Technology seems to be changing at the speed of light. Unfortunately here at Aumnia, we work at a human speed. In our brief hiatus from keeping you informed on all things mobile, we’ve been working hard (or hardly working?). With a little more manpower at the helm, we’re back and we’ve got an awesome phone buying guide for you this month- just in time to wrap up summer.
This edition of the mobile phone buying guide is a bit of a tough one. We’re entering a period that I like to call “upgrade limbo”. What is upgrade limbo? It’s when we’re in between major phone releases making it difficult to suggest or recommend different handsets. However, this is a phone buying guide, so here are my suggestions if you are in the market for a new device.
As in previous editions, I’ve split the guide into three sections – iOS, Android, and off-contract. I’ll start with iOS (meaning iPhone). You can skip directly to Android by clicking here, or directly to the off-contract section by clicking here.
iPhone Buying Recommendations
Given that it’s been almost 5 months since the iPhone 6 came out, we’re at a point where upgrading is questionable. It’s always best to upgrade your iPhone shortly after the latest model is released so you can maximize the benefit of the new device and stay in sequence with the Apple upgrade schedule. While this isn’t the worst time to upgrade to the iPhone 6, just be aware that new models will be coming out in about 6 months.
The big question: iPhone 6 or iPhone 6 Plus?
Both the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus are excellent devices. The 6 Plus does have a couple of advantages. First, since the battery is larger, you will get more time between charges. Second, the camera is supposedly a touch better, but I’m not certain it’s enough to influence your choice.
The downside of the 6 Plus, or upside depending on how you look at it, is the size. If you’re upgrading from an iPhone 4 or iPhone 4s, the 6 Plus will feel massive in comparison. It may be shocking at first, but most people I know have gotten used to the size quickly and love it. However, if you like to carry your phone around in the front pocket of your jeans, you may find the size of the iPhone 6 more appealing.
Bottom line, it’s a personal choice. I’d recommend that you go to an Apple store or carrier store to see the devices first hand. If you’re unsure after looking at them, inquire about the return policy and take advantage of it if the device you choose isn’t to your liking.
iPhone 5s recommendation: wait
If you like the size of the iPhone 5, my past recommendations have been to go ahead and get the iPhone 5s. At this point though, my suggestion if to wait and not upgrade. Rumors are that Apple is going to upgrade their 4-inch models to the latest hardware so there will be three new phone models released this year – a 4-inch, 4.7-inch, and 5.5-inch iPhone model.
Since the iPhone 5s will be two years old this fall, buying it means that it will likely only last 1 more operating system upgrade, 2 at the most. If you can wait for the newer model, you’ll have a phone that will be guaranteed to last through your contract and beyond.
iPhone 5c recommendation: don’t
As with previous recommendations, don’t get the 5c. It’s just an iPhone 5 repackaged in colored plastic. The hardware is going on 3 years old, and I suspect that Apple will be phasing out support for this model over the next 12-18 months, especially since the 5c never really caught on.
Android Buying Recommendations
If you’re in the market for an Android device, now is definitely a good time to wait. A major show in the wireless industry, Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, is taking place at the beginning of March. New Android devices will be announced during the show. I suspect HTC will announce a follow-on to their HTC One M8, and Samsung should announce the Samsung Galaxy S6.
In the meantime, if you need to purchase a phone, here are the recommendations:
Moto X – 2nd Generation
If the Samsung Galaxy series isn’t your thing, or you’re looking to try something new, the Moto X 2nd Generation is a great device. It runs a vanilla version of Android which means it gets the latest operating system updates quickly. For example, it’s already running Android 5.0 – Lollipop. Plus, since the refresh cycle for the Moto X is in the fall, you’re fairly safe upgrading to the Moto X.
Galaxy Note 4
If you like the larger “phablet” size such as the iPhone 6 Plus, then the Note 4 is your best option. There are quite a few phablet size Android devices, but Samsung has done the best job building devices in this size range.
Samsung Galaxy S5
If you’re a fan of the Galaxy S series phones, then the S5 is the current upgrade path. However, I’d recommend waiting a month until the S6 comes out. I don’t suspect there will be a lot of changes, but you will get slightly better hardware for the same price as the S5.
If you’re on Verizon, I’d suggest taking a look at the Droid Turbo. It’s a slightly enhanced version of the Moto X – 2nd Generation that is exclusive to Verizon.
Off-contract Buying Recommendations
The off-contract market has gotten a little bit tougher. In the past, the Nexus 5 was my go-to off-contract device, but it has gotten very hard to buy from the Play Store. There are also rumors that Google will be phasing it out, which is a shame. It was a great deal at under $350.
In lieu of the Nexus 5, here are some other devices to consider if you want to get some good hardware and save some money by going off-contract:
Starting at $299 with flagship equivalent specs, the OnePlus One is a steal. The problem is that it can be very hard to get your hands on one. You can only purchase it directly from their site (click here), but it requires an invite. They occasionally open up non-invite periods, so you’ll have to follow the tech blogs to see when one of the non-invite purchasing windows opens up.
Moto G (2nd generation)
For $179, the Moto G is a great value device. It doesn’t have all the latest and greatest hardware, but if you’re looking for a 5-inch device that will let you text, email, take pictures, and access the latest Android apps, the Moto G is your device. Plus, at $179, you can always upgrade if something better comes along without feeling like you lost a lot of money. The Moto G is also a great device if your current device goes for a swim or MIA. It’s a great way to bridge the time until your contract rolls over so you can get your next flagship device.
One of the best kept Android secrets is the Moto E. It’s a full fledged Android device that you can purchase off-contract starting at $120. As you would expect, there are some feature compromises, and you don’t get the best features for $120, but it’s a phone that works and has access to all of the latest Android apps. It’s a great first phone for a teenager or pre-teen. I got one for my pre-teen, and it certainly alleviates a lot of the anxiety of her breaking it or losing it, which seems to be a common occurrence for this age group.
There are two options for off-contract iPhones. The first is to buy directly from Apple, which means you’ll be paying full price for an iPhone. The iPhone 6 starts at $649, and the iPhone 6 Plus starts at $749. The other option is to try and pick-up a second hand, refurbished device from an online carrier store, eBay, or Gazelle. Either way, expect to pay a lot more than you will for an unlocked Android phone.
I would strongly suggest staying away from Windows Phone for now. Microsoft is in transition to Windows 10, which will unify the Microsoft operating system across desktops, tablets and phones. It remains to be seen how compatible Windows 10 will be with existing phones, so buying a Windows Phone now could result in owning an obsolete device by the end of the year. To be honest, I wouldn’t recommend considering a Windows Phone device until 2016 at the earliest.
Since carrier quality varies significantly by region, I generally stay away from specific carrier recommendations. That being said, if you are looking for a carrier or want to make a change, check out my article, Choosing a mobile carrier, for tips and guidelines.
If you have questions about any devices, feel as though I left one out, or have personal experience with any of devices, please share in the comments.
One of the things I like doing at the beginning of each year is forecasting what events are likely to happen in the upcoming year. For 2014, I forecasted 10 events that I thought would shape the mobile market. Here’s the mid-year update of how I’m doing with my prognostications for the year.
- Apple releases a bigger phone
As far as predictions go, this one was a layup. We’re on the verge of seeing a 4.7″ iPhone, which was I figured was coming. The 5.5″ size surprised me, but recent production issues could delay that model until later this year or 2015.
- Android and iOS continue their OS dominance
Once again, this one wasn’t a stretch. It wasn’t so much as a bet on Android and iOS as much as it was a bet against Microsoft. Based on recent reorganizations within Microsoft, I don’t think you’ll see significant traction from Windows Phone in the market until 2016 at the earliest, if at all.
- Apple and Samsung continue their smartphone dominance
I certainly made lots of safe predictions for 2014, and this was another one. Although Samsung is starting to falter a bit due to market saturation, they’re still the dominant smartphone manufacturer along with Apple. In fact, I expect Apple to have a really strong end of the year with the release of the iPhone 6 that could really pad their market share numbers.
- Chrome OS appears on mobile phones
I took a bit more risk on this one, and it looks like it’s not going to happen. Talk of Android apps running on Chromebooks came out of the Google developer’s conference, so I still believe that Android and Chrome OS will merge. In other words, it’s not a matter of if it will happen, just when.
- Amazon enters the mobile phone market
This was another one of my “gimmees” as Amazon had been foreshadowing its phone development since late 2012. While I predicted the phone, it didn’t come with everything I thought it would. I figured they’d offer multiple models and some sort of phone service linked to Amazon Prime. That didn’t happen at launch, but it’s certainly possible they could be features on the Amazon roadmap.
- Nokia explores Android
As I suspected, the rumors were correct and Nokia released their X-series, a low-end line of phones running a Nokia version of Android. Likewise, as expected, Microsoft killed the initiative as part of their recent reorganization and will force follow-on devices to Windows Phone. Personally, I think this is a mistake, but what do I know. I’m not the one getting paid to make these decisions.
- No contract and prepaid plans go mainstream
Prepaid plans are gaining momentum, but they’re not mainstream yet. While T-mobile has gone all-in, AT&T, Verizon and Sprint are still clinging to the contract model. I suspect it is only a matter of time before all the major players have a strong prepaid, no-contract offering, especially as the smartphone market saturates and the upgrade cycle lengthens.
- The phone connects to the car
As expected, both Apple and Google have strong car initiatives in the works. Apple is calling their version CarPlay, and Google is bringing Android Auto to market. It’s looking like next year’s cars will have at least one of these available as a feature, if not both.
- Mobile payments gain traction
Mobile payment initiatives seem to have stalled. I still think people are taking the wrong approach by trying to force all payments through the phone. I just don’t understand why the major credit card companies aren’t developing applications that will allow us to use our phones as a secure authentication device with our existing cards. I can only figure that I’m either missing something or oversimplifying the problem.
- The new design buzzword – mobile-optimized
The design community is a stubborn bunch and is still clinging to responsive design as the solution to all that ails mobile. While it is does have its place, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. I’ve seen too many poorly implemented responsive sites that compromise the mobile user experience to satisfy using a buzzword, and those that are implemented properly are often bloated and more expensive than hybrid solutions. It’s like hiring a carpenter who only knows how to use a hammer. Of course they’re going to suggest that everything should be held together with nails. I’m still confident that things will swing back once more “mobile-optimized” sites come online and designers realize that by expanding their toolbox they can build and deliver a much richer and more effective mobile experience to their clients.
I’ll do my usual mobile year in review at the end of the year which will take a look at how these predictions fared and other key events in 2014, which will be followed by my trends for 2015. Even though there are only six months left in the year, I expect a lot is going to happen. It’s going to be fun to watch!
Since I spend a lot of time working with mobile devices, one of the questions I consistently get is “which mobile carrier should I choose?” It’s a good question, and one that you should answer before you decide which phone to buy. The best phone in the world is worthless if you can’t get service on it where you use it most.
Recommendations for choosing a carrier
Above everything else, you need to choose the carrier that gives you the best coverage where you use your phone the most. Make sure that you get excellent coverage at your house, your office, and all of the places where you spend a lot of time – including coffee shops you frequent, relatives’ and friends’ homes, and favorite vacation spots. I don’t know of anything more frustrating than a phone that doesn’t get service in the places where you spend the most time.The first step is to check the coverage maps for the carrier, but don’t rely on these. While they are mostly accurate, these are an important factor in the carrier’s marketing and may be enhanced a bit. More importantly, take advantage of the phone return period, which is generally 14 days or longer. Be sure to try the phone in as many of the places you frequent as possible and verify service quality. If it doesn’t meet your needs, take it back and try another carrier.
I can’t emphasize enough how important coverage is. In fact, it’s so important, that you should treat the next three points as secondary factors in making your carrier decision.
Since we’re conditioned to shop on price, it seems counter-intuitive that plans would be a secondary factor. Sure, some carriers offer lower prices than others, but is saving $10 per month worth it if you can’t get service on your phone when you need it? Trust me on this one, you’ll regret that you saved that $10 per month when don’t close a deal because of a missed call or email.Plus, carriers are aware of their competition’s pricing. With only four major carriers in the market, all of them watch each other’s pricing and will quickly move to match pricing changes. In other words, if AT&T is $20 cheaper today, it’s likely Verizon will move quickly to match them.
Finally, if you’re able to afford the up front cost for a device, I would strongly recommend looking into a “no-contract” plan, particularly on AT&T or T-mobile. It’s one of the best ways to save money and allows you the flexibility to easily switch carriers should better coverage or better pricing become available in your area. Check out this article I wrote earlier this year titled, Should you go “no-contract”?, for more information on the benefits of avoiding a two-year commitment.
Again, you would think speed should be important, but who cares how fast the network is if you can’t access it due to poor coverage. The speed of the network is a don’t care if you can’t access it.Also, carriers are regularly working on upgrades to their networks, so differences in speed between them is usually temporary.
If you’re entering into a two-year contract with a carrier, you’ll want to make sure you get the phone you want. Luckily, the differences in devices between carriers are virtually non-existent. Gone are the days when you had to go to AT&T to get the iPhone or to Verizon to get the best Android (Droid) devices. Manufacturers, particularly Apple and Samsung, make their devices available to all carriers on the date of launch. There may still be a few minor differences in phone selection between carriers, but nothing significant enough to justify choosing a carrier because of a specific device. My advice on phone selection is simple – choose a device that you like and that you feel will make you the most productive.If you’re looking for phone suggestions, check out our latest phone buying guide which is available in the Mobile Hardware section of our blog.
Even after reviewing this list, I still get asked which carrier is best. It varies by region, but generally speaking, here is how they stack up:
- Verizon – It is has a big, fast network with strong coverage in most areas. They’re plans tend to be more expensive, but it’s worth it in most cases.
- AT&T – Overall, its network isn’t as good as Verizon’s, but there are areas where their coverage will be better. When choosing between AT&T and Verizon, it’s a personal decision based on where you use your phone.
- T-mobile – It is very aggressive on pricing, especially for data plans, and offers great equipment. Its Achilles heel is its network. They’ve made a lot of improvements lately, but coverage can get spotty if you spend a lot of time outside of populated areas. If T-mobile’s coverage works for you, it’s a great way to save a few bucks. (In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve had very good experience with T-mobile for the past seven years, but I don’t spend much time off the beaten path)
- Sprint – It’s as aggressive as T-mobile on pricing, but its phone selection is limited and their network isn’t as robust as Verizon and AT&T. As with T-mobile, it’s a good way to save a few dollars if the coverage works for you.
Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNO)
Finally, if you haven’t heard of Mobile Virtual Network Operators, better known as MVNOs, you may want to take a look. They rent network capacity from the major carriers and resell it. Popular MVNOs include Straight Talk Wireless, Boost Mobile, Virgin Mobile, Republic Wireless, Simple Mobile, GoSmart Mobile, and Net10. A few comments with regards to MVNOs should you decide to investigate one as an option:
- They rarely have contracts, so service is month-to-month. This allows you to switch between carriers if you run into problems with network coverage, network quality or customer service.
- Their prices are normally better than the major carriers since they do not operate brick and mortar stores or subsidize phone purchases. The downside is that you have to pay full price for your phone up front, or bring your own device, and get all of your setup and customer service questions answered online or over the phone.
- Some MVNOs require phones specifically designed for their mobile service, such as Republic Wireless which relies heavily on Wi-Fi. The downside is that you cannot easily switch carriers since your phone will not be compatible with anyone else’s network.
- Because many of these MVNOs lack storefronts as mentioned above, you can be on your own with regards to technical issues. Therefore, I usually do not recommend an MVNO for the technically faint of heart.
- If you get really serious about switching to an MVNO, here’s a review of some of the top services from Android Headlines.
Personally, I wouldn’t recommend an MVNO if you rely on your phone for business. As a personal phone, or for a teenager/child, an MVNO can be a great way to save some money. For business, it can be a bit risky, especially if you start to run into network quality issues or phone problems.
Feel free to ask any questions in the comments, and happy shopping!
There’s a new trend in mobile – going no-contract. It’s being led by T-mobile, which unveiled their no-contract Simple Choice plans last March. For $50 per month, you get unlimited voice, text and data – the first 500MB at high speed. T-mobile’s plan was a major success. They added an astonishing 4.4 million subscribers in 2013. It’s been such a success, that rival AT&T launched their own no-contract Value plans in December, and I suspect that Verizon and Sprint will be following with plans of their own soon.
I’ve been off contract with T-mobile for two years now, and it’s been a liberating experience. My first no-contract phone was the Nexus One, and I’ve since purchased a Galaxy Nexus and Moto X off contract. The up front cost of purchasing a phone off contract is higher, but over the life of what would be a two year contract, I save a significant amount by paying lower monthly rates. Plus, I’m free to upgrade my phone or switch carriers whenever I want without having to pay upgrade or early termination fees.
The benefits of going no-contract
In the past, there weren’t any significant benefits to going no-contract with the major carriers. Plan prices were the same whether you bought a subsidized phone or brought your own device. In other words, you were paying the phone subsidy every month regardless of whether you were on contract or not. With these new plans from T-mobile and AT&T, the plan pricing is independent of the phone price.
I’ll go into more detail below, but in addition to the money savings, there are a number of other benefits of going no-contract.
- You get the flexibility to upgrade your phone when you want
No longer are you stuck waiting two years between upgrades, nor do you feel like you have to upgrade every two years. You can switch devices every 6 months, every year, or go four years (or more) between upgrades. It’s your choice!
- Switch carriers without penalty, or try the prepaid route
Since you’re not locked into to a contract, you can switch carriers on a month-to-month basis based on who is providing the best deal. You can also try any number of prepaid carrier options, such as Straight Talk wireless. The prepaid providers lease space on the major carriers’ networks, so you get the same service at a more aggressive price. For example, Straight Talk wireless has a $45/month all you can eat voice, text and data plan.
- Swap sims, have multiple services, travel internationally
If you purchase your phone outright, you can get it unlocked. An unlocked phone means you can swap sim cards at your convenience. This allows you to have multiple services at the same time. While not a big deal domestically, it becomes a huge deal if you travel internationally on a regular basis. You can swap sims to the local carrier of the country you are in and pay much cheaper rates for phone calls, text and data service.
- Easier to hand phones down, or to keep spares around
There are some great no-contract phones, or even used phones, that can be had at attractive prices. For example, the Moto G is a great Android phone that retails for under $200. Plus, it’s easier to keep older phones as hand me downs for kids or as spares in case a phone is lost or breaks.
- Cheaper long-term since you avoid the “upgrade tax”
If you keep your phones for longer than two years, then no-contract will be a huge savings. Traditional carrier plans had a phone subsidy built-in that you paid whether you upgraded your phone at the end of your contract or not. In other words, if you didn’t upgrade your phone at the end of two years, you were paying for a new phone through your plan even though you still had your old device.
There is one caveat to going no-contract for original AT&T iPhone owners – unlimited data plans. If you are on a grandfathered AT&T unlimited data plan, make sure to evaluate your monthly costs carefully before switching to a no-contract plan. If you’re a heavy data user, it may make more sense to stick with your unlimited iPhone plan.
Recommended no-contract phones
There are quite a few phones that can be purchased outright that work well on any no-contract plan. Here are the four that I would recommend:
- iPhone 5s
If you want the iPhone experience, I would recommend buying the device directly from Apple. It’s a bit pricey starting at $650 for the 16GB model, but that’s roughly equivalent to what you pay over the course of two years on a subsidized carrier contract plan.
- Nexus 5
Google’s Nexus line of device are among the highest performing, lowest priced Android devices. The Nexus 5 is a competitive high end device that you can purchase directly from Google for $349 for a 16GB model.
- Moto X
The Moto X is one of my favorite devices. It’s not the lightest, or best performing, but it has just the right mix of features, customization and size at an attractive price point of $399 for a 16GB model. You can buy it directly from Motorola and customize the colors of the device as you like.
- Moto G
The Moto G has to be one of the best kept Android secrets. It’s a budget phone at $199 for a 16GB version, but it performs as good as any mid range device on the market priced at double or more. I purchased this as a gift for a member of my household recently, and there hasn’t been any complaints regarding device functionality or performance. It can be purchased directly from Motorola and can be color customized through different device backings and accessories.
If you’re a real bargain hunter, you may also be able to score some sweet deals on auction sites. People who upgrade their devices on a regular basis will often put their lightly used devices on these sites at a substantial discount over what you’d pay for them new. It’s worth checking out.
Comparing no-contract plans
Below is a table that compares the total cost of the phone and service over a two year period for AT&T’s no-contract Value plan, T-mobile’s Simple Choice no-contract plan, and Straight Talk’s prepaid wireless plan. I assumed a 16GB version of each device, a single line of service, and 2GB of high speed data. I’ve also included a traditional AT&T 2-year contract plan as the last entry for comparison purposes. You may want to do a similar analysis if you use a family plan or have an account with multiple lines as there may be substantial differences compared to the table below.
|iPhone 5s||Nexus 5||Moto X||Moto G|
|AT&T Value Plan (no-contract)||$2,570||$2,270||$2,320||$2,120|
|T-Mobile Simple Choice Plan||$2,090||$1,790||$1,840||$1,640|
|Straight Talk Wireless||$1,730||$1,430||$1,480||$1,280|
|AT&T Value Plan (2-yr contract)||$2,479||—||$2,380||—|
Keep in mind that you should always take into account carrier coverage and performance when selecting a plan. In other words, if T-mobile’s service does not work in the places you frequent, then saving $500 over AT&T is pointless. Make sure that you choose your carrier on performance first, and then use price as a deciding factor if the service is equivalent. It’s worth noting, that as I mentioned above, once you go no-contract, you can try a carrier for a month or so, and if the coverage is not adequate, you can always switch to a different carrier since you aren’t locked into a long-term contract.
You should also do some research on other prepaid service options offered by T-mobile, AT&T, and the other prepaid carriers. For example, T-mobile has a seldom advertised prepaid plan that is $30/month for 100 voice minutes, unlimited text, and unlimited data. If you don’t use your phone for voice much (which describes my teenage kids), then this prepaid plan could save you upwards of $30/month.
No-contract is not a fad, it’s here to stay
As I mentioned in my mobile trends to watch in 2014, no-contract and prepaid plans will become mainstream this year. I suspect that subsidized plans will become a relic of the past over the next 2-3 years.
With the move to no-contract plans, competition among the major carriers will surely increase. I suspect they will get more aggressive on their pricing and offerings to attract and keep customers. They will also run promotions to encourage customers to switch, such as the recent announcement by T-Mobile to pay the early termination fees for customers wanting to make a change. If T-Mobile has success with this campaign, don’t expect the other carriers to sit on their hands. I’m sure they’ll be launching their own customer incentives as well.
The bottom line, the cellphone market has become saturated. The carriers are no longer battling over new customers. They have to keep their existing customers, try to steal customers from their competitors, and offer more and better services. I expect that it will make for an exciting 2014 and beyond in the mobile market as the carriers duke it out. As one of one of my favorite Star Wars characters would say: The wireless carrier wars. Begun, they have.