Ask Maggie: On iPhone or Android; the Verizon iPhone; and buying refurbs

CNET's Maggie Reardon answers readers' burning questions about choosing a cell phone, including which carrier to turn to and how to go about buying a used phone.

A lot has happened since Apple introduced the iconic iPhone in 2007.

Smartphones have become all the rage. No longer are these mobile computers relegated to the corporate road warrior looking to keep up with work e-mail. Now it seems that everyone from high school kids to soccer moms has a smartphone. And if they don't already have one, they're likely lusting for one.

Ask Maggie

These customers are expecting a lot more out of their phones. They want a full Web-browsing experience, Internet search, location-based services, navigation, access to social networking, high-definition video cameras, and much, much more.

And yet they also still need to make phone calls and send text messages.

When the iPhone was introduced three years ago, there was nothing else like it on the market. The design and sophistication of the touch screen and the power of the device to access the Web was unmatched. Now there are dozens of phones on the market that offer the same features and functionality as the iPhone.

With all the choices on the market, it's no wonder that CNET readers are confused about what to buy. I get dozens of e-mails every week from readers, asking me for advice on which phones to buy and which services to sign up for. This week, I've taken a few questions about this topic to help overwhelmed consumers figure out what's best for them.

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

Android vs. iPhone

Dear Maggie,

Let's cut to the chase: Verizon and its Android-based phones, or AT&T and the iPhone4? You already know all the variables. And don't respond that each person is different, etc. Just weigh the positives and negatives of each from your viewpoint.

Thanks,
William

Dear William,

I know you don't want to hear this, but it really does come down to personal taste. In terms of hardware and software, the Android vs. iPhone debate is like the PC vs. Mac debate.

Like Apple's Mac computers, the iPhone is easy to use and very intuitive. But it's not as open as some other phones, and customers are essentially beholden to whichever applications Apple decides are worthy of its platform. On the other hand, Google's Android platform, like a PC, is more open. The operating system is also on several different kinds of hardware, giving customers more variety.

At the end of the day, you have to decide which one you're most comfortable with. Are you a Mac or a PC? Are you a Droid or an iPhone?

Here are the biggest drawbacks I see for each:

Android

Clunky user interface: Many Android users complain that it takes several clicks on more icons to find the feature, app or function they are looking for. By contrast, Apple has done a very nice job on the iPhone of making applications, features and functionality easy to find and use.

Lackluster app store: Some people find the Android Market clunky and difficult to use. Also, people complain about the lack of applications in Android Market. While Apple's App Store has over 100,000 apps, the Android market has just over 35,000.

iPhone

Stinky reception: If you know iPhone users living in either New York City or San Francisco, then I'm sure you've gotten an earful about reception issues. Some iPhone subscribers even warn people at the beginning of a phone that they're using an iPhone. AT&T's network issues have been widely reported.

But in all fairness, AT&T shouldn't take all the blame for these problems. After all, AT&T customers using BlackBerry or Windows Mobile phones don't experience the same number of dropped calls that iPhone users complain about. So part of the problem may be the phone or the components of the phone and how Apple has assembled them.

Many customers of the iPhone 4 are reporting reception issues due to the new antenna that wraps around the outside of the phone. Apparently, when the phone is gripped in a way that touches the left bottom area of the phone, reception degrades or disappears. CNET has been able to replicate the problem, as have other gadget blogs. Apple acknowledged the issue and CEO Steve Jobs said people shouldn't hold it that way. Now Apple is saying that a software fix is on the way , at least to address the signal strength side of the equation.

In either case, reception is the major issue for the iPhone.

So what does this mean for you and which phone you should get? If making phone calls is important to you and Verizon offers good reception in your area, then go with an Android phone. If applications and ease of use are what you're looking for, then the iPhone could be for you.

When will there be a Verizon iPhone?

Dear Maggie,
The only question that keeps burning away at my brain is, when will the iPhone be on Verizon? All our family is on Verizon and no one wants to change. AT&T's service is very bad and spotty in our area, Verizon is just fine. Thank you for helping stop the burning,
Jeff

Dear Jeff,

If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me this question, I wouldn't be working at CNET anymore.

The short answer is, I don't know when Verizon Wireless will get the iPhone.

Neither AT&T nor Apple has ever disclosed the length of the exclusive contract AT&T has for the iPhone. But speculation of an impending Verizon iPhone have popped up periodically since the iPhone's runaway success began in 2007. It's been reported that Verizon originally turned down the exclusive rights to offer the phone due to unappealing demands from Apple.

Earlier this week Bloomberg News reported that unnamed sources said Verizon Wireless will start selling Apple's iPhone in January. I don't think that's likely.

Here's why: I think Apple is developing a 4G iPhone for Verizon's new network that is being built using a new technology called LTE. Because the technology is so new, there aren't any LTE products even on the market yet. Verizon plans to launch the network later this year. The first 4G products that will come to market will not be smartphones. They'll be data sticks that fit into laptops. Smartphones that have embedded LTE chips probably won't be available until at least the second half of 2011.

So my guess is that Verizon will get a 4G iPhone in the middle of 2011.

Refurbished cell phones

Dear Maggie,

I recently lost my cell phone and I am not yet eligible for an upgrade. What do you think of the refurbished phones? I need to get a new cell phone and was checking them out online. But is it a good idea to get one?

Thanks,

Carla

Dear Carla,

Buying a refurbished phone is a lot like buying a used car. If you get a good one for the right price, it's a great deal. But if you get a dud or you pay too much for the device, you're going to be kicking yourself for not simply buying a new phone.

The problem is that it's difficult to know whether the refurbished phone you're buying was simply returned because the previous owner couldn't figure out how to use all the bells and whistles, or because it was a defective product.

Here are a few helpful hints for buying a refurbished phone.

  • Make sure you are buying the phone from a reputable retailer that is authorized to sell new products from the same company that makes the refurbished phone you want to buy. 
  • Only buy a refurbished phone from a retailer that offers a return or exchange policy in case you are not happy with the device. The minimum amount of time for exchanges should be 15 days.
  • Look for a retailer that offers an extended warranty. You don't have to buy the extended warranty, but if they're selling an extended warranty it might indicate that the company offers adequate support for devices it sells.

All the major carriers offer refurbished phones as a way to get rid of older inventory. Since many carriers offer a 30-day return policy for new phones, it's a good bet that many of these phones have been lightly used. Some may not have been used at all, but once the packaging is open, carriers can't sell them as new.

There are also many independently owned companies that sell refurbished phones. Check out these retailers: ReCellular.com, PhoneDog.com, CellularCountry.com, WirelessGalaxy.com and RefurbDepot.com.

In addition to saving money, buying a refurbished phone is also good for the environment. Phones today include all kinds of potentially toxic material in the form of metals and plastics. So you can feel good about yourself for reusing something that would otherwise end up in a landfill.

 

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