Fans of style, beauty and multi-function convergence should be warned that this article may not make for pretty reading. But thanks to a range of gadgets, it is indeed possible in some circumstances to get most of the functionality of an iPhone at a far lower cost.
For this exercise, the idea is to still wind up running an iPod/iPhone based system. Obviously if you aren’t set on the Apple experience, there are plenty of lower-cost smartphone alternatives such as Google’s recently released Nexus One.
(The examples and costs given here are from the United Kingdom. The feasibility and economy of these solutions will vary elsewhere and may not save as much cash.)
The first step is to thinking of the iPhone not as one device, but as many tools: it’s an iPod which has wireless internet access, makes phone calls and takes pictures. With that in mind the possible solutions become easier.
1) The iPod
That’s a simple enough solution. An iPod touch with some form of internet connection is pretty much the iPhone without the phone.
2) Wireless internet
If you don’t travel too much or if most of your time outside the house is in city centers where coffee shop Wi-Fi abounds, you’ll probably get most of the net access you need. But to truly mirror the iPhone, we need net access everywhere. That’s where the Mi-Fi comes in.
The Mi-Fi is a small device which picks up mobile broadband anywhere with a suitable phone signal. Unlike a mobile broadband dongle, however, it doesn’t plug into a device. Instead it broadcasts a Wi-Fi signal which can be picked up by any suitable device, including of course the iPod touch. (There’s password protection to prevent other people stealing your signal.) In effect, it’s like having a wireless router in your pocket.
The pricing system works on the same lines as most mobile broadband with combinations of a purchase price and then pay-as-you-go, or monthly subscription deals which either reduce the purchase price or get you it without charge. Data allowances go up to 5GB a month, which is pretty much the most you can use on most iPhone deals without the networks getting antsy.
Because the Mi-Fi also works with other devices (or even up to five at once), it could also serve as a back-up in case you can’t get internet access for a laptop while on the road, or even for emergencies if your home broadband goes down. Because of the data allowance limits, however, it’s not really viable as a permanent broadband solution for a full-size PC.
MiFi, and similar systems, is available in several countries. Unfortunately pricing varies greatly and means you won’t always be able to make major savings over simply having an iPhone.
3) Phone calls
There are two options here. One is to replace the standard earphones on your iPod Touch with a set featuring a built-in microphone. You can then run the Skype app to make and receive calls at low rates as long as you have some form of internet access. There are a few major disadvantages though: to receive calls you’ll need a premium service called Skypeln, and the iPod touch will have to be switched on with the Skype app running at all times, which will reduce battery life. You’ll also not be able to make emergency calls.
Option two is, of course, a cellphone. Given your other gadgets, all you need is a phone which makes and receives calls and texts. There are several phones which do this (and this alone) that are aimed at the elderly, complete with oversized keys, though these tend to be surprisingly expensive.
A better choice is a handset such as the VX1. Sold by British supermarket giant Tesco (imagine Wal-Mart with as many outlets as McDonald’s), it costs just £18.99 (under $30) and was surprisingly the chain’s top-selling handset last Christmas. It turned out many people were buying it for the party season to use rather than risk damaging or losing an expensive smartphone while under the influence.
The phone is roughly the size of a credit card and barely a centimeter thick, and works with any SIM card from any network and any tariff. It makes and receives calls and texts, and that’s it.
This is where things fall apart. If having a camera is important to you, there are three possible alternatives in the no-iPhone plan, all with major drawbacks. A simple digital camera matching the 2 or 3 megapixels of the iPhone is cheap enough, but pretty bulky. Slimline cameras (as little as 0.63″ thick) are available but cost so much they take a serious chunk out of any savings.
Also, in either of these cases, you won’t be able to send picture or video messages. In theory you also can’t upload pictures there and then to services such as Flickr. I say “in theory” as uber-geeks may be able to figure out a way to use an iPhone-mini USB adaptor to hook the iPod touch up to the phone, jailbreak the iPod, then create some method of getting the photos online.
Option three would be to replace the VX1 with a small cameraphone. This loses a little elegance, and in most cases ties you to a particular network/tariff, but it would do the trick.
Putting it all together
Unlike the iPhone, these schemes do not give you a sleek, streamlined all-in-one device. However, things aren’t quite as bad as they seem. By definition, the MiFi does not have to be in the same pocket as your other devices, and there’s certainly an argument that your crotch might be the last place you want to keep a wireless transmitter. So if you carry a bag you can keep it in there, or you could also put it in a different pocket if combat pants are your thing.
As for the cameraphone (or phone and camera) and iPod touch, you can just keep them separately loose in your pocket. If you want an “all-in-one” device, it wouldn’t take too much creativity to modify an iPod protective case to sport a pouch on the cover to hold the phone (and perhaps even the MiFi too). If you’re really not bothered about your public image, you could even use Velcro to secure the phone to the case and then just hold the whole thing up to your ear when you make a call.
However you set things up, to give you an idea of the change in bulk: the total height and width of the various devices will be no greater than the iPhone. Including the MiFi and the smallest cameraphone I could find, the depth will increase from 12.3mm on the iPhone to a total of 30.4mm, while the overall weight goes up from 135g to 304g.
Some drawbacks and a bonus
- Whatever combination of devices you use, it’s not going to look pretty and it’s not going to be as compact. How important that is depends on your personal style and the size of your pockets. (On the upside, it won’t be as clunky as the MEGATRON.)
- iPhone apps which use the phone’s camera won’t be accessible. There aren’t that many available yet, but it’s an area with some possibilities.
- While you’ll have more devices and more battery demands, you won’t need everything switched on all the time. Depending on your phone, you may require less charging than with an iPhone.
The bottom line
The potential savings depend on your choice of devices and how many calls you make: the variety of deals and prices is immense. As a general rule, the main potential for savings is that most iPhone deals come with huge monthly call/text allowances which some users won’t need.
Here are some example based on UK tariffs, all of them comparing the total price over two years, winding up owning the various devices outright, and using the latest available 32GB iPhone/iPod Touch:
iPhone packages vary, but the total amount you’ll wind up paying to own the device works out suspiciously similarly across all deals and networks. Taking a 32GB 3GS, on the lowest monthly allowance (600 minutes, 500 texts and “unlimited” data) on a two year deal with the phone costing £179, totaling £1019 (US $1,595).
To get the same allowances with the iPod Touch/MiFi/cameraphone option (assuming the iPhone’s unlimited net allowance is practically equivalent to a 5GB limit) would cost £1479 (US $2,316) — a more expensive proposition.
If you don’t make that many calls and you can cope with a £10 a month deal giving you 100 minutes and 100 texts, you can cut that total to £999 (US $1,564). In this case, of course, most people would pay an extra thirty bucks to get the iPhone.
If you’re a very light user and prefer to pay for calls and texts as you use them, things change. On a pay-as-you go deal, the iPhone is £549 which includes free internet for a year, then £10 a month, making the two year total £669 (US$1,047) plus call and text charges.
Going for the separate devices, the best overall price on a 5GB data deal would be £628 (US$983) plus call and text charges, a modest saving. (This option might, however, be very good value if you already use mobile broadband on a laptop and could replace it with the MiFi.)
If, however, you can keep the data use under 1 GB a month (which, remember, only covers times when you can’t find a wireless network need to fall back on MiFi), then the cost falls to £450 ($704). Across the two years, that’s a third off the price of an iPhone.
So at the moment, people who want the potential of an iPhone (an iPod and phone with internet access anywhere) but won’t need to make heavy use of all it features could indeed make some sizable savings, albeit at the expense of style and an uncluttered pocket. Those who also want mobile broadband for a laptop could also make savings.
But for those who use a lot of data on the move, or need to make a lot of calls then, until deals such as MiFi become cheaper, the iPhone is still the best option if you want to join the Apple universe.