Image: Apple

Should You Upgrade to an iPhone 7? A Surprisingly Complex Guide

Jason Koebler

Jason Koebler

The iPhone Upgrade Program was supposed to take the stress out of getting a new phone. But it hasn't, of course.

Image: Apple

Apple has a new iPhone, and anyone already enrolled in the iPhone Upgrade Program has a whole new set of mental gymnastics to do about whether or not it's actually worth it to get the iPhone 7.

If the headphoneless camera upgrade of a phone that Apple announced Wednesday excites you, then it's a no-brainer—trade in your 6S for an iPhone 7. But if you switched to the iPhone 6S as something of a trial run and are still somewhat on the fence, well then you (and I) have some serious thinking to do.

If you're on the upgrade program, you're spreading the payment for your iPhone 6S out over 24 monthly payments, with the option to upgrade the phone every year, which automatically starts a new two-year payment cycle.

Apple is hoping you upgrade your phone for every new release, meaning unless you buy yourself out of your contract you will both:

A) Never, ever actually own your phone and

B) Will stay synced on the iPhone release cycle forever.

Apple pitched the iPhone Upgrade Program as a way to take the guesswork out of when to upgrade your phone, and for people who are on team #neverAndroid, it makes sense. The whole point of the program is to give people subscription-style access to the newest phone.

But for me, I wasn't sure about my switch to iPhone. But I was sure that I hated the phone I had, and I was definitely sure that I couldn't afford to buy a new, $750 iPhone without the phone contract subsidies that Verizon used to give out (subsidies are completely gone for the iPhone 7).

Actually figuring out what to do is no easier than it was a year ago

A year later and faced with something of an underwhelming update, people like me are now back to the bad old days of not knowing when (or if) to upgrade our phones. So, what should you do?

First, let's look at the upgrade plan you signed up for:

And the new one:

Outside of a less-than-dollar change per month for the Plus models, we're looking at an essentially one-for-one swap between the old phone and the new phone. So if you swap your iPhone 6S for an iPhone 7 (I am going to use the 64GB model because that's the one I have), you paid $439 to rent a phone for a year and can continue to pay $439 for at least the near future. This is your new phone subscription cost—if you want an iPhone forever, put it in your fav budgeting app and forget about it.

But of course it's not actually that easy. This is because the iPhone 7 is wholly uninteresting and, without a headphone jack, is potentially more annoying to own than the iPhone 6S. The star of the show here is the iPhone 7 Plus, which has the dual cameras + coming depth-of-field feature. With an ultra fancy camera, 32GB of storage is silly business: The only sane purchase here is a 128GB or 256GB iPhone 7 Plus. This means your new iPhone subscription cost is $498.96 a year—let's call it $500.

But let's say you want to abandon ship now. Consider the following:

  1. You paid $439 to rent a phone and have to pay $439 more now or over the course of the next year to actually own it, at which point it will be two years (and probably two iPhone generations) old.
  2. Assuming the phone is still in good condition, you can buy out your last year of the contract and then sell it on eBay for between $400 and $500, which will free you of your burden but will leave you phoneless.
  3. Assuming you want to stay top-of-the-line but want to switch from Apple, you must now purchase a new Galaxy S7 for $620, a Galaxy Note 7 (assuming they stop exploding) for $950, or an LG V20 for a still unannounced price. Your mileage may vary here, but you can likely enter into a similar pay-monthly model with your carrier (or Samsung) for these phones. You still have to pay off your iPhone loan.
  4. Actually figuring out what to do is no easier than it was a year ago, when phone subsidies were still common.

BUT WAIT, there's more to consider. Will the 2017 iPhone, which is being billed as a major upgrade, be any good? Is it worth just upgrading your phone now to stay on the plan even if you don't love the iPhone 7? Here are your options (note: if you want an analysis of whether it's worth it to switch from a carrier-run finance plan to an Apple-run one, there is likely no known branch of math that can help you):

Upgrade to the 7 now in hopes the iPhone 7S (or whatever the next one is called) will be better
The iPhone 7 is—just as every previous iPhone has been—the best phone Apple has ever made. If next year's iPhone is really going to be the major upgrade everyone says it will be, you'd be stupid to continue paying the same amount of money for anything but the newest tech. If, however, the 2017 iPhone also sucks, you will feel DUMB for sentencing yourself to yet another year of monthly iPhone payments.

Stick out the iPhone 6S until you own it, then decide what to do
This course of action gives you the option of selling the iPhone 6S in 2017 and upgrading to whatever phone you want. But if the phone you want ends up being the 2017 iPhone, then you will feel like an idiot for not bothering with the iPhone 7.

Throw your phone in the river
As tempting as this option is, the joke's on you—you're still on the hook for the remaining 12 months of payment to Apple. This is the fundamental shift in the move away from cell phone subsidies: In the past, you paid your carrier $199 (or $299) for a pocket computer that could be worth up to $1,000. If you lost it, you got sad for a few days, then took a friend's old one and waited for your next upgrade. Now, we're paying the full cost, one way or another. And unless you can afford to front $700 or so every year (or just pay that outright, if you're not willing to sell your old phone), you'll be faced with the same upgrade conundrum we always had.

We will all certainly face bigger decisions than this in our lives and there are worse things than having a slightly less than optimal phone experience for a year or two. But the iPhone Upgrade Program is predicated on the entire idea that Apple will design the best phone, every single year. If that doesn't actually happen, well, then I've got to at least give Apple respect for designing the best trap.

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