Caleb’s Ultimate Smartphone Guide

Hello, all! Since this blog means to encompass both my thoughts on Christianity and on other stuff, I want to use the opportunity to share the my slowly refined approach to getting the best value in the smartphone market, both in plan cost and phone cost. I’ve been at this for about a year now, and I think this will be of use to someone. So far I have successfully gotten my parents, siblings, wife, and ex-pastor’s son in good shape using my basic approach here.

Note: most of this has little or no relevance outside of the US.

Part 1: Getting the Best Carrier
When it comes to what carrier you should use, there are three main criteria to consider:

  • Price: This is the big one for me. If you can afford it, it makes sense to go with AT&T or Verizon. These big names are more expensive, but they provide much better customer support and an easy setup experience. Basically, if you go with either of these carriers you have a smooth ride ahead, unless of course you sign up for a contract and don’t want to keep it down the road. If you cannot afford either of them, I would suggest T-Mobile or an MVNO like Straight Talk, Page Plus, Boost, etc.
  • Coverage: This is also vital. I live in a small town, so coverage isn’t always great on many carriers. Unless you live in a big city, Sprint will not cover you well. Verizon is true to their advertising in having the best coverage. If you live in a small town or in the wilderness, you basically have no choice but to use either Verizon or a Verizon-based MVNO (which includes Straight Tak on certain phones, and Page Plus). AT&T gets pretty decent coverage as well, so if you need a GSM network they are a good choice. T-Mobile, although they offer great deals, has rather poor coverage. Still, if you live where you can get T-Mobile coverage, I woud highly recommend it on the basis of plan pricing
  • Contract: If you don’t want to get yourself involved in a long-term contract, it is usually a good idea to skip AT&T and Verizon. While they do offer monthly prepaid and pay-as-you go plans, their MVNOs have much better deals for that kind of thing. On the other hand, if you can land a great deal on a sweet phone and are willing to do the contract, AT&T and Verizon are both great choices. Sprint is also like this.

Here are the details on the most likely carrier choices.

Note: There are two major network types: CDMA and GSM. CDMA networks can only support CDMA phones, and CDMA phones can only be used on CDMA networks. Same goes for GSM. Most GSM phones can be unlocked to use any GSM network, but most CDMA phones require some hacking to run on other CDMA networks than originally intended.

Major Carriers

  • Verizon: Excellent coverage, solid network, but high prices. Their contract plans are more than I would pay, though if you want to have a family plan they are not terribly expensive. They use a CDMA network.
  • AT&T: Good coverage, good network, but high prices. Depending on how you set up your plan, it may be a better or worse deal than Verizon. They use a GSM network
  • Sprint: Extremely limited coverage outside of decent cities, and mediocre prices. Nonetheless, they are one of the few (or only?) to have truly unlimited data plans. They use a CDMA network.
  • T-Mobile: Limited coverage outside of most major metropolitan areas, but excellent prices, especially if you buy from Walmart. I suggest it to anyone who can get the coverage. They use a GSM network.

MVNO Carriers

  • Straight Talk: Straight Talk resells from both AT&T and Verizon. I’ve also heard they use Sprint, but I am not sure if that is still correct. Some of their phones will run on AT&T’s network, and some will run on Verizon’s. They have pretty good prices, medicore tech support, and acceptable terms of service. They are one of the most popular MVNOs. They have a BYOP program for both AT&T and Verizon, as of March 2013.
    Note: Straight Talk is the same as NET10, except that Straight Talk is exclusively Walmart and NET10 is slightly more expensive unless you use multiple lines.
  • Boost Mobile: Boost resells from Sprint, and thus has Sprint coverage. The prices are pretty sweet, though.
  • Cricket: Cricket resells from Sprint and adds some of their own towers. Has pretty good prices.
  • Alltel: Formerly a popular company, now they are a Verizon reseller that only operates in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Illinois, Ohio and Idaho.
  • Page Plus: Page Plus Cellular is a Verizon reseller. They have become slightly more popular as of late, because they provide access to Verizon’s network (3G included, not 4G) at excellent prices. Their prices are far superior to Verizon’s own prepaid program, and in addition Page Plus has a BYOP program. Any Verizon phone (except for those made for Verizon prepaid) can be used (though 4G phones usually are difficult), and other CDMA phones such as Sprint ones can be flashed and legitimately accepted. Their phone customer support is rather mediocre, but it is made up for by excellent Live Chat services.

I may have missed some important MVNOs, but if you want to find out about another one, Google is your friend.

Part 2: Picking a Perfect Phone
There are obviously very many criteria for a perfect phone, and it will depend heavily on the user taste. However, here are some major points to consider:

  • Price: Smartphones can be expensive. In most cases, you can get a new smartphone pretty cheaply if you sign a two-year contract. However, if you are wary of contracts (as I am), your choices are more difficult. To get a new, current-gen phone usually costs around $500, give or take a couple hundred. I shun this, though some may embrace it. If you search for a used phone, you can do better, but not by that much for popular new phones. Typically, phones that are one generation old will sell for up to $400, two generations old up to $200, and three generations old up to $100. On the cheapest end, one generation old will usually sell for at least $200, two generations old will sell for at least $80, and three generations old will sell for at least $30.
  • Network Compatibility: Most phones will specify that they are for a certain network. Some GSM phones will advertise as unlocked or global, in which case they can be used on any GSM network. CDMA phones will specify themselves as being for Verizon, Sprint, or another carrier. In that case, they can technically be used on other CDMA carriers, but that requires a process known as “flashing,” which is not noob-friendly at all.
  • Display: A phone display can make a big difference. Quality-wise, if it’s not AMOLED or Retina (note that these labels are not even in the same category), it won’t be too grand. I picked my current phone (Epic 4G Touch) to a great extent because of its Super AMOLED Plus display.

There are plenty of other factors to consider as well, especially if you are an Android nerd like I am. Even so, these are probably the most important points.

Part 3: My Personal Advice
Basically, at this point all you have to do is take the phone you’ve chosen, assuming it is on a compatible carrier, and activate according to carrier instructions. However, here is where I will break from general stuff to my specific advise.
First, my suggested carrier is Page Plus. Verizon coverage is excellent; I am almost never without a usable signal. They offer a wide variety of well-priced plans, from a $10 card with 100 minutes that last three months to a $69.95 monthly plan with unlimited talk/text and 5GB of data. My personal favorite now that I get to use Wi-Fi frequently to save on data is their $29.95 plan, which has 1200 minutes, 3000 texts, and 500MB of data.
If you’re using Page Plus, you need a CDMA phone. You can buy one from them, but eBay is home to much better deals. For minimum hassle, use a non-4G Verizon phone. A simple call to the activation number will be all it takes to make it work. You can also use 4G phones, but they don’t always set up smoothly. Finally, it is also possible to do as I have done and flash a Sprint phone to Page Plus. This is totally acceptable by PPC’s terms of service and the law, but is a very difficult process for a novice, or even someone who has done it before. However, if you contact Page Plus (preferably through Live Chat), they will provide you will all the necessary information you need to do a manual flash. Note that with this method, you cannot get 3G without a donor Verizon phone.
Also, if you get an Android phone and are not scared of technology, I highly recommend finding out if you can install CyanogenMod on it. Just Google to find out.

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So what do you think?