Smart Phone Advice For An Absolute Newbie

Hello fellow experts.

I am not ashamed or embarrassed to admit that I know practically nothing about Smart Phones because up until now I have had absolutely no need nor desire to have one and incur the additional cost of using one, but I have been asked by an American friend to help figure out what would best suit her needs.

I have only ever used a simple voice and text phone on a non-contract Pay As You Go service, and I only really have a mobile in case people need to get me while I am not at home.  Although there has been the very odd occasion where it would have been handy looking up a map on a mobile while I have been out and about,  I have never encountered any pressing need to invest in a fancy new phone.  I could get on the Internet from my basic phone if I needed to, but only on the old WAP service that drains the top-up balance.

Clearly I am a newbie, and find myself unable to offer much advice to my friend about what spec and service would be best for her, so I thought I could pick your brains and relay the info to her.

Unfortunately she is a full-time carer for an elderly relative living "out of town", but is anticipating the possibility that her relative may need residential care in a home or hospice in the near future where it would be useful if she had the means to use the Internet whilst away from home.  She doesn't have much of an opportunity to go into shops trying out phones, or to look at friends' phones and get an idea whether their phones and contracts would suit her needs.  She has tried doing some searching online, but it has frazzled her brain as she isn't familiar with the lingo.  I am in the UK, so although I have tried to do some research for phones that would suit my own needs, things seem to be different in America when it comes to contracts, pay as you go, etc.

Here are the basic criteria:

She isn't a dummy with computers, and I'm confident that she could learn to navigate and use a Windows or Android based mobile fairly easily.

She does not want to be tied to a 2 year contract for personal and financial reasons, so it would be preferable for her to get a phone that is not tied to any particular carrier.

She has a Wi-Fi broadband modem in her house (used in wired mode for now, but Wi-Fi can easily be enabled), so if she chose to use her phone while at home she would want one that allows her to connect through the modem.

She would probably use it for:
Reading and responding to Facebook messages and viewing some videos through Facebook.
Viewing the odd YouTube video throughout the day.
Skype would be useful as I talk to her on Skype quite often.
A POP3 email client would probably be useful, but not essential as she can read messages in webmail.
A fairly good camera and video is quite important, but she doesn't anticipate doing much in the way of video chat, so a front-facing camera isn't that important.
I wouldn't anticipate that she would be storing many music or video files on the phone, but it should have sufficient internal storage capacity to save some video footage and photos for a while before downloading them to her Windows PC (XP if that is important).

The important criterion is that she can't really afford to pay any or much more than $200 US.  She has been looking at phones in the sales that would have been at a higher price.

So, where do you start?

Buy an "unlocked" Smart Phone, compare the pre-paid packages for amount of data allowed per month, price of phone calls and text messages (and how many come free), select one that allows unused data allowance and call/text time to be rolled over each month, and then buy a SIM card to suit?

I have no idea about mobile processor speeds other than the fact that for dual or quad core you multiply the speed by 2 or 4 to get an approximation (eg. a dual core 2.2 GHz processor runs at 4.4 GHz, and a quad core 2.2 GHz runs at 8.8 GHz).  Is this a rough parallel to processor speeds in a Windows PC, or are Smart Phones more efficient in terms of processor speeds?

Basic pre-paid plans are for something like 1GB of data per month.  This seems to be a tiny amount that would be inadequate for an "average" user's needs.  She isn't going to live her life online on the phone, so roughly how much data allowance would she be likely to need per month?

Memory?  Different mobile operating systems are likely to consume memory in different ways, and I would suspect that a Windows 8 phone might need more RAM than an Android one.  What would be the minimum spec in this regard?

Some phones come with a relatively small amount of internal storage and have a microSD slot, but the card is another unwanted expenditure.  Do mobile operating systems use part of the storage as Virtual Memory?  I have been trying to figure out the absolute minimum amount of internal storage would be for somebody who takes occasional video footage, several photos a day, and stores a few music albums to listen to, and Virtual memory would obviously be a factor to consider.

Coverage?  If she had a SIM card for a voice/text/data pre-paid account with Sprint, T-Mobile, or Verizon, does this mean that she would only get internet coverage if there was a relay aerial (or whatever you call them) for that particular carrier in the vicinity?

She has her broadband Internet through AT&T.  Is there Wi-Fi coverage for AT&T available while out and about, where internet browsing could hop onto that and allow her to sign into her ISP instead of using her data allowance through her phone account?

Please try to refrain from laughing out loud at the simplicity of my questions.  As I said at the outset, I am very ignorant of Smart Phones, how they work, and their spec.

What I am really looking for here, more than links to specific phones that might be suitable, is some general advice about the specifications to look for and avoid, and some personal experience of what choices of data plan might be appropriate for my friend.  Armed with some pros and cons, do's or don'ts, and maybe the odd pitfall to avoid, I am sure that she will be able to shortlist some phones and pick a carrier and plan.

Thank you in advance.

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Pooran Prasad RajannaConsulting ArchitectCommented:
Good android phone is a good bet. Go for Samsung S4/S5 or LG G2/G3 or Sony Experia Z3, or Nexus 5/6. All of them address the questions you have posed. My personal preference is LG/Nexus.

AT&T has unlimited data plans. Go for 1GB to begin with.
Thibault St john Cholmondeley-ffeatherstonehaugh the 2ndCommented:
I'm quote pleased with my galaxy s4 android phone. It covers most of your spec, I bought it with a smashed screen from eBay and repaired it myself. I have bought and repaired a few others and made quite a loss selling them. I think a repaired phone is not as attractive as a used but unbroken one although when I sell them with a brand new screen they may as well be new phones. So you could risk looking at buying a phone and getting a sim only service. I have wifi at work and at home so my data requirements are small, but for normal use look for an unlimited package, 1GB is ok if you keep an eye on it, but the phone will use data even while its asleep in your pocket if you don't disable it. Also has bluetooth which is good for hands free use with my similarly enabled car radio.
You didn't mention the lady's age, but if she is, say, over 45, then look for something with a large screen. The script can be quite tiny on this phone and some of the newer ones, notes etc are a bit easier to read. You can stretch the size but then you have to drag the page around to see all of it.

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☠ MASQ ☠Commented:
Older unlocked smart phone and a pre paid provider like GiffGaff in UK (O2 network).

Check their reception area before choosing a provider go with whoever has the best/most reliable signal in the areas the phone will be most often.  I have a 1GB/month package from them ATM and rarely get near it unless I'm away from a wireless connection and tethering.  Fine tune your monthly allowance, most allow a top up if you under estimate but my experience is most users over-estimate their data usage & pay more than they need. Phones generally switch automatically to a wireless signal if one's available in preference to burning up your data plan.  Like Robin said about background data use you can disable updates etc running until you're back onto WiFi.

If travelling abroad then currently Three seems to have the best package ATM for losing roaming charges.
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dhsindyRetired considering supplemental income.Commented:
Approximately where in the USA are we talking about?  First, I would look for good coverage and once you have determined a good provider; then, select equipment that is compatible and meets your requirements.  I kind of doubt she can get a good phone for under $200.00 but they usually have deals for new clients.  A contract may be required so she can pay for the phone in installments over two years and usually you are allowed to pay off early if you want.

My daughter who is a social worker dropped her home landline and her and her geekist husband (use a laptop and smartphones).  She uses her smartphone for personal and business uses but I don't know what phone she has or the costs.  I don't know the particulars of their setup, either.

I am old school.  I have a simple flip phone that I carry mostly for just-in-case and for making calls and a home landline with voicemail for receiving calls and junk (big thanks for caller ID).  Everywhere I go has desktops available so I don't do mobile computing.  I don't like combining functions in one device - you lose one device and everything is gone.
Bill, i am in the same case as yours - and i'm also not ashamed to say so.
i also don't know much about it - so i won't offer  suggestions
one thing : if she has wifi in the house - she can use the new phone ther without other cost - since it is already paid for.
she only needs to pay for additional possibilities - where no free coverage exists
( coverage is offered for free on several places : public places, trains, planes markets and stores)
i hope this info helps a bit
BillDLAuthor Commented:
Thank you for your comments, suggestions, and insights.

Pooran.  I think you have made the best suggestion regarding the data usage.  Start at 1GB and see how it goes.

Robin, you preempted one potential issue, and one of the reasons that I can't imagine browsing the web on a small screen.  The lady is 60 something (you never ask a woman her age you know), and her eyesight isn't great these days even with glasses. A larger screen, which I think is referred to now by the catchly buzz-word "phablet", would probably be better, but she thinks she would look stupid holding it up to her ear when phoning people ;-)  You raised a point that I hadn't even considered, and it's worthwhile remembering that the phone keeps using data unless disabled.

Masq.  It was only last night that I was made aware of GiffGaff, before reading your comment  I went to see a friend who was talking about switching to GiffGaff after he went over his 5GB allowance with his carrier and got heavily screwed by them.  It's probably the route I would go myself in the UK when I step into the 21st Century, but she is in America.  You answered one of my own blank spaces of knowledge in saying that most phones switch to Wi-Fi automatically.  I wasn't sure about this, and thought that you had to switch over manually to Wi-Fi and then search.

Of course, most Wi-Fi will be unsecured while away from the house, won't it?  My perception was that, for example in the UK, there are BT (02) wireless transmitters, Virgin ones, etc, and that your phone could find one belonging to your carrier and log in securely, and if one happened to be Virgin that also is an ISP, that you could log in using your ISP credentials.  That's how uninformed I am about all of this smartphone malarky.

DHS.  She is in the Fresno area of California, closer to the town of Caruthers than to Fresno City, and out amongst where your Sun-Maid raisins are produced.  From coverage maps I've looked at, AT&T and Verizon seem to have the better coverage, but it's hard to see accurately how well covered her general vicinity in the sticks is.

Thanks all.
BillDLAuthor Commented:
Hi nobus.  You're up early on a Sunday morning.  I'm glad to know that I'm not the only one trying to catch up with newer technology and get my head around the concepts.  I am a little bit worried about the security of public Wi-Fi hotspots.  She will do all of her financial transactions from her home and there wouldn't be anything sensitive stored on the phone anyway, so maybe I'm just worrying unnecessarily.  Loads of people these days don't seem to worry much about Wi-Fi security with their smart phones.
personally - i avoid wifi at all costs - where possible
just my 2cts
and isn't there an hour difference  between  us ?
BillDLAuthor Commented:
Oh yes, you're an hour ahead of me nobus.  It was me who was up early.  It looks like there are quite a few antivirus applications for Android, but no properly configurable firewalls other than on/off ones.

Robin.  I have just noticed the "loss" word in your tongue-in-cheek comment:
"I have bought and repaired a few others and made quite a loss selling them."
It used to be possible to make a bit of money repairing fashionable expensive phones when we were still just using text and multimedia messaging from mobiles, but when you can get a brand new top of the range smart-phone on a contract for a fraction of the retail value, and with the option to upgrade again each year or two, repaired phones seem to be less inviting.

I must be getting old.  I hear all the young people talking about how they are struggling to pay their £50 or £70 per month mobile contract off their meagre weekly pay packet, and yet few of them are even paying money to their parents for their board and lodgings.  It frightens me how important such an accessory has become to people for their entertainment.  That's all it is really.  I can understand how business people need all this functionality while they are on the go, but most young people don't actually need their smart phones when it comes down to it.

Older folk at my work seem to be smarter about things because they have those deals with Virgin or BT where you get your ISP subscription, sports and movie channels on your TV, and mobiles for the family members all wrapped up in one monthly package.  I'm not a sports fanatic and I don't watch much TV because of my shifts, so I would find it hard to justify the extra expenditure.
☠ MASQ ☠Commented:
Sorry Bill missed they were in the US. When I'm there I have a TMobile SIM on a PAYG/Pay what you want in advance contract, they have pretty good coverage but I'm told AT&T have better coverage on the west.  They can also set up the cell with a local number but our US lizards can tell us if that's any real advantage.

Think she might find this GUI overlay for android phones helpful
BillDLAuthor Commented:
Yeah, that's the odd thing about mobile numbers in America.  We in the UK know immediately if a number is a mobile one, but her normal mobile number looks like a landline number with the same dialling code.

I am hesitant to suggest the GUI overlay at the moment.  She acknowledges that she is getting old(er), and her bones and joints are showing the signs of same, but I think that suggestion might just initiate a state of depression ;-)

Huh!  Just looked out the window and it's snowing.  Probably something you don't see too often in MK.
☠ MASQ ☠Commented:
You'd be surprised - I put the winter tyres on last weekend.  But of course you have a significant advantage in latitude.  Frankly I'd prefer it frozen to the thawed version we have coming down in stair rods as I type!

If it helps with the app I had exactly the same concerns with a family member I put this on for.  I have to confess to a sneakier approach which was I put it on my own phone and told them I'd just had this upgrade done & let them have a play.  Maybe I should start selling used cars next but it seemed to work and they've been using it and singing its praises for the past 6-7 months :)
BillDLAuthor Commented:
The following phone seems to be the phone that she is leaning towards at the moment:


Cheapest price vs convenience of purchase:

SIM for 4G LTE Android & Windows Phone devices (Bring your own device, pick your own plan):

The card is registered through a "Bring Your Own Phone" page on the AT&T site where you choose your data plan.  This is where it all seems to differ between America and the UK.  Here I can walk into any tobacconist or supermarket, look through SIM cards in their packets hanging on a rack and pick a phone number that I think is easy to remember, and buy it for £0.99 which simply covers the packaging.  Some have a "free" £5 credit that you can get if you register it and give them your name, etc, but if you don't you can simply buy a "top up voucher" at the same time as you are buying your groceries.  It has a 16-digit PIN and you just phone a specified number on your phone for free and enter the number when prompted to add the amount to your phone credit.

I have absolutely no idea how this all works in America.
Thibault St john Cholmondeley-ffeatherstonehaugh the 2ndCommented:
Yes I'm making a loss. It was supposed to be a profit but I'm calling it a hobby now not a business. The point of mentioning it was that you might find a very good repaired phone for less than the cost of a second hand one. There is a risk of course, I can offer no guarantee with the ones I fix as I don't know their history.
BillDLAuthor Commented:
The lady in question has considered "factory refurbished" models, but the discount wasn't significant enough to make it enticing.  Repaired ones are probably just a little bit risky, and you know how women are about pre-owned stuff.
I will contact you whenever I decide to take the next step myself, and we'll see what you have in your inventory at that time.  Do you accept PayPal?  Maybe a trade for some musical gear. ;-)
Thibault St john Cholmondeley-ffeatherstonehaugh the 2ndCommented:
I currently have an s4 all shiny and nice and locked to the 3 network. I don't know enough about it but it's probably region locked to the UK as well as the network. Just another thing to beware of if buying second hand. I don't think you want this one, but if you did can we trade over EE now there is a hire me button? It used to be banned I think.
Being of an older age with lots of relatives of older age, I'll give you our experiences.

I have an older flip phone by LG. Not for you of course. I had to have Verizon disable text due to text messages that cost $ from telemarketers. I was getting 10+ a month and got tired of paying for text from people I don't know.

Some plans give you free text and some do not. My parent is age 85. She has a smart phone and I do not.
The issues with her and maybe for your friend to consider is this:
My Mother does not take the phone with her when she goes out. Such a phone is very good for older persons so if they get out and away from home and need to pull over for a flat tire or health reason, they have a phone to call for a friend or relative for assistance.
My Mother has an Apple smart phone but no e-mail address. Smart phones can do everything. Why she does not receive e-mails not sure.
E-mails should be a feature you have and use.
Verizon lets you block 10 numbers every six months so check to see how many numbers you can block if you begin to get text from telemarketers.
My relatives who have smart phones do a lot of texting. With an actual keyboard on their screen it works great unlike my phone that has 3 letters on each key and totally worthless for text.

Two year agreements. Nothing wrong with them and most carriers have them with perks like a close to free phone every two years to keep up with technology. I am month to month with Verizon after the initial two year agreement because I wanted a way out if I decided to leave Verizon.

Your friend should take the phone everywhere they go. They never know when they may need to call someone for help.
People laugh at my flip phone. For that reason I won't laugh if you have one.
Dan CraciunIT ConsultantCommented:
>>she thinks she would look stupid holding it up to her ear when phoning people
That's where a Bluetooth headset comes in.

They come in all shapes and colors, some are better than others, but all make phone calls very easy. One button to answer and hang up, and some have voice answering (you simply say "answer" - it's a life saver if your hands are dirty or occupied).
If she uses one she does not need to get the phablet out of her purse for calls and, if she chooses a model she likes, she can feel "modern".

1) what computer OS does she use? Apple device sync effortlessly together, whereas android to macs may be a little more complex as you may need to get additional software to make them talk and sync happily.

2) does she already have a smart device at home? If she owns an android tablet, stick with an android phone, but if she has an ipod touch or ipad, she should probably get an iphone. Why? Because people who love their devices buy apps, and if you buy another like device, because you've already paid for the app, you can get it again for free. Windows phones suffer from the downside that there are not as many (in comparison to android or apple) apps, but the principles are the same (although I would mention here that if she's running windows 8 at home, she would have no problems using a windows phone, but the interface on the phone is completely different to that of Win 7 or earlier).

You ask about phone memory. With Android devices this is not what you think. With computers, if you have a second storage drive, you can install and run programs and data directly from that drive. In my experience android deals with the external storage differently. You can't install an app directly to the memory card and run it from there. It must be installed in the primary storage, and run from there. Data may be stored in the memory card, and you can move some but not all of the app to the external card, so having more internal memory is always better.

She seems to have chosen a nice phone. Personally, I'd suggest like Robin, the Galaxy S4. In comparison to the phone shes looking at it has a higher res screen, and a better camera, more internal memory, faster processor, and a bigger battery.

If it's available, see if she can find a prepaid or open term contract provider that will give her carryover minutes and data. That way unused minutes & data builds up over time.

BTW Facebook, YouTube, and Skype are all free to download as apps for any phone.
BillDLAuthor Commented:
Thank you for your insight and tips gentlemen.

Nick.  I'm not at all embarrassed of my simple older "slide phone".  The only reason I carry one at all is in case my elderly parents need to contact me in an emergency.  The only reason my friend has a mobile is in case her respite carer needs to contact her in an emergency on an odd occasion when she is able to leave the house, but she is anticipating the need to have mobile Internet access in the near future if her mother requires nursing home or hospital care and she is away from home for lengthy periods.  In the UK we only pay to send text messages, not to receive them, unless the message is from overseas.

Dan.  I was kind of joking about her holding a tablet up to her ear.  Most folk use a bluetooth headset or simply don't care who overhears their conversations while on speakerphone.  I did see a guy a while back carrying a large tablet (looked even larger than iPad) around the supermarket at waist level like an old-style cinema popcorn vendor and he was having a loud conversation while talking down to it.  I had forgotten about the voice control on these phones, which negates hands-free to some degree if travelling in a car with the phone in a cradle.

Cheers speed.  No, she has never had any "smart" device.  Her only computer is an XP desktop, so there is no real issue with favourite apps.  The phone she has been considering is set to save images and video to microSD card by default.  There is no phone to PC software available, so it is just seen as removable storage and all you can copy out from the phone is what is stored on the flash memory.  She is in the process of checking out what carriers and plans allow rollover minutes, texts, and data usage.  The phone can download Google and non-Google apps, so the choice of apps is pretty open.  I will look at the price of Galaxy S4s, but I'm sure they are beyond her budget.  The Blu phone is a compromise that seems to provide good usability at an affordable price.

Thanks again guys.
Dan CraciunIT ConsultantCommented:
On the subject of transferring images from the phone to PC: I don't know if the offer still stands, but for a while, when you got a Samsung phone it came with 20GB of Dropbox storage for 2 years.
This, combined with the ability of automatically uploading your photos to Dropbox, make syncing the photos with the PC seamless. Just make a picture, go somewhere where you have a wireless connection to the Internet and the picture will magically appear on the dropbox folder on your PC.
BillDLAuthor Commented:
Thanks for that tip Dan.  I will check it out.
dhsindyRetired considering supplemental income.Commented:
I ran across this year old article on, that might help:

It removes some of the mystery in the pricing and contracts.  I noted an unlock top quality smartphone might run as much as $650 if paid all at once and add $50/month for a provider.  Older smartphones are much cheaper.  And, if she could find a good used phone that might be less expensive.
BillDLAuthor Commented:
Good find with that article.  That's exactly the one that my friend found and directed me to, but I wondered how valid it would still be.  Things change so quickly in mobile technology.
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