iPhone 13 price promotions are 2021's biggest Apple shock

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iPhone 13 preorders kick off on Friday, but while there were no big surprises in Apple's sticker pricing for the four new smartphones, the deals on offer could make 2021 an unusual year. There's no doubting that Apple has come to count on iPhone sales to help buoy its financial results, particularly in the first quarter after a new model, but it takes more than just a healthy spec sheet to win over new buyers.

The iPhone 13 family kicks off at $699 for the iPhone 13 mini with a 5.4-inch display, and then $799 for the iPhone 13 with a 6.1-inch display. The iPhone 13 Pro is the same size, but adds a third camera among other changes; it starts at $999. Finally, the iPhone 13 Pro Max has a 6.7-inch screen and starts at $1,099.

They are, if you've been keeping track, the same as last year's starting pricing for the iPhone 12 family. Considering we've seen Apple lead the pack in nudging phone prices up to reflect new features, and that there'd been concerns that – amid pandemic-related chip and other component shortages – consumers might get an unexpected sticker shock, that fact alone is interesting. The expectation, however, is that few will necessarily be paying close to those figures.

For iPhone 13, trade-ins are key

Buy your iPhone 13 through Apple, and the company will knock up to $790 off depending on what old phone you might be willing to part with. If you're using last year's flagship, Apple is happy to knock a huge chunk of the price of a new iPhone 13 off your bill.

If, of course, you've been sticking with something older – all the way back to an iPhone 8, in fact, first launched in 2017 – then the discount will be a little more humble. Figure on something more like $110.

How you decide to pay for your new iPhone 13 will shape how that trade-in discount is applied. If you buy the new smartphone outright, then Apple will trim the trade-in value from the final price you pay at checkout. If, though, you opt for a monthly payment for the new iPhone 13, then Apple will spread the trade-in value out, and apply it as a cut to each month's bill.

It's worth noting that, if you trade in a phone that's worth more than the new iPhone 13 you buy, you don't say goodbye to the difference. Apple will actually send you an Apple Gift Card for the remaining amount, once you've sent in the old device and its condition has been verified. The online trade-in process typically takes 2-3 weeks, the company says.

iPhone 13 carriers are pushing trade-in even harder

While buying a new iPhone through Apple may be the most straightforward way of getting your hands on Tim Cook's newest gadget, if you go through the carriers you could potentially save even more. Just how much will depend on which carrier you use, whether you're an existing customer, and what sort of plan you're signing up to.

AT&T, for example, is promising up to $1,000 off the cost of an iPhone 13 Pro or iPhone 13 Pro Max, or $700 off the cost of an iPhone 13 or iPhone 13 mini. Verizon could trim $800 off any of the new iPhone 13 models, while T-Mobile is offering a free iPhone 13. The caveat, as with Apple's trade-in deals, is that it all depends on what existing device you have. You'll also need to be on an unlimited plan.

Don't get any ideas of taking advantage of the deal and then flipping your new iPhone 13 for a profit, however. All three carriers apply the promotional pricing on a monthly basis.

As iPhone 13 arrives, Samsung brings out the big guns

Then again, it's not like Apple is alone in trying to coax upgraders with healthy trade-in deals. With users uncertain whether they want to spend hundreds or dollars or more on a new smartphone, companies like Samsung have been sweetening their promotions.

If you're in the market for a Galaxy S21, for example, or a new Galaxy Z Flip 3, Samsung has been not just doubling, but quadrupling down on its offers. As of this year, you can now trade in up to four devices – whether a phone, tablet, or smartwatch – toward a single new Galaxy phone. The company is even allowing devices with cracked screens to count, too.