Perhaps it’s the lingering glow of the iPhone launch, but this week’s issue focuses on talking on the phone. First up, Joe Kissell reports from Paris on how he chose a Mac-compatible handset that works with Skype and discusses other devices that may work for you. Next, Tom Schmidt sorts out the confusing world of prepaid cellular phone plans and discovers that for many people this route is much more convenient and affordable than expensive monthly contracts. Also in this issue, Joe notes the release of FileMaker Pro 9, and Adam both points to MyFirstMac, a Web site with Mac information that’s perfect for helping new users, and welcomes our latest sponsor, Parallels.
We’re pleased to welcome our latest long-term sponsor, Parallels, makers of the popular Parallels Desktop virtualization software that enables an Intel-based Mac to run Windows XP, Windows Vista, and other PC operating systems.
Back in 1991, the Macintosh world watched – and reaped the benefits of – a huge competitive battle in the field of compression software. As each company strove to outdo the others, traditional archiving software like StuffIt was supplemented by programs like AutoDoubler that compressed files during idle time and then expanded them quickly when necessary. Hard disks were tiny back then, and although increased hard disk sizes eventually eliminated the need for background compression programs, it was amazing to see how quickly strong competition caused each company to improve and innovate.
I’m reminded of those times when I look at the virtualization field today. After Apple announced Boot Camp in April 2006, Parallels followed with the first release of Parallels Desktop in May 2006 (for our review, see “Parallels Desktop: The Switch Is Complete,” 2006-06-19). Joe Kissell brought out his “Take Control of Running Windows on a Mac” ebook late in May 2006, and since then, he has been working non-stop to keep up with updates from Parallels and Apple, and new entrants VMware Fusion and VirtualBox.
Much of that work has been in tracking developments with Parallels Desktop, which has gone from a public beta to version 3.0 during that time, adding features that make it possible to share partitions with Boot Camp and run Windows programs alongside Mac applications without displaying the Windows desktop. Those efforts gave Parallels a huge head start, but with VMware Fusion coming on strong, I’m excited to see what Parallels comes up with next. For right now, though, note that Parallels has an exclusive offer for TidBITS readers: $10 off the just-released Parallels Desktop 3.0, bringing the price down to $69.99.
Thanks to Parallels for their support of TidBITS and the Mac community!
Filemaker Inc. has released FileMaker Pro 9.0, a major update to its line of database applications. Among numerous new features are a Quick Start screen, which gives less-experienced users an easy way to open or create databases; Conditional Formatting, which dynamically alters the formatting of fields based on user-defined rules; and the capability to connect to external SQL databases such as MySQL, Oracle SQL, and Microsoft SQL Server.
As usual, FileMaker Pro comes in several different editions. FileMaker Pro 9 retails for $299, with upgrades available for $179. FileMaker Pro 9 Advanced, which adds customization options and development features such as a script debugger, costs $499 new or $299 as an upgrade. For sharing databases with groups of users, you’ll need one of the FileMaker Server products: FileMaker Server 9 ($999 or $599 to upgrade) if the clients are primarily other FileMaker Pro users or FileMaker Server 9 Advanced ($2,499 or $1,499 to upgrade) to support up to 100 simultaneous Web users using Instant Web Publishing. The two Server editions include a new Admin Console to simplify management of any FileMaker Pro server, plus a PHP Site Assistant and API
that enables PHP-driven Web sites to use information in a FileMaker Pro database.
A 30-day demo version of FileMaker Pro 9 is available; it’s a 273 MB download. Also available is a trial version of FileMaker Server 9 Advanced, a 157 MB download.
Long-standing publications like TidBITS face the problem of an ever-evolving audience. After all, most of you have been using Macs (and reading TidBITS) for years, and we use that fact when writing to tailor our choice of articles and our assumptions of what you already know. But if you know someone who is just getting started and may not yet be up to reading TidBITS each week, we’ve run across a new site you can recommend. MyFirstMac, created by long-time TidBITS subscriber Chris Kerins, offers crisp, concise articles that are perfectly targeted to the person who is considering a Mac, has just purchased one, or is still getting comfortable. Major sections include Before You Buy, Getting Started,
Switching from Windows, Mastering the Mac, News, Your Stories, Q&A, and a series of short “How Do I…?” tutorials. You’re unlikely to learn much you didn’t already know, but MyFirstMac’s content is ideal for your neighbor or elderly relative who’s been asking about the Mac. And if you want to contribute, MyFirstMac is looking for pros to answer questions and write articles.
A recent thread on TidBITS Talk mentioned the wide array of hardware devices one can use with a Skype account, the fact that many of them have limited Mac compatibility, and the dearth of information available to help Mac users choose among them. Since I recently went through the exercise of researching (and eventually purchasing) such hardware myself, I wanted to share my own experiences. I admit that my criteria for selecting telephone hardware are atypical, but I suspect that many of my findings will be generally useful nonetheless.
My own switch to Skype as a primary means of telephone communication was prompted by my recent move to France. Before the move, my wife and I looked long and hard at our telephone needs, since we knew we’d be spending lots of time on the phone with people back in North America. I’d resisted Skype for a long time because my only experience with it involved being inconveniently tethered to my computer with a wired headset, and I felt that the process of making and receiving calls exclusively with Skype would be needlessly inconvenient. But when I looked at Skype’s prices compared to other providers, and the range of available hardware options, I realized I had been operating under some misconceptions. I could have a fairly painless
telephone experience with Skype if I put the pieces together in the right way.
That decision made, we signed up for two personal SkypeIn numbers (plus one for our business) at $60 each per year, allowing us to receive phone calls from ordinary phones at U.S. phone numbers. We also got prepaid SkypeOut accounts, which let us make outgoing calls to ordinary phones (in every country we currently need to call) at 2.1 cents per minute. (Unfortunately, the terms of service for Skype Unlimited, which costs $29.95 per year for unlimited calls to the United States and Canada, don’t permit its use from outside North America.)
Sifting Through the Hardware Options — That left hardware – what sort of apparatus we’d use for audio input and output and dialing. This was a challenging puzzle to solve. The range of options is immense, but every piece of hardware required one or more tradeoffs among price, quality, and convenience. One consideration that factored strongly into our thinking was overall compactness. We’d decided to take with us only what could fit in our luggage in order to avoid the expense and hassle of shipping our possessions across the ocean in some other way, so eliminating bulk and weight (as well as any nonessential electrical items, which would require special adapters) was key.
Here are the options we considered and why we decided what we did:
- Wi-Fi handsets. Several different Skype-compatible Wi-Fi handsets exist (from SMC, Netgear, Belkin, Linksys, and Panasonic). They look and work pretty much like cell phones, except
that they rely on a Wi-Fi network instead of a cellular network and give you access to your Skype account for both incoming and outgoing calls without requiring a computer at all. (Even though we brought four Macs with us to Paris, we thought it would be nice if they needn’t be turned on, awake, and running Skype all the time just so we could receive phone calls.) Retail prices of these handsets range from about $160 to $360, though I’ve seen some discounted below $100. We knew we’d have Wi-Fi and plenty of bandwidth in our French apartment, so any of these would seemingly have done the trick, giving us all the convenience of regular cordless phones. Some of them can also recharge via USB, eliminating the need to pack a separate AC
adapter. But even $100 (for each of us) was a bit steep, especially considering that all the currently available models have received decidedly mixed reviews. Users have complained about everything from audio quality to battery life, and we got the distinct sense that this whole product category was in a somewhat shaky first generation. This may prove to be an ideal option in a year or two, but for now, we felt the investment was too risky.
- Cordless phones. Another option would have been any of several cordless phones (from Philips, Netgear, and Linksys) with base stations that plug directly into an Ethernet connection. Like Wi-Fi phones, these eliminate the need for a computer – a big plus. The reviews I read suggested that their audio quality was higher and problems were fewer,
while the price was comparable (ranging from about $150 to $180 at retail). All that was tempting, but it was still more than we wanted to pay – and there was still the problem of all those extra pieces of hardware (the base stations and the AC adapters).
Having ruled out the Wi-Fi handsets and cordless phones, we realized that we’d be stuck with devices that would require the use of a computer. However, we still had a wide range of options:
- Headsets. I already own a perfectly serviceable, Skype-compatible USB stereo headset with a microphone, the Plantronics .Audio 85. It has excellent sound quality for both input and output. But the cords drive me crazy. I don’t mind so much when I’m sitting in front of my computer having a video chat, but I like to walk around while I’m talking on the phone. Besides, dragging out the headset and putting it on every time I had to make or receive a phone call – and using the on-screen interface to dial – wasn’t my idea of convenience. Besides wired headset models from Plantronics, Logitech, and several
lesser-known manufacturers, numerous wireless headsets exist (Bluetooth and otherwise). But the wireless models were a turn-off for me because of the need for an extra piece of apparatus (the charger) and the fact that none of the affordable models has sound quality adequate for speech recognition (something I’m playing with more these days). And even without the cord, I didn’t feel like putting on a headset for every phone call.
- USB Phone Adapter. The Yealink USB-RJ11 Skype Adapter, which enables an ordinary corded telephone to be used for Skype calls, was another Mac-compatible device I considered. However, using this would have meant packing more hardware (the phones themselves and, if necessary, their base stations and AC adapters), so it wasn’t ideal for us.
- USB Speakerphones. If we had been so inclined, we could have selected any of several USB speakerphones, including one that doubles as desktop stereo speakers and one styled like a conventional office telephone. Since we generally prefer to keep our conversations private, we opted to ignore these.
- USB Handsets. Available in both corded and cordless varieties, USB handsets have a keypad, microphone, and speaker (and usually an LCD display), just like most ordinary telephones. You can set them up so that they ring when a call comes in; you answer them (and dial outgoing calls) pretty much as you would with a conventional phone. They do require that your computer be turned on, awake, and running Skype, which may or may not be an inconvenience. But beyond that, this entire category of devices has one serious problem that the other categories don’t: Mac compatibility is limited. Although we ultimately purchased corded USB handsets, that decision involved a number of interesting issues.
Simply performing the analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog conversion of sound to operate the microphone and speaker, respectively, is not problematic: plenty of USB audio devices work brilliantly on any modern Mac without any extra drivers or other software at all. It’s the connection to Skype in particular that requires software mediation – software is needed to take the input from the buttons on the handset and send them to Skype, or to tell the handset to ring when a Skype call comes in, for example. And few USB handsets offer such Mac software.
Choosing a Handset — Skype’s Web site lists three Mac-compatible USB handsets (all corded): The USRobotics USR9601 USB Internet Phone, the Simplyphone Classic, and IPEVO’s Free-1, with software download links for each. Of these, only the USRobotics model was actually for sale on Skype’s site, and at $57.95, it seemed awfully expensive for what it was. So I decided to look elsewhere.
A Google search led me to VON-Phone.com, which features a page with Mac-compatible Skype devices of all sorts, along with instructions and software download links. We decided to get two different Yealink corded models, both fairly basic (but also fairly cheap): a USB-P1K for $22.95 and a P8D for $29.95. I would have liked something cordless, of course, but a handset cord bothers me much less than headset cords, and in any case, the cordless options involved greater expense and more physical components than I preferred.
When the two phones arrived, I immediately installed the software and tried both of them out. The USB-P1K worked; the P8D did not – it appeared not to recognize the Mac software at all (or vice-versa). I sent an email message to VON-Phone.com, and the owner replied that he had just tried out the phone on his own Mac and had the same problem. He offered to send me a different Yealink model, the P5D, and didn’t even mention that it sold for $10 more; I brought that up myself and offered to pay the difference. He sent the new phone the same day without waiting to get the old one back, and even included a postage-paid envelope for me to return the one that didn’t
work. Shortly thereafter, the P8D was removed from their list of Mac-compatible devices. That experience gave me warm fuzzy feelings about VON-Phone.com; it’s exactly the way good customer service should work.
Hardware and Software Experiences — Both of these phones use software from Yealink called SkyMACMate to enable the phones to talk to Skype – meaning that both programs must be running in order for you to use the handsets. SkyMACMate version 22.214.171.124 is a functional but unimpressive little program. Its single window gives you volume controls for speaker and microphone – and nothing else. If you want it to run all the time, you have to add it to your Login Items list manually. I’d have preferred a background application that was completely invisible, with a preference pane to adjust the settings if necessary. (Note that you must also configure Skype to use the handsets for input, output, and ringing by
choosing USB Audio Device from each of the three pop-up menus in the Audio pane of Skype’s Preferences window.)
With the software installed and running, the experience of using the two phones is remarkably different, despite their superficial similarities. With the USB-P1K, the handset is essentially a remote control for Skype’s on-screen interface. That is to say, pressing the arrow keys makes the Skype application scroll through its contact list, and certain other keys similarly “pass through” to the equivalent buttons in the Skype windows. Numbers you dial on the phone’s keypad do show up on its LCD display rather than on the screen, but otherwise it’s somewhat disorienting to use the handset when you also have to look at something on your computer. The P5D, on the other hand, functions much more like a regular phone. Its LCD display lists the
names in my Skype contact list, and I can scroll through them and call any of them without ever having to look at my computer screen.
Both phones have respectable, though not stellar, sound quality. They’re about what you might expect for under $30: cheap plastic devices without a lot of attention to style, detail or extra features, but as corded phones go, we’ve found them entirely adequate.
I’m a bit less happy with the software situation. SkyMACMate is not a universal binary, though I’m unsure how much of a performance penalty that produces on my MacBook Pro. I’ve read numerous reports of problems with this software, but they appear to occur mainly with the use of the USB-RJ11 Skype Adapter mentioned earlier, rather than with handsets like we have. I have experienced a couple of random crashes, and there is some evidence to suggest that a memory leak is at fault, but as long as I quit and relaunch the program once a day or so, it seems to behave. Ordinarily I’d say that’s more bother than I’d be willing to go through on behalf of poorly written software, but the other options available to me (such as replacing this with
an entirely different brand) would also involve some bother, not to mention expense. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for a software update.
The One and the Many — Having done still more research since making my purchase, I’ve become aware of some interesting facts about Mac-compatible USB Skype handsets. Yealink, a smallish Chinese OEM, is the manufacturer of both the Simplyphone and USRobotics handset models, among numerous others, all of which use the same software – though Simplyphone rebrands theirs as CallMe. (The Yealink name, by the way, doesn’t appear on their phones; some of them have the Radian brand and others, like the USB-P1K, are unbranded. The USRobotics USR9601 handset is the same as the P8D I had difficulties with, though it’s unclear whether their branded version has any electronic differences that may enable it to work while
the ones available from VON-Phone.com don’t.)
Clearly, Mac software is not Yealink’s core focus. But if you’re unwilling to use the SkyMACMate software, you significantly reduce the number of Mac-compatible USB handsets from which you can choose. Other than Yealink-manufactured brands, I’m currently aware of several IPEVO models; the Keyspan Cordless Skype Phone; a few phones from Futiro; the Cyberphone W Mac (seemingly available only from the UK); and the Miglia Dialog+. I’ve tried none of these yet, so I can’t comment on their
performance or the robustness of their software.
Of course, I’m certainly in the minority in attributing such great importance to limiting the number, size, and weight of my gadgets. If you don’t mind having an extra box or two, a USB phone adapter may be more to your liking, and if your budget is higher than ours was, you can bypass the Mac software issue entirely by buying one of the cordless Skype phones that plugs directly into an Ethernet connection.
In 1984, Apple released the Macintosh, touting it as “the computer for the rest of us.” It was revolutionary in bringing ease-of-use to personal computing. At its release, the iPhone has done the same for cellular phones by adding touchscreen control, widescreen iPod functionality, and improved Internet communications in one svelte package.
The iPhone’s release not only forced other phone makers to change their ideas of how a cell phone should operate, it also highlighted the often confusing ways cellular providers charge for phone and Internet access. AT&T, the sole provider for the iPhone in the United States, assumes that if you’re paying up to $600 for a phone, you probably need a large number of included minutes – and are willing to pay a hefty monthly fee. The required 2 year service commitment starts at $59.99 per month, which includes 450 minutes of talk time and unlimited data access. That’s too expensive for some people, while others don’t need anywhere near the included 450 minutes of talk time at that price. What’s needed is a “cellular plan for the rest of
us,” which would enable infrequent callers to enjoy the other great features of the iPhone.
Fortunately, such a plan exists, although not officially for the iPhone (but read on for a way to get around that limitation). Inexpensive prepaid cell plan options are available right now in the United States that work with less-capable phones.
Explaining Prepaid — With prepaid cellular, you pay for your minutes in advance instead of receiving a bill for usage after the fact each month. As you use your phone, per-minute or per-text message charges are deducted from your account. When your account is empty, or at the end of its time limit, you simply add more funds. Some prepaid cellular providers also offer monthly plans that work more like the contract plans for heavier use, but without the bill. Prepaid monthly plans can make sense for more frequent use, since they tend to be less expensive per minute than prepaid per-minute plans, but they can also be more expensive than a comparable monthly contract plan.
Prepaid cellular is ideal for those who don’t use most of the minutes on their monthly cellular contracts or for people who simply want an inexpensive cell phone in case of emergency. Most of the included phones are simple and inexpensive, and not capable of handling email, Web browsing, and other data services. There is no contract to sign with prepaid cellular, no bill to pay, and no obligation to stick with a single provider for any length of time. You can cancel or switch at will, though switching providers will require getting a new phone.
If you currently have a monthly contract plan, the easiest way to see if prepaid cellular is right for you is to check your previous bills. If most of your minutes went unused, chances are a prepaid plan would fit your lifestyle and your wallet much better. Although 10 to 25 cents per minute may sound like a lot, if you use only 100 minutes of airtime in a month on average (about 3 minutes per day), 10 cents per minute works out to $10 for that month.
[Editor’s Note: Tonya and I switched to Virgin Mobile’s prepaid plan several years ago when I realized that in all of 2005, I had used only about 450 minutes, and Tonya hadn’t come anywhere close to my level of usage. The per-minute charge on the monthly contract plan may have seemed low, but the amount we ended up paying per minute of actual usage was insanely high. Do yourself a favor and do the math. -Adam]
Comparing Prepaid Services — As with any service it’s a good idea to compare different providers, but with prepaid cellular that’s often easier said than done. To help you get started, I take a quick look at the major players and provide links to their Web sites so you can check their current pricing, which does change.
There are variables other than price you should check as well. Several prepaid cellular providers place an expiration date on minutes, which equates to highway robbery. With these providers you lose your purchased minutes if not used in a certain amount of time after purchase, usually 30 to 90 days. Other providers, more reasonably, never expire purchased minutes as long as the account remains active. A few fall in between.
Coverage can vary greatly, especially in rural areas. Many of the prepaid cellular providers piggyback on the cell networks of other major providers, so it’s absolutely worth figuring out which network each provider uses. Then check with friends and local cellular stores to figure out which networks work best in your area.
The process of adding funds to your account can vary from one provider to another, and even from one plan to another with the same provider. For a few, the only way to add funds is to purchase a prepaid card in a store, but most offer automatic credit card deduction options or the capability to add funds directly using the phone, or sometimes both. Automatic credit card deduction is undoubtedly the easiest approach to adding funds, but that may not always be appropriate if you’re working on a limited budget or funding a phone for a child.
I first researched prepaid cell phone plans back in 2002 for my father-in-law, who needed an inexpensive cell phone for his job driving cars between dealerships all over the area. Looking into the topic again five years later, it’s great to see that prepaid cellular plans have become more consumer-friendly, less expensive, loaded with more options, and with fewer hidden surprises. Prepaid cellular in the United States was pretty new in 2002, and most of what was available was just as expensive or more than the cheapest contract plans. Back then, I did a lot of research and found one provider that was different: Virgin Mobile. Nowadays, there are many more providers, but Virgin Mobile remains a top choice.
Virgin Mobile USA — Adam amusingly calls the $20 Kyocera K10 Royale he uses his “teenage girl phone” because of the way Virgin Mobile targets a young, hip audience. I too ended up using Virgin Mobile USA, a joint venture of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and Sprint Nextel, first with a Kyocera Party Animal and now with a $50 Audiovox Snapper. The company offers a variety of mostly inexpensive phones at Target, Best Buy, and many other stores, although it’s just as easy to purchase one directly from Virgin Mobile’s Web site. They have exclusive tie-ins with MTV, VH1, and Comedy Central for content, marketing mainly to teens and twenty-somethings. Virgin Mobile
was the first prepaid cellular provider to offer simple plans that did not expire, and has developed a word-of-mouth following among older folks. For a minimum of $20 every 90 days, or $15 if you register your credit card for automatic payments, you get the basic plan of 18 cents per minute and 5 cents per text message. Funds added accumulate as long as the account remains active and do not expire, and there are no multi-year commitments. Virgin Mobile offers a wide variety of plans – two per-minute plans and six monthly plans for more frequent use. Coverage is nationwide using the Sprint PCS network with no long distance or roaming charges.
Boost Mobile — Boost Mobile, owned by Sprint Nextel, is another prepaid cellular provider that markets to the same “active youth demographic” as Virgin Mobile, albeit with a more urban tone. One thing setting them apart is that many of their phones can use the Nextel walkie-talkie feature. Boost offers a variety of plans to choose from as well, with one per-minute and three monthly plans with no long distance or roaming charges. On the per-minute plan, paying at least $20 every 90 days keeps the account active with no expiration; minutes cost 20 cents for local and long distance, or 10 cents per minute on nights and weekends and mobile-to-mobile calls. Unlimited use
of the walkie-talkie feature costs $1 for each day it’s used. Automatic payment via credit card can be set up for when the balance reaches $5 or less, but there isn’t an every-90-days option as there is with Virgin Mobile, which means you have to watch the renewal date. The three monthly plans cost $30 (no included minutes; 10 cents per minute), $50 (400 minutes, which works out to 12.5 cents per minute), and $70 (600 minutes, or 11.6 cents per minute). Coverage is nationwide using both the Sprint PCS and Nextel networks, and phones are available at Best Buy, Target, and other locations as well as the Boost Mobile Web site.
Two more monthly plans, Unlimited by Boost, are currently offered only in Texas and California. For $55 you receive unlimited minutes with a 15 cents per minute roaming charge and 10 cents per text message sent, and for $60 you get unlimited minutes and unlimited text messaging with 15 cents per minute roaming. Unlimited by Boost phones do not support the walkie-talkie feature.
TracFone — The first nationwide prepaid cellular provider in the United States was TracFone. TracFone uses several cellular networks, and it’s not at all obvious whose network they use in a particular area. I’m not entirely sure what their rates, plans, and payment methods are (other than the ubiquitous prepaid cards seen in most any convenience store or drugstore) because of their difficult-to-navigate Web site, but it appears that minutes cost 20 cents each when purchased in bundles of 50 ($10) or 100 ($20) minutes. There are also several plans that add minutes automatically, also at 20 cents per minute. TracFone has had some customer service issues over the years.
In February 2007, a class action lawsuit settlement was approved over customers being assessed roaming charges while they were in their home area. Again it’s impossible to say for certain, but it appears TracFone no longer charges extra for roaming or long distance. Phones are available at Wal-Mart, Kmart, Target, and other stores as well as the TracFone Web site. Overall, I wouldn’t recommend TracFone.
NET10 — NET10, whose slogan is “Pay as you go made simple,” is a second brand created by TracFone. Like TracFone, NET10 uses several cellular networks. However, the NET10 Web site is easier to navigate, yielding the information that paying $30 every 60 days keeps basic service active with no expiration; minutes cost a flat 10 cents each. You can add funds only via prepaid cards, not automatic credit card deduction. There are no monthly plans. Long distance and roaming is included at no extra charge. NET10 phones are available at Wal-Mart, Target, Kmart, and other stores as well as the NET10 Web site.
AT&T — The big national cellular providers also sell prepaid options. AT&T’s GoPhone service offers four monthly Pick Your Plan plans and two per-minute Pay As You Go plans. The Pick Your Plan monthly plans are similar to, but less expensive per month and more expensive per minute than, their contract plans, starting at $29.99 for 200 minutes at 15 cents per minute and going up to $69.99 for 650 minutes at 10.8 cents per minute. The Pay As You Go per-minute plans start at $15 for 30 days; one has a $1 daily access fee when used but costs only 10 cents per minute, whereas the other costs 25 cents per minute. Both include rollover minutes that do not expire
for one year from the purchase date as long as the account remains active. Monthly payments are automatically billed to your credit card, and per-minute plan funds can be added with a prepaid card or by calling customer service. There are no roaming or long distance charges. Phones are available in AT&T stores and on the AT&T Web site as well as at many other AT&T retailers.
The iPhone is not officially offered as part of GoPhone, but the service becomes available if the credit check at activation in iTunes fails. As Erica Sadun of TUAW found out, you can force a failure by entering 999-99-9999 as your social security number. The prepaid GoPhone packages available for the iPhone cost between $49.98 and $89.98, and include between 200 and 650 rollover minutes, unlimited data, and Visual Voicemail; the more expensive plans also include night and weekend minutes and mobile-to-mobile minutes. Erica also learned that it’s possible to use the SIM card (and thus the
plan) from another AT&T/Cingular phone in your iPhone; it’s a major hack, but could be worth trying. Not all iPhone features, such as Visual Voicemail, may be available if you go this latter route.
Verizon Wireless — Verizon Wireless has an INpulse per-minute plan and two EasyPay monthly plans that seem comparatively overpriced. The INpulse per-minute plan charges a $1 daily access fee when used but only 10 cents per minute, and offers various 30-, 60-, 90-, and 120-day renewals starting at $15 and with expiration dates that go up with the amount you pay. There is also a $35 activation fee. EasyPay features a $50 plan that provides 350 minutes (14.2 cents per minute) and a $70 plan that includes 700 minutes (10 cents per minute). It’s easier to find the details than with TracFone’s Web site, but Verizon Wireless publishes a lot more information
that occasionally contradicts. Roaming costs 69 cents per minute, while long distance is included. Payments can be billed automatically to your credit card or paid directly from the phone with a pre-registered credit card. Phones are available in Verizon Wireless stores, at Circuit City, at many Verizon retailers, and on the Verizon Web site.
T-Mobile — You can maintain T-Mobile To Go for as little as $10 every 90 days. Monthly plans are not available. T-Mobile To Go is easily the simplest of the prepaid cellular plans offered by the three major contract providers, but it’s still a bit tricky to figure out. You can purchase minutes in $10, $25, $50, or $100 chunks, varying the per-minute rate from 30 cents per minute down to 10 cents per minute. Minutes purchased for less than $100 expire in 90 days, but once you have purchased $100 worth of minutes, they don’t expire for a year after purchase. Long distance and roaming are included, and phones are available at T-Mobile
stores, Target, Kmart, Wal-Mart, and many T-Mobile retailers as well as the T-Mobile Web site.
ET Phone Home, Prepaid — If you’ve never considered a cell phone, are tied into a contract you aren’t taking full advantage of, or are just looking to pay less for cell service, prepaid cellular service is likely a good choice for you. Virgin Mobile has the best variety of plans that work well for almost anyone, from the emergency phone user to a frequent talker. Boost Mobile offers a bit less variety, but the Nextel walkie-talkie feature can be handy if you and several friends sign up together. AT&T focuses mainly on monthly plans that are a bit pricier than their comparable contract plans (and of course it’s the only service that’s compatible with the iPhone), while T-Mobile and NET10 offer only
per-minute plans that differ mostly in how much you must pay to keep the service active and if minutes expire.
[Tom Schmidt is an aspiring writer and a service technician at First Tech Computer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.]
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