Which iPhone should you buy? £499

31st Dec 2011 | 13:00

Which iPhone should you buy?

How to choose an iPhone and get the best deal for you

Which iPhone should you buy?

Whether you're looking to buy the new iPhone 4S or an older Apple handset, the huge array of tariffs on contract, pay monthly and pay as you go (PAYG) can be bewildering.

But help is at hand; we'll help you decide which handset is right for you, and take you through the best tariffs for your needs. Whether you mostly make calls, send texts or use the internet, there's something for you.

It's always tempting to go for the very latest handset, of course, and the iPhone 4S is very desirable indeed. However, you will pay dearly for the privilege of owning one of these state-of-the-art phones. So it's worth asking yourself whether you actually need one over the now-cheaper iPhone 4 or 3GS.

Indeed, the iPhone 4 and the iPhone 3GS are extremely popular mobiles, and if image is important to you, it's worth remembering that the iPhone 4 does actually look almost exactly the same as the iPhone 4S!

Apple has now released an 8GB version of the iPhone 4 to provide a lower-priced alternative to the iPhone 4S, and it has stopped producing the older 16GB and 32GB versions (though you might still be able to get a phone with one of those capacities if you're lucky).

It did the same with the 3GS last year, though it was something of a surprise that the 3GS was kept on this time into a third year of production. It does, though, now provide a much cheaper option, and it's available for free on a great deal of contract tariffs.

All three of the currently available iPhones can run iOS 5, so it's only the older 3G and original iPhone models that are excluded from this update. It's sadly the case that since the release of the iPhone 4, the networks have continued a trend they started previously, cutting down on the amount of included data and call minutes within monthly tariff allowances for new iPhone contracts.

With Vodafone, for example, 1GB of data allowance on last year's iPhone 4 £35 tariff has now become 500MB on the iPhone 4S £36 tariff. However, that's not to say there aren't contracts around that can provide all you need - and we'll help you shop around to find the right one for you.

If you have older iPhone accessories, support can be patchy for newly bought iPhones unless they have the Made for iPhone logo. This even goes for older Apple docks, although the dock connectors on all iPhones are the same (Apple USB to dock connector cables, for example, are no problem).

Some iPhone 3G and 3GS accessories are suitable for use with the iPhone 4 and 4S - ones that have dock connectors but aren't flush to the phone's casing - but cases and the like certainly aren't; the newer iPhones are a completely different size. Nearly all accessories designed for the iPhone 4 are compatible with the iPhone 4S - though be careful with very fitted cases.

Now we've whetted your appetite, let's get on with finding the right iPhone and deal for you.

Contract

You'll need to think about the length of contract you take out. Shorter contracts usually carry a higher cost for the phone. 24 months is the norm, but then you might want to consider…

When will the next iPhone be out? We'd expect the next iPhone to be announced in late autumn 2012, and if that turns out to be right, you won't be able to get it straight away if you take out a long contract on a new phone now.

SIM-only

If you can afford it, buying a handset outright to start with and then getting a cheaper monthly tariff can save you money in the long term. These iPhones are also unlocked if you buy them from Apple, meaning that you can use them on any of the UK networks.

PAYG

Pay as you go is a good way of keeping track of your call and text costs, and can cost less than taking out a contract if you're a very light user, but this isn't always a good way of buying an iPhone - you'll pay a lot for data add-ons, and you'll also need to pay a large amount for the handset up front.

Choosing a network

Not all the networks offer exactly the same as each other. Some offer enhanced features on the iPhone, such as O2 with its Visual Voicemail support and tethering included in the data tariffs, which Three can also offer.

If you make a lot of calls, you'll obviously be more interested in call quality rather than data coverage, so that's worth considering. And then there's cost - some of the bigger networks charge more for their monthly tariffs. Choosing an iPhone: Which is the one for you?

iPhones

iPhone 3GS: What it can do?

  • Stores 8GB worth of music, apps, movies and more
  • A compass and GPS for navigation and mapping
  • A Multi-Touch 320×480, 3.5-inch display
  • A three-megapixel camera with VGA video recording
  • 802.11b/g Wi-Fi and 2G and 3G mobile networks
  • Bluetooth 2.1 for headsets and wireless audio
  • Personal Hotspot data sharing over USB and Bluetooth - only with supported networks
  • Basic voice control
  • Supports iOS 5 and iCloud
  • Comes in black

The iPhone 4 adds…

  • Faster A4 processor
  • A high-resolution, 640×960 Retina display
  • A front-facing camera for video calling
  • A five-megapixel camera with 720p HD video recording and an LED flash
  • Personal Hotspot over Wi-Fi
  • Faster 802.11n Wi-Fi access
  • Comes in black and white

And the iPhone 4S also adds…

  • Faster dual-core A5 processor
  • It's a world phone that works on CDMA as well as 3G and 2G networks
  • 16GB, 32GB or 64GB worth of music, apps, movies and more
  • An eight-megapixel camera with 1080p HD video recording
  • Siri digital assistant
  • Bluetooth 4.0 with Bluetooth
  • Low Energy capability

Choosing a contract: questions to ask yourself

How many minutes and texts do I need?

Many contracts now come with unlimited texts, so that's often not an issue. However, it's worth looking at your bills to see how many minutes you use and texts you send over a peak period - say Christmas - and making sure you choose a deal that suits. Don't forget about iMessages, though.

How long a contract should I take out?

Most smartphone contracts are now 24 months, so be prepared to keep the same handset for that time. Consider insurance as well to guard against losing your handset. 18-month and 12-month contracts are available with iPhones, though they're pricey up-front.

How much data do I need?

Providing you connect to Wi-Fi at the places you go to most (probably home and work), your data usage will be surprisingly low. You always feel that you need more data than you actually do. For most people, 250MB is more than enough. If you regularly visit websites and use web-intensive apps when out and about, at least 500MB is a safer amount.

Is it better to pay more upfront or more monthly?

Here's where you need to do some sums. If you pay £200 for the phone and then pay a monthly fee of £25, you will have paid £800 over 24 months. You could get the phone for free and pay £35 a month. But then you'd pay £840 over the term. Of course, the question is whether you can afford to pay out all that money up front.

What if I want tethering?

If you want to tether other devices to your iPhone's Personal Hotspot feature, you will need to pay close attention to the contract you take out. Some providers include tethering in their tariffs - such as Three's The One Plan - while others such as Vodafone will charge you extra when you first turn on tethering. O2 doesn't include data in its basic prices, but the Bolt Ons start from £3 per month and include tethering.

Can I keep my number?

Yes - see more on migrating to another network below.

Which deal is best for…

Getting a new 16GB iPhone 4S on contract

Best for talk

Three The One Plan: £99 upfront, £35 a month, 2,000 any-network minutes (plus 5,000 Three to Three minutes), 5,000 texts, all-you-can-eat data including tethering

Best for texts

Vodafone: £169 upfront, £31 a month, 300 minutes, unlimited texts, 500MB data

Best for data

Orange 41 Extra: £30 upfront, £41 a month, 600 any-network minutes, unlimited texts, 1GB data

Best for tethering

Three The One Plan: £99 upfront, £35 a month, 2,000 any network minutes, 5,000 texts, all-you-can-eat data including tethering

PAYG/SIM-Only plans for non-contract iPhones

Best for talk

Three The One Plan SIM-only: £25 a month, 2,000 any-network minutes (plus 5,000 Three to Three minutes), 5,000 texts, all-you-can-eat data including tethering

Best for texts

Vodafone Freebie SIM: Top up with £30 and get £30 credit plus 3,000 UK texts and 500MB of data

Best for data

Giffgaff £10 Goodybag: £10 per month, 250 any-network minutes, unlimited texts, unlimited data

Best for tethering

O2 Simplicity: 100 minutes £10.50 a month plus £10 for 1GB including tethering, 100 minutes (plus 100 O2 to O2 minutes), unlimited texts

What else do I need to know?

SIM-free

It's possible to buy an iPhone outright without a contract and then get a cheap monthly or PAYG deal for it. Apple sells the iPhone 4S at £499 for 16GB, £599 for 32GB and £699 for 64GB. These are unlocked handsets.

You can also buy an iPhone from other sources such as eBay, of course, but make sure it's unlocked or that you'll be using it on the same network it's locked to - each network has its own way to get your handset unlocked after a contract ends, but they all have help pages.

Buying a SIM-free handset can be a surprisingly reasonable way of doing things. If you pay for a phone SIM-free from Apple (£499 for the 16GB iPhone 4S) and then £10 a month PAYG, over two years that costs a total of £739. If you get a free handset but it costs £36 a month, though, you'll pay £864 over the two years.

For SIM-only deals, you can try the major providers, but there are some great deals available from relative unknowns Three, Tesco Mobile as well as a network you might never have heard of; Giffgaff. It actually uses O2's network, but offers some great data and talk bundles, including unlimited data on some tariffs - something that the major networks have turned their back on.

If you're getting a SIM card for the iPhone 4 or 4S, make sure you tell your network, so they send you the smaller microSIM card.

Selling your old handset

Whatever phone you had before your new iPhone, it's worth checking its trade-in price - you never know how much you might get, and most sites will even provide a padded envelope to send your phone to them in. You won't need to send in your box, charger, headset or manuals - just your handset itself.

We have a mobile phone recycling comparison engine, while there are other sites such as sellmymobile.com and fonebank.com. The great thing about iPhones is that they keep their value extremely well - an iPhone 3G 8GB could be traded in for £72 at the time of writing; an 8GB 3GS fetched £100.

If you do trade in your old phone, make sure you erase it first. With an iPhone, go to Settings > General > Reset.

Migrating to other networks

Whether you take up a new contract or buy a phone to use on pay monthly or PAYG, you can always keep your number. Of course, you must make sure your current contract has run its course before you can cancel it and take out a new one.

To cancel it after this and keep your number, call your network and ask for your PAC - your Porting Authorisation Code. This essentially means that your new network can access your number. Most networks will text or email this to you, though some still send it by letter to delay your decision!

When you take out your new contract or order your new SIM, enter your PAC on the website or tell the assistant you want to transfer your number. When your number is transferred to your new provider, your old contract will cease to exist and you'll receive a final bill.

Keeping track of your data usage

Tap 11

It's important to keep an eye on how much mobile data you're using - especially if you have a contract with limited data included. You can check how much data you're using within iOS - go to Settings > General > Usage > Mobile Usage and there you can see how much data you've sent and received, as well as how much data you've used over tethering. You can reset these stats whenever you want.

Many mobile networks including O2 and Vodafone also have their own apps that help you see how much data you've used since your last bill.

Warranty

Your iPhone comes with a one year warranty. If you get a problem with it during this time, the best thing to do is take it to the Genius Bar in your nearest Apple Store. Make sure you back it up in iTunes or on iCloud first - if the assistant performs an exchange, he or she will wipe your handset in front of your face!

If you're out of warranty, it's worth taking it in anyway. We've heard of manufacturing defects resulting in a replaced handset, even if it's old. Your network may not be so accommodating, but it's worth looking at the Sale of Goods Act, which enables you to complain if you're still in contract but the phone is not 'fit for purpose'.

For complete peace of mind, it's worth checking out the AppleCare Protection Plan for iPhone. It costs £61, extends the warranty to two years and gives you full phone support.

Insurance

If you're buying a device as expensive as an iPhone 4S, you'll want to insure it. Many bank accounts and insurance policies offer included or cheap mobile phone insurance these days, so that may be one way of doing it, but you can get a decent separate deal for only a few pounds per month - as ever, use an online comparison site to get the best deal.

Be very wary of buying it at the point of purchase - many deals you buy at the same time as your contract are expensive, and you end up paying more than you need to. Be aware that some insurance companies charge a higher excess fee for iPhones - a consequence of the their huge popularity.

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First published in Tap! Issue 11

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