A couple of weeks ago my old cell phone, a Motorola C186i I had gotten from AT&T about 6 years ago, finally gave up the ghost and refused to take a charge. After a few days of being lost without a cell phone some disabled friends I help out decided they absolutely needed me to have a cell phone and said they’d get me a new one. I’d been looking at moving to Virgin Mobile for their $25 a month plan but I was concerned about letting my friends pay the $99 for an LG Touch I had looked at with a different friend, or even $89 for a Rumor 2, so I looked into simply getting a new Go Phone from AT&T. Unfortunately AT&T customer support staff couldn’t agree on how easily I could upgrade my phone or what the proper procedure was so my friend and I agreed to look at Virgin Mobile. The $25 a month plan is now $35, but it includes 300 minutes of voice calls a month and all the web, data, messaging and email I could use at no extra cost, a plan AT&T couldn’t touch with a 30-foot pole.
We ended up going with the $80 Samsung Restore ($75 at Best Buy), a phone with a slide out QWERTY keyboard, 2 MP camera that can handle video as well as pictures, and the ability to take a microSD card, the same kind of memory card my iriver E100 can take, although the Restore accepts a 32GB card, beating the E100′s 16GB limit.I did some searching online to get as much information about it as I could so I had a good idea of what it could do, as well as what I needed to do once I got the box opened. It was a good idea, because when I got the box open I found the battery, charger, a booklet about insuring the phone and a Getting Started booklet. What’s the problem? The Getting Started booklet has zarro information on how to install the battery, only saying that the phone needs to be charged for “at least 2 hours.” The cover of the booklet says to go to the website to download the full users manual, and luckily the phone can read the PDF file the manual comes in, although I have problems getting it to display more than a handful of pages. I also called Virgin Mobile’s customer support to try to get info on the code to lock the keyboard, something that the person I spoke with had absolutely no idea what it could be. (It turned out to be the last 4 digits of my phone number, as I found with a careful Google search.) All the person I spoke with could tell me is to refer to the full manual “that came with the phone.” Of course it didn’t come with my phone, but she didn’t seem to have a clue about that until I told her. To make matters worse she asked me for the 6 digit PIN code, something I absolutely refuse to divulge on a phone call for obvious security reasons. Luckily she was able to confirm my identity with my secret question, but the call left me feeling that the last place I wanted to contact about a tech issue with my phone was my service provider. The Virgin Mobile website is a pain in the rear as well, making you log in over and over again if you stay on the site for any length of time. Neither Chromium or Firefox is able to save the password so you better remember what it is.
You may think I regret getting service with Virgin Mobile and my new phone but you’d be wrong. Overall I love my phone although I do have some connectivity issues when indoors, and I chalk that up to all the technology in the room where I use my phone during the day. The problem is worse when I try to do things on my phone and I’m constantly getting interrupted with messages that I’m leaving and entering the service area, even though my phone is in the same place the whole time, and I’m going to blame Sprint’s signals for it. (Virgin Mobile uses Sprint’s network for their phones.)
Unlike other providers Virgin Mobile requires you to make funds available via their Top Up cards. You can put a minimum of $10 on the phone at one time, but if you find an app, game or ringtone you just have to have you can’t simply give Virgin with your credit/debit card info to buy it. The money to pay the monthly fee also has to be put into your account with a Top Up card, but you can put $40 on your account and have $5 available for online purchases once you fee is paid. Just remember, you have to have the money in your account on the day it’s due or your phone can get turned off.
The phone itself is a joy to use. The slide out keyboard is just big enough to let my thumbs type without making the phone itself too big, and the 2.4″ screen is nice and bright, even on lower brightness settings. The two soft keys below the screen are duplicated for when you use the phone sideways with the keyboard slid out, and I think the only problem with the keyboard is the fact that if I need to input numbers in a web form I have to use the function key to select the numbers and symbols. It’s a bit of a pain, but once you get used to having to do it it’s no big deal. The buttons and keys require just the right amount of pressure to press them while not being too easy to press a key by mistake.
The camera isn’t super sharp, but I suspect that’s the territory that comes with a 2MP camera. You can’t zoom the camera in before taking a picture, but once you get the hang of things you can take some pretty decent pictures. You can see some of the picture I’ve taken with it in my Facebook Mobile Uploads folder.
The voice quality isn’t too bad, but mobile phones aren’t known for great sound quality. (As a former audio engineer of course I’d comment on the sound quality.) The Restore uses MP3 sound files for ringtones, plus it can handle MIDI ringtones, so you can get any of a number of ringtones from Virgin’s online store. Using ringtones from other sites is blocked, as is installing apps from other sites, but your only limitation for getting ringtones is the amount of money you can afford to spend.
On the plus side is the fact that you get 3G speeds so unless you’re indoors or in an area with poor signal strength you won’t have to spend too much time waiting for pages to load. The phone also supports voice command and comes with 90MB that you can store apps, pictures and just about any other kind of file you may want to download.
The phone also comes with Bluetooth support, but since I haven’t bought any Bluetooth devices I can’t say how well they work.
The phone comes with a number of build-in ringtones, as well as a handful of wallpaper and screensaver images. The biggest problem I’m having with wallpapers is that you can’t download a wallpaper from third-party sites and use them without a complaint that the image is too big. I have no idea what size it needs to be, but if you can take a picture with the camera you can set it as a wallpaper with black bars above and below the image.
I’ve never had a phone that can run apps so I can’t say how easy the software is to use, but it can’t run any apps written for smart phones. Virgin Mobile goes a step farther by insisting that you only run apps from their online store, except there are almost no apps available that I can find. There are a number of games available, but few apps beyond Google Maps, a GPS directions app that costs $5 a month to use, and a picture sharing app that can’t seem to remember the information I tell it for uploading my pictures to Facebook. I’ll say more about using the phone with Facebook later. There’s also an Email + IM app for connecting to Yahoo, AOL/AIM, Gmail and Hotmail, but I usually use my browser for connecting with Gmail. I wish there were a way to remove this app from my phone, but once it’s installed it seems to stay there.
For the game lovers there are three demos of games that come with the phone: Bejeweled, Family Guy and Texas HoldEm Poker. The upside is that you can see if you want to buy the full version before plunking down money, but the downside is that the demo only lets you play for perhaps a minute before it shuts down and asks if you want to buy the full version.
I have seen information on installing 3rd party apps on the phone, but the instructions require a microSD card so until i can get one I can’t verify if it’s possible. Based on the info I’m seeing you should be able to install almost any Java-based app or game as long as it doesn’t need a touch screen, so once I can get a microSD card I’ll have to see if I can install things.
Address Book and Calendar
The Contacts app is pretty easy to use. It can hold 1,000 contacts and multiple numbers, email addresses and URLs for each contact. I don’t recall what the limits are on numbers and such but I haven’t reached it yet.
The Calendar isn’t as easy to use, but it lets you put appointments, tasks and countdowns on the phone. The problem I keep running into is entering an event that has passed, such as an appointment or event that has already happened almost always gives me an error that the alarm setting or time isn’t right. I say “almost” because I have managed to get some past events entered but I can’t for the life of me remember how I got it to work.
The built in web browser doesn’t seem to be able to show graphics, in fact the sites I have checked with it remind me of when I was on T-Mobile many years ago: Ugly, purely text-based renderings of some of my favorite websites. Luckily Virgin Mobile makes it very easy to install the Opera Mini browser. Just surf to the Opera site, click on the download link, and click the proper buttons to install it. The best way to install it is in this tutorial.
Opera Mini not only lets you set up nine different sites on the speed dial, you can also bookmark any number of URLs for easy access. You can also save images right to the phone, even without a microSD card, although I’ve found that some images save in a much larger size if you use the Open Image option before saving it. The good news is that with Open Image you can get a nice large image to look at more closely.
Another big plus for running Opera Mini is that you can put it into the background if you need to take a picture, send a text or something else. With the exception of Java-based apps you can’t have multiple apps running simultaneously, and that means the built-in web browser can’t get nudged aside if you need to do something else with your phone.
Facebook and Twitter
There is a Social Networking menu item that gives you access to Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, although the app uses the built-in browser so you may not like how the sites display. I usually just use Opera Mini to use Facebook and Twitter so they’re a bit easier to use, and Opera Mini has links to both Facebook and Twitter on the speed dial by default.
It looks like uploading images to Facebook are blocked so you will need to upload them via either email or as an attachment to a text message. The address for sending pictures to Facebook on a regular web browser doesn’t seem to work for me, but if you click the link to post a photo you will see a different email address you can send photos to that address. Just put the caption for the photo as the subject and anyone who looks at your Mobile Uploads directory will be able to see your images. Unfortunately if you forget to put the caption as the email subject you won’t be able to change it on the phone but your normal browser will let you set a caption without a problem.
I haven’t tried posting a picture to Twitter yet so I can’t say anything about how easy it is to do or what hoops you may have to jump through.
The Restore can play YouTube videos, and this tutorial shows you how to use the built-in web browser to watch YouTube videos. You can use the basic steps for watching YouTube videos in Opera Mini, and you can do just about anything you can do on YouTube in a regular browser on the phone, although some tasks need multiple “clicks.” Unfortunately I get repeated breaks for a video to load. This may be due to the limited memory on the phone and may go away once I install a microSD card.
The biggest problem is that Virgin Mobile seems to have put a six-minute cap on videos and if a video is longer than that it will get stuck on Loading. This is only a problem for longer videos, and I can always make a note to see a video on the computer if I have to.
Viewing and sharing pictures and videos
When you get into the Photos + Videos app you can not only take pictures and videos easily, you can also share them right from within the image viewer, although I’ve had problems posting to Facebook within it. The big problem is that the MyPix app for uploading pictures doesn’t remember the email address you tell it to use for Facebook so I have never been able to use it to upload pictures. Plus the online MyPix service closed on 15 August and it looks like the app is now useless.
The picture/video viewer app will let you see everything you take with the camera, as well as any images you save to the Photo Album folder, but there’s no way to zoom, rotate, or otherwise edit the images you have on the phone. You’ll need to send them to another app on your regular computer that can handle image editing
If you have a microSD card I understand that you can put all the audio files (MP3, MIDI, ACC and ACC+, and I think I heard it will support OGG files as well) and MP4 videos that will fit and be able to enjoy them with the built-in Media Player, but if you save media files to the camera’s memory you can use the built-in Mass Storage app to open pictures and PDF files with InfraWare’s Polaris Document Viewer. That app will let you zoom and rotate images and PDFs, but audio and video files in the camera’s memory can’t be played.
Other Built-in Apps
Also installed on the phone when you take it out of the box are an alarm clock, calculator, world clock, memo pad and a voice memo app. The alarm clock can handle a number of entries, but there’s no way to label an alarm other than by the time it goes off. This is disappointing since even my cheap Motorola C186i let you label alarm entries, but at least you can put different ringtones on different alarms.
Speaking of ringtones, there are a nice assortment of ringtones that come with the phone. Most of them seem to be MIDI ringtones but it’s easy to buy a ringtone from Virgin Mobile and install it on your phone. You can assign different ringtones to numbers in your contact book, even with specific ringtones for specific contacts, as well as setting up a ringtone for callers that aren’t in your contact list.
On the Whole
On the whole I really like the phone. It’s definitely worth the $75 we paid for it. yes, there are some issues to work around or simply deal with. It may not be a smart phone but I consider it a solid B student. I’m planning on buying some ringtones and maybe a game or two next month, and once I get a microSD card I’ll see if I can install third-party apps. I hope so, because I really want to run apps for playing media without having to stop if I want to do something else.
Other than the problems of Sprint’s signal and the Virgin Mobile Customer Service’s ability to answer simple questions about the phone I bought I can strongly recommend this phone for anyone who wants a phone that can handle text messaging and web browsing without having to sign a multi-year contract. The price of $35 a month for a prepaid phone is better than you can get anywhere, and even my friends who use Boost Mobile and metroPCS are jealous of the deal I got.
I will ask you guys one favor: If you end up getting this or any other phone from Virgin Mobile please consider using my referral code. My Kickback code, as Virgin calls it, is aM46PnWT. By using that code not only will I get an extra hour of bonus airtime when you join, so will you. Plus we’ll both get another hour of free airtime when you put at least $20 in your account over and above the first monthly payment. Thanks.