Smartphones for Dummies
February 13, 2015 8:30 AM   Subscribe

I have resisted getting a smartphone for years, but it's time to give in. My problem is that I'm totally clueless about how to do this. What phone should I get? What provider? What kind of data plan? Please help!

I currently have a bottom-of-the-line flip phone that works fine, and I pay ~$50/month for calls and texts. I'm on Verizon but not under contract. I've resisted getting a smartphone mostly out of curmudgeonly-ness and because I'm also cheap.

My needs/desires:
• Need basic internet access, plus text and voice
• Want decent connection for calls
• Would like not to pay too much for the phone itself
• Would like to keep monthly costs low
• I drop my phone a lot so nothing super-fragile.

My questions:
1. What kind of phone should I get? (Recommendations for either brands or specific models both appreciated)
2. What provider should I go with? I’m in North Carolina if that makes a difference.
3. What kind of plan should I get? I have no sense of what the options are (prepay? Unlimited data? Contracts? I don't know!) or how much data to get. I plan to be a fairly light user of data.

My laptop is a Macbook, but I don’t think I really care about tidy syncing between my phone and computer. I don’t have a strong opinion about iphones one way or the other.

Your wise counsel is appreciated! Thank you MeFi!!
posted by aka burlap to Shopping (28 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I've had Android phones, and I now have an iPhone. The iPhone was easier to set up, it's easier to use, and it's far less likely to lock-up or otherwise become flaky (my Android phones required frequent reboots -- or even removal-reinsertion of their batteries).

I'd go with an iPhone. Also, the people at Apple stores are a really great resource. If you have any questions or problems, you can make an appointment with the "Genius Bar" in the Apple Store, and the experts will patiently and politely help you solve the issue.
posted by akk2014 at 8:33 AM on February 13, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, a couple of other things I forgot to mention:

There is no charge for tech support in Apple stores.

With regard to carriers, I switched from Verizon to Ting about a year ago, and I've been really happy with Ting. There is no monthly contract, the support is much better than Verizon's support, and I'm paying about half of what I used to pay. The downside is that you have to pay for your phone up-front, and they don't support the latest iPhones. I have an iPhone 5, and I'm quite happy with it it -- I'm not worried about getting an iPhone 6 any time soon.
posted by akk2014 at 8:42 AM on February 13, 2015

Best answer: If you can afford to buy an expensive phone up front, you can see lower monthly payments on prepaid plans. (Also, $50 per month for a feature phone is really high.)

I have an iPhone on T-Mobile's prepaid plan that gets me 100 mins / 100 texts / 5 GB unthrottled.

I paid $600 upfront for the phone but I pay $30 per month and can quit without paying an Early Termination Fee.
posted by Monochrome at 8:48 AM on February 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm on Virgin Mobile (part of the Sprint Network), which is no contract. Having a no contract plan is good if you don't want or need to have the latest phone. I pay around $45/month for unlimited text, data, and 1000 minutes of talk.

I've always wanted an iPhone but the upfront cost is expensive if you don't sign a contract. So I have an LG Volt and I paid around $140 for it, and I'm happy with it.
posted by girlmightlive at 8:50 AM on February 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Which carrier to use is really a super personal choice that most of us here will be unable to help you with. In general Verizon tends to have the best coverage but is the most expensive but non of that matters if they don't have good coverage where you live/work/play. Carrier quality is best served by asking your friends/colleagues/neighbors to see if they have experience with other providers.
posted by mmascolino at 8:51 AM on February 13, 2015 [3 favorites]

Pre-paid plans are the only way to go. There is NO such thing as a 'free' phone, like the one you get if you sign a 2-year contract. If you sit down and do the math, that 'free' phone averages around $2000 more over 2 years.
posted by sexyrobot at 8:58 AM on February 13, 2015 [5 favorites]

(Oh and 2nding ting, they are awesome)
posted by sexyrobot at 8:58 AM on February 13, 2015

My iPhone 5 was my first smartphone. I was happy with it, until I filled up the memory on it. Now I've got an iPhone 6 with more memory, which I like even better.
posted by Anne Neville at 9:12 AM on February 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Piggybacking onto this question: I keep hearing people complaining about their phones arriving with preinstalled bloatware. The idea of computer problems (bloatware, memory-eating programs, battery-eating programs, viruses) on my phone has kept me from making the leap, to the detriment of my business.

How do you get a phone that only has the most essential applications installed? (Phone, text, internet. Period.)
posted by small_ruminant at 9:14 AM on February 13, 2015

I also liked Ting for a gap between contracts (moving from my own plan to a shared plan with my folks). If the Sprint towers weren't so bad here, I'd have just stayed with them!

You will probably just want to go into a store and play with a few phones. I know iPhones are easier to set up and get going, but they are probably overkill for your (pretty basic) needs.
posted by getawaysticks at 9:14 AM on February 13, 2015

@small_ruminant - you buy the phone right from Google, unlocked. Other manufacturers might do this as well. Just don't buy from AT&T or whoever, and you won't get the AT&T bloatware on it. (I have no idea how to do this for iPhones)
posted by getawaysticks at 9:16 AM on February 13, 2015 [3 favorites]

You can bring an iPhone 6 to Ting as of Wednesday, and they've got a GSM network in beta right now with plans for public release in March. You can get an iPhone 4 for $70 from Glyde, and pay $35/month on Ting if you don't use a lot of data; that's probably what I'd do. Worst case, the coverage is terrible so you sell the phone and cancel the service and you're only out $50 or so for the first month.
posted by hades at 9:21 AM on February 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Don't underestimate the utility of "tidy syncing between my phone and computer." When I traded my flip phone for an iPhone it took me a month or so to appreciate that the new device was not a phone, but a pocket computer that had a phone call program. It changes your idea of what's useful. I wouldn't get anything older than a 5s, for longevity reasons.

getawaysticks: iPhones don't come with carrier bloatware.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 9:25 AM on February 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

When I was evaluating possible phones to purchase, a couple of people told me that iPhone 4 phones were painfully slow running under the latest version of Apple's IOS operating system (see this AskMeFi question). My iPhone 5 is reasonably fast, so I would be careful about getting an iPhone 4.
posted by akk2014 at 9:43 AM on February 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Another vote for Ting. They often have specials on smartphones and if you're new to them you don't need the latest and greatest anyway. I've been using my iPhone 4S for years. Just buy a used/refurb iPhone 4s or 5 but be aware that it must work on the Sprint network. To be absolutely sure it'll work, just go to Ting and buy it through their site.

If you have a friend with Sprint, have them come over to your house and see what kind of reception they get. I'm in an urban area so I've had no issues, but ymmv.

For reference, my bill is anywhere from $30-45/month and I am a moderate user of data and voice.

(on preview: I never upgraded my 4S to the latest iOS and it works just fine. Again, if you're new to smartphones you will be wowed already, you don't need the latest and greatest if you'd rather not spend the money.)
posted by desjardins at 9:48 AM on February 13, 2015

Response by poster: These answers are super helpful so far, thank you all! Happy to hear more advice.

(Also, $50 per month for a feature phone is really high.)
Yeah, I suspected that! It'll be good to make the jump.
posted by aka burlap at 10:16 AM on February 13, 2015

I use an old Galaxy S that cost $20 on eBay and Ting, which runs me $12/month since I rarely use data (use WiFi instead). No one thinks my phone is cool but it does the job.
posted by metasarah at 10:36 AM on February 13, 2015

Best answer: I recently signed up with Consumer Cellular and bought my very first smart phone through them. They market primarily to the over-50 crowd and might not be a good choice for someone who plans to have really heavy data usage, but it sounds like they'd be a good fit for you. Their no-contract plans are really reasonable. For instance, you can get 200 voice minutes for $15/month and 1 GB of data for an additional $20/month. Add another family member's phone to share your voice and data plan for just $10/month. You can change your plan at any time. You can buy your phone through them (they have a variety of options ranging from an $80 Android phone to the iPhone 6 Plus) or use an unlocked phone you bought somewhere else. Their customer service is great.

I would not get an iPhone. I'm perfectly happy with my much less expensive Android phone and I bet you will be too. The Motorolas offered by Consumer Cellular get good reviews. I got the $150 one and can't imagine what extra utility I could possibly be getting from an iPhone that would justify the extra expense.
posted by Redstart at 10:38 AM on February 13, 2015 [3 favorites]

Walk into an Apple Store and get an iPhone 6. It's a great phone and the folks in the store will get you all set up for free. Done and done.
posted by killdevil at 10:57 AM on February 13, 2015

This automatic decision chart can help you narrow your options.
posted by Mo Nickels at 11:29 AM on February 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

All the phones I'm interested in on that chart don't seem to be available in the US.

EDIT: Nevermind. Found some.
posted by small_ruminant at 12:01 PM on February 13, 2015

Best answer: Ting is the best. Their pricing has different "buckets" for voice, data, and text, with prices varying depending on which bucket you fall into that month, so there's not guessing how many of each thing you're going to use. One month, I went a couple of minutes over the "small" voice bucket into the "medium" one and they rounded it down and charged me the lower price.
posted by Ragged Richard at 1:18 PM on February 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've been on prepaid plans since the iPhone 3G (when prepaid plans were ostensibly not allowed), and I highly recommend paying upfront for an unlocked phone and going prepaid.

I've usually been on AT&T's GoPhone plans (3G, 4, 5S), but currently (6) I'm on a Cricket Wireless family plan. Cricket got bought by AIO, which was AT&T's prepaid carrier, competing with its own GoPhone plans. How does this make any sense? I don't know, but I don't have an MBA, I guess. For our extended "family" we're now paying $20 each per month for 2.5 GB of LTE data (that's high speed cellular data), unlimited calls and texts, and supposedly unlimited low speed data - I've never hit the high speed cap yet but I'm told the low speed unlimited is usable enough. It's pretty great.

Oh, and for the first part of your question - get an iPhone (especially if you already have a Mac laptop) and a good case for it. If you want to go cheaper, get a 5 or 5S on Craigslist, but you'll pay a premium for an unlocked phone in any case. A case like an OtterBox will protect your phone from pretty rough drops and bounces, but then you'll sacrifice the sleekness in your hands. Or you can get a minimalist case (or no case), enjoy the beautifully engineered fit and finish, but you take your chances on dropping it on the pavement.
posted by RedOrGreen at 2:37 PM on February 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Your description of yourself sounds like me. I had been using a flip phone for years, resisting but I realized I could carry the thing around my house connected to wifi for free and use it like an ipod/tablet for audio or video. So I bought a motorola moto g off Amazon for 200USD, an unlocked one. I need coverage in specific areas that have only AT&T, so my choices are limited. Like Redstart above I use Consumer Cellular even though I'm not in their marketing cohort yet. For less than 50USD/month I get service for two phones (partner has another moto g) with a couple thousand texts each and several hundred mb data. Our data use is minor - maps, weather. People's usage varies wildly, and they let you change your plan online in an al-a-carte fashion. So far it's been fine. It's the first android device I'd ever used, but it's been very easy to use. If I had to do it again I would consider buying the phone directly from Consumer Cellular if price competitive, as it would arrive pre-configured for their network. If you bring your own phone to their plan, it's up to you (with their tech help, which has been surprisingly good) to configure it.
posted by werkzeuger at 7:39 PM on February 13, 2015

Best answer: One other thing I'll mention, because I don't see it much: by using these phones, at least in the conventional way, you really are expected to have a relationship with google or apple, i.e. have accounts with them. You might already, and that would be easy. But if you don't want to do that, you'll have to expend some effort. It's a bit easier with android.
posted by werkzeuger at 7:50 PM on February 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: oh, another thing in favor of ting: they're on sprint's network but roam (for free) on verizon' it's like having 2 networks for the price of one, and generally awesome coverage. (you will need a sprint compatible phone)

for an inexpensive phone check out (it's like ebay for phones,and they check to make sure the phone works, isn's carrying a balance, stolen, etc)...I've had the galaxy note 2 for about 2 years now and it's still a wonderful phone (on swappa for around ~$175) big screen, fast processor (ie will run any app you throw at it), stylus, replaceable battery/upgradeable memory (srsly apple are total jackasses on this is so wasteful to not be able to upgrade/replace (and everyone I know with an iphone bemoans not having more memory), minimal bloatware, did i say bigger screen? because bigger screen is a definite typos and map navigation when driving is much safer.

I have mine in a tpu case (it's like hard rubber) and it's survived many a fall without a scratch. this is the one i it. (hmm...maybe it's time for a new color :)
posted by sexyrobot at 12:33 AM on February 14, 2015

Best answer: I bought an LG Optimus Dynamic II from TracFone for $70 which came with triple minutes, texts and data for life. Every three months I buy more Airtime for $19.99, which gives me more than I can use, and whatever I have left rolls over. If you are a light user of data as you say this should work well for you - I don't even make a dent in what I'm allotted. It has all the features/capabilities you've listed as wanting in a phone. Personally, my favorite thing about it was being able to Sync it to my car so I can make hands-free calls by just saying "Call Alex" or whatever. It was also nice to have Google maps available during a trip to Maine I took last fall. I bought a basic case and screen protectors from Amazon which have worked great. Verizon is the carrier and I have had no issues.

I am more than a bit baffled at all the people recommending you get an iPhone; that sounds like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut (did I mention I spend only twenty bucks every three months?).
posted by Bretley at 6:29 AM on February 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Very helpful, thanks all!
posted by aka burlap at 3:44 PM on February 19, 2015

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