If you’re the type of person who loves having the latest and greatest smartphone, there’s good news. All four major U.S. carriers — AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon — now offer some kind of early upgrade program that lets you trade in your old device for a new one without having to wait every two years.
The bad news: The plans are so complicated that it’s hard to know which to choose and whether you’re getting a good deal.
The carriers are smart. All of these plans sound great, in theory. You pay for the full cost of a phone in relatively low monthly installments, many times with no down payment. Then, depending on the carrier, you can upgrade after a year, or whenever you’ve paid for at least 50 percent of the phone. When you do so, the remaining balance of your previous device is wiped out and you start the cycle all over again. But, as with many things, the devil is in the details.
For example, some of these programs come with fees. Also, if you upgrade early, you don’t get to keep your phone, so you can’t sell it for extra cash. And with devices like the iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy S4 still pulling in around $200 to $300 on eBay and reseller sites, that can easily pay for your next phone, or part of it.
To be clear, these programs aren’t for everyone. They’re designed for early adopters and gadget enthusiasts who really want a new device every year or so. But if you fall into that group, which provider offers the best plan?
The answer isn’t all that cut and dried, as there are a lot of different scenarios in which you can price out these plans. But to help you out, I’ll go over what each carrier offers. Then, using the 16 gigabyte iPhone 5s as an example, and similar monthly smartphone plans, I’ll calculate how much you would pay a year on each carrier. These are all based on an individual plan. I realize that a couple of service providers allow you to upgrade before a year is up, but realistically, I think most people will trade in their devices once a year.
One final note: There’s more to consider than just cost. Network coverage and device selection also come into play when deciding among these plans, so you’ll also want to make sure that a carrier offers good service in your area, and has the phone you want.
With AT&T’s Next program, customers can trade in their smartphones (in good working condition) for new models every year or every 18 months, using either the 20-month or 26-month payment plan, respectively. There is no down-payment requirement, and depending on which plan and phone model you choose, monthly payments can range between $12.50 and $42.50.
In addition to the device payments, you’ll also need to subscribe to one of AT&T’s Mobile Share Value plans. When AT&T first started Next, the carrier didn’t take the price of device subsidies out of its smartphone plans — essentially, you were paying twice for your device. Fortunately, the company has changed that policy. One other change to note: While AT&T originally included tablets as part of Next, the program now only applies to smartphones.
Going back to the iPhone 5s example, device payments will cost you $32.50 on the 20-month plan. A smartphone plan that includes unlimited voice and text and 2GB shared data costs $65 per month. After a year, you will have paid $1,170 before being able to upgrade to a new phone. (Don’t worry, there’s a chart below that summarizes all the different costs.)
Sprint’s upgrade program can be confusing. Its original One Up program has been replaced by something called Easy Pay, which allows you to pay for your device in 24 monthly installments and lets you upgrade your device at any time. But you must pay off the entire balance of the phone, and there’s a $36 upgrade fee.
However, you can combine Easy Pay with one of the carrier’s recently launched “Framily” plans to upgrade your phone every year without paying off the remaining balance. There are a couple of caveats here, too.
First, you must choose the unlimited data plan option in order to be eligible for an early upgrade. This costs an extra $20 per month on top of the $55 monthly Framily fee for one individual (this price goes down as you add more people to your plan). There is a 1GB or 3GB data option, but again, you can’t upgrade early unless you pay off the remaining balance of the phone. The other caveat is that there is a still a $36 upgrade fee.
All those fees combined with 12 monthly device payments of $27.09 for the iPhone 5s would bring your yearly total to $1,261.08.
T-Mobile is the carrier that started this whole trend with the debut of its Jump program. With Jump, the full cost of a smartphone or tablet is split equally over 24 months, but a customer can upgrade a device at any time — as long as he or she has paid for half of the total cost. Currently, none of T-Mobile’s smartphones require an initial down payment, but that is subject to change.
Jump does require a monthly $10 program fee, however. Included in that price is a premium version of Lookout’s security software and phone insurance, so you’re covered if your phone is lost, stolen or accidentally damaged. Without Jump, both of these features would run you $12 a month. AT&T, Sprint and Verizon all charge for insurance separately.
Right now, the monthly payment for the iPhone 5s is $27, and an unlimited talk and voice plan with 3GB of data costs $60 a month. If you are a brand-new T-Mobile customer, there is also a one-time $10 fee for a SIM starter kit. When it’s all added up, you will have paid $1,174 for the year.
Last but not least, Verizon has its Edge upgrade program. Similar to T-Mobile Jump, device payments are spread equally over 24 months. A down payment is not required, but customers have the option to make one. After 30 days, you can trade in your working smartphone for a new device, as long as you have paid 50 percent of the full retail price. Verizon Edge is available for smartphones and basic phones, but not for tablets.
Like AT&T, Verizon originally did not discount its monthly smartphone plans for Edge, but the company now takes $10 off the monthly line-access fee, so you pay $30 instead of $40. (The discount is larger with bigger data packages.) Combined with a More Everything plan that includes 3GB of data and unlimited text and talk for $60 a month and a $27.08 monthly device payment, you’ll pay $1,406.96 for the year with Edge.
As you can see from the chart above, it would seem that AT&T is the cheapest, but you need to take into account that the carrier’s monthly data allotment is less than the other carriers. For power users, the unlimited data offered by Sprint might be worth the extra money. And at just $4 more, T-Mobile includes phone insurance, and once you’ve reached the 3GB data limit, they’ll slow your data speeds, but won’t charge you extra like AT&T and Verizon.
The latest smartphones are pricey devices, and no matter how you do the math, upgrading more frequently is probably going to mean paying for the privilege. But for those who can’t stand missing out on the latest and greatest, at least the carriers are giving you additional options rather than making you pay full retail price or sign up for a new contract.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.