulting in Harry Potter-like moving images. Pressing harder also served up extra menu options, or opened links in a mini window instead of a proper browser. Fancy stuff, but arguably nothing that would force you to upgrade from the iPhone 6.
8) iPhone 6 Plus
Steve Jobs might not have approved in his time, but Apple finally entered the phablet market when it revealed the iPhone 6 Plus. With a 5.5in display, it’s a massive leap over the iPhones of yesteryear, and even a significant bump over the 4.7in screen of the standard iPhone 6.
But it’s huge – even larger than some Android phones with same-sized screens or even slightly larger. For some, it was the giant iPhone they’d always dreamed of. For others, it was just too unwieldy to handle. But one thing’s for sure: it was Apple’s most tech-packed iPhone to date, thanks to that Full HD screen and the optical image stabilisation in the camera.
7) iPhone SE
The combination of a palm-friendly design with up-to-date innards and a very decent – for Apple – price together served to rejuvenate the compact iPhone concept. It looks as pretty as the iPhone 5 ever did and proves – in the face of the 5C – that Apple does know how to develop its brand beyond a ‘one big, one small’ approach.
Sure, it lacks the 3D Touch that was introduced with the iPhone 6s, while its design barely differs from that of the iPhone 5, but as an affordable option for those looking to balance high specs with pocket space, it’s unbeatable. Well, unless you move across to Android of course.
6) iPhone 7 Plus
Two lenses on the 7 Plus – a telephoto and a wide angle – make it a photographer’s dream, showing just how far things have come from the original iPhone with its 2MP afterthought.
Better still, the 5.5in display handles a wide colour gamut, while the four-core A10 Fusion chip inside makes sure things always feel instantly responsive.
There’s even a 256GB model for media hoarders. Love phablets or hate them, the iPhone 7 Plus is the pinnacle of big phones.
5) iPhone 6
Given that the build and use experience were by and large identical between them, the choice between the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus really came down to personal preference. We liked the 4.7in model, which provided a larger screen than past models while still being comfortable in the hand.
It’s an excellent device through and through. The biggest knock against the iPhone 6 was that the competition was better than ever: Android phones – like the Moto X and HTC One (M8) – put up a strong fight, and the Samsung Galaxy S6, LG G4, and OnePlus 2 were even more impressive. Apple still sold the iPhone 6 in droves, mind.
Both the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus were the first Apple handsets to have NFC powers, which opened up the convenience of Apple Pay at retailers and for dashing around public transport. Sure you could just as easily whip out your wallet, but it doesn’t look anywhere near as cool, does it?
4) iPhone 3G
True, the nine-year-old iPhone 3G won’t seem like much now: the best it can run is iOS 4, and it’s dated in features, functionality, and connectivity. But at the time, it was remarkable: a major evolution of the original iPhone’s design while adding the crucial feature of 3G data support. For a phone that was so focused on web usage, that was a dramatic upgrade.
The iPhone 3G also ushered in the release of the App Store – surely the most important feature addition in iPhone history. True, the 3G was nowhere near as important or influential as the original iPhone. But as Apple enthusiasts know, the second-gen model is where refinement really takes hold, and that was definitely true here.
3) iPhone 4
Damn, the iPhone 4 was beautiful – not only in comparison to the iPhones that came before it, but also to every other phone on the market. Swapping to an ultra-thin design with a flat glass back and a metal antenna all along the edges was an aesthetic masterstroke. But that’s not all: the iPhone 4 also introduced the gorgeous Retina display to the line.
Granted, that innovative body design also came with a big caveat: the antenna had a tendency to misbehave if the phone was held in a certain way, prompting “Antennagate” controversy and Apple’s need to give everyone free Bumper cases to avoid the issue. That’s a sad footnote against a phone that could otherwise easily lead this list.
The original iPhone changed everything, ushering in an era of touch devices that has resulted in billions of modern smartphones and tablets sold around the world. It’s difficult for us to overstate the importance of the first iPhone. Without it, where would phones be today? Surely, someone else would have sorted a capacitive touchscreen phone before long, but would it have been with anywhere near the quality that Apple showed right out of the gate?
Ranking this phone was our most difficult task, given its status. We knew it had to be near the top of the list, but considering all of the aspects in play here, we had to give the honours to another device…
1) iPhone 5
And that device is the iPhone 5. Why? Well, for our money, it’s the last iPhone that truly wowed us with its debut, and it showed Apple at the top of its smartphone game. The iPhone 5 is gorgeously designed, thinning the sharp iPhone 4 build to a stunning degree while thankfully extending the display to proper widescreen dimensions and a 4in size.
Crucially, it’s also where Apple embraced long-overdue LTE support, finally giving users the network speed to appreciate that great Retina display and the wonderful App Store selection. It was the iPhone that sorted our biggest lingering complaints in nearly every significant way and felt like a nearly complete package.
Sure, iOS 6 felt a little dated by that point, and Apple’s Maps was a mess at launch; those bits can’t be ignored. But otherwise? Considering the overall quality of the device, the upgrades from the prior models, and the competition at the time, we think the iPhone 5 holds up best all around.