Back to basics … my first TracFone

A couple of years ago, I was dazzled by the new HTC EVO 4G smartphone that a supervisor had gotten himself.  I was about ready to change out phones, anyway and when I saw all the things the Android phone could do that my old phone couldn’t, I was sold. I was taken aback slightly by the monthly bill that was quoted to me but I figured, what the heck, I can do it and it’s a really cool phone!  The 3G service and the mobile hotspot served as my main Internet connection for awhile and I quickly got used to having this futuristic gadget that could do anything I needed, anywhere. If I needed another function, whether it was an exercise tracking program or photo editing software, there was always a free app to be found.

Now, the contract is almost up and I’m rethinking this $85/month bill that I’m paying. That doesn’t include the cost of the mobile hotspot that I dropped early in 2012 when I decided to get DSL service or the $8/month service plan that I just dropped. It does include a $10/month charge for 4G service that never materialized in my area, at least not on my carrier.  I’ve also realized that many of the features that I like so much on the EVO can be used even without the service plan and I’m asking myself how much I’m really willing to pay a month, especially when the promotional period on my DSL runs out in March and that bill goes up.  If you’re in a similar place or if you’re debating between a smartphone and something more basic, you’ll find some helpful information here.

I’ve been looking at some of the prepaid phones lately after a relative got one as a backup phone and a friend asked me to advise on a couple of the leading prepaid plans. I’d never bothered with prepaid phones before as I was warned early on that they were a bad value but I decided to check out TracFone  when I saw the LG 500G phone on and the advertised coverage on the TracFone network. I am amazed at the number of features that can now be squeezed into a $12 camera phone. The very idea of a $12 camera phone is actually pretty amazing to someone who’s been watching technology advance for the past 30 years or so even after using the EVO for the last 2 years. This is certainly not the only basic phone or the newest but it’s pretty impressive for the price. There’s a little bit of a learning curve to the menu system, even for a software specialist like myself, but the phone comes with a manual so that should help. Once you dig around, you’ll find that it has a nice list of tools available for a small phone:

Alarm Clock
To-Do List
Notes (normal and secret notes)
Unit Conversions
World Time
MP3 player
Contacts List
Web Browser
1.3 MP camera
Video camera

None of these applications are state of the art and you wouldn’t expect them to be for this price but they are there. The camera and the video are adequate for taking basic images, especially outside, and have some surprising settings for image manipulation.

Activation was simple and quick through the TracFone site and there is the option to move existing numbers to the phone, either from TracFone or other companies. Again, the menu system takes some learning and I avoid having to dig through documentation if I can so I had to search for a bit to find the voice mail number. I finally found it, called in and found the prompts to setup the mailbox to be pretty easy to follow.  There’s actually a shortcut key on the phone that will take you directly to the voicemail.

At this point, I’ve had the phone for a couple of days, tested the reception at home and found it to be good. I also bought a 120 minute card and added it to the phone. So far, I’m happy. Having said that, I’ll say this:

Be sure to order the accessories you need with the phone.

This phone comes with the activation card, a coupon book for bonus minutes, the battery and a charging cord that runs from the mini-USB port on the phone to an AC outlet. It does not come with a few other things you’ll probably need. If you look at other phones, keep these things in mind:

Mircro SD card on top of a quarter for size comparison.
The storage media keeps getting smaller.

MicroSD Memory Card – The LG500g uses a Micro SD storage card for storing pictures, MP3s and anything else that won’t fit into the 170 KB or so of memory in the phone. Be aware that the LG500g phone will not recognize  anything over a 4 GB card. These 4 GB cards are becoming harder to find in the stores and, when you do find them, they are unreasonably expensive. I went to five different stores and finally found them for anywhere from $17 to $29 a piece. This is odd since the 8 GB cards go for as little as $6. Amazon has the 4 GB cards for under $7 each so it’s best to order one with the phone. Another option would be to get another phone that holds the 8 GB cards and larger cards. Regardless of which phone you get, this is an accessory to be aware of.

MicroUSB to PC cord with LG500g
Note the connectors – MicroUSB to USB.

Phone to PC cable – The included charger for this phone plugs into the MicroUSB port on the side of the phone and then into an AC outlet. This USB connection is the same one used on a number of other phones and the Kindle. Those devices often include a charging cord that runs from the device to a PC so you might already have a phone to PC cord that you can use. If not, you will need one if you want to transfer MP3s or other data between your computer and the MicroSD card in the phone. These cables can be around $20 in the stores. It’s a lot less on Amazon where you can get a nice retractable USB cable for a fraction of the price. Just remember that the connection type on the phone is referred to as MicroUSB. The other end for the PC is a standard USB connector so it’s called a “MicroUSB to USB” cable. Again, you’ll see this type of cord used on a number of other devices so it’s good to be familiar with this type regardless of what phone you’re getting.

Minutes and Double (or Triple) Minutes card – The phone comes with 20 minutes / 60 days of air time. You’ll use up at least half of those minutes setting up your voice mail and trying it out. The additional minutes cost the same no matter where you get them but it wouldn’t hurt to order a card with an extra 120 minutes or so to start out.  You can also get the cards at many grocery and drug stores or you can purchase minutes on the TracFone site or through the phone itself. In addition, a Double Minutes card costs about $8 and will double every batch of minutes you add to the card for the life of the phone.  This will save you a substantial amount of money.  The 120 minute card I added was doubled to 240 minutes and the coupon book that came with the phone added 20 bonus minutes to that card for a total of 260 minutes.

If you’ve never used a prepaid phone before, as I hadn’t, when you add minutes you’re also extending the number of service days you have for the phone. At least, that’s how TracFone does it.  This is probably so they’re not wasting one of their assigned numbers on an account that’s gone inactive for one reason or another.  With a standard cellphone or land line, the number would be freed when the bill stopped being paid.  With cheap, prepaid phones, the company could lose a lot of available numbers to forgotten phones sitting in drawers and cars somewhere so, even though your minutes do carry over from one month to the next, there is a service expiration date that you need to pay attention to.

Also be aware that when you get one of these phones, the number assigned to you was probably someone else’s number a short time ago so you might get a a bunch of calls and text messages for someone else. Calls are rounded up to the nearest minute and received text messages cost you 0.3 minutes if you open them.  So, when the phone says you have a new text message, don’t just click OK to open it.  Go to the phone’s message center instead where you can delete the message without opening it and not be charged.

I’m especially happy with the coupon book with all the bonus minutes and I’m hoping this turns out to be a good solution to cutting down my phone bill every month.