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Fashionably Late Adopter
May 11, 2012 2:27 PM   Subscribe

What is the best Android phone for a cheapskate without a data plan?

My cheapie LG flip-phone, that has served me valiantly for several years, is dying. So is my beloved Walkman mp3 player. I think an Android phone will be sufficient to replace both. I don't want to add a data plan to my phone right now, because I would lose the sweetheart grandfathered-in plan that lets me talk relatively cheaply with my overseas fiance. I would also have to pay a contract-breaking penalty.

So, my questions:

1) If I buy an unlocked phone, will I be able to simply swap the T-mobile SIM into it and use it without a data plan, for just talking and texting?

2) Is it possible to "accidentally" use data without having a plan for it, and rack up a multi-kilodollar bill? Can I prevent this by locking down the phone somehow?

3) Barring the above scenario, will it be possible to use it as a low-rent iPod Touch without service? How? Just don't put in a SIM?

4) Will I be sorry if I cheap out and get a phone without Ice Cream Sandwich support, planned or actual?
posted by LiteOpera to Technology (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
For (2) - In ICS you can set a Mobile Data Limit (both a warning and a hard limit). Just tested and you can set both to 0, so that should prevent any accidental data usage (no idea if you would be charged otherwise).

(And of course this doesn't affect WiFi usage)

You _should_ be able to do (1) but I can't verify that.

On (3) -- with an unlocked phone, yes. Just do it all via WiFi. Locked phones can _require activation_ to even use... found this out with my Droid X which I planned to use as a remote control / WiFi device after I got my Galaxy Nexus. Of course you can root / swap out the ROM on most of them with something like Cyanogen but you might not want to have to mess with all that.

(4) -- if you don't have mobile data enabled, you probably won't get updates unless it's a Nexus phone (updates from Google). Most updates are pushed out via carriers.

The ideal phone for this, IMO, would be a Nexus straight from google (play.google.com), because it (a) runs ICS, (b) is unlocked, (c) has no carrier stuff. Should be usable with T-Mobile and AT&T.

[disclaimer: I do work for Google, so perhaps my last bit of advice is biased, but a lot of non-Googler Android fans seem to agree that the unlocked/not-full-of-crapware Nexus line is a good choice]

On the cheaper phones, I don't know them too well.
posted by wildcrdj at 2:36 PM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


1) If I buy an unlocked phone, will I be able to simply swap the T-mobile SIM into it and use it without a data plan, for just talking and texting?

Yes, this is what I did with a prepaid T-mobile sim and an unlocked gsm galaxy nexus. (Then I bought another plan and signed up for their $30/month "unlimited" data plan, but I did spend a week using it just with the old sim first and it seemed fine. Like you say, an ipod that could also do calls and texts.)

2) Is it possible to "accidentally" use data without having a plan for it, and rack up a multi-kilodollar bill? Can I prevent this by locking down the phone somehow?

I doubt that's possible.

3) Barring the above scenario, will it be possible to use it as a low-rent iPod Touch without service? How? Just don't put in a SIM?

Yep. Or just leave in the SIM, if it's not associated with a data plan. Or if it is, android has an option to turn off data service (settings->Wireless and networks->Mobile networks->Data enabled).

4) Will I be sorry if I cheap out and get a phone without Ice Cream Sandwich support, planned or actual?

I dunno. I got a gsm galaxy nexus with Ice Cream Sandwich (imported in my case, but it's now available in the US straight from google: https://play.google.com/store/devices/details?id=galaxy_nexus_hspa). I've been happy with it. But I haven't used the older Android versions.
posted by bfields at 2:48 PM on May 11, 2012


2) I think if you are on a T-Mo post paid plan and using a smartphone they automatically add a data plan and bill you for it.
posted by WizKid at 2:54 PM on May 11, 2012


Re: question 3), there's also Samsung Player 4.0 and 5.0. They're like an Android iPod Touch, smartphones without a phone. You can often find the 4.0 new for under $175.

I use one with Google Voice and GrooveIP, so I basically have a phone whenever I'm on a WiFi netwoork (most of the time). I also keep a $19, six year old cell phone with T-Mobile prepay for when I'm out and about/emergencies. Costs $100 for 1000 minutes.

I spend less with this setup in a year than some friends do in a month or two. The only difference is I don't have constant data connectivity with the Samsung because I'm limited to WiFi with that.
posted by quarterframer at 2:55 PM on May 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Get any GSM phone (it doesn't matter if it's compatible with T-Mobile's 3G bands since you don't want to use them) and then disable 3G and all syncing. Done.
posted by imagineerit at 2:59 PM on May 11, 2012


Get any GSM phone (it doesn't matter if it's compatible with T-Mobile's 3G bands since you don't want to use them) and then disable 3G and all syncing. Done.
Will I still be able to talk and text?
posted by LiteOpera at 3:00 PM on May 11, 2012


Yes
posted by imagineerit at 3:14 PM on May 11, 2012


Uh, to add more detail: get any T-Mobile or AT&T phone from the USA, which have incompatible 3G bands but the same 2G and EDGE bands.
posted by imagineerit at 3:15 PM on May 11, 2012


1) AT&T from my experience, and I'm pretty sure T-Mo and other major carriers, will absolutely forcibly enroll you in a data plan if you connect with a smart phone and no data plan (even if you have a feature phone data plan, they will forcibly upgrade you to a smartphone plan).

2) Even if you have 3G disabled, your phone will still connect to 2G. You can disable sync and so on, but many apps will still try to use the network. It will be a pain in the rear to prevent them from using any data. It won't be a lot of data, but at the rate they charge for overage it will add up.

3) Not putting in a SIM works, but of course then it's not a phone as such.

4) You will probably be OK without ICS, but if you plan on keeping the thing for a very long time then I would look for something with ICS.
posted by anaelith at 3:17 PM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


anaelith: So Android doesn't have a blanket "never use any data, ever" option baked into the OS? wildcrdj at the top of the thread seems to imply that it does.
posted by LiteOpera at 3:20 PM on May 11, 2012


Also, am I to understand that T-mobile can tell if I'm using a smartphone, even if I never actually use any data? And they'll charge me for it?
posted by LiteOpera at 3:21 PM on May 11, 2012


There is, as wildcrdj said, a way to stop data connection. But I cannot be sure if it will stop OS background data. It should.
There is another layer of protection you can do. Under Settings -> More -> Mobile Network, you can manually change the Access Point Names to something the carrier does not recognize. If access point is not recognized, no data should flow.

And yes - carriers are clamping down and they do recognize what phone you have. AT&T at least will automatically update your plan if you're using a smartphone.
posted by 7life at 3:27 PM on May 11, 2012


While AT&T will enroll you in a data plan if they think you're using a smartphone, I'm not sure that's true of T-Mobile. Why not just go into a T-Mobile store and ask? The employees will know the answer to questions like this and will hopefully direct you to the cheapest suitable plan. And they're usually nice about it. A nice thing about T-Mobile is that sneaking around isn't usually necessary.
posted by The Lamplighter at 3:34 PM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Correction - bfields said it

settings->Wireless and networks->Mobile networks->Data enabled)
posted by 7life at 3:34 PM on May 11, 2012


I use an old google g1 on tmobil prepaid using cyanogen gingerbread. Ther is definitely an option to turn off the data radio and i definitely dont pay for data. Make sure to get an unlocked phone, aunless you want to mess with unlocking an att phone to work on tmobil.

Also, check out google voice and sipdroid for making free calls on wifi.
posted by ennui.bz at 3:45 PM on May 11, 2012


(also tmobil will unlock a tmobil phone if you have an account for more than six weeks...)
posted by ennui.bz at 3:54 PM on May 11, 2012


(also also if you are using it without data, turing off app sync sasves massively on battery life for my phone, though the googly stuff doesnt work as smoothly...)
posted by ennui.bz at 3:55 PM on May 11, 2012


T-Mobile *will* force you to have a data plan if you have a smartphone. Twice in three years I tried get them to just turn off data for a smartphone so I could use it for voice only on their network and for everything else on WiFi and they refused. They would only send me an old-school fliphone for free to use instead. I assume they can tell by the IMEI number of your phone whether or not you're playing along.
posted by Mo Nickels at 5:17 PM on May 11, 2012


anaelith: "1) AT&T from my experience, and I'm pretty sure T-Mo and other major carriers, will absolutely forcibly enroll you in a data plan if you connect with a smart phone and no data plan (even if you have a feature phone data plan, they will forcibly upgrade you to a smartphone plan)."

So far, not with the Galaxy Nexus. That could change at any time, of course.

If you want to play it safe, get a Symbian phone, like an N8. (or something more modern, if you don't mind having an inferior camera) Nobody tracks those here. I think the Galaxy Nexus is a good phone. I wish it weren't a Samsung, but it's not as bad as it used to be. Unadulterated ICS is nice.

T-Mobile has a prepaid plan that gives you 5GB of data and unlimited text messaging for $30/mo. The catch is that there are only 100 voice minutes. If you don't talk much or you can move much of your calling to a VoIP provider like voip.ms, Callcentric, or whomever, where you'll likely get better international rates than T-Mobile has ever offered. SIPDroid makes it pretty easy.

In my experience VoIP will usually work even over 3G, but it's the usually that will get you. You have to be prepared for the occasional glitch. The bright side is that overage minutes are only 10 cents, so it's not a huge burden on the wallet if you need to make an important call even after you're running out of minutes.
posted by wierdo at 6:31 PM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


You can get a smartphone from VirginMobile. Then just pay for the voice plan (pay-as-you-go, no contract). You can still use data in a wifi area. It is a very good deal.
posted by wandering_not_lost at 12:05 AM on May 12, 2012


Thanks guys for all the suggestions on plans, but I _have_ to keep my current plan. They don't offer it anymore, and if I change _anything_, I'll lose my cheap calls to my overseas fiance. She should be here sometime before september, USCIS willing, but until then I can't change _anything_. I really would rather not even talk to T-mobile, in case that makes them notice me and change my contract or something. I also need to keep my number. Add all this up and you have my insistence about just putting in the SIM. This seems a little risky too. It looks like I'll just get a nearly-free feature-phone on ebay and wait it out until she gets here.
posted by LiteOpera at 6:21 AM on May 12, 2012


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