Are iPhone prices giving you heartburn? Consider your options

In this edition of Ask Maggie, CNET's Marguerite Reardon walks you through the alternatives if you can't stomach dropping hundreds of dollars on a new phone.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
4 min read

If the price tag of a new phone makes you sweat, you're not alone.

Since all four major carriers have done away with their device subsidies, US consumers for the first time are seeing how much their fancy phones actually cost. And it's not pretty. While we've all been trained to lust for the latest Apple iPhone or Samsung Galaxy gadget, which cost a small fortune, the reality is that you can still get a pretty sophisticated, good-quality phone for a fraction of the price.

In this edition of Ask Maggie, I spell out options for a frugal shopper.

Dear Maggie,

My old phone is on the fritz. I need a new one stat, but the prices are horrifying. I've heard old iPhones drop in price right after the new iPhones come out. Is the drop substantial? I don't want a used or pre-owned phone, so what advice can you offer someone looking for a new phone, preferably an iPhone, without breaking the bank?



Dear Sticker-shocked,

I hear you. We consumers have been left in the lurch by the demise of carrier contract plans, which once let you upgrade to a new phone every couple of years for $200, even if the full retail price of your phone was really $650.


Moto G4 Amazon Prime Edition

Josh Miller/CNET

Sure, now you can sign up for installment payment plans that feel like an old contract plan because they split up the payments over 24 months and just tack $20 or $30 a month onto your bill. But in the end, you're still paying the full price for your new phone. And that's a lot of dough when you're talking about a device like an iPhone.

So what are your options?

Must have an iPhone

As you noted in your question, Apple has traditionally reduced the price of its previous-generation device by $100 every year. Luckily for you, Apple will announce the next iteration of the iPhone in the week ahead, which means the 6S line will likely drop in price by $100, to $549 for the 16GB version of the iPhone 6S and $649 for the iPhone 6S Plus.

But who are we kidding -- $549 is still a lot of money. Apple seems to understand that not all of its loyal followers are willing to pay such a hefty price. That's why earlier this year, Apple introduced the iPhone SE. This 4-inch iPhone is similar in size to the iPhone 5 but packs much of the same whiz-bang technology of iPhone 6S, including the same rear-facing camera. The good news for you is that the base model with 16GB of memory costs only $399.

It's hard to say what Apple will do with SE pricing once the iPhone 7 is announced. After all, the iPhone SE has only been out about six months. Still, I'd say if the prices remain the same, it's probably the best deal you can get on a new iPhone. And I would opt for the 64GB model of the iPhone SE for $499 rather than buy an iPhone 6S with only 16GB of storage for $549. Trust me when I say that 16GB is inadequate.

Another thing to consider is that you can trade in your existing iPhone and use that cash to put toward a new one. But it sounds like your old iPhone isn't working very well, so you may not get that much back.

Do you really need an iPhone?

So the absolute cheapest option in Apple country is the 16GB SE for $399, but that's still too much in my book. I honestly can't think of any other product I'd willingly replace every two years for that kind of money.

But how about paying half that? There are good Android phones you can get for less than $200, such as the Huawei Honor 5X, Motorola Moto G4 and G4 Plus, and ZTE Z Max Pro.

Of course, there are compromises. Buying a phone is a lot like buying a car. Volvos and BMWs are very nice luxury brands. But if you can't afford them, you can get a Honda for a lot less money and still get good quality. There will likely be trade-offs in features and finishes, but remember you're looking for value over luxury.

Take the Moto G4, which I think is the best device in this low-end category. It doesn't have a fingerprint reader or an NFC chip for contactless mobile payments, features that are standard on newer-generation iPhones. (If you're willing to spend a little more, you can get a fingerprint reader on the Moto G4 Plus.)

Still, the Moto G4, which can be had for $150 if you buy it through Amazon Prime and allow Amazon advertising, is water-resistant, has a decent 13-megapixel camera, and comes with expandable data storage. And that's the total cost of the device, so you won't have payments tacked onto your monthly bill for the next two years.

Bottom line:

The iPhone is a premium brand, and there are many things to love about Apple products. But the pricing isn't one of them.

If it pains you as much as it does me to spend a small fortune on a new phone every couple of years, then I'd suggest considering a lower-end Android device. Keep in mind that the low end of the market continues to improve. If you can hold out another six to nine months, there are likely to be even more phones in the sub-$200 category with even better specs.

Just remember there will be trade-offs. Still, with a few extra hundred dollars in your pocket, the compromises are likely worth it.

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.