Thursday, September 26, 2013

How smart are smartphones?

A recent article at lists nine electronic gadgets that, acccording to author Simon Hill, are likely to be a waste of money. Hill says that, while "it typically pays to buy slightly older devices" that cost far less than the latest models, it's silly to invest any money at all in technology that's either obsolete or clearly on its way to being so. Thus, he argues, DVDs and Blu-Rays are a waste of money because you can stream all the content you need from the Internet; thumb drives are unnecessary because you can store and transfer files via "the cloud" (which, as far as I can tell, is just "some location on the Internet that you can't exactly identify"). However, the main technology that he identifies as having supplanted a whole slew of other, older technologies at one fell swoop is the smartphone. If you have one of these, he argues, you have no need for
  • a GPS unit, because you can put Google Maps on your Android or iOS device for free;
  • a point-and-shoot camera, because smartphone cameras are just as good and make sharing easier;
  • an MP3 player, because you can play music on your phone (or tablet, or laptop);
  • a handheld gaming console, because you can play lots of casual games on your smartphone for free;
  • a camcorder, because smartphones and tablets can already record video in HD; or
  • an alarm clock, because your phone already has a built-in alarm and can play music of your choice.
The obvious snag in all this, of course, is that it assumes you already have a smartphone, and there are still some of us out there—yours truly included—who don't. But Hill's article made me wonder: just how much am I missing out on by not having one? If a smartphone has this many uses, might it be worth spending the $100 or so to get one?

Well, if that $100 were the only cost, perhaps. But as the comments below the article point out, when you buy a smartphone, the price tag on the phone itself is only the tip of the iceberg. Even Hill himself notes parenthetically that the $149 Nokia Lumia 1020, with its 41-megapixel camera, requires a 2-year contract—which, since this is an AT&T phone, will cost you a minimum of $40 a month for voice and $20 a month for data. At $60 a month, plus the $149 for the phone itself, this smartphone will actually cost you a whopping $869 in its first year of use. Seriously, if you listen you can actually hear the sound of it whopping.

Now, let's compare that to the low-tech—or at least lower-tech—way of doing the same things:
  • GPS: Hill points out that with Google Maps, "it is now possible to load up a map and directions before a journey" onto your phone. However, it has always been possible with Google Maps to look up your route on your home computer before you leave and print out the directions on a plain old piece of paper. The cost is about 0.5 cents for the ink (if you refill the cartridges the way we do) and nothing for the paper (because it's all single-side-used paper scavenged from Brian's workplace). This does require a computer, Internet connection, and printer, but if you already have those, then a smartphone pre-loaded with a map and route provides no additional functionality.
  • Photos and video: Our Canon Powershot A2300 cost us $99.99 at Amazon a year ago. It was already slightly out of date at that time, but it was certainly good enough for the limited picture-taking I do (mostly for this blog). It can also shoot video in HD, though I must confess I've never felt any need to use this feature. I've used this camera for a year now, and I haven't had to spend another penny on it—aside from the negligible cost of the electricity to recharge its battery.
  • Music: We do have an MP3 player, but we don't use it much anymore. When we first received it as a gift, our plan was to use it to play music and podcasts in the car on long trips, via a little MP3-to-tape converter to plug it into the car's tape deck. (Remember tape decks?) However, not long afterwards, that car bit the proverbial dust, and our new one, while it does have an input jack for an MP3 player, also has an even handier feature that allows you to plug in a thumb drive and play music off of that directly on the car's stereo. This is much easier to do while driving (or even while riding) than manipulating the tiny controls on the MP3 player, so these days, we get most of our auto audio off this little thumb drive. However, for those whose cars are slightly less tech-savvy, a basic MP3 player like this Sandisk Clip can cost as little as $23 and holds plenty of music for a cross-country road trip (and can also go jogging with you).
  • Gaming: Playing games on the go is something I've never actually felt much need to do. For killing time on long trips and in doctors' waiting rooms, I prefer a paperback book (which I can borrow from the library for free, or pick up for a buck at its annual book sale) or a crossword puzzle (which I can download and print out from a site such as the Wall Street Journal or Theresa's Cryptic Crosswords). However, if nothing but a game will do, I always carry a pack of real live playing cards, which costs as little as one dollar and can be used for a virtually infinite variety of games, group as well as solitaire.
  • Alarm clock: Most people, I suspect, already have one of these and don't really need to replace it with a cell phone. But even if your old alarm clock should meet with a sudden accident (such as being beaten to a pulp on a Monday morning), you can choose from a vast array of new ones for under ten bucks—from a retro analog model equipped with an actual bell to a color-changing digital with a built-in thermometer and a choice of four "soothing nature sounds" to wake up to.
So all in all, I see no need to spring for a smartphone and data plan unless I should someday happen to actually need 24-hour connectivity everywhere I go. However, there is another option that might offer the best of all possible worlds: get a smartphone without a plan. A new phone, as I noted above, may not be available without one, but an older phone can still perform many of the functions listed above without any need to connect to the Internet. As this article on the British site points out, an older smartphone can double as your GPS (or SatNav, as they call it across the pond) with the help of some pre-loaded maps; it can serve as a video camera, music player, and game console; and it can perform a variety of other functions that you'd never want to entrust to your actual phone, such as baby monitor, universal remote, "kitchen assistant" (coordinating your recipes and shopping lists in one handy spot), and even a toy for kids (once you've disabled its Wi-Fi connection, of course). And with used smartphones selling for as little as 35 bucks on Amazon, you can do all this for a lot less than the $869 a real, live, fully functional smartphone would cost you in its first year alone.
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