Apple (AAPL) Gives Customers Head Start in Pre-Ordering iPhone 6s

Carriers are in heated competition with Apple's leasing program.

— -- Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) is giving a head start to people who want to pre-order the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus as phone carriers ramp up their competition for customers.

Customers can pre-order the new iPhones starting Saturday morning and the devices will ship starting Sept. 25. And those eager customers can start the pre-order process early through Apple's website or the Apple Store app on your iPhone.

In the app, hit "Get ready to pre-order iPhone 6," and select "Remember me" for the app to store your wireless account details, including your phone number, ZIP code and the last four digits of your social security number. Then customers can learn the iPhone pricing available to them.

With a contract, the iPhone 6s starts at $199 for the 16 GB model. The iPhone 6s Plus starts at $299 for 16 GB. Without a contract, the iPhone 6s start at $649 for the 16 GB model.

For people who want to switch phones and don't have the cash upfront, Apple is offering a leasing option for the first time.

The new "iPhone Upgrade Program" allows customers to pay Apple $32.41 to $44.91 a month, depending on the model, until a new phone is released. That's when you exchange your old device. The monthly payment for the iPhone 6s Plus starts at $36.58 a month. Available only at Apple's retail stores in the U.S., customers can choose a phone carrier and get an unlocked device, with the "opportunity" to get a new iPhone annually and the AppleCare+. That protection program mainly offers up to two years of hardware repairs and coverage for up to two incidents of accidental damage.

Other carriers are offering competing offers to Apple's upgrade program. T-Mobile is offering a $20 a month offer for the least expensive iPhone 6s. Sprint is offering a deal of $22 a month for a new line, or $15 a month for customers who trade in their existing iPhone. AT&T Next allows qualified customers to pay the sales tax upfront for their new phones plus a monthly payment. Under AT&T's program, the larger your monthly installment payments, the earlier you get a device upgrade (from about one to two years).

Mike Gikas, Consumer Reports senior electronics editor, said he's is not convinced by Apple's new program.

"The leasing program may seem like Apple is doing consumers a favor, but it's really an effort to ensure people buy new phones or continue paying more for the old one if they decide to hold on to it," Gikas said.

The better deals are those that separate the purchase of the phone from the service charges, effectively giving you an interest-free loan you can pay off in about two years, he said.

"When you’ve paid off the phone, your monthly bill goes down accordingly," Gikas said. "And there are no termination fees; if you want to leave the carrier, you just pay any remaining balance on the phone."

Consumer columnist Elisabeth Leamy said Apple's program is reminiscent of auto leasing deals.

"It’s a decent deal if you’re one who simply must upgrade to the latest, greatest gadget as soon as it comes out. But if you’re like me and you keep your phones -- and your cars -- for years, then you’re probably better off buying instead of leasing," Leamy said.

Apple’s program seemingly costs customers a minimum of $388.92 a year for the least expensive iPhone 6s model.

"Buying a phone is about $650, so it pays for itself in less than two years and then you get to keep it for free for years beyond that," Leamy said.

Apple said its program is available to "qualified customers only with a valid U.S. personal credit card." The program requires a 24-month installment loan with Citizens Bank and iPhone activation with AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile or Verizon.