The Apple iPhone and other smartphones hitting the market are cool, but if you don't have a spare $200 in your wallet, and you can't afford the hefty monthly service fees, there are less expensive options that still offer some of the wireless Web at a much more affordable price tag.
These alternative phones may not be as sexy as the iPhone or the new Palm Pre. And the Internet service and applications will not be as slick as what you'll find on a full-fledged smartphone. But for many wireless subscribers, less expensive feature-phones and cheaper data plans will offer enough to do the trick.
There is no denying that smartphones are the future of the wireless industry. As a category, smartphones are the fastest growing segment of the entire market. And new devices hitting the market this summer are selling fast. Last month, Apple and AT&T sold over a million new iPhone 3GS models in the first weekend it was available. People also lined up throughout the country to be the first to buy the Palm Pre sold exclusively by Sprint Nextel. And hype is already building around the new Google Android phone, called the MyTouch, which is set to launch on T-Mobile's network early next month.
These devices are made for the Internet, and developers are creating lots of cool new applications to take advantage of loads of advanced features. But all these features and speedy access to the mobile Web come with a hefty price tag. And as the economy in the U.S. languishes and more Americans lose their jobs, more consumers may find themselves unable or unwilling to shell out the extra cash every month for a smartphone service.
For many wireless subscribers, the functionality they get on a smartphone is simply overkill. And as a result, they are overpaying for services they don't really need or even use. For these consumers, who are mostly interested in checking e-mail, updating Facebook and Twitter, looking up a few things on the mobile Web, and occasionally using location-based services, there are plenty of less expensive options.
At the low-end of the market, there are several feature phones that with a two-year service contract, rebates, and online discounts cost less than $30. And these devices are just fine for accessing basic Web e-mail and Web sites like Facebook. For a little bit more money upfront, wireless subscribers can get slightly more advanced devices with assisted-GPS for navigation and location-based services, corporate e-mail access, and integrated applications for social networking sites like Facebook.
While these phones are often much cheaper than the latest smartphones on the market, the other big benefit is that the data service plans to access all these mobile Web goodies are cheaper, too. Wireless subscribers on average can save about $15 a month using a more basic feature phone for accessing mobile e-mail and the Internet rather than using a full-fledged smartphone. This is a savings of about $360 over the life of a two-year contract.
To help readers figure out which phone and carrier service plan fits their needs best, here is a summary of some of the hottest phones on each of the four major U.S. carrier networks with a summary of the service plans that are offered for these devices. For full reviews of each of the phones listed in the article, check out CNET Reviews.
*** AT&T ***
Motorola Karma QA1 - $79 with 2-year contract
The Karma is a new 3G phone that offers text messaging, instant messaging, and home screen access to Facebook and MySpace. It has a slide-out QWERTY keyboard, and high-resolution display. Other features include assisted-GPS, a 2.0-megapixel camera, an MP3 player, stereo Bluetooth, a 3.5-mm headset jack, a microSD card slot capable of holding up to 16GB cards, and quad-band GSM.
LG Neon - $30 with 2-year contract
The Neon is one of the lowest-cost touch-screen devices available. It also features a full QWERTY keyboard, a 2.0 megapixel camera, and access to instant messaging (AIM, Windows Live Messenger, and Yahoo Messenger), mobile e-mail, AT&T music, and the mobile Internet. While there is mobile e-mail support it only supports a few service providers, including AOL, Yahoo, AIM, Windows Live Hotmail, AT&T Yahoo, Bellsouth, Comcast, Earthlink, Juno, Mindspring, and NetZero. Gmail is not accessible because the phone doesn't support POP or IMAP. It is also not a 3G phone.
LG Xenon - $99.99 with 2-year contract and rebates
Xenon has a full QWERTY keypad for text messaging beneath a large touch-screen display. This 3G device has a 2.0 megapixel camera and offers the full suite of AT&T entertainment services. It's one of AT&T's best-selling devices and is available in three colors.
It also has more advanced features, such as stereo Bluetooth, instant messaging (with AIM, Yahoo, and Windows Live accounts), mobile e-mail, and assisted-GPS. The mobile e-mail is housed within a Web-based interface and will only support e-mail from certain accounts like Yahoo, AOL, AIM, Windows Live Hotmail, AT&T Yahoo, BellSouth, Comcast, Earthlink, Juno, Mindspring, and NetZero. We weren't able to use Gmail, especially since the Xenon doesn't support POP or IMAP. As for A-GPS, the Xenon comes with AT&T Navigator, AT&T's turn-by-turn location-based service.
Similar phones from AT&T: (Listed pricing is for phones with a two-year service contract and also reflects the price after any rebates or special Web offers.
Samsung Magnet: $19.99; Pantech Matrix: $29.99; Samsung Propel: $30; Samsung Impression: $149.99
Service plans: AT&T offers a series of voice minute packages starting at $39.99 for 450 minutes of talk time that must be used with all its phones. From there, customers can layer on additional services, such as text messaging or data. For text messaging, AT&T offers bundles of other services. For $5 extra a month, subscribers get 200 text and picture messages . For $15 a month, they get 1,500 messages. And for $20 extra a month, they get unlimited texting.
The plans differ when it comes to data. Smartphone subscribers must subscribe to a $30 unlimited data plan in addition to a voice plan and any texting plan they may choose. Feature-phone customers are charged $15 a month for unlimited e-mail and mobile Web access if they choose this option. It is not mandatory. AT&T also offers a special discount for a combined data and unlimited messaging package that is $30 extra per month.
The bottom line: AT&T subscribers who want access to Web-based personal e-mail and Internet Web sites, like Facebook, can get a good bargain with a low-cost feature phone. At a minimum they can save $15 a month using a non-smartphone data plan versus the data plans that come with smartphones, such as Apple's iPhone and RIM's BlackBerry devices.
*** Verizon Wireless ***
Samsung Alias - $19.99 with 2-year contract and online discount
The Samsung SCH-u740 has a dual-flip hinge that lets users view the display in either portrait or landscape mode. It has a QWERTY keyboard, access to Verizon's V Cast offerings, and a full array of multimedia goodies. Other basic features include a vibrate mode, text and multimedia messaging, instant messaging (AOL, MSN, and Yahoo messengers are supported), POP3 and IMAP e-mail support, and corporate e-mail syncing using Web-based Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Domino services. And it comes with a wireless WAP browser for stripped-down versions of Web sites for mobile devices.
LG EnV2 - $49.99 with 2-year contract and online discount
The LG EnV2 is a slim handset with a full QWERTY keypad that flips up and has two displays. It supports instant messaging, Web browsing using a WAP browser, access to Web e-mail, USB mass storage, wireless syncing, and a text-to-speech feature. It also has a music player with access to Verizon's VCast music service. The music player supports MP3, WMA, and unprotected AAC and AAC+ files. Other Verizon applications are also available, such as VZ Navigator, Verizon's own location-based turn-by-turn navigation service. The EnV2 comes with 63MB of built-in memory, but you can always get more storage via a microSD card.
LG Dare - $79.99 with 2-year contract and online discount
The LG Dare has touch-screen interface, an advanced 3.2-megapixel camera, a full HTML browser, and operates on Verizon's 3G EV-DO Rev. A network. The Dare has all the standard features you'd expect on a phone. And also comes with some advanced features, such as full Bluetooth support with stereo A2DP, the capability to use the phone as a modem, and file transfer. It also supports mobile e-mail, mobile instant messaging, a USB mass storage mode, voice command and voice dialing, voice recording, and GPS functionality via Verizon's VZ Navigator service. Mobile e-mail is restricted to popular Web mail services such as Hotmail, Yahoo, and AOL, so it's not nearly as robust as using a smartphone.
It also has a full HTML browser, which is an important distinction since many phones in this category are only WAP-enabled, which presents stripped down mobile versions of Web sites on mobile devices. The phone can also be rotated to display the browser in landscape mode, which makes entering URLs a lot easier via the virtual QWERTY keyboard. However, CNET reviewer Nicole Lee notes in her review that the browser experience is not as clean as the Safari browser on the iPhone.
Similar phones from Verizon Wireless: (Listed pricing is for phones with a two-year service contract and also reflects the price after any rebates or special Web offers.
Verizon Wireless Blitz: $19.99; Motorola Rival: $49.99; Samsung Glyde: $69.99; Motorola Krave ZN4: $69.99; LG Voyager: $79.99; LG EnV3: $79.99; LG Versa: $99.99; LG EnV Touch: $99.99; Samsung Alias 2: $149.99
Service plans: Verizon Wireless offers a variety of options for consumers who want to use data services. But all these choices can be confusing. Here is a general summary that should help steer prospective consumers in the right direction.
For basic service, Verizon allows subscribers to sign up for services a la carte. So a subscriber could start with a voice plan, which begins at $39.99 per month for 450 minutes of talk time. From there subscribers can layer on additional services. Text-messaging services can be added in different increments. For $5 more a month, subscribers get 250 messages. For $10 a month, they can get 500 messages. For $15 a month they can get 1,500 messages and $20 gets them 5,000 messages per month. All messages sent to other Verizon subscribers are free and not counted against these totals.
Then subscribers can either choose to pay $1.99 per megabyte of data used per month when surfing the mobile Net or checking e-mail, or they can sign up for a VPak data plan that includes video clips, sports highlights, news updates and unlimited e-mail and Mobile Web usage. This package is $15 a month.
If subscribers want unlimited messaging, e-mail and data, they can sign up for either a Nationwide Connect Plan, that starts at $69.99 a month for 450 voice minutes, unlimited e-mail and data, and unlimited messaging, or they can sign up for a Nationwide Premium Plan that begins at $79.99 per month for 450 voice minutes, unlimited messaging, Mobile email, VZ Navigator and the V CAST VPak, which includes access to Verizon's entertainment video.
Meanwhile, smartphone subscribers can also sign up a la carte for services. Voice and text messaging is the same. But data services are $29.99 for unlimited Web usage and e-mail. For corporate BlackBerry users the price tag for this service is $44.99 per month.
The bottom line: Verizon Wireless subscribers who want access to Web-based personal e-mail and Internet Web sites, like Facebook, can save at least $15 using a data plan for non-smartphones. But with some smartphones priced at around $50 with a two-year contract, the price difference over the life of the contract might not matter to some subscribers.
*** Sprint Nextel ***
SCP-2700 by Sanyo - Free with 2-year contract and Web purchase
The Sanyo SCP-2700 is a slim and lightweight phone with a full QWERTY keypad that makes it look like a lower-end version of a BlackBerry. It offers POP 3 e-mail from providers like Sprint's own PCS Mail, AOL, Hotmail, Yahoo, and Gmail. It also supports Web-based work e-mail using Outlook Web Access.
LG Rumor2 - $29.99 with 2-year contract, rebates, and Web purchase
The LG Rumor2 has a full QWERTY keypad and offers access to POP3 e-mail, such as AOL, AIM, Hotmail, Yahoo, and Gmail. It also offers access to work e-mail for subscribers using Web-based Outlook and Lotus Notes. And it includes some basic features, like text and multimedia messaging, an alarm clock, a calendar, a calculator, a voice recorder, voice dialing, wireless phone book backup, a unit converter, and a notepad. It also supports PC syncing, USB mass storage, a memory card manager, GPS with support for Sprint Navigation, Sprint's Family Locater service, stereo Bluetooth, and instant messaging.
Samsung Instinct - $49.99 with 2-year contract, rebates, and Web purchase
The Samsung Instinct is a touch-screen 3G wireless device with POP3 e-mail from AOL, AIM, Hotmail, Yahoo, and Gmail. It also supports corporate e-mail via Outlook Web Access. When it first launched, it was compared to the Apple iPhone. While it's not quite a smartphone, it offers some compelling features, like its own brand of visual voice mail. It offers several organizational tools and voice command for dialing and searching contacts or places and things on the mobile Web. For example, simply speaking the name of a business or even the type of business (like "pizza"), it will use the phone's GPS connection to search your surrounding location for a match. It then offers a map and directions to the business, which can be shared with a friend via a message, or it can dial the number to the location. The phone also supports a full HTML browser.
Similar phones from Sprint Nextel: (Listed pricing is for phones with a two-year service contract and also reflects the price after any rebates or special Web offers.
LG Rumor: $29.99; Palm Centro: $49.99 LG Lotus: $49.99; Samsung Rant: $49.99; Samsung Exclaim: $79.99; Palm Treo 755p: $99.99; Samsung Instinct s30: $129.99; HTC Snap: $149.99
Service plans: Sprint has greatly simplified its pricing. But simple doesn't necessarily mean cheaper. In fact, the service plans offered for Web-enabled and e-mail friendly feature-phones are exactly the same as for its smartphones.
Sprint's Everything Data plans start at $69.99 and include 450 minutes of talk time plus unlimited Web surfing, e-mail, BlackBerry Internet Services, GPS Navigation, and a series of entertainment services, such as Music Premier, TV Premier, and NFL Mobile Live. It also offers unlimited Direct Connect walkie-talkie service for phones that are capable of that. And it includes unlimited text, picture, and video messaging.
The $89.99 per month offers all this with 900 minutes of talk time. And the $99.99 Simply Everything plan includes unlimited voice minutes in addition to these other services.
The bottom line: There is no discount for customers subscribing to a feature phone instead of a smartphone, but feature phones can provide savings in the upfront cost of buying a new phone. So for consumers who don't feel like shelling out $200 for a Palm Pre or a BlackBerry, they can get a device with similar functionality for $50 or less.
*** T-Mobile USA ***
Samsung Gravity - $30 with 2-year contract and rebates
The Samsung Gravity is a thick candy-bar-style phone with a slide-out QWERTY keyboard. Features are on the lower end, with a 1.3-megapixel camera, stereo Bluetooth, a basic music player, and not much else. But its keyboard design is great for typing out text messages, and its affordable price makes this a great texting phone for the budget-minded. It also supports instant messaging for all the major IM services (AIM, ICQ, Windows Live, Yahoo), and e-mail from AOL, Yahoo, Comcast, Gmail, Mac, Verizon, and more. More advanced users will like the stereo Bluetooth, voice command, and the wireless Web browser.
T-Mobile Shadow - $149.99 with 2-year contract and rebates
The T-Mobile Shadow is considered an entry-level smartphone that uses the Windows Mobile operating system. It comes in a sleek slider design. And it features Bluetooth and Wi-Fi; a 2-megapixel camera; and various messaging capabilities. Positioned somewhere between the T-Mobile Sidekick family and the T-Mobile Dash, the Shadow (made by HTC) is for customers looking to make the jump from a regular cell phone to a more full-featured handset that can keep up with their social and professional lives without being too serious, according to CNET reviewer Bonnie Cha. Since the phone was introduced before T-Mobile had its 3G up and running, the device runs on the slower EDGE network.
The Shadow supports POP3 and IMAP e-mail accounts. And T-Mobile has included separate wizards for all the popular e-mail clients, including AOL, Gmail, Windows Live, and Yahoo. Since the device is a Windows Mobile 6 smartphone, it also ships with Microsoft's Direct Push technology out of the box so you can get real-time e-mail delivery and automatic synchronization with your Outlook e-mail, calendar, tasks, and contacts via Exchange Server. It also supports instant messaging clients from AOL, ICQ, Yahoo, and Windows Live Messenger apps.
But the real beauty of this phone is that even though it's technically a smartphone, it doesn't require the $34.99 smartphone data plan, and is able to use a much less expensive plan from T-Mobile.
Similar phones from T-Mobile USA: (Listed pricing is for phones with a two-year service contract and also reflects the price after any rebates or special Web offers.
Samsung Memoir: $199.99, MOTOZINE ZN5 $99.99
Service plans: T-Mobile offers its myFaves program that allows unlimited calling to five phone numbers on any network. Its basic service plan, that includes the myFaves option, starts at $39.99 for 300 minutes. Subscribers can then add additional data and messaging services. For non-smartphone/non-Sidekick devices and the T-Mobile Shadow, subscribers can get unlimited Web access, which includes personal e-mail for $9.99 per month. A bundle that includes unlimited Web and domestic MMS and SMS messaging is $19.95 per month. If subscribers want smaller packages of texting service it's $4.99 for 300 message and $14.99 unlimited messaging.
For most of its smartphones and Sidekicks, T-Mobile requires a basic voice plan. The data plans it offers for these devices cost $24.99 for unlimited Web usage and e-mail and $34.99 unlimited data with unlimited messaging.
The bottom line: T-Mobile offers some of the best deals on data services and voice services with its myFaves program. For consumers willing to spend $150, the Shadow is a good entry-level smartphone that won't take a big bite out of your wallet. But even the smartphone data pricing coupled with the myFaves voice plans is a good value when compared to the competition. The downside for T-Mobile is its coverage. The carrier doesn't have nearly the coverage that AT&T, Verizon Wireless, or even Sprint Nextel has. And its 3G network is not yet complete.