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Feb
12

A First Rate Smartphone for Cheap? Finally!

The process of buying a cell phone can be daunting. There are so many different phones, carriers, features, and price levels it is difficult to decide. Regardless of the decision it seems that they are all extremely expensive. Unfortunately, as of 2013 there is no such thing as a great phone on a great carrier for a great price. One must compromise on something.

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Cell phone nirvana exists in the white triangle in the middle of this Venn diagram. For each circle, the distance ventured out from the middle is the level of compromise. A phone like the iPhone on Verizon is an excellent choice for Phone and Service, but is weak on Price. A Galaxy S II on Boost Mobile is a fair phone with good service (uses Sprint’s network), but is excellent on price. Each year we keep getting a little closer to that white triangle. Perhaps Google and T-Mobile are now the closest for Triangle customers.

On November 13 Google released the Nexus 4 phone. It is one of the more interesting choices out there, especially for those wanting to save money. It is a first rate phone that runs the “pure Google” Android 4.2 operating system. Because the phone is Google’s, there is no skin added by companies such as HTC, Motorola, etc. It is carrier-independent, too, so it will get OS updates without having to go through the painstaking process of carrier approval (you listening, Verizon customers?). The Nexus 4 is available with no contract, which adds much freedom to customers.

Nexus4_phoneThe phone is fantastic. Call quality is excellent, the processor is extremely snappy, the camera is outstanding, and the screen is better than the eye can detect. My only complaint is the volume level of the headphone output, which is too low. The phone is a GSM phone which allows for worldwide travel, however it will only connect to T-Mobile and AT&T’s networks in the USA. The phone does not have LTE, but does use T-Mobile’s HSPA+42, which is more than capable and is available in over 160 markets by T-Mobile at the time of writing.

The T-Mobile service is fair to good on this phone. I have gotten data speeds such as 18000kbps down and 1100kbps up from the lower level of a full Dean Dome and a full Kenan Stadium. (Our Verizon service had no connection at these times). So because there are so few T-Mobile customers, I am not constrained by large crowds. Also these are speeds that more than satisfy my needs (moderate music and video streaming)

speedtestI am constrained, however, by two factors: large buildings and extreme rural areas. The service is fine inside of Crabtree Mall, Southpoint Mall, and the PNC Arena. However the service is spotty in some restaurants and grocery stores (like the HT in North Hills). I have had no problems in any Home Depot, Lowe’s, or BJs, though, so my system of referring to perpetual shopping list notes in Evernote still works well.

When I drove to Garland, NC to visit the Brooks Brothers outlet (a must see, BTW), I lost all connectivity for a 5 mile stretch just southeast of Clinton. I have no T-Mobile connectivity in the lower level of my house, but I have good connectivity in the upstairs.

I’ve owned the phone for two months and it’s been an interesting discovery process. With the presence of public Wi-Fi networks growing nicely in retail and restaurant locations in the Triangle, I rarely encounter places with no options for service. I am concerned, though, about being stranded in the country while driving. All phone choices have a level of compromise and rural connectivity is the main one with this option.

Price is a huge advantage with the Nexus 4 on T-Mobile’s prepaid plan. The special plan (aka “The WalMart Plan”) costs just $30/month and offers unlimited data, unlimited texts, and 100 minutes of talk time. Additional talk minutes are 10-cents each. The data speed is throttled once the user surpasses the 5GB download limit per month.

I generally average about 110 mins of talk time per month, so the service is costing me just $31 per month. My wife is a big cellular talker, but even with her talk minutes, she would average only $45 per month on this plan. That  leaves us with the device’s price. Google offers the 8 GB model for $300 and the 16GB model for $350. I strongly advise getting the 16GB model, as 8GB is way too little storage to handle most people’s camera and audio needs. That is an unlocked, contract-free, first-rate phone for $350 on a $30/month plan! Because the phone comes “unlocked”, it can easily be resold. If you aren’t satisfied you can turn around and easily sell the phone on eBay and just quit paying for the service at any time. Wow.

In order to compare this option to popular options, let’s consider the 2-year costs of owning top-level devices on the four major carriers with an individual plan providing at least 2GB of data usage per month:

16GB Phone Model Service Minutes Data Texts Monthly 2yr Total
iPhone 5/Galaxy S3
($200, 2yr contract)
Verizon unlim 2GB unlim $100 $2,600
iPhone 5/Galaxy S3
($200, 2yr contract)
AT&T 450 3GB unlim $70 $1,880
iPhone 5/Galaxy S3
($200, 2yr contract)
Sprint 450 unlim unlim $80* $2,120
Nexus 4
($350, no contract)
T-Mobile 100 unlim unlim $30 $1,070

* According to the “Everything Data” plan

Of the four choices, the Nexus 4 on T-Mobile option is by far the cheapest, but users sacrifice coverage in rural areas and some indoor places, and support for defective devices is reportedly not good. Verizon is by far the most expensive option, however they have the best coverage and the best service. AT&T and Sprint offer good service and good coverage at an average price. Purchasing a cell phone these days can be daunting. Customers are faced with many unknowns and very high costs for the most part. With the Nexus 4 on a month-to-month plan, there is finally a way to get a first-rate device in Raleigh without breaking the bank.

3 Comments

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  • ed Said:

    Great no-nonsense article. Thanks for taking the time to write it.

    Two questions:

    1) do you have to remember to re-up every month?
    2) is there any guarantee the price will remain $30/month for some set period of time? (i.e. what if i drop $350 on the phone and the plan goes up to $50/month in march?)

  • Anonymous Said:

    Those are great questions: I do have to remember to re-up every month. T-Mobile sends a text message about 4 days before the period will end, so I go to their website and apply more funds toward my account there. I guess I could set up an automatic bill pay routine from my bank to them.

    There is no guarantee on the $30 plan, as I understand it. Basically the risk period is in the first 4 months. After that, it doesn’t matter what they do because I’m saving compared to what I would have done staying on Verizon. As long as the plan stays below $68, it is cheaper than any of the plans that are $2000 over the 24 months.

  • Cheesymodo The Great Said:

    You may to inquire about this, but I have a strongly suspect that Crabtree Mall, Southpoint Mall, and the PNC Arena all have cellular repeaters installed.

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