Getting a new iPhone every 2 years makes less sense than ever
Commentary: Flagship phones are giving us only incremental improvements, and our upgrade culture is making less and less sense.
Sareena is a senior editor for CNET covering the mobile beat including device reviews. She is a seasoned multimedia journalist with more than a decade’s worth of experience producing stories for television and digital publications across Asia’s financial capitals including Singapore, Hong Kong, and Mumbai. Prior to CNET, Sareena worked at CNN as a news writer and Reuters as a producer.
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We all know the drill. As Apple’s annual fall event draws close. many of us start to check in on our previous two-year smartphone plan to see if we’re eligible for an upgrade in September. After all, the newest phone is only the newest phone for so long. Even for discerning shoppers like me, it takes serious willpower to resist the lure of a purple iPhone or 1TB of storage.
Mobile carriers have long persuaded many of us to upgrade our smartphones every two years, offering two-year contracts linked to free or low-cost phone upgrades to keep the two-year upgrade cycle going. That feeling of ponying up just a couple hundred dollars (or less) for the newest, fanciest phone available has helped perpetuate the rise of the de facto two-year phone upgrade. Case in point: ATT and Verizon marketed a “free” iPhone 12 last year for customers who buy unlimited plans and commit to a multiyear deal. And the trade-in deals were even better this year for the iPhone 13.
But even though that might still be the norm in the US, a routine upgrade isn’t a thing for much of the world.
I was born and raised in developing Asia, a region where buying a smartphone is financially unattainable for hundreds of millions of people, much less a two-year upgrade. In India, the average person needs to save two months’ salary to buy the cheapest available smartphone, according to a survey published by the Alliance for Affordable Internet last August. From my perspective, the trend of routinely upgrading a phone every two years when it doesn’t change that much is a privilege, one that reminds me of the stark income equality gap as well as the ever-increasing digital divide globally.
Beyond that, and perhaps more tangibly, I think we should consider the environmental cost of purchasing a new phone. You’ve read the headlines: Climate change is accelerating at Rapid speed. Countries around the world keep setting new records for the highest temperatures. There are more climate-related disasters than ever before, arctic caps are melting and biodiversity is disappearing faster than we can save it. What, exactly, happens to all those discarded phones over time? Does all that plastic ever fully decompose?
Consumer electronics are responsible for tonnes of e-waste annually, which in turn contributes to the climate crisis. Experts have warned about how e-waste disposal contributes to climate change due to the chemicals released when the waste is burned, some of which are equivalent to carbon dioxide.
For years, developed countries like the US have shipped recyclable waste overseas for processing. Although that is now beginning to change, there are real costs. iPhones contain toxic materials like lead and mercury, for instance, which can harm the environment and people if disposed of improperly. And often e-waste isn’t properly managed. In Southern China, there is a town called Guiyu that has become known as the world’s biggest graveyard for America’s electronic junk, and synonymous among environmentalists with toxic waste. The UN’s 2020 Global E-waste Monitor report found that the world dumped a record 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste last year, of which the US is the world’s second-largest contributor to e-waste, dumping 6.9 million tonnes.
While Apple is committed to a net zero supply chain by 2030, it’s tough to argue that there’s a better alternative to lower carbon consumption than less consumption. After all, Apple says the iPhone 12’s end-to-end supply chain emits 70 kilograms of carbon to the atmosphere. If even 1 million people waited that extra year, we could save 70,000,000 kilograms of carbon from going into the air in a year. Imagine if it was 10 million or 100 million. It’s something to think about before making that upgrade.
The smartphone upgrade cycle has gotten longer
Even with the enticing deals offered by carriers, the upgrade cycle has seemingly lengthened. In recent years, several reports show how Americans and Europeans are more than happy to hold on to their phones for longer periods of time. In fact, in 2019 smartphone upgrades hit record lows at two of the biggest US carriers, Verizon and ATT. Carriers like T-Mobile and Verizon seem to have responded to this by offering month-to-month plans, which offer more flexibility and options, indicating a potential departure from the “norm” of a two-year phone upgrade.
Barring big-picture factors like the struggling global economy amid the ongoing pandemic as well as our increased mindfulness over the environment, I think this trend is persisting for a confluence of reasons. Phones today are receiving software, and therefore security, updates for longer. For instance, 2015’s iPhone 6S is compatible with iOS 15. potentially dampening desires for a bi-yearly upgrade.
In addition to all this, smartphone innovation has hit a plateau, and the industry bears the hallmarks of one that’s maturing: slowing smartphone sales growth along with the slower evolution of what we need, what we want and so forth. There are no big surprises here: Today’s phones are getting more nice-to-have refinements rather than the awe-inspiring innovation seen just three or four years ago.
Decreasing technological gap
Up until a couple of years ago, smartphone manufacturers had us sitting on the edge of our seats, waiting for the next design refresh. But that’s not as much the case anymore. With the iPhone 12 series, 5G was probably its buzziest feature.- one that understandably ended up triggering an upgrade supercycle. But the most exciting thing for many of us at CNET was MagSafe. which is hardly new. Apple’s proprietary technology, allowing you to magnetically snap on attachments. was first introduced some 15 years ago with the first-gen MacBook Pro. It was then reintroduced for the iPhone 12.
When you look at what changed from the iPhone 11, you’ll see the usual suspects on your list: 5G, OLED screen, new design. Admittedly there are a few more things you won’t see everywhere, such as MagSafe and the Ceramic Shield, but nothing extra-special to truly write home about. Personally, the last time I was blown away by an iPhone reveal was back in 2017 when Apple introduced the iPhone X, which set new design standards for the modern-day iPhone. The iPhone X did away with the physical home button and chunky bezels of its predecessors and made way for a sleek, futuristic device that inspired the iPhone 12 family. Also, for the first time with Apple, we were able to unlock an iPhone with Face ID, Apple’s facial recognition technology.
Looking at the iPhone 13, the narrative sounds familiar. We knew it wouldn’t get a major technical upgrade ( though that didn’t stop us from wishing ). While we appreciate the upgrades Apple did give the phone (a smaller notch, a larger battery and a faster screen refresh rate), the iPhone 13 is “not radically different,” according to CNET’s Patrick Holland. Plus a number of these new iPhone features, like the 120Hz screen, currently exist on Android phones, reinforcing the notion of a decreasing technological gap in the smartphone landscape. Apple itself says the life-cycle of a typical iPhone is now three years. So the company times its new releases accordingly: We get a major redesign every three years, not two, with more minor updates in between.
Look no further than the glitziest non-Apple flagship launch of this year for clues: Samsung’s Galaxy S21 family. Here the standout change wasn’t made to the hardware or software, but perhaps to its least interesting feature: its price tag. The S21 lineup has a starting price of 800 (£769, AU1,249), which is 200 less than last year’s 1,000 Galaxy S20. making for an enticing deal.
Apart from that, major differences between the S21 and last year’s S20 were mostly incremental. I remember having to pore over the specs sheet to spot salient differences as I covered Samsung’s virtual Unpacked event. Refinements were made to the usual suspects, including the processor, software and 5G. This might have been part of Samsung’s response to the global coronavirus pandemic, but again it lends credence to the notion of that decreasing technological gap. It was also interesting to note the items Samsung dropped from the S21 flagship family to meet that lowered price. We said goodbye to expandable storage, bundled earphones and most notoriously the in-box charger. as Samsung followed in Apple’s lead.- apparently in the name of the environment.
Let’s also take a moment to consider the question: What makes the S21 an attractive buy? Chances are, a great camera, fast performance, battery longevity and a crisp display with narrow bezels are at the top of your list. But the truth is 2019’s Galaxy S10 boasts all those features. Heck, even the Galaxy S7 from five years ago did. My point is yearly changes have become too incremental to compel most people to upgrade with urgency, especially given the backdrop of rising smartphone prices.
Are we at peak phone?
I’m not discounting foldable phones. Samsung and Huawei have made undeniable technological progress, and their bendy handsets have dramatically altered the way smartphones are used and could represent the future of the industry. But folding phones are far from the mainstream. Phone manufacturers and carriers in the US have moved the most innovative devices to a price that’s simply beyond reach for most people. For instance, the Galaxy Fold 3 starts at 1,800 (£1,599, AU2,499) and Huawei’s Mate X2. available in China for now, costs nearly 3,000 (2,800, £1,985, AU3,640 converted). Until these hit price parity with, say, the iPhone 12 Pro or Pro Max, foldable phones are likely to remain a niche product.
Smartphone innovation has stagnated, and this is not a knock against the consumer electronics companies or the tech giants that design them. Maybe we’ve reached peak smartphone, and this is as far as it needs to go. It could well be part of the reason why the race to upgrade your phones is slowing.
How to get ready to pre-order iPhone 13 with the iPhone Upgrade Program
The iPhone Upgrade Program is Apple’s equivalent of a carrier’s monthly contract. You can upgrade your iPhone every year, and pay a monthly fee instead of buying the handset outright. The upgrade path is simple — there’s a new iPhone every year, and you can upgrade every year.
Here’s how to get ready so you can be ready for iPhone 13 preorders this Friday. Don’t wait until the last minute.
Depending on when you got your last iPhone, you may have to pay off a balance before you can upgrade to the newest model. Do so, and you’ll be eligible to order the new iPhones 13 and 13 Pro when preorders start on September 17, for delivery a week later.
The iPhone Upgrade Program spreads the cost of your iPhone over 24 months, but you are eligible to upgrade 12 months after you got your latest handset. If you want to upgrade early, you can just pay the difference. The actual amount you must pay will depend on your individual contract. And the really good news is that you can take care of this all ahead of time.
Get Apple iPhone Upgrade Program pre-approval
Apple will let you get pre-approval for an iPhone upgrade using the free Apple Store app. Pre-approval is available for existing and new iPhone Upgrade Program customers. If you want things to go smoothly when preorders begin, getting pre-approved is essential.
To do so, just open the Apple Store app. Find the iPhone you want, and tap Get Ready. You’ll be prompted to enter all the required info to get your pre-approval set up. This includes:
- Choosing and configuring your new iPhone.
- Choosing your level of AppleCare coverage.
- Confirming your carrier (if you have one).
- Getting your upgrade loan pre-approved.
You have to get pre-approval because CitizensOne is loaning you the money to buy your handset. This bank pays Apple and you pay back the bank. You can set up your loan payments so they’re made by your Apple Card, which means you get 3% Apple Cash back.
Once you’ve jumped through the hoops, you simply use the Apple Store app to place your preorder on launch day. If all goes well, your order should go through right away, with no glitches. Pre-approval is available until 9:00 p.m. Pacific on Thursday September 16.
Preorders start the next day, at 5 a.m. Pacific on Friday, September 17.
Send the old one back
Once your new iPhone arrives (if you choose to have it shipped), then you will also get a trade-in kit to send your old iPhone back to Apple.
This part right here is why I don’t use the upgrade program. Those old iPhones have years left in them, and are perfect for handing on to family members. It seems like a small point, but re-using a product is far superior, environmentally, than even the most efficient recycling program.
But if you don’t have someone to hand the device to, the iPhone Upgrade Program is much easier than selling your old device. Apple does all the work.
Get ready for your iPhone 13 upgrade now
Taking a little time to set this up now may mean the difference between getting an iPhone 13 on launch day and having to wait weeks for Apple to fill backorders. If you have any more questions about pre-approval for the iPhone 13, Apple has a page with all the details.
iPhone Upgrade Program: Everything you need to know
If you’re considering joining Apple’s iPhone Upgrade Program, here’s everything you need to know before signing up.
What exactly is the iPhone Upgrade Program?
This is Apple’s response to carrier deals that allow you to finance your phone for a set amount each month. The iPhone Upgrade Program lets you buy a new iPhone, such as the iPhone 12 over the course of 24 payments; after 12 of those payments, you can automatically upgrade to the new iPhone—no hassle or extra fees required.
Previously, carriers offered you a set subsidy on your phone—somewhere between 300-400 off—in return for signing a two-year contract; now, those subsidies are disappearing, being replaced instead with monthly plans from those carriers for paying off that expensive new iPhone. It makes sense that Apple got into the game.
For more information on the different options and ways to buy your iPhone in the U.S., check out our buyer’s guide.
Wait, why does it make sense that Apple would get into this game?
In part, it frees users from having to be locked to a single carrier for two years: When you sign up for the Upgrade Program, you choose your new carrier (or continue with your current carrier plan); if, after twelve months, you dislike the plan, you can leave it and switch to a different carrier without the hassle of getting out of a carrier-specific two-year plan.
It also gets more people to buy iPhones every year, which is always a good thing for Apple, and to buy them through the Apple Store or online Apple Store.
What iPhone models are available?
You can only sign up for the iPhone Upgrade Program if you want to purchase the most recent iPhone models, so you’ll always be able to get the best iPhone available. If it’s an older iPhone model you want, Apple is currently only offering a trade-in program.
Is it only available in the U.S.?
Not any more! Apple has opened the iPhone Upgrade Program up to the UK and China as well. So far, no other countries appear to have an iPhone Upgrade Program at this time (Sorry, Canada).
Oooh, AppleCare too? What does that cover and cost?
AppleCare is the company’s enhanced version of their popular AppleCare support service: It covers all the awesome telephone support and software advice that a regular AppleCare subscription does and tacks on coverage for two accidental damage incidents.
Now, when I say “coverage,” that really just means “option to pay 100 for a new iPhone after you drown your old one or 29 for a cracked screen.” It’s not a cheap repair—but it’s much cheaper than if you broke your screen sans AppleCare (Take it from someone who only had to pony up 99 after drowning her husband’s brand new iPhone 7 Plus).
Normally, AppleCare costs 199 for two years when you purchase your device; with the iPhone Upgrade Program, you get AppleCare as part of your monthly fee.
You can opt to upgrade your AppleCare coverage to include theft or loss for an additional 4.71 per month. The deductible for a lost or stolen iPhone ranges from 199 to 269, depending on which model iPhone you’re replacing.
How long do I pay this monthly fee?
When you sign up, you’re contracted with Apple (and its loan partner, Citizen One) for 24 months (two years). You can upgrade to the next-generation iPhone after only 12 months of payment; when you do so, you’re essentially renewing your 24-month hardware contract with Apple (and Citizens).
If you decide before the 24 months are up that you want out of the iPhone Upgrade Program, you will be required to pay the remainder of the cost of the iPhone and AppleCare, and then the device is yours. AppleCare will be good for two years from the date you originally signed the iPhone Upgrade Program contract.
What do I need to sign up for it?
You’ll need to have a valid credit card (not a debit card), decent credit, and whoever is paying for it needs to be over 18. This is because technically you’re signing up for a 24-month interest-free loan from Citizens One—via Apple’s retail stores—so you need all the bits and bobs a company would usually require for a financing deal. Citizens One will run a credit check to approve you for the loan.
Remember, if you have the Apple Card, you can get 3% cash back on all purchases from Apple, including the iPhone Upgrade Program. If you haven’t applied yet, now might be a good time.
Get pre-approved for your loan.
To expedite the process of getting your new iPhone, Apple has implemented a pre-approval feature that is already underway and available for returning upgraders and newly enrolling customers.
Enrolling to purchase an iPhone that is already on sale
You can enroll or re-enroll at Apple’s website to purchase an iPhone that is available now (not in pre-order) by visiting Apple’s iPhone Upgrade Program page and clicking on Join Now or Check your upgrade eligibility to get started.
You can also enroll from the Apple Store app.
- Launch the Apple Store app.
- Select the iPhone model you want to purchase on the iPhone Upgrade Program.
- Select whether you are Replacing your current iPhone or buying a new iPhone on an existing carrier account.
- Select your carrier.
- Select your finish.
- Select your capacity.
- Select Apple iPhone Upgrade Program when asked how you would like to pay.
- Select I’d like to enroll if you are new to the program or I’m already part of the program if you are currently enrolled in the iPhone Upgrade Program.
You will then follow the instructions to complete your loan approval process to enroll or re-enroll in the iPhone Upgrade Program.
Enrolling to purchase an iPhone that is in pre-order
Currently, Apple only allows you to get loan pre-approval for preorders like the upcoming iPhone from the Apple Store app on your iPhone (not available on iPad).
- Launch the Apple Store app on your iPhone.
- Tap View pricing or Preorder (depending on the pre-order status).
- Tap Get Started at the top of the page under Get ready for pre-order now with the iPhone Upgrade Program.
- Tap Get ready for pre-order now if you are enrolling for the first time or Get a head start on your upgrade if you are currently enrolled in the iPhone Upgrade Program and follow the instructions to check your eligibility.
- Select the iPhone model you want to preorder.
- Tap Get Started.
- Select your carrier.
- Select your finish.
- Select your capacity.
- Select the AppleCare coverage you want (if you want to upgrade to AppleCare with Theft and Loss).
- Tap Confirm iPhone Preference.
- Tap Continue to go to the next section.
- Confirm your carrier. You’ll need the wireless number for the phone you would like to replace and your 4-digit account PIN.
- Tap Continue.
- Tap Continue to go to the next section.
- Fill out the personal information needed to get loan approval for the iPhone Upgrade Program. You’ll need to enter your Social Security Number, your billing and shipping address, credit card payment method, date of birth, and total annual income.
- Tap Continue to get pre-approval.
Your preapproval will last three days after pre-orders begin. Once pre-order ends, outstanding preapprovals will expire.
Getting pre-approval for an iPhone pre-order does not reserve an iPhone for you. It is still a first-come, first-served basis. Going through the preapproval process allows you to select the model you want for faster checkout than starting from scratch.
A note about credit report pulls
There’s been a lot of confusion about whether Apple does a hard or soft pull on your credit report to approve you for re-enrollment. That’s because each candidate for a loan is different. Apple’s iPhone Upgrade Program overview states:
Karen is a contributor to i.com as a writer and co-host of the i Show. She’s been writing about Apple since 2010 with a year-long break to work at an Apple Store as a product specialist. She’s also a contributor at CNET. Before joining i in 2018, Karen wrote for Macworld, AppAdvice, WatchAware. She’s an early adopter who used to wait in long lines on release days before pre-ordering made things much easier. Karen is also a part-time teacher and occasional movie extra. She loves to spend time with her family, travel the world, and is always looking for portable tech and accessories so she can work from anywhere.
iPhone upgrade program: How to save money on a new iPhone every single year
Back during the early days of the smartphone era, upgrading to a new iPhone every two years was a no-brainer. Thanks to generous carrier subsidies, users were often able to get a new iPhone for free or at a heavily discounted rate so long as they signed on for a two-year contract.
Over time, though, carriers got tired of subsidies and eliminated the practice. In turn, smartphone skyrocketed. Or, if we’re being honest, smartphone adjusted back to their actual cost. Regardless, the new economics of smartphone upgrades naturally had Apple executives worried. And so, Apple back in 2015 introduced a carrier-independent upgrade plan designed to let users enjoy the latest and greatest iPhone models every single year.
How Apple’s iPhone upgrade program works
Apple’s iPhone upgrade program makes it easy to get a new iPhone every single year. The way it works is simple. Once you purchase a new iPhone and join the iPhone Upgrade Program, you’re essentially on the hook for a 24-month 0% APR installment loan for the full price of the device. So basically, you’re buying an iPhone and paying it off over the course of 24-months.
Now here’s where the upgrade program comes into play. Once you make the equivalent of 12 monthly payments towards the purchase price of the device, you can upgrade to a brand new iPhone model at no additional charge. Of course, you have to send in your old device and you’re now on the hook for a new 24-month loan.
In effect, the iPhone upgrade program is akin to a subscription service. As long as you keep paying the monthly installments, you can get next-gen iPhones every single year for free.
How much does it cost?
Apple’s iPhone upgrade program starts as low as 35.33 per month and includes AppleCare coverage. On the high-end, you’ll be paying about 70/month if you get a Pro model with a lot of storage.
The AppleCare coverage includes 24/7 priority access to Apple Support. It also includes hardware coverage, software support, and. accidental damage. For just 4.16 more per month, you can up your AppleCare coverage to include theft and loss coverage.
There are, however, some caveats.
Under AppleCare, each accidental damage incident is subject to a service fee of 29 for screen damage or 99 for any other damage. Each incident of theft or loss is subject to a deductible of 149. AppleCare with Theft and Loss requires you to have Find My iPhone enabled on your device at the time it is lost or stolen.
How to check your eligibility for the program
You can check your eligibility for the iPhone upgrade program by going to Apple’s website over here. You can either sign in with your Apple ID and receive an answer or look up your eligibility by punching in your IMEI number.
Subscribers on Sprint, Verizon, ATT, and T-Mobile can enjoy the program. Also, note that earning eligibility requires a credit check, so you may have to supply some personal financial information like your social security number. You’ll also need relevant carrier account information along with a credit or debit card. Apple notes that prepaid cards are not accepted.
If you’re eligible, you can start the sign-up process over here on Apple’s iPhone Upgrade Program website.
Incidentally, now is a good time to look into the program given that the iPhone 13 will be unveiled in just a few weeks.