Think twice before you buy the iPhone 4s (or any other “free” phone)

With a new year upon us and with newer, faster smartphone models constantly coming out, it’s a good time to start thinking about that next big upgrade. At the same time, there’s something important to keep in mind—when you buy a phone on contract with any carrier, you’re looking at a serious commitment to a single device that you’ll probably be stuck with for a full two years, and if you buy today that means you’ll be stuck with this device until January 2016. That sounds like a long ways off, and in terms of how fast tech progresses it really is!

When you decide to upgrade you really want to be sure you make the right decision, and today I’m going to argue that it’s worth spending a little bit of money and not taking the “free phone” bait from your carrier.

USA iPhone pricing, on-contract (Early 2014)

I’m most familiar with Apple’s iPhone line-up, but most of my arguments about why you should avoid the “free” iPhone 4S apply to the “free” phones (whether they’re Android devices, Blackberry or Windows-based smartphones) on any carrier.

The fact is, the “free” phones is always at least a generation behind. Apple’s iPhone 4S, for instance, came out in October of 2011 and was based on the design of the iPhone 4, which came out in the summer of 2010. If you were to take the “free” iPhone and sign up for a two-year contract on a 4S today, when your contract ends in 2016 that smartphone in your pocket will be nearly FIVE years old, rocking an almost SIX year old design!

That would be like using the original iPhone (which only supported the slow-as-molasses 2G EDGE networks) today. Do you know anyone still rocking the original iPhone today?

While the advantages of getting a free iPhone today are easy to understand, the disadvantages of being stuck with a 5-year-old smartphone at the end of your contract are a bit more complex. For one thing, Apple seems to be on a yearly software update schedule with their iOS devices, and the recent iOS 7 brought huge changes to the device (while simultaneously dropping support for older devices.) In 2016, when the contract runs out on your iPhone 4S, Apple will be gearing up to release iOS 10, which surely won’t run on your ancient iBrick.

Other free phones of the Android variety may come with additional problems you’ll encounter down the line. While the iPhone 4S was the first smartphone to support Bluetooth 4.0, few other phones from 2011 incorporated that technology. Bluetooth 4.0 is an incredibly important technology this year, as it is being integrated everywhere, especially in the wearable tech announced this year at CES that Mario highlighted on the TODAY show. The reason Bluetooth 4.0 makes a difference is that it uses very little energy compared to previous versions, enabling all kinds of exciting new categories of wireless devices. Since many “free” phones only support Bluetooth 3.0, you’ll discover over the course of your two-year contract that there will be tons of accessories, wearable tech, fitness devices, pressure-sensitive styluses and more that will never be able to pair with your phone.

By spending a mere $99 for an iPhone 5c (or to get similarly spec’d on-contract Android and Windows phone) you’re getting a device that isn’t simply “good enough” today, you’re getting something that stands out in the crowd. By spending $199, you can get a top of the line cell phone like the iPhone 5S, the Samsung Galaxy S4, a Windows Phone-based Lumia 1020 or Lumia 1520, the HTC One, or even the Blackberry Q10, you’re talking about a phone that will still be going strong when you replace it in 2016.

Yes, it’s a bit more money up-front, but in the long run you’ll be glad you didn’t take the “free” phone to start your year.