The 411: No smartphone without a data plan

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

Nicole Lee Former Editor
Nicole Lee is a senior associate editor for CNET, covering cell phones, Bluetooth headsets, and all things mobile. She's also a fan of comic books, video games, and of course, shiny gadgets.
Nicole Lee
4 min read

This is the 411, my Q&A 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 nicole.lee@cnet.com. If you prefer to remain anonymous, let me know in the e-mail.

The Nokia N86 has Wi-Fi, an 8-megapixel camera, and 30 fps video recording, but is only available unlocked. Josh Miller/CNET

I'm looking into purchasing a new phone and possibly upgrading to a smart phone with AT&T. The hitch is that I can't afford a data plan yet. I would like a smart phone with Wi-Fi so that I can take advantage of the capabilities and processing power of a smart phone, but just not web enabled everywhere I go. In reality, most places I imagine needing wireless data, there is an open WiFi network nearby, so 3G connectivity and dealing with expensive data plans isn't totally necessary either. I would also like this phone to have a decent camera (3 to 5 megapixels) and 30 fps video recording. I would also like the ability to view full HTML web pages with zoom capabilities (multi-touch). So what are my best options without buying an unlocked phone? -- Mike, via e-mail.

Unfortunately, you can't get a smartphone without a data plan unless you're purchasing an unlocked phone. This is the same with pretty much all U.S. carriers, and it's regardless of whether the phone has Wi-Fi or not. As for smartphones with Wi-Fi and a 3-5-megapixel camera with 30 fps video recording, I can only think of unlocked models, like the Samsung Omnia 2, the Nokia N97, and the Nokia N86. You could look into getting an iPod Touch or something similar if you just want to use Wi-Fi, but of course you won't get the camera in that case. Readers, let me know if you can think of other solutions.

I have been investigating cell phone options and I am stumped. I am currently a Verizon Wireless customer (no contract) and I need a new phone. I would like to get a phone with email and web access. My husband has an iPhone. We have a Mac laptop at home and subscribe to Mobile Me. An iPhone might seem to be a no-brainer, but I am not sure. My main concern is the network. I have never had service problems with Verizon and the coverage is great, and I hear there are many service issues with the iPhone especially in big cities (we live in Chicago). Do you anticipate improvements to AT&T's 3G network that would make it comparable to Verizon's? Also, how big a deal is it to buy a phone without wi-fi (which most of Verizon's phones lack)? -- Dana, via e-mail.

Since you're concerned about the iPhone coverage in your area, I'm assuming your husband has reported a lack of AT&T coverage. This is, as you might have heard, not uncommon in metropolitan cities like Chicago, New York, and San Francisco. This is not a universal issue by any means--we've heard reports of good coverage as well--but your mileage may vary depending on where you live and work. If your primary concern is voice and data coverage, then a Verizon phone would probably work better for you. You can certainly find a way to get a Windows Mobile or BlackBerry smartphone to work with a Mac (usually via third-party software), and if you can wait for the Motorola Droid, Android phones can sync with a Mac as well. You probably won't be able to use iTunes to sync music or podcasts though (Let us know if we're wrong on this). As for the lack of Wi-Fi, it's not a huge issue as long as you're not downloading big files. You do have to watch out that you don't hit Verizon's monthly data cap of 5GB though.

Could you please help me out? I do appreciate your time!! I am thinking of either getting the Hero or the Touch Pro 2 from Sprint. I will use the phone mainly for messaging,web browsing and utilizing NFL live whenever possible and maybe a word document every now and then but not too often. I like that the Hero has a smaller foot print but wonder if the keyboard on the TP2 is worth the extra size or not? Does the virtual keyboard work very well? Do you like the Qwerty on the TP2 better? If you were to choose one, which one would you choose? Could you please give me your opinion and help me out. I really do appreciate your time. -- Bruce, via e-mail.

It comes down to whether or not you would be comfortable with a virtual keyboard. For me, I'm fine with a virtual keyboard, and the virtual keyboard on the HTC Hero is actually quite usable. Still, it's not quite as easy and intuitive to use as a physical keyboard like the one on the HTC Touch Pro 2. If you think you'll only use the keyboard once in a while, then the Hero might be a better bet. Another thing to consider is that the HTC Hero runs on the Android platform, while the HTC Touch Pro 2 uses Windows Mobile. It sounds to me like you won't be using the Office apps that often, which again makes me think you might be better off with the Hero. Still, I would suggest trying out both phones in your local Sprint shop before you make the final decision.