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Apple fans ready to shell out for the new iPhone 6S and 6S Plus will notice something different when trying to buy one this year: the lack of two-year contracts.
Yes, the days of subsidized iPhones are (almost) over. Verizon and Sprint ditched their two-year options this summer, leaving AT&T as the only carrier that still offers the contracts to customers.
"Good riddance, they were never a good deal," Mike Gikas, a smartphone expert at Consumer Reports, told NBC News. "The way things are moving now is much more consumer-friendly."
That might be true, but the glut of new options could be confusing to people looking to pick up the latest iPhone. What are the best options for you?
The early adopter
There are a lot of people out there who are used to getting a new iPhone at least once every two years. For them, leasing a new iPhone might be a better option than buying one.
"It's like leasing a car — you can walk away when your lease is over, but you don't own the thing," Bill Menezes, principal analyst at research firm Gartner, told NBC News.
Not owning the phone means you can't sell it on sites like Gazelle or easily switch from plan to plan.
The upside of leasing programs like Sprint's "iPhone Forever" and T-Mobile's "Jump! On Demand" plan is that customers just tack $22 or $15 a month, respectively, to their bill and they get a new phone, plus an upgrade every time a new iPhone comes out.
Those two carriers also offer the cheapest data plans, making them a good option for people who want new phones all of the time without breaking the bank.
Some people hold onto their iPhones until they fall apart. They are the ones who really benefit from the demise of two-year contracts.
In the past, the price of a subsidized phone wasn't clear -- it was all kind of mixed in with the monthly bill. When the cost of the phone was paid for, that bill didn't go down, meaning those who didn't upgrade could end up paying more for a phone than it was worth.
Now every carrier offers financing plans that let customers pay for their iPhone in installments. For instance, Verizon divides the cost of a $650 iPhone over 24 months, which comes out to $27.08 a month. Simple! (Apple announced its own financing on Wednesday, which, for the $650 iPhone 6S, comes out to $32.45 a month with Apple Care).
And there is nothing stopping you from paying off a phone more quickly in larger installments or just buying the newest model outright from Apple.
"If you pay off the phone in a year, and somebody else is offering a better voice and data plan, you can walk away from your carrier and sign something new with no commitment," Menezes said.
Even better, iPhones these days last longer before becoming obsolete, according to Gikas.
In the old days (a few years ago), each new iPhone was dramatically better than the previous one, he said. Now smartphone technology has hit a plateau, so consumers can feel good about using the same device for three to four years.
There is no big discount when buying iPhones in bulk. But carriers do have different pricing options when it comes to service.
Gikas likes AT&T and Verizon for their shared data plans. Those providers give families flexibility, he said, because they all draw from the same pool — there is no penalty if Junior uses tons of data streaming YouTube, as long as mom and dad don't go above their limit.
Often, families don't need as much data as the carriers say they do, provided every member is careful to connect to Wi-Fi as often as possible.
"I have three teenage daughters who are heavy streamers, and we get by with four gigabytes of data and we don't run into overage charges," Gikas said.
For most people with good Wi-Fi discipline, one or two gigabytes of data per month is enough, according to Gikas.
However, those who can't help streaming Netflix on the road or using their iPhone to provide Wi-Fi for other devices might want to take advantage of AT&T's network.
It's not the cheapest, but AT&T's 4G network scored higher than every other major carrier when it came to availability and speed, according to a Consumer Reports survey.
Pair that with something like the Next 12 plan — which lets consumers divide the cost of their phone over 20 installments and upgrade after 12 — and power users can be sure to have the latest phone with the fastest connection.
Of course, you don't have to buy the latest iPhone. Once the new iPhone comes out, expect discounts on previous models from sites like Gazelle and the carriers.
"Last year's iPhone 6 is still a great phone," Gikas said. "If it's discounted by a couple of hundred dollars, that's going to be a great phone for the next few years."