The Sometimes Phone, Part II

Monday, September 23, 2013

[Okay, I lied. No pictures yet. The summary post with the actual how-to will have pictures. I need to finish rambling on before I get to that. Patience, my friends, patience.]

Okay, so I got the phone, and I had already ordered the SIM card (and it was touch-and-go on whether it would arrive before Tuesday so I paid for expedited shipping … don’t wait til the last minute to figure things out, it costs more. News flash for everyone out there, I’m sure no one’s noticed that before.)

And I will say that maybe I’m just kind of an idiot, but the learning curve on all of this turned out to be somewhat challenging.

You have a SIM card. You have a phone. It’s pretty clear where the SIM card goes, there’s a slot in the back, but it’s not entirely clear which way it goes. Though after I did it wrong, it seemed obvious that of course it would go so the metal circuit-board-ish looking side is on the bottom, touching the phone. And I learned that it is possible to remove the SIM card that you put in the wrong way and put it in the right way without damaging either the phone or the SIM card. Good news there.

Okay, SIM card is in phone. SIM card is facing right direction. Still says “No SIM card.”

Hmmm…

So then I decide to play around with the phone and get that set up.

One of the reasons this whole thing was especially challenging for me is because I have never been much of a cell phone person, and the only time I use smartphones is when I’m sending a message for a friend who is driving — “on our way, be there 10min.” Things like that. So there were a lot of different ways for me to do things wrong, and I didn’t know what I was doing with anything so had difficulty troubleshooting and narrowing down the range of possible errors.

But I persevered.

I set up the Motorola BLUR account. I figured out the wireless network part and stored my wireless network info in the phone so it would connect automatically.

It now recognizes the SIM card. Progress. (No idea whether that was just a timing thing or the phone account needed to be set up first or what.)

Now let’s see if we can get the phone part up and running.

According to the instructions from Ready SIM, all I have to do is text my zip code to 7850 and I will get a text in reply with the phone number that will go with this SIM card (and that I can then link to my Google Voice number, which is the one I give out as my cell number).

I text the code and it looks like it goes but then … I get an error message. Red X in the corner, “Message not sent.” I do this multiple times. The X keeps coming back.

Grrr.

I try googling, but what I’m looking for is completely vague — phone thing not working. Not surprisingly, nothing comes up. I look on the Ready SIM website for helpful hints, “If you see this, it’s because of that, just do this and it will work.” Nothing. Just their slogan — “So easy your mother can do it” — taunting me.

At 5:40pm, I submit a support ticket. I say, “This may be so easy my mother can do it, but my mother is not here, and I can’t get it to work. What am I doing wrong.”

Then I just give up and move on to everything else I need to do before the trip, decide I will deal with it when I get there.

I was going to Portland, Oregon and staying with a friend I’ve known since middle school and her husband, who are both great. I was getting in mid-afternoon and heading to their house from the airport, they would see me when they got home from work.

[Random aside: I love taking public transportation to and from airports, it makes me feel self-sufficient and it’s usually like two dollars. In Portland it was $2.50 to take light rail and change to a bus that dropped me off half a block from my friends’ house in Southeast Portland.]

I stayed with them last year and knew the lay of the land. I knew they had a wireless network that I could get on, and that I still had the password for stored in my computer.

So I get to their place, no problems, and I get on their wi-fi and check my email (using my laptop) to see if there’s anything I need to deal with and also see if there is any response from Ready SIM.

I have a message from support that says things should work, there is coverage in my area, restart the device and try again. I’m not in the same place anymore, so that seems not so relevant, but I try sending the text again and this time it goes straight through, no problem, right away I get a message in reply with a phone number.

Victory.

I send a text to my friend I’m staying with saying I’m at her house and telling her this is my number for the week so she can enter it into her contacts. I text my friend who I had been sending GAAHHH WHY IS THIS NOT WORKING messages to on Monday to tell her I figured it out. I make a call to the friend I’m supposed to be doing work things with on Thursday so we can finalize plans. All is good.

And I have a phone for the next fourteen days. I get to see how the other half lives.

And it’s … fine. Texting is kind of fun, but also insanely distracting. People think they are doing two things at once when they are texting, they think they are still doing the thing they were doing while also typing surreptitiously in the background, but I am here to tell you that that is not what is happening. You have no idea what is going on around you when you are texting.

Totally distracting.

I got the unlimited talk and text plus the full data plan since it seemed like that might be useful but I discovered that most of the stuff I look up online when I’m wandering around is dumb, I get sucked into stupid things that I could just look up later. Or things that I really don’t need to know anyway. It was way more distracting than helpful. (Maybe if I used it more or had more apps I’d decide it was great, but for starters, it didn’t do much for me.)

The second day of my visit, I’m having a nice relaxing afternoon walking around Hawthorne and I see something outside of an interesting thrift-type store that I want to take a picture of but discover that I need an SD card to take a picture and my phone didn’t come with an SD card.

Hmm… Is that something they sell all over the place, like phone cards? Can I just go into a 7-11 and get one? Or do I need an electronics store, or big box retailer?

Hawthorne is all funky shops and bars and caf├ęs and I’m thinking I probably can’t get one here but keeping my eyes open for any place that seems like it might have something like that.

I walk past this shop called iDope. It sells iPhone accessories and does repairs and will jailbreak your phone for you and whatever else you need done with your iPhone or iPad.

I think, “Well … maybe.”

So I walk in and it’s a small shop with a guy sitting at a desk with two buddies hanging out. I say, “Do you sell SD cards?”

He shakes his head, “No … sorry, I don’t …” and then he stops and says, “Well, wait. What kind? The small ones?”

I say, “I don’t know, it’s for an android phone.”

He opens a drawer and pulls out an envelope with SD cards in it. He said, “Here, try one of these. These are ones that came in with phones.”

I give him the phone and he puts one in and it says it’s good to go.

He says, “I have no idea what’s on it, but there you go. It’s yours.”

I say, “Great. I now have someone’s porn collection on my phone.”

We laugh about that, and I thank him sincerely and head out the door to take a picture of something. And it works! Cool.

And it would have been an interesting story to get someone’s crazy pictures, but it turns out the card was empty. (Probably better, but still, a little disappointing.)

So I’m in Portland and I have a smartphone, with everything that entails (camera! calculator! clock!) and an unlimited talk/text + 1GB data plan.

The Sometimes Phone.

Fun.

[And stay tuned for Part III — How does The Sometimes Phone work when it doesn’t have a phone plan?]

Minimizing Cost vs. Maximizing Value

Sunday, September 22, 2013

This started as a comment in the discussion about the first post in The Sometimes Phone Saga, but I decided it deserves its own post.

I replied to a comment about the pay-as-you-go service I had where I mentioned the idea of whether you should try to minimize costs, or maximize value. Which in the case of cell phones generally relates to per-minute costs — which of course you also want to minimize. But because I changed that sentence in mid-thought, I ended up writing “maximize per-minute costs.” Which would indeed be an interesting strategy.

So, just to highlight this, I’d like to talk for a minute about minimizing cost vs. maximizing value.

This concept applies not just to cell phones, but to everything. Sometimes lowest cost is the best value, but often there are nonmonetary factors (quality, convenience, ease-of-use) that go into making one thing a better value than another.

Often minimizing costs in the short term results in additional costs over the long term. If you buy a cheaper thing that is poorer quality, you will likely have to replace it sooner, so the total amount you spend will be more. But if it’s something you’re only going to use once anyway, then quality doesn’t matter and you should just get the cheapest thing.

So, as with everything, what the best strategy is depends on what you are trying to accomplish. (As I’ve learned asking my CPA father questions about taxes, the answer to everything is, “It depends.”)

When trying to figure out which phone service I should get, I ran into a conflict between figuring out which one would allow me to spend the least amount of money overall and which would give me the most use for the least amount of money.

Most of the time I focus on value; I want to get the most for what I’m spending. In the case of the phone service, however, I went with a different calculation — I looked at what was going to cost me the least amount at the time I was signing up for it, regardless of what I would get for that.

This was partly because I wasn’t getting the phone because I wanted it, or thought it would make my life better, but because I felt compelled to get it by external circumstances (people expecting me to have a phone, people telling me I should have a phone for safety, etc.). But also because the calculations to determine most value for a product you don’t have and don’t know how you are going to use are difficult, to say the least.

There are all kinds of factors to consider when deciding which phone service is going to work best.

  • If you like bleeding-edge technology and want to always have a high-end phone (or if you don’t care about this but are in a line of work where that actually matters), then you should get a contract plan where the cost of the phone is subsidized by the monthly cost of the plan.
  • If you talk or text a lot, or don’t want to have to think about whether you’re talking or texting too much, you should get an unlimited plan.
  • If you don’t really care what kind of phone you use and you don’t talk very much, you should look at a pay-as-you-go service or a no-contract monthly plan and get the cheapest refurbished phone you can get. (And in this case, “cheap” might be “free” — many companies have basic phones available at no extra cost when you sign up for their service.)

And if you don’t really know what you want or need, try to get something that will let you figure it out without locking you in to anything for too long.

Everyone’s situation is going to be different, and there’s not one answer that is going to work for everyone. Though it does seem like there are many wrong answers.

I think a lot of people have a contract phone because that’s what the system is set up for, and so that’s the easiest thing to get. They don’t know how many minutes they use, but they know their phone is important to them. They might worry about going with some company they’ve never heard of, that no one they know uses, or they might think that they need a standard plan because they use their phone all the time, without actually looking to see how many minutes they use or need.

Some alternatives to the standard contract phone from one of the big carriers are no-contract monthly plans and pay-as-you-go options from all the major carriers as well as Virgin Mobile, Net10, Tracfone, Cricket, Boost Mobile.

There is Ting , which adjusts your plan based on what you use.

There is Republic Wireless, which combines wifi and cellular networks to offer low-cost smartphone options using their phones, and services like PureTalkUSA, Straight Talk and Air Voice that offer SIM cards and low-cost, no-contract options for people who want to use their own phone.

So basically there is a lot going on in this marketplace.

If you have a phone that you like, and are happy with the service, and the amount you pay seems reasonable for how much you use it, then just go with that.

But if you feel like you’re paying too much for what you need or use, then look at some of the alternatives, and see if anything out there might work better for you.

(And writing all of this makes me think about how I’ve been joking with friends about working as a “frugality consultant.” It seems like there would definitely be an opportunity for people specializing in phone services — you go to them with six months worth of phone bills and they look at it and talk with you and then give you a choice of options with pros/cons/estimated costs and you pick the one you want.

All you personal finance entrepreneurs out there, have at it!)

The Sometimes Phone, Part I

Thursday, September 19, 2013

[Okay I know this is a ridiculously long story but if you wait for me to figure out which parts are actually relevant and edit it appropriately I’ll never get it up. I just need to write and post. I’ll put up a summary when it’s all written with key points. People who want to know about this but have limited patience for rambling writing can just wait for that.]

I had a conversation the other night with someone I know who doesn’t own a car but sometimes needs one when she travels, and she talked about how complicated that is, that the whole system is designed for people who have cars all the time, and if you don’t, you have to get crazy expensive insurance and it feels like highway robbery. (And for any of you who find yourself in this position, she said that the solution she finally came up with is to use Hotwire, they offer relatively cheap insurance with their cars. Now you know.)

I said this is the same problem I have with cell phones, the system is set up for people to have a phone all the time, every day, not to have a phone when they go out of town, which is the only time I want or need a cell phone.

And that conversation inspired me to finally write this post. Because I think I have (more or less) solved the phone problem — at long last, I finally have a Sometimes Phone.

When you say you don’t have a phone but need one sometimes, people say, “Just get a pay-as-you-go phone.” This is always suggested by someone who knows absolutely nothing about pay-as-you-go phones.

It would be nice if you could get a pay-as-you-go phone and then pay when you wanted to use it and not pay when you didn’t need it then when you needed it again put more money on it. However this is not how pay-as-you-go phones work.

When you get a pay-as-you-go phone, you create an account with a carrier and they give you a phone number and you put money on the phone on a regular basis to keep it active. How often you have to put money on the phone depends on how much money you put on in the first place, and the carrier, and all kinds of other variables that I am not remembering right now because I have blocked this whole thing from my memory, because it is such a pain in the ass.

Every carrier is different and trying to compare plans is extremely difficult. I am like a total superstar at stuff like this and even I am unable to properly run numbers and come up with a rational conclusion.

So I will just say that generally what I found is that in order to get a low per-minute rate, you need to buy quite a lot of minutes each month, at which point you might as well just get a monthly plan because you’re spending the same amount.

For a long time (spring 2003 to fall 2012) I had a Virgin Mobile plan that did what I needed and was pretty cost-effective. I had to put on $20 every 90 days ($15 every 90 days if I linked it to my credit card and had it top up automatically) and the rate was twenty-five cents a minute for the first ten minutes a day I used the phone, and ten cents a minute after that. So how many minutes my $15 or $20 got me depended on how I used the phone. Days that I talked more got me more minutes than days that I talked less.

Some carriers charge a lower per-minute rate but have a flat fees for using the phone — like I think AT&T or T-Mobile charges a dollar for every day you use the phone.

Really the only way to compare is to have a sense of how you are likely to use the phone, then run the numbers for the various options through that scenario and see which one works for you. (But like I said, it’s hard. You definitely need a spreadsheet.)

Because I didn’t need to use the phone very much, I didn’t particularly care about the per-minute rate, I just wanted to have a low minimum. Which is why I liked the Virgin Mobile plan.

But when my phone mysteriously disappeared in September 2012, I looked at it as an opportunity to stop paying $15 every 90 days for something I barely used.

Eighty per cent of my life, I am within arm’s reach of a phone. The other twenty per cent I am taking a break and do not want to talk on the phone. If you want to talk to me, you can leave a message and I will call you back when I am again within arm’s reach of the phone.

The exception to this is when I travel.

Traveling without a phone is often complicated, because everyone expects you to have a phone, so they set things up assuming you have a phone. Okay, call me when you get to town.

It is not actually all that complicated to arrange things so that a phone is not required, but in order to do that, you have to tell people you do not have a phone. And saying you do not have a phone makes you sound like some kind of nut job. What do you mean you don’t have a phone.

So I would like a phone when I travel, so I don’t have to make people go back in time and remember what it’s like to make plans without cell phone, or explain to people I don’t see very often why I don’t have a phone. I’m trying to fly under the radar here.

But I do not want to pay for a phone every month of my life just so I have it the few times a year when I am not at home.

At a nonprofit tech group I participate in, I learned about Google Voice, and that you could get a number that you could send texts from. This was a hugely useful piece of information, it meant that I could use my computer in place of a cell phone. Since I am nearly always in close proximity to my computer, this solved nearly all of my communication problems.

Except if I actually needed to talk to someone on the phone when I am not in a house or office with a phone, or with my computer in a place with wi-fi.

I had a trip in June that I was worried I wasn’t going to be able to pull off. I was on the trip and was discussing it a lunch with a friend whose family lives everywhere (mother in France, sister in London, father in Switzerland, in-laws in Mexico), and he said something that I thought was the usual pay-as-you-go suggestion.

I said, “Right, but you have to pay all the time to keep it active, what am I going to do, get a new phone every time I take a trip?”

He said, “No, not a new phone, just a SIM card. You need a GSM phone. An unlocked phone that you just put a SIM card into.”

After we were done with lunch and I was back to my computer, I looked into it a little bit and discovered ReadySIM, which was designed for Canadians who are visiting the U.S. and want a short-term phone plan to avoid the crazy roaming charges the would get otherwise. You get a SIM card with an unlimited phone plan that is good for 3, 7, 14, or 30 days. The three-day card is $15, the thirty-day card is $40.

I almost made it through the trip in June without a hitch.

I ran into traffic driving from Connecticut to Philadelphia and couldn’t call my friend and tell her where I was. I hadn’t told her I didn’t have a phone (had texted her from Google Voice) so she was calling and texting wondering what was going on. Other than that, I pulled it off (though I cheated a bit and borrowed a friend’s iPad, which made surreptitious GV texting easier).

But then close on the heels of that trip, I had a second trip set up for July which was going to be much more complicated. I decided I needed to try to figure out the phone.

I looked online for “unlocked GSM phone.” A whole bunch of places came up, Best Buy, Target, Wal-Mart. I’m like oh, great, this is going to be totally easy. Everyone has them. Prices ranged from $20 to $800, there were a million options.

Because it seems like this is going to work, no problem, I order a 14-day ReadySim SIM card. I get the full service one (talk-text-data), I’m totally ready, just need the phone.

But I’m totally busy recovering from the first trip. I do manage to stop at a nearby Radio Shack, but they don’t carry any unlocked phones. I’m busy. I take no further action. I have a meeting on Friday that is in the direction of all the Big Box retailers. I’m like this is fine, I’ll just deal with it on Friday.

So on Friday, I go to the Best Buy Mobile store, which is a Best Buy store that just carries phones and phone service, no tvs or refrigerators or anything like that, I’m thinking this is just what I need, and I walk in and as about unlocked GSM phones and the sales person says, “No we don’t carry any unlocked phones.” I say, but your website says you sell them. She says, “Right, we only sell those online.”

Gaahhh.

It is now Friday at 4pm. I am leaving on my trip Tuesday morning, my flight leaves at 9:30am. Ordering online, not a good option. And I was so confident that I could get the phone at Best Buy that I took the bus. Which means I can’t even stop at the other stores to see what they have.

I take the bus home and go online and start looking around and calling to see if anyone local carries unlocked GSM phones. I become obsessed with this. All the while kicking myself for being a procrastinating moron.

I call four or five places, I ask if they have unlocked GSM phones, they say no. (Later I realize I should have just asked for unlocked phones, which I’m pretty sure are all GSM phones. I think people who didn’t know what a GSM phone was just said no because they didn’t know what I was talking about, even if they carried unlocked phones.)

I finally call this cell phone store off Capital Boulevard in Raleigh, I ask if they have unlocked GSM phones. They say, “Yup, we do. ” I said, “Really?” They said, “Yeah, sure. Uh huh.”

I find out exactly where they are located and tell them I’ll be in on Saturday.

After my work shift on Saturday, I drive through a thunderstorm to Raleigh and find the store, which happens to be in the same shopping center as TigerDirect, which I had called on Friday, and they told me they carry unlocked GSM phones, but didn’t have any in stock, they should be getting some in next week. Not so helpful when I was leaving on Tuesday morning.

I walk into the little cell phone store, I ask about unlocked phones, the guy is like “Mmmm … no, I don’t think so. We had one but we sold it.”

Gaahhh, round two.

A discussion ensues among the four people working in the store whether or not they have anything that would work for me and what it might be. They say they have a Windows phone that has never been used or put on a network, that might work. It’s over $250. Way more than I want to spend on something that may or may not work the way I want to. Plus Windows. No. They have one other possible option that is also out of my price range, $350 or something like that.

No go. I leave the store.

I decide to stop at TigerDirect, since it’s right there.

They have a little phone display with a bunch of different options and I look and notice that they do in fact have several phones in stock under the display shelf.

I talk to a sales person and tell him what I’m looking for and we look at the what they have and there are basically two that will work, a small Samsung and a Motorola Droid Pro.

I will say right now that I know people love their iPhones and iPads but I cannot tell you how much I hate those effing keyboards on those things. I hate having to switch between letters and numbers and clearly this is a deeply flawed system that everyone has to make a note about typos as part of their signature. Hello. Not good.

The Samsung was tiny and had a touch-screen keyboard. The Droid Pro had a fairly large screen and a physical keyboard. They were both the same price ($139). I bought the Droid Pro.

Win.

Stay tuned for Part II about how I actually set up the phone and got it to work (with pictures! I promise!)