Because you demanded it… Phone Attack!

22 10 2012

My wife says I should start charging for giving people phone advice, and I almost think she’s right at this point. (Don’t worry, this one’s on me.) I’ve actually been giving so much phone advice lately, copying and pasting the same notes from one friend to another, that I figured I may as well clean up my notes and make them available for the masses. What does this have to do with comics and games, you may ask? Well, not a lot, except in so far as our smartphones are becoming an indispensable part of our lives and engaging with comics and games digitally is fast becoming a major part of the market. So I might get into the ramifications of that at a later date, but basically, I just love smartphones almost as much as comics and games and I wanted to talk about them today. So here’s some starting advice for the savvy smartphone shopper.

First of all, yes to Android, all the way. Don’t get me wrong, Apple has a fine product with iOS and the iPhone, but I’m an Android guy, and I think you should be too. If you want simplicity, (for a price,) go Apple. You won’t be disappointed. But despite all their hype, even the iPhone ain’t perfect and you will find quirks that bug the poop out of you and make you want to chuck it across the room. In fact, you’ll find that to be the case with any tech device you get. That’s just the nature of the beast. But if you think Android might be an option for you but don’t know where to start, let me help seal the deal.

To make a long story short, buy the Samsung Galaxy NEXUS, GSM version, direct from Google, for $350, (see my Update #1, below,) latest Google Nexus phone for around $300, contract-FREE, (not to be confused with the newer Samsung Galaxy S3.) Purchase a SIM card from an MVNO like Straight Talk along with a month of prepaid service. Sign up for the amount of service you need from T-Mobile, contract-FREE. (See my Update #2, below.) Activate Google Voice with your Gmail account, (set one up if you don’t already have it,) and port your cell number to Google Voice. (This allows you to keep the same number with no more porting, even if you end up switching services a lot in the future, thus freeing you from one more chain the carriers try to shackle you with.) Then link the number on your new SIM card to your Google Voice account. Finally, cancel your current carrier’s service and pay the ETF; (don’t worry, you’ll still save money in the long run.) Stir in a cup of ice and enjoy.*

So that was easy; if you’re still not convinced, let’s break it down. First, the flashiest part of this whole plan: the phone! I’m an old school smart-gadget guy from way back. I had a simple candy-bar dumbphone for a while, which I struggled to constantly keep up to date with my paper address book, but I eventually augmented its almost nonexistent organizational capabilities with my first Palm OS-based device: a Handspring Visor. Next was another Palm-based device, the Sony Clie. For a hot second, I tried out a Blackberry 7100, the precursor to the Pearl, but quickly dumped it. My first real smartPHONE was the Palm Treo 650. I loved that thing, but eventually it grew old and needed to be put down. Over the course of a year I flew through phones, trying to find a worthy replacement, a Nokia e71, a Blackberry Curve, all the while keeping a close ear on the rumblings about an open-source phone, the Open Moko, all as the iPhone was exploding on the scene. But despite the excitement, I just didn’t see what I was looking for with the iPhone, (even though I used a Mac at home.) Then Google came to the rescue with the announcement of Android and it’s first phone, the G1, aka Dream, (manufactured by HTC.) I had mine reserved on Day 1 of the product release, Oct 22, 2008, and I’ve been an Android guy ever since. I got heavily into modding my phone with custom versions of the operating system, and upgraded to a version of the first Galaxy, the Samsung Vibrant, I’ve helped out with my wife’s HTC Sensation, and I recently made the best step of all to the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, the current Android flagship phone, sporting the most advanced version of the OS: Jellybean, 4.1.2. All this is to say, I have a good idea what makes a good phone, and for my money, the Galaxy Nexus, (not to be confused with the myriad other Galaxy phones out there, including the latest and greatest S3,) is the best phone out there. Why not the year newer Galaxy S3 that you see all those commercials for? Or the HTC One S? They are spectacular phones, even with better processors and RAM than the Nexus, but they lack something huge: unmodified, vanilla Android.

Jelly Bean is a phenomenal, state of the art mobile operating system and when it launched back in July, basically closed the only remaining gap between Android and iOS. You may have heard people complain that Android was too clunky, or that the iPhone “just works” or is so much smoother. And this was for the most part true. Until Jelly Bean. JB did a lot for Android to streamline the overall experience, both visually and under the hood. In fact, JB is so much smoother that running it on the Galaxy Nexus with a 1.2 GHz dual-core chip is easily a faster and smoother experience than running Ice Cream Sandwich, (the immediately prior version of Android,) on the Galaxy S3 with a 1.4Ghz quad-core chip. And to compare it to the iPhone, there is no longer any discernible user-experience advantage to iOS over Android, and in fact, Android downright performs some tasks better.

Let’s take a moment for a quick primer, in case you’re falling behind. For some of you, this will be obvious, but let’s just make sure. Jellybean. That’s the name of the current version of the Android operating system, or OS, which is a mobile software operating system developed by Google. Similarly, Apple develops iOS, which is the name of their mobile operating system which runs and is sold exclusively on their iPhone. iOS is currently up to version 6, called iOS 6, which ships natively on their newest device, the iPhone 5. iOS is an adapted version of Apple’s personal computer operating system, called OS X, versions of which over the years have been called Tiger, Leopard, Snow Leopard, Lion, & Mountain Lion. Likewise, Microsoft develops the Windows operating system, which has had versions called 95, XP, NT, Vista, 7 and soon, 8. And coming back to Android, it launched with Cupcake, and then alphabetically progressed through Donut, Eclair, Froyo, Gingerbread, Honeycomb, Ice Cream Sandwich, and now Jellybean, and probably next year will be Key Lime Pie. Why do you care? Mobile OSes are evolving way faster than their desktop big brothers, in large part because they still have a lot of catching up and innovating to do to become fully functional personal computing platforms that are able to fit in your pocket and go anywhere. And in general, having state of the art hardware in your phone makes it a lot easier to get things done with your phone- more so than having a state of the art computer does. With a computer, most people can get everything done that they need to on a simple, $400-or-$5oo machine with zero bells and whistles. The equivalent of such a computer in the smartphone world would be a free or $50 Android phone of last year’s model line up and it would be absolute torture to get anything done with it. So the latest and greatest with phones can really matter. That’s (partly) why everyone clamors to be first in line to buy whatever latest and greatest phone is coming out every few months.

So now you know that Android is great, and why you need Jelly Bean. But currently JB is still only available on the Galaxy Nexus, despite being out for over 4 months. Samsung, HTC, and Motorola, the three biggest Android phone manufacturers, keep postponing their rollout of JB to their newest devices, (like the S3,) though it may have actually very recently just begun appearing. But they are nevertheless notorious for getting OS updates out slowly, if at all, especially as the phones age. But Google’s Nexus line of phones are specifically commissioned, (except for the Verizon Galaxy Nexus, the bastard child of the Nexus family,) to always get immediate OS updates. So that’s why the Galaxy Nexus is the best JB phone you can get.

But there’s one other HUGE reason to get the GSM Galaxy Nexus, direct from Google: NO. MORE. CONTRACT. Are you sick of being locked into an expensive 2-year contract with a cellular service provider who never seems to have your best interests at heart? You can end it all by cancelling your contract with them and switching to a pre-paid monthly MVNO, or mobile virtual network operator, who offer you the same service but at HALF the price or even less. (Yes, you can still try an MVNO if you like, but I think T-Mobile’s new plans are the way to go.) You can even shop around, changing from month to month. And the cost difference over the life of what would have been a 2-year contract at a major carrier is actually way cheaper in the long run. Plus, being a contract free GSM phone, you can easily switch SIM cards for international travel. And yes, that’s even WITH paying the ETF, (early termination fee,) to your current carrier. In fact, cancelling your service and paying the ETF SOONER rather than later can save you more money than if you wait for your contract to expire. My and my wife’s contract with T-Mo was up next June, (8 mos away) and even with paying TWO ETFs totalling $400, I’ll still start saving money on the deal by February. We switched from paying $165/mo for our 2 lines on a family plan to just $90/mo,( that’s 2 separate $45 unlimited packages) from Straight Talk. That’s $900 bucks a year. That’s real money. And that’s with T-Mobile, the cheapest of the big three carriers. That more than allows you to buy a new contract-free phone at full price, (usually around $600,) every year or two. Which makes Google’s Galaxy Nexus at just $350 a no-brainer. (UPDATE 5/7/13: I’ve just switched us back to T-Mobile. Their new pricing is now competitive with the MVNOs, and they have better coverage and service. Indeed, I am currently paying to T-Mo $90/mo for both of us, contract-free. That’s with data of 500MB/mo for my wife, and 2.5GB/mo for myself. If this proves too low, we can easily raise either of our data plans for $10, each.)

So there’s my pitch, I hope it helps your decision-making. If you order the Nexus now from Google, you can’t go wrong. That said, there’s still a couple things to keep in mind. The Galaxy Nexus doesn’t have the best battery, and you might want to purchase an extended battery, (incidentally, that’s something you can’t do with the iPhone, EDIT: and also can’t do with the Nexus 4, sadly,) for something like $30. Also, while the Galaxy Nexus is fantastic, it is a year old and Google is poised to announce at least one new Nexus phone, (the LG Nexus 4) on October 29, which will presumably also be sold directly through their Play Store, and which may also likely drive down the price of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, if not immediately, then probably by the holidays. Assuming the Nexus 4 is everything we assume it will be, all of the above still holds true- just replace all my mentions of “Samsung Galaxy Nexus” with “LG Nexus 4.” And enjoy!

For more information on these topics, here’s a good article written by a pro who DOES get paid for this sort of thing.

*Do NOT put your cell phone in a cup of anything, let alone ice. It’s technical, but you might damage it.

UPDATE #1: Since first posting this, I’ve learned some stuff, particularly regarding Google Voice’s glaring lack of MMS support, which I detail in the following paragraphs:

As the market stands now, I continue to advise everyone to buy whatever the most current Google Nexus phone is at the time. (The Nexus 4, at the time of this writing, April 2013.) The freedom of choice this allows you is unparalleled, plus you’re guaranteed to always get prompt updates to the OS, usually at least MONTHS before the next closest third party phone, if they even get them at all. Not only is your OS always up to date, but it functions the way it’s designed to, which I think results in a more consistent, modern, and pleasant user-experience. Buy it direct from Google, as they subsidize the cost of it themselves, so it usually runs around $250-$300, $300-$400, but contract-free! Also, get the largest storage capacity model available. With the way the technology evolves so swiftly, you won’t be sorry. (EDIT: Other phones aren’t bad options either, see my Update #2, below.)

As for carriers, T-Mobile’s new month-to-month plans look great, and you get the comfort of a major carrier. However, their plans still run rather high, in the $60-$70 range, as compared Their plans start at $50/mo, similar to the smaller MVNO competitors. Mobile Virtual Network Operators, like SIMply Mobile, Net10, StraightTalk, etc., lease coverage from the major carriers, like AT&T, T-Mobile, etc., so a plan on an MVNO has identical coverage as if you were with the big carrier, but at a fraction of the price. Net10 is the cheapest right now, at $43/mo. I just bought AT&T network SIM cards from them for my and my wife’s two phones; I’ll be switching our service to them from StraightTalk this month. The drawback with MVNOs is potentially weaker customer service.

The last factor is your phone number. I used to advise people to port their number to Google Voice, and then they are free to switch carriers while always retaining the same phone number. This is an undisputed advantage, however a couple caveats have come to my attention since making this switch myself in the summer of 2012.

First, and most dramatically, Google Voice is utterly incapable of either sending or receiving MMS messages. I am not speaking hyperbolically. I cannot send MMS messages from my Google Voice number, (the only number people know as mine,) nor can I receive them from anyone, (except notifications from Sprint users- more on that later.) EDIT:(There’s not a lot of solid information on this problem, mostly rumor. What follows is my best understanding of the issue, as gleaned from the aforementioned rumors.) It’s a political issue more than a technological one. The big carriers, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mo, and Verizon actually have agreements with each other to route MMS messages across their networks. In an effort to shut Google out of the game, they refuse to route MMSs to or from Google Voice numbers. (SMSs, ie. *normal* text messages, and phone calls route just fine.) This has been the case for the several year history of Google Voice and doesn’t look poised to change any time soon. Google and Sprint did finally work out a small deal last year, so if you have a contract plan with Sprint you can send and receive MMSs with a Google Voice number, and non-Sprint Google Voice users will receive a notification SMS that an MMS has been sent to them, as well as the content of the MMS forwarded as an email to their Gmail account. (The Nexus 4 is GSM-only, ie. AT&T and T-Mo only. Having a GSM phone is advantageous, though less so if you don’t travel. If you simply must have MMS AND Google Voice, Sprint is your only option, but I don’t know their limited phone selection well enough to suggest one.)

And just to be clear, when users of all other networks, (except Sprint,) send me an MMS, I never even know about it. This is not a technological issue that can be solved with a clever workaround or app. The entire Google Voice network never even knows I got sent an MMS, because AT&T or Verizon, or whoever never even bothered to send it on. Now this wouldn’t be a huge problem if MMSs were only photos. (Email, or social network sharing, is a much better protocol for sending photos.) But most phones, “smart” and “dumb” alike, including the iPhone and Android, when composing group text messages, by default change them into MMS messages, which allows for Reply-All functionality amongst other things. (Some phones, like the Samsung Galaxy S series can have this default function switched off, so that group texts are sent simply as multiple SMSs.) So if someone sends a mass-text to several people including yourself, lets say in order to book people for a job, you will never even know you missed the text. Which is obviously a big deal.

Since realizing this, I’ve been thinking hard about what to do about it. One of my employers who I knew frequently sends texts regarding work to a group of people, I actually explained the situation to and helped him change the default setting on his Galaxy S III so that it doesn’t automatically convert group texts to MMSs. This helps some, and I don’t think I’m missing too much other communication about work, (again, I’d never know if I did, unless the individuals followed up with me about it later,) but it still is worrisome to me at best. Knowing that I don’t seem to be missing too many texts, for now I’ve decided to wait it out and see if Google’s rumored Babble service may help solve the problem. (It’s hoped Babble will be announced at Google I/O developers’ conference in May and more information may be known then.) Babble may even replace Google Voice, which has been a product mostly ignored by Google, and which many users are becoming concerned may be cancelled, ala the recent Google Reader.

So that’s my two cents. I got my wife a Nexus 4 for Christmas and she loves it. We are very satisfied with our MVNO service and especially at the money saved. (We used to spend $160/month to T-Mo, and now spend $90. The savings is so dramatic that it paid for itself, even with TWO $200 Early Termination Fees within about 7 months.) Google Voice is great and provides the best solution for texting from your PC I’ve ever seen, (Growl Voice on the Mac!) But the MMS issue is always weighing on my mind.


Most of what I say above still holds true, but here’s some addenda:

1. While a $300-$400 price for a new Nexus phone direct from Google remains my favorite phone option, don’t discount manufacturers’ flagship phones like the excellent HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S 4. You will sacrifice some freedom in not having stock Android direct from Google, but, especially if you’re not interested in always being state-of-the-art, a manufacturer skinned phone like these can work well. Also, if you really don’t need anything fancy, (I’m looking at you, Mom,) budget smartphones can be had in the $100 range, like the Samsung Galaxy Discover. You will likely suffer some lag and slowness with the cheaper hardware, but if you’re not going to be putting the phone through its paces, this will not be much of a problem.

2. Also, I’m changing my recommendation of MVNOs. I’ve spent the last 6 months or so researching them all and trying both Straight Talk and Net10, but with various annoyances, from inconsistent conditional call forwarding (required to properly utilize Google Voice voicemail,) to poor service performance forcing me to continually try different SIM cards, to all but non-existent, Asia-based customer service; all this, along with the spate of recent changes at T-Mobile, I’ve decided I’m going back to the magenta-hued carrier. First, T-Mo is offering new plans which make the advantages of an MVNO no longer unique, (contract-free, unlinking the phone subsidy price from the coverage price, month-to-month.) T-Mobile is now only marginally more expensive than the cheapest MVNO, and with the bonus of real customer service and proper conditional call forwarding, and much better cellular and data coverage, (at least here in NYC,) it’s well worth the cost. Also, the plans really are simple, finally. As one reviewer put it: “I am the first person to admit that I don’t trust wireless carriers. It always seems like they are trying to squeeze more cash out of their subscribers. But when I look at the new T-Mobile plans, I can honestly say that I don’t think T-Mobile is cheating anyone.” This, along with their merger with Metro PCS, their continued LTE rollout, their awesome spectrum gains, and finally offering the iPhone 5, T-Mobile gets my vote as the carrier to beat.