Jeff Gelles: Joining the smartphone revolution - for less money

The new iPhone 5S gets a close look at the Apple campus in Cupertino, Calif. Phones are to sell for $199 to $399 when they debut Sept. 20.
The new iPhone 5S gets a close look at the Apple campus in Cupertino, Calif. Phones are to sell for $199 to $399 when they debut Sept. 20. (Getty Images)
Posted: September 13, 2013

Buy an iPhone 5S for $199 to $399 when it debuts next week, and you'll be assured of getting Apple's latest and greatest smartphone technology - at least until the iPhone 6's expected debut next year.

Apple's large profits are testimony to its power in a market it created six years ago. The lines expected at stores Sept. 20 - sure to swell this time around, because Apple isn't offering preorders for its new flagship device - will likely show that Apple hasn't lost all its mojo, even if fans sound a bit apologetic over the waning drama in the annual upgrade cycle.

But if you're reluctant to shell out that kind of cash to AT&T, Sprint, or Verizon - or $649 to T-Mobile to get an iPhone 5S sans contract - this could be a time to weigh alternatives.

Will you be missing out? Mostly at the margins. Another testament to the iPhone's success is that virtually every feature has been mimicked or even one-upped by the competition - starting with Android phones that now account for about two-thirds of smartphone sales, and lately by some nifty Windows Phones.

Here are three paths to cut costs and still take part in the smartphone revolution, where even camp followers can try out many of the coolest tools:

Try Android or another platform. There is one current iPhone - well, there will be two next week, but for Apple that was big news. Google's open-source Android platform has been hugely successful at spurring competition - its Android.com website lists 120 U.S. smartphones from 16 manufacturers, and even that list appears incomplete.

How to choose? Try reviews and ratings. Consumer Reports, for instance, recommends dozens of Android phones, and ranks both Samsung's Galaxy S4 and its older Galaxy SIII ahead of the iPhone 5, giving each higher marks for messaging and phoning.

Other devices it rates "very good" include the LG Optimus G, the HTC One, Nokia's Lumia Windows phones, and even BlackBerry's recent attempts to regain a market toehold, the Q10 and the Z10. At PCWorld.com, Motorola's new Moto X also gets top marks.

But if you want the smartphone basics - e-mail, Internet access, apps, and an adequate camera - and want to save cash, remember that you may not need a top-ranked alternative that's about as costly as a new iPhone.

Consumer Reports also recommends inexpensive Androids from manufacturers such as Pantech, LG, and Samsung, as well as earlier Lumia Windows phones.

One warning: If you look for ratings online, note that specs for the same phone sometimes vary from carrier to carrier. Do your research, shop around, and save.

Stay with iPhone but BYOD. No, that's not a typo for booze. It means "bring your own device," a theme championed lately by T-Mobile - the last national carrier to start to offer new iPhones - and by MetroPCS, the prepaid carrier it acquired this year.

BYOD only works if you have an unlocked phone with a SIM card, such as a paid-up AT&T iPhone or a Verizon or Sprint iPhone 5. But you can also buy unlocked phones on sites such as eBay.

Every week, about five to 10 customers make the switch at the MetroPCS store at 1106 Market St., says manager Angie Lee.

Lee says smartphone users with a heavy data habit can save about 50 percent by switching to a MetroPCS plan that offers unlimited talk, texts, and data for $60 a month.

Lee says some iPhone owners decide to make the leap to another plaform, lured by bargains such as the Samsung Exhibit, which Metro offers for $49. after an $80 "instant discount." "They want to try another kind of phone," she says.

One warning: If you look for ratings online, note that specs for the same phone sometimes vary from carrier to carrier.

Apple's own bargains. Starting Friday you can preorder a new iPhone 5C - essentially a colorful-plastic version of last year's iPhone 5 - for as little as $99 with a two-year contract from AT&T, Sprint or Verizon, or for $549 cash from T-Mobile.

Still too much? You can get a new iPhone 4S, with eight gigabytes of memory, free with a two-year contract. You won't count as adventurous, but you'll have access to most of what Apple has invented - including its new iOS 7 operating system - without spending hundreds of dollars up front.


Contact Jeff Gelles at 215-854-2776, jgelles@phillynews.com, or @jeffgelles on Twitter. Read his blog at www.inquirer.com/consumer.

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