Saving money on a smartphone

I bit the bullet last week, and added a second smartphone to what’s now our family plan. I didn’t buy a new phone though. Instead, I bought a used Samsung Galaxy S 4G off Amazon (the Canadian version, which was an accident) for $100. Since we now own both phones outright, that lets us run the phones month to month, with no contracts and no penalties. They bill us every month and we use it, but I can walk into any T-Mobile store and cancel one or both phones at any time.

Chances are there’s a reactivation fee if I do that and decide to reactivate later on, but that’s cheaper than getting out of a contract.

Now, as for the Galaxy S 4G… It’s a well-built phone from about 2010. It’s on the old side, but works pretty well. I loaded a custom ROM on it and I’m very happy with it now.

The key with any phone is checking out the community at XDA Developers. Very popular phones tend to have a lot of custom ROMs for them. The SGS4G was exclusive to T-Mobile in the States and wasn’t carried by many carriers elsewhere either, but it’s similar enough to the popular Samsung Vibrant/original Galaxy S that a number of those ROMs got ported to it.

Once there, find the specific forum for the specific phone you own or are interested in, look for specific how-tos (most have one) and follow them exactly. If the tool mentioned isn’t available anymore, ask questions. I ran into all kinds of difficulty when the instructions called for version 1.31 of a tool called Heimdall and could only find version 1.40. Newer isn’t always better, at least when you’re flashing the odd SGH-T959W variation of an SGS4G.

I intended to load Cyanogenmod on mine, but when Cyanogenmod 7.2 wouldn’t work, I ended up loading a ported Slim ROMs version of Android 4.0.4 (Ice Cream Sandwich). And once I saw how Slim ICS runs, I lost interest in Cyanogenmod. Slim ICS takes up less than 100 MB of storage on the phone, which is nice. Leave an SGS4G stock and let all the stuff T-Mobile and Samsung preloaded on it update to 2013 versions, and you’ll have less than 100 MB free. So it’s nice to have an OS and the bare essentials take up so little. Exactly how much a crowded filesystem slows down a phone is still an open question, but there’s no doubt it does slow one down.

My SGH-T959W ended up being a pain to customize, but had a few more things gone right or had I stopped to ask questions, it would have taken around an hour. If I decide to do the other one, I expect it to take 30-45 minutes.

No matter what I do, it’s still a 1 GHz, 512 MB smartphone. But freed from Samsung’s Touch Wiz user interface and the extra stuff T-Mobile loaded on these phones originally that I never use but runs all the time in the background anyway, it’s pretty nimble. It stands little chance up against a top-of-the-line phone of today, but it would probably hold its own with a dual-core phone of today that’s still stock. I can have my e-mail, Google News, a browser with a handful of tabs, and another random app or two open and it doesn’t bog down. It’s very capable of doing what I need it to do.

Many years ago, writing about how to slim down Windows to get more life out of an aging PC was my specialty. This is exactly the same idea. And while I like the idea of carrying around a portable, handheld computer–I miss not having one when I don’t–I don’t like the idea of paying $600 for one. Especially when I can do everything I need to do, and probably 99% of what everyone else does, with a used $100 phone that I souped up a little.

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