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Picking the Best (and worst) Cellphone and Provider for 2012

We’ve delayed chiming in on favorite cellphones for the past six months because, quite frankly, we were on the fence about which way to jump. We still are. But we do have some things for you to consider now that we’ve tested and used three of the world’s best available cellphones. Along the way, we’ve also encountered more than a few roadblocks that we also want to warn you about.

Like many of you, we were eagerly anticipating the arrival of the iPhone 5. We hadn’t used an iPhone since the original was released, and this seemed like a good time to make the switch. Unfortunately, that was not to be, and we shared the disappointment of many others when the iPhone 4S was released. But read on. Our situation may not be unlike many of you. We travel about once month. It’s typically by car on the interstates. And our destinations are big cities in the U.S. such as Atlanta and Washington, D.C. But just as often our final destination is our beach house at Pawleys Island, South Carolina or our cabin in Balsam Mountain Preserve in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina.

We have been generally thrilled with the Virgin Mobile Android and Blackberry offerings which provide excellent value (originally $25 $35 for 300 minutes and an unlimited text and data plan with no contract) and rock-solid Sprint service when you’re in a populated area or traveling down the interstate. Unlike normal Sprint phones which roam on Verizon when you enter an area without Sprint coverage, neither Boost Mobile nor Virgin Mobile has this option. So, once you enter a little beach town or the Smoky Mountains, all bets are off. In fact, you might as well turn your cellphone off. It’s not going to work.

Our solution was to acquire an ObiHai device (a link to Amazon appears in the right column) which provides Google Voice service in your choice of area codes and free calling in the U.S. and Canada for an investment of $50. The monthly cost: $0. You can configure your Google Voice account to also ring your cellphone, your home phone and a vacation home or two simultaneously so that you never miss a call. The only thing it won’t do is ring an extension in a hotel. But that’s what cellphones are for. This worked extremely well for us, but we still missed having a functioning cellphone when we were driving. We decided to leave the family phones on these inexpensive, contract-free plans and acquire one or more of the newer cellphones for business use and testing. By the way, if you root the LG Optimus V phone, you also can add free WiFi tethering for those road trips. So long as you don’t abuse it, Sprint doesn’t seem to mind. So… what to buy?

There have been dozens of good reviews of the best new phones, and we pretty much narrowed down the field to the iPhone 4S, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, and the Samsung Galaxy S II Skyrocket from AT&T. If you haven’t used Siri, suffice it to say that it catapults the iPhone into a league of its own. The same holds true for the camera comparison. And, with a simple patch of an unrooted iPhone 4S, the camera even supports Panoramic mode.

<rant> We’ve never actually used Verizon, and their service is especially good at our remote sites so we began our quest by ordering an iPhone 4S on release day with a phone call to Verizon. Stacy was extremely helpful in outlining the various plans and indicated that they had a special underway for new iPhone 4S activations. She indicated that the $35 activation fee would be waived. She also provided her personal number (813-410-4413) so that we could contact her for assistance once the phone arrived. We were in a bit of a crunch because we were headed out of town on the same day the phone was supposed to arrive. She assured us the phone would ship overnight and arrive via FedEx before 2 p.m. You can guess the rest of the story. Rather than FedEx, UPS actually attempted to deliver the phone at 6:30 p.m. that evening, well after we had left town. No special handling had been requested by Verizon which meant end-of-day delivery was good enough in the eyes of UPS. Four days later we picked the phone up at UPS which had refused to reschedule delivery for a specific date without payment of an additional special handling charge. By letting them attempt delivery while we were out of town for four days would have meant the phone would have been returned to Verizon.

Setup of the iPhone 4S was uneventful although a call to Verizon was necessary to activate the data service. Two days use around our home office where 3G service was nowhere to be found, and we decided to return the phone. We still were within our 14-day return window without any cancellation penalty. Let the nightmare begin. The phone was returned using a shipping label included in the box, and it arrived back at Verizon within a couple days. We had prepaid for the phone by credit card to the tune of $433.99 so the only charges due were for two days of usage on a $100 a month plan. The first bill arrived before the phone had actually been received. It showed a balance of $134.65 due within 25 days. It included an activation fee. Upon calling Verizon, we were told to disregard the bill and wait on the next one which would clear everything up and remove the activation fee. Four days later, we received the new bill for $464.81 and a notice that payment was now "Past Due" despite the previous bill which indicated that payment was due within 25 days. The entire previous balance was on the bill including the activation fee. In addition, there was a $350 early termination fee and over $39 in fees and taxes. So, yes, they got the phone back. Another call to Verizon, and this time, of course, they could find no record of previous discussions or agreed terms with their sales agent. An hour later a supervisor agreed to take my word for it and, you guessed it, another bill would fix everything. A month later, the third bill arrived with most of the charges removed including a credit for the $74 payment I had made to protect my credit. Another $38 of fees had been added. Call #5 to Verizon, and they agreed to waive the balance due. We’ll see. That was 25 days ago. Bottom line: 11 minutes of rounded up test phone calls and 5 minutes of data usage rounded up to one gigabyte. Cost: $74 so far. Verizon did refund the cost of the phone. Nice!

To suggest that the design of Verizon’s ordering and billing system borders on fraudulent is about the kindest adjective we can muster. Not only is there no paper record of your order to review, but Verizon internally knew the phone had been returned within the 14-day, no termination fee window. And yet their billing system generated a $350 early termination fee in addition to other bogus charges. It’s hard to believe that any of this was accidental given the volume of customers that Verizon handles. And what do folks without a law degree do? Our guess is that more than a few may just pay the charges fearing that their credit will be ruined if they balk. By the third bill, no mortal could decipher the charges and fees including Verizon’s own agents. And, at least to us, that appears to be by design. Our advice is simple. Steer clear of Verizon until they either clean up their act or the Federal Trade Commission does it for them. </rant>

Our next adventure was an iPhone 4S for AT&T which we ordered from our local Apple store. While AT&T has a well earned reputation that’s not far off the Verizon mark, this time around it’s been a pleasant surprise. Apple handled all of the phone setup in minutes. To obtain a credit authorization from AT&T, an agent requested much of the same information you used to provide in buying your first home. Where do you live? How long have you lived there? What was the cost of your home? Where did you live before that? For how long, etc.? We passed.

We already had an AT&T Microcell device which provides AT&T cell access through your local area network. A quick call to AT&T support, and the device was reactivated. AT&T has gotten a bit greedy since we last had service with them. Not only is the unlimited data plan a thing of the past, but, unlike Verizon, your only text messaging option is all-you-can-eat for $20 a month or pay-as-you-go for 20¢ text and 30¢ photo per message. You’re well advised to choose the $20 plan at least for the first month until you’re sure the former owner of your phone number didn’t spend all day and night texting with 100 friends. There’s now a fee to change your phone number, too.

We really can’t say enough good things about the iPhone 4S. I tell folks that it’s like comparing your favorite pair of old shoes to a shiny new pair of boots. It may not be the latest and greatest, but it’s comfortable to use and reliable. If you don’t mind holding your nose because of Apple’s Soup Nazi mentality, then the iPhone 4S is hard to beat. Antennagate appears to be a thing of the past, the screen is spectacular, the camera is awesome (click on the image above and judge for yourself), and Siri is in a league of its own. Just after acquiring the phone, my mother-in-law came to visit. And, of course, I wanted to impress her with Siri by showing how quickly I could figure out my wife’s birthday. So I held the phone up to my ear and said, "When is Mary’s birthday?" Siri promptly responded, "I found six entries for Mary. Which one did you want?" Not cool, Siri. Mental note: Be careful what you ask.

Our adventure continued with the recent release of the new Google phone, Samsung’s Galaxy Nexus. Using a Micro SIM Adapter, we were able to quickly get the Galaxy Nexus up and running on AT&T’s network. We let the phone charge overnight with a WiFi connection to get all of our Google data migrated. The following day, we unplugged the phone and began using it in much the same way as our iPhone 4S: checking emails periodically, reviewing our Twitter stream, and snapping an occasional photo which gets uploaded to Picasa automatically. To make a long story short, the phone blazed through half of its battery life in about 2-1/2 hours. You can read our complete review of the phone on Google+. Suffice it to say, we weren’t impressed. The 5 megapixel camera is 2-year-old technology, the battery cover is not what you’d expect in a $500+ phone, and the face unlocking feature qualifies as gee-whiz stuff, but we unlocked the phone by displaying our own photo from an iPhone 4S. The real dealbreaker for us was the 16GB internal storage limitation on AT&T-compatible phones coupled with the absence of a microSD expansion slot. In short, this new Google phone is anything but state-of-the-art despite the addition of the Ice Cream Sandwich OS which was not that different than existing Android builds.

We’re a big believer in the open source Android platform. So we didn’t give up. AT&T had also announced a new version of Samsung’s Galaxy S II known as Skyrocket. In the past, we’ve been hesitant to try AT&T branded phones because of our experience with the original Samsung Galaxy Tab which was crippled in about every way a provider could cripple an Android device. The most serious limitation was that AT&T locked the device so that apps could only be downloaded from the Android Market. This meant downloads from Amazon’s App Store were barred which in some cases meant higher prices for identical software.

Unlike the Galaxy Nexus, Samsung’s Galaxy S II Skyrocket includes an 8 megapixel camera which rivals the iPhone 4S. See the link above for a photo comparison. We’ve had excellent results with both the iPhone 4S and the Skyrocket. And unlike AT&T’s Galaxy Tab, the Skyrocket was not crippled except insofar as tethering without a 4GB data plan is concerned. For those that can’t live without a rooted phone, this was a 5-minute operation on the Skyrocket device. And, unlike the Galaxy Nexus, we haven’t seen the extreme battery depletion. We easily get a full day’s use out of the Skyrocket.

The only wrinkle with the Galaxy Skyrocket was that the iPhone 4S data plan didn’t work at all with the device. Unlike some other features, this isn’t one you can change yourself using AT&T’s web portal. But a quick call to AT&T will get you switched to the DataPro for Smartphone 4G LTE Plan which is similarly priced. Be sure to follow up by checking their changes on the web portal. In our case, we were switched to the Enterprise version which added an additional $20 a month to already exorbitant data plan charges. Once a Bell Sister, always a Bell Sister. But at least we expect it.

The correct plan is identical to the iPhone 4S offerings except you also get access to AT&T’s new 4G network. Even in the hybrid 4G network areas (aka HSPA+) which roughly doubles 3G performance, the speeds are quite remarkable. The other good news is that, once you’re on the 4G LTE data plan, you can swap back and forth between the Skyrocket phone and 3G service with the iPhone 4S without another phone call since the 4G LTE plan is downward compatible with the 3G network supported by the iPhone 4S. So we’re happy campers at the moment. Both phones work for calling, data, and texting. Switching from one to the other is as easy as swapping the SIM card between the devices. When we’re in a real 4G metropolitan area (which AT&T expanded to 11 new markets today), the Skyrocket device will be our phone of choice. Its speed, performance, huge screen, and gorgeous display are second to none. Coupled with the $5 Groove IP app, you’ll have a perfect Google Voice experience using WiFi with or without a SIM card. In the meantime, we’re still enjoying our old pair of shoes.

Originally published: Thursday, January 5, 2012

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