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What you should know before buying an older phone this holiday

If you're shopping on a budget, buying an older flagship phone may make the most financial and rational sense. But the reasons may not align with every user.
Written by Kerry Wan, Senior Reviews Editor
OnePlus N300 vs Samsung Galaxy S21
June Wan/ZDNET

It's the holiday shopping season, which means the smartphones in our pockets will all of a sudden start to act up, randomly crash apps, and mercilessly dip in battery levels to guilt-trip us to upgrade. If you've fought this battle long enough and finally decided to seek a replacement to close out the year, then you may be wondering what's better: a brand-new phone or an older one that you know will serve just fine. 

If money is no object, then sure, treat yourself to the latest and greatest smartphone. You'll reap the benefits of the newest technologies and have a trustee pocket companion that will last you for years down the road. 

But for those shopping on a dime, the dilemma becomes, "Should I buy a new midrange phone or an old flagship phone?" 

The two may cost the same, but the advantages are not as identical as the price suggests. Allow me to break down the key reasons why you should follow one path over the other. 

Also: Best old phones to buy in 2023

You should buy an older flagship phone if...

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra in hand

Last year's Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra retailed at $1,199 but can be had for as low as $450 today.

Matthew Miller/ZDNET

1. You want premium and durable build quality

Many would argue that the smartphone industry has hit a plateau in recent years, with the law of diminishing returns taking full effect every time a new iPhone or Android phone is released. Unless you're looking at foldables, it's not hard to see a common denominator across every flagship smartphone these days, at least on the hardware side of things. That's great to hear if you're buying an older flagship.

Let's take last year's well-praised Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra for example. It's no longer the $1,000 flagship that it once was -- a quick search on Amazon puts the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra at $443 -- but the hardware blend of Corning Gorilla Glass Victus (very durable glass, basically), metal framing, and ultrasmooth aluminum can go toe-to-toe with today's high-end offerings, while easily outclassing midrangers in build.

Also, most flagships are equipped with at least an IP68 rating for water and dust resistance, a certification that becomes less prominent as you go downmarket.

Also: How to turn your old devices into Amazon gift cards

2. Camera performance is another priority

Like build quality, camera quality has aged like fine wine across flagships of old phones. While modernized handsets sport lenses and sensors that can capture more distant subjects and better low-light imagery, a two-to-three-year-old smartphone should be fine for casual flicks. In fact, specialized features like 4K video recording and portrait mode selfies have been a thing for years now, so you won't be missing out much by settling for an older model. 

Still, if you were to compare the camera performance of a year-old flagship with today's midrange units, you'd be surprised how similar or, in many cases, better the former is. That's not to say that newer phones in the $400-to-$500 range are incompetent: The iPhone SE (2022) and Google Pixel 6a both capture exceptional photos and videos. You'll just find a greater and more diverse arsenal of camera tools from a former flagship, particularly with auto-focusing and image stabilization. 

Also: The case for keeping your old iPhone

An iPhone viewscreen showing it's taking a photo of a row of iPhones in an Apple Store

The iPhone 13 Pro Max from 2021 is just as viable of an option today.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

3. Display quality matters to you

While more and more companies are beginning to prioritize display quality even on budget devices, you'd still be pressing your luck trying to find a new sub-$500 handset that has both an OLED display and a high refresh rate. There are exceptions like Samsung's Galaxy A53 5G, but in the grand scheme of things, the panels on older flagships lap those of modern-day midrangers -- in viewing angles, color reproduction, brightness, touch sampling rate (the responsiveness to your fingers), and more. 

Also: Here's how to prepare your phone for a hassle-free trade-in process

But you should consider a new midrange phone if...

OnePlus Nord N20 5G in hand

The OnePlus Nord N20 is one of the best affordable 5G phones today.

June Wan/ZDNET

1. You want a year or two more of software updates

I can't overstate how important software updates and security patches are to your phone and your personal information. They're meant to keep your phone safe from the latest security vulnerabilities while providing you with the most optimized software experience. And while it's true that flagship phones typically sit at the top of companies' update priority lists, garnering anywhere from four to seven years of software commitments, when you buy a used handset some of that time has already passed. 

Instead, a new midrange phone comes with a fresh start, so you can expect to receive one or two more years' worth of software updates compared with an older device. 

Also: Samsung commits to at least 4 years of updates for latest smartphones

2. You plan on buying insurance 

You may have seen listings on Amazon and Best Buy that label preowned smartphones as Renewed or Refurbished. These labels are a formal way for retailers to say that they've carefully inspected the devices, replaced parts that were no longer working, and deemed them "like new" in appearance. Here's the catch that may not be obvious: These restored phones do not qualify for their respective manufacturer's warranty claims or insurance policies.

The main reason for this is that not every retailer has the same parts and components as the official manufacturer, making it difficult and, in most cases, impossible, for the official service representatives to repair your phone should it break. Companies are getting better at making their genuine parts more accessible, but none of this would be a problem if you bought a new device, midrange or not. 

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