When does it make sense to buy last year’s smartphone?

Smartphone prices have been getting ridiculous. Granted, they’ve been high for the better part of forever, and to an extent, with good reason — these devices exist at the intersection between advanced performance and miniaturization that’s always going to be expensive. But while we all got used to the idea of spending several hundred dollars on a new handset, we’re starting to get into the era of the $1000 smartphone, and that’s at least a psychological barrier that can be tough to work through. Is there any good way to still buy a nice smartphone without spending all your rent money?

Here at Android Police we love sharing good deals with you, and while that includes many opportunities to save some money on the season’s latest smartphones, we also post a fair number of deals about older hardware. As prices on last year’s phones take a nose dive, when does it make sense to purchase one of these older handsets? Is it a good way to save money while still getting a flagship device? Or are you going to end up kicking yourself for not dropping a little more cash on the latest and greatest? Let’s take a look at which factors you’re going to want to keep in mind when shopping for, shall we say, a mature smartphone.

All phones, from those $1,000 behemoths to a $200 budget handset, are going to drop in price as time goes on. And if they’re all getting more affordable, why shouldn’t you look into picking up a phone that was already really cheap when it came out, and is even more so now?

Well, lower-end hardware is already starting off at a disadvantage when it comes to performance and features, and if you compound that with a phone that’s now a year old, we’re more than few rungs down the ladder from flagship territory. If all you care about is sticker price, there might not be any arguing with you here, but if getting a great value — rather than just the lowest possible price — is a priority of yours, turn your attention instead to last year’s flagships.

High-end smartphones aren’t quite like new cars, where depreciation kicks in the moment you take one home, eating a big chunk out of its value. But they are products where shoppers feel justified in paying a premium for having the latest and greatest. So while the depreciation comes on a little more slowly, by the time there’s a next-gen model out (or even lurking right over the horizon), demand is going to dip, meaning that lower prices are likely to follow

When you shop for an older phone, you have to be OK with the idea that none of your handset’s hardware is going to be bleeding edge. Honestly, though, things have largely gotten so good — performance is great, cameras are producing low-effort, beautiful shots — that being just behind the curve is still a very nice place to be. But even if slightly aging hardware is a situation you can stomach, software’s another story.

Nothing makes a phone feel old like running last year’s Android, and while most of the time you can expect flagship-level phones to keep getting updates for a couple years after their initial release, the speed at which those updates arrive is far from certain.

When thinking about buying a year-old phone, do a quick search and see what its manufacturer may have already said about update plans. Did the phone recently get a major software release, or has one already been announced? Maybe search back a little further and look at how long it took updates to land for the model another generation before the one you’re thinking of buying, if only to get a little historical context for how the update story might play out for newer models in the same series.

As we shop for an older phone, we’re already making concessions, deciding that certain things (like bragging rights, or not following the latest design trends) are less important than saving a few hundred dollars. So it’s often tempting to take that attitude and run with it, deciding what else we can do without. Should “buying a new, unused phone” be among them?

There are enough considerations to weigh when purchasing a used phone (especially from an end user) that we could spend a whole post talking about them, so let’s focus on refurbished hardware instead. Sometimes refurbished phones can be great deals, but maybe not always as great as they could be.

Especially as a phone ages, and demand drops, the gulf between refurbished and new (but previous generation) hardware prices can shrink to the point where the savings from a refurbed phone no longer feel like they outweigh the peace-of-mind you get from a new device. Try looking at how both new and refurbed prices have changed over the last few months as you consider that balance.

You should also appreciate that not all refurbished hardware is created alike, and pay close attention to where this phone is coming from — we feel a whole lot better buying manufacturer-refurbished devices than we do trying our luck on seller-refurbished hardware. And regardless of where you’re buying it from, make sure that you’re getting a phone with a warranty term you’re comfortable with.

Ultimately, there’s not really a wrong way to buy a smartphone (although we have seen some lousy deals that occasionally have us thinking otherwise), and so long as you’re happy with your decision, we can’t fault you. But by following a few simple steps, you can take measures to ensure that you have the best changes of remaining happy with that decision until it’s time to buy your next phone: Look at older flagships (rather than lower-end hardware), check for evidence of timely Android updates from the manufacturer, and if you do feel comfortable going the refurbished route, seek out phones that have been refurbished by an official source.

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