iPhone 5: Does your teenager really need a smartphone?

iPhone 5 debuts with the inevitable safety and cost questions: Should your teenager upgrade to a smartphone? Will there be improved parental controls? What's the most savvy, cost-efficient plan?

Itsuo Inouye/AP Photo
iPhone 5 debuts today – Sept. 12, 2012 – and the pressure will be on from teens to get their parents to get them that latest Apple smartphone. Here, a boy checked an iPhone at an Apple booth at an electronic store in Tokyo in 2007.

Your teenager says he needs an iPhone. Naturally.

While you may think Apple’s smartphone sounds like more of a “want” than a “need,” it’s not as crazy or as expensive a request as it sounds.

Indeed, if your teen can live with an older version of the iPhone that’s not totally up to date, you should be able to save some big bucks on marked down iPhone 4s and other iPhone devices in the weeks ahead.

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And, the experts say, the deals could get even better around the holiday shopping season.

The driving force is the expected rollout this week of the iPhone 5. It’s rumored to have a bigger screen, faster Internet connection, an improved battery and a big price tag.

Those customers who want the bigger and better iPhone won’t think twice about shelling out hundreds of dollars to be at the head of the line. But for those on a tighter budget, current iPhone models are, or soon will be, selling at retail discounts. That’s the pattern every time iPhones upgrade.

For example, Sprint recently cut $50 off the price of the fourth-generation iPhones. Prices range from $149.99 to $349.99, with a contract.

So, if your teen is hankering for an upgrade to an iPhone, analysts say it’s best to be patient and take advantage of the window of opportunity to buy the iPhone 4 or other earlier versions at a discount.

Whether it’s the iPhone or some other cool device, the purchasing experience can be quite a slippery slope.

With carriers adjusting their rate plans and deals all the time, it can be difficult if not impossible to compare apples to apples. Do your homework to find the best deal, and expect to put some time into it.

After all, in many households – mine included – the amount shelled out for the family cell phone plan that includes multiple phones eclipses every other utility bill over the course of the year.

To evaluate rate plans, fees and other services, use online tools such as MyRatePlan.com and BillShrink.com.

And before your teen says so long to his current phone or picks one out for the first time, here are some questions to consider:

• How will your teen use the phone? Is it mostly for calling and texting? What about downloads for music, photos, and videos — all these Internet downloads and apps add to the costs.

• Do you need parental controls on the phone? These services allow you to block inappropriate content, prohibit purchases by phone and a host of other things.

• What special fees and charges will you face when upgrading? My least favorite is the activation fee — it’s the phone industry equivalent to the destination charges that car dealers throw in. So much for the great discount on the phone.

• Who will be paying for the phone? Even if junior’s smartphone is on your family plan, will any of the cost be on his dime? Also, see whether your company offers employee discounts on purchases.

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• What are your options if there are technical or service problems with your $200 device? From my perspective, it seems like the companies never really fix the bugs; they just come out with a newer version.

When it comes to shopping for iPhones or any other smartphones for the younger users in your family, it always pays to be smarter than the machine. Or at least the marketing machine.

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