Are iPhones worth it?

Off and on and from time to time, I’ll come across someone who is looking for a new cell phone asking if it’s worth the money buying an iPhone. Well, is it? Good question.

Although I advocated using a cheap Android smartphone as the basis for a communications device in the Communications Superguide I curate over at the MMM forums, I’m starting to come back around after truly realizing what matters most in an effective communications tool. My conclusion? Android and iOS both are distractions… powerful, overpriced, electricity hungry distractions.

For all the flexibility you get in all the software solutions you might be able to run, they’re not particularly cohesive solutions nor are they the most effective, can be downright buggy at times, and battery life is disappointing at best. They might be useful in a tablet form-factor, but not as a communicator.

As the CDMA era of Platinumtel winds down and I’m looking at the jump back to GSM and the ability to bring my own device again given their switch to the T-Mobile network, I’ve been freer to pursue a phone that truly fits my needs more than I have in years. Instead of being partly at the mercy of the prepaid carrier I was with to try and shoehorn my needs into a model they provide (I did, after all, go from Net10 pre-BYOD days to CDMA Platinumtel after leaving AT&T), I can now choose a device that truly fits my needs best. The great assortment of incredibly powerful new and used phones available on the market now for so cheap isn’t hurting my situation either. Of the things I missed, certain features from my old Blackberry like the QWERTY keyboard were at the top of the list, but I didn’t miss the dependence upon BIS for network access, amongst other things.

Now, the secret and key to keeping your wireless phone service affordable is to ensure of all the functions the phone is built to handle, it functions best as a communications tool in the mediums you need. These are what cell phones are supposed to be designed for, and this is why you’re paying a wireless carrier for service: mobile communications. Overall savings are had with access to WiFi connections for data, ease of text input, SIP/VoIP support, good reception, a good speakerphone, email push, and long battery life. The fewer moving parts, the better, too, from a reliability standpoint. Anyone who needs a phone as a flexible communications tool probably recognizes this list of features as solid. Anything a device does above and beyond this is just gravy and likely can count as a distraction as well.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been pouring heavily over phone manufacturers, phone operating systems, and the features there-in and keep circling back around to the same conclusions: Any modern Java MIDP 2.x feature phone operating system (or even Symbian S40) combined with a WiFi chipset is fine for personal communications usage with such solid offerings as the Samsung Ch@t line, the LG C series, some Alcatel OT handsets, and of course Nokia’s Asha line of phones. They’re so affordable, you can frequently pick many of these handsets up new and carrier unlocked for under $100. You can’t do SIP/VoIP with the things and you can’t really do always-on push notice text replacement apps like Kik, but it’s a small trade-off when most people seem to prefer text-based communications anyway. Also, an SMS nudge if your friend’s offline and they fire up the app if they’re available fixes that last issue.

Even still, these shortcoming are being worked on and is in the early stages of being solved thanks to Nimbuzz Ping and the NIST (amongst others), which is bringing smartphone always-on communication and SIP support to the feature phone crowd. Of course, some people would find those caveats unacceptable, and that’s fine… there’s no one-size solution for everybody, but it highlights the importance of starting from the bottom when looking at equipment and moving up to find the features we need/want, instead of just trying to start at the top and work our way down. You might be surprised by what a phone that’s now dismissed as a cheap beater handset for teenagers and poor people can do these days, especially when you discover that there’s a reasonably decent Java app for Google Voice texting and ringback.

These points, however useful, do not address the more demanding needs of a business use phone where timely communications for professional contact in all forms is necessary, though. Let’s be honest here, as much as I’m a proponent of SMS replacements like Kik to keep personal communications costs down, you don’t really use these things much in business, because nobody’s on the same platform and people only like the native bundled texting solution which doesn’t go cross-platform. As such, true business runs on voice, email and SMS. This keeps bringing me back to the same group of devices since Blackberry is off the table given the need for not having all your internet access dependent upon servers you have to pay extra to utilize. Those devices? The humble Nokia business phone running Symbian S60. You get push email support, WiFi, native integrated SIP/VoIP support, great keyboards, awesome battery life, and good speakerphones. Phones like the e71 are legendary amongst business users, and can be picked up refurbished for reasonably great prices still rocking your face off with their ability to just work. Heck, Symbian s60 even has a WiFi hotspot app if you need it!

This isn’t to say that Android and iOS can’t be effective platforms for a phone as a tool, but for all the added functionality, they frequently become a distraction instead… a costly distraction. If you’re using it for business, being connected in a timely manner to the people you’re doing business with, and that phone acting as a further related tool to aid with business in the field (if those tools can even be met effectively with the same device – frequently, they can’t) is all you should be looking for in a phone. In the end, buying an iPhone will likely result in thousands of dollars of expenditures wasted and weeks of productivity lost to Angry Birds by the time you get out of contract, more than anything else. Now granted, there’s nothing stopping you from buying an unlocked iPhone outright and going with a cheaper provider, but… are you getting this phone to conduct business or to play with?

Now, you’re probably asking yourself why I keep bringing up the subject of business when evaluating the needs of a cellphone? It’s simple: If you treat your phone like a tool, you’re going to use it as a tool. Your phone is a tool to allow necessary communications while you’re out of your office or home. When you buy a phone as a toy or a distraction, it can become a time and money pit… and you’re here because you’re trying to save money in your life, remember?

“But what about personal calls to friends and family?” I hear you say. Simple. If you’re out and about away from home, then it’s because you’re likely working, and you shouldn’t be spending too much of your work time on personal matters. (Vacations and days off out gallivanting are different, but then, heavy phone use would still be a distraction from your task to unwind.) As such, you’re most likely going to be home when you make these calls, and even cheap cell phone service can’t match the price of VoIP service. So you have a home phone number and a mobile phone number. Is that such a bad thing?

It’s 2013 and we have technology in such embarrassing abundance now that feature phones with better battery life and nearly identical communications features to smartphones can do the same job better, cheaper, and more efficiently both in terms of data used and electricity utilized.

Are they as pretty and tweak our lizard brains quite so much as smartphones or provide us with as many distractions? No, but that’s not a bad thing. I think we’ve finally hit a point in time where most people should start to reconsider the humble feature phone again. These things are like cars, all of them are going to make calls and send text messages at the very minimum. I’ve seen people get verbally crucified for buying cars from a top-down mentality with budget, why should phones be given any more of a pass? Start at the bottom, determine what features are important to you, and go up from there.

As for that comment on lizard brain tweaking, you’re probably wondering about my moving farther away from smartphones in general. This change is partly practical and partly philosophical.

From the practical standpoint? Feature phones are cheaper, their resale value is mostly in the tank (great news for frugal shoppers), their battery life is generally longer, their network data usage is inherently smaller, and they’re frequently designed to perform better as telephones or general communications devices.

From a philosophical standpoint? Mobile phone service is pretty much a non-necessity, and the strongest and most reasonable cases for cell phone usage is for communication. You are paying a service to communicate while away from home. Anything spent beyond that should probably be classified as “entertainment” or “tool of trade” expenses. Smartphones frequently fail at their primary function of calling people, and they offer a slew of features that are specifically designed to eat away your time and make you want to spend more money. Then we get into the erosion of society facet… smartphones are destroying social interaction because people would rather respond Pavlov-style to little beeps and tings to stare at a small screen and be entertained than even smile at a stranger or be lost in thought.

A sacred heart Jesus with an iPhone
Can I make this picture any more appealing to the masses? Why, yes! I can add an iPhone to that idolatrous depiction of my Messiah, of course!

And let’s not skirt the behaviors inspired in some people towards the iPhone in general (or any expensive electronic geegaw for that matter)… the “rapture” and “joy” and “elation” they seem to get over buying this device followed by the near constant attachment and attention they place on the item gets into a sort of idolatry and worship. These things are $500 slabs of electronics, not the second coming of Yeshua. Are these people’s lives in such need for purpose and fulfillment that they think a portable communicator and entertainment device is going to fill that gap? I’m sorry, but if anyone thinks that a spiritual yearning of purpose within mankind that has inspired millennia of philosophical discourse can be solved with something that has text bubbles and access to Netflix for $8 a month… they’re crackers.

At their worst, these are tiny little distraction machines designed to fill up and eat away your time. The less you deliberately do with your phone (or can do), the less you will use your phone. That action saves money, time and resources and could be argued that it might even make you more productive with your time. I may sound like an old crank saying all this, but there’s decidedly something unhealthy going on with the first world’s obsession with these tiny little glowing rectangles. You start reading some of the research, and a pattern of addiction and psychological problems emerge. Have a few articles to chew on, re-read some of the staunch support for dropping so much danged money on these devices, and reach your own conclusions:

Even cellphones as a tool have their place, and the core convenience is not a thing I begrudge anyone. I use them myself and have an entire guide dedicated to and countless hours spent helping others save money on these services… but one shouldn’t shift or lose their priorities because of them. Don’t let that tiny little glowing slab of electronics distract you from what you really need.

Anyway, back to the initial question: Are iPhones worth it? Well, I have no doubt that an iPhone can have its place as a tool for some people. It’s also one of the most expensive cell phones on the market, one of the most data hungry, and many of the features it claims are hardly exclusive to its sole domain. So, you’ll have to answer that question for yourself, but keep in mind the true value of a dollar before you do finally make that investment.

9 thoughts on “Are iPhones worth it?

  1. I appreciate all of the information, but I’m feeling a little overwhelmed. I’m currently on a Sprint family plan (paying $50/month) with an iPhone 4S. I’m thinking about switching to Ting. Any thoughts?

    I talk on the phone (about 500 min/month), use data for GPS, and text very little. Any advice would be appreciated.

  2. I think can live with Android, I’ll just opt for a not-top-of-the-line phone, right? For VoIP calling I am currently using Skype with an iPod Touch; is there any reason I can’t continue to use Skype (with my U.S. Skype number for my American family & friends) with an Android phone? MUST I switch to Google Voice for any reason? I’m just eager to 1) escape Verizon; and 2) stop having to keep track of/charge mutiple devices (dumbphone + iPod which requires headset) as I shuttle back and forth. At this point, I don’t need data (though that could change in the future), and I agree with you that the 15 cents a minute Canada calling is reasonable, so Ting seems like a good plan for me. I don’t do enough calling within Canada to warrant a Canadian cell plan and the SIM-switching scenario. I just have a $10 per month landline where I stay there in order to have a local number for Canadian callers.

    • Yeah, pretty much on the phone options. Like I said, the Sprint Nexus S would be a good option on Ting. I’ve seen them on Ebay with clean ESN for well under $100.

      You should still be able to use Skype on Android, but I know the app has had problems in the past. As to Google Voice, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it, but it is a hacky VoIP solution that supports SMS and integrates relatively well with Android. I typically recommend proper SIP providers over proprietary services like Skype, however, as the prices are typically cheaper and you’re given far more flexibility in usage. If Skype doesn’t work on your device? You’re SOL. If you were dealing with a regular SIP provider, you could just go through a list of Android SIP clients with your credentials until you found one that worked.

      Sounds like you’re pretty well set up already, and this gets the final bits taken care of. Just remember to turn off data roaming when you take your Android phone up to Canada. Android can do a lot of financial damage at 50¢ a MB just with background data.

  3. Do you know if I can use the Nokia Asha (or another Nokia phone) with Ting? I’m happy with my feature phone but I want to start using WiFi for as much of my calling as possible, since I spend half my time in Canada. To use Ting, the phone has to be a Sprint phone. If the Nokia phones are not appropriate, would you have a recommendation for an inexpensive Ting-compatible smartphone that I can skip the data plan with but use the WiFi? Please let me know if I should asking this question at a forum somewhere. Thanks for the info you provide on this site.

    • Unfortunately, Nokia has never made any Symbian based CDMA handsets. Further, the Asha technically runs a modern implementation of the s40 platform, which never got SIP phone support. If you want a Symbian based handset that can do VoIP, you’ll want an s60 handset like the e73 or e5… which again, are GSM only handsets.

      Now, a couple things for your consideration if you weren’t already aware:

      1) Ting does allow international roaming with calls billed at 15¢ a minute north of the border. It’s not the cheapest rate, but it still only works out to $9 an hour. Texting is free, but data also costs 50¢ a MB. Given this ability, if you simply didn’t want to rack up roaming charges while in Canada but still wanted to make VoIP calls, you’d have to put your phone in airplane mode and then turn on WiFi.

      2) If you went with a carrier unlocked GSM handset and opted instead for an MVNO like Platinumtel or Airvoice, you’d have the option to swap out your SIM card with one from a local carrier when you were up in Canada. Depending on your length of stays in each country, this last option might prove a bit inconvenient without a middle-man VoIP-based phone number to forward your calls to like from Google Voice, or VOIPo, as there’s the possibility of losing your number if you’re gone for long enough stretches with the accounts inactive. But, if you’re looking to mix VoIP into the setup anyway or it’s short stretches back and forth, it’s something to consider.

      I point these out to help get your creative juices flowing on approaching this situation in case you weren’t already aware.

      As for handsets specifically for Ting that would let you do what you originally proposed? You’re looking at Android, hard to avoid. I’m not a smartphone fan (clearly), but it’s a tool that potentially fits the need at hand. Technically, any Android handset running a current enough version of the OS and beefy enough to handle VoIP services (I’d recommend single core around 1GHz and 512MB RAM as a good rule of thumb aiming high, say the Sprint-Samsung Nexus S) should be fine. Ting has an “approved” Sprint BYOD whitelist, but so long as the phone is a Sprint handset with a clean ESN and you can get the MSL code for reprogramming, it’ll work… excuse the iPhone. So long as it’s running at least 2.3.x or higher, you can use either the built-in SIP client (if it was left on or you flash to Cyanogen) or use csipsimple with whatever VoIP provider you choose.

      Hope that helps! If you need any further help or clarification, don’t hesitate to ask!

  4. This has gotten me to get more serious about minimizing the distracting stuff from my smartphone. Android devices can still be incredibly useful for the variety of apps available (offline GPS nav, topos, and for me climbing guides with the Mountain Project app) but we all need to take responsibility to rein in on the useless distractions. I went through and wiped a bunch of dumb apps off my phone and only kept the stuff with practical value, things like: shopping list, notepad, clinometer, avalanche forecasts, GPS, and Mountain Project. No more wasting my time playing games!


    • Excellent to hear about the positive changes, Ben!

      Isn’t it amazing how quickly we can unconsciously adapt to the presence of these things and what they can do, yet it takes a deliberate conscious effort to scale back?

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