Weekend Tech Blog: Verizon giveth, but it (and other carriers) taketh away

Verizon expands its fast 4G LTE cell-phone network throughout the Puget Sound area, but cuts the cord on no-limit plans for new customers.

Verizon expands its fast 4G LTE cell-phone network throughout the Puget Sound area, but cuts the cord on no-limit plans for new customers.

So you’ve been hearing about those super-fast 4G cell-phone networks, and you’re wondering about joining the merry band of early-adopter 4G smartphone users. All that network speed! HD movies on the go! And those powerful phones!

First the good news: Verizon’s highly promoted 4G LTE cellular network, said to be capable of delivering speeds up to 10 times faster than the current 3G network, will expand to much of Puget Sound on July 21. According to press releases, most major cities in western Washington — Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia, and Everett — will be included in the upgrade; the service will stretch from Arlington/Arlington Heights in Snohomish County to Yelm in Pierce County.

Remember: You must have a 4G-ready phone to take advantage of the service. Sorry, new Verizon iPhone customers.

In real-world usage according to Verizon, 4G users should be able to download 5 to 12 megabits of data per second (Mbps) and upload documents at 2 to 5 Mbps. The current 3G network's top download speed averages less than 2 Mbps. Verizon plans to have 4G LTE service throughout the country by the end of 2013.

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Then there's this …

Verizon is ending its unlimited monthly data program in July for new Verizon cell-phone subscribers, according to reports, and instituting a tiered data payment plan.

While company officials would not confirm the details, a report by AndroidCentral detailed the changes citing Verizon in-house training documents. It confirmed that pricing will be $30 a month for 2 gigabytes (GB); $50 for 5GB, and $80 for 8GB. Additional usage will cost $10 per gigabyte.

The story also reported that Verizon will grandfather existing customers with unlimited data plans into its revised pricing plans: You can keep your unlimited data on existing and future phones.

Verizon joins rival carrier AT&T in tiered territory: AT&T charges $25 monthly for 2GB and $10 for each additional gigabyte, according to reports. To date, T-Mobile and Sprint are keeping their unlimited data plans according to a Time report.

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Gigabytes, shmigabytes… How will these tiered plans affect me, you ask, if I want to become a 4G kind of person — and in simple English, please?

As a current 3G Verizon customer, I’m not shy about using my smartphone as a superior car radio (all those stations!), a portable TV, and a serviceable computer on the go. And of course I use it for email, etc. With all that, I average only about 1 gigabyte a month.    

If I get a 4G LTE phone, and use it identically to my current phone, I’ll have a hot, zippy phone, terrific Internet speed, and smoother continuous service than 3G.

Why would I want “normal” when 4G will allow me to stream CD-quality radio stations, watch HDTV-quality movies, maybe even swap out my DSL WiFi home service and let my powerful high-capacity phone service feed my HDTV set? Technologically, you can do all that, of course, but if you're a new customer and have signed on with either Verizon or AT&T for 4G service, you need to understand what that data plan you've bought will actually bring you.

The lowest-priced plans, 2 gigabytes in the $25-30 range, work best if you don't think about using your phone for hours watching HDTV movies or listening to radio stations at the highest quality level. While exact figures are hard to pin down for HD movies, a Smartmoney blog report noted that six hours of Netflix streaming — roughly four movies — could eat up your 2GB monthly plan.  

And don't even think about tethering your your laptop computer to your 4G phone so it can share your service. It's technically possible, but the networks are cracking down on people who do that.

For regular uses, 2GB should be fine. If you're a power user, learn to keep track of your data use. If you're a Verizon customer; consult the "My Verizon" app, available on iOS and Android phones. AT&T customers can use the company's data calculator, available through any web browser. 

Caveat emptor, folks.

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Let's say you do want to use your iPhone, iPad or Android smartphone for extended movie watching, etc. You have the option of loading up your device with audio and video and saving all those hours of over-the-air data — or you can carry a portable hard drive that "talks" via WiFi to your smartphone.

The new Seagate GoFlex Satellite Mobile Wireless portable drive can store 500 gigabytes — by their estimate, 300 HD movies — and whatever other data you like. To use the drive, you download a free app from the iTunes Store or Android Market, respectively, to your iOS or Android device and connect wirelessly to the drive to find whatever is stored there. The app accesses the drive's filing system and lets you watch and listen to media, or even store and read various documents.

This is one of the few ways available to load media onto Apple devices without syncing them to iTunes (Apple devices have no easy way of recognizing and interfacing with outside drives — emphasis on the word "easy.") The Seagate solution doesn't come cheap — cost is $199.99 — but it's definitely a way to add to your device's capabilities.

Up to three devices can use the GoFlex's WiFi system simultaneously. Moreover, the drive uses either its internal batteries — the company estimates five hours of battery life — or outside power.

I haven't tried the device personally, but it does look like an intriguing solution for taking your media library with you without paying the phone networks. It doesn't seem to be currently available, but will be sold by Best Buy, Amazon, Tiger Direct, Walmart, and others.

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On another cell-phone front, a California congresswoman wants to know if 4G networks are, well, 4G networks. According to a CNET report, U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) is introducing legislation — the "Next Generation Wireless Disclosure Act" — to force carriers at the point of sale to tell consumers about minimum data speeds, network reliability, and coverage that come with their advertised 4G services. The carriers argued, and rightly so, that it’s difficult to come up with a formula that covers all cell-phone reception variables: location, weather conditions, network usage at peak times, etc.

But the Congressperson, quoted in the CNET article, responded: "Consumers deserve to know exactly what they're getting for their money when they sign-up for a 4G data plan… My legislation is simple — it will establish guidelines for understanding what 4G speed really is, and ensure that consumers have all the information they need to make an informed decision."

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Sick of cell phones? Then dive into a friendly welcoming ebook on your … Nook?

According to Consumer Reports, the new black and white Nook Simple Touch Reader is a better choice than the Amazon Kindle, the presumptive e-book reader leader. In its published report, the nonprofit consumer testing organization called the Nook “more than a worthy competitor to the Kindle.” This is the first time since the Kindle was launched that it has failed to be the top-scoring product in CR’s e-reader tests. Moreover, CR cited the Nook’s “steady improvement” since it was rushed onto the market in the 2009 holiday season.

In some areas, the Nook scored marginally better than the Kindle, but it managed to outscore the Kindle in every category except in battery life: both e-readers scored equally there.

Are you reading this blog on either a Nook or a Kindle? Or — maybe even more likely — a smartphone. Let us know.


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