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What to do when your smartphone craps out before the contract ends

Ask Maggie offers some advice so that you aren't stuck with a broken smartphone before your wireless contract expires.

When you sign a new wireless contract and pay $200 for the latest smartphone, you expect that device to last at least until the end of your two-year contract. Right?

Unfortunately that's not the case for many smartphone subscribers. If your device has issues within the first year, consider yourself lucky since the repair is likely covered under the manufacturer warranty. But if it craps out 13 months into your contract, you may be screwed. Ask Maggie offers some advice for how to protect yourself. And in a second question, there's some advice for keeping an older iPhone alive as long as possible.

Busted smartphones and busted wallets

Dear Maggie,
My question is regarding cellular service contracts and smartphones. I am a longtime Verizon Wireless customer. In our household, we have owned five smartphones over the past three years. Four out of those five smartphones have failed prior to the two-year contract expiration. There have been software issues, touch-screen failures and one of the phones just went bonkers.

These smartphones all made it past the one-year warranty, which leaves us with an inoperative phone and usually about one more year of a contract to fulfill. Verizon has no good answer for this. Their remedy is to purchase another phone with data at full price. I have purchased two used smartphones in order to fulfill my contract. Now that I am due for a new contract, I am afraid to purchase another smartphone. Prices for new smartphones are now even higher, and it appears contract periods are lengthening. What do you suggest?

Mike in Ohio

Dear Mike in Ohio,
It sounds like you have terrible luck with smartphones. But unfortunately, I am sure your experience isn't unique. I know lots of consumer electronics poop out just after the warranty expires. And it's frustrating.

But you are caught between a rock and a hard place. You could go back to a basic feature phone, but you'd be giving up the convenience and utility of a smartphone. Instead, I'd suggest you do some research to find smartphones or manufacturers with a better track record when it comes to reliability. Then I'd consider getting an insurance or extended warranty plan for your phones.

In terms of the research, I'd ask friends and colleagues how satisfied they are with their phone's reliability. Then you can look on the Internet for consumer feedback on particular phones.

PCWorld recently surveyed readers and found that two smartphone manufacturers received better-than-average marks for reliability: Apple and LG. Near the bottom of the heap were BlackBerry maker Research In Motion and Samsung. I'm not saying that you should only buy an iPhone or an LG phone and that you should avoid RIM and Samsung phones, but you may want to consider this as one data point in your assessment as you talk to others and research complaints of specific phones you're interested in buying.

The second thing I'd suggest is for you to consider buying either an insurance plan or an extended warranty for your devices.

Verizon Wireless offers insurance for all devices bought for its network. So you may want to consider getting the insurance. But honestly, I still think it's a bit pricey. The total price for one device is $167.76 for over the 24 months of a contract. If you have multiple handsets in the family, as you do, that really adds up.

Also, the insurance comes with a $99 deductible. So if you need to replace your phone, it will still cost you at least $99. That said, Verizon's service is insurance and not a warranty. This actually offers more protection than you'd get with a basic warranty. For instance, if the phone is lost or stolen or it's damaged in some other way, the insurance should cover the repair or replacement of your phone. Read the terms of the Verizon insurance and your manufacturer's phone warranty to get exact details.

Verizon isn't the only company to offer insurance for smartphones. There are several third-party smartphone insurance providers, but typically these policies also have a deductible of about $100. I suppose if you're looking at potentially spending $600 on a new phone without a subsidy, the cost of the insurance and subsidy may be worth it. But again, I think it's rather pricey.

You can also buy an extended warranty for your smartphones. A company called SquareTrade sells an extended warranty for about $125 for two years. This is a reasonable price given that some retailer extended warranty plans, such as BestBuy's, can cost $15 a month for a smartphone for a total of about $360 for two years of coverage.

SquareTrade's warranty covers things like cracked screens, dropped devices, spills, and other things that may happen to a smartphone, but aren't necessarily covered under a manufacturer warranty. Like the insurance plans, it also includes a deductible. But it's less expensive at $50.

If you buy an Apple iPhone, you can get AppleCare+ for $99, which extends the hardware warranty and also offers software support.

Unlike other third-party warranty programs there is no deductible for AppleCare+, so that's a plus. Apple also does offer up to two incidents of accidental damage coverage, but that is subject to a charge of $49 for each incident.

The AppleCare+ warranty also applies to accessories that come with your phone. So if your headphones start rattling 13 months after buying your iPhone, you can get them replaced. I like the AppleCare+ option also because it includes software support. In your original question you mentioned that some of the problems you've had with your smartphones have been software-related. Software isn't typically covered under warranties, so keep that in mind as well as you decide whether to invest in insurance or an extended warranty.

One other thing to keep in mind if you are considering either a warranty or insurance is to know the difference between the two options. A warranty mainly covers defects in the device, whereas insurance will cover damage inflicted on the device as well as offer coverage if your device is lost or stolen.

I'm not saying that insurance or an extended warranty is the way to go for you. But it does sound as though you've had trouble in the past. And if you can afford the additional coverage, it may be worth it for you in the future.

If you don't want to spend the money for additional coverage, then make sure to buy your new smartphones on a credit card that offers an extended warranty on purchases. For example, American Express offers extended manufacturer warranties up to one year past the original warranty. The extended manufacturer warranty is free, and you don't have to sign up to get the benefit. It will also extend the warranty an additional year after a third-party purchased warranty expires.

One thing to keep in mind with smartphones is that the credit card company will only cover the replacement or repair of the product up to the amount that was charged for the device on your card. So if you buy a new smartphone as part of a new wireless contract and you only pay $200 for it, that will be the amount that the credit card company will pay you if there is damage. This means that if your smartphone breaks in its second year of your service contract, American Express or whoever will only credit your account up to $200 if a replacement is needed. Meanwhile, it may cost you another $400 to replace the phone with a new out-of-contract device. But getting $200 back is better than nothing, since you did not have to pay for insurance or an extended warranty.

Here's a brief recap of what I think you should do:

  1. Research the phones you're interested in buying to see what others say about their reliability. Check the Internet, as well as talk to friends and family.
  2. Consider insurance or an extended warranty.
  3. Purchase the new devices on a credit card with an automatic extended warranty. Be sure to keep the original sales receipt, credit card receipt, and manufacturer warranty. And make sure you store these documents together in a safe place.

I hope this helps and good luck!

Battery life issues

Dear Maggie,
I have an iPhone 3GS. And I just noticed that my phone, which had been working perfectly fine for two and a half years, is now losing its battery charge halfway through the day. And sometimes, I just get a black screen and it shuts down. I recharge it, and then it seems to work again. But this battery life issue is a huge pain!

So I am wondering if I should just give up on my old phone and get the iPhone 4S? Or do you have some advice to help me fix this problem. I am eligible for an upgrade now, but my contract isn't up until April. I'm thinking about switching carriers when my contract expires, so I don't really want to enter into a new two-year contract now. And I would like to see what new iPhone Apple introduces next year.

Is there anything I can do to hold onto my old 3GS a little longer? I haven't upgraded to iOS 5 yet because I'm afraid it might make things worse. What do you think?

Thanks, br> Diane

Dear Diane, br> I am with you. I wouldn't want to ditch my iPhone with only a few months left before your contract ends. So if you can hang onto it a little longer, that's what I would do. After all, you don't want to sign up for a new contract when you can't even consider all your alternatives. And if you can wait until the spring at least, it seems like we may have more clarity about Apple's timing for a new iPhone.

So what should you do? Well, the first thing is that you need to update the software on your phone. This may take a little while, so don't try to do it in the morning before you leave for work. Also, before you get started make sure you do two things: 1. Back up your phone, so in case something goes wrong, you've got all your most recent music, contacts, SMS message conversations, etc. saved so it can be restored on your iPhone. 2. Make sure that your iTunes software on your computer is also up-to-date.

The thing about cell phone batteries is that they don't last forever. After a period of time all cell phone batteries hold less charge. So there is a certain amount of battery life loss that everyone can expect with any device over time.

That said, new software updates, like iOS 5 can help improve how your phone functions so that it can extend or preserve battery life. There are also things you can do to make sure your phone uses less power throughout the day.

I had a similar battery issue with my 2-year-old iPhone 3GS, and the problem went away after I upgraded the phone to iOS 5.

But if you install the new software, and you're still having trouble with the battery life of your iPhone 3GS, make an appointment at the Apple Genius Bar to see if there is anything they can recommend.

In the meantime, there are several things you can do to try to extend battery life on any smartphone.

  • Turn off unused radios. If you're in the subway or in your office where you get no signal or a weak signal, put your phone in airplane mode. That way it won't be searching for a signal and eat up your battery. The same goes for your Wi-Fi radio. If you aren't using Wi-Fi, then turn it off. It takes more energy to power these extra radios.
  • Close unused applications. Lots of applications can be running on your phone at the same time. But you are likely focused on one task at a time. So turn off location-based services when you don't need them and the Bluetooth functionality for your hands-free headset when you're not in the car. These things eat up a lot of battery when you're not using them. You may also want to turn off push notifications for e-mail and other apps. Again, if your phone is doing something, it's using the battery, so shutting down some of that activity will help preserve your battery.
  • Dim your screen. Turn down the brightness on your screen, and it will use less power.
  • Turn off vibrate on your phone. It takes more power to make your phone vibrate when you are receiving a phone call or text message than the ringer. So turn off vibrate, and instead just use the ringer.
  • Turn off your phone. If your phone can't make it through the day, then turn it off when you're not using it. For example, if you're going into a meeting for work and you'd usually put your phone on silent, turn it off instead. You can always turn it back on when you're available for phone calls and text messages.

I hope this advice was helpful. And 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.