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yes, i am an engineer. it shows.

Does anyone have any experience with Straight Talk Wireless?

Better Half and I got our current smartphones (HTC Incredibles) over three years ago now, and are still cruising along on a month-to-month plan with Verizon. Why? We actually got one of their "unlimited everything" plans, and as long as we do not touch it, we get to keep it (Verizon no longer offers unlimited data). However, the honest truth is that I have never used more than 1.5GB of data in a month, and I do not think Better Half has even managed to use a full GB of data in a month, and current plans with their hard caps of 2GB shared between our lines are somewhere around $10-$20 cheaper a month, and would give us new phones in the process.

But that is Verizon, and when you get right down to it, Verizon is expensive:

Image(5)

Now for a few clarifications. By and large, I tried to use as-comparable phones as I possibly could between all of the service providers; obviously, this is impossible, since there is still no one non-Apple phone that is carried by all cell companies. Second, Verizon does not actually have an "activation fee"; they have an "upgrade fee", and, yes, I am serious about that. Rather than simply charging more for the phones, or amortizing that cost over the course of a contract, they hit their customers with yet another fee. I cannot say as though I am terribly impressed with this, and, surprisingly, neither was the customer service representative I talked to – he actually annotated our account that if we renew through them, the fee should be waived for us. Third, Boost has this crazy decreasing-price plan, where if you pay on-time every month for six months, your bill goes down $5, and then again in another six months, and so on. That 24 month total is what it would actually cost, which is not 110 * 24 + phone cost.

So, as you can see, Verizon is not the most expensive service provider out there (that honor goes to an AT&T plan procured through Amazon, who is peculiarly cheaper for some providers and more expensive for others), but it is definitely up there. T-Mobile rules the roost when it comes to "reputable" cell companies with their value plans – you pay full price for the phone up front, but your monthly charges decrease considerably – and Boost Mobile (who, with Virgin Mobile, is a subsidiary of Sprint Nextel) comes out as the cheapest of the pre-paid crowd, thanks to their "shrinking plan".

So why are we looking at Straight Talk? Well, pretty much all of the pre-paid cell providers (except Cricket, who uses their own towers for voice communications and Sprint’s network for 3G data, and who, coincidentally, were first launched just down the road in Chattanooga) ride on someone else’s network. In the case of Straight Talk (who is actually a subsidiary of TracFone, if anyone remembers them (they are actually still around, believe it or not), and a joint venture with WalMart), they run on both AT&T’s and T-Mobile’s GSM networks; as an engineer, I like redundancy, and their claimed coverage is about as good as you would hope for that joining of networks.

And the claims seem to hold up:

- Are the network speeds the same? According to my testing: Yes. I’ve used my Galaxy Nexus with both a T-Mobile SIM and Straight Talk SIM for T-Mobile’s network and found the speeds to be equal. On T-Mobile’s HSPA+ network where I live, I routinely see between 6 and 8 Mbps down, 2 Mbps up and ping times around 120 milliseconds. The same test on my iPhone 4S with a SIM from AT&T and then from Straight Talk showed no difference either.

- How’s the coverage? Since Straight Talk is paying AT&T and T-Mobile for their networks, the coverage is the same as if you were paying those operators directly. I haven’t seen any coverage differences at all. If you get good coverage now from one of the two carriers, you should get the same with a Straight Talk SIM.

The additional aspect to all of this is that Straight Talk is a "bring your own phone" company – you can buy through them, and some of their prices are not bad, but you can also bring your own SIM-card-capable phone, either unlocked or on the AT&T or T-Mobile networks, and go that way… which opens up a lot of options when one is considering hardware.

And which brings me to the second question of the post: What is a decent, affordable (ideally <$200), unlocked, GSM Android phone these days?

We are going to stay away from HTC for the time being – both of our phones were stricken with "insufficient storage available" bug, though my CyanogenMod install seems to have mostly cleared it up – but other than that, we are open to suggestions. Better Half wants a good camera, stable platform, decent battery life, and not a massive form-factor, but aside from that, she is flexible. I would prefer both our phones to have removable batteries and be supported by CyanogenMod on some level, if only to get rid of the inevitable crapware and nonsense, and given that the direct-from-Google Nexus 4 with its already-accessible root functionality sold out within hours of being released.

Personally, I am looking at a Motorola Defy (though it only operates on AT&T’s network) – with its IP67 rating, if there were ever a smartphone designed for me, that might be it. There are newer durable smartphones, but none except the last offer any significant increase in capabilities, and considering that the last costs about three times as much, it had bloody well better be an improvement. The Xperia Go / Advance (same phone, the latter is just marketed specifically at America) seem to offer a bit more capabilities, at the cost of a lot less aftermarket support.

On the flip side, there is Liquipel, which does not bestow an IP rating on your phone, but does supposedly make it waterproof… so long as you have an item on their supported list and can live without it for a few days.

And all of this culminates in the last question: where does one buy reliable unlocked cell phones these days? Obviously Amazon is one source, but are there better ones?

19 comments to yes, i am an engineer. it shows.

  • Pyrotek85

    Thanks for posting this, I was just thinking about upgrading or changing carriers within the next month or so.

  • Keith1911

    I manage the telecom system for a medium sized credit union and I have a couple pieces of advice. First off every telco has something wrong with it. You just get to pick that issue. For me Verizon has the best overall service and fairly good customer support, while it is expensive. Others have crappy service or crappy customer support.

    One thing to realize about the services like Straight Talk, is they are what is called a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO). They do not own any of the cell towers your calls and data run over. So they may have a dead spot in an area where the carrier they rent towers from may have full signal.

  • @ Pyrotek85: No worries; I figured I did the work, I might as well share it. If you want the source spreadsheet, let me know.

    @ Keith1911: To be certain, Verizon has some of the best customer service out there, and it is consistently and repeatedly ranked as such. Its coverage is likewise about as good as you can get.

    But we have only really needed that customer service about twice, and one of those times, they were completely and totally useless. Likewise, their recent CSR informed me that Verizon’s “stated goal” is to get people off their unlimited plans, but they were not able to do anything to encourage us to come off, short of waiving that stupid $30 fee. Yay.

    Everything is a trade-off, but I am hoping the combined coverage of T-Mobile and AT&T (assuming we get phones that can run off both) will be enough to deal with that issue. When it comes to customer service… *shrug* I bricked my Incredible then managed to resurrect it and root it after they supposedly locked the bootloader, so I will figure something out ;).

  • Gaston

    In your comparison, do you really feel that you’re going to use that much voice? I pared down my cell bill by capping at 500 minutes on my voice. I found is that with unlimited text messaging my voice minutes decreased. I usually find most of my calls are just leaving voice mail messages to other people. Voice usage is on the decline and this has the cell carriers scared. At the same time with unlimited text messaging, I am sending 2000 texts per month.

  • Adam

    So you could used an unlocked iPhone 5 on Straight Talk?

  • @ Gaston: There are plans with that few minutes? We use maybe 300 minutes between us on a monthly basis, and I tried to find plans with the absolute bare minimum of minutes available on the respective carriers, but they do not seem terribly interested in going much below 600 these days… Unless you go all the way down to 100, or something like that.

    @ Adam: My understanding is “yes”, though that particular phone may present some unique challenges.

  • Of course I remember TracFone!

    I still use an ancient pre-pay Motarola flip phone.

    Though that’s the advantage of being on the far-far low end of the usage curve.

  • eli

    I am permanently leary of the Samsung platforms. I went with the Focus (Galaxy S in Android), and between the spouse and I went through about 5. In each case, it was new, out of the box issues. Once a working one was found, they worked well. Not perfect, but well. (I wanted that one because windows and expansion slot) The phone lasted 2 years, then started really screwing up. Great platform, when it works. Not something that lasts.

  • Matthew

    Here’s the thing, it’s not just about having coverage, it’s about call quality when you need it. ATT and T-Mobile have pretty decent coverage, but coverage does not equal reception. There are plenty of places in Knoxville that ATT has coverage, but it doesn’t penetrate into buildings well. I believe that has to do with the tech (GSM) and certain handsets. There is also the issue of the tech of GSM (ATT & TMobile) which can push down call quality when the tower gets fuller. My understanding on GSM is as the tower gets more and more calls/data the bit rate of the call gets lower and lower. That doesn’t happen with CDMA (Verizon, Sprint, US Cellular.)

    But what I find in reality is that with Verizon and a good Motorola flip phone that has some of the best RF reception, I am able to make calls in places that that ATT people have no service. I am not talking about barely making calls. Strong, clear calls. Yeah, you pay out the butt for it, but you get what you pay for. I need to make and take calls when I need to, so the extra money is worth it.

  • I would prefer both our phones to have removable batteries and be supported by CyanogenMod on some level, if only to get rid of the inevitable crapware and nonsense, and given that the direct-from-Google Nexus 4 with its already-accessible root functionality sold out within hours of being released.

    Just a heads up in case you were considering it: the Nexus 4 does not have a removable battery. Rather stupid for a developer phone, I think, since it’s not unheard of to have to do a battery-pull reset when there’s a complication in flashing a ROM.

    I’ve been happy with my Galaxy Nexus so far. The Galaxy S III is also a good phone (maybe better, since it’s newer and I think has a more powerful processor), and is very well supported by CyanogenMod. I believe it goes for $149 through Sprint or Amazon.

    I tried to find plans with the absolute bare minimum of minutes available on the respective carriers, but they do not seem terribly interested in going much below 600 these days

    I’m not sure about their shared plans, but I’m on Sprint’s “Everything Data 450″ plan. 450 minutes with unlimited data and texting, for ~$87 / month (total, including taxes, etc.). If you each get that individually, that’s not much more than the shared plan you have listed, and may be about the same or a little less once you throw taxes and fees in.

  • Oops! Forgot to subscribe.

  • @ The Jack: We have no landline, so we actually end up using our phones a lot… just not during daytime hours or to other Verizon customers (the latter of which is an aspect we need to keep in mind when choosing a new carrier / how many minutes we really need).

    @ eli: From what I understand, the Galaxy S was Samsung’s wake-up call – the SII and now SIII have been consistently ranked as some of the best phones out there, and one report I read indicated that Samsung has all but cornered the Android market.

    Not trying to discount your negative experiences, just observing that they may (may) have learned from their mistakes.

    @ Matthew: You are absolutely right (regarding the difference between coverage and quality – I have no idea about the rest, not being tremendously versed in how GSM/CDMA actually work at the programmatic level), but that is where things like SignalMap come in, or would if people provided their data.

    In the end, I guess we have to decide if the extra grand is worth not having many, if any, phone calls get wonky. Not sure if that is really worth it to us, and the good news of things like Straight Talk is that since there is no contract, if it does not work out, we put the phone up for sale and go back to a “legitimate” carrier.

    @ Jake: Well that is stupid. Are we back to having to shove a paperclip in a little tiny hole, or are they stupid enough to think the power button will always work?

    And SIIIs may be that cheap with plans, but they surely are not unlocked.

    $87 x 2 puts us at $174, which is a fair bit more than we are paying even now :).

  • I have a landline too, but I don’t use it much at all either.

    Again I’m an odd duck at the low, low end of the usage pool. I don’t use phones for most of my voice chat for one.

  • eli

    Thanks for the follow up. I stuck with it through the initial issues because it really was good in all its features: phone, camera, fm receiver, music, camera, memory expansion, screen, weight, removable battery. If the phone is now a better quality manufacture it would be hard to beat from piece of hardware perspective.
    cons would include bad speaker, but reflective more of build quality.
    It is my understanding that GSM is higher bandwidth, but lower penetration through buildings, etc than CDMA. Also, GSM supports simultaneous voice and data which came in handy tonight as I worked through getting the keys out if my locked vehicle. That is my understanding, but curious as to whether CDMA does not.

  • Gaston

    I have a Verizon plan that is 450 minutes, with unlimited Verizon to Verizon. I get a company discount from Verizon so I am not sure what the retail rate would be but certainly pretty low. Last year I signed up for a t-Mobile plan, 500 minutes per month, unlimited data (and texting is considered data on my T-Mobile plan).

    You could be right that the phone companies are pushing higher minimum voice plans for the reason that they know people are not going to use the air time. Plans may have changed in the last year.

    I guess one option is to go the 2 phone route…one phone prepaid for voice and then go for a second phone unlimited data and no voice plan. I have 8 days until my month rolls over on T-Mobile and I’ve only used 314 minutes of my 500. If you get into the linear programing you could plot the incremental cost of exceeding your minutes. My voice usage is “bursty” on a month to month basis. I’ve had as few as 100 minutes of voice use in some months.

  • @ The Jack: Yeah, my parents have a Verizon cell phone they use for emergencies and when they go camping… might have to talk to them about that, considering how little they use it.

    @ eli: No worries – I think companies should be noticed for fixing their problems as much as they are for the problems to begin with. For instance, if I ever saw proof that HTC unscrewed their memory issues, I would go back to them in a heartbeat – aside from that hiccup, Incredibles are pretty awesome – but for now… meh.

    This is a good, simple article for the differences between the two technologies, but both are changing so rapidly, and apparently both are about to be replaced with LTE, I am not sure it matters any more.

    @ Gaston: Yeah, with Verizon these days, if you want a family plan with smart phones, you are getting unlimited minutes whether you want them or not… I can remember when 300 minutes a month was considered ‘a lot’ of time for a company to give you, though.

  • In a case like that prepaid would be better.

    Though you do have to remember to not run out of days (depending on the service provider). I’m still in the area where I use few enough minutes to make it cost effective, but to use enough that I do have to buy minutes roughly ever other month.

  • DeaconC

    I have a galaxy S2 running on simple mobile and have suffered no grief at all so far.I picked the phone up used in excellent condition used from Craigslist for $125 and picked up a super sized battery from Amazon for $40.
    Being able to run 3 days on a charge is a pleasant thing!
    Wanted to run my tablet off the web service on my phone (4G routinely pulling 8-10 down by 2 up) but the phone was T-Mobile and the hotspot manager was disabled. Spoke to a Simple Mobile company rep who said the unofficial position was “It’s your data, we really don’t care how you use it”
    1. root phone (5 minutes and just about foolproof) and away we go. I use my 10″ tablet for my GPS using Waze and it’s much better than the itty bitty phone screen. At $50 a month for the “unlimited” plan I have been extremely pleased with the service.

  • @ The Jack: Yeah, most of the prepaid plans offer automatic “re-up” functionalities now, so it is basically like a contract, only without the actual… contract.

    @ DeaconC: Sp So, Simple Mobile appears to have been T-Mobile’s private MVNO, until it was purchased by TracFone in 2012, which basically makes it the same as Straight Talk now. Interesting. Even more interesting that they are willing to offer 4G speeds, if you are willing to pay for them, and that they come in a bit cheaper than Straight Talk if you do not need the super-fast-ness. I guess the only question is whether they run exclusively on T-Mobile’s frequencies, or whether TracFone branched them into AT&T’s too…



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