Figuring out how much an iPhone 6S will actually cost you this year is either going to be super simple or ridiculously complicated. On the one hand, every carrier and Apple itself are offering simple financing plans that break the full cost of a smartphone into predictable monthly installments. On the other hand, most carriers (and Apple!) offer upgrade options that may or may not amount to a kind of leasing plan that buries the actual value of your trade-in phone in a way not all that different from how the old, traditional two-year contracts hid the actual cost of your phone.
So when it comes to carriers and how they sell phones (and really, do we even want them to do that anymore?), it's two steps forward and two steps back. Clearer pricing on straight-up purchases and cheaper data costs if you already own your phone: forward step, forward step. Confusing upgrade plans and opaque trade-in values on your current hardware: back step, back step.
Here we go again
Oh, and then there are the shuffle steps from T-Mobile and, now, Sprint. The third and fourth place carriers are resorting to some nutty tactics to draw attention away from Verizon and AT&T.
T-Mobile and its merry jester CEO John Legere have been needling the entire industry with Uncarrier pronouncements, bombastic Twitter fights, and upgrade plans that sound novel but actually end up being pretty bog standard. At this point, we've come to expect all of the above.
But Sprint (whose logo for the past year or so may as well have been Droopy the basset hound) has decided to try its hand at Legere's game by putting out a press release entitled "Not So Fast T-Mobile! Sprint Beats Your Price with World’s Best Offer on iPhone 6s: $1/Month." The gist is that if you trade in your phone, you'll pay that single dollar on your lease / upgrade plan instead of T-Mobile's $5. Oh, and these dirt-cheap prices are for the 16GB model, which in this day and age just isn't enough.
But here's the thing: both plans require you to trade in an iPhone 6, which essentially amounts to a $300 (or more) down payment. So while we could talk about how both Sprint and T-Mobile are willing to take a loss on their payment plans in order to acquire customers, don't forget that you're giving them your old phone in the process. A phone they'll resell in the secondary market instead of you just doing that yourself. We could also talk about how the $48-per-year difference in these leasing plan prices could mean that Sprint's deal actually is pretty good too — but the math of balancing that against the value of a trade-in is just too headache-inducing.
It will be popcorn-munching fun to watch T-Mobile's John Legere do his Twitter schtick when he gets around to responding to this deal. It will be Arrested Development-awkward fun to watch Sprint's Marcelo Claure try to troll T-Mobile. But these two smaller carriers are just doing what smaller humans (children) do: yell "look at me" and knock things off the table for attention. It's almost as if they have a back-room deal to help each other get attention:
At the end of the day, you should think of these phone upgrade and leasing programs in the same way you think of car leasing programs: convenient, but not necessarily cheaper. Last year's iPhone is still a great phone and has a lot of value. This year's iPhone will still be a great iPhone and have a lot of value when you trade it in. If the hassle of cashing in on that value isn't worth your time, go ahead and sign up. But don't be hoodwinked into thinking dollar-a-month or five-dollar-a-month plans are some kind of crazy steal. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Verge Video: Is the iPhone 6S even worth the upgrade? Check out our review