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Are smartphones worth the money?

Smartphones have for many, changed the way we do things: the way we work, live and interact with one another (for better or worse). According to a 2012 J.D Power and Associates study, 54% of wireless customers in Canada, now own a smartphone. Although they’re not exactly synonymous with thrift and frugality, smartphones have become much more accessible and affordable for the everyday person.

As much as I’m a gadget guy, I was a long smartphone holdout for years. Although all my friends all had the latest smartphones, I never really could justify the cost. I was just as happy with my Motorola flip phone which I had for about 3 years. And up until then, I never even owned one, although my wife pressed that I get one, in case of emergencies. Now that I have a child of my own, I can understand why.

My first foray into the smartphone market

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine, offered up his old Blackberry for free, because he said he couldn’t stand to see me typing out a text message on my ‘slim Jim’, as he called it. I didn’t have a data plan and it didn’t even have built-in wireless, but it was a heck of a lot easier to type with. He figured if I had a little taste of it, I would cave. A year later, I finally did. As we were expecting our first child, that same friend, who had two kids of his own, said something along the lines of: “You’re going to want to take pictures and video of your new baby and you’re going to have little time for little else, so you may as well have the one toy, that you can have on you at all times.” I really couldn’t argue with that. It seemed like a big expense, but that sold it for me. That’s when I picked up my first iPhone on Kijiji, and haven’t looked back.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts

I know that some may see it as a frivolous expense. And if you’re struggling to pay your bills, obviously the decision not to have one becomes an easier one. And although they can be expensive, they really don’t have to be.

When I account for all the separate devices it’s replaced – this isn’t just my phone. I can also now carry all my email, calendar, notes, newspaper, GPS, music, games, photos, videos, program my PVR and fit the entire Internet in my pocket. I no longer have to buy a separate phone, a separate digital and video camera, and while for most, it’s not really a replacement for a game console, it has been for me, since I no longer have the time to sit and play for hours on end.

In addition, there are a plethora of apps out there, free even, some of which have kept me both organized and on budget, saving me both time and money.

Data plans are not for everyone

One of the big reasons I avoided them in the past, was because of the carrying costs. Data costs are still very expensive here in Canada. And if you plan on buying a phone on a 2 or 3-year contract, you might be getting that phone for free or little cost, but you’re automatically locked into buying a data plan, which could very well cost you a lot more in the long run.

So you really have to ask yourself, do you really need a data plan? I didn’t. Besides, every smartphone nowadays is equipped with wireless technology. I have wireless access at home (inside and out) and at work. So the only time I’m not connected is when I’m in my car, or when I’m out and about, enjoying my free time with my family (which coincidentally is the one time I could care less about my phone). And in many urban areas, free Wifi is something that’s becoming even more accessible: in our malls, schools, libraries, coffee shops, and various restaurant establishments. And it’s growing.

Even without a data plan, and when outside my Wifi zone, I might not be able to use the internet, access a map, or use some applications, but I’m still able to:

  • Place a phone call
  • Send a text message
  • Play most games
  • Listen to some music
  • And take a picture or record a video or two

The few times I did need it (i.e. when on vacation), I just bought a daily data package from my carrier. Not cheap, but much less expensive than having to pay month-to-month, for the one time you do need it. Going Wifi-only, there’s also no chance of your bill getting dinged with those huge bandwidth overage charges, like the $800 cell phone bills you only hope to see on the news.

Save by going contract-free

After going back and forth with various plans and carriers, over the long term I found it cheaper for me to go without a contract. When you buy off-contract, you can buy the phone unlocked, which means that if rates were to drop in that time period, you could easily renegotiate your plan, or switch to a different carrier, or cancel anytime you want, without penalty. Unlocking is legal in most countries, although US Congress passed a bill just this year banning the practice for all new phones.

Yes, sure, buying a phone outright is a bigger upfront cost, but spread over a 3-year contract, even a $700 phone is an extra $19 and change a month. Right now my current plan for my iPhone is about $35 a month, taxes in – the same I was paying for my ‘slim Jim’. Even with the added $19, it’s still inexpensive compared to the $80-$100 a month many are paying for a full talk-and-data plan. Consumer Reports estimates that buying an iPhone off contract will save you about $1,000 over a two-year period. But there’s also plenty of other smartphone options and carriers out there that are a lot less costly.  It all depends on what you’re looking for. Although, there are a lot of relatively new low-cost phone carriers now springing up in Canada, offering unlimited data, do your research first before locking yourself into a plan, because sometimes you get what you pay for.

So in the end, do you really need one? Well, nobody really ‘needs’ a smartphone, but it sure has made things a whole lot easier. And when you consider today, all the devices they’ve replaced, and the expanding presence of free wireless access, they’ve become a lot more affordable than one might think.

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