The Bear family is taking a vacation in a few months… to Chicago.

Cassie is pondering getting a new family cell phone. We’re seeing tons of reviews, but sometimes nothing beats expert advice… and you’re my favorite bunch of experts.

What we do, being a family of budget-conscious type folks, is use T-Mobiles’ pre-paid phone plans. Our minutes last for a year, there are no monthly charges, it works really well for us. The people we generally call are each other or close family members, or use them for emergencies. A $100 time card lasts a looooong time. We don’t text, either. :)

What Cassie is interested in are a few of the new internet-capable touchscreen phones T-Mobile has available. Their plan for pre-paid is that if you use the internet on the phone, it costs $1.49 for the 24 hours you used the internet. So, if you were on vacation for, say, a week, and you’d like to be able to do map searches, find places to eat, bus schedules, museam times, whatever, we’d only be out $10 or so and have full internet that whole week. On top of the cost of the phone, of course.

What makes it hard is seeing pictures of phones and reading descriptions of features and checking out the reviews written by people we don’t know. We’d like some actually knowledgeable people to give us their thoughts.

The two phones Cassie is liking at the moment are the Nokia 5230 Nuron, and the T-Mobile Comet with Android browser. They’re both in the $100 price range, which, again… we’re a family on a budget.

There is also a Samsung Gravity at the moment, which looks to me to be a really pretty phone.

The Nokia is an older phone touting built in GPS and the ability to save maps on the 2 gig internal memory. There is also mention that with a Nokia downloaded app, you could use it connected to your laptop for internet browsing on the go. The Comet is Android based, and has a capacitive touchscreen, and built in WiFi internet, which presumably means that if we were in areas with Wi-Fi hotspots, we wouldn’t have to use paid minutes to browse the internet.

I put it to you folks… any of you familiar with any of these three devices? I’d sure hate to buy a pig in a poke, and then find out we chose…. poorly.

23 Responses to “Help a Bear nom chatta chatta!”
  1. Inuki says:

    As a tech who supports these phones – Comet, hands down. Android > Symbian in terms of being able to pick up the phone and just use it, intuitively. The Comet is Android 2.2, which does support tethering, with no downloaded programs required (Win7/Vista, or about ten minutes of tweaking for XP). And yes, built-in wifi means anywhere you can connect to wifi, you can browse with no problems. Capacitive > resistive touchscreen, too, in terms of general responsiveness and accuracy, and Google Maps with navigation > Ovi Maps. And the Gravity isn’t a smartphone – it just doesn’t have the same capabilities that the other two do. It’s a nice introductory touchscreen, and it can browse the web, but it’s a phone that can browse rather than an internet-based device.

    Things to be aware of – Android really really wants an Internet connection. You’ll find a lot of things that may not work exactly as intended without an active connection. One particularly bad one is that if you add contacts, and the phone thinks you want them synced wirelessly to Gmail, and there’s no connection to allow the sync, the contacts will disappear! (That’s an easy fix – in the Settings, under Accounts and Sync, just disable “background data.” That way nothing on the phone will try to connect to the internet without you deliberately saying it can.)

    Also, to be completely honest, the common problems that Android phones in general have are usually minimal (occasional “force close” errors when something stops responding) or fixable with a reset, while the Symbian phones (and the Nuron specifically) are prone to recurring low memory issues that sometimes even a reset doesn’t fix!

    I also always recommend stopping by a store to take a look at the demo phones. There’s nothing quite like actually playing with the phone for a few minutes to get the feel for how comfortable it really is.

    • bigbearbutt says:

      One thing we’re wondering… and thank you for the great pointers, btw… is what happens if we put our existing SIM card for our current phone in one of these phones? Are the phones still locked to carriers? Obviously, we know you can’t use an i{hone without the dedicated plans, just wondering whether it’s possible to get a phone from someone other than T-Mobile and put our SIM card in it.

      • Inuki says:

        Most phones sold by US carriers are still locked, yes. If you buy a T-Mobile phone, though, and have a T-Mobile SIM, no problem! If you get a phone from another carrier that is sold as “unlocked,” no problem! (Even iPhones can be unlocked, it’s just a bit more complicated, and there’s no carrier support or help with it.) All you need to unlock a phone is to request the code from the original carrier, which usually requires being a customer. The request process is usually pretty simple, too; they need the IMEI from the phone (printed under the battery), and you get a code back in a short time.

        Sorry it took me a while to reply, I had almost forgotten I posted!

        • bigbearbutt says:

          No problem at all.

          Our latest plan, right now, is actually to redo our entire communication suite.

          A peek into the World of Bearcraft;

          We have broadband cable internet through Comcast, we have our home phone through Vonage across our internet, Cassie and I both have extremely basic voice only pay as you go T-Mobile cell phones for traveling, and I have a work cellphone that is mine to do with as I please, basically, because it is my 24 hour leash to work. I can text through it, and it’s a Verizon cellphone plan.

          If we were to get a normal home phone through Quest, after taxes it’s about $60 a month. Vonage, through the internet connection, runs $35 a month with built in long distance.

          I used to use my personal cell phone, but have only used the company one for about a year and a half now. So, effectively, cassie is the only one with a working T-Mobile cellphone.

          Over the course of a year, we used to spend about $100 to $150 on prepaid minutes cards for each cell phone.

          So, on a budget basis, we spend $35 a month on home phone that Cassie also uses for work, and would budget about $150 per cell phone per person.

          The downside to a Vonage phone is that if the internet goes down, from router, cable modem or a truck hitting a tree, we also lose home phone and are using cell minutes to call for service. And we are totally out of internet.

          So… we were looking at a T-mobile pay as you go cellphone, with internet capability.

          What we’re finding, is that getting the LG Optimus V from Virgin Mobile, with 300 monthly minutes and unlimited text and internet, would cost $25 a month. A plan with 1200 minutes a month would cost $40 a month.

          We use our home phone, according to Vinage tracking records, an average of 380 minutes a month. JUST over the 300 minutes of the $25 plan.

          So what we’re contemplating is dropping Vonage, thereby saving $35 a month. Buying two Virgin Mobile cell phones, one with the $25 plan for me, one with the $40 plan as Cassie’s combination cell phone AND to serve as our new primary house phone.

          And we’ll keep Cassie’s ancient voice only phone on T-Mobile’s pay as you go program for her work phone.

          The upside of this would give us, for $5 extra a month, both a home cell phone AND emergency internet access if Comcast goes down for Cassie to be able to access work email and communicate changes in status to all of her clients if she was in the middle of projects.

          Just like every other family on a budget, we’re just trying to figure out how to get the most bang for our budget buck.

          • bigbearbutt says:

            Just don’t point out that the money spent on a fancy awesome cell phone for me would be entirely extra and wasted. I want a new gadget!

  2. Gordon Tyler says:

    Have you considered a second-hand iPhone 3GS? They sell new at $99 from the carriers under contract, so you may be able to get one second-hand at a decent price. Otherwise, an Android phone is probably your next best option. Symbian-based phones like the Nokia are just too primitive to deal with the internet as it is today.

    As for using your phone connected to your laptop to browse the internet, that depends on whether the carrier you use allows “tethering”.

    Unfortunately, I can’t provide advice about those specific phones since I went from a MotoRAZR to an iPhone and never looked back.

  3. Dechion says:

    Well, I have not used any of those devices. I do however have a phone that includes several of the features you mention.

    I find that in a place I am less than familliar with I do use my onboard GPS pretty frequently. On the other hand in areas that I am familliar with (like home for instance) I can use the wi-fi to connect through my wireless router and do a good amount of browsing without ever opening my laptop.

    One thing I will point out about having an onboard GPS verses using the internet and google maps for instance, is that the GPS will function when not within range of a cell tower. (assuming it’s true gps and not a tower triangulation system being mislabled as gps, that happens more than you think)

  4. Neil says:

    TLDR version: Gravity sucks, Nokia sucks, get the Comet.

    Long version:

    The Gravity is fine if you’re primarily a texter, but (a) it’s known for poor call quality and (b) it’s not a great phone for Internet access. Tiny non-touch-screen and all that.

    As for the Nokia, Inuki pretty solidly nailed most of the compelling arguments for Android over Symbian. So, I’d definitely recommend going with the Comet.

    “map searches, find places to eat”: The built-in Maps app for Android is great. I’ve done a couple road trips using only my Android phone (and a car charger!) for navigation, with no problems at all. I also recently moved to a new city, and I’ve been using the Maps app to find places to eat and so on. Android makes it really easy: Push the search button on the phone, type in what I want, and click on the results for descriptions, reviews, maps, directions, etc.

    “bus schedules”: Google Maps navigation will give you public transportation directions as well as driving directions. I haven’t had a chance to use this feature myself, though, since their database doesn’t seem to include the bus service in Syracuse.

    “built in WiFi” : Yes, if you’re connected to a WiFi network, you can connect to the Internet for free (since you’re using that WiFi network, not T-mobile’s network). What’s more, if you set up an account with a service like Skype or Fring and install their app, you can even make phone calls over WiFi without using your mobile plan’s minutes. (Those services have their own charges, though; e.g. I pay $3/mo to Skype for unlimited calling from WiFi.)

    “unlocked phones, SIM cards” : This is a complicated question and there isn’t a single easy answer, but he’s the short version.

    “I have a phone that works on T-mobile. I want to swap my SIM card into another phone I bought from T-mobile.” – This should work, every time. Your plan is attached to your SIM card, not your phone. If you wanted, you could have just one SIM card and swap it between two phones as you liked. If you’re on pre-paid, you may as well have a SIM card for each phone you use, but … whatever makes you happy :)

    “I have a phone that works on T-mobile. I want to swap my SIM card into another phone, but the new phone isn’t from T-mobile.” – It depends on the new phone. Since you’re getting this phone for mobile Internet access, I assume you want 3G data (the alternative, 2G, is infuriatingly, uselessly slow). This, unfortunately, pretty much limits your options to used T-mobile phones. (T-mobile’s 3G network lives on the 2100 MHz frequency, which basically no other network uses, and as a result, precious few non-T-mobile phones include the hardware to access it.)

    I looked through the used T-mobile-compatible smartphones available on eBay, and I really didn’t see anything that stood out as a better choice than the Comet.

    iPhone: You could buy an iPhone and use it on T-mobile with your prepaid plan, with a little catch and a big catch. The little catch is that it would have to be unlocked, but it’s not too hard to find an unlocked iPhone, even a new one. The big catch is that iPhones aren’t compatible with T-mobile’s 3G network, so you wouldn’t get 3G data.

    Well, I’ve now spent an hour writing about phones in a blog comment (priorities, much? eesh). Time for me to go to bed … Good luck with your phone search!

  5. Aselvar says:

    Out of those, I would have to agree, the comet is the way to go. It runs Android 2.2 which gives you access to just about any app that’s currently out there. Even the high-end phones are still at 2.2 for the most part today. The wifi will allow you to browse the internet, use data-enabled apps like google maps and the android market with out a data connection. You can also use it as a hotspot if you want to tether your notebook and use the 3G connection… Not sure what T-Mobile does with that on a pay-as-you-go plan… but there are ways to install tethering apps without the consent of your carrier.

    Google maps on Android is far superior to anything short of a dedicated nav unit, and even then, it’s still arguable. I’ve used VZW navigator and Sprint’s equivalent, but they don’t come close, and cost extra. Simply for that reason I’ve been very thankful to have my phone when I’m out of town. Nothing like being able to find a Buffalo Wild Wings in Des Moines on your way back from a football game or the least terrible way though DFW traffic.

    One thing you might consider is looking for something like the Nexus One on ebay… with the Nexus S just being released, I’d think a lot of people would be wanting to unload their ‘old’ unlocked N1′s. I only suggest that because these things can do so much more than act as a phone. Mine is a book reader, GPS Navigator, kid distractor, me distractor, Battle.net authenticator, grocery list, mp3+podcast player, flashlight and about 17 other things. The Comet is going to be a little underpowered and doesn’t have a great display. If you can find a used Nexus S for a similar price or even a little more and use it on a prepaid plan, if you find you want to use it for those other types of tasks, it’s going to be a lot more capable.

  6. Chris says:

    I concur.. get the comet. Especially when you’re talking about driving directions, navigation etc. there’s no better phone nav than an android. I’ve had the iPhone (done with apple), droid (just got it), and blackberry (for work) – and droid is hands down the best smart phone on the market. Blows everything else away.

  7. Michael says:

    Totally agree on the phone running Android… seems that it was done right to start. It is pretty much bullet proof software (so long as you aren’t intentionally screwing with it) vs the aforementioned memory leaking ones… Like running a windows server it seems: Have an issue, reset it. Don’t have an issues, you’ll still need to reset it occasionally…. Someone else’s phone having an issue, reset yours just for good measure… ! No thank you! Good luck on the decision!!!

  8. Cassieann says:

    Hi All,

    Thanks for the advice so far! We really appreciate it!

    A few follow-up questions – I did a ton of research last night on the phones – reading user reviews, “professional” reviews, video reviews, etc (enough that I actually dreamed about cell phones last night – how sad is that) :-(

    I’m reading about issues with the Comet’s screen being so small (320×240) and comments about it not even working with many Android apps because they take a larger screen size to function. Does that make sense to those that use Android? I just don’t know enough about it to know if that’s really an issue or just a user error and blaming something that wasn’t the cause. I hate to buy something that is going to end up being useless in a short time.

    I also saw complaints about the quality of the phone call sound – static, voices a bit distorted, etc.

    Basically, what we need the phone to do is:

    * make phone calls clearly – 95% of the time
    * let us access the internet to answer quick questions (directions, address, etc) – 5% of the time, more during the rare vacation

    I work from my home office full-time (with an occasional on-site meeting), so I don’t need a lot of “traveling” functionality that would typically be needed with a smart phone. I don’t need it to play videos clearly (we have portable dvd players for that), don’t need a fabulous camera (have one of those), not going to be playing games on it, etc. I just need to be able to call someone when I’m in the car and running late and then get some internet access on the occasion that I want to pay $1.50 for 24 hours. If my current phone had the internet option, I wouldn’t even be looking at new options, but unfortunately, it’s a many years old flip phone. However, it does make calls wonderfully and I’ve never had sound issues.

    If you know of other options we should look into, we’d love to know that too. It has to be something that works with T-mobile or that I can find unlocked. I’ve checked into some that I’ve heard about in the various reviews as comparisons (LG Optimus T, Mytouch (several versions), etc). But the problem is that they tend to run in $150-300 range, even used.

    The advantage with the Comet is it’s only $119 right now and comes with a $50 card (which as a gold member gives me 500 minutes). So I’m essentially paying $70 for the phone. That seems a fabulous deal if I keep in mind that this isn’t a model that compares to the leading edge stuff out there (which I don’t need the functionality of anyway). But the screen size issue and call quality are the only things holding me back from buying it now.

    Ugh!

    Cassie

    • bigbearbutt says:

      And, of course, don’t forget that during vacations it would let me make new posts to the blog. I mean, seriously, let’s focus on the important things here.

    • Neil says:

      Few quick points while I’m between classes:

      * I have a Samsung Intercept, which has a 400×240 screen, and I’ve never run into an app that required a bigger screen.

      * The small screen might be an issue while typing on the touchscreen keyboard, but it doesn’t sound like you’ll be doing a ton of typing anyway (no texting, no data plan).

      * If all you want from your phone are phone calls and quick, basic Internet access, you won’t even need to install any apps – the built-in Phone and Browser will take care of it.

      * CNet’s review says the call quality is excellent.

      Bottom line, at that price point, I don’t think you can do better than the Comet. It’s not beautiful or speedy or flashy, but it’s cheap and it’ll do what you want it to do.

  9. Lokyst says:

    @Cassie I think someone’s earlier advice of “go play with it in store” will instantly answer whether you can stand the smaller screen or not. It’ll also put you in fondling range of other phones with bigger screens to be able to see what, if anything, you’ll be missing.

  10. Copey says:

    Back when “car phones” were carried in little black bags, that had a receiver and an actual cord hooked to a hand set I was fascinated by them and learned every single feature available. Every cell phone I’ve had since I was less interested in, to the point that I learn how to make and receive calls, and learn how to text, and don’t bother with everything else. I say that so you know my state of mind for the following advice.

    I also have T-mobile, and own a Gravity-T. It takes pics, video, and has a slide out full keyboard, which is a must for texting. Also internet and what have you if you have it in whatever plan you buy. But it bites ass as a PHONE. I don’t use the internet on it or any of the advanced features. YMMV of course, but it you want to use it as a phone, it sucks. My wife’s black berry that has all the same features I listed, also has a real key pad (though it is very small) for dialing numbers, not some touch screen BS that is nearly unworkable.

  11. Thorit says:

    Personally I am loving my Blackberry Curve that I got when me and my wife signed up for Sprint (we both got it after she went through three android phones because honestly they suck) and I haven’t looked back since, the keyboard is laid out qwerty style although might be a little small for bear paws there. If I were to honestly suggest anything and if it was available to you I would go with a Blackberry style (curve being the most durable I have had in a while) phone since it does allow for wi-fi usage, they have wonderful apps that I believe include twitter along with (possibly, not 100% sure) something to help out with posting to the blog.

    In fact if you want to see the same phone I have (at least closest I can find on t-mobile) check out the BB Curve 8520, the trackball has been replaced with a touch sensitive scrolling pad that can be a little sensitive but can be adjusted and the whole setup is quite nice. I want an iPhone too mind you but until verizon comes out with theirs, then some engineering people find a way to port it over for sprint I am kinda SOL but until then I love my free BB.

  12. Aselvar says:

    Some apps will have a problem with a smaller screen. Devs are supposed to support different screen resolutions, and android gives us all the tools, but it’s up to the devs to make use of them, and not use bad layout techniques… When a app uses an absolute layout (i.e. put this 120×60 image 200 pixels left and 20 pixels down from the upper right hand corner) you’ll find that things overrun on a smaller screen. In reality, most of the apps you’ll probably have problems with aren’t the big ticket ones like google maps/nav… they’ll be games and such.

    I know when you buy a phone on contract you have at least 15 days to return it no questions asked from any carrier. Not sure if this applies to prepaid phones though… If the call quality is an issue you should be able to notice it rather quickly, assuming you don’t let the other cool features cloud your eyes, erm, ears as it is :)

  13. bigbearbutt says:

    Thanks to all of your suggestions, reviews and advice, we’ve discarded the Comet and moved upwards a little, looking at the LG Optima T.

    What can I say? Android 2.2 is the way to go, but the little screen of the Comet looked unworthy of bear family phone awesomeness.

  14. Comet is good. Although I find it worth mentioning that waaaaay back in the day when I was doing cell phone support for AT&T, we almost NEVER got calls reporting broken Nokia phones. The only call I remember, vividly, was someone that wanted a replacement for their Nokia because they’d dropped it in their treadmill and the thing had been flattened.

    It still worked. It just wasn’t uh…holding together well.

    Myself, I’ve got one of the G1 phones and I’m considering upgrading to the G2. I love the little bugger to bits, and it does everything I could possibly ever want it to do. And some things I had no idea phones could DO. It’s an awfully handy phone!

  15. AndyG says:

    I’ve been using Android based phones for the last couple of years and really love them. If you go that way I have a lot of great apps I can recommend =)

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