Your fake phones are useless to me

Fake phones at Best Buy

I’m currently in the market for a smartphone. I’ve had the same phone for four and a half years now, and it’s starting to show its age. It’s getting tougher and tougher to get the charger’s plug in the right position to get it to charge, and I’ve recently learned that the alarm doesn’t work when the phone is charging.

Meanwhile, my portable media player, a couple of years old, is also deteriorating. The audio jack doesn’t always make proper contact, the top layer of its skin is flaking off, and the software design flaws I tolerated at the beginning are starting to get on my nerves.

Plus, it seems everyone cool has a smartphone but me, and I want to have at least basic access to the Internet when I’m out and about.

So wanting to kill three birds with one stone, I’m doing research into both handsets (I’m looking at non-iPhones) and voice/data plans. I’ll probably do a plan post at some point, as I have a bunch of numbers in a spreadsheet right now.

With online research, I’ve narrowed down a short list of devices that meet my criteria: Wi-Fi and a web browser, an open operating system (Android or Symbian), FM radio (remarkably hard to find, and a major factor against the iPhone), and a feeling of ruggedness – I don’t want some cheap plastic part to break after six months and render the phone useless.

Since there’s just so much I can learn from reading specs sheets and looking at reviews online, I went to some stores recently to check out the devices in person.

Tables and tables of fake phones at Future Shop

Electronics stores have entire sections devoted to cellphones, each one tied to a security cord so you can hold it in your hand but can’t steal it. You can touch the phones, slide out keyboards where such slides exist, and run your fingers across the buttons.

But that’s about it. You can’t turn them on, try the browser, see how high the volume goes, check out what software features it has, or anything else that involves a battery. You can get a vague idea of what the operating system looks like by the fake display that’s pasted on, but you can’t get any sense of how it works.

It’s the same at the carriers’ special shops. There might be a working iPhone display at the Rogers store, but good luck testing out that Motorola Quench or Nokia N97.

This seems ridiculous to me. Computers and laptops are almost always sold in a way that lets you test them out first. So are iPods, digital cameras and camcorders, TVs and other electronic devices.

I asked one of the customer service people at one of those inside-the-mall shops about having phones on display that actually work. He said that if they did that, the phones would constantly be stolen. Those phones, with the bungee cords attaching them to the table? And what about that iPhone – the most in-demand mobile device on the planet right now – that you’ve managed to setup a proper display for?

I’ve gone to Bell, Telus, Rogers, Fido, Virgin Mobile, Videotron and unaffiliated stores, looking for somewhere I can test drive one of these non-iPhone smartphones. I’m facing the prospect of choosing a $500 device without having turned it on first.

It’s not exactly encouraging.

50 thoughts on “Your fake phones are useless to me

    1. Fagstein Post author

      And, like most services of this kind, God forbid you want to compare more than three phones, or do something ridiculous like search for a particular feature.

  1. DH

    I’ve looked at many smartphones recently have pick up some disconcerting trends: most Android phones launched in Canada may not get upgraded to new OS’ (2.2+) that are coming out so they are obsolete Apple very quickly, within a year usually. These upgrades are provided by the cell provider and they like having control. This is not the case with the iPhone, it gets upgraded on your own PC through iTunes.

    Stay away from anything Motorola, all their phones are old and they haven’t launched a new, modern, up to date device since the Moto Milestone (Telus) with an old vs. of Android.

    As for Nokia, they all run some weird archaic OS and have crappy touchscreens, I tried the N97 mini and it drove me nuts how bad the touchscreen was.

    So we’re down the the Blackberry. What can I say, it just works and there’s nothing pretty about it.

    Last but not least, iPhone, I’m wondering why you’re not looking at it, it is a very solid phone that is very capable and powerful. If you overlook it’s glass construction or think about buying an Otterbox case for it, it should be fine.

    1. j2

      DH is right about Canadian carriers being slow on the upgrade. They’re (and/or the typical canadian phone customer) are apparently indifferent to having the latest features. Or having working phones in the case of Rogers, who delayed a bug fix push six months after AT&T pushed the same fix to its customers, as well as preventing users from using mobile internet until they’d accepted the upgrade (overwriting even more recent versions of the OS installed by power users).

      I’m not sure what DH’s complaint against Apple’s glass is, unless it is scratches but I’d recommend a screen protector NO MATTER the smartphone. Using a scratched touchscreen is just annoying.

      If FM on a phone is a concern, most stations are available online through streaming, just choose the large data plan.

      Good luck.

      1. Fagstein Post author

        If FM on a phone is a concern, most stations are available online through streaming, just choose the large data plan.

        Maybe it’s a minor thing, but this solution really bugs me. It’s like going to a hotel and them saying they don’t have any water fountains or sinks or glasses, but if you have a large suite you can have a case of bottled water. Why should I have to pay for something that’s free?

  2. Amanda

    First thing, I recommend giving up on Best Buy/Future Shop if you expect any kind of premium service like trying out the actual phones. At the actual carrier kiosks and independent cellphone booths, especially the ones in the downtown malls. I’ve been able to try out a Palm Pre, Nokia N900, and numerous other high-end phones this way – if the network is compatible they will usually even let you put in your own SIM for a few minutes to make some test calls. (I’ve had the best luck with Bell, Telus and Videotron; not so with Rogers and Fido.)

    That said, I have a background in user-experience design and personally I find a 3-minute trial in a kiosk to be insufficient for really validating that a phone will meet someone’s needs. A great workaround here in Quebec is the fact that most (if not all) of the carriers have a pretty generous satisfaction-guarantee policy. If you limit your minutes and data consumption to a miniscule amount, you retain the right to return the phone and cancel whatever contract you signed within 30 days, and you just pay the cost of the plan for that month. To make this work you’d need to keep your current phone active, start a new contract, don’t give anyone the number, and put the phone through its paces properly for a few weeks. In addition to the phone UI, this also gives you a chance to test the quality of the network, download speeds, audio quality, voicemail IVR, online billing system, customer service, and so forth. (Most useful if you’re considering changing carriers, and also only realistic once you’ve narrowed it down to one or two phones maximum.)

    I actually tried this with the Palm Pre in 2009 and although I really liked the phone, Bell had done some things to it to lock it down in unpalatable ways. I would never have known this based on the phone’s spec sheet. So I returned it at the end and got everything credited back except about $30 for the month, which seemed quite fair to me. (I kept waiting for a big bill to arrive due to some loophole in their contract, but nothing like that ever happened.)

    As for why the carriers make it so difficult, I believe the inferior user experience on these devices has a lot to do with it. Because computer and consumer electronics products are sold more directly to end-users, the manufacturers are rewarded for investing in making sure the basic features work properly and are not *too* annoying. Cellphones, by contrast, are still mostly sold to the carriers themselves, at least in North America, with the carriers assuming the costs of most of the user support. So the carriers buy them based on their spec sheets and their competitive value (how much hype they can generate / how many people will sign contracts to get them). They don’t WANT you analyzing how the phone really works – as soon as you look under the hood you’ll see how junky most of them are, how badly they adhere to standards (like Bluetooth) and how many basic UI conventions they violate.

    I’ve been a longtime Nokia user for this reason – they grew up competing in different markets where phones are sold directly to consumers with no carrier subsidies. As a result they’ve historically been a lot more accountable to their user base. I find Symbian to be an extremely geeky-looking OS, but this means it’s also powerful, and has evolved over time to be quite stable even if it’s less flashy than its peers. YMMV.

  3. Guillaume Theoret

    I highly recommend the Samsung Galaxy S.

    I just got the AT&T version (unlocked from the US since I’m on the Rogers network and they’ll only have the phone laster this month I think) but the Bell version is the exact same thing with a different case. (Though I like the feel of the Captivate (Rogers/AT&T) better than Bell (Vibrant) once because it’s less plasticy)

    The Galaxy S has the best processor and screen on the market (both better than the iphone4) and because the screen takes less power than regular LED or OLED screens the battery lasts longer than most smartphones too.

    I’m very happy with it.

  4. MattH

    Just ask any salesperson at a cell phone store and they’ll take a new phone out of the box for you, pop the battery in, and let you try out the phone. Bell, Telus, Fido, Koodo and Virgin have all happily done this for me.

    1. Fagstein Post author

      Just ask any salesperson at a cell phone store and they’ll take a new phone out of the box for you, pop the battery in, and let you try out the phone.

      I tried that once and it didn’t work. I’ll try it again, but unfortunately many of these cellphone stores have huge lineups and their staff are far too busy to get any prompt service.

      1. Isaac Lin

        I also find that the fake phones aren’t the right weight and so it’s hard to get a sense of how the real thing would feel in the hand. I have had success in getting a clerk to show me real phones, so I suggest trying to find a more out-of-the way store and trying again.

  5. MB

    Have you tried cnet? They’ve got a lot of comprehensive ways to sort through features and phone types, and many of the reviews are helpful and informative.

    1. Fagstein Post author

      Have you tried cnet?

      Just tried it, and it’s completely useless. Either they don’t have all models available in Canada or they’re not categorizing them properly. I can’t even figure out how to just show smartphones.

  6. wkh

    I went to Fido on Friday as I’m sure you’ve noticed and got the acer liquid e. I was annoyed by this exact same issue. I decided to just suck it up and if it was that god awful I’d bring it back in a few days as they have a policy for that. After I had said I wanted it the salesclerk let me play with hers. You can come over and play with mine if you want a more extended try out. I love it very deeply I must say.

    A friend of mine has the motorola one from telus… the backflip and I loved playing with that one too.

    I’m only annoyed with the touch screen when I’m typing texts but I think I’ll get used to it with practice. I sucked at texting on a regular phone too at first.

    1. Guillaume Theoret

      Since the Liquid E is an Android phone you should download the Swype keyboard from the Android market if it isn’t already on your phone. It’s WAY better than any other keyboard out there. It may seems weird to swipe on the keyboard at first but after only 5-10 words I was completely used to it, it felt very natural. (And I sucked at typing on the iphone)

      1. wkh

        This sounds very awesome; I’m going to go check that out.

        Hey Steve why do you want to listen to the radio on your phone anyway? Maybe it’s because I’m a girl but listening to music while you’re out and about (necessitating headphones/earbuds) is so dangerous. Good way to get mugged/raped/etc.

    1. Fagstein Post author

      Just out of curiosity, why are you not trying iPhones?

      I haven’t completely ruled out an iPhone, but the following are reasons against it:

      – The iPhone’s operating system isn’t free, and Apple retains too much control over what apps it approves
      – The iPhone doesn’t have an FM radio built-in
      – I don’t want to wait in lines for weeks for an iPhone like everyone else

      1. Kevin

        You can jailbreak the iphone if you want
        And load up on outside Apps through Cydia.

        If you don’t mind using Bell or Telus, you can order an iPhone online and likely have it in your hands within a week.

        FM Radio? Dude, that’s just so, so, like insisting all cars come with an accompanying whip and pony.

      2. Jean Boisvert

        You are right that the iPhone OS is in tight control from Apple. However:

        a)the “openness” of Android causes a lot a fragmentation. No two phones running it seem to look alike.

        b) as others have mentionned, the cell operators are used to cripple the phones and their OS, and they continue to do so in the smart phone arena, Android included. Only Apple seems to have the power to avoid it. So whatever great thing you may read about Android, you never know if it will show up on your own phone.

        c) the opennes is great in principle, but unless you are a tech geek you will never actually hack you phone so why bother ? And if you want to go that way, you can always pretty easily jaibreak an iPhone.

        I am not an Apple fanboy, i do most of my stuff in a Windows world, but I have a iPhone 3Gs and love it. And the 4 is actually even better (and it seems the supply issues are resolving themselves). At least give it a look and in the Apple store you can fondle actual phones !

  7. JD

    In case you’ve considered the N97 Mini, don’t go for it. It will drive you nuts. (I was forced to use the device due to my employer, after owning an E71.) Instead, you might want to look into the new N8. They’ve rewritten a lot of the old Symbian code to make it more user friendly and it comes with a stunning camera:
    (Check at the bottom for the original JPGs)

    As far as I know an FM receiver and transmitter is integrated so you can listen to radio while on foot or your MP3s when in the car without hooking up via cable. My favorite feature however is the integrated maps applications which provides you with turn-by-turn navigation for ~80 countries. You can preload maps onto the phone which will save you a lot of money when roaming as you don’t need to use data to search and navigate. I’ve driven about 1000km in Quebec and Nova Scotia like this and the application will find and guide you to even very obscure 5-houses in the middle of nowhere addresses in this mode. The phone also supports about every GSM/3G frequency on the planet and which will also come in handy when traveling.

    The only problem might be that you will possibly have to wait for a few more weeks until you can officially buy it in Canada. It is coming to the US for sure, so I guess it will show up here as well. Just get it off-contract and it will roughly match your price range.

  8. Karine

    I don’t own a smartphone yet but I will be watching this thread. I don’t want an iPhone no matter how deliriously cool and easy to use, I find Apple’s proprietary attitude to be quite annoying. Personally I would like to get my hands on an HTC phone, they have a model that’s a combination touch screen and slide keyboard that I like but I don’t know if it’s available in Canada yet.

    Have you taken a look at Protégez-Vous’ reviews of smartphones? It’s in newstands now.

    PS: Was your phone a Razr? That’s what I had for a couple of years and I regretted very quickly. I also dropped my allegiance to Virgin, their customer service took a nose dive from when I first joined them and they changed my phone plan without telling me.

  9. Helder

    To compare cell phones and plans… try this

    But I agree … playing with the phone to test it is way better than just reading the specs.

  10. AlexH

    What you are seeing is that cell phone stores are still selling phones as if they were, well, phones. You know, you turn it on, make a call, thank you. Oh yeah, a phonebook list of names and numbers and maybe a tic-tac-toe game. Smart phones are outside of the scope of their sales methods (and often skills).

    Just as importantly, there isn’t much in the sale of a phone, especially at branded stores. What they are selling is 2 or 3 year contracts, not phones. The phone, smart or not, is often just the bling to get you to sign the long term contract, which is what really makes the money flow. Remember, their sales goals aren’t expressed in phones sold, but in contracts signed.

    Further, you will buy the phone and it will be locked to that company, which to me is a major failure point. Not only do you have to pay for the phone, but they hobble it so that you cannot enjoy it on any other network ever (without paying someone to unlock it). My last three phones purchased have all been unlocked phones, the last one bought in Hong Kong. I cannot justify signing a long term contract just to get a few dollars off a phone, only to find that I cannot use it otherwise.

  11. SpeedyGonzales

    Well, i’m in the same boat as you. My contract is ending in 3 months and i’m on the hunt for a smartphone. It’s a shame that we can’t get even half of all the phones that are available in the US because if the Motorola Droid 2 or the HTC Evo 4G were available over here, i’d spread my wallet open wide and be fully happy with spending that much money on a phone… but with the choices available over here, my wallet is kinda shy and won’t open up as easily…

    Best websites for reviews, infos and such :

    It’s a shame we don’t have websites like this but only for the Canucks.

    Also, i’m eagerly waiting your spreadsheet with all the plans available out there. I guess it won’t be anywhere lower than 75$/month for any of ’em, but maybe you saw something that i didn’t.

    By the way, anyone knows if the providers over here knows when you’re rooting your phone to install a fresh version of Android ? Will they lock/brick it if you do so ? I know they can in the US, but most of ’em let you do it without any slap on the wrist or bricking your phone, but over here… i’m not so sure since they’re all a bunch of control freaks.

    1. Guillaume Theoret

      Only Apple will brick your phone.

      Android HTC phones can install the CyanogenMod (a completely independent firmware) and in a week or two CyanogenMod will also support the Samsung phones. (At which time the Samsung Galaxy S that I love I will switch to that.) That will definitely not brick your phone. Worse case scenario you have to either restore from a backup you hopefully made on your computer before you updated or, if you didn’t, you can always set your phone back to factory default settings.

      Bricking phones will very soon be an impossibility since the US recently made jailbreaking legal. Also, Apple is being sued in a class action lawsuit for bricking phones. Apple is the only company arrogant enough to ruin their customers’ hardware permanently and think they can get away with it. Which is why I refuse to buy any of their products.

  12. Montreal Guy

    Just curious about FM — you want this for news/talk or music? I belive the HTC Desire has an FM tuner built in availabe at Telus.

    1. Fagstein Post author

      Just curious about FM — you want this for news/talk or music? I belive the HTC Desire has an FM tuner built in availabe at Telus.

      Either/or. I blog about media, and that includes radio.

  13. Tim C

    I picked up a HTC Desire from Telus and love it. The OS will be upgraded to 2.2 Froyo in October, has a built in FM radio too. Not a single issue so far and this is my first Android phone. Switched from a Win Mobile phone.

  14. Tux

    I’m extremely happy with my Motorola Milestone. I haven’t even rooted it yet and it does everything I need it to do. If I ever get desperate for the new OS I’m pretty sure I could get it onto the phone with some tinkering. As it is, the current Telus version of Android performs fine for all my everyday tasks, and my very basic data plan (500mb/month) has so far been ample for what I need to do.

  15. Aaron Rand

    I just went through this whole upgrade my old cellphone routine myself. While I started out with the “anything but an iPhone” attitude, in the end, that’s naturally what I bought. I read enough smartphone reviews to make my eyes glaze over, and at the end of it all, the truth of the matter is that Apple (much as we want to hate them for being so smug (especially Steve Jobs) makes a quality product at a competitive price.

    As for your FM tuner issue, while the function isn’t built into the phone, there are a bunch of apps from .99 to 4.99 that will allow you to listen to AM, FM, and streaming radio from around the world. Some even have built in alarm clock features which come in really handy when you travel. I actually use my new iPhone to listen to news stations when I’m not on-air.

    And as for availability, I walked into the Best Buy store in Lasalle, (Carrefour Angrignon) and bought mine right there and then. No fuss, no muss, no hassle. That was about a month ago (can’t guarantee that’s still the case but it’s worth a try) , at the same time people were (and still are) lining up at Apple stores around the city like lemmings waiting for the privilege of owning one. I hate that picture and the fact that Apple makes them do it, but, in the end, that’s a whole different issue. Bottom line, it’s a great phone, with great features, is easily integrated into the whole iTunes thing, and – works (so far) like a charm.


  16. Stephane

    Hmmm last post didn’t appear…You might want to look at the HTC Desire. Telus has it not sure about Bell. My bro bought it and it’s a pretty slick device. And it has FM. I like the keyboard thing where the phone vibrates when you type. Useless but cool.

  17. Aaron Rand

    And then there’s this from an Apple chat site…

    “Apple is allegedly building a new app for its iPhone and iPod Touch that will bring FM radio to the devices, according to a report on 9 to 5 Mac.
    Citing anonymous sources, the Apple news site says the functionality of the application will be similar to what Apple built into the iPod Nano. That includes the ability to pause live FM transmissions and fast-forward when you resume playing.
    One of the main reasons for the delay may be the need to integrate it with Apple’s iTunes store, which would allow a user to click on a song being listened to on the radio, and be able to buy it directly from the iTiunes store instantly.”

    Read more:

  18. Eddy

    FWIW, I’ve been using the Nokia E71 for about 6 months now. I love it. It has WIFI, FM transmitter AND I was able to get it with a voice plan from Telus. This means that I have a regular voice plan, and I am able to use any web applications through a WIFI connection. I think I got the best of both worlds. I was also able to block the option that lets you use the network for web browsing, mant little accidents amount to a lot of $ whenever you acces the web via the network.

    1. Karine

      See, the downside to using a phone on the wifi is that you’ll quickly feel limited, at least I’m pretty sure that I will feel that way. I have an iPod Touch and though it made a bus ride to and from NYC bareable because they had wifi, I do hate the fact that I can’t access the web when I want. Just being able to use apps that use geo-location like MapMyRun, heck being able to use google’s free GPS system would be a good reason for me to go for mobile web plan.

      1. Eddy

        Right! I agree… except that it depends on your priorities and needs/wants. I am content because I don’t need the access anytime anywhere.Even though I’m sure it can be helpful sometimes, I am not willing to double my monthly rate from the current $20 for an all inclusive voice plan.


    I had an iPhone, which I paid $399 for with no data plan, since August of 08.

    My employer insisted on providing me with a BlackBerry Bold 9700, my iPhone 3G went to my 11 year old.

    I miss the iPhone, the browser was faster and much more Apps.

    When I moved over to the BB I excepted the typing to be easier. Not really. The browser is not as fast as Safari on the iPhone. The BB 9700 has a smaller screen.

    Definite minus no built in FM receiver. Most stations you can stream to the iPhone but in eats into your data.

    If I had a choice I would lose the BlackBerry and go for an iPhone.

    Take a close look at phones with the Android OS. Is there any 4G in Canada?

    Bell, Rogers they’re all in cahoots with Bielzeebud.

  20. Lisa

    All these people are so knowledgeable. I wonder if they can advise me….they might find my needs laughably simple, though …..My current phone seems to have (really) died…….unlike Pat Burns……I just want a truly bare bones phone that’s easy to use, a screen that’s easy to see…If I’ve just missed a call, I want to find and listen to the message quickly, without having to scroll through many menus to find it…..I will buy the phone outright and continue to pay the measly $11 per month that I am paying now…..


    1. AD

      you can get a bare bones ph from most carriers but you have to ask for it they want you to take the fancy crap but we just got a simple ph for my 95 yr old grandfather when his old 1 died its a simple flip ph and works great it was a nokia from i think rogers

      1. Lisa

        Thanks AD, I know they are out there, I’ve bought them before, just wondered which ones were better than others.
        My first phone was a Nokia and it lasted much longer than my second phone (which was also a Nokia)
        The first one was easier to use, as well (far as I remember.)

        The only advantage to the second one was that it was smaller and lighter. Otherwise. it seemed like a big step backward.
        And though it takes pix, even the guys at the Fido shop couldn’t figure out how to send them to anyone.

  21. AD

    I agree I got fed up with all the you cant have this without a data plan I like the feel of a qwerty keyboard but don’t like sliders (moving parts break) wireless web if fun but i just cant justify the cost all i really do is text and use wifi when its available so i went ahead and bought knock off of the BB 9700 Its great works perfectly its well built I can set up my Ph any way i want ring tones etc just down load from free sites. and its completely unlocked so i can use whatever service I want. oh and it has FM radio and analogue TV. Now I don’t need or want all that crap that people spend all their time and attention on so for my purposes it as perfect solution and WAY cheaper if I want I can set my phone to use my carriers wireless web but I don’t want pay for that its too G-d dam expensive in this country and the knockoff just keep getting better and better they now even offer android phones so that solves the app problem until the Canadian cell company’s get their act together and stop gouging I cant see myself spending A lot of hard earned $$ on a brand name phone and just a last note if you really feel the need to have a real brand name phone with it real OS they are avaliable as refurbished ( new) from overseas for about half the cost and are all unlocked

  22. Me

    Go with the nexus one. I bought it without having had a chance to test it in person and it’s one of the best decisions I’ve made. I recently negotiated a good plan with my current cellular provider and have managed to get a fair amount of minutes, data transfers and all the usual add-ons for approximately 43$ plus tax (Rogers).

    I’ve only just discovered you’re blog and I’m not certain how technically included you are. With that being said I’ve ‘flashed’ my nexus one and installed the cyanogen operation system (based on google’s android 2.2 os). It’s just amazing. The battery life is good, it does anything I would want from a smart phone and it’s just all around useful.

    Even without the Cyanogen mod it’s a great phone and if you read around you’ll come to realize that there aren’t very many people who are unhappy with it.

    Hope this helped.


  23. Rocky

    I have found 2 FREE apps at the iTunes Store which give you radio AM & FM. They are:

    – CHUM Radio; self-explanatory
    – Sélection Radio du Québec (Free Edition); a selection of Quebec AM & FM radio stations

  24. MAWG

    Which smartphone did you end up buying? Like you I wanted to have nothing to do with the iPhone but after a friend lent me his old iphone I was sold.
    Getting my hands on one was not easy but the wait was worth it. I’ll never be able to go back to using a ordinary cell phone again.

    1. Fagstein Post author

      Do you have that spreadsheet with price and plan comparisons?

      Yes, but I think I’d have to redo it already because of changes that have been made. Keep in mind it’s only for a specific set of features, so it wouldn’t be useful for everyone.

  25. SteveG

    I bought a HTC Desire from Telus and love it. The OS has been upgraded to 2.2 Froyo in recently, it has a built in FM radio too. I don’t have any issue with my first Android phone.


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