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Smartphone Buyers Beware: A Free iPhone Isn't Always Better

Earlier this week, I received a rather interesting call from one of my relatives. It had to do with the flurry of notable iOS titles going free this week in celebration of the fifth anniversary of the App Store. My uncle didn't understand this beyond being able to download popular apps such as Infinity Blade II for free. Based on this conversation, I thought it was important to educate those that are new to smartphones about some basic App Store features. My hope is that this will help them make better informed smartphone buying decisions.

The basics

First, a little background about my uncle. Two months ago, my aunt and uncle both needed a new phone. After I had badgered them silly over the years about their aging flip phones, they decided to purchase iPhones. Or rather, they went the less expensive route and signed two-year contracts on two “free” iPhone 4 units. There is absolutely nothing wrong with buying Apple’s less expensive handset – assuming that you’ve done your homework. My aunt and uncle, unfortunately, definitely missed that class. The free iPhone 4 comes with 8GB of space. Once you factor in the operating system, this gives users approximately 6.5GB of free space. This isn't a lot. Infinity Blade II, for example, is 1.10GB. Plus, the cost of going free means buying a smartphone that first launched in June 2010. With a two-year contact, this means that an iPhone 4 purchased today would be 5-years-old before one could upgrade. Being entirely new to smartphones, my aunt and uncle couldn’t look beyond the iPhone 4’s price tag. As a result, they bought phones that really didn’t match their needs. That didn’t become apparent until they saw the “5 Years of the App Store” section in iTunes.

The App Store's best feature

Up until this week, my relatives saw no reason to purchase apps in the App Store. Instead, they only downloaded free content. Once they began to experience apps that usually cost money, such as Barefoot World Atlas, and Where’s My Water?, they realized that there is value in paid apps. This is where we circle back to the conversation that I had with my uncle. He decided to download the 10 apps covered under Apple’s “5 Years of the App Store” celebration. It wasn’t long before he ran out of space on his iPhone 4. His two questions to me were as follows:
  • Can I put my apps on iCloud?
  • If I delete the free apps, what happens when the price goes up?
I didn't know what he meant by either question, until I received some additional information. He didn’t understand that once you downloaded an app, it is yours for as long as it is available, and supported, in the App Store. This was true even if the app was deleted from the iOS device. He also didn’t know that this had nothing to do with price. He was convinced that deleting free apps meant having to purchase them later when the price went up. Once I explained how the App Store worked, he was fine. In fact, he immediately had a new respect not just for Apple and the App Store, but also for app developers. Most of us here aren’t like my aunt and uncle, of course, and I understand that. However, as smartphones continue to reach the masses, it’s important from time to time to play educator. My uncle now understands how the App Store works. He also recognizes that “free” isn’t always the best route to take.

So who should buy a free iPhone?

If you don't see yourself downloading many apps, free or otherwise, than a free iPhone may be for you. This is especially true if you plan on using it primarily for texting and streaming video.


When deciding which smartphone to buy, factor in both your needs and ability to pay. If one conflicts with the other, perhaps it's best to wait. Otherwise, you might find yourself in my uncle's situation. He now owns a phone with limited space, and a contract that makes changing right now unfeasible.
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