I wasn’t surprised by the CNBC.com headline, “Apple and Samsung earnings show most people don’t want $1,000 phones.”
As nice as the iPhone 10x and Samsung Galaxy S10 phones are, most people don’t need to spend $1,000 or more on a smartphone. In fact, most people don’t need to spend anything on a new phone because their old one probably works just fine.
Today’s smartphone market reminds me of the auto-industry of the ’50s and ’60s when people were encouraged to buy a new car every year or two. My frugal parents didn’t fall for that, but a lot of their friends did.
Apple and Samsung, of course, want you to buy the latest and greatest offering every year and even have financing programs to encourage that by having you, essentially, lease your phone with the payments added to your cell phone bill. It may be painless, easy and seemingly affordable, but if you add up the numbers, you’ll find you’re spending a lot more than you need to, even if they aren’t charging you interest.
Imagine if that were the case with other things you own. When’s the last time you replaced your refrigerator, stove, microwave oven or coffee maker? If you’re like me, only after the old-one stopped working or got too expensive to repair. Sure, there are breakthrough moments like the time I replaced a greasy old electric stove with a shiny new induction cooktop but, other than that, I don’t think about my appliances until they stop working – and even then I usually just get them fixed.
And unlike the difference between my old stove and my newer one, this year’s smartphones aren’t all that much better than last year’s. Every year when Tim Cook introduces a new iPhone, he says something to the effect of “it’s the best iPhone ever.” He’s right of course – why would they introduce a flagship phone that isn’t better than last year’s. But the difference is often trivial. Yes, they improve the camera every year, but cell phone cameras have been good for several years now. Yes, they’re faster, but last year’s phone is fast enough and, besides, the reasons phones slow down isn’t because of big differences in hardware but because of the apps you use.
If your phone is slow or a bit buggy, you can return its performance to the way it was the day you bought it by making sure your data is backed up (it probably already is to iCloud or Google’s backup servers but check first) and then restore it to factory defaults. That will erase everything and clean up all the digital cobwebs. Restore your apps and I bet it will be a lot faster. It might even be more energy efficient if you only replace the apps you actually need vs. the many you’ve probably installed but rarely use.
Of course, some people do need to buy a new phone. Their old one might break, get lost or perhaps the screen is cracked, or the battery isn’t lasting as long. You can have the screen or batteries replaced but it might not be worth it. But if you are in the market for a new phone, you don’t need to spend $1,000 or more for a decent one just as you don’t need to spend $50,000 or more for a reliable new car.
For most practical purposes it’s as good as Google’s flagship Pixel 3, that starts at $799. It’s not 100% as good, but it’s 50% the price and has a longer battery life. You give up water resistance and inductive charging and, in theory, the screen isn’t as nice, but the difference is negligible. The processor is a bit slower than the flagship model but – again – the difference is essentially irrelevant. Very few people would even notice.
There are plenty of other budget-priced Android phones on the market from LG, Motorola, Nokia and other companies. Even Samsung has affordable phones, including slightly older models like the Galaxy S8, which Best Buy sells unlocked starting at $349. You can buy a reconditioned one for less.
If you simply must have an iPhone, you can get a perfectly good older model such as the iPhone 8, for a lot less than the latest model. Apple sells brand new ones for $599. Gazelle.com sells reconditioned ones for just over $400. iPhone 7s, which were state of the art in 2017 are $449 from Apple and start at $239 from Gazelle. You can probably find lower prices on eBay.
If you want – literally – the latest iPhone, you can save about 25% by selecting an iPhone XR instead of the iPhone XS. I’ve reviewed by the XS and XR and find them to be comparable in most important aspects. As I said when I first reviewed them, The XS has a higher-resolution OLED display compared with the LCD screen on the XR, but holding them side-by-side, the difference, to my eyes, is negligible.
Despite what I just wrote, I know some people will want the latest and greatest and some of you who own the latest iPhone or Samsung, or Pixel are anxiously awaiting the new high-end models that will be announced this fall. I don’t blame you – I get excited about new phones too and enjoy getting to review them as soon as they’re released. If you really want a new phone and can swing it without having to forgo rent, skimp on medicine or eat beans for dinner, than I’m certainly not going to tell you not to indulge yourself. But if you need to save some money or have other things you’d rather spend your dollars on, then heed my advice and either keep your old phone or get a really good one that serves your needs but doesn’t break the bank.
Larry Magid is a tech journalist and internet safety activist.
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