The 7 Worst Smartphone Injustices and How to Fight Them

Geek's Geek

“Injustice in the end produces independence,” Voltaire wrote. For their part, smartphone users must endure a litany of injustices, ranging from endless contracts that tie them to outdated hardware to phones that run out of juice by noon.

Unfortunately, we’ve become so inured to the injuries that we hardly notice when phone vendors and carriers hit us with yet another body blow. Fortunately, you don’t have to be a mobile martyr. Here are the seven most malicious forms of telephone tyranny and the best ways to fight them. 

1. Sealed Batteries, Weak Battery Life

If you love being infantalized, some of today’s top smartphone vendors are waiting for you with a pair of high-definition diapers and an LTE pacifier. Rather than giving you the choice of whether or not to replace their low-capacity batteries with slightly-thicker, high-capacity units, more and more smartphone manufacturers are using sealed, non-removable batteries. 

Even worse, most of the non-removable-battery phones have very pedestrian battery lives. The Droid 4 might be the world’s best keyboarded phone, but its 1785 mAH battery limits it to just 5 and half hours of continuous use and, if you don’t like that, Motorola has a message for you: “tough touch screens.” HTC must feel the same way, because all three of its upcoming “One” series phones have sealed in batteries, even though none exceeds the pedestrian 1800 mAH capacity.

The Droid RAZR Maxx has a sealed battery, but gets over 8 hours of endurance because that battery is an impressive 3300 mAH. However, should the RAZR Maxx’s battery lose its ability to hold a full charge, you’re out of luck. On the flip side, Samsung’s Galaxy Nexus lasts under 4 hours on a charge, but you can replace its battery with one that’s double the capacity.

The excuse for this paternalistic practice is that providing a battery door and the space to stick your finger in and pop the existing battery might add a millimeter or two to the phone chassis. How many millimeters is your freedom worth?

How to Fight the Sealed Battery Injustice: Only buy phones with user-removable batteries.  If you already own a sealed-battery phone, you’ll need an external battery like the New Trent iFuel.

2. 20-Month Wait Between Phone Upgrades

To get a good smartphone at a decent price, you usually need to agree to a two-year contract, but what happens 6 months into that contract when your phone is eons out of date and you want to upgrade it? In Spring 2011, the HTC Thunderbolt was Verizon’s hottest phone, because it was the first with LTE. By fall, the single-core, low-res screened handset looked like a joke next to high-res speed demons like the Droid RAZR and HTC Rezound.

The three largest U.S. carriers each make you wait 20 months to get a replacement at subsidized prices (less than $500 or so) by which time your current phone will be ready to take its place in a museum. T-Mobile offers “early upgrade pricing” after 12 months that’s not as favorable as a subsidized rate but gives you some discount off of the retail price. After 22 months, T-Mobile subscribers on two year contracts are eligible for a fully-subsidized upgrade.

How to Fight the 20-month Upgrade Injustice: It’s hard to get a phone at the two-year subsidized price sooner than 20 months into your contract, but there are ways to save. First, try calling your carrier and see if you can negotiate for an early upgrade, because occasionally company reps will give long-time customers a break. T-Mobile users can take advantage of early upgrade pricing, and anyone can buy an unlocked phone through a third-party vendor that offers a bit lower retail pricing than the carrier.

3. Pay Extra for Tethering

It’s not enough for carriers to charge you $30 or more for a smartphone data plan. They make you pay another $30 or so to share that data with your notebook or tablet. What the heck? If major home ISPs like Time Warner Cable or Comcast tried to charge you separately for every device that connects to your router, there’d be an “occupy the customer service department” movement.

How to Fight the Tethering Premium Injustice: Fortunately, there are ways around the fees, if you’re willing to cheat a bit and use a wired tethering app like PdaNet or a wireless hotspot app like Barnicle WiFi Tether, the latter of which requires you to root your phone.

4. Lose Your Smartphone, Lose Your Shirt

Yesterday, you bought a new smartphone for $99, but this morning you left it in a cab. Buying a replacement will cost a hefty $550 and you don’t have much choice in the matter, because you’re under contract for the next 24 months and the early termination fees are too expensive to let you walk away.

Your carrier may offer you a phone insurance plan at the time of purchase, but it probably won’t be a good deal. For example, Verizon’s Total Equipment Coverage plan promises only a “comparable model” to your phone, says that the replacement device may be refurbished, and charges a $99 deductible on any claims in addition to a $6.99 monthly fee ($168 over 24 months). Unless you’ve had a psychic vision of yourself dropping the phone into a sewer, you’d be better off not buying this kind of half-hearted, but full-priced protection.

It’s understandable that carriers would charge you a somewhat higher price to replace a lost phone, because they take a loss on every handset they sell at subsidized prices. However, I can’t help but think that the full retail prices they charge you are jacked up, because they know you have no choice but to pay them. Unfortunately, wholesale pricing for smartphones isn’t normally made public, but it’s hard to believe Verizon pays anywhere close to $649 for the Samsung Galaxy Nexus.

How to Fight the Lost Phone Pricing Injustice: As I suggested in the “early upgrades” section above, you can try to negotiate with your carrier for a discount or turn to third-party sellers on sites like eBay. For example, on eBay, you can purchase an unlocked Samsung Galaxy Nexus for  $500, $150 less than Verizon’s $640 retail price.  You can also get a used model for as little as $350.

5. Disinterested Carriers, Vendors Don’t Issue OS Updates

Imagine depending on Best Buy, where you bought your Pavilion dm4 notebook in 2011, rather than Microsoft to issue all your Windows updates. That’s the kind of lunacy Android and Windows Phone users have to face today, because they’re dependent on the kindness of their carriers for critical OS updates, even if they involve security breaches.

So, if Sprint CEO Dan Hesse has a bad day and decides that HTC Evo 4G users shouldn’t get Ice Cream Sandwich or AT&T’s Ralph De La Vega doesn’t want Windows Phone users to get the coming update that allows them to attach multiple photos to the same SMS message (therefore sending fewer texts), that’s their prerogative.

Unfortunately, there’s no strong business incentive for the carriers or manufacturers to issue such upgrades. The carriers already have your money and a two-year commitment for you to keep paying them every month, with or without updates. Smartphone vendors consider the carriers — not you — to be their clients. And the carriers couldn’t care less about spending money to support people who already bought their products.

When your phone is still running Android 2.1 while the latest handsets have 4.0, you might swear under your breath and vow to change wireless services or phone brands when your contract is up, but since they all do the same thing and churn rates are very low, they know you’ll be back.

Apple issues its iOS updates directly to all of its phones at the same time. Why can’t Google and Microsoft follow its example?

How to Fight the Slow OS Update / No OS Update Injustice:  If you have an Android smartphone, you can probably find instructions on how to root it and install a custom ROM with the latest OS (Ice Cream Sandwich) at the XDA Developer’s Forum or a tutorial site like The Unlockr

6. Out-of-Control Texting Rates

Most carriers charge $30 for 2 or 3GB of data, but 20 cents for each tiny, 160-character text message if you go over your allotment or aren’t on a pricey unlimited SMS plan. Different experts estimate this 20-cent price is a markup of 4,900 to 7,300 percent on something that has almost no cost to the provider. After all, the amount of data per message is so tiny. The worst part of paying per message is that anyone can spam you with SMS messages and make you pay for them against your will.

How to Fight the Outrageous SMS Fee Injustice: Users can log in to instant messaging apps like Google Voice to avoid paying SMS fees, but then they have to give out a second phone number just for texting. Instant messaging apps like Google Talk or eBuddy also fit the bill but gulp battery like there’s no tomorrow and require your friends to also be logged in for you to talk to them.

7. Surfing the Web in a Foreign Country Costs More than Flying There

Though many U.S. carriers offer phones that are capable of getting a signal when you travel abroad, the price of such service is nuts, frequently costing as much as $20 per megabyte of data. Even so-called “affordable” packages like AT&T’s $24.99 for 50MB of monthly global data (with $1 per MB overage) are incredible rip-offs. Download a PowerPoint presentation to show a client in Europe or view the last day’s worth of email and you may end up paying hundreds of dollars before you even know what hit you.

Meanwhile, the cost of buying a local prepaid data plan in many countries is far less than you pay in the U.S. When I visited Spain earlier this year, I was able to purchase a prepaid SIM card on the Orange network with a week’s worth of unlimited data for just 9 Euros (around $12). Are you telling me that U.S. carriers can’t get a similar deal on data for its customers? No doubt AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon are paying foreign carriers even less than I paid on my own, but they’re marking up the cost per megabyte to unfathomable rates.

How to Fight the Outrageous Data Roaming Rate Injustice: Unfortunately for consumers, it’s not always easy to get your carrier to unlock your smartphone so you can buy a SIM from a local carrier. The best bet for frequent travelers may be to buy an unlocked phone.

If you don’t need to make voice calls on your smartphone, renting a mobile hotspot from Xcom Global might be your ideal solution. The company charges just $15 a day for a portable 3G MiFi that comes with unlimited Internet access on a leading network in whatever country you’re visiting. When carrying the MiFi in your bag, you can use it to get the Internet on your phone, laptop and tablet, all at the same time.

AUTHOR BIO
Avram Piltch
Avram Piltch
The official Geeks Geek, as his weekly column is titled, Avram Piltch has guided the editorial and production of Laptopmag.com since 2007. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram programmed several of LAPTOP's real-world benchmarks, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. He holds a master’s degree in English from NYU.
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  1. Bob Says:

    You sort of answered 2 or 3 of your own questions. The rest were like you just stated the facts of how a contract works and said “sucks to be you”. I thought maybe reading this I would find some ideas on how to get around some things. Your articles are generally very good, but I felt like this was something that you were in the middle of and someone just published it.

  2. Richard Says:

    Most of these are not “smartphone injustices”, they are operator injustices due to practices of the mobile operators in your region. Only #1 is an injustice related to the phone itself.

    You have probably written this from the point of view of someone living in a country where almost everyone buys a phone under contract, with the real purchase price subsidised by the monthly contract. The points would not apply were the phone bought separate to the contract as is done in many countries, or pre-paid SIMs used without any contract at all.

    And do operators in the USA really charge you to RECEIVE each text message? That is amazing – like paying the postman each time you receive a letter. The sender pays – at least everywhere in europe.

  3. Vince Says:

    Um. Ok, well most of this is a little bit ‘y u no read contract??’ but I do have to take minor issue with point 5 – disinterested carriers wrt OS upgrages/patching etc.

    In keeping with the advice on the rest of your points, the answer is to vote with your wallet and your feet and just not buy an Android device unless the carrier promises (in contract with enforcable penalties for failing) to keep up with upgrades ands patching or Google sorts the mess out. Of course, the fact that the individual manufacturers have forked the releases all over with their own crapware and the carrier may want to do this also won’t help.

    Rooting the device is *not* an acceptable solution to this – unless you accept that paying someone to crack open your iPhone and stick a bigger battery in there (or even doing it yourself!) or jailbraking it to get away from iTMS lockin etc are also acceptable. The fact that hacks like Cyanogen are pretty much the only way of definitely staying up to date – and coping Linux or OsX86 style with whatever got broken this time – is just a joke for something like a phone that’s a simple commodity item not an uber-geek hotrod device. If it was all about performance then that would be fine but when device security comes in there… are you OK with your Mom doing online banking on an old, unpatched handset? Does she know enough about security to cope with what is pretty much an unsupported OS? User experience is about a whole lot more than how shiny the OS looks at launch – but sadly many vendors just don’t seem to get this.

    … and no, I’m not an Apple fanboi (yes – I have some of their stuff as well as a bunch of other stuff) but it really bugs me how close to greatness phones like the Galaxy III are and how the carriers are screwing them over. I really wish Google would sort this out and bash a few heads together.

  4. Astarbucks Says:

    Kudos to this article for pointing them out. I have been saying the same things for ages.

    It is a good sign that all the companies that do not allow removeable batteries and SD card storage are stagnating, in the doldrums or facing declining fortunes. Apple, HTC, Motorola, LG et al.

    Its a sign that consumers are, in the main, not stupid (although too many are still stupid enough to support those brands). They know that those are deliberate practices to cripple phones.

    Samsung’s Galaxy S series have been the best selling Android phone for each of the past 3 years because they make NO COMPROMISES whatsoever in that regard. Good that they are leading the charge against such predatory practices.

    What is truly most ridiculous – the people still defending those practices! For heaven’s sakes those are environmentally harmful practices that lead to premature disposal of costly electronics made using rare earth elements and toxic industrial chemicals. Grow up!

    P.S. The smartphone subsidies by the telcos are not injustices. You can always pay full price w/o contract.

  5. Mr. E Says:

    I hope this response reaches someone as I want to help clear up some of these misconceptions.

    I work for a cell phone manufacturer and wanted to let people know why some things are done that may help clear up some concerns out there.

    Like stated in 5, the carrier is the client. In #1 – sealed batteries are being requested by carriers for their own reasons. One carrier might want it to maintain “control of a device” and the other may want it to help push carrier insurance and repairs.

    For #2 – There is always the choice of pre-paid. Every carrier has it’s own or MVNOs of it’s own network. If it’s the carriers own network (such as Sprint’s Virgin Mobile or Verizon’s Verizon Prepaid network) the network is identical and there are no differences in coverage maps. However, they are allowed to tweaks Ts&Cs and restrict internet, texting and roaming agreements with other carriers.

    For #3 – This just sucks… Android is meant to be tethered with but again, the clients (Cell Phone Carriers) want to milk it for all it’s worth and may you pay even though its meant to be a free service.

    For #4 – The cost of a cell phone isn’t $500/$600+, I think we can all agree on that. However, here’s the breakdown. Carrier X may sell the phone for $600 at ‘retail’ as they want to make a profit off of the price they bought it at. On average – the carrier might make around $80 (some more, some less). As parts become standard after a phone is out, yes the cost of manufacturing goes down, yet the retail price doesn’t for quite some time – if ever. HOWEVER, when the phone was sold the carrier by the manufacturer, it was sold a few hundred dollar markup. So the COST of the actual parts might be $150 but the device was sold to the carrier at $500. A lot of that money goes back to pay R&D, testing costs (often at the cost of the manufacturer), FCC filings, patents, agreements with others, prototype manufacturing, mis-communication and more. There are a lot of factors that need to be paid for before money is actually being made. Think of cars – there’s the price the dealer pays to make a profit from the price they paid the actual manufacturer which is marked up a TON to cover labor, R&D and all the things that go into the cost of making their car.

    #5 – Again – manufacturers have the updates ready pretty quickly – it’s the carrier that holds us up and makes us wait for them to “get around to testing” and they take their time… and lots of it – they could care less about the customer’s demand for the update. What does work – is actually calling the carrier and logging in their systems you want the update – just complaining about it does nothing – unless it’s something they’re measured on – because you could potentially get a survey from the phone call you just made and you could fail them – they all want to win that oh so special JD Power Award for customer service

    #6 & #7 – I can only agree, but then again – most plans have unlimited texting now and it’s not too expensive. Always use WiFi when available or just enjoy your vacation and shut off your cell phone when traveling abroad!

    Hope that clears up something for someone – I just don’t like seeing people uninformed!

  6. lm Says:

    Wow. Every time I visit the US or read an article like this I feel so much better about my own mobile operator (and any operator in my country, even the ones with shitty deals).

    You actually pay for received SMS? Still? Really? On all operators?

    Does… does that apply for calls too? I shudder at the thought.

    And no operator is challenging the “buy a phone for almost no money, pay yourself sick over (at least) the following two years” model? As Astarbucks said, that’s not an injustice unless you’re naive enough to think of it as a 99$ phone, but the customer would benefit from seeing the device and plan prices separately.
    My unlimited (that’s unlimited bytes & unlimited speed on 3G, up to 21 Mbit/s) data plan costs me 2,00€ per month. Admittedly that’s not usually the case, I happened to score a fantastic deal. More realistic prices are 5-25€ depending on speeds. Tethering isn’t even something anyone sells separately, I do it all the time.
    My phone (very low-end Android, upgraded to a custom ROM myself) costs me 4,99€ per month for 2 years, after that I only keep paying for my calls, texts and data. I could have paid the ~120€ up front too for the device, saw no need to. The device was never operator locked. Not even the iPhones sold are locked anymore.

    There is one single thing I envy US smartphone users for: you have the larger part of an entire continent at your use before you need to consider data usage abroad. There are no explanations for the complete absence of international (or at least pan-european) data plans. No explanations except for carrier disinterest. Luckily this seems to be changing soon, but for now it is frustrating to be chasing open wireless networks in a country where your carrier has direct sister companies in place.

  7. PeterW Says:

    Here’s how I fixed the text message problem:

    Last year I changed my carrier, and took advantage of the transition to fully embrace Google Voice. Rather than port my old number to my new carrier, I ported it to GV for the one-time price of… I think $20. Then I dropped my texting allowance from my new plan and later due to spammers blocked texts entirely.

    On Android, GV calls integrate seamlessly, and SMS works in a separate app but otherwise functions just like I need it most of the time.

    This solution isn’t for everybody, though. It works for me because I have a data connection pretty much everywhere. Sometimes GV still messes up and doesn’t send the message for hours, but I can usually see that it’s not sending and take action like restarting the app, reinitializing my connection, or rebooting my phone. And GV doesn’t support MMS and Premium SMS. If any of those simply wouldn’t work for you, stick to your carrier’s plan. If I had unlimited texting, I’d probably have GV forward texts instead of relying on the app.

  8. kurkosdr Says:

    Don’t buy a subsidized phone. What you call a “smartphone” is a tiny handheld PC and can’t cost something like $99 unless it’s a junker. Get over it. Get over it. Smartphones cost money.Pay full price for the device and use prepaid SIMs with a “data package” (like the Orange example you mentioned). You wouldn’t buy your PC for your ISP, right? That way, you have no contracts and no surprise fees. The worst the carrier can do is drain your card. No sudden hunder-dollar bills.

    Also, if everybody paid for their phone, they would understand what an immensely stupid idea it is to treat smartphones as disposable, and put pressure on Google to fix the upgrade mess by buying something else that Android (i currently have an Android, but I wouldn’t by again because of the upgrade mess).

  9. Strunk White Says:

    Oy gevalt, and sorry to kvetch, Avram…but since your bio says you have a master’s in English, I have to point out there is a world of difference between ‘disinterested’ and ‘uninterested’.

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