Images Over the past few months we've been inundated
with new smartphones, culminating with the release of the iPhone 4 and
the announcement of the Motorola Droid X this past week. If you find
all this commotion a little confusing, and you're not sure what's right
for you, you're not alone. Hopefully this column will provide some
guidance.

Smartphones from all carriers

If your phone is a year old, you'll be surprised
by how much better these new models are. They're fast, have large,
multi-touch screens, and run thousands of new apps. They sync
wirelessly to your computer's calendar and contacts, ensuring you'll
have the most up-to-date information with you all the time.

They each send and retrieve e-mail using
on-screen keyboards, provide a great browsing experience, and do
everything from making dinner reservations to finding your way to a
destination. But they do require some learning; not everything is
obvious. The user manuals are sparse and often answers are easier to
find by Googling.

Some include wireless tethering that turns the
phone into a wireless hotspot for another $20 to $30 per month. Your
computer connects just as it does to any WiFi hotspot.

Excellent smartphones are available from all of
the carriers. While the iPhone was so far ahead than anything else when
it first came out, that's no longer the case.
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AT&T's new data plan is set to penalize its customers that mis-estimate their usage. Now few of us can figure our exact usage, and it changes as we use new apps such as Google Maps. But AT&T's plan charges huge
Screen-shot-2010-06-04-at-7.17.47-PM penalties for those that choose the lower cost plan of the two offered and then go over. Why not just move the rate to the higher plan when the data use is exceed? No, AT&T would rather find a way to charge huge penalties to its customers without delivering any data. This is cynical, customer-unfriendly, and another reason why we hate some of the carriers. The table at the left (from Reuters) shows what happens when a user of the lower cost plan goes over his allotment of data. A user with the 200MB plan will pay $125 more for the same amount of the data bought under the 2GB plan. You can read more about this from Felix Salmon's excellent article in Reuters and the inane double-talk response from AT&T's PR head, Mark Siegel.

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This headline appeared on the Consumerist with a description about how a customer was rebuffed and threatened that his account would be closed if he sent any more mails to their CEO. The emails were questioning a new pricing plan and dropped calls, but not rude or threatening in any way.  I emailed Mr. Stephenson to get his explanation before posting this, but never heard back.(UPDATE: A spokesman for AT&T apologized.)

AT&T seems to be in a foul mood these days and are becoming more aggressive towards its customers. Clearly they're trying to erect some barriers just before the new iPhone is to be released. They've nearly doubled the cost to terminate a contract to $325 and they've changed their data plans to a metered model, moving away from the previously "unlimited" plan.

The $325 charge is timed to discourage their customers from defecting to Verizon when they come out with the iPhone (rumored to be somewhere between September and early next year). Those that buy the new iPhone later this month on the ATT network should think twice if they really want to move to Verizon.

ATT coverage and dropped calls continues to dog the company's reputation. I was told by their PR guy, Mark Siegal, a year ago that these problems would be solved by now. But even Steve Jobs recently said there are still problems that he hopes will be fixed by the end of the summer. And my experience with dropped calls in the San Diego and Bay area are getting worse.  Apple stores now have a way to measure the number of dropped calls with a simple test. When they tested my phone it was over 20%. They gave me another phone but it's been equally bad.

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