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:
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.
– 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?