Should you upgrade to an iPhone 13 right away or hold off? Get help deciding

Jennifer Jolly
Special to USA TODAY

We can count on a few things to happen every September: The start of a new school year. Leaves change color. A new iPhone – heck all the newest flagship smartphones – typically hit store shelves and land in the hands of eager early adopters. 

Those of us who cover tech can also count on getting the question, “should I upgrade now or wait?” 

The simplest answer is this: If you can afford it, then, by all means, preorder a new iPhone this Friday or buy it in stores after Sept. 24. The iPhone 13 lineup is Apple’s best yet and sure to be the envy of many trying to "keep up with Phoneses."

But, if your current smartphone still meets your needs, there’s no reason to buy into the hype cycle. Most of the upgrades are once again more evolutionary than revolutionary – with a few exceptions to the latest Pro and Pro Max video and photo improvements. I’ll get to those more in a minute.  

► Which models do what?  Here's what to consider picking an Apple smartphone

► iPhone 13 deals:  Here are best trade-in offers from AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile

But first, real talk: If your current iPhone is four years old or older, this newest series will feel like an incredible upgrade – kind of like going from a Pinto to a Porsche. 

Conversely, if there are a few nagging annoyances with the phone you already have, it might be more practical – and a whole lot less expensive – to address those issues and wait another year. 

Let’s dive a little deeper on both sides. 

Compelling reasons to upgrade now

Your current smartphone is held together with little more than duct tape and prayers.  My 20-year-old daughter is one of you. She appeared in the kitchen last week with a raised red scratch on the upper part of her cheek, right where it runs into her ear. For a second, I thought the overly friendly neighborhood cat snuck into her room through an open window in the middle of the night. Again. 

“Look at this,” she lamented holding up something resembling an iPhone that fell into a blender. “It actually cut me.” 

“It” is her iPhone 6. The screen is shattered and minute shards of glass have started to work their way through the protective film struggling to hold it all together. “Honey,” I said, squaring up to look her directly in the eyes, “it’s time to get you a new phone.” 

It’s an easy decision to upgrade to a newer smartphone when your current one could scar you. (Literally.) 

A broken touch-screen could cost $200 or more to replace and  iOS 15 won’t work on her older iPhone 6 (it's only compatible with the 6S and up). This is the ideal time for an upgrade.

► iOS 15 is coming soon:  Here's what we know about the iPhone's upcoming update

► iPhone 13 preorders kick off Friday:  Here's what you should know

Your battery dies long before dinnertime. Better battery life is one of the biggest selling points of Apple’s new iPhone 13 lineup. 

Apple says users can expect to get about 1.5 additional hours of battery life out of the iPhone 13 Mini and iPhone 13 Pro and 2.5 from the iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 Pro Max. This is a notable upgrade since last year’s Pro Max lasted a day and then some.

Side note: If this is your only complaint, however, it might pay to replace the battery versus getting an entirely new phone. Most Apple stores replace iPhone batteries for around $50 to $70. It’s a good idea to replace your battery every two to three years to keep your handset humming along at a reasonable rate.

You frame your iPhone photos or make movies with it. There are better cameras on all four new iPhone models, but the upgrades to the Pro and Pro Max are worthy of an upgrade if these features are important to your personal or professional life. Professional photographer forums are all abuzz about it, with some saying they’re ready to ditch their pricey high-end cameras for it and others giving it a mere ‘meh. 

Cinematic mode records videos of people, pets, and objects with a beautiful depth effect with automatic focus changes.

The Pro models have three cameras with improvements that put them on equal ground with some of the best consumer camera models available on the market today: 

  • Apple promises that the wide camera lens and larger sensor will provide a massive improvement in low-light photos.
  • The ultrawide lens has a new autofocus system for brighter and sharper shots. It’s also capable of a macro mode, for incredibly sharp close-ups.
  • The telephoto camera has 3X optical zoom, making a total zoom range – from ultra-wide to telephoto – of 6X.

New fancy pants video tricks are another reason for some people to upgrade – especially now that the added boost from the new A15 chip and graphics processor will let you add Scorsese-like cinematic magic to your videos. 

► How to preorder iPhone 13:  What to know about Apple iPhone launch

I’m excited about the new iPhone Pro and Pro Max’s ability to “rack focus.” That’s where the camera focuses on someone for a close-up, then shifts focus to someone or something in the background. Apple’s new Cinematic Mode puts a few of the same tools in your hands, on a smartphone, that pros use to make commercials, feature films and  binge-watch-worthy shows. 

Apple adds that the “iPhone is the only smartphone in the world to provide an end-to-end workflow – capture, edit and  share in Dolby Vision or ProRes,” which again, is a big deal for anyone with their sights set on directing the next Marvel movie.  

Apple calls the 13 Pro series upgrades “the most advanced pro camera system ever on an iPhone,” and that’s true, although some will argue they still won’t out-camera Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra or Huawei’s Mate 40 Pro or even Leica’s Leitz Phone. (I can’t wait to do side-by-side tests.)   

► Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G:  Can it replace your digital camera for vacation photos?

You qualify for a crazy-good carrier deal. The top carriers are offering some amazing deals to entice people to upgrade now, which we go into more in-depth here. Some of the best bargains include: 

AT&T’s offer of $1,000 off the iPhone 13 Pro or Pro Max and up to $700 off the iPhone 13 and Mini. 

Verizon essentially gives you the phone for free in exchange for a 3-year commitment. But this deal excludes Start Unlimited, the carrier’s cheapest unlimited-data plan.

Verizon is offering up to $700 off any iPhone 13, covering the base costs for the 13 and the Mini. 

T-Mobile’s advertising up to $500 off the price of any iPhone 13 series phone, so long as you finance on an installment plan and trade in an eligible device (iPhone X or newer). 

Just be sure to read the fine print. Some carriers require fairly new phones for trade-in, while others are OK with a broken screen, but no battery damage. Also, some of the terms require a two- or three-year commitment, so be sure you won’t get dinged if you want a new phone again next year. 

The iPhone 13 will be available in baby pink.

You simply MUST have it.  Some people – as you know who you are – will buy the latest, greatest, newest device because that’s just what they do. A new smartphone to them is akin to the latest fall fashion for others. They must have it, whether they can afford it or not because it’s a part of their identity. 

Or maybe you just need to have a new phone in a new color like “Sierra Blue,” a color reminiscent of Lake Tahoe’s shallower coves on a hot summer day. Or “Product Red,” the best color to make sure you’ll be able to find it in an avalanche. If moody midnight hues or whisper-soft pinks are your everything, this is your year and by all means, go roll around in it.

Compelling reasons to hold off

You just want a phone that works. We all notice our phones get slower, don’t stay charged up as long, and after about year two, just don’t work as well as they once did. Those are not necessarily reasons to spring for the latest handset now. 

I already mentioned a potential fix for bogged-down batteries. Another common issue is running out of data storage, which means you can’t take more photos, download new apps, or sometimes makes your smartphone feel just plain dumb. 

A much less expensive fix for that issue is to delete apps you don’t use. Take a look at Apple’s iPhone Storage tool to see a list of apps that take up the most data and see when you used them last. Ditch everything you can live without. 

The other quick fix here is to buy an iPhone 12, or the budget-minding SE (that one starts at $399). Those still work wonders and at a much lower cost than the new 13’s. 

You really can’t afford it.  It’s 2021. There’s no reason to go into debt or choose a phone over food when money’s tight. iPhone 13s start at a whopping $699. Spending that much money on anything should give most of us pause. 

There’s also no harm in waiting a few months to make up your mind. Think of it as a sanity-saving smartphone cooling-off period. 

You don’t care about a “buttery-smooth” screen. At all. If you’re no smartphone savant, by choice. You will never spout tech specs over dinner and  roll your eyes when you hear that Apple’s new “Super Retina XDR ProMotion” screen technology will give you “buttery smooth” screen interactions, especially with gaming. 

Remember, many of these tech makers are competing with each other versus trying to make our lives better.  There’s a lot of hyperbole here and it’s always worth considering what’s really important to you versus the hype. 

One more thing

I hope to go hands-on with the newest models in the next few weeks. If you can’t wait and plan to preorder this Friday, remember my annual iPhone upgrade advice: Choose the features that matter most to you and do not blow your budget – period. I know, I sound like the Mom I am and  that’s not as sexy as Apple’s marketing messages. But it was solid advice a decade ago and it still is today – unlike the iPhone 4S.