Do You Really Need A SmartPhone?

(2 months after I wrote this post, I re-read it and realized it was not as clear as it probably should be.  Please read on if you are inclined, but I believe I did a better job with the subject HERE.)

Most of us understand so little about wireless technology (and billing) that, when it comes to our phones, we simply buy what’s hyped. We are walking around with our IPhones and Androids with unlimited calling, messaging and data, and really have no idea what that means other than it costs between $100 and $150 a month. Let’s demystify it, ok?

First, almost all phones, Smart and Un-smart, do two things: make calls and send/receive text messages. These two tasks occur over your carrier’s mobile network and may be billed per minute/number of texts or as a monthly allowance of a certain number of minutes/texts (which might be unlimited).

In addition, SmartPhones have the ability to access the Internet. To do so when you are out and about requires an additional ‘Data Plan’ from your carrier. Data plans are billed by a monthly allowance, like 1 GigaByte or 2 GB of data each month (or unlimited GB).

Today, tablets are very popular, especially with REALTORS – which makes sense: you need something to access the MLS when you are out on the road (and though your SmartPhone may do this, the screen is too small to be practical). Most carriers will let you share whatever Data Plan you have on your SmartPhone with your tablet for an additional charge. I just checked Verizon and the additional charge to share your data plan with your tablet is $10 a month. Mind you, this ‘sharing’ requires that you have a SmartPhone and a plan for it.

Now, here’s a wildcard when it comes to Data Plans. Your SmartPhone and tablet also can access the internet via wi-fi. For example, my home Internet provider is Cox and a wireless router sends the Cox wi-fi signal all over my house. I have my phone set to use wi-fi for data (or Internet access) whenever it is available. Why? Because as far as my phone bill is concerned, Internet use over wi-fi (not over the carrier’s data network) is free.

So, now let’s think about this. You need calling and messaging capabilities, no question. And if you are busy, you probably need an unlimited plan for them. That’s a given. But what about a Data Plan? How much are you actually using the Internet over your carrier’s data network (not over wi-fi)?

I just went to verizonwireless.com and found the link for ‘Analyze My Account.’ It let me look at my phone, text and data usage over the past six months. I have a plan that includes unlimited everything, so my bill is stable. When I looked at my data usage, however, I saw that I never reached 1 GB of data in a single month. Usually I hovered around half a GB. So my unlimited data plan is a little overkill, right? Right. Now, mind you, I don’t use my phone for MLS access and you probably do. That’s why you need to go to your carrier’s website and do the analysis for yourself (by the way, if you need the help, most carriers’ customer service reps will do the analysis for you over the phone).

If, like me, you discover that you are consistently using less data than you are paying for, it might be wise to change your plan to something less expensive.

And maybe you don’t need a data plan on your phone at all. Maybe you need a data plan for your tablet so you can get to the MLS anytime, anywhere. But maybe your phone only needs calling and texting capabilities.

And, just maybe you’d be wise to ditch your current small phone and big tablet and get one of the new hybrid devices, like the Samsung Note, which is, essentially, a SmartPhone with a larger screen so that you have just one device for phone/text/MLS/data instead of two.

My data usage is so low I have to ask myself, ‘Where are you using data? What for?’ On most SmartPhones, in the ‘Settings’ area, there is a button for ‘Usage’ that will show you what tasks are using the most data on your phone. For me, by far the biggest user was the Google Play Store which automatically updates the apps on my phone, most of which I don’t use. Then came Google Services – things like Internet search and Navigation, and then Facebook. And Finally, email. Take a look at that and then ask yourself: ‘Do I really need this stuff?’

Actually, a better question might be: ‘Do I really need this stuff ALL THE TIME?’ Because, if you knocked out your data plan all together, all of those items would still work over wi-fi for free! When I look at what I’m using Data for, the only thing that I probably wouldn’t be happy running only when I’m on a free wi-fi network is . . . Navigation. That’s a nice thing. But I do remember getting along fine without it not too long ago.

But consider, for example, Facebook. Do I really need to see what my ‘friends’ are ‘liking,’ instantly, in real time? Wouldn’t a morning and/or evening check-in from my home computer connected to my wi-fi network be satisfactory? Or even BETTER? Hmmmm.

I started thinking about this in January and February of this year when I was in Mexico. We all know that US wireless carrier networks are very expensive when used across the border: you really don’t want to do it. In fact, a lot of people who plan to be in another country for an extended period turn off their American cell phons entirely and purchase prepaid phones in the country they are visiting. Instead, I simply turned off the mobile network on my phone – my access to Verizon’s phone network, and also turned off Data Roaming – access to Verizon’s data network. My SmartPhone became a wi-fi only phone – which was free to operate.

Interestingly, even though access to Verizon’s networks was off, I could STILL receive and send text messages. Each text sent or received carried a small additional charge – like fifty cents or something – but it was an acceptable way to be somewhat available to folks back home. I changed my voice mail greeting to instruct people NOT to leave a message but to hang up and text me. Then, I’d call them back when I had access to a free wi-fi network using Skype to make the call. Skype, by definition, works over the Internet and doesn’t require your cell carrier’s network to function. I had to upgrade from a free Skype account to one that costs about $3 a month to do this from Mexico. (Caution: most cell carriers still charge you to make calls via Skype if you’re phone is connected to their network at the time of the call).

So with that anecdote and the preceding information, you hopefully have a better understanding of your phone, how it works, what you need and what it costs. Now, how about what’s next . . .

Like PCs and Operating Systems, SmartPhones are now so sophisticated and so fine tuned that the Next Big Thing is apt to be a bit of a yawner. Just as PC users are shrugging off the impulse to invest in new hardware and a Windows 8 Operating System, so too will SmartPhone users begin to resist the impulse to jump at the latest and greatest on their ‘Upgrade Date.’ Let’s pause for a moment to de-mystify that. Your cell carrier contract has a term, probably two years. Your ‘Upgrade Date’ is usually a few months prior to the expiration of your contract. When you take advantage of the Upgrade you have to renew your contract for another two years (or whatever the term is). That’s how your carrier keeps you. My guess is that pretty soon the ‘Upgrade’ won’t be that different from what you have in your pocket, and many of the new features will be things you won’t use. It will become easier to resist the urge to ‘Upgrade.’

I’m looking forward to my Verizon contract running out in January – and I won’t ‘Upgrade.’ I already have an HTC Rezound which is about as close to top of the line as you can get today. When my contract is up, however, I’m going to buy an unlocked Google Nexus 4 phone directly from Google for about $250. Then I’ll gravitate to whichever pay-as-you-go plan seems best at the moment: TMobile, Boost, Virgin, whichever. Don’t get me wrong: I love Verizon. Their coverage is the best and I’ve never had anything but remarkably good customer service from them. But continuing as I have for, oh, the past ten years means being held hostage by a contract and overpaying for services, many of which I don’t use. What about you?