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Cheap Geek: Making smart choices in the confusing world of cellphone buying
Cheap Geek

Apple is releasing the new thousand dollar IPhone XS this week, and if past years are an indication, millions of people will rush out to buy what they believe is the fanciest, most innovative, and simply the best smartphone on the planet.

Before I go ahead and ridicule these IPhone fanatics (um, I mean enthusiasts) for wasting their hard-earned money, let me equally poke fun at the Android crowd, who in recent years have put out almost the same amount of money to buy the latest Samsung Galaxy or Note devices.

And before I alienate half of my audience with the comments, let me admit… these are darn good phones.

But, I wouldn’t be called the Cheap Geek without pointing you in another direction and helping you save hundreds of dollars both on purchasing that new smartphone and on finding an affordable monthly plan that will give you everything you need without purchasing a thousand dollar phone and $200 a month plan to use it.

Because there’s so much to explore, I’ll be discussing this in two parts: This week it’s all about that smartphone selection (sorry flip phone users, we’re limiting the discussion to smartphones, but if you want me to talk about where you can still buy flip phones for the best cost, I will in a future column).  Next week I will discuss the pros and cons of choosing a specific wireless phone provider and how to pick the best plan for you and your family.

But first, I’d like to dispel some myths that some users, and most salespeople and commercials seem to insist is the truth. And although I’ll get disagreement from some geeks who will argue that a specific feature or two is soooo cool and they couldn’t imagine living without it, the fact is in recent years most smartphones have become essentially the same.

Myth #1 – You have to get an IPhone.

Owning an IPhone can make you feel special: The style, the simplicity, the joy you had watching the master showman Steve Jobs present it to the world. Maybe you got locked into the Apple ecosystem, with all of your music in ITunes and the Apple TV to stream your shows. You have an IPad, and everything else “I” and you want everything to flow together.

Maybe someone told you if you wanted to video chat with another IPhone user, you needed the Facetime app. Truth is, you don’t any more. There’s a cross-platform app called DUO that allows you to video chat with anyone.

Maybe you wanted something as simple as possible, and you heard the IPhone is easiest to use. It was the easiest … at one time. One of the keys to the IPhone’s early success is that Apple limited your ability as the user to make any changes or customizations, or do anything to mess up something. Some users who admittedly were tech dummies, appreciated that. Today, it’s hard to mess up any phone. If you’re skittish to use certain features or to change something, simply don’t.

The reason I’m being so hard on the IPhone is that even 11 years after its inception, I come across so many people who feel they have no other option but the IPhone. They truly think that anything less would not suffice. So, year after year, they pay for the new model with marginal new features (exaggerated by slick commercials) or still pay way too much on second or third generation models without considering their options.

Myth #2 – You have to keep up with the technology

There was a time between 2007 and probably 2014ish when smartphone manufacturers each year made substantial improvements to their products. It was frustrating when you would buy a new phone, only to find out a year later that the screen size improved dramatically and resolution was much better, storage and memory tripled, and there were breakthroughs that many now consider are must-haves like fingerprint recognition or devices that worked with a new technology like 4K.

But in recent years, it seems manufacturers tout new features that could best be described as gimmicks. They put millions of dollars into marketing something that most people try once or twice, and never again, or may not even realize they have it until they scroll through their settings or app tray.

The hardware “specs” that advertisers emphasize such as screen size and resolution, memory and storage, which are truly the guts and brains of the device, are often close enough whether the phone costs $300 or $1,000.

Myth #3 – You must have the best camera, because, well, just because

Interesting how having a great camera on our smartphone has become one of the main reasons we choose a phone. And truth be told, thanks to the IPhone, which was the first to possess a great camera, many are taking pictures that exceed the quality of a point and shoot.

Still, most of the photos shot with a smartphone just end up on social media and many don’t realize Facebook and others limit the resolution of your pictures. And most are viewing those social media posts from a smartphone that has a 5 or 6-inch screen. Don’t go crazy thinking you need an 18 megapixel camera on something where a 5 megapixel will suffice.

With that said, many Android phones in recent years produce quality images with good lighting and image stabilization. Older, lower-end Samsung Galaxys and LG phones such as the G5 or G6 get great reviews on their cameras, and come in well under $400.

So, what should you buy?

I guess you figured it out. I don’t recommend an IPhone, unless you want to go way back to the 6 or 7 series and buy it used.  I found the 6 through a Google search as cheap as $179 and the 7 for $300.

That leaves Android. If I was really mean I’d recommend a BlackBerry. Yes, they still make those.

I’ve become a big fan of the LG. After using a G4 and then G5, which both were purchased for under $500, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I came across a brand new LG Stylo 4, a couple of months ago, which sold for $250 from T-Mobile. Some of the other discount wireless providers are selling it even cheaper.

It was about the only phone under $500 that had a fingerprint reader. To me, that’s a must. We must lock our phones either by password, or fingerprint/eyeball recognition, and I’ve gotten used to the fingerprint ease.

The Stylo also came with the absolute latest operating system from Android, called 8 or Oreo. That was a pleasant surprise to get that in a budget phone. Incidentally, anything 5 or higher in the Android operating system is really just fine.

All of the other specs were comparable, or at least good enough, to make my smartphone work well. Again, there are a number of very good budget phones under $300 that were released this year that will more than meet your needs.

Give these a look:

 *  Moto G6

*  LG K30, LG Stylo 4

* Nokia 6.1

* Samsung Galaxy J3

* Alcatel 3V and 1X

* Asus ZenFone V

You’ll be pleasantly surprised that the “budget” phones often have huge 5.5 to 6.5 -inch screens, storage of at least 32 gigs, which by the way, also will include additional storage on an SD card, something both the IPhone and top-tier Galaxy and Note phones do not have, RAM of at least 2 gigs, (which geeks will argue is not enough, but I’ve never had a problem), replaceable batteries (again not found on the aforementioned $1,000 phones), and a pretty good camera.

Next week: Choosing the right wireless plan

This writer wants to hear from you. If you have questions on anything you read or have a story to tell, contact Mark at




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