Let's start with the good stuff. Best Buy just announced that it has knocked $50 off the price of all versions of the iPhone 5 and 4S. That means you can snag the 16GB version of the iPhone 5 for $149.99, the best price I’ve seen. If you’re willing to settle for the older iPhone 4S, you’ll pay just $49.99 for the 16GB version.
There are no strings attached to this offer -- beyond the usual requirement that you sign up for a two-year contract with AT&T, Verizon or Sprint. The sale starts right now and will continue through January 5. Best Buy is throwing in free shipping, but if you look closely, you’ll notice that many models are only available in the stores, so you’ll have to brave the bargain-crazed shopping hordes to take advantage. Still, fifty bucks is fifty bucks and if you’ve been thinking of buying an iPhone, this is a good way to go.
One reminder: The iPhone 5 has the new Lightning connector, which means it will not work with any of your existing accessories unless you spend more to buy an adapter. You’ll also have to contend with the wretched Apple maps that are part of iOS 6. The 4S, on the other hand, has the standard 30-pin connector and is loaded with iOS 5, which includes the built-in Google Maps app. That's not to say the iPhone 5 isn't a better device; it is, but just be aware of the issues before you decide which one to buy.
Ok, that's the good news. Next is Apple's announcement that it will sell an unlocked iPhone 5 you can buy without a contract. First off, this is an expensive way to go, because buying without a contract means you're paying the real, unsubsidized price for the phone.
An unlocked, 16GB iPhone 5 costs $649, compared to the subsidized price of $199. What’s more, the unlocked phone will only work on the two major networks in the U.S. that utilize GSM technology -- AT&T and T-Mobile. It will not work on CDMA networks, which means you couldn't get service from Verizon or Sprint, or any of their resellers.
The offer isn't quite as crazy as it sounds, but it only makes sense for people who plan to travel abroad very frequently. If you do, you could simply pop out the nano-SIM card and replace it with one from the foreign carrier, as long as it also uses GSM. That way you'd avoid AT&T’s sky-high foreign data charges.
Actually, AT&T will let you do that with a locked phone, but it's rather complicated. You have to ask AT&T’s permission and then wait 6 or 7 days to get the OK, and you can only do that five times a year. Here's a page with all the details. Bottom line: ignore this so-called deal unless you travel very frequently on business and want to take your iPhone 5 with you.
Interestingly, carriers in Europe are not allowed to lock phones at all, but since wireless service in the U.S. is pretty much unregulated, the carriers here can do almost anything they want.