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The 411: Data plan conundrum

Every two weeks, CNET editor Nicole Lee answers your questions about cell phones and cell phone accessories in The 411.

Welcome to the 411, my column answering all your questions about cell phones and cell phone accessories. I receive plenty of questions about these subjects via e-mail, so I figured many of you might have the same questions, too. At times, I might solicit answers from readers if I'm stumped. Send your questions and comments to me at If you prefer to remain anonymous, let me know in the e-mail.

My question is, if you purchase an unlocked smartphone ( such as an iPhone 4 or similar) will you be able to use all of its features and will a no contract carrier support it? Do you have any recommendations for no contract carriers and for purchasing an unlocked phone through a reputable seller? I watched the segment on CNET about how to unlock a cell phone, but am unsure if it's something I want to attempt on my own, and then there is the problem of getting the code you need too. -- Nora, via e-mail.

Can you use an unlocked iPhone in the U.S.? Sure. Josh P. Miller/CNET

The simple answer is, yes, as long as the unlocked smartphone you are purchasing is compatible with the carrier. This applies mostly to GSM phones, simply because it's so much easier--using a different carrier with an unlocked GSM phone is as easy as swapping out the SIM card. This is possible with CDMA phones, but it's much trickier and not as widely supported. Fortunately for you, most smartphones have quad-band GSM support (this includes the iPhone 4), essentially making them a world phone that is compatible with all GSM carriers. For the U.S., that would be AT&T and T-Mobile. However, if you want to use the iPhone4's 3G band, you'll have to stick with AT&T. That is because the iPhone 4 supports 850, 900, 1900, and 2100 Mhz UMTS/HSDPA/HSUPA bands, not the 1700/2100 bands that T-Mobile USA requires. This just means that if you use the iPhone 4 with T-Mobile, you'll be stuck with a slower EDGE Web browsing experience. If you're happy with that, then by all means, go ahead and do just that. The process is similar with other unlocked GSM phones, but bear in mind that most carriers require you to activate some kind of data plan to use a smartphone. With certain unlocked phones, like the Sony Ericsson models, you'll have to enter a validation code for your particular carrier in the Internet settings for you to use the Internet at all. This varies from phone to phone however, so we would encourage you to check with the manufacturer.

As for your other question on whether to buy an unlocked phone or to unlock it yourself, that's entirely up to you and how comfortable you are with the seller, and how comfortable you are with your own technical skills. Unlocking the iPhone is not terribly difficult with the right tools, but you do need to be pretty tech savvy to pull it off--unlocking other smartphones might not be so difficult. At the time of this writing, there is no iPhone 4 unlock method released to the public just yet, though a development team called the iPhone Dev Team is said to be releasing just such a method in early August. If all of that sounds like Greek to you, then perhaps it's better to buy the phone unlocked. It's definitely far riskier to buy it from eBay or some place where you're not sure if you can return the phone, but that's the risk you take when purchasing unlocked phones.

Our contract is up with Verizon and we (me mostly, husband not a techie type) wanted to get the most updated non flip modern phones. Now, we have four phones in the family and three are up for upgrade now. When I looked at some of the newer types like Android, etc. and was informed that they would cost us about $30 more a month for each phone, my anticipation of upgrading phones deflated. I was told by Verizon that it's the manufacturer's that are enforcing this extra charge per month. So I guess my question is do you recommend any phone that is more modern than my old Motorola flip phone that would not carry that extra charge? Like I know three that they said would not are: 1) Samsung Intensity, 2) LG Cosmos, and 3) Pantech Jest. Which one would you recommend? -- Penny, via e-mail.

You're right Penny, that most modern smartphones as well as some of the higher end feature phones do require a $30 a month data plan. I'm not sure if I necessarily buy Verizon's explanation that it's the manufacturers who are enforcing that extra charge, but it does mean you need to look for simpler non-multimedia phones to qualify for a lower rate. We haven't had a chance to review the Pantech Jest yet, so we can only give you our opinion of the Intensity and the Cosmos. I think both phones are pretty good, though our readers seem to like the Cosmos especially. That said, Verizon has just announced the availability of the Samsung Intensity II, which looks like a sleeker update to the original Samsung Intensity. If you can, stay tuned for our review of that phone so you can make a more informed decision.

I am on Verizon, am a full-time student, and currently use a Palm Centro that has lots of cool features, and I don't have to have a data plan with it. It was the last smartphone verizon offered without having to fork out 30 bucks for a data plan. My question is: I want a phone that has many "smartphone" features--usually referred to as "feature phones"--but doesn't have the whole Internet thing going on. I really don't want to pay 30 dollars extra for somethng I don't want (especially when I have a computer at work, home, on me all the time already anyway.) These are the features I love about my Palm Centro: Touch Screen(must), Calendar rocks, very very user friendly, voice dialing, qwerty keyboard and has lots of ways to adjust colors, themes, etc . -- Paula, via e-mail.

If you want to avoid data plans altogether, then I'm afraid you'll have to stick to what Verizon calls "feature phones," which might not have a lot of features that are on your Centro. From what I can tell, none of these feature phones has a touch screen, and the calendar functionalities are rather limited. Still, many of the phones do have voice dialing and QWERTY keyboards--the Samsung Intensity and the LG Cosmos from the previous letter, for example. However, if you're willing to pay at least $9.99 for your data plan, then that gives you the option of selecting one of Verizon's "3G Multimedia Phones," which are essentially higher-end feature phones, or "smartphone lite" as some people call them. The three touch-screen options from that list are the Samsung Reality, the LG EnV Touch, and the LG Chocolate Touch, and two of them have keyboards--the Reality and the EnV Touch. Of those two, the Reality is the more recent, and probably the most up-to-date. However, the calendar on the Reality is really not as polished as the one on the Centro, and I'm afraid you'll find not many non-smartphones can compete with the calendar functionality of most smartphones. Still, I would encourage you to go into a Verizon store and give it a try--it might fit your needs. If any of our readers have other suggestions, please feel free to let me know.