Easing my way into the 2000s
December 26, 2013 3:45 AM   Subscribe

Getting an iPhone / smartphone for the first time! Is ebay/Craigslist an okay place to start?

I am finally joining the tech world and getting a smartphone. Where would you go to buy one? I am not picky and just want to be sure that it has a camera, isn't too old, and works well. I know that they can be super expensive and would like to save by getting a used phone.

My BF is much more savvy than I am re: phones, and I can lean on him to help with stuff. I know you have to jailbreak the phone, right? I ultimately want to use a pay-as-you-go plan rather than an ongoing contract with a carrier.

What should I look out for? What are the best models for someone like me? All advice is welcome!
posted by amicamentis to Technology (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not super up-to-date on smart phones myself, but I think you should look out for stuff from Craigslist or E-bay! Craigslist especially seems a sketchy place to get a phone, because there's no guarantee it will have been returned to its original state. (Or that it's not stolen, which happens a lot in my area.)

A lot of cell phone companies sell refurbished smartphones, even iphones. I was looking through T-Mobile's site the other day (my current carrier) and iphones were relatively inexpensive, though with a contract. From my understanding, it's more expensive to purchase the phone outright if you pay as you go.

Contact local phone places in brick-and-mortar shops. You can go in, look at the phone, have salespeople explain all the features to you and see if they have refurbished stock. Then you can get a better idea of buying a used (and fully functioning phone!) outright and what a pay as you go would be vs. a term contract while paying installments on a phone.
posted by mibo at 4:07 AM on December 26, 2013

Buying new, on a budget, the phone to get right now is the Moto G. Performance-wise it's similar to last year's Galaxy S3 for all intents and purposes, with the only real downside being a weak-ish camera (but perfectly fine for taking pictures to share on facebook etc.) and no 4G. It has a decent-size screen with great colours and sharp text, comes unlocked (so you don't need to jailbreak it to use it on any carrier), has a long-lasting battery for a smartphone, and is smooth and reliable in use.

Source: I've had the 16gb model for a few days.
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 4:11 AM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Here's a similar question from last summer that indicates eBay is a decent place to start, and my personal experience with used phones via CL isn't that great. (I didn't check out the Android phone thoroughly enough, but the flaw wasn't readily detectable and I had no recourse).

You may want to ask around your local 'network' of friends and see whether they have any older iPhones around. I gave an iPhone 4 to my spouse a few weeks ago, and she loves it.

No you don't need to jailbreak it, and an 'untethered' one (i.e. one that doesn't need a physical cable to connect to a computer) was recently released. But it has bugs, and I haven't chosen that option, nothing I (or my spouse for that matter) needs to do.

Such as tethering - being able to setup a local wifi hotspot using the iPhone's data plan - that isn't part of your regular data plan. (My iPhone's data plan has tethering, my spouse simply doesn't need that capability.)

As far as pre-paid, I setup my spouse with Straighttalk, that has a $45/mo prepaid plan with unlimited voice and text, and while it says 'unlimited data' there has been discussion of a 2GB/mo 'cap' (and something like 100MB/day). Here's a ST FAQ from the Howard Forums that has a lot of information if you are going to look into it.

I ordered a $45 first month's service + a $7 mini-SIM card for the iPhone 4, and after the phone activated was able to successfully port over a phone number, and even pre-pay the following year's service. In our area ST uses the AT&T network so there have been no issues.

It was an eye-opener for my spouse to have email / text / send photos or post to FB or whatever when she's out and about. Good luck!
posted by scooterdog at 4:12 AM on December 26, 2013

I would, for your first one, really err on the side of getting a new(ish) phone, because you do not want to be the person dealing with the problems if a used phone has issues, which they can. Especially as far as which phones work with which carriers, what kind of SIM cards you need, whether the phone is going to be in good working order on arrival, etc. My first was a refurb iPhone 4 and I think the refurbished-through-your-carrier route is a good one to go through, to start.

Straight Talk is a great deal but has terrible customer service--like, they changed their APN settings at one point and when it caused issues for me, instead of just telling me to change my APN settings, I had to talk to four different customer service reps before finding the answer to my own problem on Google. I no longer recommend it for the non-tech-savvy. A couple of friends have reported better customer service with Ting, which resells for Sprint instead of AT&T. You do, again, have to be careful with what phone you're getting and what it needs to connect, so buying direct there simplifies things a lot. What's going to work best, honestly, depends a lot on your actual budget. The best sub-$200 phone and the best sub-$400 phone are not the same phone. And what network you want to be on, too--coverage can vary a lot and the different carriers often do not support the same phones.

If you are not super-super-super tech savvy, do not attempt to jailbreak an iPhone, it is a finicky process at the best of times and the last year has not been the best of times.
posted by Sequence at 4:48 AM on December 26, 2013

Another person asked a similar question sometime last week and the site Swappa was brought up a couple times with generally favorable comments.

Also, depending on your budget and whether you're willing to go Android as opposed to iOS, you might be able to get a new unlocked phone for less than you might think.
posted by Gev at 5:05 AM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would not buy a phone from Craigslist or Ebay, no. It's too much of a hassle not knowing what you're going to get.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 5:23 AM on December 26, 2013

Experience tells me that with eBay and Craigslist, it's always going to be hit and miss. I've found some great deals using these sites, but the required research is time-consuming. To up your chances of getting a hit, you need to have a reasonable amount of smartphone knowledge. Since you don't have that, I can't recommend either place. If your BF is good with eBay/Craigslist, then maybe he could help you.

For your first smartphone, I wouldn't plan on spending too much. A Galaxy S3 would be just fine and would meet your requirements. I've not used them myself, but I've heard good things about ting.com. You can buy both new and used phones there, and they have a completely different pay-as-you-go model which you might find interesting.

Oh, and if you do get a used phone, seriously look into getting a new battery installed. You don't want to be running out of juice mid-way through the day.
posted by Juso No Thankyou at 5:29 AM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

a new android Moto G ($200) or Nexus 5 ($350) which are unlocked/off contract phones. They're about the cheapest unlocked smartphones you can get. Use with at+t, tmobile, or their mvno's (straight talk, etc).

I've used the previous 2 nexus phones and like them.

Most other smartphones are mainly sold on contract for cheap, but their off-contract pricing is $500+.

Used, especially in a person to person transaction you don't know if the device is stolen, if its working properly, how the battery life is, etc.
posted by TheAdamist at 5:32 AM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Before you check out the sketch-a-doodle places for a phone, please price refurbished phones from reputable pay-as-you-go vendors.

For example, AT&T offers all kinds of SmartPhones for as little as $45.

Metro PCS has some for around $49.

Ditto Verizon.

Why would you buy trouble and aggrivation? Just go to a store, see the one you want and buy it on the spot.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:46 AM on December 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you can't/won't put in the time and energy to make sure that you're getting a decent used phone, then you shouldn't get a used phone. Which is ok!
posted by oceanjesse at 6:23 AM on December 26, 2013

A few months ago I asked this question. I ended up getting a used Motorola Atrix on Amazon for about $70 with a plan from Airvoice Wireless. There were a few other carriers I looked at, including Ting and Page Plug Cellular (also, when I was looking, FreedomPop was saying they would unveil cell phones soon; don't know if they have yet or not).

Memail me if you have any questions - it took me awhile to pick one!
posted by lharmon at 6:26 AM on December 26, 2013

I did this recently, moving from a flip phone with Verizon to a new Galaxy SIII mini unlocked bought on Amazon, hooking it up with Straight Talk (AT&T sim card). I like the SIII mini because it's not too big, although it's still quite a bit bigger than the flip phone. It's running around $225 now on Amazon. It took a little while on the phone with Straight Talk to get it switched over which was fine, and no problems since. This is an international phone, but frankly the hardest thing to figure out was how to switch the temp in the weather app from Celsius to Fahrenheit. I don't use much data - mostly I look at some stuff through my wifi, but I think it would be fine for the basic stuff I would do, like GPS/google maps etc (which came preloaded on the phone with other google stuff). Also, the camera seems fine, but I have mostly used it to take pictures of things I want to remember (books, contact info painted on contractor's trucks etc), not as a main camera.
posted by nnk at 6:28 AM on December 26, 2013

I've used swappa.com to buy a used smartphone twice, and both transactions were smooth (I got both phones within 48-72 hours). You pay with PayPal.

An iPhone 4 is probably getting obsolete by now, so look for a 4S (5C/5S would probably be too spendy for you). Android might be more bang for your buck, I don't have any particular recs there (my spouse and I have Samsung Galaxy phones, S4 and Note 2 respectively, but I think those might be more higher end than what you're looking for).

As for plans, I use and love T-mobile's $30/month prepaid plan with unlimited data (truly unlimited!), unlimited texts, and 100 voice minutes per month. I have it set to auto-pay so I don't ever have to think about re-upping. I have a friend who uses Republic Wireless (Sprint reseller) and says it's really affordable, but you're going to want to check service maps in your area, because Sprint has better coverage in some areas, T-mobile is better in others. Verizon has the best coverage in general.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 7:36 AM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

You do not need to jailbreak the phone. You may need to buy an unlocked phone (Jailbreaking lets you install apps on your iPhone that Apple did not approve; on Android, they typically call this "rooting". Unlocking lets you use a phone that had been locked to a single carrier with other carriers).

Figure out what carrier you are going to go with and then make sure you buy a phone that is compatible with that carrier's technology. Although things are getting better, not all phones work with all carriers. There are three different versions of the iPhone 5, each with slightly different radio circuitry to work with different carriers, for example.
posted by adamrice at 8:52 AM on December 26, 2013

Well this is wonderful advice so far! Thank you all for responding - very useful. Any more comments, please feel free to post.
posted by amicamentis at 1:49 PM on December 26, 2013

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