Angry Phone Rant

OK, today is going to be an angry rant day … as opposed to the less-angry ranting I usually do. ūüėÄ

Bear with me for a moment … I need to get something off my chest. ¬†

I want to talk about smartphones. ¬†In the last 10 years, smartphones have become incredibly ingrained in our our daily lives. ¬†You’d no sooner leave the house without your phone as you would your house keys.

The smartphone provides essential functionality for our modern lives all in one handy package…

Except it’s all a bunch of overpriced bullshit meant to lock you into an expensive ecosystem that you can’t unplug from.

Show of hands here — how many people would willingly give up your smartphone for an extra $500 a year?

[…queue the crickets…]


The Ecosystem

Yeah, I thought so.

Ever wonder why Warren Buffett purchased a giant chunk of Apple last year?  He invested $19.2 billion (Yes, BILLION) into the company at a time when sales growth has seriously slowed.  Why?

Basically, because of lock-in.  Most consumers are entirely locked into this smart phone ecosystem, and are unlikely to switch to alternatives because of network effects.

Many people will be paying into this profit hungry ecosystem for a very very long time…¬†

Yes, I realize it is possible to switch from Apple to the Google ecosystem (or vice versa)…but how often do people actually do it? ¬†It’s pretty rare because switching sides is A¬†Giant Pain In The Ass.

You think that’s tough? ¬†Try living without your smartphone for a month.

Think about it — Our contacts, email, pictures, music, videos, gps navigation, and social lives are now inexplicably tied to our smartphones¬†(and all the branded services that support it).

This is what I call the “smartphone ecosystem”. ¬†¬†If you’ve purchased a bunch of apps off iTunes or backed-up photos to the cloud, you’re going to be less willing to dump this ecosystem as a result of your existing investment. ¬†

Basically, in our modern world you can be an Apple person, a Google person, or a complete luddite.

After last weekend, I’m definitely considering becoming a luddite. ūüėÄ


Smartphone Failure

My gripe about phone culture is nothing new.  During the peak of new phone releases last year, I wrote a post criticizing the ridiculous cost of new smartphones.

Thankfully I’ve been able to avoid purchasing a new phone for the past 4 years. ¬†I’ve stuck with my trusty Samsung Galaxy Note 2 for that entire time. ¬†It’s been a good phone too — 5 years old (I bought it used), still on its original battery, and surviving multiple drops. ¬†Hell, Mrs. Tako even (unknowingly) put it through a washing machine cycle.

galaxy note2
Five years old and still going strong, even after a trip through the washing machine. I was pretty happy with this phone.

There was¬†absolutely zero reason to upgrade. ¬†This, plus¬†my uncanny ability to live without mobile data has kept my phone costs incredibly low for the past decade — just $10 per year.

Basically, I’ve given Ma Bell and the phone manufacturers a¬†friendly-finger for the past four years. ¬†This worked great until last Friday … when suddenly my mobile network provider decided he would become a little less friendly.

I was presented with this bullshit dialog:

sim network unlock pin

A quick call to tech support revealed the not-so-obvious problem —¬†After 4 years of using this phone on T-mobile’s network, they decided my phone was no longer an unlocked phone.


“How the hell is that possible?” I inquired of the tech support guy. ¬†“Well, we had a glitch on our end with how your phone communicated with our systems. ¬†That’s been fixed.”

Whaaat?!¬† Apparently, either my phone was never properly unlocked (unlikely), or T-mobile found a way to re-lock older phones. ¬†Either possibility doesn’t make a damn bit of sense. ¬†(I’m simply speculating¬†here.)

Then, T-mobile tech support tried to sell me a new phone…

“You’re probably not going to get an unlock code from AT&T to fix this. ¬†Their policy is to only provide unlock codes only for existing customers. ¬†But, I can help you purchase a new phone to get back onto the T-mobile network today.”

After this ridiculous sales pitch, my bullshit detector¬†went on high-alert!¬† I promptly said “goodbye” to T-mobile’s phone support, and proceeded to find a way to re-unlock my phone.


Random Technical Nonsense

When I first purchased the phone, it was a simple affair of meeting up with the Craigslist seller and running some basic tests on the phone.  I ran the unlocking app, popped in my Tmobile SIM card, and made a few phonecalls.  Everything checked-out, and I forked over my cash.

Fast forward to 4 years later.  It turns out that unlocking app no longer works.  Argh!  

Unlocking the phone in 2017 wasn’t going to be nearly as easy.

Fortunately, people far smarter than me have solutions to all this “phone-locking-carrier-upgrade-cycle bullshit”. ¬†It’s not a new problem. ¬†The guys over at the XDA-Developer forums have the answers…. if they exist.

In my case, they did exist, but required flashing extremely old firmware onto my phone in order to unlock it.  So old in fact, that the original firmware had all but disappeared off the internet.


[Fast-forward through 10 hours of hunting, trial-and-error, and random technical nonsense.]

Ultimately the dirty-deed got done, and this story ends on a happy note. ¬†I re-unlocked my phone, and it’s finally usable again.

fixed smart phone
Finally fixed-it after hours of effort. Check out that shiny new Android version!

It’s a small victory against “the man”, but I’m proud none-the-less! ¬†I definitely had to put in extra effort to keep this old phone updated, but I happen to like old things.

Time to queue the ridiculously appropriate victory music…

Take a moment and soak in that disco. ¬†It’s good for the soul.

But those 70’s haircuts were absolutely terrible!


DIY Your Phone

Imagine for a moment that your car stopped working after a couple years. ¬†You’d take it into the dealership to get it fixed. ¬†

But what if the dealership said, “We don’t support cars that old. ¬†You’ll have to buy a new one”. ¬†

Or, perhaps they said, “You purchased this Samsung car over at the AT&T dealership. ¬†We can’t fix your car here even though we also sell Samsung cars.”

Obviously that kind of bullshit wouldn’t fly in the car world … but that’s exactly what goes on in the cellphone industry.

They want consumers paying $600+ every couple years for a new device, and then another $400+ per year for the service.

Maximize profits, and minimize costs.

Normally, upgrading 5-year-old phones to the latest version of Android,¬†isn’t possible. ¬†Carriers and manufacturers simply don’t support old phones.

Obviously that sort of behavior doesn’t fly with my frugal mindset. ¬†Thankfully, I’m comfortable doing repairs, upgrades, and maintenance myself.

DIY is really the only option for frugally minded people.  This means using open source Android versions like LineageOS to get security updates, or just living with a very old (and probably insecure) mobile OS.

Occasionally it also means opening a phone to replace batteries or fix broken screens.

Yes, that does take some technical know-how…. but the great thing about humans is that¬†we have the ability to learn!

I spent 10 hours fixing my phone last weekend, but I saved myself from spending $600.  All I had to do was read some stuff on the internet, and then poke a few buttons.

$600 still in my pocket.  Woot! Fantastic!

The math on the time spent seems pretty good to me, and I also learned a ton about smartphones, firmwares, baseband versions, unlocking, and being a self-sufficient human being.

Going forward, I have a few lessons learned from this fiasco:

  • Unlocking a carrier-locked phone does not mean it’ll stay unlocked.
  • In the future, I will only be purchasing phones never originally locked to a specific carrier. ¬†
  • International phones are a good way to go. ¬†Usually these are sold unlocked.
  • I won’t be buying new. ¬†(In fact, I’ve never purchased a new smartphone) ¬†Instead, I’ll only buy models¬†several years old¬†that have “technology depreciation” already built-in.
  • I’ll buy a model well supported by the open source/hacker community. ¬†It’s more likely to have open source firmwares and support available when the phone hits “old age”. ¬†This is stuff is invaluable for keeping a phone alive.

The reality is — the high-cost smart-phone ecosystem isn’t going away anytime soon. ¬†As consumers, we’re already locked-in.

It sucks from a financial perspective, but frugally minded people like myself can find ways to participate at a really low price.

In addition to buying older unlocked phones, you could skip the data plan and just use wifi (like I do).  Or, you could go with a cheap data-only plan.

If you’re interested, the best way to get started is to buy a Ting SIM card¬†on Amazon for $9.

Why Amazon? ¬†Because Amazon gives us opportunities to use discounts — Using services like Ebates, or¬†generating free gift cards through the Microsoft Rewards program. ¬†With a tiny bit of effort you could get a SIM card absolutely free.

Then, activate your Ting SIM card using¬†this refer-a-friend link¬†— You’ll automatically get a free $25 service credit! ¬†Yay for free stuff!

If I wasn’t already rocking my $10 a year plan, that low-cost¬†Ting data-only plan¬†is the way I’d go! ¬†Data-only is the future peeps!

So grab a SIM card today and start unlocking yourself from the chains of the rat-race.


[Image Credit: Flickr1]

20 thoughts on “Angry Phone Rant

  • April 26, 2017 at 3:34 AM

    I am not a new phone every however many years, and clung to my slide out keyboard. Battery issues and other finally had me upgrade last fall. I bought the phone outright from a big box store (after research etc), and then added it to my plan. I drop my phone… a lot but I also don’t need a $600-800 computer in my pocket (the ~$20/ month). I didn’t even pay that much for my laptop almost 10 years ago.
    Monday morning my boss told me how she got her daughter and husband new iPhones (estimate 1800-1900 over time of paying for them), and then later how she wants to get new Apple phones for her parents.
    I am a fan of my phone for knowing I can call for assistance when on the road, and am very reliant on the GPS for getting new places. I definitely use it in spare moments to text friends. But most of the day while I’m at work, it sits there. I use it a few times a week to call family and friends.
    I’m glad you were able to re-unlock your phone.

  • April 26, 2017 at 3:57 AM

    Sounds like a frustrating experience to me. So sorry you had to go through that.

    I have a love-hate relationship with smart phones and monthly plans. I used to have a prepaid basic phone until Mr. FAF strongly suggested I need an Amazon Fire since it was on sale. I think we got it for $125. I’ve used it for 4 years. It’s unlocked. We share a monthly plan with 2 other people.

    Between the two of us, we pay $70/month. I told my husband I don’t need the plan, but he insisted I need the data. I’ve enjoyed listening to podcasts during my commute. But sometimes I do feel like $30 is a lot of money. Oh well, I guess I just need to take full advantage of what I have now.

  • April 26, 2017 at 5:01 AM

    Hee hee hee, I love this. Phones are like the new cable contracts–they’re infuriating to deal with when all you want is to be able to call or text people. I bought myself out of a Verizon contract over a year ago and it’s been amazing. I switched over to Google Fi and I bought a completely unlocked phone for it. I don’t believe in upgrading unless there’s straight up something wrong with your phone that isn’t fixable. Saves a lot of moolah!

    • April 26, 2017 at 7:45 AM

      In many cases phones are completely fixable! Broken screens, worn out batteries, etc call all be fixed (on most models). Software problems are usually fairly trivial to fix too! It just takes some patience and a little know-how!

      Enjoy Google Fi, I’ve heard it’s great!

  • April 26, 2017 at 6:00 AM

    Congrats on getting your phone unlocked! My last 2 phones I’ve bought new and unlocked off of Amazon. The only problem is that my Samsung S2 lasted about 3.5 yrs and then the OS crashed, omg did it crash… My latest phone a Samsung S4 (bought when the S6 had just come out to save on depreciation) only has lasted 2.5 years though. It was still ~$300 and I went international version. Be wary of those phones as they can have oddly specific setups, like i jsut realized my phone can’t hook up to 4G – ever. It’s how the int’l version was made, so yeah I’ve been in 3G and wifi land for 2.5 yrs. Actually it’s on the E and H networks as much as 3G. Still only 2.5 yrs and it is glitchy, freezes up, crashes, and did I mention freezes up for almost a minute at a time, multiple times daily? Ugh…
    I’ve tried reboots, removing all the non-essential apps and games, and nada. Even anything I could find online to get it to run like normal again but nope.

    This go around I got a Moto G5 plus that’s unlocked and just ordered a MintSIM 3 month account to try that out. It was only $35 for 3 months with 2GB data and unlimited talk and text. Plus they use T-mobile network which I’ve been on for the last 6 years, so I figured I’d give them a try before purchasing the year plan which works out to be $17/mo for the same plan. At least the Moto phone was only $250 all in and brand new and I copied over my contacts and what not from my old phone so now I’m just waiting for my SIM card to port over the number and activate the new phone.

    I don’t use my phone a lot, but I’m not ready to go wifi only yet either. Nice post!

    • April 26, 2017 at 7:41 AM

      Hi Mrs. SSC!

      It sounds like you go through a lot of phones. If you buy international versions, make certain the phone modem actually supports the radio frequencies used by your carrier. It might sound obvious, but if the two don’t match up you won’t get fancy things like 4G.

      Good luck with your MintSIM!

    • April 27, 2017 at 11:57 AM

      It *does* feel like they put some software routines in there to make the whole thing slower after a few years, doesn’t it? Despite not changing anything on the phone, keeping apps to the bare minimum… after a couple years everything is just slower for no good reason.

  • April 26, 2017 at 7:09 AM

    I hear your frustration, but am entirely attached to my “external brain.” The cost is significant (I have a new phone and unlimited TMobile), but I do live off this thing as a patrol cop. After I retire I plan on changing things up, but until then I use data like a fireman uses water.

    Everything from responding to a stolen vehicle call (Hey Siri, show me a picture of a Toyota Mirai), to pulling the details of 422 PC (criminal threats is an EXTREMELY detail oriented crime in California and everyone wants everyone else arrested for it), and all the updates for my blog come from my phone.

    Going through college and my masters I had to keep a laptop around. Since the smartphone revolution I honestly don’t need one anymore. Heck, my blog was crafted, created, and run solely from the phone (and a Bluetooth keyboard). It is cool, but not for everyone. Thanks for laying out alternate tactics for my future!

  • April 26, 2017 at 7:30 AM

    Hey Mr. Tako,
    greetings from Germany. I am an eager reader of your blog since I found it last year.
    I am Also still using a Samsung Galaxy Note II, like you, for some four and a half years in June this year.

    I bought mine new with the 24-month contract which lasted until December 2014. But then i found it to be useful for another “n” years, so I kept the Note II and switched to data plan SIMs without new phone :).

    Now six months ago or so I upgraded my 1 GB data plan (6 ‚ā¨/month), which could be terminated monthly, to a 2 GB data plan (plus unlimited minutes and SMS, too) for only 1 ‚ā¨ more per month and now 24 month period.
    But I think it is VERY cheap in comparison to other German data plans.
    The U.S. seems to be more expensive.

    • April 26, 2017 at 7:37 AM

      Hi Markus,

      Indeed, phone plans in the U.S. are significantly more expensive. Usually full service plans are on the order of $30 – $60 USD per month.

  • April 26, 2017 at 8:18 AM

    I am thinking about switching my wife’s cell from apple/verizon to Google Fi- any thoughts on this service? It will save us $40-50 a month but I have to get the phone up front.

    The cell phone industry is frustrating. I was happy to give up my personal phone to use just my work phone.

    • April 26, 2017 at 8:47 AM

      I’ve not used Google Fi personally, but my friends that do have praised the service for being excellent.

    • April 26, 2017 at 9:11 AM

      Mr. BITA switched to Fi more than a year ago and he has been very happy with it. I’m still using an iphone+AT&T.

      What we learned from being a ‘mixed’ household is that the important thing is to figure out in advance how you’re going to deal with the most common use cases for your phones. e.g.

      1. How do your photos go to the cloud? Where are they backed up? How will you share photos between the two of you?
      2. What sort of phones do the folks you call the most use and will switching disrupt any of that? Think free imessage vs. having to switch to say whatsapp. Or if you facetime often with grandparents – what will you use instead?
      Mrs. BITA recently posted…Your Life: Off the Shelf or Made to Order?

  • April 26, 2017 at 8:49 AM

    I’ve started thinking about Buffet’s investment in Apple like his investment in Coca Cola. A moated network-effect king of mobile devices is certainly more useful to society than a moated network effect king of sugar-water … but perhaps no less harmful to our health and well-being?

    On another note I use my wife’s old iphone4 (perfectly good!) on a .5GB data plan from “The People’s Operator.” It’s $18 per month all in. Customer service from TPO is decent, but not as good as Ting, who were excellent when I had to bring them into the unlocking process for that old phone. I too spend 10 hours on forums and on hold to properly unlock and update the old phone, but it was worth it!

    Thanks for another great post, Mr. Tako. I will follow your buying criteria when it’s time for a new phone! Hopefully not for awhile.

  • April 26, 2017 at 11:22 AM

    “Random Technical Nonsense” -> That’s what I heard in 90% of my engineering courses. Ahh, so glad those days are over.

    Anyhoo…great job on unlocking your phone! We have an old Apple 4S (bought unlocked) and a MotoG (unlocked recently). Hopefully i don’t run into problem with my MotoG down the road. So far, very please that my phone has been working so well for the past 3 years…considering cheapest phone I could find that didn’t sacrifice quality at the time. I don’t get why people keep upgrading their phones so often. I guess it’s the whole “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality. Ah well, they can continue throwing money down the drain for a phone that’ll be obsolete within a year, and we’ll stick to our reliable old phones. YAY!

  • April 27, 2017 at 2:05 PM

    I don’t have a smartphone. Or even a landline. But I’ll happily take $500, if you’re giving it away. : )

  • April 29, 2017 at 5:03 AM

    “Show of hands here ‚ÄĒ how many people would willingly give up your smartphone for an extra $500 a year?”

    ME! However, it wasn’t for the money. I got rid of the smart phone, because I want to be less connected, and more in tune with the outdoors, nature, etc. I actually still journal with a pen a paper also. ūüôā

    I am online with my computer so much, so, when I’m off, I want to be off. I had a smart phone well before any of my friends had one. Then, I was given a smart phone for my last corporate gig, but when I left the corporate world altogether, I gave back my smart phone and had a ‘temporary’ phone until I got settled with my out of state move. I said that I would then go get another smart phone. Well, 4 years later, and I have NO desire for a smart phone. I love being present, and I have a super lightweight laptop and WiFi that is always in my backpack, so I can connect any time I want. You would be surprised at the fact that people are actually starting to downgrade. I read about a tech start up founder who got rid of his smart phone for the same reasons as I did… after hours on a computer, he wanted to be present in life when he was away from the computer.
    Primal Prosperity recently posted…Why You Need a Balance Sheet for Your Soul

  • May 19, 2017 at 9:33 PM

    Very nicely done Mr Tako. I’m currently using an iPhone 4 as a work phone…it was free from a friend and aside from a shortish battery life, I’m 100% satisfied with it. Thanks also for a link to GuruFocus in a prior article of yours – it is super useful to see what Buffett paid for Apple, or other solid investors have recently purchased!

  • July 26, 2017 at 12:17 AM

    Thanks for sharing this Mr. Tako. We had the same problem back then when I was using my old Iphone4s 3 years ago. I bought it from second-hand which was unlocked to a certain network here in my country and when I unlocked it on a gadget store I was able to use a different network card but when I traveled to Hong Kong I bought a local sim card there since the data/sms cost would be much cheaper rather than using my original sim card. But wait! I wasn’t able to use the sim card because they said that my phone was still locked to the original network. In the end, I was able to borrow a phone from cousin who lives there and in my frustration I almost smash my phone to bits. Lol. Thanks for sharing this! How are you nowadays?


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