The New Cheap: A Buyer’s Guide To Used and Discounted Smartphones

Daniel Bader

March 12, 2013 7:19pm


In the comments of our Nokia Lumia 620 review, a bunch of people made some very good points: why buy a so-called “entry-level” smartphone when year-old high-end smartphones are available for the same price and perform better? I thought about this question a lot over the next few days and, with a little help from some knowledgeable people, came to the conclusion that, while some customers should buy a new device, most people stand to benefit from a bit of research and a keen eye to the used market.

There are certainly some downsides to buying a used phone, lack of warranty chief among them, but the ups outweigh the downsides in most scenarios. Keep in mind that while most of these purchasing recommendations are for buying phones outright, some of them, like the ones available from a carrier, are available for less on a shortened contract term. I’d recommend staying away from these unless the deal is truly fantastic.

The Official Way

Buying a used smartphone isn’t what it used to be. You don’t have to meet up with some sketchy dude in a dim-lit parking lot to save fifty or a hundred bucks. Carriers and manufacturers now offer great prices on refurbished or “gently-used” devices, many of which come with manufacturer warranties of up to six months.

TELUS, for instance, sells the 16GB Samsung Galaxy S III for $79 on a two-year term and $400 outright, considerably less than the going rate for a new device. All the carrier’s pre-owned phones come with a 12-month warranty (iPhones get six months) and are used for less than 30 days by the previous owner. They’ve also been cosmetically touched up — scratched back covers are replaced, for instance — and likely have new batteries. TELUS also offers refurbished 16GB iPhone 5’s for $0 on a three-year term or $549 outright. Its best deal is likely the original Samsung Galaxy Note for $300 outright, but the HTC One S for $300 is also a great deal.

Rogers also offers some discounted products, but they’re usually not very competitive and almost always have a contract length associated with the discounted price (along with a BlackBerry symbol on them).

New Old or Cheap New?

The issue of whether to buy a new entry-level smartphone or an older new device is becoming more difficult. In recent years I’d have dissuaded anyone from purchasing a low-end Android device as they lacked both the screen resolution and the hardware specifications to run most applications without issue.

Today the market is verydifferent. In 2011 and 2012, HTC, Samsung and LG released nicely-made, decently-spec’d devices that have aged quite well over the past year. A great example of that is the Samsung Galaxy S II. It is available new for roughly the same price ($250-300) as a decent entry-level smartphone today. And because Samsung has assiduously updated the device to run the next-t0-latest version of Android, it is less hampered by its software than many equivalent handsets.

Because hardware prices have come down so quickly, OEMs have begun to commodify the operating system itself: older devices receive minor hardware bumps and boast newer software versions than their predecessors (which will likely never see the same update) and are called brand new products. But former high-end Android devices depreciate quickly, leaving manufacturers scrambling to find ways to reinvigorate the low and medium area of the market. Indeed, the Samsung Galaxy S II, in all its forms, is still a great phone, and may be a better choice at $250 than the equivalent entry-level 2013 model.

From the Forums

Sometimes the best way to find a new phone is to buy from me, or someone like me: an individual who purchases new devices regularly and sells them at deep discounts to recoup some of the investment.

Websites like RedFlagDeals or HowardForums are the best places to look for such deals, as the users on those sites are smartphone veterans whose credibility is assured through buyer/seller feedback requirements. I’ve purchased and sold dozens of devices through RedFlagDeals (MobileSyrup has no affiliation with the site) and never had a problem. Devices are often in perfect or near-perfect shape and there is a self-correcting market in place to ensure devices are sold at costs neither inflated nor below value.

The downsides with purchasing a used phone from a site like RFD or HowardForums is that you never really know how the device was used. A device dropped or mishandled may be lucky enough to escape without external wear and tear but it could be on its way to a loose connection or migrating glass panel. Once the purchase is complete, the seller has no obligation to refund a broken device, nor is there an enforcement body in place to ensure you’re not being scammed, ripped off or buying a lemon. You can leave negative feedback for someone who outwardly lies or cheats, but there’s nothing you can do when you discover the phone has water damage two days later.

Craigslist, Kijiji or eBay

While these websites likely cover the most ground and offer the highest breadth of choice, you are completely on your own in these situations. The likelihood or getting ripped off, scammed or lied to on Craigslist or Kijiji is high, since sellers don’t need to provide sales history and are rarely more than a name and an email address. Neither site recommends meeting up in person with prospective sellers unless you know the situation to be safe and the person to be honest, and even then things can go south.

eBay offers seller feedback, but used devices are often mislabeled or misrepresented.

The flipside to these higher-risk sites is the potential for saving hundreds of dollars on a used smartphone. Users often desperate to unload a recently-purchased device will take to Craigslist or Kijiji for a quick sale and if you’re lucky you may end up with a terrific deal on a gently-used device.

Things To Keep In Mind

– Always, always, always get warranty information wherever possible, especially if the seller maintains that the device has been bought recently. If you’re buying a used iPhone you can always check its warranty information directly from Apple, but it’s be safer to meet up at an Apple Store and have an employee check for any physical signs of damage, such as water ingress, that may void the warranty.

– Similarly, if purchasing a carrier-bought device you can always call the company’s customer service line to check whether the device is under warranty or, more importantly, if the IMEI has been flagged. Devices unloaded at heavy discounts often run the risk of being flagged by the carrier and will often be blacklisted. Starting in September, carriers will cooperate to enforce an industry-wide stolen device database, blacklisting any device reported as stolen, so even smartphones unlocked to be used on another carrier will not work in Canada.

– If you’re buying a phone, try to get the box and accessories as well; these will ensure higher resale value when you decide to sell it. If you don’t need the headphones, USB cords or chargers, don’t remove them from the packaging as it will look better to prospective buyers down the road.

– Always use the phone for several minutes before handing over the cash. If possible, put your SIM card inside and make a couple phone calls. Make sure that, if purchasing an unlocked device, it works on your carrier and that you can obtain a data connection. If you’re buying a phone with an unfamiliar operating system, ask for a quick lesson before proceeding; you don’t want to walk away only to realize it doesn’t do the very thing you purchased it to accomplish.

A Word To Sellers

– Don’t lie. Seriously. If you’re trying to sell a phone that ran through the washing machine, be honest about it. If you dropped the phone and dented it, don’t post a photo only showing the untarnished side. Your buyer may walk away or demand a heavier discount.

– Wipe your phone and wipe it again. Ensure all microSD cards are removed from the device or, if you’re bundling it, format it before handing it over.

– Use common sense: if someone offers you far more than the phone is worth and wants to meet tonight down a narrow alleyway, walk away. It’s not worth risking your life for a couple hundred dollars.

– Leave feedback. This goes for buyers, too, but people are going to be more likely to buy a phone from someone with a few good marks on his or her record.

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Did I miss anything? Leave a comment with your tips and tricks on buying used or discounted smartphones, and I’ll update the post accordingly.