just one more geek in a sea of austin techies

September 1, 2016

Give your kid a phone...cheaply! #PhoneGeek

My kids are growing up and getting into more and more activities.  A cell phone has become an item my wife and I *need* the kids to have.  Not for social use, mind you, but as a tool for necessary family communication.  And for taking photos.  And maybe a few games.

Notorious penny-pincher that I am, I've settled on a rather excellent combination of phone capabilities and value.  Our first "kid phone" includes:

  • Android 6.0; 2GB RAM; 48GB storage; HD display (1280x720)
  • Location service + remote lock/wipe so I can pinpoint phone and secure it if needed
  • Limited monthly talk (200 minutes), texts (500) and data (500MB) to force responsible phone use
  • Ability to increase/decrease monthly limits as needed
The kicker?  I paid a one-time price of $71 with no monthly cellular service charges (free cellular service!)  That's $71 and done.  I can harp at my kids for hours on the need to be "phone-responsible" but the truth is that I'm only out $71 if the phone is ever lost/broken/stolen.

Read on to see what I've put together...

The Phone: $60
Getting a good deal on a phone really comes down to timing:  what's on promotion (or clearance) at the moment.  For me, timing meant I could get a new, unlocked unit of one of last year's premier phones (Moto X Pure, HTC One M8, etc.) for under $150.  It also so happened that Amazon struck a deal with Florida-based Blu -- maker of affordable Android phones -- to offer a "with Amazon offers (ads)" version of the new R1 HD model phone for Prime members.  If you're not familiar with Blu, the company offers a rather nice selection of lower-to-mid-tier models including several worthy large-screen models for under $250.  The new R1 HD model runs about $110 for the 2GB RAM unit but the Prime "with ads" promotional model drops the price to a paltry $60.

Adds appear below notifications
on the lock screen
The Amazon ads are relegated to the lock screen and are fairly unobtrusive as they appear as the lock screen background or, if you have notifications, as tiles below the notifications.  The ads are not bad but it gets better:  if you are of a mind to tinker (this is me), you can replace the ad-enabled Amazon Prime version of Android with Blu's original non-ad version of Android.  In essence, you end up with the $110 version of the phone for $60.

Getting rid of the Amazon apps and ads
If altering your phone's operating system files (and possibly "bricking" your phone) doesn't worry you, this guide steps you through replacement of the Amazon apps and services-equipped OS with the stock Blu Android 6.0 OS.  A copy of the files needed is currently available here. You'll want to use either Windows 10 or Linux to perform the OS modification as older versions of Windows (reportedly) do not properly recognize the R1 HD phone when connected via USB.  If you don't have Win10 or Linux, just create a bootable Linux USB thumb drive using Rufus (free) and a copy of Ubuntu (also free).

The cellular service: FREE (with $1 SIM kit)
Ok - maybe you've been reading just to find out about the free cellular service.  A Google search would have gotten you that info more quickly but, hey, thanks for sticking with me this far.

There are a number of options when it comes to low-cost alternative phone services.  There are several that even offer "free" service plans but be wary: sometimes "free" actually means "prepaid minutes with no monthly service fee".  If you're into wading through a huge list of confusing plan options -- including at least one truly free plan -- then check out RingPlus.

In my case I went with a known quantity:  FreedomPop.  The company has been doing its thing since 2012 and I've previously used FreedomPop's service for a mobile hotspot and an Android phone.  The company generally delivered what it promised though coverage was somewhat limited as FreedomPop piggybacks on Sprint's cell towers.  In one case I opted for FP's "free" plan (it really IS free) and in the other case I opted for "free with premium upgrades" for $8/month which is necessary to get MMS (multimedia text-messaging capability), data rollover and visual voicemail.  FreedomPop's free plan is also more generous than others I've found.

Downsides to FreedomPlus
I must highlight the company's incredibly poor support for multiple devices: you basically can only have one device per person/account.  Anything beyond one device per account becomes a bit of a gamble.  For instance, the website will allow you to sign up for additional devices on an existing account but each new device / phone number tends to replace your existing device and number (scary!)  

There is a small suite of available FreedomPop mobile apps but they are not well-regarded.  I had good luck with the core Android app but many, many others have reported poor experiences (read the reviews here).

Finally, be aware that FreedomPop relies on Sprint's cellular towers.  If Sprint has poor coverage in your area then FreedomPop's service is almost certain to be poor as well.

For my kid's phone I'm going with the bare-bones "free" plan with no add-ons.  There is no monthly fee and also no "setup" fee -- just plug the FreedomPop SIM (Labor Day Sale price of $1) into your phone and, if you dare, install the FreedomPop app.

Quality of service
I've previously used FreedomPop on backup devices, not my main phones.  I was plenty glad to have the service when it was needed but it was only occasionally needed.  Time will tell if the service and quality are good enough for everyday needs.

NOTE #1:  FreedomPop has no contracts.  If you have a terrible experience you can switch to another GSM-based service (AT&T, T-Mobile, etc.) any time you like -- just change the SIM.

NOTE #2:  The Blu R1 HD is a dual SIM phone.  You could try out two different GSM-based cellular services at the same time...

The other $10
I mentioned at the start that my total cost was $72.  The phone is $60, the SIM kit is $2 and the service is free so... what about that other $10?  I spent it on one of *the best* distinguishing factors between typical Android phones and iPhones: expanded storage

Like most Android phones, the Blu R1 HD is equipped with a microSD memory card slot allowing you to add a whopping 64GB of memory to the internal 16GB of storage.  I added a 32GB card for only $10 which gives my son a total of 48GB of storage.  Even better, by adding that storage and having photos/videos saved to the card you gain an extra measure of data protection.  If the phone dies/breaks just remove the card and plug into a home PC to access the information.

Of course, most phones have some option to automatically upload copies of photos/videos to the cloud.  Sign into the Blu R1 HD with your Google account and the R1 will do that for you as well.  Or install the DropBox app for the same.  Or opt for Microsoft's OneDrive app for the same.  Or get Flickr. Or Box (plus this app)... or ... you get the idea.

The Amazon Prime "with services" Blu R1 HD phone promotion is only slated to last a few more days.  I'm betting Amazon will do more of these "with services" Android device promotions and may even extend the existing R1 HD phone promotion.  

If all this sounds too good to pass up, here are the links to get what I did:

$60:  Blu R1 HD (2GB model) - Prime member promotion (normaly $110)

$1:  FreedomPop SIM - Labor Day promotion (normaly $5)

$10: 32GB Samsung Class 10 microSD card (64GB card is $20)

Pro tip - Add the free Lookout app for antivirus, phone locating service and remote lock/wipe capability:

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