Buying a new Phone? What to look for, What to Avoid

Cell phones have no doubt have changed the way we communicate for the better.  But consumerism has distorted the cell phone experience into one that is always asking for more, like a cult demanding an annual sacrifice.   Cell phone manufactures are happiest when you buy into the yearly release cycles and carriers love it when you upgrade your device to stay on contract.  But there’s always a third way, you don’t have to cede the modern conveniences of technology like a Luddite, but you don’t have to fully buy into the consumerist hyper market.   Phones break and become hopelessly obsolete, eventfully there is usually a time to have to buy a new phone and here’s a few things to keep in mind when looking for a new phone:


  1. Stay away from the forbidden fruit: don’t buy Apple
    Apple devices start at $650 (see point 2 for the caveats).  Apple and yes, to be fair Samsung and other retailers get a healthy profit margin on their devices. Sure, corporations are going to do what they are going to do, but you don’t have to play that game.   If you’ve invested in their ‘ecosystem’, you can always move.  Most apps and services are multi-platform or any unique Apple services are typically easily replaceable.  Don’t succumb to the sunk-cost fallacy. If you need iOS for work clients, then hope your employer pays for your phone and don’t need to worry.

2.  Rethink Costs
The cellphone industry largely operates on a financing model and hardly anyone sees it as such.  A “$200 iPhone” isn’t $200, it’s way more.  It’s not normal or necessary to pay $80 (for one phone) for a cell phone plan. Think about buying a cell phone straight out, check cheaper models or buy used.  Expect to pay $100-150 for the bottom tier phones, $200-$300 for good, and $350+ for great.  These aren’t hard and fast categories, but give an idea of expectations.

You can command quite a bit of performance with cheaper handsets.  Since the market is moving quickly, I won’t make specific recommendations, but there is always some high performance to price ratio phones out there.

3. Features are cool, but do you really need it?
New features are things like biometric senors, (i.e., heart beat senor), finger print scanners, wireless charging, mobile pay. Sure, these are neat, but do they really justify spending $650 on?  New fitness sensors make exercise more interesting, but they don’t make you more fit.  Only you can make yourself more fit.    If new features are big hits on higher end devices, they typically trickle down to cheaper handsets in a couple generations.  Don’t let the inclusion of some new fangled feature drive you to buy something you otherwise wouldn’t.

4.For long term prospects, do research
With fast product cycles, phones become obsolete fairly quickly.  With some research you can find devices that are typically updated with new software for a few years before manufacturers ditch them.  I know I bestowed the wisdom of not buying Apple products, but if you insist for whatever reason, know that they go obsolete really fast with updates.iOS 9 update back last September had demonstrable slowing down of older iPhone 5s. You’d think in an ideal world that if you purged your savings account to get an iphone you’d at least be set for many years. If you choose not to update, you will be prey to security vulnerabilities and you fall behind vis-a-vis software features.  I’ve suggested Nexus devices before, when they used to retail for ~$350.  I’d be reluctant to suggest them again because they retail for considerably more now. But Google, while doing hatchet jobs on many of their products (RIP Picasa), they’ve had a decent track record of keeping their own devices updated.  Additionally you may want to look into Cyanogen or another third party ROM on Android to keep new Android versions on your otherwise obsolete device.

Additionally there are resources that help people compare phones to each other.  There are  benchmark sites like like PassMark, so instead of pretending to understand what the hardcore performance is, check benchmark services.

5. Consider Used but be Careful
I’m typically a big advocate of buying used things.  There is a hiccup with buying used cell phones however.  Since many people buy these devices on contract for the subsided price, carriers could potentially black list devices that the owner has sold on the used market.  This brings me to my next point, there is a national black list.  Always check the IMEI number against the black list before you buy. The black list is supposed to prevent stolen devices from going on national networks.  Otherwise you could be buying a brick that refuses to be serviced by the national carriers.  To get the IMEI check the back, under the battery or type *#06# in the dialer.


6. Basically all phones look the same

Some phones look sleeker than others in the photo ops, but buying a new phone because it’s appearance is short sighted.  Lots of people buy cases for their phones because they want their little bundle of electronics to last more than a couple of months and like a heavy winter jacket that hides the body, a phone case often obscures many of the design features of a phone, making the coolness of a phone moot.  Also consider the fact that from any reasonable distance that most phones look exactly the same.  I typically wouldn’t even discuss the aesthetics of the phone, but I’ve heard anecdotally people buying mostly on looks, which isn’t really that rational.

7. Ditch the smart phone

If you want to have a simpler life, flip phones are pretty cheap.  This choice isn’t personally for me, and it isn’t for many others, but flip-phones are fairly cheap (rock-bottom if you buy used), but they are limited in every sense, except for calling.

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