Friday, November 25, 2011

TMobile monthly 4G + Samsung Exhibit II = Android on the cheap


I'm one of those cell phone cheapskates. You know, the guy who didn't own a mobile phone until it was absolutely necessary, and then only got the cheapest phone/plan options possible -- or got it through his employer. For the past few years, I have been using AT&T GoPhone/Pay-As-You-Go plans and the cheapo Nokia feature phones that come with them. A few weeks ago, however, I joined the elite, getting a snazzy Android phone (Samsung Exhibit II) and a really reasonable carrier plan -- the $30 TMobile Monthly 4G plan -- through Walmart. I'll give a quick review of the phone and the T-Mobile plan below.


First, a relevant fact to this review is that while I have been a cellphone cheapskate for a decade, I am actually a pretty heavy iOS user. I don't own an iPhone, but we have an iPad at home as well as two iPod touch devices. The newer one (4th generation) has been something that never leaves my side -- I use it for email, photos, twitter, Instagram, the Weather Channel app, music, and about a dozen other regular uses (I have wi-fi at home and work, which enables a pretty good mobile experience at these locations). If I had the funds to afford an $80 or $90 monthly iPhone plan through AT&T or Verizon, I would have gotten an iPhone, but I don't. But my work as co-founder of Invantory (a company that is developing a Craigslist app) was getting more intense and requires more frequent calling. This forced me to get a new phone plan with more capacity.

I began hearing about the TMobile Monthly4G plan in October, offered through Wal-Mart. It sounded great -- the cheapest option cost $30 per month, included unlimited texting and Web (first 5G at 4G speeds, 2G thereafter) and 100 minutes of talk, with 10 cents per minute thereafter.

This worked out to be far better than the AT&T GoPhone plan, which costs $25 for 100 minutes of talk and charges 25 cents for additional minutes. AT&T texting is 20 cents and data is similarly expensive and practically unusable on the tiny Nokia browser and terrible e-mail interface. Virgin reportedly had a similar plan to T-Mobile, but it was $5 more per month.

T-Mobile/WalMart offered a bunch of different phones, but I was really set on Android -- it was an iPhone-like experience and will eventually become a platform for Invantory's mobile classifieds. T-Mobile had an Android phone called the Samsung Dart, but it had poor reviews (including poor voice quality). The Samsung Exhibit II, however, sounded much better, and worked with the new monthly4G plan.

The plan had just been launched, so I began visiting local Wal-marts to look for the phone and try it out. It was useless. The boxed phones for the Tmobile Monthly 4G plan were there, but they were feature phones and the Dart. The Exhibit II wasn't in stock, and staff had no idea what I was talking about (even in a store which the Walmart website listed as having it "in stock"). The phone was also supposed to be available through T-Mobile stores, but at a 25% markup ($250 vs $200 in Walmart). I eventually gave up seeing the phone in person and just ordered it online through Walmart.com.

Out of the box, the phone worked well, but there were some hiccups. Here's the low down:

Activation and voice service
  • Activation via live T-Mobile customer service is a problem if you want the $30 plan -- for some reason the reps only have another $30 plan (1500 talk and text, see screenshot below) and will direct you to register online if you want the 100 minutes talk/unlimited Web & text.
  • It didn't seem to be a problem to get a phone number in my area code (I mention this because a long time ago it used to be an issue with new mobile phones, or you'd be assigned a phone in the 857 area code)
  • Even though T-Mobile apparently charges minutes against some plan users who make calls on their Wifi signals. "Wifi Calling" is not counted against the Monthly4G plan minutes -- I talked with a customer service representative to confirm this. After conducting a test, I determined that Wifi Calling is counted against your minutes, and another T-Mobile rep confirmed this (contradicting what the first one said). Therefore, I advise turning off Wifi calling and putting the load on the T-Mobile network. You're paying for it either way, might as well make T-Mobile work for it and reconsider their policy. 
  • The Samsung Exhibit II has a excellent voice quality, and I have yet to have a dropped call.
  • 4G coverage seems reasonably good in and around the Boston area, even on some subway lines (MBTA Red Line, but not the Green Line)
Exhibit II hardware
  • The Exhibit II is a very lightweight phone that has a somewhat slippery plastic case -- it will easily fall out of loose pockets when you are sitting down.
  • The processor is adequate, but I have noticed that sometimes it hangs (especially if you are awakening it from sleep with an app already open).
  • Storage is paltry compared to my 4th-generation iPod touch -- USB storage is listed as 1.6 GB, and device memory >800 MB. It's not a problem for people who don't have a lot of media on their phones, but if you are a heavy music, photo, or video user you will have to get an SD card.
  • The battery seems to charge fast. However, I generally have to charge it once every 36 hours 15 hours, leaving it on all the time with relatively low voice usage and high "other" usage (surfing, camera, apps, email, etc.). Update: Battery life seems to be getting worse as time goes on. Part of this relates to the fact that I am using more apps and talking more often on it, but it seems the decline is excessive, even though I am shutting off GPS and often disabling Wifi (note: Disabling wifi apparently increases battery usage, owing to the fact that the device is constantly searching for 4G signals. I've found the best tactic is to leave wifi on all day). The batteries in my iPod touches are far more resilient after many thousands of hours of heavy wifi, app, and camera use.
  • Screen quality: Excellent! At 480 x 800, the dimensions are slimmer than the iPod touch (640 x 960 pixels), but the resolution seems comparable.
  • Photo syncing via USB doesn't work with my two-year-old iMac and iPhoto. But sharing to Dropbox from photo app on the Exhibit II partially makes up for that problem.
  • The Wifi receiver is adequate, with slightly less range than the iPod touch. Switching between Wifi/Edge/3G/4G happens in the background and works well.
Camera

This is probably my biggest beef with the phone. Here are the pros and cons:
  • The resolution of both the front-facing and rear-facing cameras are acceptable and superior to my 4th generation iTouch. 
  • The flash works very well in low-light settings. 
  • But the lag for shooting is sometimes as long as two seconds, which makes setting up shots of people and moving objects difficult and irritating. Auto-focus is apparently to blame, and it can't be turned off (although you can switch to a pretty nice macro setting). 
  • There is no "camera+" or Instagram app for the phone, which is a big negative for someone coming from the iOS universe.
  • The other problem is color -- reds and oranges are definitely muted, as you may be able to see from the photo below. The wood floor actually has a richer color, and the red and yellow legos are a very bright, child-friendly color in reality (the reds below should be fire-engine red, but they're not). The blues, meanwhile, are too strong -- in this photo the detail on the blue boxes can't be seen from afar because the color is so intense.

Samsung Exhibit II test

Android Software
  • Once you get used to Android (my Exhibit II came installed with Android 2.3.5 "Gingerbread") it's a wonderful platform. But getting used to some of the quirks takes time. There are other negatives, too, which I will detail first.
  • "Settings", "My Accounts" and "Accounts and Sync" and individual app settings contain overlapping information and controls. It can be hard to find what you are looking for, and difficult to do certain things such as turning off notification sounds (although there is a "Sound Settings" option, it does not control all sound settings -- you'll have to root around in various apps to turn everything off). 
  • For other settings, I still haven't figured out to adjust them -- such as turning off or changing the startup/power down sounds. How do you turn off the "recharged" sound, so it doesn't wake you up in the middle of the night? I have no idea. iOS is far superior, centralizing all system settings and many app settings in a single place ("Settings"), and making it very easy to disable all sounds.
  • To get carriers to adopt Android, Google made the operating system customizable to a certain extent. The result: Most American carriers, including T-Mobile, load up their phones with crapware which apparently can't be deleted. I got T-Mobile TV HD, T-Mobile Mall, Kies Air, Blio, Yelp, an antivirus program, "Bonus Apps", and bunch of other stuff I didn't want and cluttered up my screens. As it is apparently impossible or difficult to delete them, I had to create a special screen to hold them. Apple forces carriers to stay away from the crapware  practice and allows people to easily delete apps and files, which makes iOS far superior for new users. 
  • Android confusingly has separate "Home" and "Apps" screens, both of which can be customized. iOS only has one view, and allows you to place files and Web bookmarks on it, giving it the same prominence as apps.  
  • Apps: Android does not win on quality (as a more open system, there are a lot of crappy apps out there) but the process of downloading, installing, and trying out the apps is much faster -- no need to enter an iTunes password each time or hunt for the app once it's installed. I installed lots of apps, including Dropbox, Instagram and Google Docs for Android (explained in detail in this Google Docs for Dummies clone)
  • Email: Android's default email app looks better and seems to work faster than iOS on wifi. My only complaint is "mark as unread" is not available (it is, however, an option in the Android Gmail app). 
  • Sync: I've always felt that iOS syncing (and now iCloud) is imperfect. I'll set stuff up, such as Google calendar, and it doesn't seem to get imported into my iPod's Calendar app. But Android really rocks -- you can even attach and group Facebook and twitter accounts, which makes for a better Contacts list. 
  • Customization: If you can find the right options, you can do some pretty neat things, such as setting up live wallpapers that move (a swirling galaxy is one of the defaults). iOS will surely catch up, though.
  • Keyboard and voice input: The Android keyboard is not as good as the one on iOS devices. This is partially the result of the Exhibit's narrower screen, but I also find myself having to "aim" a little high to press the right character. On the other hand, voice input integrated into the keyboard is superb. Just press the microphone on the keyboard (or next to the search magnifying glass), speak clearly, and you'll see it entered. It may not compare to Siri, but considering Siri is not available on most iPhones or any iPods, I'd say Android has the upper hand at the low end of the market.

I may have some other updates as time goes on and I use the phone more. But so far, so good.



Screenshot: Current TMobile Monthly 4G rates:

Tmobile monthly 4g plan rate sheet

9 comments:

  1. Great review--full of great info. One question, though--these particular plans offer unlimited texting and web, but does 'web' data cover data in general (such as downloading apps for Android)?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Don, I am not sure where Web data fits into the monthly total. But I can tell you that I barely dented the full 5GB 4G total, with moderate Web use (including some video) and app downloads (which generally seem to be small). One of the main things that kept the total low is I was using WiFi most of the time, which of course does not count toward Web/data total, only for calling minutes.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Ian--were you able to download apps via the Market using WiFi only? I've got an LG Optimus M that I use in an 'iPod' manner (Airplane mode on so cell radios turned off, WiFi on).

    Thanks for the response.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Yes, I was, but that was for a different phone. Also, are you on TMobile monthly 4G? Terms and processes may be different.

    On iPod touches, "Airplane Mode" turns off wifi. Not sure about Airplane Mode in Android.

    One other thing about apps in Android: The ones I've downloaded don't use up a lot of bandwidth. Typically the download takes seconds.

    ReplyDelete
  5. No, I'm a Verizon subscriber...the LG Optimus was once on MetroPCS's network. And with Android, you can put your phone in Airplane mode and turn on WiFi separately. Neat if you're on a flight that offers WiFi.

    Thanks for the responses! Happy Holidays.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Hi, thanks for the review. I'm thinking of buying this phone and get the $30 unlimited talk/text plan. But I was wondering if I could use Skype on this phone in case I go over the 100 mins. Do you know if that's possible?

    ReplyDelete
  7. Anonymous: Not sure. But even if Skype is not counted, I am not sure if it's worth the trouble - Skype is only practical for outbound calls to other phones, and in my experience using Skype over wifi on an iPod touch, the call quality is poor. T-mobile charges 10 cents per minute extra for voice calls that go over the monthly limit. Unless you're a heavy phone user, it won't be costly. If you are, it's probably better to go with the 1500 Talk & Text plan for $30.

    ReplyDelete
  8. iOS has TalkaTone, and Android has... GrooVeIP. Both of those apps should allow you to use a Google Voice account to make and receive free calls and texts over WiFi. The interface probably won't be as nice, and I'm not sure about call quality, but you might look into those.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Why not use Google Voice? I have used it on another plan and am planning on using it on T-Mobile Exhibit II $30 plan.

    ReplyDelete

I will review and approve comments as soon as possible, but spam, personal attacks, and rude messages will be deleted.