Cellphone Upgrade Mania: Is the Newest Model Worth It?

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Every year the big cellphone manufacturers - namely Apple and Samsung, but also LG, HTC and others - roll out new phone models wrapped in glitzy advertising campaigns aimed at spurring us to buy.

The Samsung came out a few days ago. The new iPhone will join the party later this year.

The blunt question: do you need the latest model phone?

Really?

It will cost upwards of $600 without a two-year contract and, note, to stay current in the upgrade parade it's imperative to stay free of contracts which is easy enough with Verizon (the Edge plan), T-Mobile (Jump), AT&T (AT&T Next) and Sprint (EasyPay).

Understand: plans that allow upgrades quicker than the usual two years cost more. A Verizon Edge customer, for instance, commits to pay $27.15 per month for 24 months for an iPhone 5S. That is $651.60.

You have to pay half that before upgrading to a new phone - meaning that, in effect, this is a one year contract.

A wrinkle is that Verizon will buy the one-year old-phone from you, so you will pay $325.80 for one year's use of the device.

Bought with a two-year contract, that 5S costs just $199.99.

Verizon sweetens the Edge deal by discounting eligible service plans $10 per month.The math is complicated. But anyway you cut it, Edge costs a bit more and you also relinquish the old phone at upgrade.

Are the extra costs warranted by performance hikes?

Consider, when Apple introduced the iPhone 5S last year, it touted these features: "A chip with 64-bit architecture. A fingerprint identity sensor. A better, faster camera. And an operating system built specifically for 64-bit."

The only breakthrough is the fingerprint sensor which, honestly, is a fine thing but until Apple pairs it with a widely usable payments tool, it is something of a yawn.

The newly introduced Samsung Galaxy S5's features include a 16 megapixel camera, a super sharp display, and - this may be the real winner - waterproofing of the device.

Samsung also added a fingerprint scanner and, one upping Apple, there's also a heartrate monitor.

More yawns?

Michael Bremmer, CEO of Telecomquotes.com, which manages technology for business customers, adamantly agreed. Upgrading annually, he said, is "a waste of money."

He elaborated: "The incremental improvements are not worth the upgrade cost. My mother-in-law has an iPhone 4s and it does pretty much everything my 5s does, almost as well. It's only $0.99 with a contract."

Bremmer added: "Typically the model year improvements are only worth it if you have a very specific business need that the new phone will satisfy."

Magician Remy Connor sees matters very differently. "As a magician, I upgrade my phone constantly for both the technology and the look," he said. "New cell phone means money, money means you are doing well, that means you are in demand and people should hire you."

He added: "The technology is also amazing to play with. It is nice to compare each series of phones as they come out, to know the differences and then make a choice."

Chris Brubaker, a vice president at mobile website company DudaMobile in Palo Alto, Calif., said he upgrades every year - always iPhone - and he explained it by saying he recycles his old gear to his kids: "This way I get the latest gadget and my kids have a relatively new phone and I don't have to feel bad when they crack the screen."

Brubaker added: "As someone who works in tech, I feel like I need to stay up with the latest and greatest."

For Brubaker and Connor, upgrading works.

How about for you?

The brutal fact: model year increments in smartphones nowadays mainly are small. Cameras get better, screens get sharper, the devices get more rugged. But when it comes to what phones primarily do - run apps, Web surf, send texts, make voice calls - little changes from year to year, and that just is fact.

Are the changes enough to warrant upgrading? Upgrades for status definitely matter in some circles. Upgrading for a specific feature only available on a new phone definitely matters for some individuals.

But for most of us, the verdict is clear: Upgrading every two years is plenty soon enough.

--Written by Robert McGarvey for MainStreet

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