Cell Phones

Hardware & Software

Before diving into this topic, I highly recommend reading the most popular post (that has nothing to do with feet) here on Technical Meshugana: Are iPhones Worth It? At its core, the message is about stripping down your expectations in a handset to their most fundamental and building upwards towards the features you actually need as opposed to shopping purely on Madison Avenue fueled technolust; then it teaches you how to find that perfect phone for your needs. Doing so helps you not only save money, but get you the proper handset for your mobile communications needs as well. Getting the right tool for the job contributes to your efficiency and helps keep your general costs lower.

Hardware

The short answer on this as far as I’m concerned is that if a basic Nokia or ruggedized Samsung feature phone is insufficient for your needs, either go with a Nokia Symbian S60 based handset like the Nokia E6 if you want to guarantee SIP phone support for VoIP services, Nokia Symbian S40 based handsets like the Asha 303 if you’re needing a more basic device (all of these handsets are likely going to progressively get more scarce*), or a CyanogenMod supported Android device like the lower-end LG P500 Optimus One or the higher-end Samsung SGH-T699 Galaxy S Relay… but I know these phones are hardly a one-size-fits most solution, especially since they’re all GSM handsets.

Don’t limit yourself to any of these phones. Get what suits you best, and ideally for the best possible price. Research what you need. If you need help shopping for used handsets, this post might be of use. As for my philosophy towards handset purchases, I like physical keyboards over touchscreens, user replaceable batteries, well-engineered and non-fragile handsets, and ruggedized IP67 handsets above everything. Clearly, none of the above handsets entirely meet that sort of criteria, but very few Android handsets do; and Nokia’s old school engineering may not have created a hardened, water and dust resistant handset, but gosh those Finnish handsets could take a beating. I’ve owned a few phones over the years, and I can say with confidence that the only handsets that I’ve ever owned that I’ve been confident enough to throw and trust to keep working have been Nokias.

Recently, whenever someone’s taken to whining about how the Gorilla Glass shattered on their fancy-pants expensive iPhone/Android flagship phone/etc. even despite their $30+ Otterbox case, I’ve taken to pulling my unprotected Nokia C3-00 out and throwing it on the ground in front of them, popping the battery cover back in place, proceeding to use the device without a hitch or barely a scuff, and pointing out that I barely paid more for my phone than they did just on their protective case. It might be a bit of a jerk move (though no more so than whining about your broken electronic device that costs almost as much as someone else’s third world lifetime debt), but it’s also a great demonstration that you don’t always get what you pay for, and more expensive isn’t always better. If the trusty-rusty C3 can do e-mail, text, IM/SMS replacement apps, browse the internet, has a real keyboard, can take a far greater beating than any $600 smartphone, and can be found used online for under $50… what more could you ask for?

As you look around for a good option that meets your needs, do keep in mind that you’ll have far more choices to select from on the GSM end than CDMA. There’s also fantastic cell phone databases available that let you search by feature to help you find the right handset located over at GSM Arena and PhoneScoop. Leverage these tools to your advantage.

*Nokia, you deserved better than Elop and your Microsofty fate. You will be missed. (Pretend I’m tipping a forty right now.)

Buying Used & Making Do

It should be pointed out that there’s multiple reasons why I emphasize choosing an MVNO that allows you to bring your own device. The most relevant to the handset discussion is device reuse and the option to shop used or refurbished if you need to replace. As much emphasis as I’ve placed on the right tool for the job in the preceding paragraphs, you most likely already spent good money on a phone that’s already working for you and meeting (or exceeding) your needs.

By keeping your handset and switching to an MVNO on the same (or compatible) network that you may have already been happy with, you are minimizing your net total environmental impact by letting your current phone continue to be utilized until its functional end of life. If you’ve scaled back and/or switched carrier technologies, by buying used and bringing your own device, you are using a different phone that’s already been made for a demand already met and allowing your current phone to pass onto another owner so it too may continue to be used, still minimizing the net total environmental impact of your device consumption. If you choose an MVNO that requires you to buy a new handset? You are needlessly multiplying the negative impact upon our world, our limited resources, and the people these overtly consumptive choices negatively impact to keep feeding your habits.

Your decision making process should never be solely about your own financial bottom line when you buy new equipment as your actions impact others. Just as important as it is to pay attention to how much you’re spending per month on service, you should pay attention and factor the bottom-line cost of potentially needing to switch handsets, not just on resale of your used equipment and cost of replacement, but what those specific new or used purchasing choices do.

If you bought a shiny iPhone 5 a year ago, and you sell it for $400 to help finance the switch to a carrier that tries to exploit your smartphone and data indulgences with promises of a brand new $300 Moto X and a $25 (or even $10) a month bill promising “unlimited” use that you can only buy through them? You might have netted $100 in the switch (if you ignore the ETF required to break contract), but you’ve now bought and contributed to the ongoing demand for not one, but two high end ($500 plus) smartphones in the span of a year and all the ills that go along with their creation. You have compounded your negative environmental impact further just to save an extra few bucks on paper, without actually doing some math to confirm the overall long term costs, or factoring the total big picture impact in showing restraint in handset selection. This behavior is wasteful and in no way resembles responsible stewardship over your resources.

If you instead chose to deliberately scale back your mobile service needs or device and bought used with a carrier that let you bring your own, you still could have sold that iPhone to cover your costs to switch to a cheaper used handset, thus helping to offset your personal lifetime ownership costs with a slightly higher priced (or less service provided) plan from a competitor which are still net wins in your own budget, or you could just keep the phone you already have – only now you haven’t contributed even further to the insatiable consumption machine.

Bottom line, trying to make due with what’s already available is good for you, your kin, your kith, that stranger you never met, your country, and the little dirt clod circling about near the end of the western spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy that we all have to call home. If it means spending a little more out of your own pocket than you might otherwise like to in order to meet your needs from where you are currently, do so knowing it was the right call.

I won’t deny that sometimes it can make economic sense on the lower end to buy new, and if you’ve weighed all the options and alternatives on the used end and still decide to go new to ensure you get the right tool for the job… that’s okay. I don’t say all of this to come across like some crazy guy telling you to NEVER BUY NEW ANYTHING, EVER! What I am saying is to always be willing to try and go used first, and be conscious and deliberate in your purchases instead of just thoughtlessly consuming. You’d be surprised what you can find cast off by others who are constantly running with an insatiable passion on the materialist treadmill.

Now, if you are looking to replace because your screen is damaged or needing a new battery and it’s not easily user replaceable, consider attempting repair over replacement first anyway. Even iPhone and Nexus batteries can be replaced with a little effort, most damaged cellphone screens are replaceable as well, and many damaged cases can also be repaired or replaced. There’s plenty of guides online if you’re willing to do it yourself, and there’s no shortage of local cell phone shops who will do the work for you either.

As for those who are won over to the idea but are still cautious about buying used when the time comes, it’s a justifiable concern when dealing with private resale. There’s a lot of dishonest people out there, but a little knowledge going into the transaction will help you determine if you’re getting taken for a ride or not.

Recommended Reading: Ask Daley: Southwest Colorado 2 – Cellphone Boogaloo

The first thing to do is check the serial number. On GSM phones, this is called the IMEI. On CDMA phones, they’re either called an ESN or MEID. You need to ask if this number is clean with the carrier the device is branded to. So, if you’re buying a used AT&T or T-Mobile handset, you’d ask the seller if the IMEI is clean; if it’s a Verizon or Sprint handset, you’d ask if the ESN is clean. This process is your first line of defense, as handsets without a clean serial number will indicate that they’re either devices still under contract or stolen. If the seller refuses to disclose the number itself for you to confirm on your own, or isn’t willing to meet with you at the branded carrier corporate store to check its status, then consider that a red flag.

The next points to check on are operational condition. Do all the buttons work? Does it overheat or turn itself off? Will it hold a charge? Can it charge at all? Are there missing parts/accessories? If there’s moving parts, are they loose? Is the screen damaged? If it has a touchscreen, does it work? Has the phone’s memory been wiped and factory reset? Is it network compatible to to my choice of provider and any BYOD restrictions they might have in place? If you’re dealing with a private sale through Craigslist, it’s pretty easy to check all this as you have the opportunity to physically inspect the thing before purchase.

That said, it’s often times easier to purchase used on Ebay from a reputable seller who specializes in cellphone refurbishing and has a well established positive selling history.

Also, don’t discount the possibility of getting a really good used phone from a smaller private Ebay seller who’s listing their old used phone complete with all accessories down to the retail box. People who list their used phones in that sort of condition likely babied their handset. If they freely disclose the serial number and any operational or cosmetic flaws, it’s probably a pretty safe bet.

Lastly, be prepared to buy a new battery for your used phone and spend the money on an OEM factory original as they will typically last far longer (both charge capacity and functional lifespan) than any cheap Chinese produced aftermarket you may find.

Software

I should mention a few tools and tricks to maximize your data usage and minimize its billed amount. As the Ovi store is dead in the water (not that Symbian needed much outside of the SIP phone app and an XMPP client), I’ll primarily focus on Android smartphone apps (though many of these apps are also available for iOS and even Java-based J2ME feature phones as well).

For data management tools, JuiceDefender and Onavo’s Data Monitor are the two easiest to use utilities. JuiceDefender can completely turn off wireless data usage while the phone is in standby or update at only fixed intervals. Onavo monitors application data usage and allows you to disable most applications from gaining network access if desired. Additionally, Onavo’s app has the option of compressing your phone’s data usage farther through a compression proxy if you’re running Android 4.0 ICS… keep in mind that using proxy services allows others to snoop on your traffic, though.

For alternate web browsers, Opera Mini can significantly cut data usage as well by using Opera’s own proxy services, but the same privacy caveat applies with the above data compression proxy services. Dolphin Browser can do similarly, but also allows for disabling image downloads.

SMS alternative applications abound, but most of them are more data hungry than they’re worth. The best options are going to be XMPP protocol-friendly apps like Xabber and IM+, or SMS specific smartphone alternative platforms like Kik, XMS, Nimbuzz (which can also do VoIP), and Google Voice (which does bridge over to the regular SMS network, but many paid VoIP carriers are starting to do likewise).

As far as SIP phones go for integrating with any VoIP services, there’s no shortage. Android has a native SIP client in v.2.3+ when carriers bother to include it (it’s a feature included by default in CyanogenMod). There’s also CSipSimple, 3CXPhone, Fring and SIPDroid just to name a few.

Offline GPS can be done natively under Android with Google Maps, or there’s Sygic’s GPS Navigation app for both Android and iOS which is a fully offline map utility. For iOS folks, there’s also OffMaps, which is a cheaper piecemeal and city-oriented offline maps utility. You have mass gigabytes of storage and a phone with a GPS chip in it, and with these apps you can figure out where you are on that fancy phone without spending a penny on a data plan. Welcome to the future!

For those of you who have a crack-like addiction to streaming audio services like Pandora, the only real option is to spend money on more services that have you spend money on renting music. Spotify has an offline download option for $10 a month, though be aware of the controversy surrounding Spotify’s royalties in regard to supporting independent artists. If you’re more of a podcast sort of person, look into DoggCatcher to pre-fetch your audio for you while you’re on WiFi. Also, don’t underestimate the power of a cellphone with a good old fashioned FM radio receiver.

The rest of the time, stick to using WiFi whenever possible, though do be careful about the sort of traffic you use on public hotspots. It might not hurt to consider doing a VPN back to your home network if you regularly do secure data stuffs with your mobile phone while out and about, and try to avoid having any of your financials tied up with the fool thing. For keeping your (hopefully) WiFi enabled Android phone on as many authorized WiFi hotspots as possible and minimizing network data, usage of a tool like Auto WiFi Toggle will ensure your phone auto-connects to your preferred WiFi networks automatically. One word of caution, though: an application like this can potentially kill battery life depending on the frequency of checking and network signal strength. For you mobile VoIP hounds, AutoAP might be worth looking into as well. Of course, you’ll want to dig through all your applications and system preferences to prefer WiFi as the primary data network, and turn off auto-sync entirely or drastically drop the frequency of syncing of all applications as well.

For optimizing performance out of your Android handset, there’s a great resource over at ITworld detailing how to disable crapware that might be worth reading over. For those devices you can’t disable stuff on and are proving to be troublesome, if you’re feeling daring, you should consider rooting** and re-securing your phone. Every phone roots differently, but there’s a lot of resources available over at XDA Developers Forum on how to do it. XDA Devs is also a useful community in general for maximizing the usefulness out of your mobile smartphone.

For the ultimate rooted system tweaking application (for those who like to play with fire and tweak the daylights out of everything they own), there’s Autostarts.

If you run Windows and your phone supports CyanogenMod (and you’re willing to switch firmware), there’s automated tools now for rooting and making the switch. For securing your now security vulnerable Android phone, you’ll want to install an application called Superuser. Once the phone has been rooted, however, you’re given access to uninstall some normally uninstallable applications, tweak some extra settings, and utilize some traffic blocking utilities like AdFree (not that I’d recommend using this tool if you insist on using ad-supported apps). Ultimately, advertising in free apps is going to hurt your bandwidth and battery usage as well, so spend the money on the paid version of the applications instead.

hrumph**Rooting is only a possible option (and possibly even illegal in some jurisdictions), but can potentially brick your phone or worse when done by inexperienced hands. I am not advocating rooting your phone as a cost saving measure or or any other possibly conceivable reason. In fact, DON’T DO IT. If you ignore this warning and do it anyway, you’re on your own. Even though this entire guide is purely caveat emptor, take at face value and with no held responsibility to me for whatever inaccuracies there are financially or otherwise… I may attempt to update and correct any info based on your feedback, but I will definitely not take responsibility for or even help you in trashing or repairing your subsequently trashed phone.

As always, this is hardly a comprehensive list. Never let my own research replace your own as this is only meant as a starting place. Research, read the fine print with software and services, and find what works best for you.

<<Previous – Cell Phone Providers :: Next – Home Telephone Providers>>

Index