Tuesday, September 4, 2012

My Research On Smart Phones: How To Save Some Serious Money!

Here’s a funny little fact that you probably never knew about me. While I am very much a geek in the ways of just about every type of media out there, as well as technical subjects like programming, I have never been very educated when it came to phones; smart phones in particular. I used to simply know phones as a device we would use to call people and even send the occasional text message to once in a while. The prospect of a smart phone seemed very nice to me, albeit a little unnecessary. It’s a nice thing to have surely, but how many people actually need one? What really answered that question for me was the monthly costs, especially under 2-year contracts. After a ridiculous amount of research over the subject (I actually lost count of how many hours I spent learning all of this information!), I was finally able to decide on a smart phone and plan that I felt worked best for me. I am writing this in the hopes you may take something from it, and even save yourselves some money in the process.

Where Do These Charges Come From?

So to begin looking into how much I’d pay for such a monstrosity of a device, I used the mighty powers that be (aka the internet) to look through each major carrier and how they charge you. The most interesting thing of all to me is how contract charges work. When you set up a 2-year contract with a major carrier, you will pay less than the full retail price of the phone, but you pay monthly installments with your plan that will pretty much pay the carrier back, with interest. One of the biggest reasons people will go for this option of course, is because phones today (especially smart phones) are VERY expensive! The top-of-the-line Samsung Galaxy S3? It’s about $650 before tax. But how about the cost when you set up a 2-year contract? Try about $150-200. Why do the phone companies want to lock you in with contracts? That one’s pretty easy too. When you buy either a prepaid or unlocked phone, you can usually form a much better limit on how much you are spending per month with prepaid charge cards. The phone companies don’t really make a profit off of this set up, and they don’t lock you in the way they would with a contract. Another money maker for these companies is termination fees. Terminating your contract with them ensures they’ll still make a large sum of money off of you, even if you choose to leave them early. By either sticking with the contract or not, they’ll have made a profit from you, rinse, repeat. Overage charges and “hidden fees” don’t make the plans any easier. Another thing to note is 3G and 4G networks. While they are larger networks (and quite the convenience to use), they eat up data very fast and have to be monitored closely in order for the customer to know just how much they have left to use each month before the next billing cycle.

How Do We Combat This Menace To Society?

So what’s a confused geek to do? Research up the wazoo, that’s what! The first thing I noticed is that pretty much every contract is pretty highly priced when concerning smart phones. It’s not due to the talking or texting, but rather the data plans. The way each provider handles the data charges are what makes each plan's options so different from company to company. Making up a data plan is difficult for these types of companies, due to the various ways people will use it. Some will use less than 1 gigabyte of data a month, checking their email and Facebook, and maybe downloading a few apps along the way. Others will practically abuse the system by streaming videos on Youtube constantly or taking and sending continuous pictures and videos to their friends. This has caused companies like Verizon and AT&T to re-think their “unlimited” data plan options, and eventually scrap them altogether. Even worse, many companies will claim to have unlimited data when what you actually get is a limit of how much you can use before it stops working at high speeds. This is again to limit the amount of data that people can use and prevent abuse of the system. The only company that technically still has “unlimited” data at this point is Sprint, but some will argue that they also have ways to “nickel and dime” their customers with extra charges that aren’t initially brought up.

Honestly, I was just about ready to give up on the idea of getting a decent smart phone altogether, because the best phones cost too much, and the monthly charges were still high, even if through prepaid charges instead of a contract. For example, a Verizon prepaid card for unlimited talk and text, with 1 gigabyte of data will run you $80 a month. Want 2 gigabytes? Make it $90 (If you can’t tell already, Verizon has been my phone company for years, for better or for worse). It seems the only companies that charge slightly reasonable prepaid rates are some specific regional and prepaid carriers (the former of which I don’t have any specific examples of off hand, as they are designed to provide service for areas the major companies don’t cover). Virgin Mobile is a popular choice, selling prepaid phones with all of the basic bells and whistles, while running off the Sprint network. It’s a good budget choice, but it doesn’t carry many types of phones that people would consider worthwhile (besides their inclusion of the iPhone 4S, which was admittedly a nice move on their part, even if you do have to fork over $649 for the prepaid version). I’ve also heard that Straight Talk is a good option for some due to cheaper costs and using towers from Verizon, Sprint, and AT&T. Once again however, this one doesn’t quite work for me, as the phones are generally average to poor quality, I’ve heard mixed stories about how confusing their customer service can be, and once you start adding on the data, you can get warnings and eventually cut off altogether for that billing month.

So What The Heck Did You Do Already!?

Ah, how nice of you to ask. I ended up going with a prepaid Samsung Galaxy S2 (with 4G) from T-Mobile. Now you must be wondering how that could possibly work (or have already begun to label me as an idiot and are standing outside my door with a pitchfork), so I’ll be quite happy to explain it, as well as the reason T-Mobile is actually not the lackluster company you may remember from a year or two prior (and why I’m not an idiot… you jerk).

As I referenced before, the Samsung Galaxy S3 is about as nice as you can get in the smart phone market, but $649 is simply too much money for a phone, and I was not about to get a 2 year contract in order to buy one either. A prepaid Galaxy S2 however, was available (in my case at a Walmart) for $299.99, with the SIM activation kit included (more on that later). Well, imagine my surprise to see on their website, a small listing for a prepay option (specifically for new activations. Sorry faithful older customers…) for $30 a month, giving you unlimited text and unlimited web (a whooping 5 gigabytes of data on high speed!) with the catch of having 100 minutes of talk time. Something to note is that this option is available exclusively to the T-Mobile website, Walmart, and Walmart.com. Now, this specific plan may not work for those who need to talk on their phone all the time, but for someone like me who doesn’t usually go over 100 minutes to begin with, this plan is a dream. I compared the main differences between the Galaxy S2 and S3, realized there actually wasn’t a great deal of them (in the cases that I’d be using it for specifically), and decided to go with the S2. I almost didn’t even realize this phone could be used with T-Mobile’s plan because it wasn’t advertised the same way as the rest of the phones that use it at Walmart. It’s very important that the prepaid phone also included a SIM card activation kit, because this is what allowed me to enable this prepay setup in the first place.

So What Is A SIM Card And Why Does It Matter?

Yes, a valid question indeed (as I only learned about this over the last few days myself). A SIM card is known as a “Subscriber Identification Module Card.” It creates an identity of the person using it within their phone and stores the person’s data on that card. It’s also used as an authentication device, should the owner ever have to transfer his data to another phone, or replace their old one. This will eliminate having to set everything up again from scratch. For companies like T-Mobile, a SIM card is actually required for this particular setup. It's hard to complain however, since they included the activation kit for free. The setup on the website was pretty painless as well.


Okay, So The Price Is Good, But How Are They Any Better As A Company?

That’s right, I never explained. Over the last couple of years, T-Mobile has been taking a lot of hits from customers, and more importantly, they’ve been listening to those customers. Their biggest issue has always been their coverage. When they announced their 4G plans, people were immediately skeptical (and for good reason) since the majority of their phones couldn’t even use 4G (most were limited to the 3G network only at the time). Since then, this issue has obviously been tackled, and T-Mobile’s overall coverage (while still less than Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint) is actually quite good depending on where you live. I'm in Central to Northen New Jersey myself, and have no issues whatsoever with my service and coverage. (It’s always important to look on the company’s website for the available coverage with each provider of course, as not all companies will offer the same. You wouldn’t want to be stuck with a nice phone and plan, but no service area to use it in!) My point is, this plan may work perfectly for me, but could just as easily not for others. It’s all about your preference (which is exactly what keeps these phone companies so interesting and diverse in the first place!). Do you have a bunch of a smart phones and a tablet you’d like to consolidate into one plan, maybe for a whole family even? Verizon or AT&T is likely your ticket. Do you want true unlimited for your phone, even if it means spending just a little more for a network almost as large? Sprint will lead the way. I’ve found T-Mobile to be the best in terms of pricing/plan options myself, even If the coverage is technically smaller than the “Big 3” mentioned above.

But How Is It Better If You Could Only Get The Galaxy S2 Out Of This? You Can’t Even Use Android 4.0.4. You’re Still Stuck With 2.3!

It’s funny that you should say that. A freeware program called Samsung Kies actually contained the answer to that little conundrum. After downloading and installing the program and installing all the proper codecs to connect my phone with the computer, it was just a matter of telling it to update my firmware, and BOOM. I now have Android 4.0.4 (the latest until 4.1 comes out) on my phone, the same operating system all current Galaxy S3 users have! It may not have the biggest and brightest screen with little hardware tweaks like the S3, but that’s a small price to pay.

In Conclusion!

So there you all have it. With the way I set things up for myself, I now pay $30 a month for my Galaxy S2, with no contract to restrict me if I want to change my payment options or even my choice of phone in the future, and with the latest version of Android up and running. Even if the plan I went with isn’t for you, that’s just fine! The point of writing this was to help inform everyone about how these phone companies and charges work, and how you may be able to get around some of those charges, now that you know where they’re coming from. I hope after reading this, you may have seen ways that you too can save some money in the long run. Thanks for reading everyone!

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Worst Of Collector's/Limited/Etc. Editions In Gaming

Sorry for the delay on this one folks. On top of a hectic work week and awesomeness at the US Open this week, I finally decided to stop playing Journey for PS3 and watching Doctor Who long enough to make this blog post follow up to my "best of" list. I'll probably make a post about Journey next, but right now, it's all about the cream of the crap! Without further adieu, here is my list of the worst of the worst.

5. Super Mario All-Stars 25th Anniversary Edition

It's a fact that people were going to buy this regardless of what came with it since it was a Nintendo product, and a "limited edition" set. To celebrate Mario's 25th Anniversary, Nintendo decided to release the "All-Stars" version of the Mario games on a disc, instead of a downloadable game like the rest, with a bonus soundtrack CD and a small 32-page art book, showcasing Mario's history. That's. About. It. Even at the original retail price of $29.99, this one was a bit steep. The soundtrack CD totaled about 25 minutes, almost half of the tracks consisting of sound effects, rather than actual music. Nintendo had a lot of potential to give Mario's anniversary much better treatment than a lackluster release such as this. There's no denying the integrity of the games, as they are legendary and will always remain that way, but for being one of the only game companies actually making a profit off of their games, this could have been much more, especially when you compare it to other Nintendo anniversaries like Zelda (new title with a soundtrack CD and a golden Wii remote controller) and the upcoming release for Kirby (another soundtrack and art book, BUT with Dream Land 1-3, Adventure, and Super Star, with new Challenge stages based on Return To Dreamland, and finally an interactive timeline). And don't even get me started on how Nintendo handled Metroid's 25th Anniversary... Oh wait, that's right; Samus didn't get one...

4. Assassin's Creed: Limited Edition

While the first Assassin's Creed certainly proved to be an interesting release, followed by even better sequels, this limited edition for the first game wasn't quite so spectacular. The tin came with a mini-strategy guide (we all know how useful those are), a set of Penny Arcade comics (not bad), a bonus disc with "making of" films, trailers and a few well-made short films, and finally a figurine of Altair, the game's main character. When the first shots of this edition were showcased, the action figure looked quite nice. It wasn't until gamers actually opened up the box that they noticed the figurine was a mere 3 inches tall, and on top of that, the figurine wasn't well-sculpted in the slightest. It actually didn't really look like Altair at all! It didn't help that the statue made for the UK version of the game actually looked quite nice. All in all, this set just wasn't worth the extra money in the slightest.

3. Perfect Dark Zero: Limited Collector's Edition

This one almost needs no introduction. Even if it was the same price as the regular edition of the game, it would have still probably felt like a disappointment. What we got with this awful release was a black metal game case, a bonus disc with some extra content, a comic booklet mainly serving as a preview for the graphic novel, a worthless holographic "collectible" card, and weirdest of all, some images of the game staff and testers. Seriously... what? How is that even a bonus? It's almost hard to believe anything could even top this...

2. Fable II: Limited Edition

When this edition of the game was first announced, it was announced with all sorts of goodies. Joystiq.com's image above perfectly showcases exactly what the problem was however. Most of the items in it were cancelled due to "supply chain" issues. We lost out on premium packaging, the five fate cards (which would have looked quite nice), and most depressingly, a Hobbe Qee figure. Anyone who played the game would have loved to have this little guy, I'm sure. What we were left with by that point was a making-of DVD, some bonus DLC content (all Halo related equipment and an extra dungeon), and... that's it. It was nice of them to at least lower the price to only $10 more than the regular edition to soften the blow, but by this point, many gamers hopes were shot for it altogether.

1. Resident Evil 5: Collector's Edition

This is about as bad as it gets, though it may not seem that way at first glance. This marvelous disaster of a set comes with a steel case, a tricell messenger bag, a Kijuju necklace, a BSAA patch, a figurine of Chris Redfield, and a bonus disc with the usual "Making of" feature, HD art, and a few other things. Still doesn't sound awful, right? Well it will after you realize that the tricell bag is actually ridiculously small, with fragile straps that would break as soon as you tried to put much of anything in it, the figure of Chris is a joke in how cheaply made it was (the knife on Chris broke for many people upon un-boxing, not to mention you wouldn't even know it was Chris if it didn't say so), and the necklace is made from pewter on a really flimsy leather strap. Other than the steel case (which is actually quite nice!) and the patch (which is kind of hard to get wrong), this set was utterly worthless for many, myself included. Rarely am I shocked at how bad something like this can turn out, but it was just one of those times for me.

Some honorable mentions in this category go to Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II: Collector's Edition, Halo 3: Limited Edition (with it's lovely habit of scratching most players discs due to the horrible packaging), NBA 2K10 (for having a strange mini-locker, a Kobe poster and figurine, and a DVD with more useless content), Saints Row: The Third (for claiming to have a headset, when in fact it was actually just headphones without a mic, even though you need a mic to use its main features! The soundtrack CD also features no licensed songs...), and Forza 3 (with an overpriced flash drive and more useless DLC content).

So there you have it once more folks! Hope you enjoyed both my previous and current posts on the subject, and as I stated before, I'd love to hear your opinions as well! Thanks for reading!