Rumours swirl, but we're months away from a major update to the iPhone platform. Who has the best iPhone 4S deals right now? Our Planhacker compendium rounds up every contract deal in a spreadsheet format you can easily filter to find just the deals that suit you.
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The bulk of marketing activity for the iPhone unsurprisingly centres around the most recent model, the iPhone 4S. Apple sells the older 4 and 3GS models as outright buys, but right now Optus is the only carrier with a regular plan including the older 3GS.
If you don’t want to sign up to a contract and find yourself tied down for 24 months, you can of course buy the hardware for yourself. Apple will sell you an unlocked iPhone 4S phone outright, charging $799 for the 16GB model, $899 for 32GB or $999 for 64GB. The older iPhone 4 is $679 for an 8GB model, and the 3GS is $449, with 8GB again the only size officially sold by Apple.
None of those prices are cheap (especially compared to Android), so it isn’t particularly shocking that many people prefer to get a subsidised handset from a carrier, even if that limits their flexibility and ties them down. It's worth remembering that iPhones maintain a high resale value, so it may ultimately make sense to buy outright even if you don't plan to hang onto the phone for more than 12 months.
In the table below, we've detailed all the currently available consumer iPhone 4S plans from the three major Australian carriers, plus Virgin (which is actually an Optus subsidiary and uses the Optus network). We've based this on what is listed on their sites, so offers available only in stores aren't included, and we're not counting one-off specials or limited offers. Compared to when the iPhone 4S first launched, there are fewer plans on offer, but that doesn't make the range of choice much less bewildering.
For each model and storage size, we've detailed what you'll pay for the plan and what you'll pay as a handset subsidy, which add up to the total monthly cost; the length of the contract and the total amount you'll pay; how much data and "call value" is included, and what you’ll pay for excess data; and charges for calls to Australian numbers (which invariably involve both a flagfall and a per-minute charge) and for texts to Australian numbers. (We haven't specifically separated out the black and white models since pricing is the same at al carriers, but you might find supplies varying in practice.)
Vodafone offers 12-month or 24-month contracts for some models; Optus, Telstra and Virgin Mobile are exclusively 24 months. (Optus has offered 12-month plans in the past but doesn't currently list any on its site). Note that while a 12-month contract doesn't tied you down, the per-month fees are much higher (higher than the plan cost itself with the 64GB 4S), and can approach the value of some of the 24 month deals. Not all models are offered on all plans.
There’s a lot of data in the table below, but to make the most of it you can filter out the details you need. Click on the arrows at the top of each column and you can either sort (so, for example, you can list all plans sorted by per-month cost or total cost or data allowance) or filter (so you can only look at plans for 32GB phones or with unlimited text).
It's easy to see here that the cheapest outright deal is from Optus (albeit for a 3GS), and the most expensive from Telstra. But that only tells a very small part of the story. Knowing your own usage patterns is crucial; unlimited text is pointless if you only send a handful of texts each month. If you frequently make international calls on your mobile, then those rates will matter. None of the main carriers offers free voicemail as standard (though Virgin Mobile does), and if you're a heavy messaging user, that’s also a consideration.
Cheap per-month plans are often offset by high handset charges. Telstra's handset charges across the board went up earlier this year, and it only has one model which doesn't attract a handset subsidy. Many other providers have also tweaked their handset charges. As we've already noted, 12-month plans have much higher handset subsidy charges. There's no point buying the 3GS from Optus on anything other than the cheapest plan, as you can get a better model for the same money on the higher-priced deals.
Vodafone and Virgin Mobile’s call rates are higher than the others, but everyone charges at least 90 cents a minute plus flagfall, except on higher-priced "unlimited" plans. Again, this is an area where rates can be much lower if you buy a handset outright.
Data is an important consideration, though if you frequently use Wi-Fi you may not need massive amounts. Research suggests iPhone owners use more data than Android, though it also confirms that very few users require more than 1GB a month. I certainly wouldn't want a plan with less than 1500MB a month on offer. Optus charges higher excess data rates on its cheaper plans.
A crucial factor in choosing a carrier is availability where you live and work: there’s no point getting a bargain phone if you never get signal. Broadly speaking, Telstra has the best coverage, followed by Optus and then Vodafone, which has spent most of the past two years trying to convince consumers that it is implementing improvements to make its network viable. But generalisations don't always help, and this remains a highly individual issue: all three carriers have black spots and congestion issues.
If you want to check further details for each carrier, here are their plan sites:
Spotted another iPhone plan that tempts you? Share your insights in the comments.
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