Ask Maggie: Holiday smartphone deals and iPad-iMac choices

This week's Ask Maggie helps readers find the best smartphone deals of the season and advises one reader who can't decide between buying an iPad or an iMac.

It's that time of year again when consumers dream of dancing sugar plums and gadgets.

From TVs to smartphones to laptops, device makers, retailers, and service providers are all pushing the hottest gear at low prices. There's no question the holiday shopping season has turned into a bargain hunter's dream when it comes to smartphones.

Ask Maggie

In this week's Ask Maggie column a reader asks if he should take advantage of these deals or wait until the new year to buy his first smartphone. With AT&T and Verizon Wireless offering some high-end smartphones for a penny or less, it's hard to argue that he should wait to see what new devices come out in 2011.

And with the help of my fellow CNET reporters and editors, I help another reader decide between purchasing an iPad or an iMac. Finally, another reader writes to Ask Maggie about a problem he's had with AT&T's usage-based billing.

Ask Maggie is a weekly advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. If you've got a question, please send an e-mail to maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header.

Smartphone bargains galore

Dear Maggie,

I'm a Verizon Wireless customer, and I'm finally ready to move forward into the smartphone world. This is all very new to me. I was all set to purchase a Droid Incredible, but I have read horrible things about battery life. I've also looked at the Motorola Droid X, which seems pretty good. Anyway, do you think it's a good idea to purchase a phone right now or wait to see what new and improved phones might be arriving in early 2011?

Help me decide, please!

Thanks,

Dan

Dear Dan,

Honestly, I think the Motorola Droid X and HTC Droid Incredible are both great devices. I haven't heard many complaints about the Droid Incredible. But if you've read negative user reviews, you should take them into consideration.

Droid Incredible
Droid Incredible Sarah Tew/CNET

One thing to keep in mind regarding battery life is that if you are upgrading from a traditional feature phone to any smartphone, you are going to notice a major difference in battery life regardless of the smartphone you are using. While your older feature phone might have been able to go days between charges, most smartphones need to be charged at least once day.

Now, for your second question: Should you get a smartphone now or in the new year? It depends whether you're looking for a great deal or you need the absolute latest and greatest technology. New phones will come out early next year, but it's hard to say how much better they'll be than the existing generation.

If I were in the market for a new smartphone, I'd buy now, because the deals are just too good to pass up. For example, Verizon Wireless is offering a terrific promotion via Amazon that runs until Monday . For just a penny you can get one of four different Android smartphones: the Motorola Droid X, HTC Droid Incredible, Motorola Droid 2, or Motorola Droid. Unfortunately, you have to be a new Verizon subscriber to qualify for this deal.

But don't fret; Dell Mobility is also offering great deals on Android phones. Of course, the best deals are for customers switching to Verizon Wireless. But even current customers can get a reduced price. Until Monday, you can get the Droid X for $9.99 if you are a new customer and for $49.99 if you are renewing your current Verizon contract. Plus, the activation fee is waived and you get a $25 Dell gift card.

If you do decide to go with the HTC Incredible, you can get the phone free from Dell Mobility regardless of whether you're a new customer. You also get the activation fee waived and a $25 gift card from Dell.

These deals are only good while supplies last. But if they run out, check out your local Verizon store. Verizon is also running some of its own promotions. For example, if you know someone else who wants an Android smartphone from Verizon, you could take advantage of the buy-one-get-one-free promotion that Verizon is running through the holiday season. You can get a Motorola Droid X for $199.99 or the Motorola Droid 2 for $149.99 and get another free. This would allow you to get the Droid X for $99 instead of $199. The Droid Incredible is also being offered for $149.99.

LG Quantum
LG Quantum Bonnie Cha/CNET

All these deals, including the Amazon and Dell promotions, require a two-year contract along with a smartphone data plan and voice service.

If you're willing to switch carriers, there are other deals to be had. AT&T is offering a Black Friday and Cyber Monday deal for its Windows 7 phones. This is another two-for-one offer. And you can get any Windows Phone 7 for $199. The Windows 7 phones that AT&T currently offers are the HTC Surround , Samsung Focus , and LG Quantum .

AT&T and Microsoft are also sweetening the deal with a free Windows Phone 7 entertainment pack with free music via Zune and free games via Xbox Live with each Windows Phone 7.

AT&T is also scheduled to offer several new smartphones for one penny on Cyber Monday, November 29.. Starting at 6 a.m. PT, the company will rotate devices every three hours in the promotion. The phones that will be offered include the Android HTC Aria , BlackBerry Curve 3G , Motorola Flipout, Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 , and Motorola Bravo .

Amazon is offering the one-cent deal for other carriers including AT&T's Samsung Captivate, HTC Aria, Motorola Backflip , or Motorola Flipout. Sprint customers also can get in on the deal with the HTC Hero , Samsung Intercept, and Samsung Moment . At this point, however, CNET Reviews Editor Kent German doesn't recommend the Moment--it's a year old, for starters--even at that price.

Sprint Nextel is also offering a discount on the Android-based HTC Evo 4G for $99.99 with a new account at Dell Mobility. And the Samsung Epic 4G smartphone on Sprint's network is available on Amazon for $99.99 through the weekend. If you're considering T-Mobile USA, Amazon is offering new T-Mobile subscribers the Android G2 for $49.99.

For a more complete list of Black Friday/Cyber Monday deals on smartphones check out CNET Reviews editor Bonnie Cha's story from earlier this week.

So in short, now is the best time to get a deal on a new smartphone. If you wait until next year, wireless operators will have new updated devices, but they will be much more expensive. Verizon in particular is expected to announce new smartphones for its 4G LTE network, which it is launching next month. The new phones for that network are expected to be unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show in early January and on store shelves by the end of March. Pricing has not yet been discussed.

iPad or iMac?

Dear Maggie,

I'm trying to decide between buying an iPad or an iMac for myself as an early Christmas present. I can only splurge on one, so which one should I get? I am a sports reporter for a local newspaper, and I already have a laptop.

Thanks,
Fredman

Dear Fredman,

These are both very cool products. And I can certainly understand why you'd be lusting for either one of them. So I understand why it's a difficult decision.

As I'm sure you are aware, the iPad and the iMac are two distinctly different products. And they really serve different purposes. The iPad is small and portable. It's really meant for doing things on the go. The touch screen makes this an ideal product for watching video, viewing pictures, surfing some Web sites, playing games, accessing specialized applications, and reading books, magazines and newspapers.

James Martin/CNET

By contrast, the iMac is an all-in-one desktop computer with a beautiful LED backlit screen. It comes in 27-inch and-21.5 inch sizes. It's big and immobile, so it's something that will become a fixture in your home and not something you'd travel with or even take from room to room. That said, the sleek design of the product and the beautiful glass screen is really nice enough to have it displayed anywhere in your home, including a living room or family room.

The first thing you need to ask yourself is what you want to do with your new Apple product. Second, you have to figure out how much you are willing to spend. You can get an iPad for as little as $499 with 16GB of storage. This is a Wi-Fi-only device, and getting one that also has 3G wireless connectivity via AT&T will cost you $629, plus data fees. Meanwhile, getting the iMac is a much greater investment. The cheapest one is $1,199 for the smallest screen with the slower processor. The high-end iMac goes for $1,999.

You said you already have a laptop. So you may not necessarily need the iMac. Although I am not going to lie to you, I really want one, too.

My sister has one, and she uses it as the "family" computer. She has four kids who range in age from 2 years old to 11 years old. The older kids use the movie and photo-editing software that comes on the iMac to make movies and picture montages set to music. I babysat them for a weekend recently, and it provided hours of entertainment for all of us.

The iPad is equally cool, but in a much different way. It's much more of a toy. But it's not great for getting any work done or editing movies and pictures.

Since this is really a tough decision, I asked my CNET colleagues what they thought. Here is what some of them had to say:

Rafe Needleman, editor at large: If he already has a good laptop or computer, get the iPad. It adds a new way of consuming media to your life and it's a ton of fun. And you can take it everywhere in and out of the house, so the potential to use/enjoy it more is higher.

If he doesn't, get the iMac first. You can actually do real work on it and the big screen makes it great for movies. But I think the iPad will make him happier. It's more gifty, more like a toy.

Erica Ogg, chief correspondent for Crave: An iMac is a total desktop replacement type computer. The only thing about an iMac that's better than say a MacBook is a bit more storage. But then you can't take it anywhere! If he wants something different and new, go with the iPad.

Eric Franklin, senior associate technology editor: iPad. It's different enough, with enough unique apps and ways to use it, to make it a worthwhile investment if he already owns a MacBook or laptop.

Declan McCullagh, chief political correspondent and senior writer: When my wife and I took the kid to visit relatives in Europe a few months ago, as a space-saving experiment I brought an iPad and the Apple Bluetooth keyboard instead of a MacBook Pro.

The iPad was wonderful for watching movies, decent for Web browsing, and acceptable for e-mail. If you're writing a self-contained e-mail message, there's not that much of a difference, especially since the iPad supports most of the basic Emacs key bindings, but switching windows or copying and pasting from other e-mail messages or Web pages is a pain.

I'm suggesting that my mother, who is finally comfortable with her iPhone, get an iPad instead of a second Mac laptop.

Stephen Shankland, senior writer: If he has a modern MacBook, go for the iPad because it's new, different, and fun. The only real difference an iMac will provide for him is better performance, a larger screen, and non-portability, whereas the iPad will let him be magical. But if he's in need of better performance for photo editing, the iMac might be a better way to go.

John Falcone, senior editor, home theater: I agree with most of Declan's points. iPad is a good travel companion and good for media consumption/games, but I think it's hard/impossible for working, especially when that involves a lot of typing, cutting/pasting, and toggling between open windows. (Dan) Ackerman and (Scott) Stein, (who review laptops,) disagree; they say they've found it to be a good laptop replacement.

Personally, I think the new 11-inch ($999-$1,199) MacBook Air might be a better alternative, even if you already had a full-size MacBook: very light, great battery life, but still a "real computer."

So there you have it. It looks like most CNET editors and writers recommend the iPad. Good luck with your decision!

Watch your AT&T data charges

Dear Maggie,

I thought you might be interested in alerting your readers to check their AT&T data usage because AT&T made a "mistake" (insert heavy sarcasm here) when calculating my usage and I wonder if other people might have experienced the same.

Basically, my billing cycle goes from the 18th-17th. I'm on the 200MB data plan. I happened to check my usage on the 18th and noticed that instead of having 200MB free, I only had 195MB, which I thought was odd since I'd just woken up. I then noticed that AT&T had taken 5MB of usage from the prior day and tacked it on to this month's usage. I called AT&T about it and the customer representative agreed that there was something wrong, that the usage should have zeroed on the 18th and it didn't. She said she'd have the techs look into it.

I wonder how many people got overage charges because of this "glitch" where AT&T mysteriously added the last day of the prior billing cycle's usage to the current month's usage? Or how many people used less data than they were entitled to because they checked their usage and saw they might go over because of this misreporting?

I've notified the FCC, but wanted to let you know as well, so other people could check their bills. Frankly, if I hadn't checked on the 18th, I would never have noticed, since I just spot-check my cumulative usage throughout the month and generally don't look at usage on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps this was an honest mistake and maybe it has only happened to me. But just in case not, I wanted to let you know.

Thanks,
Matt

Dear Matt,

Thanks for writing and for sharing your story. Just to refresh other readers' memories, AT&T eliminated its unlimited data plan in June and replaced it with a plan that charges $15 a month for 200MB of data per month and a $25 for 2GB of data per month. If subscribers who are signed up to the new data plans exceed their usage caps, they are charged additional fees. For example, someone on a 200MB plan would be charged an additional $15 for another 200MB of data that month. All data allowances, including overages, must be used in the billing period in which the allowance is provided.

I reached out to AT&T's press representative Mark Siegel regarding your situation. I asked him if he has heard of other AT&T customers having similar problems.

He said he couldn't comment on the specifics of your case. He would need your full name and cell phone number to access your account. But he said: "If you are asking do we bill our customers accurately, the answer is yes, we do. AT&T strives to bill its customers in an accurate and timely fashion. If they have a question about their bill, they can contact us and we will be pleased to look into the situation."

It's difficult to say whether this is an extensive problem for AT&T. According to Siegel it is not. But as you point out in your e-mail, it is very difficult for consumers to know whether AT&T sets the usage back to zero every month at the start of the new billing cycle. And unlike itemized cell phone calling records, it's difficult to determine from the bill and your own memory when you were accessing certain amounts of data. That said, this billing issue should not be too difficult for wireless operators to get right. After all, they've been billing customers for monthly buckets of voice minutes for years.

If any other readers have experienced a similar problem with AT&T's new data plan, please send me an e-mail. If this looks like a big issue, I'll press AT&T for more answers.

 

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