iPhone upgrade: Explain it like I'm 5
December 19, 2017 3:02 PM   Subscribe

My iPhone 5S has become a sad panda. I would like to replace it. I've never done anything but the straight 2-year contract new phone upgrade through the Verizon plan I've had for at least 15 years. Please help me understand the current landscape of options. I'm generally tech savvy but this is an aspect of the world I have paid literally no attention to in years.

Based on this thread it looks like I probably want a SE. I actually like the 5S form factor and don't really want a bigger phone. I like my aluminum edges, dammit, and I'm terrified of the glass backs on newer models. (I read this thread too.)

So, if I want an iPhone model other than the SE, lemme know. Barring that:
- Am I reading it right that there's no real benefit to buying a new one + 2yr contract? That's what I always did before because there was a significant discount, and I'm OK with being locked into Verizon for coverage reasons. But I can't tell that there is now. Splitting the up front cost into monthly payments isn't of benefit.
- In which case, I should get a used one, right?
- Do I need to buy one that specifically says "Verizon" on it?
- Will any one that says "unlocked" work, or will only some flavors of unlocked work? (I know that Verizon has a different sort of network, but not all the current implications for current iPhones)
- Assuming I buy this used phone and it arrives in a box, then what? Will I have to pay Verizon an upgrade fee? Will I need to fish a SIM card out of my current phone? (Where is it? Are these cases even openable?)

Also, I have one of the super ancient 900 talk + unlimited data plans that I'm almost certainly way overpaying for. Do people have feelings about the new plans? (This is Metafilter. Of course you have feelings. Please share.) I'm specifically interested in non-obvious things to consider like throttling and when it occurs, whether the new unlimited is like the old unlimited, whether the lower tier plans are a significantly better value, et cetera. I realize the answer is "it varies" but am interested in hearing others' decision calculus.

Please help me join the 21st century.

(For bonus points, can you think of any special considerations re. calling/texting from US to Japan?)
posted by telepanda to Technology (17 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I have an SE and I upgraded from the 5S and I've been happy about that. I like having a headphone jack. I am also on Verizon. I agree that used are the way to go. I'm not 100% sure about whether you still need a Verizon branded one, someone else here will know or you can call them and ask. You might want to look into other plans particularly resellers like Cricket. Low prices, very little support which is usually fine. My SO pays about $40-ish/mo for his plan and since he's almost always on wifi, doesn't run up against their throttling issues. You can check your phone now and get a sense of how much bandwidth you use and see if something like that might work for you.

As far as Japan the big deal is: is it one or two people in Japan or is it Japan in general? Because if it's just a few people, you should just all use Skype and.or Whatsapp and forego the "phone" part of this entirely.
posted by jessamyn at 3:18 PM on December 19, 2017

Response by poster: is it one or two people in Japan or is it Japan in general? Because if it's just a few people, you should just all use Skype and.or Whatsapp and forego the "phone" part of this entirely.

Just one or two people, but the most important person is my mother-in-law, who does not permit wireless internet in her house. We Skype with the kids periodically, but that requires an advance phone call to ask her to turn on the computer and hook it up. I'm considering setting up to do frequent short check-in calls, so the phone part is necessary. That said, this is a secondary consideration, so not a deal breaker - just tossing it out there in case anyone has Pro Tips or Lessons Learned or whatever.
posted by telepanda at 3:26 PM on December 19, 2017

I've had success buying used on swappa. You don't get the same insurance as if you bought with apple, but how often have you used that anyway?

Unlocked or verizon only are both fine. Usually unlocked costs more, not less.

You should use a case for your phone, in which case your glass back won't matter. SE is old enough now where I would be annoyed by it, but it sure sounds perfect for you!
posted by bbqturtle at 3:50 PM on December 19, 2017

I can't speak to your other questions, but I upgraded to the 7 and oh how I wish I just fixed my 5S. There's very little difference except the amount of memory on my device. Not having a phone jack on the 7 suuuuuuuucks.

If fixing your 5S is at all cheaper than getting a used device DO IT. Add more memory while you're at it.

The home button on my 5S went wonky years ago and I used the virtual on my home button instead... I don't know about the SE, but the fancy button on the 7 is supposed to be fancy, it's not. It's stiff, so I use the virtual button on the 7 because it's just easier. This means when I upgraded, I didn't even gain a working home button! If you still have your 5S, chances are your home button died a while ago.

Tl;dr: Fix the phone you have if at all possible.
posted by jbenben at 3:51 PM on December 19, 2017

EveryMac has breakdowns on what models support what bands and such but the general rule is that Sprint phones will not work on the Verizon network and vice versa, but AT&T (or Cricket) and T-Mobile (or MetroPCS) phones are fine. (For example, this page describes the US-market iPhone SE and this one describes the global/Sprint one. You'll want the former specifically, and the actual model number for each is listed on the page.) At some point a few years ago everyone started using LTE anyway and the modems for the older 2G/3G networks got small and cheap enough to just shove both kinds of networks in there so (other than the aforementioned Sprint caveat) you don't have to worry about them so much anymore.

What you do when it arrives depends on who you get it from. If you get it from Apple or Verizon, you will likely just have to power it on and run through the activation process (you'll get instructions). Otherwise, the SIM is indeed removable; there's a little tray on the edge with no buttons that you can shove a paperclip into to get the SIM out. (Be advised: the modern-day micro SIMs are very small and easy to lose. Don't do this anywhere where there are kids/pets/a strong breeze or you may lose your card, which will mean having to actually go to a Verizon store.) The SIM has all the data you need to attach the phone to your account so once you put it in, it'll do some negotiation and you should be good.

An iPhone SE is essentially a 6S board shoved into an iPhone 5S case so it's pretty up-to-date hardware wise but you do not get the better cameras the larger phones have. If you're fine with the pics your 5S takes, then this may not be a dealbreaker, but if you take a lot of pictures and/or your phone is your primary camera, it may be worth at least looking at a regular-sized 6S or 7 too just because the cameras are a good bit better.

For the Japan bit: is there broadband available at all, even if it's hard-wired? Things like Vonage still exist; you could get a cheap plan and have the box sent over there. It then hooks into the internet and wall power - you will need a plug adapter, but those should be easy to find - and hey boom you have a US phone number in Japan. (I was thinking they might be kind of wary about this, but, no, their FAQ literally says that they will straight up ship the box internationally, and that you can set up US service on a box not in the actual US.) I'm not up on how Japanese phones work but you may need to send them a phone as it'll have US-style phone jacks on it.
posted by mrg at 3:54 PM on December 19, 2017

the 5 can't be upgraded to the most recent system. which will eventually become a problem. SE gets you a bit longer to hold out...
posted by acm at 3:55 PM on December 19, 2017

Credo uses the Verizon network and is offering free SEs right now for a 2-year signup.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 4:06 PM on December 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

Just a point of information, but MacRumors currently has the SE as a "don't buy," mostly because there are heavy rumors that it will be updated in the first half of 2018. Its processor is also two generations old, and if my 6 is any judge, three generations is one too many, so I'd be careful about that.
posted by General Malaise at 4:21 PM on December 19, 2017

The specs say the camera on my 7 is better, my eyes tell me it's a negligible difference, such that I consider buying clip on lenses from time to time. Don't buy a 7 just for the camera, IMHE.
posted by jbenben at 4:22 PM on December 19, 2017

I have one of the super ancient 900 talk + unlimited data plans that I'm almost certainly way overpaying for.

How many minutes and how much data do you actually use? You can easily find out how much you'd save at Ting. I've had it for years and my bill is usually around $35/month. You can also buy an unlocked phone right on their site; if you decide you don't like Ting you can just sign up with another company. There is no contract.

I skipped the iPhone 5 series and went from 4s to 6s and I've been very happy with it.
posted by AFABulous at 5:03 PM on December 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

(I have no idea about Japan - I'm sure it's fine with the phone but I don't know how Ting is. Their customer service is A+ so just ask.)
posted by AFABulous at 5:04 PM on December 19, 2017

The camera on the SE is not the same camera as on the 5S—it's the same camera as the 6S, and a big improvement over the 5 series (I've had both). The SE also has a physical home button which depresses, not the "force push" haptic feedback home button from the 7 series.

I currently have an SE and love it. I recently had to replace the screen and deal with some water damage, which was expensive enough that I looked pretty hard at the newer models, and I just couldn't see enough benefit to upgrade. Like you, I prefer the smaller size. I also like having a headphone jack, and the flat sides of the 4, 5, and SE are much easier for me to hold than the rounded sides they have now.

If you can, I would hold out for another few months to see if Apple announces an SE 2 or something, as is rumored.

If you decide to go with the current SE, I would personally argue for something new or refurbished, because the batteries on any iPhone do lose capacity over time, and it's really nice to have a new battery. Of course, you can have the battery upgraded, but that will likely eat up any cost savings from buying used.

You can take the SIM out of your old phone and use it in your new one if you decided to stay with the same carrier. You can get a special SIM tool or just use a sewing needle, it's pretty easy. Or you can just take it in to the carrier's store and they'll swap them for you.
posted by enn at 5:45 PM on December 19, 2017

I traded my Android phone on Cricket for a new iPhone SE a couple of months ago. I bought an unlocked phone from Apple, dropped my Cricket SIM into the slot and never looked back.

I pay $35/mo through Cricket, which is a month to month provider, and get 5GB a month, which is fine for me. I haven't had a contract plan for years.

I was worried that the SE might prove to be too small, and though I wish it was a little bigger, it's fine. It's a delight to handle, feels solid, and I don't know what I would do without the headphone jack.
posted by lhauser at 8:03 PM on December 19, 2017

Contracts that involve buying a phone have never seemed like a good deal here -- I'm in Canada, YMMV (heavily). Here it seems to be a sort of high-interest layaway plan.

(After an accident with rain and file folders and an umbrella and a phone call and trying to get out of a car I relegated my smashed but functional 4s to an iPod -- hang on to the old one if it plays music fine! The little stereo systems they fit become dirt cheap in thrifts after not very long; my 4s and a $40 thrifted bookshelf stereo sound terrific in the kitchen. When my own 5s dies it'll go that way if it's still usable as an iPod...)

I would buy a used one from a reliable source outright instead of fussing with contracts, unless the math for what you use your phone for and what you can get from a contract actually make it a smashing good deal and not a silly idea designed to take advantage of people who want the latest and greatest but don't have cash in hand for it. Really crunch the numbers; I (again, in Canada) have never found it to be a good deal to buy on a contract.

Also, given the swift depreciation and the fact that you probably need few if any of the latest iPhone features, I would not upgrade very much. Next level up and no more, good case. A friend of mine just managed to spend something like $1,700 CAD on a thing people routinely lose and drop in toilets; his rationale was that he runs his entire life off it and uses it constantly, and he is free of obligations like children and can afford toys, but that is about the only scenario where that sort of thing can sort of be construed to make any sense. Factor in how much you would be willing to spend on repairs, insurance/Applecare...

Also, ask around! With the holidays, lots of people will get new iPhones to replace their "old" ones, and if they know their pal telepanda is on the hunt for a well cared for, not too antiquated iPhone, the ease of selling it to you without having to fuss with CL or wherever might be very appealing and might see you fetch up with a very good deal -- I have bought, or simply been given, an enormous amount of stuff by putting the word out on social media etc that I want to buy an X. It usually turns out plenty of people have an X they want to sell but are too busy to so it is sitting in a drawer or whatever.

Here, at least, you can use any unlocked phone with any carrier, a huge advantage to buying a used and unlocked one (cell phone shops will unlock them; no idea what pricing is like, but worth looking in to if you can find a friend willing to offer you a good deal on one which is tethered to a carrier you don't want to use).

I find my phone fine for voice Skype (and nearly never use it as a phone!) but use a tablet or computer for video calls; is that a useful option for you?

FWIW, I got a little crack on the glass back of the 4S and it was inconsequential -- I bought a better case and lived with it like that for ages. Only when I shattered the front of the screen did I put a plastic cover over the front and relegate it to the stereo. In retrospect I wish I had hung on to it until the very end; with the plastic sticky thing on the cracked front, it stayed together just fine and functioned just fine. I offered it to a friend's kid to play a game on and he got very nervous about his kid getting glass shards in her fingers, and that was before the plastic cover, and that was the trigger for 'if my phone scares people, I guess it's time..." But that thing seems bombproof and if it wasn't for enforced upgrade needs I would still be happily using the old 4s. I can't say enough good things about not falling for the idea of buying the newest, or even particularly new, model -- the 5s I replaced it with was nowhere near new when I bought it, and I hope to get a lot more use out of it, especially now that it's dated enough that dropping it won't be financially traumatic. If repairs to whatever's wrong are cheap I might go that way in your shoes.
posted by kmennie at 10:40 PM on December 19, 2017

I love my 5SE for all the reasons others have stated. It fits my hand, and it feels like something instead of this thin little slice of slippery nothing that other phones feel like to me. I am very low-need in phone terms so my needs are probably atypical. But it's been great for me.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 3:13 AM on December 20, 2017

When my current 6 dies, I'm going to investigate buying my next one through apple with this program.
posted by Major Matt Mason Dixon at 3:13 AM on December 20, 2017

I've never had an iPhone before (since they were always too rich for my blood), but I bought my SE because Virgin Mobile was running a deal where you could get a free year of unlimited service if you bought an iPhone through them, so I went for it and have been very happy with the SE (also, I've dropped it a bunch of times and only have a few nicks on the side to show for it). Virgin has been running a variety of deals since then--right now they have one where you get 6 months of service for a dollar and a $150 gift card if you buy an iPhone through them--so if you do elect to go with an SE, this is the way to go if you don't mind being on the Sprint network. I did have to transfer a number to get the deal (I used my existing VOIP line for it and that worked), but you should read the fine print to be sure it works for you.
posted by carrienation at 7:47 AM on December 20, 2017

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