Technology

Buying a Smartphone: How to Pick the Right Plan

erica-manfred2Last week in Aging With Geekitude, Erica told you how to get a great deal on a used smartphone – read about that here.  This week, she’ll tell you how to pick the right network and plan – a key choice before you pick a phone.

 

Getting a great deal on a used phone on Ebay is the easy part. Finding a plan you can afford is the hard part. We have more expensive, and more fragmented, cell phone service in the U.S. than in some third world countries, and carriers take advantage – so be prepared.

Just remember: Choose your plan before you buy a phone. Even if a phone is unlocked, they are not interchangeable. An AT&T phone will not work with Verizon and vice versa because they use different technologies. I won’t even try to explain CMDA vs GSM, but here’s an article that will enlighten you.

First of all you need to understand what you’re getting 

2G, 3G, 4G LTE?

I could go into excruciating detail and bore you to death about the difference between networks, but I’ll just refer you to this PC Magazine article that pretty much explains all the jargon of 2G, 3G and 4G, plus 4G LTE. The bottom line is that if you really want your smartphone to do what it’s supposed to do, like post photos to Facebook with reasonable speed, Google stuff and watch YouTube videos, you need a 4G data connection.

Locked or Unlocked?

Unlocked phones are generally more desirable than locked, because you can use them with different carriers, but it’s pretty easy to get a phone unlocked if the seller’s contract was up, so ask the seller before you buy. Ebay has a good article on unlocking phones that provides do-it-yourself instructions. I highly recommend AT&T or an unlocked phone, because they give you a lot more options for bring-your-own-phone plans, which are the cheapest. If you have an unlocked GSM (AT&T) phone, you might also be able to use it in a foreign country by buying a SIM card there and using local networks. (What’s a SIM? Check out this article.

Prepaid or Contract? 

To really save money you have to bring your own phone to a carrier and buy a prepaid plan, which means basically pay as you go.

With a contract phone plan, you lock yourself in to a monthly fee, usually for two years. I swore I would never get locked into a contract after I got stuck paying for the remainder of our family plan after my divorce. A lot of unexpected things can happen in the two years a phone contract lasts. Phone plan contracts are ridiculously expensive, too – people buy them because they think it’s the only way to get a cheap phone.

But the bargain is illusory. For instance, you can get the top of the line Samsung Galaxy Note 3 for $199 with a contract; it costs close to $700 without one. The contract sounds good, until you consider that for $350 ( $150 more than the Note 3 with-contract price)  I got my own phone, albeit lightly used, and will save hundreds over the life of that contract by going with a provider that offers prepaid service.

Bring-your-own-phone plans

If you pick prepaid, I recommend using a major carrier’s network to get good phone reception pretty much anywhere. This site rates all the networks; look at call coverage, and you’ll see Verizon at the top, with AT&T a close second. T-Mobile is a pretty distant third, and Sprint, Boost Mobile and others are way down the line.

Verizon does not at this time have a decent prepaid plan, so don’t bother. The “bridge” plan they advertise looks good, but it uses their 3G – i.e. slow – data network.

AT&T does have a good prepaid plan on its 4G network. It costs $60 per month for unlimited talk and text and more than 2 gigs of data (Internet access), which is enough for normal use unless you’re streaming videos constantly. If you want AT&T customer service, go for it.

How to get good prepaid coverage on the cheap 

I have Straight Talk, one of those carriers that didn’t even rank on the Cell Phone Providers review chart. However, if you use an AT&T Straight Talk SIM, you get service that’s using all the AT&T towers. I have full AT&T service for $45 a month: unlimited talk, text and 3 gigs of data, which is more than you get with AT&T’s plan. You can order a Straight Talk AT&T SIM here. Before you order, make sure what size SIM your phone takes. Most of the recent smartphones use micro SIM cards.

The downside of Straight Talk is customer service. Unlike AT&T, you can’t walk into the store and have them set up your phone. Instead, you will be talking at length to someone with an Indian accent. This is a drag, but it’s a one-time effort that’s well worth it since the service is perfect. If you’re not intimidated by technology or have someone who will set up the phone for you, which may take a phone call or two to Mumbai, go for it.

Enjoy your smartphone

At the end of this saga you will have a phone that your kids will ohh and ahh over.  Just don’t let them have it no matter how hard they beg.  I guarantee, you WILL be sorry.

What’s your smartphone story?   Do you have one or plan to buy one, or are you planning to stick with your dumb phone for now?

See more Aging With Geekitude articles.

Erica Manfred is a journalist, essayist and humorist who writes about everything from dentistry to divorce to fantasy fiction. Friend her on Facebook.

COMMENTS

4 responses to “Buying a Smartphone: How to Pick the Right Plan

  1. Oh Erica THANK YOU SO MUCH for this most useful article!!! Through it and the multiple links you offered, I realize how terribly more complicated than I ever thought the smartphone is!!! I’m beginning to think that perhaps I don’t need it so much! lol!

    I have a desktop computer and a telephone at home, so I’d use a smartphone very little only when I go out of my home to use the phone part, internet and map (and perhaps a camera and video…) But if I still have to wade into all those intricate differences, I may as well also get the other functions such as:

    Phone; email; text; video; internet; map; maybe some social networking? etc. Not interested in games and other young people’s entertainment. (Did I miss any other function?)

    I’m so confused! No wonder I’ve been putting this off since a long time after I read some articles here and there.

    I was told puretalkusa has one for only $15 per month. Have you and/or any of your readers know anything about this smartphone? I was thinking of getting it, but now with so many different technologies…..I don’t know. lol!

    Please help? Thanks ever so much! Adela

  2. Very well informed article. However, the following paragraph is demeaning………

    The downside of Straight Talk is customer service. Unlike AT&T, you can’t walk into the store and have them set up your phone. Instead, you will be talking at length to someone with an Indian accent. This is a drag, but it’s a one-time effort that’s well worth it since the service is perfect. If you’re not intimidated by technology or have someone who will set up the phone for you, which may take a phone call or two to Mumbai, go for it.

    Getting connected overseas for lot of things from the US is nothing new. Just to name a couple of them like computer problems and credit card questions. These big corporations have manufacturing units outside the US and make billions paying low level wages in those countries including call centers and child labor. This is the downfall of America and the middle class. The American Dream will soon be history and will be a fantasy.

  3. What do you think of Consumer Cellular, which also uses the AT&T network? It’s monthly rather than pre-paid, but the monthly fee is low and there’s no contract.

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