Decoding the smartphone peddlers’ fuzzy math

Posted by on Jan 14, 2015 in Jacksonville, Life | No Comments
I took the plunge for the T-Mobile Test Drive, a clever "try-before-you-buy" promotion.

I took the plunge for the T-Mobile Test Drive, a clever “try-before-you-buy” promotion.

Eight years. Four contracts. Untold thousands of dollars. That’s what Cingular Wireless/AT&T has gotten out of me since January 2007, when my angst over six years of Sprint boiled over into a messy divorce.

Over where the grass was (at the moment) green as an Irish meadow in September, then-Cingular soon had me smitten by a shiny, slideout-keyboard HTC gem. Like a data-dangling temptress, I was hooked.

This was all mere days before Steve Jobs introduced us to his iPhone, and its exclusive provider. My new provider. I was on track, in the batting box, warming up for appleization.

Two years later, still deep in the meadow of subsidized cell phone plans, I obediently completed my first two-year tour of duty, and re-upped happily with a shiny iPhone 3G. I was flopping on the line, hooked by apps, data, never being bored in public again.

Fast-forward to January 2015. Today. Another break in the chain-link fence of AT&T’s two-year contracts. Do I make a mad dash to the outside world, or obediently remain in the fold? Take a subsidy or an installment plan for a phone and a plump monthly service fee, do some courting, or do absolutely nothing?

For new hardware, it used to be your options were few. Either find a prepaid feature phone or ‘Droid from some gray-market reseller, or do the two-year mambo with one of the Big Four. Nowadays, installment plans, bring-your-own-phone deals, contract-free promotions and a building tidal wave of Chinese devices are reshaping the discussion, and making it a lot harder to compare apples to … well … everything else.

That’s all assuming I do something. Two years ago, when I lived a much more one-dimensional life, the very upgrade decision was much easier to make. Add in a new wife, home and baby, and my “budget-busting blessings” put my upgrade lust in some serious context (one 64GB iPhone 6 = one month of daycare). Bowing to inertia means sticking with my reliable and ever-functional iPhone 5, with brand-spanking new battery (a decent user-replaceable kit, by the way, will set you back about $25 on Amazon).

I’ll say it again: There’s absolutely nothing wrong with my current phone. Other than the fact that newer, faster, shinier and drool-inducing models are in the wild, and I’m missing out.

If I’m responsible to my budget, I’ll check the “none of the above” box, grin sheepishly, and keep my phone and my unlimited data plan. But I’m a gadget guy, and my wife knew this about me before we tied the knot. And as it goes with gadget guys, I will cave.

The options are dizzying, and that makes the research process nauseating. But generally speaking, here’s what I’ve picked up the past few days in my Googlizing:

  • Market leaders AT&T and Verizon have invested heavily in infrastructure and thus have the best network quality and breadth. But they’re going to recoup those capital investments, and then some for the shareholders and to feed their marketing machines. That’s where you, the subscriber, come in.
  • T-Mobile and Sprint generally don’t measure up in those buckets, so they have to shine in other areas. Lately that’s been “unlimited” deals on talk, text and data. If you can live with spotty call quality and data speed, you’ll save.

I started dissecting the incumbent. While you can still opt for an “old-fashioned” two-year contract, if you can find the link to select it, AT&T is hot-and-heavy pushing its Next installment plan. So much so, I can’t help but smell a rat.

With Next, you now pay a separate monthly fee for your device, plus the fee for your service plan, plus a smartphone “access” fee. In theory, splitting out the costs and making your fees transparent is a great idea. The only problem? It doesn’t appear AT&T has cut its plan fees to remove the device cost, the same fee you’d pay if you took the two-year contract subsidy. So really, you’re paying twice for your device. Not nice. The $15-25 monthly “access” fee is upping the ante on “not nice.” Remember the shareholders.

Sprint’s “cut your Verizon or AT&T bill in half” promotion sounds promising, but my inner muckraker is dubious. I highly suspect they’re doing whatever possible to stop their industry-leading bleeding/churn rate, and appealing to value-above-all customers is a start. Not only must you be willing to turn in your current phone for no compensation, you also have to stomach Sprint’s network. So you pay half your previous bill for, arguably, a percentage of your previous service quality. If seeing dollar signs matter more to you than seeing network bars, it might be a good fit.

Verizon’s data buckets go from 3GB to 4GB, then to 10GB. I routinely use more than 4 GB per month, but barely, so I’d have to sign up for the 10 package. That’s $80 for the base package, an annoying $40 for “line access” and the $749.99 cost of the phone. For the industry-leading network, you get what you pay for.

T-Mobile does a nice job decoupling the cost of the device from the monthly service. They have an incentive to be clear and easy to deal with, of course, since they have to make up for their less-than-legendary network muscle. You can get unlimited talk, text and data–with 6GB of that data at LTE speed–for $70/month, plus the cost of the phone, or go for unlimited LTE for $10 more. When the phone’s paid off after your installment period, that portion of the bill goes away. Classy concept.

What I like about T-Mobile is their Test Drive promotion, a chance to … you guessed it … test drive the T-Mobile network. In this case, with an iPhone 5s for a week at no cost or obligation. They mail you the phone, you talk, text and surf for a week, then drop it 0ff at an authorized T-Mobile retailer. Done deal.

I signed up for the T-Mobile Test Drive last week and just got my test unit via UPS Tuesday night. I’ll post my findings here periodically over the next week, with lots of Speedtest app screen shots, no doubt.

For most of us, our phones are (literally) connected to our hips. For better or worse, they’re an important part of our lifestyle. What have been your best experiences with a cellular/data peddler? Who would you recommend I talk to?