Should I take that sweet deal on the iPhone 4 or not?

In this Ask Maggie, CNET's Marguerite Reardon explains why getting an iPhone 4 for free with a two-year service contract isn't such a good idea. And she advises another reader on the best options for getting Web access while on vacation.

A free iPhone sure sounds like a sweet deal. But when that iPhone is already three years old, is it really such an awesome deal?

That's the question I answer in this edition of Ask Maggie. A reader writes to me about an awesome offer from Verizon Wireless. She can get a new iPhone for nothing. All she has to do is sign up for another two-year contract. The problem is that iPhone is the iPhone 4 and that model is nearly three years old.

Also in this Ask Maggie, I help a reader figure out the best option for wireless broadband while on vacation at the beach. And it just so happens where this reader vacations is down the road from my hometown!

Is a free iPhone 4 really worth it?

Dear Maggie,
My contract with Verizon Wireless is almost done, and they sent me a promotion about being able to get a new iPhone for free if I sign up for a two-year contract again. I have a Motorola Droid, which I've had for a couple of years. But last year I got an iPad, which I use all the time. I have tons of games on there for my kids. And I pretty much use it for everything. I thought it would be good for me to move over to an iPhone, since I use the iPad so much.

What do you think? Is this a good plan for me?

Thanks,
Melissa

Dear Melissa,
You know that old saying "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is?" Well, I hate to tell you, but it applies in this case.

iPhone 4 CBS Interactive

I know I advised readers last week to skip the soon-to-be-released Samsung Galaxy S4 and stick with the older Samsung Galaxy S3 . And you might be thinking that I am contradicting myself this week by advising you to pass up the iPhone 4 offer.

But hear me out. The Samsung Galaxy S3 is less than a year old. When it was released last year, it used some of the fastest processors available. It also had a robust camera and other features. The new Samsung Galaxy 4 is an improvement over the older model, but these are incremental changes that probably won't make much difference to the average consumer.

When you compare the iPhone 4 to the iPhone 5, it's a different case entirely. The iPhone is two generations behind the iPhone 5. It was released in June 2010. That means the device is using technology that is at least three years old at this point. While this might not matter to tech savvy consumers, I think the processing technology, camera, and other hardware on the iPhone 4 are too old to justify getting yourself locked into another two-year contract.

But the biggest reason I don't recommend getting the iPhone 4 right now is because this phone does not operate on Verizon's 4G LTE network. It is a 3G-only device. I realize the phone you are currently using is also on Verizon's 3G network. But once you move to 4G you will realize the difference and you won't want to go back. It really is like going from dial-up Internet service to broadband. And since you will be locked into a two-year contract with this phone, you will be stuck on the 3G network for another two years while the rest of the nation is moving toward 4G LTE.

Still, I realize the temptation. And if you feel you must give in, it won't be the end of the world. The good news about the iPhone is that it holds its value better than any other smartphone on the market. Believe it or not, even with the limitations I listed above, there is still a market for the iPhone 4 three years after its debut.

As of today you could sell an 8GB iPhone 4 from Verizon in good condition for $80. A 32GB iPhone 4 on Verizon could fetch you $156 on NextWorth.com, another trade-in site. This sounds great considering if you get it from Verizon, you'll pay nothing for the device. But the reality is you still need a phone. And buying any smartphone at full price is a lot more than $85.

So what are your options? I'd just suck it up and get the iPhone 5, which will cost you $200 with a two-year contract. You could get the iPhone 4S, which is the iPhone between the iPhone 4 and iPhone 5. But I wouldn't recommend that either, since like the iPhone 4, the iPhone 4S does not support 4G LTE.

And your last option is simply to wait. Apple is expected to launch another new iPhone this summer or fall. That new device will definitely support 4G LTE, along with upgraded processors and new software.

As it has done in the past, Apple is likely to cut the price of the iPhone 5 by $100 when the new one comes out. And at that time, I think the iPhone 5 will be a good deal for consumers. Of course, it all depends on what features are included on the new iPhone. But my guess is this will be an incremental upgrade in terms of hardware. The iPhone 5 is the first iPhone to come with 4G LTE, so you won't have to worry about missing out on the faster network.

I hope this advice was helpful. And good luck.

Play

I need wireless broadband on vacation. Help!

Dear Maggie,
I have a few questions actually. I've tried to research 4G and 4G LTE coverage and the associated plans from the major providers (AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint).

Here's the situation I'm trying to address:

My husband and I each have a prepaid cellphone (AT&T Go Phone) because neither one of us uses them much. We spend about $100 per line per year. Yes, I know. It's amazing. He's retired, and I work from home, so it fits our budget.

Anyway, we go on vacation every year to Fenwick Island, Del., to a tiny cottage on the beach for a couple of weeks. It has no phone, cable, Wi-Fi, etc. Ideally, we'd like to have Internet access for a laptop so that we can watch TV. Broadcast TV down there is horrible.

I bought a Slingbox350, which is a very cool device. You can watch your own cable/satellite TV service via the Internet. It works incredibly well!

Now I would like to get either a hot spot or a USB modem with truly unlimited data so that we can watch TV, surf the Net, and check e-mail while on vacation.

So my questions are:

Are there any truly unlimited data plans with 4G LTE? Some of my research suggests that Verizon and T-Mobile are unlimited, no overage fee as long as you stay on the 4G LTE network.

Which providers have data plans with no overage charges?

Would it be more cost-effective to rent the device and service or buy the device and try to find a prepaid plan?

This whole thing is making my head hurt, HELP, please.

Thanks,
Kim

Dear Kim,
You are in luck asking me this specific question, because I grew up just north of Fenwick Island, Del., in Lewes, Del., so I am pretty familiar with the coverage options in that area. What a coincidence!

Verizon Jetpack 4G LTE Mobile hot spot MiFi 4510L Prepaid Verizon Wireless

Now I realize that Fenwick is several miles from Lewes, so I am not absolutely certain of the coverage options. But I do know that in Lewes and Rehoboth Beach, which is even closer to Fenwick, T-Mobile is pretty much useless. Sprint isn't much better. You might be able to get 3G coverage from Sprint near the main highway Route 1, but it's sorely lacking anywhere close to the beaches. My guess is that those two providers are probably not going to work for you.

The only services that I have found to work reliably in that area are AT&T and Verizon. I am almost certain that MetroPCS and Leap (aka Cricket Wireless) do not service that area. I haven't heard of any other smaller players offering services in that corner of the world either. If you do find a prepaid service that says it offers service there, make sure you know which network they use. If the service uses T-Mobile or Sprint and it claims coverage, I'd be leery given those carriers don't have a great network in Southern Delaware. If the company says it uses Verizon's or AT&T's network, you might be in better shape.

Also, you might want to ask other people who either live on Fenwick Island or visit there every summer, which wireless carriers they use. Perhaps the people who rent you the cottage would know. But as I said above, I am familiar with areas just north of there and the best services I've found are Verizon and AT&T.

Now to get to your other questions. I'm going to level with you. You aren't going to find any company that offers unlimited data in this area.

As I said before, you are pretty much limited to AT&T and Verizon. And neither of these operators offers unlimited data. This means that your usage will be capped at a certain level. And because streaming video over a wireless connection eats up a ton of bandwidth, this may be an expensive alternative for you.

The good thing about either the AT&T or Verizon plan is that you can turn these plans on and off. This means you don't need buy a two-year contract and pay the monthly fee when you aren't going to be at your cottage. So even though the monthly service may be expensive, you'll only need it for a few weeks anyway. And since you are paying so little for your cell phone service as it is, you might feel like you're able to splurge for a month or two while vacationing at the beach.

One thing to keep in mind. When you activate a prepaid data service for a short period of time, make sure the service is activated for an entire billing cycle that covers your vacation. If you stop the service before the end of the billing cycle, Verizon will prorate the service. You will pay less than a full month's service, but you will also get less data. And since you'll be streaming a lot of video, you need all the data you can get.

As for which device to use, I'd suggest either getting a MiFi hot spot or possibly a tablet that offers hotspot functionality. The benefit of these devices over a USB modem is that you will be able to connect multiple devices to the hot spot. So if you have two laptops or tablets or some other Wi-Fi enabled device, you can connect up to five of these devices at once to your hot spot to gain access to the Internet.

You can buy a Verizon MiFi for $130 from Verizon's Web site and it is compatible with Verizon's prepaid service. (Make sure that you buy the MiFi associated with Verizon's prepaid service, since the company doesn't allow every 4G MiFi on its network to use this data plan.) AT&T also offers MiFi hot spots for about $150.

Another option is to buy a tablet that connects to a carrier's 4G LTE network. If you decide to go this route, make sure the device has the carrier radio built in. Some tablets are sold as Wi-Fi only, which means they only connect to the Net via a Wi-Fi connection. And they cannot act as a Wi-Fi hot spot connecting to the Internet via a carrier's network. There are also some tablets that are only 3G-capable. You want a 4G device. The iPad third generation offers LTE service from Verizon and AT&T. The benefit of having a tablet is that it does a lot more than just offer you Internet connectivity.

With a MiFi, the data plan on Verizon Wireless with the most available data will cost $90 for 10GB of data. For some reason data pricing is different for tablets. In this instance, the 10GB option for the tablet data service is $80 a month on Verizon. AT&T's MiFi data plan is $50 a month for 5GB of data.

I think the Verizon plan is probably a better option for you simply because you can get more data under the plan, and you are more likely to use the 4G LTE network. AT&T is still building out its network, and I'm pretty certain the company doesn't yet offer 4G LTE in Fenwick Island.

Another thing to keep in mind is to make sure you monitor your data usage. Depending on how much TV you watch, you could end up blowing through the allotted 10GB of data pretty quickly. So you may want to mix your TV viewing with some evenings of walking along the beach or eating Thrashers french fries while strolling the boardwalk!

I hope this was helpful. And enjoy Fenwick Island this summer! I still love the Delaware beaches!

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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