Hands holding smartphones
Photo: Gregory Reid

Smartphones have been widely available for less than 20 years. In that short time, the telephone has been transformed from a way to stay in touch into a device that is central to most of our lives. If you don’t agree, just try going without it for a day. (See our smartphone milestones timeline, below.)

Yes, it’s still our connection to family, friends, and everyone else in our contact list, but it’s also our photo album; our gateway to music, movies, and books; and our camera, map, wallet, calendar, newspaper, flashlight, and, yes, maybe even the keys to our house.

As anyone who has recently shopped for a smartphone knows, this virtual fifth appendage does not come cheap. The starting price for the newest premium phones from Apple and Samsung hovers around $1,000; if you prefer a model with an extra-large screen and more generous storage, you’ll pay even more.

But you can pay a lot less and still get a lot of phone. Here, we’ll tell you how to squeeze more life out of the phone you’re using and how to save on a new (or as-good-as-new) model. We’ll also share loads of useful things your smartphone can do that you probably don’t know about. To help you choose the best phone for you, check our latest smartphone ratings.

Extend the Life of Your Phone

Consumers have begun holding on to their cell phones for nearly three years, which is as much as a half-year longer than they did two years ago, according to Hyla Mobile, a Texas-based company that collects and sells trade-ins.

That’s not only because new phones are much more expensive but also because the “free” phones wireless carriers once used to entice people into signing multiyear service contracts are a thing of the past. (Keeping your phone longer doesn’t just save you money, it also helps save the planet by reducing the greenhouse gases that are produced in making a new cell phone.)

More on Smartphones

Before you rush out to buy a new model, consider whether your current phone is still meeting your needs. If it is, here are ways to keep it running longer.

Update the operating system. This will install the latest security protections, along with potentially fun and useful new features. It can also speed up a sluggish phone. If the phone is too old to accept the latest update, it’s time to spring for a new one.

Replace the battery. For the average user, a smartphone’s battery performance will start to decline after about two years, says Richard Fisco, CR’s head of smartphone testing. In general, the more frequently you charge the phone, the faster this will happen. If your battery is running out of juice too quickly, you can usually get a new one for less than $100.

Swap in a new screen. Scratches and cracks can easily be fixed with a new screen. Though replacing the screen on the fanciest phones can cost more than $300, you can make older models look like new for half that much—or even less.

Increase the storage space. An easy way to free up space is to delete any apps you never (or rarely) use and off-load your photos to a cloud-storage service offered by Amazon, Apple, Google, or another company. Many phones made by Samsung, LG, and others let you expand storage capacity by stowing apps, photos, and other items on microSD cards, which can be purchased for as little as $10.

Spend Less on a New Model

If it’s time to buy a new phone, a highly rated model can be far less expensive than you might think. Here are some strategies you can use to find a phone that won’t empty your wallet.

Buy an older version. Purchasing a new phone from an earlier generation can be a great way to save money, especially if you have your heart set on a pricey Apple or Samsung.

For example, the Samsung Galaxy S8 started at $720 when it launched in the spring of 2017. But now you can pick up one for about $600. Though the S8 has fewer camera tricks and a slightly slower processor, and is a little more prone to breaking than the S9, it’s still highly rated. (Always research prices before you buy. You might find a deal that makes the S9 a better buy.)

If you’re looking for even greater savings, consider buying a 2-year-old phone. The 32GB iPhone 7, which people stood in line to buy for $650 in the fall of 2016, now costs $450 at Apple and is still highly rated by CR.

Better yet, Fisco says, you’re not necessarily sacrificing much when you purchase a model that’s a year or two old because manufacturers are no longer adding must-have features with each new upgrade. “A few years ago smartphones were evolving rapidly, adding multiple features with each new generation,” Fisco says. “That’s no longer the case.”

Though the screens on this year’s phones may be a little sharper and the processors a little faster, you may not want to spend an extra couple hundred bucks for those features, says Tuong Nguyen, a senior principal analyst for the tech research firm Gartner. “For the typical consumer, these differences are unnoticeable.”

According to data from GAP Intelligence, which tracks the costs of consumer electronics, the prices of older smartphones drop with a new model’s release. The big phone makers tend to launch new models at about the same time every year, letting you plan ahead. Samsung typically unveils phones in early spring and late summer, and Apple announces its new offerings in September.

Consider all brands. Apple and Samsung are the biggest names in the smartphone business, but they’re not the only companies that make great phones. LG, Google, Sony, and OnePlus also manufacture top-rated models with cutting-edge displays, speedy processors, and excellent battery life.

Buying one of these can save you a lot if you’re willing to give up on the most popular brands and accept slightly less stellar camera performance and perhaps a plastic casing.

“The most expensive phones don’t always give you the most for your money,” Fisco says. “A midtier model can provide many people with everything they need. Determine which features you want in your next phone, then compare the models that have those features side by side.”

Can’t do without an OLED display? Take a look at Apple’s $900 iPhone X and Samsung’s $720 Galaxy S9, but don’t over­look the $530 OnePlus 6, which launched in May and scored a Very Good in CR’s testing. It has an all-glass body, an OLED display, and Qualcomm’s latest processor, providing much of what you get in phones that cost nearly twice as much.

The Pixel 3, Google’s latest flagship phone, costs $200 less than the iPhone XS but has many of the same premium features. The Pixel 3 has just one rear camera, but our testers say it’s great for taking still images. The phone has an OLED display and, like other Android devices, comes with Google Assistant.

The Upside of Buying Used

Refurbished phones are used models that have been freshened up, to one degree or another, to be resold, usually at a lower price than new models.

About 4 percent of the CR readers who participated in a spring 2018 survey reported buying a refurbished phone after Jan. 1, 2016. Maybe more consumers should follow suit: 67 percent of respondents with refurbished phones had no complaints, which is roughly the same as the readers who bought new models.

For people looking to buy a refurbished phone, Consumer Cellular, eBay, Apple Store, and Amazon are safe bets—all received an 85 or higher for overall satisfaction in our refurbished phone retailer ratings.

Refurbished phones can come with significant savings. Samsung, for example, was recently offering the refurbished Galaxy S8 for $450 on its website, compared with $600 for a new phone; Apple was offering the refurbished 7 Plus for $480, compared with $570 for a new one.

But not all retailers refurbish phones the same way. Refurbished phones sold in Apple stores and on its website have a new battery, new outer shell, new white box, and even a new one-year warranty in case anything goes wrong. Samsung uses similar standards for the refurbished phones sold on its website.

But refurbished phones offered by some retailers may not have new batteries or could be packaged without a pair of headphones or even a charging cord. So before buying a refurbished phone, always inquire about its condition, the return policy, and whether it’s covered by a warranty. Pick the wrong option and you might end up stuck with a buggy phone that looks and feels, well, used.

When Only the Best Will Do

Though you can certainly get along very well without one, it’s hard to go wrong buying a top-of-the-line smartphone. Three of the four that we’ve tested in the $1,000 or more price range rated Excellent; the fourth one rated Very Good.

One of the newest premium models, the Apple iPhone XS Max, $1,100, has a better camera and, with a 6.5-inch screen, is considerably bigger than the 2017 iPhone X. Apple says that the XS Max’s admittedly gorgeous display is superior to that of the X, but we had a tough time seeing any difference.

The Samsung Galaxy Note9, $1,000, is a new Android option with a 6.4-inch display that will also appeal to big-phone fans. It comes with a stylus for taking notes by hand or just doodling on the lock screen. The brilliant display is perfect for binge-watching your favorite shows, and the phone sports Samsung’s best cameras.

If you need any further justification for such a pricey investment, consider it as a way to “future proof” your purchase. Experts don’t expect smartphone features to change much over the next two years, so it may make sense to put your money into a model that’s likely to serve you well—at least until the world embraces 5G speeds.

You may be able to find a discount on one of the next top-shelf phones—but shop carefully. The appealing price you see in an ad may come with strings, such as carriers offering discounts to coax people into a financing agreement that ties them to the carrier for a couple of years.

In some cases, carriers will subsidize the cost of the new phone with trade-in offers. In others, they’ll serve up a buy-one-get-one-free deal—essentially two phones for the price of one. The catch? You can get the deal only if you’re adding a new line of service.

Of course, if you do need to add a line for your spouse, kid, or retired parent, it could make sense to pick up a popular phone for cheap in the process.

Independent retailers such as Target and Best Buy generally don’t sell new models at bargain prices, but they do sometimes throw in a gift card to get you to buy the latest Apple or Samsung smartphone from them. Just make sure it’s a card from a place where you like to shop. In that case, it’s as good as cash in your pocket.


Mobile Phone Milestones

1945

Dick Tracy’s two-way wrist radio appears almost 70 years before the Apple Watch.

1965

Wearable communication takes a giant step forward with Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone.

1966

The “Star Trek” communicator presages the cellular revolution—without roaming charges.

1984

Motorola’s DynaTAC 8000X is the first mobile phone for consumers. At $3,995, you have to be Gordon Gekko to afford one.

1996

The Motorola StarTAC introduces the world to the flip phone.

2001

Derek Zoolander’s teeny-tiny cell phone lampoons the trend toward ever smaller models. (Today’s smartphones are increasing in size.)

2003

The affordable Nokia 1100 helps take the cell phone mainstream, winning fans in Africa, China, India, Russia, and beyond.

2007

Steve Jobs unveils the iPhone—a mobile phone, music player, and “internet communications device,” all rolled into one.

2009

President-elect Barack Obama refuses to give up his BlackBerry despite national security concerns. “They’re going to pry it out of my hands,” he says.

2013

Sony makes a splash with the water-resistant Xperia Z—for those who forget to empty pockets before doing the wash.

2016

After sparking a series of battery fires, the popular Samsung Galaxy Note7 is banned from all U.S. airlines.

2016

The iPhone X, which comes with facial recognition and OLED but no home button, all but breaks the four-figure price barrier at $999.

1945

Dick Tracy’s two-way wrist radio appears almost 70 years before the Apple Watch.

1965

Wearable communication takes a giant step forward with Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone.

1966

The “Star Trek” communicator presages the cellular revolution—without roaming charges.

1984

Motorola’s DynaTAC 8000X is the first mobile phone for consumers. At $3,995, you have to be Gordon Gekko to afford one.

1996

The Motorola StarTAC introduces the world to the flip phone.

2001

Derek Zoolander’s teeny-tiny cell phone lampoons the trend toward ever smaller models. (Today’s smartphones are increasing in size.)

2003

The affordable Nokia 1100 helps take the cell phone mainstream, winning fans in Africa, China, India, Russia, and beyond.

2007

Steve Jobs unveils the iPhone—a mobile phone, music player, and “internet communications device,” all rolled into one.

2009

President-elect Barack Obama refuses to give up his BlackBerry despite national security concerns. “They’re going to pry it out of my hands,” he says.

2013

Sony makes a splash with the water-resistant Xperia Z—for those who forget to empty pockets before doing the wash.

2016

After sparking a series of battery fires, the popular Samsung Galaxy Note7 is banned from all U.S. airlines.

2016

The iPhone X, which comes with facial recognition and OLED but no home button, all but breaks the four-figure price barrier at $999.

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the February 2019 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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