Friday, April 5, 2013

Lower cost cell phone options

I was asked by a colleague for advice on a new smart phone and cellular plan. So I started doing some research. She was considering AT&T's Go Phone plan. On the surface this looks like a pretty good deal, a prepaid plan for $65 would get you unlimited calls and data and 1 GB of data. The chief problem with this was that you apparently have to use their phones - no brand antiquated Android and Blackberry phones. The one that looked the most promising to me was the Avail which only came with 512K memory, Android 2.3 Gingerbread (they're at 4.2 in the real world) and EDGE data. Seemed guaranteed to frustrate any user into a full fledged AT&T contract. No thanks.

But I knew there were a number of other prepaid options out there. Here's a nice run down on some of them from PCMag: The 10 Best Cheap Prepaid Phone Plans You've Never Heard Of. For people in Montana, it's important to find a prepaid plan that uses either AT&T's or Verizon's networks. Sprint and T-Mobile don't offer service in Montana. The advantage to going with an AT&T network is that it uses GSM technology. It broadens your potential phone selection. More about that later.

A little bit about the traditional way of cell phone purchase and plans in the U.S. Most people looking for a smart phone, first select their carrier and then buy the phone they want at a highly discounted rate with a 2-year contract. Since the phone is subsidized, you'll be paying for that phone monthly over the course of the two years. It looks like you pay about $20/month for the phone. Whatever the up front cost, you're going to be paying an additional $480. The dirty little secret is that you will continue paying $20/month for that phone long after the two years is over. No wonder the rapid pace of obsolescence, you might as well get a new phone every two years, if you're paying for it anyway.

With prepaid plans (and month to month), you have to buy your phone outright. So, you're getting into some potentially frightening prices, e.g., $699.99 for an iPhone 5, $499.99 for a Samsung Galaxy SIII... You do probably come out ahead in the long run because the monthly rates are significantly cheaper, but the up front costs are higher. Most of the prepaid carriers offer a rather sad assortment of phones, but the good news is that most also allow you to bring your own phone. So, you can buy an unlocked phone from elsewhere, buy  a $10 SIM card from the carrier and run it on their network. If you prefer one stop shopping, it looks like Red Pocket Mobile offers the best selection of unlocked phones. The prices include their SIM card.

But with a prepaid carrier running on AT&T (or T-Mobile if you're in their area), you can use any unlocked GSM phone. Do keep in mind that AT&T (and T-Mobile) run on a different network and require different phones than Verizon (and Sprint). You can't buy an unlocked AT&T phone and expect to run it on a Verizon or Sprint network and vice versa. One additional note, AT&T's GSM standard is global while Verizon's CDMA is largely U.S. So you can expect to find a much greater selection of unlocked and/or used GSM phones. Also, keep in mind that even Verizon and Sprint CDMA phones are not interchangeable. If you want a phone for a prepaid carrier using Verizon networks, be sure to get a Verizon phone. I know, it's both confusing and and annoying, but that's the world we live in.

There is one phone out there that is sold unlocked that I would definitely consider buying if I were looking at either a no contract or prepaid GSM plan - the LG Nexus 4 from Google. Android geeks know that the Nexus line is the purest form of Android without all the carrier and cell phone manufacturer junk. And Nexus phones and tablets always get the updates first. This phone is also relatively cheap for a non-subsidized smart phone, starting at $299 for the 8 GB model. I'd probably go with the 16 GB at $349. It will run on either AT&T or T-Mobile networks in the U.S. with the proper SIM card. That means it will also run on prepaid services using either of those networks. Reportedly, it's a bit slower on AT&T, but, as far as I know, AT&T is not yet offering 4G LTE service in Montana so I doubt the reduction in performance  would be anything to worry about. I found this article which looks at LG Nexus 4 performance on various networks via GottaBeMobile: LG Nexus 4 Carrier Comparison.

If you prefer Verizon's network, and arguably, it is better in Montana both for coverage and speed, your prepaid options are more limited. Verizon offers its own prepaid plan. The prices are higher than most of their competition - $70/month for unlimited talk and text and 2 GB data. The offered phones are pretty dismal but they do offer the option to bring on your own. So, that's something. Page Plus and Net10 are the only other two Verizon networks I've run across. And Net10 is fairly secretive about whether they're using AT&T or Verizon. I finally figured they were on Verizon in Montana when none of the phones I looked at were available in my area. I believe they're affiliated with Tracfone which definitely uses Verizon networks in Montana. I know because I used a Tracfone for a couple of years. It worked okay as a basic phone but the customer service was less than stellar. I spent hours on the phone with one of their technicians only to be told eventually that the phone was dead. But I guess, you have to expect that from a budget service.

There are a couple of other services that aren't prepaid that I'd like to point out even though they run on Sprint's network and thus are  not available in Montana:
  • Ting has taken a new approach to cellular service and only bills you for what you actually use. I love the concept and wish they were an option here.
  • Credo - For those who want a mobile carrier with a social conscience.
I'd love to hear comments about your carriers, especially prepaid plans. What do you like or dislike about your service?