Ask Daley: Southwest Colorado 2 – Cellphone Boogaloo

Daley's old Samsung InterceptToday’s installment of Ask Daley is a follow-up from Karen out in Southwest Colorado. Normally, I don’t post follow-up questions as a feature article, but the subject material overlaps with a topic I’ve been meaning to address for a while now that can help others: how to shop for a used cell phone. On with the question!

Hi again–

I think I will make the jump to Ting, but I will have to buy a new phone.  I am skittish about buying a used device.  On Ting’s site, they are selling the LG Optimus Elite for $168.  I read a review of it on CNet, and it certainly wasn’t glowing.  I will not be using the phone for any data, so I don’t care about most of the bells and whistles.  The review did say that the camera on the phone is quite good, so that would be nice.  (I can take pics with my current dumb phone, but have never been able to do anything useful with them, like upload them to my Mac Book Pro.)

Anyway, I just wanted to run this plan past you to see what you think.

Thanks!

Karen

Before diving into the response, I should let you good readers know that this question was from nearly a month ago and I already answered Karen at that time. She has since signed up with Ting, and I will include her response and final choice towards the end of the post. On with the answer!

Karen, my first question would be (especially given your hesitation on buying it and no plans for data usage anyway) is why get a smartphone in the first place if your feature phones have served you well in the past? Ting has a refurbished Samsung M370 available for under $50. (Ed. note: no longer currently available.) Technically any used/refurbished Sprint feature phone with a clean ESN should work just fine with Ting.

I know you’re skittish about buying used, but it’s pretty safe as long as you keep the following rules in mind:

  • It needs to have a clean ESN (technically the MEID). If they won’t disclose what it is before purchase, it’s likely stolen. To check if an MEID is clean, you just need to take the number and contact a Sprint representative at a store or online with the number provided.
  • Buying from Ebay is less risky than Craigslist. Buy from a seller that has done a few hundred transactions as a seller and has positive reviews. Read the negative reviews for the sore spots. Aim for sellers that primarily specialize in cellphones. Read the description carefully and stay away from units listed without battery covers, batteries, etc. If they say “refurbished” or “clean, tested and working” or “new”, it’s likely to be a relatively safe bet if they’ve got a pretty strong history. If they disclose flaws and problems with used (scratches, etc.), all the better as you know they’re doing full disclosure.
  • Research OEM replacement batteries for the phone you’re looking to purchase, and be prepared to buy one. Odds are, used phones aren’t going to have a battery in great shape or they’ll be replaced with cheap aftermarkets that won’t hold up. If the battery is extraordinarily hard to find or expensive, don’t bother. Amazon is usually the better source for batteries unless you know what you’re looking for. If the price for replacements are good, pick one or two up to keep around.

As to your mention of being able to use the camera on the phone, you don’t need to have a smartphone to be able to do that. Feature phones can do similar when they’re designed to, and all you need is a feature phone that can save images to an SD card. Image quality off any fixed focus cameraphone is going to be nothing worth writing home about, dumb or smart, unless you’re looking to unload a lot of money, and you’d still be better off with a proper point and shoot camera with autofocus and optical zoom capabilities. I’d double check with Ting support first to make sure it’ll work, but something like the Sanyo SCP-5600 might be a good fit. There’s a guy selling brand new, never activated units on Ebay for $35 with free shipping.

If you still want to go the Android handset route and would like guidance on what a good Android models to look for, I’ll just quote myself on my advice for Peony on the same topic:

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.

She was looking for a handset that could do Skype, but the general spec rule of thumb holds true. You’ll have to get used to plugging your phone in nightly, however. If you keep those points on buying used in mind, you should be fine.

Hope it covers what you’re needing! Any other questions, don’t hesitate to ask.

More General Advice

Clearly, most of this advice is great for someone going to Ting or another Sprint MVNO that lets you BYOD (bring your own device), but isn’t entirely helpful for the rest of folks who are considering a handset on a Verizon MVNO or with GSM MVNOs like Airvoice, P’tel and Spot.

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Before going any further, my disgruntled legal-ape is reminding me to include another important disclaimer. Buying used devices, even following my advice down to every last dotted “i” and crossed “t”, does not guarantee that you will receive a fully functional or long lasting electronic device, or a device that wasn’t stolen. As with buying used anything, there are always inherent risks and tradeoffs over buying new, and if buying a used phone winds up getting you a handset that sets your hair on fire, gives your cat cancer, or gets you arrested for tip-toeing through tulips, you waive any and all rights to hold your genial host liable for his advice. In fact, I’d feel more comfortable if you just believed that my advice will set your hair on fire, give your cat cancer and get you arrested for tulip tip-toeing. As such, nobody, including the most bold, self reliant risk-takers, should even keep reading or heed my advice. If you feel even the slightest bit of discomfort taking those sorts of risks, I highly recommend that you stick to buying new devices from a corporation instead of used or refurbished. Frequently there’s nothing wrong with used or refurbished devices, but sometimes people are dishonest or evil and devices are rarely built to last forever. Sometimes weird things happen, and sometimes you might get a device that was used for legally questionable activities. It is a risk. If you’re a highly enlightened and personally responsible adult, and these sorts of risks don’t trouble you and you’re comfortable taking them on… proceed on, my intelligent and capable readers!

Verizon MVNOs

First, we’ll start with more specific advice on the Verizon end, as the terminology used above is still applicable. Outfits like Page Plus allow you to BYOD as well, but there are restrictions. Pretty much any CDMA based MVNO (for the sake of argument) is going to restrict the handsets that you can bring to the handsets branded by their parent carrier. In Page Plus’ case, that means Verizon handsets only. There’s still restrictions, however, and Kitty Wireless has the best FAQ available on what’s permitted and usable. To nutshell, let’s do a five second recap of what’s not permitted: 4G LTE devices, iPhones, Verizon prepaid devices. The same outlines can be extended to the feature phone camp as well as the smartphones. Otherwise, the same shopping guidelines given Karen will still work, just swap “Sprint” for “Verizon” in the search terms. Checking to see if the ESN in clear will require a call to Verizon customer service.

GSM MVNOs in general

On the GSM end, the guidelines hold true but the terminology changes a little. Replace references to MEID/ESN with IMEI, and making sure that the phone is carrier unlocked should cover most of your needs, but if data speeds are important to you and you’re looking specifically at T-Mobile MVNOs, then there’s a little extra information that you should be aware of. You can have the IMEI checked on AT&T and T-Mobile branded handsets respectively with each carrier’s support department or down at one of the local shops, just like the ESN with Sprint and Verizon.

T-Mobile MVNOs specifically

T-Mobile’s data network is kind of all over the map, spectrum-wise. The key to ensuring T-Mobile 3G support is to shop for what’s called a pentaband GSM handset (the key additional GSM frequencies being 1700 & 2100MHz for UMTS/HSDPA data support in addition to the North American standard 850 & 1900MHz bands). The best place to find handset models that support these data bands is to use the search utility over at GSM Arena. So, in addition to looking for carrier unlocked handsets, you’ll want carrier unlocked handsets (likely from T-Mobile already) that support high-speed data on those four data bands. It’s not that you can’t do data without support for those bands on your phone, it’s just that the data is likely going to only be 2G/EDGE speeds on the T-Mo network with very little exception.

What handset should I look for?

Now that you have a better idea of what general features you should be looking for in a handset and you’ve hopefully already done the research on what MVNO would best suit your calling habits and roaming area, let’s address the topic of finding the right model phone for you within those confines! The next step is to decide what sort of phone you actually need. Once you know what your needs are, you’re now better equipped to go shopping. As mentioned already, if you’re looking for a GSM handset, GSM Arena’s search utility will be invaluable for helping you find a short list of models that will suit your needs. If you’re looking for a CDMA handset, Phonescoop‘s Phone Finder is quite useful a tool as well, and though they do support GSM handsets in their database and as such is a good additional search utility as such, I still prefer GSM Arena’s search utility a bit better on that end. Once you narrow down a few candidates, all that’s left is comparing prices between Ebay, Amazon, and Newegg to get a good idea of fair market value and find a phone to purchase… and maybe your local Craigslist if you’re feeling confident, adventurous, and can get the seller to meet you down at a local corporate store for the carrier the phone is branded to to get the ESN/IMEI check done.

What about Android?

Well, my advice quoted higher up is pretty solid. If you’re genuinely in the market for an Android smartphone, I don’t think you can really go wrong with any handset so long as you keep the following rules of thumb in mind:

  • At least a single core 1GHz ARM processor
  • At least 512MB of RAM
  • Something running at least Gingerbread 2.3.x (higher is better, security wise) or is supported by Cyanogenmod (if you’re into that sort of thing).

You should be able to specialize into more of what you need from there. Just be sure to find a model with good talk time and a beefy battery.

Is there anything I should check for?

If you’re going the Craigslist route, or want to ask the right questions of someone selling the device, here’s a short list of things to ask on:

  • What is the ESN/MEID (if CDMA) or IMEI (if GSM) of the phone? (already covered this, if they won’t disclose, it’s likely stolen/lost/under defaulted contract – make it a dealbreaker)
  • Can the phone charge/does it hold a charge?
  • Are any of the external connectors loose? (power/USB/headphone)
  • Do all the buttons work?
  • If it has a touch screen, are there any dead spots?
  • If it has an SD card slot, does it work?
  • Does the phone hang or crash? (if it needs restarting frequently, it’s likely a lemon)
  • Are there any scratches/cracks on the screen?
  • Does it have the battery cover, battery, and charger?
  • If it has hinges or sliders, are they loose? (if the moving parts are loose, it can indicate abuse or a hard life)
  • How hot does the phone get when you use it? (if it gets hot frequently and it’s not a model known to run hot, it could be suspect)
  • Has the phone’s memory been wiped and reset to factory default?

Clearly, not all of these questions can always be answered by the seller and is mostly a list targeted for private resale and not bulk dealers. That said, bulk resellers are also more likely to be honest about the condition of the phone in the first place. From that point, just be aware of what the phone’s actually worth and make sure you’re getting a good deal for the money spent. As far as private sellers go, typically if you’re buying a used handset where they’re selling the phone, the accessories and even the box it came in from the store, it’s probably going to be well cared for and in good condition.

Follow-up and Closing

As promised and due to the delay in posting this, I’ll be including Karen’s follow-up and her decision.

Hi Daley–

Received my new (refurbished) LG Optimus S on Friday. Transferred my contact by hand (not all that bad), and activated it a few minutes ago. Fingers crossed that I will have good reception at home.

Will keep you posted.

BTW, so far I love Ting’s customer service. I get a real person every time I call, and are quite helpful.

Oh, and I paid $68 for the phone ($73 after tax was included) but will get a $25 credit from using another MMM reader’s referral code. Yay!

So far, I like the phone, but I won’t be using most of its bells and whistles.

Karen

It sounds like a good deal on the phone, Karen, and you got what you needed! Best of luck with Ting, and do please keep us up to date!

Hopefully, you’re all now better equipped to shop for phones, new or used… but especially used. Don’t let the idea of used electronics frighten you. If you know what to look for and what to ask, it’s a fantastic way to save a lot of money on replacing your mobile phone. It’s good on your wallet, it’s good for the environment, and it helps you jump out of the consumer upgrade treadmill because you’re more likely to get a phone that actually fits your needs well in the first place. After all, what good is having the fool thing if it doesn’t actually simplify and enrich your life with its presence?

 

Feature article photo entitled “Question mark in Esbjerg” by Alexander Drachmann and licensed for use under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0).

 

5 thoughts on “Ask Daley: Southwest Colorado 2 – Cellphone Boogaloo

  1. Hey! I just found an antique in my house! It is a Motorola/Verizon “Dual Band” Startac. I am trying to charge the battery now. When I look up the model number, it says GSM. I’d love to activate it on a cheap plan for my 12-year-old just to make calls, but internet forums have so far been rather discouraging. What do you think?

    ps — this would primarily be an “avoid e-waste” project.

      • If the Startac actually supports and has room for a GSM SIM card, you may still need to get the device carrier unlocked first (there are sources online). Alternatively, you might be able to get Page Plus to activate the handset as well as it’s a Verizon CDMA-compatible model. Keep me posted, and maybe include the model number. I’d like to see how you make out on this project!

        • So. Cool. — they got it a number, and it can make a call, get a text saying balance is low; all I’m stuck on, believe it or not, is their CAPTCHA system seems broken, so I haven’t been able to add minutes, but this project is going to be a total success — free, rescued cell phone with $10/100 min/120 days plan!

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