April 01, 2021 Technology

The 4 Ws to Ask When You Buy Your Next Mobile Device

Jeffrey Allen and Ashley Hallene

It doesn’t take a professional research study—though they’re out there—to know how pervasive technology is in our daily lives. Another fundamental truth is that technology is never a one-time purchase. It wears out, gets lost, or becomes too antiquated for use, and time and again, it needs to be replaced.

While marketing firms and manufacturers aim to convince you that technology should be replaced far sooner than is practical, we’re here to share our experience and offer guidance for your next mobile device purchase. To do so, we’ll borrow from journalism techniques to offer you the 4 Ws to consider when making technology purchases:

  • Why should I buy a smartphone?
  • When should I buy a smartphone?
  • What should I buy: new, used, refurbished, etc.?
  • Where should I buy my smartphone?


Let’s address each one, starting with why buy a smartphone. According to Pew Research, 96 percent of adults in the United States own a cellphone, and 81 percent of the adult population own smartphones. For personal use, the top three reasons for buying a smartphone are productivity, convenience, and security. For professional use, technology like a smartphone is one of many ways you can fulfill your duty of competence.

When should you buy? There are a number of considerations, starting with whether your device is still supported by the manufacturer. Smartphones need updates to their operating system, both for security and to continue running smoothly, but manufacturers don’t provide them forever. Apple tends to support its phones the longest—about four years. Google supports its phones for about two years. Others, such as Samsung and Lenovo, tend to support their phones for about a year. A phone no longer supported by its manufacturer will no longer receive upgrades, updates, and patches.

The applications you use on the phone will continue to evolve for the newer systems. But in time, they’ll no longer work on your device. A device that’s no longer supported is a security risk and will have limited functionality. This marks a good time to buy a newer, supported device.

Also ask yourself how often you use the device. If you’re like most smartphone owners, you use your phone every day and 50 or more times per day. Consider how often you use your device when you’re deciding what screen size, brightness, and clarity to look for when you purchase a new smartphone. You should also consider that when deciding the shape and weight of the phone you’re going to buy.

Another issue is how long your upgraded device will last. Upgrading to the newest device might make more sense when you break it down by cost per day of use. For example, the current iteration of the iPhone is the iPhone 12, which came out in September. The largest screen size is the iPhone 12 Pro Max, and with 128 GB storage capacity, it sells for $1,099, a hefty price tag. Since Apple phones tend to have a four-year lifespan with average use, that would make the cost per year $274.75 and the cost per day about 75 cents.

The iPhone 11 came out in September 2019, and this model with 128 GB capacity now retails for about $649. With about three years left in its lifespan, that would make the cost per year $216.33 and the cost per day about 59 cents.

You can run this analysis on any model of smartphone you’re interested in. It’s a handy guide for determining the value of the product you’re using. In addition to the cost per day and year, consider whether any models have features that may set them apart from the others.

Other factors to consider include whether an upgrade would make you more productive, be more convenient, or offer more security. Apple has generally released a new generation, with new features, every year. Does that mean every year there’s a revolutionary innovation? Unfortunately, no.

From time to time, there will be evolutionary jumps that justify an upgrade. Recent trends in smartphone innovation have focused on larger screen sizes or increasing the ratio of screen size to body. And the development of 5G—so named for being the fifth generation mobile network—has triggered many manufacturers to develop smartphones capable of running on it.


There are two ways to consider this question. The first is what brand you should buy. Once you understand that, the next question is whether to buy the newest top-of-the-line product, a refurbished “like-new” version, or even a used device.

A refurbished phone is one that has been returned, damaged, or broken and has been repaired and inspected before being placed back on the market. A reputable vendor will put refurbished devices through a strenuous diagnostic and inspection to ensure that the device functions fully and is free from any malware, defects, and leftover data from a previous user.

New smartphones will offer a longer warranty and the latest features. You’ll find it difficult to locate a used or refurbished version of a model of smartphone that was released a mere few weeks ago. If you like to hang on to your technology for years between upgrades, then getting the newest model makes sense. It will offer support for the longest amount of time. You’ll generally find better battery life with the newer-model phones. Plus, new phones are readily available and don’t require as much research into the seller’s reputation. All this convenience comes at a price, though.

Refurbished phones, after the diagnostic test is performed, the repairs are made, and they’re cleaned up and repackaged for sale, are sold at a discount. A preowned phone is a good idea if you’re on a budget. Generally, a preowned model will offer significant savings, especially for high-end model smartphones. To make a new smartphone, manufacturers must use electricity, water, and precious mineral resources. So preowned phones are also a good idea if you’re concerned with your environmental footprint.

In some instances, used phones are sold by private sellers either in person or online. Some businesses also offer professionally certified preowned phones. These certified phones offer a higher degree of reassurance and often come with a limited warranty.


You have a ton of options when buying your next smartphone: online vs in-store? Direct vs. third party? To begin with, if you’re happy with your mobile carrier but uncertain about which device you want to buy, we recommend going into a physical store to explore your options. Most carrier stores have smartphones compatible with their service on display so you can try them out and see which you’re comfortable with.

When you’re shopping in store, check out how easy or difficult it is to navigate the device. Also look at how comfortable you are reading the display. Ask the sales associate if there’s a way to adjust brightness and font size for comfort, and then have them show you how, before you commit to a device.

If you’re buying a new-model smartphone online, where you buy may depend on the manufacturer. Apple strictly controls who sells its devices. You can purchase from Apple, your cellular carrier online, or even through retail stores.

If you’re buying your smartphone online or anywhere but through your mobile carrier, verify that the phone is compatible with your carrier, also called being unlocked. A locked phone has a software code that will prevent you from using the phone on another network. If you purchase a phone that’s not compatible with your carrier of choice, you must either switch phones or carriers. An unlocked phone either doesn’t have the software lock on it or was unlocked using a code.

If you’re open to buying a used phone, check out the online store Gazelle at gazelle.com. It’s been in the “reCommerce” business since 2006, focusing on providing safe purchase, sales, and trade-ins of phones, tablets, and notebooks. Purchases come with a 30-day money-back guarantee with free return shipping, although there’s a $15 return fee.

Gazelle offers “certified quality” devices, which means the device has undergone a 30-point functional and cosmetic inspection. The one drawback here is that even though it has a 30-day money-back guarantee, that’s as far as a warranty goes. If you were to purchase a certified preowned device through the manufacturer, like Apple, it would come with a one-year warranty.

Here’s an example to compare your options. An iPhone 11 Pro with 256 GB is $849 with a one-year warranty at the Apple store and $662.15 with a 30-day warranty at Gazelle. Is a one-year warranty worth almost $187 in savings?

The answer to that is tied to your tolerance for risk. If you know exactly the model and specifications you want and are willing to gamble on the warranty a bit, you may find significant savings on third-party sites like Gazelle. Just make sure you purchase from an established, reputable vendor.

If you like the idea of a full, one-year warranty and having the manufacturer’s backing, you may want to buy a certified refurbished unit from the manufacturer. If you’re buying from Apple, check out Refurb-Tracker.com, which lets you set an alert that tracks the Apple Store and reports whenever a device meeting your specifications is listed as certified refurbished, leading to potential savings since the supply of refurbished items is limited.

As the saying goes, nothing ventured, nothing gained. We hope by sharing what we learned in our ventures, you gain some insight that makes your next buying venture easier. Ultimately it depends on what you’re looking for, what you’re willing to pay, and what you’re willing to risk.


Jeffrey Allen

Jeffrey Allen is the principal at Graves & Allen in Oakland, Calif., where he has practiced since 1973. He’s active in the ABA, the California State Bar Association, and the Alameda County Bar Association.

Ashley Hallene 

Ashley Hallene is a petroleum landman at Macpherson Energy in Bakersfield, Calif. She practices oil and gas law, title examination, due diligence, acquisitions, and oil and gas leasing. She frequently speaks in technology CLEs.