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Replace a 'dumb phone' with an iPhone now or wait until later?

A first-time iPhone customer wants to know if she should buy a used iPhone now or wait until the fall for the new version of the device. CNET's Marguerite Reardon offers some advice.

It's that time in the iPhone life-cycle when Apple is expected to launch a new version of the popular smartphone in a couple of months, leaving many potential first-time iPhone fans wondering what they should do about getting a new phone.

In this edition of Ask Maggie, I lay out the options for a reader considering buying a used or refurbished iPhone now to replace her basic "dumb phone." I also explain to another reader the difference between a tablet and e-reader.

Where can I get a cheap iPhone?

Dear Maggie,
I think I'm one of the few remaining people without a smartphone. My "dumb phone" from Verizon Wireless just died this week, and I need a new one ASAP. I'm thinking that I'd like an iPhone. Unfortunately, I can't wait until the new iPhone comes out this fall (even though I think I'd rather have the newest one.) I use my cell phone for work, as well as, for my primary phone. But I am not eligible for an upgrade until October.

Do you know where I can get a reasonably priced iPhone now? Or do you have any other advice for me if I want to get the new iPhone when it's available later this fall?


Dear Cathy,
You are in a tough spot because if you could wait until you're eligible for an upgrade from Verizon, you'd likely be able to get the latest iPhone that's expected to be launched in September for about $200. And if Apple has done what it's done in the past, you'd then be able to get the year old iPhone 4S for $100. (Apple generally discounts the previous generation device by $100 when a new one is released.)

But you can't wait. You need a new phone now. Since you aren't eligible for an upgrade, and it sounds like you don't have replacement insurance for your device, you are going to have buy a new phone.

Here are your choices: You can either get a new iPhone at full price or buy a used or refurbished one, which will cost you less, but won't be as an inexpensive as buying an iPhone with a subsidy from a carrier. The other option is to get a new cheap phone now and use your upgrade in October to get the new iPhone when it comes out.

Whether you're buying an iPhone or some other phone, I think eBay is your best bet for getting a reasonably priced new, used, or refurbished device. Apple and Verizon will charge you $650 for a brand new 16 GB iPhone 4S. The older iPhone 4 is $550 brand new from Apple or Verizon Wireless.

iPhones hold their value pretty well, so even the refurbished and used iPhones are not cheap. A new iPhone will obviously cost you the most. A refurbished one will be a little less. And a used one will be your cheapest bet.

The difference between a used and refurbished phone is that the refurbished phones are tested by a third party to make sure they work. The device is wiped clean of any data from the previous owner and the settings are returned to the factory settings.

Used devices may not have been tested by a third party. And there's a chance that the device hasn't been wiped clean, which is actually more of an issue for the previous owner than it is for you. But it may be a bit of a hassle for you. At any rate, there is more risk involved with buying a used device that likely hasn't been tested as much as one that is refurbished.

If you can't wait of an iPhone and must have one now, keep in mind that the most recent iPhone is the iPhone 4S. It was introduced last fall. And it is understandably more expensive than older versions, i.e. the iPhone 4, iPhone 3GS, iPhone 3G and the original iPhone.

On eBay, you can get a new 16GB iPhone 4S for about $510. A used one is $369 and a refurbished one is $500. A brand new iPhone 4 is going for about $415 on eBay. You can get a used one for about $210 and a refurbished one for $330. But remember that this is the device that is now two years old.

In general, I don't recommend that people buy the older versions of the iPhone. Since you're a Verizon customer, you wouldn't be able to get the iPhone 3GS, iPhone 3G, or original iPhone anyway. These devices only operate on AT&T's network and unlocked versions can operate on T-Mobile. But even if you could buy them and use them on Verizon, I wouldn't recommend these anyway since they are so old.

But even the iPhone 4 is looking a little long in the tooth these days compared to other smartphones on the market. I don't think that it's not really worth it for you to pay a couple of hundred dollars for a device that is already two generations old.

So here's what I'd recommend. Since you only have a few months until you are eligible for an upgrade, you should just buy another cheap feature phone. (You may even find a friend who has an old Verizon phone that he or she isn't using that you could use for a couple of months.) When you can upgrade and renew your Verizon contract, you can upgrade to a new iPhone. At that point you will likely be able to get the new iPhone, which will should cost $200 with a two-year contract, or you may be able to get last year's iPhone 4S for $100. (Getting a device that is one generation old is good way to save some money on the upfront cost of the device. But as I mentioned, earlier I wouldn't buy an iPhone that is two generations or more old.)

Verizon sells new and refurbished phones on its site. But as I noted earlier, I think eBay often offers the best deals. So if you're going to buy a cheap phone, I'd go to eBay first. A refurbished basic flip phone from Verizon is about $30 on eBay. And a new Samsung Intensity III quick messaging device with a full QWERTY keyboard is going for about $60 on eBay. On Verizon's site, the same phone is sold new for $280.

Good luck with your phone dilemma! I hope this advice was helpful.

Tablet confusion

Dear Maggie,
Maybe this question has been asked already, but I need a little help understanding something. I keep hearing about iPads, tablets and e-readers. I am interested in buying one of these products. But what's the difference between these devices? Is it just the price or the hardware?

Thank you, Mags.

Dear Arnold,
The difference isn't all about price. The real difference has to do with software.

A tablet is just a general category for a mobile device that has a touch screen and has a browser that allows people to access the Internet either via Wi-Fi or on a carrier's 3G or 4G network. eReaders may have browsers, but they are mostly used for reading books and periodicals, and they may or may not have a touch screen. Many of them use "e-ink," which makes the page look like paper. It's much easier on the eyes than the backlit screen of a tablet.

Current generations of tablets use operating systems that are more similar to a smartphone OS than a computer's OS. This means tablets don't do the same kind of heavy computing that you'd expect from a full blown PC or Mac. Lots of companies make "tablets." And they come in different sizes. There are the larger 10-inch to 11-inch tablets and the smaller 7-inch category. E-readers are generally smaller and lighter since they're meant to be used mostly for reading.

The most common operating systems used for tablets today are Google Android, Apple iOS, BlackBerry's OS for the Playbook, and the soon-to-be-released Windows 8 from Microsoft.

An iPad is a specific kind of tablet that is made by Apple. It uses the iOS operating system, which is also used on other Apple products, such as the iPhone and iPod Touch. People who own the iPad can buy apps from Apple's App store via iTunes. And they can also access music and videos from iTunes. If you've already invested in apps and other media content like music and videos from Apple, the iPad is a great choice. Currently, it comes in one screen size, which is the bigger tablet size. But because it's the most popular tablet on the market, there are many more apps available specifically for the iPad than any of the other tablet operating systems.

As I mentioned above, e-readers are devices that are typically designed for reading books, newspapers, and magazines. Amazon and Barnes & Noble sell the the most popular e-readers on the market, which are the Kindle and Nook families of devices. But these companies have also branched out to the tablet market. And now Amazon offers the Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble has the Nook Tablet. Each of these devices have full browsers that support Web browsing. They can also access apps and games, as well as movies, TV shows, and music.

In summary, "tablet" is the catch-all phrase for mobile touch-screen devices that can surf the Web, download apps and games, and play video and music. An e-reader may offer some browsing and audio capability, but it's mostly used for reading books and periodicals. And the iPad is a specific type of tablet.

I hope this helps explain the difference. Good luck!

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. 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.