Saturday, March 26, 2016

Bob Gets A Smart Phone

You don't have to spend $600 on a smart phone.

I have resisted getting a smart phone for years, for a number of reasons.  First, I felt like I was being forced to buy something - and something not very cheap, either - and also paying a monthly plan for something I didn't want.   Despite what smart phone users claim, they are not cheap to buy, own, or use.   A new iPhone or Galaxy is going to run you $600 or more, and you will pay for this as part of your "plan" - it is not "free" as you may like to think. 

And smart phone bills can be pricey.  If you have a contract plan, you may have unlimited text, data, and talk, but you pay for this in monthly service fees (and maybe use very little of it) which are amplified by taxes, universal access fees, and the like.   People like to say their plan is "only $39 a month!" but most plans end up costing more than that - far more.  But folks don't like to admit to that.

Men lie - a lot - about gas mileage, penis size, and their smartphone bill.

The second thing was the way smart phone affect people's behavior.   They are highly addictive, constantly making little noises and vibrating and promising - if you would just pick them up - something interesting and fascinating.   So people become obnoxious smart phone users - texting friends while you are talking to them, which is the ultimate rudeness if you think about it.   The smart phone becomes a virtual second world where they live most of the time - in tweets and texts.  I don't want to be that guy.

Oddly enough, the very most useful features of the smart phone are often least used by their owners.   You have, in your hand, a pocket access to the largest database in the history of mankind.  Yet so few use it.   A friend blathers on about the latest internet rumor he heard on Facebook or from a friend.   I grab his iPhone and "ask Siri" to find the answer (you can do this in Google voice as well) and in seconds, you can verify or debunk things.   But most smart phone users prefer to live in the dark than to illuminate themselves through use of this wonderful instrument of learning.

Or take maps.   I was traveling in The Villages with some friends, who were attending open houses.   We were in a golf cart, of course (the preferred mode of travel there) and they could not find the address of the open house.   I hit the "google voice" button and read the address, and it flashes back a map of where we are and how to get there.   They thought this was magic, although both of them owned state-of-the-art smart phones.

So they can be useful devices, if you take advantage of the great database that is the Internet, the online services like banking and whatnot, and of course GPS, streaming music, or whatever.  They can be evil as all hell, if you use them like Pavlov's dog - jumping every time it makes a ding, chirp, or vibrate.

And increasingly, they are becoming necessary devices.   Employers and retailers expect that you text and increasingly, trying to communicate via (audio) phone is next to impossible.   Everyone screens calls and doesn't pick up - if they answer at all.   And if they respond, it is by text.

Banking by phone is a good thing.  You can take a photo of a check and deposit it.   You can pay for things with Android Pay or Apple Pay - or whatever.   The "credit card" may go by the wayside within a year or two.   And if you don't have a smart phone by then, it will be like being un-banked

I suppose it is like the PC era, when everyone started buying computers and going online.   I was an early adopter as I used computers for work and as a hobby.   But I am sure others felt that it was just a fad and hoped it would blow over - because they didn't want to shell out $2000 for a personal computer and try to figure out how to work it.   Why should they?  If they want to send a letter, the postman comes twice a day.   If you want to "instant message" someone, just call them.   And if you want to balance your checkbook, you wait for your monthly statement.   And why shop online when we have the Sears catalog?

Same old shit, different day.  And today, it is smart phones.   The good news is, you can buy used ones for cheap.  And there are even brand-new "stripped" no-name models that can be bought for cheap as well.   So I set out to get a used smart phone and figure out a data plan for it.  But which one to get?

First, we want something cheap, with a removable battery and SIM card and memory card.   Apple products are probably out of the running, but this website has a neat smart phone selector.   The only thing about the site that is archaic is pricing.  It uses Amazon pricing, which is kind of high.   The site shows the Samsung Galaxy S4 as selling for $300 on Amazon, but you can find it for about $100 on eBay.  You can expand the memory to 64 GB with SDRAM and it will accept a GoPhone SIM.

I received the unit, which was set up for T-Mobile, but was "unlocked" so it could run on any GSM carrier, such as AT&T.   It would also work with our existing GoPhone service.

(By the way, buying a used cell phone is a good way to avoid paying cell phone insurance.  If you drop your cell phone in the toilet, you can probably replace it, if it is a few years old, with one in similar condition,  for about a hundred bucks, from eBay.  I suspect a lot of these used sales on eBay are to people replacing damaged or lost phones).

But first, I played with it in WiFi mode, which was not hard to do.  Power it up and link it to your router via the WiFi link.   You can download and run apps, load music onto in, sync it via bluetooth to your car or landline or a set of external speakers and whatnot.   It would even run the Bank of America App, and allow deposits by cell phone (by taking a photo of a check - that saves me a 10 mile drive right there).

Our GoPhone sim was mini, not micro, so we went to the AT&T corporate store to get a new micro SIM, which was free of charge.  We used Mark's SIM, and for now (and the foreseeable future) I will continue to use my cheap $14 slightly-retarded phone, instead of a smart phone.   There are GoPhone plans which include data and texting - unlimited texting and calling, and a fixed number of GigaBytes of data per 30 day billing period.  For example, for $40, you get 2 GB, which is enough to send and receive e-mail, but not enough to stream longer videos (shorter YouTube videos seem to work OK, and  of course using WiFi is unlimited). 

There are, of course, other plans out there, some cheaper, some more expensive, which have more data or less data or pay by the minute, or whatever.   The nice thing about a monthly plan is that you are not limited to one carrier for a contract term.   We stuck with GoPhone not because it was the cheapest, but because the service and range of AT&T has been good, and it was pretty painless to make the switch.  The clerk at the AT&T store spent about an hour with us going over  plans and switching the phone and showing us how to work it.

Since it is a month-to-month plan, I can go to the GoPhone website and change plans at will.  While traveling, I can up the plan to a higher level (e.g., unlimited data for $60 a month), and when staying at home, I can downgrade to a lower level of service.  You can also buy additional data blocks if you "run out" before the end of the month.  So far, this doesn't seem likely at all, as we hardly use half the 2GB of data.   It is kind of handy, though, if you plan on using it intermittently, to upgrade and downgrade service accordingly.

You can use the phone as a WiFi hotspot - there is no additional charge for this with GoPhone.  Some carriers charge an extra hotspot fee, and many folks don't even realize they are paying it - and never use it!  However, it will only "tether" to one device at a time.  So when traveling, we can use the phone as a hot spot for less money than other companies (T-Mobile, Verizon, AT&T) charge for a "wireless hotspot" device (usually $50 for the device and $30-$40 a month).

The car will even sync with it, in three ways - by Wifi, Bluetooth, and via USB cable.   With the car tethered to the phone, the car can then run apps and even perform diagnostics and download error messages to the phone.   It will also remember where you parked (via GPS) and download that data to your phone so you can find your way back (I am not sure this is really a necessary feature, but there you have it).   It will also call 911 if you set off the airbags.   Sort of a poor man's Onstar.

With mirroring, you can mirror the display to a smart television, which we also had to buy recently, as our old flat-screen finally died (about 1/3 the screen was brown lines).  The new television - $50 cheaper than the old one - is 4" larger and has a built-in Netflix, Vudu, YouTube, and Internet interface.  It also works with our wireless keyboad and mouse.   So this has been a month for electronic upgrades.

You can use Bluetooth to play onto a bluetooth speaker and thus replace your iPod.  You can even buy bluetooth adapters (I found one at a truck stop) that will play bluetooth through non-bluetooth devices.  So the stereo in our camper will play music from the phone.

And yes, sometimes this tech shit actually works.   I write Patents on this stuff all the time, and it always shocks me when it actually works as described.

It also sends and receives e-mail from both our hotmail and gmail accounts, and even automatically synced our online calendars with the device (combining them, no less).   Of course, all you can do, really, is read one-line e-mails and make one-line responses.  This kind of thing that infuriates me when I am sending an e-mail with three attachments (which require signatures) and five questions - the smart-phone user replies, "looks good, thanks!" which is not an answer.

What is nice about these devices is how little you have to fuss with them, compared to a traditional computer.   A lot of things are done automatically without your intervention.  There are downsides to this, of course.

The downsides?   Well, first, the battery life sucks - it runs for about a day between charges, and that is with the screen-saver set at 30 seconds.   Second, the device dings and chirps whenever it does anything at all - sync with Bluetooth, receive e-mail (from either account), or text message.   And it is hard not to pick up the device and see what is going on when it dings and chirps.  This is the Pavlovian aspect of smart phones and it is annoying.  I will learn how to turn these chips off.

But of course, one way to avoid this problem is the off button.   Just turn it off, or don't carry it with you all the time.   What I find odd is how some folks have to carry their smart phone with them, like it was an artificial kidney.  Some are strapped to the belt in holsters like guns.  Others put them in their back pockets, which can be disastrous if you sit down.  Still others hold them by the edges as if carrying a piece glass - arms out, as if dowsing for water.   I am not sure why folks do this, but it is like walking around looking at a computer screen.

The Samsung has some downsides - it comes with a lot of spamware which took me a while to figure out how to delete from the home pages.  They have some sort of Facebook-like thing they want you to use, or some kind of "travel" log they want you to fill out.  Delete, delete, delete.

And there are a lot of features.   The owner's manual is a staggering 288 pages (in large font, however) that fills an entire ring binder (downloaded from the Samsung site).  I also ordered the Samsung Galaxy 4 for Dummies for Mark.

We also went to Wal-Mart for a body-glove case and a screen-saver (the clear plastic piece that goes over the screen).  Combined, these cost nearly as much as the phone.  Oddly enough, Dollar Tree only had cases for Galaxy 6s and iPhone 6.  I guess those who shop at Dollar Tree only want the best!

The funny thing is, though, that while people pay big dollars for the "latest and greatest" smart phone to show off (and your iPhone case HAS to have a hole in it to show the Apple logo out the back, right?) they all pretty much look the same from the outside, other than small changes in dimensions.  The Galaxy 4, 5, and 6 are all about the same in size and format.   How in God's name can you rub someone's nose in your status if you can't tell the phones apart?

Of course, there are some differences which will be important in the future.  Fingerprint ID, for example, might be necessary for mobile banking.  And if your phone doesn't have near-field communications capability, using GooglePay (Android Pay) or ApplePay isn't in the cards.   Samsung's innovative "SamsungPay" which can work with any swipe terminal out there, only works if you have a Galaxy 6 or newer.

But in my view, by the time these payment systems become the norm as opposed to a novelty, it will be a few years from now.

And by then, a mint Galaxy 6S will be on eBay for $99.