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.
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 thoughT-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)
- 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 hours15 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.
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.
- 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: