Stupid Phone

I have always been under the impression that in order to drive the fancy model smart phones, you have to be locked into an expensive, long-term contract. Because of this underlying belief, I have a dumb phone. It is a hand-me-down, text and voice, Virgin Mobile pay-as-you-go that has been perfectly adequate. I pay about $20 a month to keep it in my pocket and make and receive the occasional call. This has worked out well since I am not one to spend much time on any phone – land, mobile, smart or dumb. My work is spent in-person with clients, or alone with numbers. My kids are little and the subject has not come up.

But then people started texting me pictures. Each picture drains about half of the battery. The portcover to the charger fell off (yet it lives!), I am beginning to have to pop the battery in and out to force it to reboot. Lately, it has been screening my calls, “you have a call, press 1 to accept.” Lastly, while I really try to think of myself as status-neutral, when I am at a meeting and everyone pulls out their smartie-pants devices to book their calendar and I am pulling out paper and pen, well, I admit I feel like the only kid who still has an 8:30 bedtime in junior high.

So I’m getting smarter. It is a sea change for me, but the new waters will not be so deep –I am keeping the dumb plan on my non-standard Virgin carrier, from which I have had no problems in coverage or billing, no matter where I have travelled, for the past many years. This is how it breaks down:

Standard carriers offer you really good hardware (iPhone, Galaxy, etc.) at a substantial discount and sometimes even free. But, for this discount you get a contract. That contract can cost anywhere from $70-$170 a month, depending on your bells and whistles, and how much data you use. If you fall right in the middle of that range, you will be paying $1,440 a year to have the internet in your pocket. Having the internet in your pocket is really cool, don’t get me wrong, but so is going to Hawaii, which you could do instead.

So, I bought this phone for $160. I will pay $35 a month for 300 anytime minutes, with unlimited text and data (such as said data is). This should cost $580 a year, $860 less than standard plans and carriers. It isn’t a Hawaiian vacation, but a quick search said I could go round-trip to NY and still have more than $500 left for a hotel and sandwiches.

It hasn’t come yet. I can’t yet say this is perfect, but I have had a dumb phone that has been nearly perfect for a very long time, so I can only anticipate being able to receive client emails while I wait for the kids at the bus stop will be convenient.

Or maybe it won’t. Maybe I’ll turn into one of those people who never look up. Other technology has illustrated the principle of “can’t go back.” Think of dial-up, then DSL, then high speed wireless. Can you imagine the clumps of hair that would be pulled out if we had to wait for our computers to connect like we used to? Impossible.

It should also be noted that I did none of the original research for this post. It was provided by my resident tech support, AKA the other head of household, who makes all of this easy for me. His commentary is below, for those who really want to know all the options.

For a solo phone person, like you and many others, the no-contract deals are quite good. It ends up being, at least partially, a matter of hardware. And status, of course, which is not insignificant to many folks, cost be damned.

On all of the pay-as-you-go deals, all of the “premium” phones — iPhone 4S or (now) the 5; the Samsung SIII or the Samsung Note; the HTC One X (or S, to a slightly lesser degree) — are ludicrously over-priced for those carriers. On Virgin, the iPhone 4S is $650 (their highest-end non-iPhone is prob the HTC EVO V, which $260). On Cricket, the iPhone is “just” $500. On Ting, the Samsung SIII is $579. On Boost, the Samsung SII (not even the III) is $369. On MetroPCS (another pay-as-you-go), their “best” phone is the LG Esteem ($369), which is not a very good phone.

All of the main carriers – AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and the red-headed step-child, T-Mobile, have their own pay-as-you-go, but there you’re dealing with seriously low-end, “dumb” phones, or phones like yours, which is, for all intents and purposes, a “dumb” phone. They want you to go with their plan phones, so all the premiums go there.

Virgin appears to have the most robust offerings out there, with regards to phone-quality, though Boost and Cricket aren’t far behind.

In terms of plans, well, they vary, and, particularly if you don’t call too much, the Virgin deal is clearly the best. Cricket has a similar one, with unlimited talk, for $45/mo and Boost starts at $50/mo.

Call quality usually isn’t an issue, as these other phone companies use existing hardware – Virgin is on Sprint, Boost is Sprint, Cricket is Sprint and Metro PCS – and are fine, particularly in cities. And, keep in mind, that when using most of the sub-premium phones, most have wi-fi connectivity, so the quality data plan isn’t a huge issue, particularly when at home or at work (if your work has wi-fi) or at the local coffee shop.

Regarding status, one of the things about the pre-pay phones isn’t necessarily that they’re drug-dealer phones from The Wire, but more that, to some, it implies that you got kicked off one of the big carriers for non-payment. At least that’s what I’ve heard from some.

Regarding making a spreadsheet for all this stuff – it’s tough, because so many of the websites make you go through a picking-and-choosing before they tell you how much it will be. I think Virgin’s my fave, though Ting seems like a good deal, particularly as they get more and different phones, which they’re supposed to soon. They are also offering plans for folks who bring in “unlocked” phones, meaning phones that are no longer under contract, so you can just buy a SIM card from Ting (or other carrier) and use it on their network. Others offer this, too, including some of the big carriers, like T-Mobile, which is trying to get iPhone users to come to their network, as they don’t offer them. Some carriers’ phones “brick” (meaning they lock and become useless as a brick) when you try to move them off their home network. I know Virgin’s do.

Here’s some links to plan-comparisons:

For pay-as-you-go:

 (Just AT&T and Verizon)

 (from 2011)

 (scroll down for chart)