It started, as so many things do, with a Twitter comment. I posted a link to my ZDNet 2020 guide to deciding which iPhone to buy.
As almost always happens, some followers had to share their enduring dislike of all things Apple. Other followers then found themselves jumping to Apple's defense. Within a few hours, my Twitter feed was ground zero for a battle between attackers and defenders of the world's first trillion dollar company.
But in and around all the freak and fanboy fuss was a quiet, wistful voice. This voice tweeted, "I'd really love an iPhone, but I can't pay even $400. If only there was a $200 iPhone."
The $400 phone my Twitterer mentioned is the iPhone SE, refreshed this last spring. It's essentially an iPhone 8, with a faster processor. For a relatively modern iPhone, shipped new from the factory, it's not a bad deal at all.
But it's still twice as expensive than my Twitter tweeter can take.
What about an older phone? Clearly, iOS will run on a lot of older, and therefore cheaper phones. But is it a good idea?
iOS 13 and 14 support iPhones back to my cherished 6s Plus (the 6s is also supported). I'm still carrying my iPhone 6s Plus, which it works without fail on iOS 13. I haven't upgraded it to iOS 14 only because of reports that iOS 14 is apparently still quite fussy on many phones. I usually wait until most of the bugs are ironed out to apply an update. I usually know it's safe when Adrian Kingsley-Hughes stops writing "this version sucks" articles for a given new release.
Using a four- or five-year-old phone is not necessarily a bad idea. I fully intend to keep using my five-year-old iPhone for as long as it keeps running.
The most important factor
Contrary to what some people may think, the most important factor is not OS version. The most important factor isn't speed or even hardware features.
The most important factor is app compatibility. Granted, there may be a few apps, like lidar-enabled scanning apps, that require the purchase of a new phone to use new sensors. But most apps will run on most phones - at least most phones with a relatively modern OS.
The one issue to keep in mind is that once an OS version is no longer supported by Apple, developers tend to devote less time and attention to ensuring compatibility. So while nearly all apps out now will support iOS 13 and 14, some will start breaking on earlier OS versions.
Generally, you can expect three or four years of support from app vendors after an OS version no longer ships. That's because their code base has often been written for those older versions. But as the code changes, and as updates are pushed out, sometimes that compatibility begins to diminish over time.
What that means is that if you're buying an old iPhone with a relatively current OS, you'll have one to three years where you can be pretty sure all your apps will run. You just won't have, probably, four or five years, or more.
What iPhone to get?
The oldest model supported by iOS 14, the latest and greatest, is the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus. I haven't tested my 6s Plus on iOS 14, but it runs like a champ on 13. I use the heck out of my phone, so I'd know if there were any issues. There aren't.
That means you can choose to pick up any iPhone from the 6s onward. It's just a matter of price and availability.
What phones are under $200?
Used iPhone prices vary considerably depending on where you buy them. That said, you're unlikely to find anything other than an iPhone 6s, 6s Plus, 7, or original SE for sale for less than $200. That means you're definitely limiting your purchasing.
Where to buy?
Let's rule out Apple right away. Apple does have a refurb store, but they only have the X, XS, and XS Max on offer. The least expensive refurb phone Apple sells is $549.View Now at Apple
Amazon has a certified renewed set of offerings, which the company says, "have been inspected and tested by qualified suppliers to work and look like new, and come with the Amazon Renewed Guarantee." It took a little digging, but I did find an iPhone 7 for $178, although it only had 32GB of storage.
Amazon has a certified renewed set of offerings, which the company says, "have been inspected and tested by qualified suppliers to work and look like new, and come with the Amazon Renewed Guarantee." It took a little digging, but I did find an iPhone 7 for $178, although it only had 32GB of storage.View Now at Amazon
Then there's eBay. In my quick search, I did find a wide array of iPhones under $200, including quite a few 6s varieties under $99. That said, it is eBay, so caveat emptor. If you want to go the eBay route, read these two excellent CNET articles on the subject:
- Are refurbished eBay phones worth it? $650 later, I have some advice
- Buying a used or refurbished phone on eBay? Not so fast
Another useful resource is our phone trade-in guide, which spotlights companies that buy used phones (and then resell them). Each company is different, but you might find yourself finding something with a decent price from them, especially for the older phones.
The bottom line
The bottom line is simple. You are definitely better off getting a new phone from Apple. You know what you're getting, and you know you'll be able to use it for five or so years.
But, if you can't afford or don't want to spend Apple-level money, you can still get an iPhone. You'll have to make some sacrifices in functionality and speed, and you'll have to take something of a risk purchasing (if you don't use an established vendor). But under $200 iPhones are out there. They will do the job quite well, at least for the next year or so.
What iPhone are you using? Did you buy an iPhone 12? Let us know in the comments below.
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