Upgrading my Phone Tech, Saving a Buck

22 Apr 2013

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am always on the lookout for money saving ideas. However, I'm also willing to pay a good buck so I don't skimp on quality. Take, for example, my obsession with garbage bags. No cheap, thin $2 garbage bags will do me... no, I demand thick walled bags with built-in handles. I'm willing to pay double or triple the cost of cheap garbage bags so I don't have to deal with the hassle.

In a similar vein, my wife and I have been using Sprint cell phones for the past few years. Their unlimited family plan was the right fit for my near-constant data use and her near-constant texting. However, Sprint has been recovering from their ill-timed purchase of Clearwire and now-deprecated-WIMAX technology by building their LTE network. To cover said costs, they've started passing on the costs to their customers by adding on fees to what used to be a relatively cheap plan.

Once those fees hit an extra $40 per month, I decided it was time to start looking for cell phone providers again.

Here were my criteria when hunting:

  1. Must be able to handle my wife's texting and my data usage without overage charges.
  2. Must be able to hack / mod / place custom ROMs on my phone effortlessly.
  3. Must be $60 / month or cheaper, per phone.
  4. Would prefer to be contract-less.

My search first lead me to Ting, which was promoted in an ArsTechnica article. They had everything I wanted and the price was perfect. However, it turned out their "reimburse if you break your contract" promotion was a contest, not a standing offer, and I put them on the back burner. Other prepaid CDMA providers I looked at, like Verizon and Virgin had similar price points to Ting, but it would have involved getting new phones.

Finally I decided to bite the bullet and plan to buy new phones. This opened up the GSM realm to me, a tech I've been a fan of for a long time. I love the freedom swapping in and out SIM cards provides. And when I read that the Nexus 4 was cheap ($350 ea without contract!), that pretty much sold me. My wife and I were planning on getting new phones from Sprint in a few months anyway, when we renewed our contract, but if we were going to break it, we might as well get the phones now.

I started doing the math. I had to compare the cost of breaking my nearly-finished Sprint plan now, or waiting until the contract was up. I had to compare the cost of new phones at Sprint or getting two Nexus 4s. I had to compare the cost of each plan over time. Here's the spreadsheet I came up with. Sorry it's squished; I'm still working on the site's CSS.

Cell Phone Carrier ROI Chart


After lots of talking it over, we decided to spend some of our tax return on new phones to offset the initial cost. We ported our numbers to Google Voice, then connected new StraightTalk Wireless numbers as forwarding numbers.

One month in, and here's our results:

  1. Saving $80 / month compared to Sprint.
  2. No more contract-breaking fees.
  3. Google Voice is awesome. Send/receive/read texts from any computer, built-in voicemail transcription (always provides a good laugh), and the freedom to switch our forwarding numbers at will.
  4. Our new Nexus 4s go about 3 days without needing a battery recharge. Amazing considering my wife's previous Samsung Epic 4G barely made it 8 hours.
  5. The StraightTalk cell phone signal doesn't work well in our basement-level apartment, but I'm hoping I can fiddle with the APNs and radios on the Nexus 4 to get better signal.

On the whole, a welcome change. Worst case scenario, we drop StraightTalk for something else and swap in a new SIM card. Way easier than having to deal with CDMA.