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Ask Maggie: The promise of an unlocked iPhone 4

In this week's column, CNET's Maggie Reardon offers advice on whether to buy an unlocked iPhone for T-Mobile's network, as well as some thoughts on buying a feature phone for a reader's mom.

The iPhone is unlocked and set free in the U.S. So does this mean that T-Mobile and Sprint Nextel customers, who have been awaiting an iPhone to call their own, will finally get their hands on one?

In this week's Ask Maggie column I answer this very question. I also offer some advice to another reader about whether he should ditch his T-Mobile plan for the AT&T iPhone. And finally I offer some suggestions to a third reader looking for advice on a basic feature phone.

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

Unlocked iPhone; now what?

Dear Maggie,
I have been waiting for an unlocked iPhone to come out in the U.S. since the iPhone was first introduced in 2007. And now finally it's here! My question to you is this: Can I use this unlocked phone on T-Mobile or Sprint Nextel? I don't want to be an AT&T customer, and Verizon Wireless is too expensive.


Dear Carrie,

It is great news for consumers that they now have the option to buy an unlocked iPhone 4. Even though an unlocked iPhone will cost you $649 or $749 for one of the two options available today, there are still some benefits. My colleague Josh Lowensohn outlined some of these in a story this week.

  1. No more contracts
  2. No more dealing with hacks
  3. More flexibility for international travelers
  4. Use of the phone on other GSM carriers
  5. A shot in the arm for the iPhone 4 sales

So to answer your question: I've got a little bit of good news, some not-so-good news, and then some bad news. Yes, you can use the unlocked iPhone on T-Mobile. But the unlocked version of the iPhone is the GSM version, which was made for AT&T. This means that the unlocked iPhone 4 supports has radios that support the frequencies used for AT&T's 3G network. T-Mobile uses different frequencies for its 3G service, so if you were to use the unlocked iPhone on T-Mobile, it would only operate on the slower EDGE network. This could be painful for you, because 2.5G service on an iPhone is slow. But you'd still be able to access Wi-Fi hotspots for faster data downloads and uploads so it may not be too bad depending on your usage.

The other issue is that you'd have to cut down the T-Mobile SIM card to fit into the iPhone 4, which uses a micro-SIM. What this means it that you'll have to cut down the SIM card to fit into the T-Mobile phone.

So now for the bad news: Since the unlocked version of the phone is the GSM version, you won't be able to use it on Sprint Nextel. The reason why is that Sprint is a CDMA carrier. It uses a different technology from the GSM phone and therefore it can't support the unlocked phone on the network.

That said there are rumors that Sprint may be getting the iPhone soon. I have no idea how true these rumors are, but you may have that as an option as well sometime soon.

Mom needs a feature phone. Help!

Dear Maggie,
I had been a loyal customer of AT&T for many, many years (lived through the Cellular One and Cingular eras) and actually never had any major complaints until the world turned to smartphones and 3G/4G as the norm. Now I can't stand AT&T!!! They just didn't keep up. Though I will miss the discounted plans I have been grandfathered into, I have committed to switch to Verizon.

For me it's a no brainer and I have already decided I will go for the HTC Thunderbolt. The problem I have is selecting a phone for my mom. I pay for her phone on my family plan and she has been incredibly happy with her Motorola Krzr. Yes I know, that phone is several years old but my mom is NOT tech savvy at all and does not deal with change very well. She does not browse the web, texting is something she avoids if possible, and the concept of her phone being used for anything other than making phone calls is completely foreign to her. Though she will take the occasional picture.

All this is to ask, what would be the best basic phone on the Verizon network that I could get my mom? Just need it to make good quality calls, and maybe take pictures. That said, I know she likes how slim/sleek her Krzr is. So I know she would want something that looks cute/cool. With everything going the smartphone route, there seems to be a limited amount of choice (and reviews) on basic phones. PLEASE HELP!!


Dear Steve,
I hear you. My dad also has not advanced to a smartphone and I doubt he ever will. And even though more and more people are buying smartphones, there's still a market for the most basic phones. And yet carriers are not offering them as much.

To help answer your question I asked Nicole Lee, who reviews all the feature phones at CNET for her recommendations for your mom. Here's what she said: "The LG Octane is a decent alternative if she wants a basic messaging phone. There aren't that many 'cute/cool' basic phones on Verizon though. The other options I can think of are the LG Accolade and the Samsung Haven, but those didn't get very good ratings. She should try them out at the store anyway though."

I hope that helps!

Should I stay or should I go?

Dear Maggie,

My wife and I are with T-Mobile in a "grandfathered" type of a contract. Commercials I see on the TV from AT&T are advertising the T-Mobile and AT&T partnerships. We want the iPhone. But we don't want to end our current contract with T-Mobile until we know what the new one will be. What should we do? Will the iPhone come to T-Mobile? Or can we get the same deal with have with T-Mobile on AT&T for the iPhone?

Thank you

Thank you,
Confused and tired, Josh

Dear Josh,
The AT&T and T-Mobile merger is still being reviewed. And it will likely take at least a year or regulators to decide to ok the deal. This means that until the deal is completed, T-Mobile and AT&T operate as separate companies. They still compete with one another. This means that AT&T will not match your current T-Mobile plan. Even after the merger closes, it's unlikely that AT&T will continue the old T-Mobile plans. That said they will have to honor any contract you are under when the merger closes until that contract ends. After that, it's anyone's guess what they will do.

As I mentioned in an answer to an earlier question, the iPhone 4 is now unlocked as of this week, and it's possible to use it on the T-Mobile network. But you will not get a subsidized price for the phone. You will have to pay the full retail price. And the iPhone 4 won't operate on T-Mobile's 3G network. It will operate on the lower speed EDGE network.

So what should you do? It depends on what you want more: a fully functional iPhone or a low cost plan. If most of your data usage will be in Wi-Fi hotspots, you could suffer through the EDGE when you're not in Wi-Fi and still be able to keep your plan and get phone calls and text messages. But if you think it will be too painful to have slower data access on T-Mobile's 2.5G network, then you may want to consider changing. In that case, you can also consider Verizon Wireless, since it offers the iPhone 4 too.

As for T-Mobile getting their own version of the iPhone? I wouldn't hold my breath.

Thanks for your question! And good luck.