Is a data share plan right for your family?

In this Ask Maggie, CNET's Marguerite Reardon offers some advice about switching to one of the new data share plans offered from AT&T or Verizon. And she predicts when a new Nexus smartphone might come to market.

Updated 7:07 a.m. PT:This story was updated to reflect AT&T's announcement of a new data share plan. The story has been reworked to compare AT&T's and Verizon's data share plans.

First Verizon and now AT&T has announced new plans that offer families the option to share a bucket of data across several users or even several Internet-enabled devices. But are these new plans right for your family?

One thing is certain about these new plans. AT&T and Verizon have not made these plans easy to understand. It seems like you need a PhD to figure out how much your family will pay each month under either of these plans. In this edition of Ask Maggie, I offer some advice for those considering the new share plans.

I also answer another reader's question about when he might expect a new Google Nexus smartphone to be introduced.

Data share plan confusion

Dear Maggie,
I'm looking at switching from an iPhone to a Google Android, the Samsung Galaxy S III for myself and my wife. I can go with either Verizon Wireless or AT&T. But I have an old iPhone on AT&T with an unlimited data plan at the moment. Meanwhile, the wife and kids are using non-smartphones on Verizon Wireless. The kids will be staying on non-smartphones. But my wife will be upgrading to an smartphone.

I like AT&T as a provider. Do you know when AT&T will be coming out with their data share plans? I don't know if it makes to stay on AT&T and bring the rest of the family over. I wonder if I should just upgrade now to keep my unlimited data plan. Or maybe we should all go over to Verizon for their family share plans. Are share plans even worth it for us? We don't really need the unlimited voice minutes.

I'm not sure what to do.

Thanks,
Very confused L

Dear Very confused L,
You are in luck. AT&T just announced that it will be launching its "Mobile Share" plans this morning. But figuring out if sharing your data is right for you is a tough question, because the answer really depends on how much you and your wife will use your data service and whether your family needs unlimited voice and text messaging.

In general, if you are heavy data users, but don't use a lot of voice or texting, it might make sense for you to keep your AT&T unlimited plan. That said, keep in mind that AT&T slows down very heavy data users if they exceed more than 3GB of data per month.

AT&T has priced its share plans in a very similar way to how Verizon has priced its plans. There is a charge for connecting a smartphone or regular feature phone, as well as charges for adding laptops and tablets to your plan. You get unlimited calling and text messaging bundled into the price.

Figuring out exactly how much you would pay on these plans can be a little tricky. AT&T varies the price for adding a smartphone depending on how much data you want. For example, it costs $45 for a smartphone on a 1GB data plan, which costs $40. And the price to add a smartphone decreases the more data you add to your plan. So for a 4GB plan, you'd pay $40 a smartphone and a 6GB plan you'd pay $35 to add a smartphone and so on.

CNET's Roger Cheng has written a story comparing AT&T's and Verizon's share plans . Here are two tables comparing the plans.

In general, these share plans benefit families with two or more people on the plan so long as they are all low to moderate data users. Instead of paying $30 for each smartphone on a family plan, you can share the data across multiple users. This is great for families in which individual smartphone users don't use much data. But it could be quite expensive for families with data hogs. Once you get into a share plan, it means that the more data you use, the more you'll have to pay.

Here is what the pricing would look like for you and your family:

Verizon Wireless

If your wife got a share plan for herself and the two non-smartphones (feature phones), the total cost per month would be a minimum of $150. That would be $40 for the smartphone, and $30 each for the two feature phones, plus 1GB of data at $50.

Meanwhile, you'd spend a minimum of $70 without text messaging for your AT&T voice and unlimited data service. The total family spend for your cell phones across AT&T and Verizon, would be $220.

If you added your smartphone to the Verizon family share plan, that would be an additional $40 for the smartphone. And I'd recommend boosting the monthly data service to 2GB between the two of you. That will cost $60. The grand total for you and your wife, who each have smartphones, plus two feature-phones would be $200 per month.

You'd get less data than you would under your unlimited plan from AT&T, but you'd also get unlimited voice and text messaging.

AT&T

Now let's see how much you'd spend under AT&T's plan. A share plan that included your wife's smartphone and two feature phones would cost you a total of $155 per month. If you kept your unlimited data with voice, but no texting, your family would pay a total of $225 per month. So it would be $5 more a month to go with AT&T under this scenario. But in theory you'd be getting more data, since you'd keep the unlimited plan.

Here is what it would cost your family if you are added to the share plan: Because 1GB is likely not enough for two smartphone users, I'd recommend going to AT&T's next tier of service, which is 4GB. Two smartphones under this plan cost $40 each. The two feature-phones are $30 each. And the 4GB plan is $70. The grand total under this plan is $210 per month. You'd now save $15 a month over having the share plan and an unlimited plan under AT&T. And you'd save $10 a month if you had the same scenario with Verizon.

Verizon also offers the 4GB option at the same price as AT&T. But AT&T does not offer a 2GB share plan. So if I were deciding between AT&T and Verizon at this point, I might go with Verizon because you have more flexibility. You can switch between tiers of service if you find that you don't need as much data or you need more data.

Are these share plans worth it? Overall, the share plans cost a little bit more than the older family plans. But subscribers get a lot more for the incremental difference in terms of voice and text messaging.

Look at Verizon as an example. With the old family plan, you get 2,000 minutes of talk time to share amongst the family of four for $120. When you add two smartphone data plans that give you 2GB of data each, the total cost is $180 a month. This is $20 a month less expensive than the Verizon share plan that only gives users 2GB of data to share. But keep in mind this price doesn't include text messaging and users are given only a limited amount of voice calling. Once the text messaging prices are added in, the cost is roughly the same.

For the most part, I think these share plans can offer subscribers of both AT&T and Verizon a good value. But you have to look at your family's usage patterns to see what makes the most sense for you.

Broadly, I'd say the share plans are more cost-effective for families who have moderate data users and also need a lot of voice minutes and text messaging. But if the family needs very few voice minutes and text messages and you've got some heavy data users on your plan, it may be worth sticking with the old plans where everyone has their own buckets of data.

I hope that advice was helpful.

How close is the next Nexus phone?

Dear Maggie,
I can upgrade my smartphone in October and I need advice on which phone to choose. I am on AT&T. I was strongly considering the Galaxy S III, but I believe that it doesn't get software updates as quickly as the Nexus. And that's a big drawback for me. Also, I really like the look and feel of the pure Android experience better.

I am now considering the Galaxy Nexus. It may not be the newest phone or the fastest, but the software updates and the look of stock Android make me think I'd be happier with the Nexus.

Here is my question: Do you think there will be a new Nexus coming to AT&T with LTE sometime soon? If there is, I'll wait. But right now, I have no idea when it might be coming out. And I don't know which carriers are going to offer it. If it's not on AT&T, then it doesn't matter for me, since I'm not willing to switch carriers. Can you help me with some advice?

Thanks in advance,
Ryan

Dear Ryan,
You are correct that some of the specifications on the Samsung Galaxy S III are better than the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. And to some degree that makes sense given that the Galaxy Nexus has been on the market about six months longer than the Galaxy S III.

But as you point out, the Samsung Galaxy S III doesn't have the latest version of Google Android 4.1, a.k.a. Jelly Bean. While I am sure this top-of-the-line phone will eventually get Jelly Bean, I don't know when. And the upgrade may vary by carrier.

By contrast, the Galaxy Nexus will ship from the Google Play store with Jelly Bean already on it. And people who already have a Galaxy Nexus can upgrade their devices now. The main benefit of buying a Nexus device, which is Google's brand for a phone that is designed to Google's specifications and doesn't use any vendor-added software, is that it will always get software upgrades much faster than devices that have phone manufacturer software layered on top of it.

The reason why is simple. Google has created the Nexus family of products specifically for developers to test out the latest software enhancements that the OS has to offer.

"The Nexus devices are really reference devices so that developers can use them to innovate around the Google platform and ecosystem," Patrick Brady, director of Android partner engineering, told me in a recent interview. "So we need to build devices that are cutting edge. We want the best available hardware to test out our content and services."

Brady says that Google does its best to choose the best hardware components for its Nexus products that are available at the time it's building them.

For regular consumers this means that with a Nexus device, you'll always get access to the latest and greatest software from Google that's available. So if having access to Google's latest software is your priority, then I'd agree that the Nexus is the right phone for you.

With that in mind, should you buy the Galaxy Nexus or wait for a new Nexus phone to be introduced? Since you aren't due for a subsidized phone until October, I'd say you have some time. And that's a good thing. Because my guess is that Google will likely introduce at least one new Nexus phone before the end of the year. And rumor has it could introduce two or three others.

It's difficult to say when exactly a new Nexus will come to market. But the Galaxy Nexus was introduced in November 2011. The previous Nexus phone, the Samsung Nexus S went on sale in December 2010. And the first Nexus phone, the HTC Nexus One was available starting in January 2010. So my guess is that Google will have at least one new one out by the end of the year.

The Wall Street Journal reported in May that Google is working with multiple manufacturers to bring Nexus smartphones and tablets to market more quickly. Traditionally, Google has chosen one device maker to make its flagship Google-branded smartphone. Initially, it chose HTC and then the next two Nexus smartphones were made by Samsung.

It then sold the devices directly through its Web site, but also via other retailers and through wireless carriers. The Galaxy Nexus is available on all four major U.S. carriers.

But according to The Wall Street Journal, Google may be changing up its strategy a bit. Instead of just one manufacturer it will work with up to five manufacturers at once. This will not only give consumers more choice in terms of Nexus smartphones to choose from, but it will also mean multiple product introductions in the same year.

And if Google sells the devices mainly through its Web site without carrier involvement, this could also speed up the time to market for new devices. It will also mean that Google probably won't have to adhere to special guidelines or restrictions imposed on its devices by certain carriers. For example, the Galaxy Nexus on Verizon does not include Google Wallet because Verizon wanted that app disabled.

But it also means that consumers may not be able to get the new Nexus devices for a subsidized price.

This may not matter too much. Google has demonstrated with its first Nexus tablet, the Nexus 7, that it can make a high-end product at an inexpensive price. The device, which was introduced at Google's developer conference last month Google I/O, runs the latest version Google Android, Jelly Bean. It's made by Asus.

Google's Patrick Brady said that the company is working on additional tablet sizes, but he wouldn't say when those products might be rolling out.

In any case, it's hard to say exactly how many new tablets and smartphones Google plans to introduce in the next six months or so. But it seems to me like there's a very good chance that a new Nexus smartphone that supports LTE and will likely be compatible with AT&T's network could be on the market by Thanksgiving.

And since you are not eligible for an upgrade until October anyway, the timing could work out nicely for you. I hope this advice was helpful. Good luck!

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.

 

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