Smartphones Now: Carriers Roundup

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smartphones07_bug1.jpgSmartphones and not-so-smartphones are gaining popularity and the necessity of finding a decent plan is becoming more and more important. Not every carrier is really providing a good price point for first adopters or really, even slightly economically-minded smartphone users. What we’re looking at today is what the Big Four carriers (Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint) have on offer. It’s not a comprehensive investigation, just a look at what you’d probably want to get if you signed up with one of these suckers today.

What we’re looking for is basically a decent unified plan with a fair amount of voice (around 1000 minutes, we’ll say), unlimited or near-unlimited messaging and e-mail, and unlimited data. Because really, it’s almost 2008, we shouldn’t need to be counting our bytes when we’re paying hundreds for these high-tech phone-PDA hybrids.

T-Mobile
I’m on T-Mo with my normal phone on their cheapest possible plan, which is costing me less than $40/mo. for enough minutes and messages to last me. So T-Mobile is the affordable, domestic carrier with no 3G but a lot of plans aimed at families and such. Not exactly the ideal home for a smartphone buyer, but let’s take a look. All phone prices include applicable rebates and discounts for the usual 2-year ball-and-chain.

sidekicklx.jpgStandout Phones:
-Blackberry Curve ($250) and 8800 ($350)
-Sidekick Slide ($199) & LX ($299)
-Wing ($299)

Plans:
$80 – Blackberry Minutes & Mail Ultra: 1500 minutes, unlimited data and email
$80 – Other: $40 for 1500 anytime minutes, $40 for unlimited data and email
$70 – Sidekick: $40 for 1500 anytime minutes, $30 for unlimited data and email

Your best value is probably the Sidekick – the plan is a good deal and there’s lots of extra stuff available for the phones. However, if you’re going for the full experience, get the 8800, it’s got a native HTML browser and a unified plan. On the whole it’s affordable, but their network is limited at the moment, although there are persistent rumors of rolling out some 3G action sometime soon.

Verizon Wireless
They need no introduction, this monolithic corporation whose closed phones and rigid policies have aggravated users nationwide. Despite their evil nature, they do have the biggest and most reliable network, and you’re going to be charged a premium for it. You’d think they would lower prices to wholesale, but no, they’ve raised them to the ceiling to take advantage of the people who really need that always-on 3G connection. However, their professional-level aspirations don’t mesh well with their CDMA network, so you’ll be out of luck if you decide to take your Q across the pond.

vx6800.jpgStandout Phones:
-Motorola Q ($100)
-Treo 755p ($300)
-XV6800 ($350)
-Some ugly Blackberries ($150-$200)

Plans:
$120 – $20 for 900 minutes, $100 for unlimited data and messages

Speaking bluntly, their plans are huge rip-offs. You’re being charged a huge amount of money – and while the Q is functional, the 755p sweet, and the XV6800 impressive, it’s not really easy to say whether it’s worth going with getting punched in the crotch by your bill every month.

AT&T
AT&T has really taken a lead when it comes to smartphones, currently offering more models than any of its competitors. What’s more, AT&T’s dedicated business unit acts more autonomously than the consumer side, meaning you can find group deals and plans for biz that you can’t for personal users.

tilt_open.jpgStandout Phones:
-iPhone, what’s that? ($400)
-Treo 750 (refurbed for $100!)
-Tilt ($300)

Plans:
-$90 – $60 for 900 minutes, $30 for Smartphone Max unlimited data and 1500 messages
-$105 – $60 for 900 minutes, $45 for Blackberry Unlimited data and messages

The AT&T plans are very reasonable and easy to understand. The voice portion is a little excessive, but the cheap unlimited data plans make up for it. You could be running a nice 3G Treo for $100 down and $90 a month, and while some people debate the smartphone-ness of the iPhone, there’s no denying it’s at the very least a very popular crossover device that a lot of people want, which makes AT&T an even stronger competitor. A little extra cash lets you tether the phone to your laptop, making for a portable internet that you don’t have to squint at. The Blackberry plans are not so tempting, but with so many great other phones available, there’s no need for them.

Sprint
Lastly there’s Sprint, which recently absorbed Nextel. It’s a more consumer-focused carrier, but that doesn’t mean it skimps on the smartphone class of devices. In fact, Sprint has some of the easiest to understand and most reasonable smartphone data plans. Sadly, like Verizon, it’s a CDMA network, which means most of its phones won’t work in most overseas markets.

htc_touch.jpgStandout Phones
-HTC Touch ($250)
-Blackberry 8830 ($200)
-Centro ($100)

Plans:
$85-90 – $60 for 900 minutes, $25-30 for unlimited data, messages, and extra services
$100 – $60 for 900 minutes, $40 for unlimited Blackberry data, messages, e-mail and so on

Sprint has a good deal with its data plans, and our own Peter Ha really likes the Touch. Matt even likes the Centro, and the 8830 is a pretty serious phone for $200, although at $100 per month you’re starting to push the limit of affordability.

To be honest, the situation is a bit grim. Expect to pay almost $100/month even with the cheapest carrier, or even more if you need a little minute cushioning or extra lines attached to your phone. Because it’s a growing market but still not nearly the size of, say, the RAZR market, you’re going to be paying a premium for true smartphone ability. Keep an eye out for our features on not-quite-smartphones to save a bit of cash, and also start keeping an eye out for wi-fi capability like T-Mobile’s, which can make things faster to load and easier on your wallet.

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