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Business in Vancouver

Canadian Freelance Union- CEP

On the road with your favourite smartphone

by  Alan Zisman (c) 2011 First published in Business in Vancouver July 26-August 1, 2011 issue #1135 High Tech Office column

Apple garners lots of publicity releasing a new version of its iPhone more or less once a year. Smartphones running Google’s Android, on the other hand, seem to just pop up, with new models, from Motorola, Samsung, HTC and others.

Despite the lower profile, Android is now the choice of half of U.S. “recent smartphone acquirers” compared with 25% purchasing an iPhone and 15% getting a BlackBerry, according to Nielsen data released in late April. I can’t find comparable Canadian data.

In May, Virgin Mobile Canada loaned me one of its current Android models, an HTC Incredible S ($49 on a three-year contract; $499 with no plan – also available from Bell). The Incredible S has a fast 1.1 Gigahertz processor a high-resolution (eight megapixel) camera and a bright four-inch (480x800 pixels) touchscreen display.

Virgin’s includes four gigabytes of internal storage along with an eight-gigabyte memory card – the phone supports memory cards up to 32 gigabytes. And it can be used as a Wi-Fi hotspot, letting users share its data connection with a notebook or tablet.

HTC produced Canada’s first Android phone; the Incredible S is an attractively designed, state-of-the-art model. I had to send it back to Virgin before I went travelling, but if it had been mine, I wouldn’t have taken it with me.

Too many travellers have been stung with roaming charges. Even if they know enough to try to limit phone calls, it’s too easy to have your smartphone rack up data charges downloading email (or Facebook or what have you) in the background. Apple makes it easy to turn off roaming on its devices, but if a similar option is included on Android phones, it’s buried more deeply.

It gets worse. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in May reported that Canadians paid, on average, $24.61 for a megabyte of roaming data, the highest of any country surveyed.

It would be nice if you could simply pop out your phone’s Canadian SIM card, replacing it with one you bought at your destination – but in most cases that won’t work, even though all the Canadian providers now use the same network technologies as most other countries. The problem: most phones are locked to one carrier.

Some manufacturers or independent vendors sell unlocked phones usable with a wide range of Canadian and international mobile providers – but be prepared to pay full price for the device, much higher than you’d pay by locking yourself into a multi-year contract with a carrier. Apple sells an unlocked, unsubsidized iPhone 4 for $659; Virgin offers it (locked) for $159 with a three-year contract (or the same $659 price with no contract).

Not only do you pay full price for an unlocked phone, you’ll end up paying the same rates to a mobile carrier as another customer whose contract includes the cost of a subsidized phone.

Note that paying full price for a phone from a carrier may get you a locked phone. For instance, both Virgin’s no-contract $499 HTC Incredible and $659 iPhone 4 are locked to its network.

Telus has recently offered its customers a $50 option of unlocking its phones; Rogers’ customers can do the same thing, but only at the end of a contract. (Google “unlock phone Vancouver” for a variety of other options.)

HTC, however, loaned me an unlocked Incredible S. Travelling in Italy, I bought a EU20 SIM card from Vodafone, good for a month’s voice calling and SMS messaging. No roaming charges, no fuss.

No data service, however, so I could only use the Incredible S’ very good web browser, email or social networking when connected to a Wi-Fi network. Google Maps needed a data connection to download maps, which made it unusable on the phone when I wanted to use it, though other alternatives exist and a recent Google Maps update allows downloading maps beforehand.

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