Since many tech blogs are doing a smartphone buying guide thanks to the holiday shopping season, I’m going to do one too with my own bias. 😀 If you read my blog for sometime, you know how I feel about provider locking, so this guide will focus mostly on GSM unlocked phones and GSM carriers/MVNOs. It’s actually pretty easy since unlocked phones is not the norm in the US.
In the US, there are only two major GSM carriers, AT&T and T-Mobile. Among those two, T-Mobile offers the best bang for the buck, and also the carrier that has a lot of MVNOs. The catch is coverage. So I would check their coverage first. Another great way to check coverage is to ask friends and family members as it will give you better real-life testimonies. Note that the coverage on T-Mobile’s website is assuming you have a phone with AWS band support. Unfortunately, since the number of carriers that use this band is extremely small, most phone manufactures don’t bother supporting it. Luckily, T-Mobile has also started to refarm the 1900 band for 3G in some areas, which is more widely supported than AWS as AT&T also uses this band. You can check this site to see if your area is a refarmed area. Note that this site is generated from user input, so the data is definitely more limited.
If you are not lucky enough to be covered by T-Mobile, next step is AT&T. In general, AT&T is more expensive, and has less choice in MVNOs. Their 3G speed is also slower than T-Mobile’s HSPA+. The upside is coverage is better in general, although I have been in areas where T-Mobile actually has better coverage than AT&T. This is their site for their coverage. Again, better gauge is to ask your friends or family members as the general map coverage usually assume that you are outside, not indoors. AT&T uses 850 and 1900 bands for 3G, and they are supported by many phones.
Both AT&T and T-Mobile have started to offer LTE. The main advantage of LTE imo is the much lower latency. Browsing the internet under LTE feels more like a landline broadband than a cellular connection. Speed wise, however, is not much faster, at least in my experience. You see people on the internet bragging how much faster their LTE speed is, but so far in my experience in trying Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile’s LTE, I usually get around ~10-20Mbps down at best, which is not much different than a good HSPA+ connection.
T-Mobile uses LTE band 4, and AT&T uses band 4 and 17. In short, phones that supports AT&T LTE will support T-Mobile LTE by default. LTE coverage is still very limited. I would rather have a good HSPA+ coverage than a paltry LTE coverage.
If you really must have LTE, then your provider selection is more limited. So far, I think there are no T-Mobile MVNOs offering LTE service, so to get T-Mobile LTE, you have to get a T-Mobile plan. AT&T only offers LTE on their own plans and their MVNO Aio wireless (at lower speed of 8Mbps).
Picking Your Plan
I have posted quite a bit of discussions on different MVNOs in this, and this posts. Just to quickly recap and to update things a bit:
T-Mobile and Its MVNOs:
Cheapest with good amount of data: Ultra mobile. $19 a month gives you 250 minutes, unlimited SMS, and 50MB data. You can add 250MB for $5. This is the provider I’ve been using so far.
Best deal for heavy data user: T-Mobile monthly 4G. No need to go to Walmart. Just order the SIM online from T-Mobile themselves. $30 a month gives you 100 minutes, unlimited SMS, and 5GB data at 4G speed (2G speed afterwards). This deal is so good that T-Mobile themselves are not making it easy to find it.
For unlimited talk: Straight Talk offers either AT&T or T-Mobile SIM. $45 a month gives you unlimited voice, unlimited SMS, and 2.5GB high speed data. It’s good that they specify the limit now. Another option is Simple Mobile or Spot Mobile, both are offering $40 a month for unlimited voice, unlimited SMS, and 1GB high speed data.
$50 and up: If you are willing to spend more, Simple Mobile offers $50 plan that gives you 3GB of high speed data (unlimited voice and SMS). If you are a really big spender, T-Mobile will give you unlimited everything for $70 a month.
Longest expiration date: This is a great option for a backup SIM. Spot Mobile offers a pay-as-you-go plan with $5 good for 90days.
AT&T and Its MVNOs:
Cheapest with good amount of data: Airvoice Wireless offers $40 a month, unlimited minutes, unlimited SMS, and 1GB data.
Best deal for more data: Straight Talk. $45 a month, unlimited voice and SMS, 2.5GB high speed data.
$50 and up: Red Pocket offers $60 a month, unlimited voice and SMS, 3GB data. If money is no object, Aio Wireless has a $70 a month plan with unlimited voice, SMS, and 7GB data.
Longest expiration date: Airvoice Wireless pay-as-you-go has $10 credit that is good for 90 days.
As you can see, it is clear that T-Mobile offers more bang for the buck, so pray that you have good T-Mobile coverage. 🙂
Picking a Phone
You have decided on your carrier and your plan. Now’s the fun part, picking your phone. 🙂
The Lumia 520/521 is really a good Windows Phone 8 phone at this price range. Unfortunately, you will be stuck with either AT&T goPhone plans or T-Mobile’s prepaid plans unless you can get them unlocked. Seems like since it’s a popular phone, it is getting harder and harder to find unlocks for these phones. Another catch is the 521 T-Mobile version doesn’t seem to support band I (2100) for 3G based on the spec on T-Mobile website. Something to think about if you travel as band I is the most common band used for 3G in Asia and Europe. Caveat emptor. I would spend more money to get better flexibility of unlocked phones.
Motorola’s Moto G. There is no contest here unless you start looking at used phones. $180 for 8GB, $200 for 16GB. 720p screen, quad-core Snapdragon 400, near stock Android. It’s not shipping yet, but it’s the best deal on paper right now. It even makes the Nexus looks expensive. 😀 No LTE, but at this price point, who cares. Do note that there are two versions being sold, a global version and a “US” version. The US version supports AWS, which is useful for T-Mobile coverage, at the expense of lacking 2100 band support (the frequency band used for 3G in most Asian and European countries). Both versions do support 850 and 1900 bands, so if your carrier is AT&T, or T-Mobile has refarmed the 1900 band in your area, my vote is for the global version.
If you are a Windows Phone fan, Microsoft is selling the HTC 8X unlocked for $250. 16GB, 720p SLCD gorilla glass screen, dual-core Snapdragon S4, quad-band HSPA (no AWS though), LTE support for AT&T and T-Mobile. It’s a much better phone than the Lumia 520, but value wise, imo the Moto G trumps this. Check out my quick impression of the HTC 8X.
Google Nexus 5. Penta-band HSPA, LTE support for AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint, Snapdragon 800, 1080p screen, latest Android KitKat. 16GB is $350 and 32GB is $400. Hard to beat at this price point. The only downside is probably the camera app. Check out my impression here.
Sony Xperia ZR is available around $450. It’s no Snapdragon 800 like the Nexus 5 and no LTE, but it is still a decent phone with penta-band HSPA, quad-core processor, 1080p screen, 2GB RAM, 8GB storage with SD slot, and it’s water proof. Something to check out if you need a phone that can withstand the environment a little bit. If you don’t need the water proofing, the Xperia ZL is bigger, supports LTE, and has 16GB storage instead. It’s hard to beat the Nexus 5 though for your money.
The HTC One is available unlocked in regular Sense or stock Android versions. Ironically, HTC used to sell this for cheaper at $580 before the Google Play stock Android version came out. Spec wise, it has been upped by the Nexus 5, but it is still quite a beast with 1080p screen, LTE support (both AT&T and T-Mobile), Snapdragon 600, 2GB RAM, and 32GB storage. It only has tri-band HSPA though, no AWS support. I prefer the Sense version due to HTC Zoe as an added value. The GPE version is just stock Android, and at that price, might as well save the money and get the Nexus 5 instead.
iPhone is unique as it is only made by Apple. I wouldn’t get the iPhone 5c (16GB for $550, 32GB for $650). It’s basically a cheapened iPhone 5. If you are going to spend some $600, might as well get the iPhone 5s. Starts at 16GB for $650 and up to a whooping $850 for 64GB. It’s magical. Of course, the iOS experience is unique on iPhones, so the price premium might be worth it.
Well, there you go, my smartphone buying guide for 2013. 😀 Imo the real winner this year is the Moto G. Motorola was going to delay the Moto G in the US until next year, but looks like they were wise enough to ship it by December 2nd instead, and still catch the holiday buying season. At $200 for its spec, it really does offer great value, even arguably better than the Nexus phones. At this point, you have to really love your carrier to still buy a carrier controlled phone with contract. Nexus 5 is changing the game again, bringing top high end spec at mid-range price. iPhone is as magical as ever, and Apple doesn’t seem to be bothered by the low cost offerings of Android.
Hopefully this can bring some perspective into the plethora buying guides thrown in by tech blogs that are mostly focused on carrier controlled phones. ^_^ What phone do you want from Santa?