The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Stuck on the iPhone “S” cycle? It’s cheaper than ever to break out.

A man holds an Apple Inc. iPhone 5s smartphone above an Apple Watch (Photo by: Billy H.C. Kwok/Bloomberg)

This may the most ridiculous first-world problem I've ever written about. But I'm not writing this only for me. I'm writing this for you, my friends. I know you're out there. I'm one of you.

I, too, am an S-person.

What am I talking about? There are basically two types of iPhone users: Numbered-release people and S-release people. For years, Apple has alternated between the two types of release -- iPhone 3, iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, iPhone 4S, etc. But in nearly all cases, the big "wow!" changes come on the numbered years. Retina displays. A bigger screen. An even bigger screen. You get the idea.

There are some advantages to the off-year upgrade. In most cases, you're getting a slightly more polished version of the latest iPhone hardware, plus at least one new feature: Siri, for example, and the fingerprint reader were unveiled for the S-release crowd. But for a lot of people who, like me, may have first bought an iPhone in an S year, it's also meant having the reputation as a late adopter. You can just feel kind of stuck. Somehow it just doesn't feel like quite as big of a deal.

There is good news for those of us trapped on the iPhone "S" cycle? With the slow death of the two-year contract and its massive break-up fee (sometimes topping $300), it's actually cheaper than ever to break out.

All four major national carriers have new plans that make it less costly and less difficult to upgrade your phone without waiting two years. If you're due for an upgrade with the expected iPhone 6S, this is a good time to look at switching to a wireless plan that would let you upgrade a year from now and break the S-cycle forever.

It does, however, require a little homework. You're not able to just walk up to a counter, slap down $200 bucks and walk away with a new phone for the next two years. Freedom, even phone freedom, comes at a cost -- mentally and, perhaps, financially.

The first thing you should know is that it is hard to compare the new plans being pushed by the carriers with old cell phone contracts that have existed since the 1990s. The new plans offer a lot more flexibility on when you can upgrade your device and are more transparent about what you are paying for. But they are far from simple.

If you really want to know more about these plans, I've taken some time to get down in the weeds and explain them. Just keep reading. But if you only want to know how to get the latest iPhone fast, feel free to scroll down until you see Apple chief executive Tim Cook high-fiving Bono.

Here we go.

The new plans have three main components. First, virtually all of them offer unlimited talk and texting. The second component deals with data. And there are a lot of options. A lot. (AT&T offers so many that it decided just to put up a slider on its Web site that helps customers see how much they will pay based on an estimate of their data use).

This means you've now got to make sure you are keeping your data use in check -- something that's harder to do when apps on your smartphone might be sucking up data in the background of your iPhone without you even realizing it. In other words, while in the past you had to be careful about the length of your calls, the biggest factor today when it comes to choosing a wireless plans is tracking your data use.

The Post's Hayley Tsukayama, shares her thoughts on what the new iPhone might look like. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

Finally, instead of subsidizing the cost of an iPhone and offering it for $200, the major carriers are now asking you to pay the full price in monthly payments, typically spread out over a year or more (a non-subsidized iPhone costs $650). The companies offer you the choice of how fast you want to upgrade your phone. The shorter the time, the more you pay per month. But if you want to drop your carrier, there is no cancellation fee. You just have to pay the remaining cost of your device.

Paying full price for a new iPhone isn't as wallet-busting as it sounds. In reality, as long as you are not using massive amounts of data on your phone every month, these new plans are generally the same price or perhaps even a little cheaper than what you likely paid monthly in the old two-year contracts. Plus, you get to upgrade your device faster.

That may be a pretty good trade off for folks who can bear with the complexity of the modern wireless bill.

Phew. Okay, so here are your options for getting out of the S-cycle.

T-Mobile, the first to break out of two-year contracts with its "Jump!" program, right now offers the iPhone 6 for the price of $15 per month spread over 18 months -- and the opportunity to upgrade each year without any other fee. Sprint has a deal right now that leases an iPhone 6 for $15 per month spread over 22 months, and lets you upgrade your iPhone whenever a new one becomes available.

Verizon, meanwhile, having also dispensed with the two-year contract altogether, currently offers the iPhone 6 for about $30 per month on a 24-month payment plan. You can upgrade once you've paid off at least 75 percent of the full cost of a phone (the cost of the basic iPhone 6 is $650). That could still feel like an upgrade fee in disguise depending on when you got your phone, but it could be worth it to customers who like Verizon's network.

AT&T's Next program also gives you some flexibility for upgrading, with 20- to 24-month device-financing plans that let you choose whether you want your next upgrade in 12, 18, or 24 months. You can also opt to pay some money down when you get the phone, and get your upgrade in a year.

It's a sad fact that there is no longer a one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to phone plans. And being part of a family plan makes all of this even more complicated. (That may be something to address on another day when I've got a hankering for some spreadsheets.)

But iPhone users -- and all smartphone users, actually -- should know that if they're unhappy with the two-year upgrade rhythm they're in now, that they have more choices than ever to change it up.