Ask Maggie: Avoiding data plans, and Android vs. BlackBerry

CNET's Maggie Reardon answers question about how to avoid getting a data contract on a family plan and comparing the new Droids to BlackBerry devices, as well as the future of Google's Nexus One.

Choosing a new cell phone is not as easy as it used to be. Just a few years ago, you'd simply pick out one of the free new phones that your wireless carrier offered you as an incentive to sign up for another two-year contract.

Ask Maggie

But things are much more complicated now. Not only are there more phones to choose from, but there are different types of phones. There are sophisticated smartphones, quick messaging devices, 3G multimedia phones, basic feature phones, and more. And each category of phones seems to come with a complicated offering of voice, text, and Internet data plans.

In an effort to demystify the confusing landscape of cell phones and service plans, I have answered some reader questions that go to the heart of these issues. I've explained which phones can be added to family plans to keep those data charges low, so parents don't have to mortgage their homes to pay for their kids' cell phone bills. I've explained some of the differences between the new Google Android phones versus other devices, such as Research In Motion's BlackBerry phones. And I've tried to shed some light on what might happen to Google's own Nexus One smartphone.

Ask Maggie is a weekly advice column, so if you've got a question, I've got answers. Send an e-mail to me at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com.

Phones for teens that won't break the bank

Dear Maggie,
As a father of three, we have five cell phones on our family plan. Two of our boys are in college and use [iPod Touches] and laptops for data, not cell phones. They both have Samsung Jacks for the PDA side, voice, and text, but do NOT use any data.

I would love to read about "dumb phones" that do not require a data plan, by either AT&T or Verizon Wireless.

I can afford to replace all our phones cheaper than pay for something we will never use.

Any thoughts?

Best regards,

Bill

Dear Bill,
You are not the first parent with teenagers who has asked me this question. While family plans offer families such as yours better value since you can add lines at a discounted price, when you start adding data to these packages, those discounts start to disappear. And service costs can really add up.

AT&T and Verizon Wireless, the two largest cell phone providers in the U.S., are not making it easy to avoid those extra data charges. These companies have always required data plans for smartphones. But now Verizon requires data packages for "3G multimedia phones," and AT&T requires a data/texting plan for its "quick messaging" phones.

For Verizon, 3G multimedia phones include devices, such as the LG EnV Touch , the Samsung Rogue , the LG Chocolate Touch , Motorola Entice W766 , Nokia 7705 Twist , and Samsung Alias2 .

AT&T's quick messaging devices include the LG Neon or the Samsung Propel .

I did some digging to see how you can avoid subscribing to expensive data plans for your sons, and here's what I have found out for you:

On AT&T, it's pretty simple. The carrier requires customers with "quick messaging" devices to spend $20 a month on top of their voice service for either a texting or a data plan , or they can spend $20 on a combination of plans. A $30-a-month unlimited family texting plan also satisfies this requirement for all "quick messaging" devices on your family plan.

I assume that your sons are like most teenagers and they text a lot, so you'd likely be getting the family texting plan anyway. This means your sons can pick any quick messaging phone they want, and you don't have to pay for additional Internet data service. If you want to add Internet data, these phones can get unlimited access to the Net for $10 a month per line.

Of course, if they want smartphones, such as a BlackBerry, iPhone, or Android phone, you are required to get each line at least a $15-a-month data plan , which offers 200 megabytes of data per month.

The situation on Verizon Wireless is a little less flexible. Verizon requires all newly activated 3G multimedia phones to subscribe to a data plan . You can either sign up for a $9.99, 25 megabyte-per-month data plan for data services, or you can sign up for a $29.99 unlimited data plan. Texting plans are still priced separately.

I talked to a Verizon Wireless sales associate via the chat option on the company's Web site to get some ideas of phones that do not require these plans. The sales associate suggested three phones that offer a QWERTY keypad and do not require the extra data service. These phones include the Pantech Jest , LG Cosmos , and the Samsung Intensity.

For more information on each of the phones listed above, check out CNET's review of each device.

Good luck!

The smartphone e-mail push

Hi Maggie,
I currently have a BlackBerry Storm, and one of the features I like about it is the push e-mail. Does Droid X have push e-mail capabilities? All my e-mail accounts are with AOL. Will this be an issue with push e-mail if I switch to the Droid X?

Thanks,
George

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Dear George,
I spoke with CNET Senior Editor Bonnie Cha, who reviews smartphones for CNET, about your question. She said that all Android phones, including the new Motorola Droid X , will support push e-mail. This includes corporate e-mail via Microsoft Exchange servers, as well as Web-based e-mail from Yahoo, Hotmail, AOL, and Gmail.

In essence, there is little difference between Android phones and BlackBerry devices when it comes to receiving e-mails. But Bonnie warned that BlackBerry phones still offer better security. This is likely the reason why many companies are hesitant to issue iPhones or Android devices as corporate smartphones.

I hope this answers your question.

BlackBerry Storm vs. Droids

Dear Maggie,
I am currently on Verizon with a BlackBerry Storm 9530 . I like the fact that it is wide enough to hold in my hand, and I have managed to find a few third-party apps to be able to do touch typing like other touch screens out there. But I am getting a bit tired of it giving me the white screen, mentioning a run time error on loading a Web page, or the ugly Java run time error. I will be eligible for an upgrade around the Thanksgiving/Christmas rush.

I have heard that a third-generation BlackBerry Storm is coming out this Thanksgiving, and I brow-beat a Verizon salesman into admitting that he had also heard the rumor of the iPhone coming to Verizon in January. My head is swimming from all the Droids out there and all the stuff they can do. I have no intention of leaving Verizon, since they have excellent service out here in New Mexico.

Here is what I want. I would like to get a new smartphone that has a good screen to read Web pages, a fast operating system, and the ability to connect to Facebook and other basic apps like the weather, play videos, take pictures, and listen to all of my MP3 files without the phone crapping out on me if I hold it the wrong way. But I also want something that has accessories, like data cables or docking stations and cases, at affordable prices.

Should I hold out for the Storm 3 or do you have any good reviews of the new Droids that are out?

Thanks,
Tom in the high desert

Dear Tom,
Research In Motion, the company that makes the BlackBerry Storm, has not officially announced a Storm 3. But given that the company has released a Storm touch-screen device the past two years right around Thanksgiving, there's a good chance they will announce another one around the same time of year.

And there has been lots of speculation and leaks all over Web of what this new Storm might look like and be able to do. There is likely to be an improvement in the touch screen on the new device. The company made huge improvements in its SurePress clicking touch screen from the first Storm to the Storm 2 .

There have been rumors that the new Storm will support LTE, the 4G technology Verizon Wireless is using to build its new 4G network. But I doubt this is true given that there aren't any smartphone semiconductors on the market that support LTE.

So should you wait for the BlackBerry Storm 3? That's up to you. Given we don't even know if it exists, it's a gamble. Personally, I've never been a huge fan of the BlackBerry Storm phones and neither has CNET Reviews Senior Editor Bonnie Cha. She said the Storm 2 was a definite improvement over the first Storm, but she prefers the Droids.

I do too. The Motorola Droid X comes out this week. And anyone whose contract ends in 2010 is automatically eligible for an upgrade. There is also the HTC Droid Incredible, which has gotten a lot of buzz lately. Bonnie has liked both of these phones, although she tends to recommend the Incredible a bit more. The LG Ally, which is also an Android phone, has not gotten the same kind of buzz as the other Droids, but Verizon Wireless seems to be offering a promotion on them. So you might be able to get a good deal.

As for the iPhone coming to Verizon in January rumors, I wouldn't hold my breath. And I can bet that the sales representative you spoke with has as much knowledge about the deal with Apple as I do, which is not that much. Apple is super secretive about its plans and it's not sharing this information with anyone. I personally don't expect an iPhone on Verizon until the middle of next year. Check out my previous Ask Maggie column to see why .

Good luck!

A future for Google's Nexus One?

Dear Maggie,
Could you please share your thoughts and insights on Google's strategy with phones like the Nexus One? A phone like the Nexus One seems to have many benefits to Google. They provide Google with real users to test out the latest version of their operating system. It also offers Google a direct relationship with the customer with less carrier involvement. Customers can avoid other technologies layered on top of the devices, such as MotoBlur.

Google has mentioned that they will be discontinuing the Web store, but will they still offer phones like the Nexus One via other vendors, such as Best Buy? I personally love the option to have a phone like the iPhone and Nexus One that has less carrier restrictions and receives the latest software updates as soon as possible.

I've been loving the Ask Maggie articles, keep them coming.

Thanks,
Caley

Dear Caley, As you know, Google's head of Android development, Andy Rubin, announced in May changes to Google's Nexus One plans . He said in a blog post that Google will stop selling the device through its Web store.

"While the global adoption of the Android platform has exceeded our expectations, the Web store has not," Rubin said in the post. "It's remained a niche channel for early adopters, but it's clear that many customers like a hands-on experience before buying a phone, and they also want a wide range of service plans to choose from."

At the time, that was all the information that Google would give about the future of the Nexus One. Google refused to make executives available to discuss the closing of its Web store, nor would it make anyone available to talk about broader strategic implications.

But earlier this month, Google CEO Eric Schmidt provided some insight into the future of the Nexus One in an interview he did with U.K.-based newspaper Telegraph.

Schmidt said Google initially worked with HTC to create the Android-based Nexus One to help jump-start the Android platform.

"The idea a year and a half ago was to do the Nexus One to try to move the phone platform hardware business forward," he told the newspaper. "It clearly did. It was so successful, we didn't have to do a second one. We would view that as positive, but people criticized us heavily for that. I called up the board and said: 'OK, it worked. Congratulations--we're stopping.' We like that flexibility, we think that flexibility is characteristic of nimbleness at our scale."

When the Nexus One was first introduced in January, the company faced resistance from wireless operators, such as Verizon and AT&T. T-Mobile USA was the only carrier offering a contract for the phone in the U.S. It's clear that Google does not want to compete directly with handset partners, such as Motorola and HTC. And it makes sense that they wouldn't. But without the Web store, the company would be doing just that. So my guess is that the Nexus One and subsequent Google-made and marketed devices will fade into the sunset. From here on out, it looks like Google will leave that to its partners. And you and all the other consumers out there will have to buy your cell phones the old fashioned way.

CNET Reviews Senior Editor Bonnie Cha contributed to this report.

 

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