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HTC Thunderbolt vs. Droid Bionic - Ask Maggie

In this week's Ask Maggie I offer some advice on whether to buy the HTC Thunderbolt for Verizon's 4G wireless network now or wait for the Motorola Droid Bionic expected later this year on the same network.

Wireless subscribers looking for the fastest data network available have been waiting with bated breath for Verizon Wireless's first 4G smartphone. And now the HTC Thunderbolt is here. But one reader wants to know if he should wait for what might be an even snappier 4G phone on Verizon.

In this week's Ask Maggie column, I answer the age-old question of whether to buy now or wait. I also help another reader determine if he should compromise luxury phones for more affordable service fees. And I discuss whether I think we'll all be buying stuff with our mobile phones using Near Field Communications technology.

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.

Thunderbolt or Motorola Droid Bionic?

Dear Maggie,
I've been holding out for a 4G phone for quite a while now. With the HTC Thunderbolt finally here, does it make sense to purchase this one and finally fulfill my smartphone desires, or should I wait a few more months for the release of the Droid Bionic?

It seems the big advantage the Bionic will have is the Dual Core processor. However, the effect that will have on battery life is a bit of a concern for me. Do you think it makes sense to wait or should I go for the Thunderbolt? Also, I'm excited to see Verizon is keeping the $29.99 for unlimited data, even with 4G plans. If I lock into a 2-year contract on the Thunderbolt, does that mean I'll have that pricing plan for the remainder of my plan? I'm worried if I wait for the Bionic, Verizon will by that time move to a tiered (and pricier) 4G policy.


Dear Neal,
This is a difficult question to answer, because it's hard to say when the Motorola Bionic will finally hit store shelves. As you might have noted from my column last week, I had given up on the HTC Thunderbolt being launched before June. And then Tuesday, Verizon said it would launch the device on March 17.

To help you make your decision, I chatted with CNET Reviews editor Bonnie Cha. She just got the Thunderbolt for testing this week. Her full review of the phone will be up today. First, she said that Verizon's LTE data speeds are fast. In fact, she said Verizon's LTE network is faster than Sprint and T-Mobile USA. (AT&T isn't even in the same category yet with the phones she's been able to test.)

So in either case, you should be very happy with the network performance of either the Thunderbolt or the Bionic.

But she and I agree that if you have waited this long, you might want to wait a little longer, just to see what the Bionic is like. The dual core processor will make the Bionic a snappier phone, Bonnie said. When the Bionic comes out, then you can really test them for yourself side by side. And reviewers, such as Bonnie will have a better idea of how the battery life of each device stacks up. Bonnie said she's a little concerned about the Thunderbolt's battery life, but when I spoke to her she hadn't completed her testing. If you'll remember, the HTC Evo for Sprint's 4G WIMax network also initially had battery issues, but they were alleviated by a software upgrade.

Now for the second part of your question: How will Verizon's possible data pricing change in the future? If you sign up for an unlimited data plan now, you will have that plan for the duration of your contract. So you won't have to worry about Verizon getting rid of the unlimited plan or jacking up the price, because it won't apply to you if you get the Thunderbolt now. Also, from now until May 15, Verizon is offering the hotspot feature for free. This is a promotion that's supposed to give subscribers a taste of the service. After the promotion period ends, customers can sign up for the service, which costs $20 in addition to the data service fee.

Verizon has indicated that it plans to offer a tiered data plan for wireless eventually. But it hasn't said when it will introduce this plan. Since I don't know when the Bionic will launch or whether Verizon would keep the $30 a month unlimited plan for that device, it's hard to say what you should do. But if I was deciding, I'd probably wait. I don't think that Verizon's new data plans will be so unpalatable for consumers that you'd regret waiting for a more advanced phone.

'Luxury' smartphones vs. cheap service plans

Dear Maggie,
I recently "broke up" with Verizon Wireless in favor of Virgin Mobile's $25 smartphone plan. I was paying much, much more with Verizon. And I thought that I could be happy with a lower-end phone. I chose the LG Optimus V, downgrading from my Droid X.

Don't get me wrong, I love my Optimus V, but I miss the quickness and 'luxury' feel of the Droid X.

My question is: Do you know of or think that there might be any high-end phones headed to Virgin Mobile? I also hear that the LG Optimus line of phone may be getting the 2.3 Gingerbread update. Do you know if this includes the Optimus V? If so, do you think that this would improve the performance of the lower-end phone? I assume that it would still not support Adobe Flash 10.1, since the hardware is still outdated.

Help! I am thinking about switching back to Verizon, but I just don't want to pay that much per month when I can get the same experience out of a $25 plan.


Dear Matthew,

Break-ups are rough, especially when you're second-guessing yourself. So I feel your pain.

Services such as Virgin Mobile, MetroPCS, and Cricket are great for offering customers terrific value on basic service. But unfortunately, these companies don't get the latest and greatest smartphones. Those devices are reserved for the biggest carriers. Even Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile USA have a hard time getting the most cutting-edge devices over AT&T and Verizon Wireless. And the reason is pretty simple: AT&T and Verizon simply have more customers. And for handset manufacturers, this means more potential sales for their hot devices.

With wireless penetration above 90 percent in the U.S., wireless operators are duking it out for customers. And right now, having exclusive rights to certain devices is one of the ways carriers compete against one another. So unfortunately, I'd say that it's unlikely Virgin Mobile will get any of the hottest or most advanced smartphones anytime soon.

My colleague CNET Reviews editor Nicole Lee agrees with me. But Nicole said she thinks that phones like the Optimus V and the Samsung Intercept are a pretty good value for the price. Nicole, who tests and reviews many of these phones for CNET, said LG has promised that all of its entry-level Optimus phones will be upgraded to the Gingerbread version of the Android operating system. But the company has yet to roll out any sort of upgrade schedule. She added that Gingerbread will bring a few interface improvements to the Optimus V, but if Flash isn't in a particular phone now, it probably won't be there with Gingerbread, owing to hardware limitations.

Nicole recommends this link to get more details on Gingerbread features.

So the short answer to your question is this: If you really want a "luxury" smartphone, you should probably leave Virgin Mobile and go to one of the big carriers. Sorry to break the bad news to you.

Banking on mobile payments

Dear Maggie,
What are your thoughts on NFC chips for mobile payments? I'm skeptical about security, and quite frankly, I rarely see anyone using them with current credit cards. Do you think this is really the future of payment systems?

Best regards,

Dear Chris,
I think Near Field Communications, or NFC, which is the wireless technology that makes mobile payments possible, has been improving. And eventually I do see mobile payments taking off. That said, there's no question that the industry has been talking about this for a long time. And the start has been slow.

My colleague CNET Senior Writer Elinor Mills, who covers security for CNET News, recently wrote about using Near Field Communications on smartphones to replace credit cards for payments. Her article was specifically about Visa's implementation called PayWave.

One of the problems with broad adoption of mobile payments is the fact that device makers haven't added the necessary NFC chips in enough phones. Retailers have also dragged their feet on getting the necessary NFC readers to allow for the payments to be taken.

The GSM Association has helped move the effort along with a standard, but only now are NFC-enabled devices starting to hit the market. But Visa isn't waiting for these devices to land in the marketplace. Its PayWave system allows wireless subscribers to put NFC-enabled "skins" and stickers on their phones to start using mobile payments with existing phones. Visa plans a commercial rollout of this service in the U.S. in the second half of this year. Wells Fargo, Chase, U.S. Bank, and Bank of America are each running trials of the service now in the states.

As you point out in your question, there are some security concerns. And Elinor's story discusses these issues. That said, according to her reporting, using an NFC-enabled phone for payments may actually be more secure than using a credit card.

"Anyone can swipe a credit card or steal the credit card number off a charge slip," she writes in her story. "Credit cards can also be cloned, and skimming devices and videocameras hidden in ATMs and gas station terminals can snatch both the credit card number and the PIN."

Elinor talked to security experts Collin Mulliner and Karsten Nohl for their opinions. Mulliner had done research on ways to attack NFC mobile phones in 2008. But he said attacks that he had suggested as possible then would likely not be an issue using the Visa implementation. Still, he wondered if a Trojan horse could be created to get inside a phone via a malicious Web link or download and then hijack transactions.

Visa technology partner DeviceFidelity said there are ways to mitigate these attacks. For example, digital keys used for authentication are encrypted on the chip. What's more "neither the three-digit security code on the back of credit cards nor the cardholder name are stored on the microSD card. Unauthorized apps cannot communicate with the device, and no digital keys are stored in the app--they come from the Visa network."

There is still room for improvement, according to security expert Karsten Nohl, who is well known for exposing security weaknesses in RFID (radio-frequency identification) wireless smart card chips and mobile phones. He said in an e-mail to Elinor that NFC is just a form of RFID and carriers "the same promises, opportunities, and weaknesses as any other RFID incarnation."

But he noted that, like the Internet, which is also prone to attacks and security issues, solutions can be designed to mitigate these problems.

"Several evolutionary technology waves have led to secure transaction protocols over the Internet," he said in his e-mail to Elinor. "Let's hope NFC takes fewer iterations and years to become mature."

I hope this helps answer your questions. Check out Elinor's story for even more information on this subject.