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Don't buy that expensive new iPhone 13: How used iPhones can deliver huge savings

So you want (or need) a new iPhone? But what if one of those brand new iPhone 13 devices isn't your only choice? What if an iPhone 12 or even an iPhone 11 will do?

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A small box of refurbished phones.

Upgrading or buying refurbished? This is a question my wife and I have been asking ourselves. Our much-beloved 2015-vintage iPhone 6s Pluses are feeling old and clunky. The battery life isn't what it used to be, even though we did a mid-life battery replacement three years ago. Performance is sometimes unbearably slow, especially on the apps we now rely upon.

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But we just did an end-to-end replacement of almost all our Macs. We had a lot to upgrade because we're not just replacing a family computer or two. We own our business. This year, we've replaced a fleet of Macs, bought a couple of long-delayed iPad Pros, and added a few additional base-level iPads to our studio setup.

Do we really also need to spend nearly $4,000 on a couple of fully-equipped iPhone 13 Pros

Because that's what it would be. If we were buying new, we'd equip the new phones to last another four to six years. I'd get an iPhone 13 Pro Max , and my wife (with smaller hands and pockets) would get an iPhone 13 Pro . It's smaller, but the screen is still measurably larger than the one on the iPhone 6s Plus she's been carrying around. We'd go Pro because those new macro lenses are interesting, and we'd equip them with the Full Monty of 1TB storage because we film a lot of video.

With AppleCare, the price on those two phones would be $1,768 for the iPhone 13 Pro and $1,868 for the iPhone 13 Pro Max. Together, we'd be looking at $3,636. That's a lot of money, that is.

The iPhone 13 Pro doesn't add all that much

The thing is, there's not that much on the iPhone 13 Pro that's wildly compelling over the iPhone 12 Pro or even the iPhone 11 Pro . Yes, the macro lens is intriguing. But is it thousands of dollars worth of intriguing? I have a nice Canon DSLR with a quite functional $25 set of macro lenses . You've seen them at work in many of my videos. So the macro capability in the iPhone 13 Pro is a nice-to-have, not a must have.

It would also be nice to go to 1TB of storage. But each of our phones is using less than 40GB of storage now. That 1TB number is aspirational, not something we'd put to use anytime soon. Plus, since the iPhone can optimize photo and video storage, it's not clear how soon we'll need all that storage on our actual, physical phones.

Beyond that, there's not a lot that's super compelling between the iPhone 12 Pro and the iPhone 13 Pro. There's not even that much new jumping from the iPhone 11 Pro to the iPhone 12 Pro.

Yes, the iPhone 12 series added 5G support, but as this map shows, 5G doesn't work in most of Oregon (including anywhere near where we live), so there's no reason to factor it in to our decision process.

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Verizon coverage map: Oregon

In fact, 5G is quite limited for most of America, so unless you live or work in an urban area, it doesn't exist. For most of us, it's not something to look for when buying a phone (at least for a few years).

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Verizon US coverage map

Say hello to Back Market

My wife and I were discussing our need to make some kind of iPhone 13 purchase decision shortly after the Apple announcement. It was at this point that Michael, a PR guy from Back Market, entered the picture. He had read my article about  my wife and I accepting the fact that we were going to need to upgrade from our 6s Plus devices, but not liking the idea, along with my picks and pans article from the iPhone 13 launch event.

He told me that his client:

Has launched an awareness campaign rallying the public against buying new. The "next-gen" iPhone 13 is not particularly innovative, most will not be able to tell the differences between the 12 and 13. Every new iPhone is the most "advanced model ever," luckily those older models are still available at a great discount. Refurbished iPhones do not come with a prohibitive price tag, often selling half off or more with nearly the same features.

He then offered me a couple of phones to test out, to see how the refurbished experience stacked up, especially coming from an older device.

I had previously purchased a refurbished Apple Watch directly from Apple's refurb store . That experience was a total win, and two years later, I'm still wearing that Watch. It's on my wrist right now.

Given that win, I decided to take him up on his offer. I mean, why not? First, I'll tell you about the phones themselves, and then I'll share the experience of receiving them from Back Market.

iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max

Back Market sent me an iPhone 11 Pro and an iPhone 12 Pro Max.  Going from an iPhone 6s Plus to an iPhone 11 Pro is a big jump. Between the two are the iPhone 7 series, iPhone 8 series, iPhone X,  and iPhone XS series. That's four generations. Moving to the iPhone 12 Pro Max is a five generation jump.

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In other words, it's a much bigger jump from the iPhone 6s generation to the iPhone 11 generation than it is from the iPhone 11 generation to the current iPhone 13 generation. The improvements are hugely noticeable between the 6s and the 11 or 12 and not so much between the 11 or 12 to the 13.

Screen size is a big one. While the iPhone 11 Pro is considerably smaller overall than our 6s Pluses, the actual screen size is bigger. Screen quality is wildly better. The 6s Plus uses a Retina LED backlit LCD display with IPS technology and a 1920 by 1080 resolution. Pixel density is 401 ppi.

The 11 Pro is a Super Retina OLED display with a 2436 by 1125 resolution, and a pixel density of 458 ppi. The 12 Pro brings that up to 2532 by 1170 and a 460 ppi density. But the specs don't really tell the story. The post iPhone X screens just blow away the older screens in terms of overall quality.

Yes, the 13 Pro adds ProMotion, but that won't be nearly as noticeable as the jump in display quality that was introduced with the iPhone X.

Speed is another indicator. The iPhone 12 Pro has an A14 Bionic. The 11 Pro has an A13 Bionic. But the 6s Plus has an Apple A9 chip. The performance difference is amazing. Using Antutu benchmarks, here are the results:

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As you can see, the jump from the 6s Plus to the 12 Pro Max is a 4.2 times performance improvement. The jump from the 6s Plus to the 11 Pro is a 3.6 times improvement. No matter how you look at it, that's a noticeable performance gain. But will you notice the performance jump from the 11 Pro or 12 Pro Max to the 13? It's only about 13%. Yes, it's an incremental upgrade, but it's far from life changing.

Now, of course, this is all about upgrading from an older generation phone. If you have an iPhone 6s Plus like me, or an iPhone 7 or 8, you'll notice a big performance improvement going to a late model refurbished phone. But if you're already using a late model refurbished phone and you want to upgrade, then the 13 series is probably the right choice for you.

Price savings

Let's look at price savings. I'll admit upfront this isn't quite an apples-to-apples comparison. If I were buying a new iPhone 13, I would have bought the fully maxed out model, for $1,868 with AppleCare. The slightly slower iPhone 12 Pro Max isn't maxed out -- it only has 256GB storage, although the best capacity for that model is 512GB. The iPhone 11 Pro model has only 64GB storage, which necessitated some fiddling with files to move my wife over to it. She gained a lot of performance, but lost half her storage.

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So what do nice refurbished phones like this normally cost? And what would the price savings have been?

First, let's be clear that refurbished prices fluctuate, and different vendors have different rates. I'm going to provide you with Back Market's rates as of when I'm writing this. Back Market sells refurbished devices in three quality levels: fair, good, and excellent. I'm guessing the models we were sent were "excellent," because they are pristine. There's not a mark or scratch on them. They feel new.

The 11 Pro model is two years old, and with 64GB it's $539. Compare that to $1,499 for the maxed out iPhone 13 Pro (without AppleCare). $960 is a lot of money to save -- and the thing is, you have to ask whether a macro mode, more storage, and a slim performance increase is worth almost a thousand dollars? The 12 Pro Max model Back Market provided me with is one year old, and their price is $995. The maxed out iPhone 13 Pro Max is $500 more. Again, are those added features worth the extra $500?

These Back Market phones would have cost $1,534 in total. By contrast, had we bought brand new iPhone 13 phones, we would have gone all in (including AppleCare) and spent $3,636. Making a more conservative buying decision that provides almost all the gains you'd see with the full iPhone 13 upgrade saves $2,102. That's big.

Even comparing matching configurations, there's some substantial savings. You can't get a 64GB iPhone 13 Pro. The base model is 128GB, and that's $999. The 256GB iPhone 13 Pro Max is $1,199 -- still two hundred dollars more than the exact same iPhone 12 Pro Max. If we were to have bought iPhone 13 Pro devices with nearly matching configurations, it still would have cost $660 more than our refurb configuration. Once again, you have to decide whether the added features are worth the bucks.

My wife also pointed out that accessories for older phones are considerably cheaper than those for the new models. She bought a case for nine bucks that would have cost forty or fifty for the iPhone 13.

Of course, this is a decision you're going to have to make based on your own circumstances, but here's one thing to consider: the iPhone 14 is expected to be a big jump in overall features and capabilities over the 13 series. If you buy refurbished this year, you'd have the higher performance phones you need -- plus some cash to move to the newest hotness next year.

Bottom line

I like Back Market's focus on reusing and recycling, returning all these rare elements back into circulation. I also liked that while the packaging was no frills, the phones arrived in perfect condition with a factory fresh feel.

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Not fancy, but the box inside a box packaging, plus bubble wrap, kept the phones protected.

Had we bought these with our own money, we'd have had no complaints.

Finally, I have to give a shout out to the folks at Back Market for partnering up for this editorial experiment. I will be continuing to use these phones throughout the year and I'll let you know how they do. Right now, after a week of use, both my wife and I are very happy.

What about you? What model phone do you use? Did you rush out to get an iPhone 13? Or are you still using an older phone? Would you ever consider going the refurbished route? This is my second run at it (I bought a refurbished Apple Watch), and I'm starting to think it might be the more prudent approach. Share your thoughts in the comments below.


You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.