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Can I use a hand-me-down iPhone without a data plan?

In this edition of Ask Maggie, I help one reader figure out if she can give her old iPhone to her daughter without subscribing to a data plan. And I offer advice on finding a reliable smartphone.

Christmastime is a time of giving. So it's natural that if you got a shiny new smartphone, you'd want to give your old one away to a friend or family member. But be careful to whom you bestow this present. If the lucky recipient of your generous gift doesn't already have a smartphone and a smartphone data plan, you may be saddling him or her with a higher monthly bill.

In this edition of Ask Maggie I clear up the confusion around whether a smartphone can be used for voice service only. I also offer some advice on finding a reliable smartphone.

Beware the hand-me-down iPhone

Dear Maggie,

How are you? I got a new iPhone 4S for Christmas and I wanted to give my old iPhone 3GS to my daughter. The problem is that I don't want to add the data service to the old iPhone. It's too expensive, and I don't think she needs a data plan. I was hoping she could just use my old iPhone as a regular phone. And if she needs data, she can use it when she's in a Wi-Fi hot spot. Is it possible to use the phone without subscribing to a data plan?


Dear Cindy,

Unfortunately, AT&T requires that all smartphone users subscribe to a data plan as well as a voice plan. This means that you cannot use an iPhone or any other smartphone on AT&T's network just as a voice phone and as a data phone when in a Wi-Fi hot spot.

I called AT&T customer service to verify this information, and the customer representative told me that this is indeed the policy. When you put a new SIM card into your smartphone, the network will recognize that this subscriber is now on a smartphone instead of a regular phone, and you will be automatically charged $25 per month for the 2GB data plan. If you want the cheaper data plan, which is 200MB for $15 a month, you will have to call AT&T and make the switch. In other words, the default data plan is the more expensive one.

You can still use the iPhone 3GS as an iPod Touch. You can put the phone in airplane mode so that it doesn't connect to AT&T's cellular network. And then you can still use the Wi-Fi connection. With the iMessage app and other apps for messaging, your daughter will be able to send text messages to you and others. And with voice over IP apps, such as Skype, she will also be able to make phone calls. The only caveat, of course, is that she will have to be in a Wi-Fi hot spot to use those services. This is a big limitation, especially if you had considered allowing her to use your old iPhone primarily as a phone.

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.

Looking for a reliable smartphone

Dear Maggie,

My Samsung Galaxy contract is up in April. I am thinking about getting the iPhone 4S. I previously had an iPhone but switched to Android for my latest phone. Anyway, except for Swype and the Google OS, I hate my Samsung Galaxy. My primary objective is reliability. What do you recommend? Is there a decent Swype app for the iPhone 4S?


Dear Cooper,

First, I've got some bad news for your. The iPhone 4S does not have the Swype app. The Google Android OS allows applications that replace the keyboard on its devices. And the Swype app is a keyboard replacement application made by a third party. It lets you use one continuous motion using your finger as a stylus to input keys on your phone and it makes typing on your phone a lot easier.

Unfortunately, for you and other Swype-lovers, Apple doesn't allow any developer to change the keyboard experience on the iPhone. So Swype developers are unable to provide an app that does the same thing for an iPhone.

As you implied in your question, Apple has gotten higher marks than some Android smartphone makers when it comes to reliability. PC World recently found in a survey of its readers that Apple and LG received better-than-average scores for reliability while other smartphone makers ranked lower. BlackBerry maker Research in Motion and Samsung were near the bottom of the list when it came to reliability.

There's other data to suggest that the Apple iPhone is more reliable than some Google Android phones. For two years in a row the third-party warranty provider SquareTrade has ranked the iPhone at the top for reliability when compared with other devices. SquareTrade analyzed data from its customers who have bought its extended warranties.

So what should you do? Honestly, I think it's really hard to say for certain that the iPhone is more reliable than all Android devices. There are plenty of people I know who have had trouble with their iPhones. And I know of a lot of satisfied Android customers. So definitively stating that one is more reliable than another is hard for me to do. (I offered some advice on this topic in a previous Ask Maggie column.) But clearly you haven't been happy with your current Samsung device. So I wouldn't buy another device from that manufacturer if I were you.

The iPhone 4S is certainly a strong option for you, but you won't get Swype. So if that's something you can't live without, you may want to consider other Android manufacturers, such as Motorola, LG, and HTC. Each of these smartphone makers got higher scores for reliability in the PC World survey.

Again, I'm not sure how much stock I'd put in this particular survey, so I suggest conducting your own survey of friends and family to see which smartphones they're most satisfied with. If you ask enough people, you may see a pattern. And then I'd decide which phone you think is best for you.

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 dose of 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.