Why a smartphone may not be the best choice for everyone

In this edition of Ask Maggie, CNET's Marguerite Reardon advises against expensive smartphones for consumers who don't use their phone's capabilities. And she offers some affordable alternatives for unlimited data packages.

Smartphones are hitting the mainstream market. And that means old and young want a piece of the action. But at more than $1,000 per year for service, a smartphone may not be the best choice for every consumer.

In this edition of Ask Maggie, I help a reader decide if he should get his parents smartphones or if he should spare them the hefty monthly service fees and get them new basic feature phones. I also help another reader decide if there is a less-expensive alternative to Verizon that will allow him to keep his unlimited data plan.

Feature phone vs. Smartphone

Dear Maggie,
My parents are moving to a new house and they currently have feature phones on T-Mobile. They Love the price of their plans and are happy with the features. Unfortunately, T-Mobile does not have coverage at the new house, and their coverage maps show that as well. So they asked me to research which carriers do offer service. And it looks like Verizon is the best option. I know Verizon now forces new customers onto their share anything plans. So my question to you is this: Would it be worth getting my parents iPhones? My sister, brother-in-law and myself all have iPhones (4S, 4, 5 respectively) and my dad has the iPad 2. Would it be worth it to give them one of the three devices, or should we just go with feature phones? My dad is intrigued about the portable maps. And he's interested in a smartphone. My mom is indifferent at best. I was thinking of getting my dad an iPhone 5 and my mom an iPhone 4S.

Thank you,
Ted

Dear Ted,
First, I want to clarify something. Your parents do not need to get a Share Everything Plan from Verizon Wireless if they do not wish to get a smartphone. If they decide to stay with regular feature phones and they are new subscribers to Verizon, there are the traditional post-paid service options available. They could also consider pay-as-you-go service or special senior citizen services.

With this in mind, they have two options. They can continue to use basic feature phones and pay a lot less in service fees, or they can get smartphones where the functionality of the phone will be greatly increased but so will the overall cost.

Whether your parents should get iPhones or any smartphones really depends entirely on if you think they would use the features on a smartphone. Also, you should really consider the added cost, and whether adding smartphones to their lives is in their budget. After all, it's not the cost of the devices that are expensive so much as the service that comes with it.

I don't know how old your parents are or how tech-savvy they are. But if they're anything like my 70-year old aunt, who insisted on getting an Android smartphone from Verizon a couple of years ago and recently upgraded to the iPhone 5, the truth is they probably don't really need a smartphone. My aunt, whom I love dearly and who often asks my advice and then ignores it, has been a smartphone owner for more than two years now. And despite my best efforts to educate her on the functionality of her phones, the only thing she uses her smartphone for is to answer and make phone calls. She just learned how to text message, and she occasionally checks email from her phone, although she never replies to such messages.

Not only has she spent a lot of money on devices that she doesn't really know how to use and likely will never use to their full potential, but she's also stuck paying an overly expensive phone bill each month.

By contrast, my father, who is 71 years old and as cheap as I am, has a basic prepaid phone from AT&T. I bought the phone for him two years ago, and as part of his Christmas present every year, I put $100 on his prepaid account, which is good for an entire year. He uses the phone so infrequently that the $100 typically gets him through the entire year. If you do the math, that's cell service for $8.30 a month. Even if he uses $200 in a year, that's a phone bill of only $16.60 a month.

Your options

Let's get back to your parents and look at their options.

If your parents are on a tight budget and they don't use their phones very much, like my dad, then you could try a pay-as-you-go plan like the one I bought for my dad. Verizon has an offer that is similar. If you put $100 on the phone, you have a year to use all the money. But each call will cost 25 cents a minute. Text and picture messages will also be charged 20 cents and 25 cents, respectively. While the notion of a meter running while you talk may be too scary for some consumers, the reality is that it's much more cost-effective if you don't use a cell phone very much.

Again, I don't know your parents, so I don't know if they spend hours gabbing on their cell phones. But my guess is that if they are like the senior citizens in my family, they still have a regular home phone which they use for lengthy conversations. And their cell phones are often used for "emergencies," or when they are out and about for short conversations.

Verizon also offers a special discounted plan for senior citizens. If your parents are over age 65 and you buy them basic feature phones, you can get the 65 Plus plan for $59.98 a month. This price includes service for two feature phones and will give them 450 anytime minutes, 1,000 night and weekend minutes, unlimited Verizon-to-Verizon phone calls, and pay-as-you-go text messaging. If your parents are big talkers, this might be a decent option. But keep in mind those monthly charges add up, and it will still cost $720 for the year.

Unfortunately, Verizon doesn't offer a similar plan for seniors who want smartphones. So if you wanted to get your dad a smartphone and give your mom a feature phone, you'd probably subscribe to a family share plan where they'd share the unlimited voice minutes and text messaging, and your dad would get a chunk of data to use each month. This particular configuration at the lowest data tier would cost $120 a month. If both your parents have iPhones, the cost would be $130 a month if they shared 1GB of data. That's about $1,440 and $1,560, respectively, for the year.

Another option for your parents might be to go with a prepaid brand that uses Verizon's network. For example, Walmart's Straight Talk prepaid service allows you to choose phones that operate either on Verizon's network or AT&T's. It's a little tricky to know which phones will operate on AT&T and which on Verizon. On the Web site, you can type in your ZIP code, and it will display the phones available in that area. In theory, all the phones should then work where your parents live if they pop up on the page. But if you wanted to make sure you got a Verizon phone, a Straight Talk service representative told me on the phone that any phones with the letter "C" after them operate on Verizon's CDMA network. And devices with the letter "G" operate on AT&T's GSM network.

fonearena.com

Since your parents were T-Mobile customers, there is also a chance their old phones could be used with Straight Talk, which means they don't need to buy new devices or even try to learn how to use a new device. In this case, the phones would operate on AT&T's network and if the phones are unlocked, you could just put the Straight Talk SIM in the device and it would work. But this will only work if there is AT&T coverage where they live and if the former T-Mobile devices are unlocked.

For a basic feature phone, Straight Talk offers service with 1,000 minutes of talk time and 30MB of data for $30 a month. If you want a smartphone, the Straight Talk service is a pretty good deal. It costs $45 a month and you get unlimited voice calls, texting, and data. (Note: Be careful of services that claim to offer "unlimited data." Typically, these plans do have a limit. In the case of Straight Talk, there is no limit listed in the service conditions, but the company says it doesn't allow "excessive" data usage. I've seen reports of some people getting notices when their data usage has been less than 1GB a month.) At $45 a month for two smartphones that is $1,080 for the year.

Straight Talk is offering the iPhone 5 and iPhone 4S through Walmart. But it only offers these devices in certain markets. As best I can tell from talking to representatives, it seems like most of those markets are in Florida. So if your parents are snow birds or live in Florida full time, they may be in luck.

At any rate, you will need to check to see if the Walmart Straight Talk iPhone is even available where your parents live. One other thing to keep in mind if you are considering a prepaid plan or pay-as-you-go service is that you will have to buy devices at full price. This may not be so bad if you're just buying cheap feature phones. But if you're buying smartphones, like the iPhone, it can be expensive paying for two devices at full price. But when you compare this to getting a subsidy with a higher monthly fee, buying the device at full price with a lower-cost plan usually works out to be a better deal.

The bottom line is that iPhones and really any smartphone are expensive devices to own. So unless your parents plan to use the features of these device, it's probably a waste of money. A less-expensive option for them would be to get a pay-as-you-go service on a basic feature phone and then buy a small tablet like the iPad Mini, the Nexus 7 Android tablet, or a Kindle Fire, which can be used on Wi-Fi networks for free. This way they can access the Internet and all kinds of apps, but they won't have to pay for the expensive data services associated with owning a smartphone.

I hope that advice was helpful.

Where can I get a Verizon-like data service at non-Verizon prices?

Dear Maggie,
I'm a longtime Verizon Wireless customer. I'm considering switching carriers to save money. I'm thinking that Boost Mobile, Metro PCS or T-Mobile might offer something better. I'm currently using an outdated HTC Thunderbolt. I can upgrade my device at any time with Big Red, but I don't want to lose my unlimited data. Is there any other company that can offer me a similar plan and service ($85 a month plan) as Verizon?

Thanks,
Shaboss

Dear Shaboss,
The short answer to your question is "yes." But there are a few caveats. When you give up Verizon Wireless, you are giving up a network and service you have been happy with. You can go to another carrier and get a less-expensive service, but you may have to make a few sacrifices depending on where you live and what other services are offered.

The three providers you mention in your question all offer unlimited 3G/4G wireless services at roughly the same price as what you pay now or for a bit less per month. But there are a few catches.

T-Mobile offers an unlimited everything plan for smartphones that includes unlimited data, voice, and text service for $89 a month. This is only $4 more a month than what you pay now. The service is very similar to Verizon's in terms of speed. While the service today is not 4G LTE, T-Mobile uses a technology called HSPA+ and in many areas the speeds are as fast as Verizon's network. And the data is truly unlimited. At this price point, T-Mobile does not throttle or slow down customers who hit a certain threshold of data usage. So if unlimited data at 4G speeds is what you're looking, T-Mobile offers the closest thing to Verizon.

Here's the catch. T-Mobile's nationwide network coverage is not nearly as comprehensive as Verizon's. Be sure that T-Mobile offers service where you live and work. But also be aware that when you travel outside major cities, your service may be more limited in certain areas than it was with Verizon.

Sprint Nextel also offers unlimited data service. You didn't mention it as an option in your question. But because you are considering Boost Mobile, which is owned by Sprint, I figured you should know what Sprint offers as well. Sprint's Everything Data plan comes with 450 voice minutes, plus unlimited data and texting service, and costs $80 a month. Sprint offers 3G and 4G LTE service, but its 4G LTE network is not as extensive as Verizon's. So unless you live an area with 4G LTE, you'll be stuck on Sprint's slower 3G service. In general, Sprint's coverage is also not as extensive as Verizon's service. So make sure you check regarding availability.

MetroPCS offers 4G LTE service in some cities, and it has a very attractive price tag of $60 a month for a service that offers unlimited data, voice, and text messaging. MetroPCS, which is currently in the process of being bought by T-Mobile, also claims that it doesn't slow or throttle customers who exceed a certain threshold of usage on their unlimited data plans. But the network coverage issues that plague T-Mobile when compared to Verizon are even a bigger issue for MetroPCS. MetroPCS is a small regional carrier. It operates in a lot of large cities, but its service is not everywhere. And so if you get this service, you need to be aware of this fact and make sure you have coverage where you most need it. Another thing to keep in mind is that MetroPCS doesn't own as much spectrum as Verizon does in markets where it operates 4G LTE, and so its 4G LTE network may not offer the same level of performance due to capacity constraints.

Boost Mobile is a prepaid brand owned by Sprint. It uses Sprint's 3G and 4G WiMax networks to deliver service. It does not use Sprint's LTE network. It also has a very attractive $55 a month price tag for its unlimited services. But I would warn you that the WiMax network does not have the performance or coverage that Verizon's 4G LTE network has. So that may be a concern for you as well. Virgin Mobile is another Sprint-branded prepaid service. You may want to consider this service too. It offers an unlimited data service for $35 a month. While it calls its data service "unlimited," it's really capped at 2.5GB per month. Also, this service will have many of the same coverage and speed issues that Boost has since it also uses Sprint's 3G and 4G WiMax networks.

If I were to recommend one of these three services for you, I'd probably recommend T-Mobile because it offers the widest network with the highest network speeds.

You may also want to consider some other prepaid services that use Verizon's network . For example, a company called Page Plus Cellular uses Verizon's 3G network. But it offers its prepaid service plans at a fraction of the price Verizon charges. And as I mentioned in the previous answer, prepaid brand Straight Talk, which is sold through Walmart Web sites and retail locations, also sells devices that operate on Verizon's network.

The main drawback to using a Verizon reseller is that you will only get access to Verizon's 3G network. So if you want a device that uses the 4G LTE network, you won't get those speeds on these services.

Depending on where you live, there may be other regional carriers or prepaid providers you may want to consider. For example, C Spire operates in the Southeastern U.S., and it offers many of the hottest new phones as well as service that's typically less than what Verizon or AT&T offer. But make sure it operates in the places where you live and work.

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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