Tuesday, September 13, 2005

LG 5225 & STi Mobile

Note: This is an old review. Things have changed at STi Mobile...

OK. After about a week and a half of testing, and a lot of work in between, here's my hands-on review of STi Mobile, one of the cheapest prepaid carriers out there.

Let me start by saying how much it's going to cost me: -$4.05. Yes, that's a negative sign. You see, I got the phone for $84.95 using the coupon code payme25 (20% off) at CheapPhoneCards (go to it from the sidebar on the right). The package also included a $10 card. One major thing payme25 also does is gives you an invoice that looks like you've paid the whole amount, so my up-to-$89 rebate will give me the full $89 amount.

But wait, it gets better! I got 15 CheapPhoneCards "reward points" for signing up with CheapPhonecards, 84 for this purchase, 100 for correcting a T-Mobile description, and 100 apiece for referring two other people to buy from the site (full disclaimer: the link on this site is a referral link, but it works just the same as any other link). With those 399 points I got a another $10 card...for free...with 94 points to spare!

But still wait...it gets EVEN BETTER! They offered me (at no extra cost) a car charger, a leather case for the phone, and a "universal" (2.5mm) headset. I had to remind them to send the stuff, but it should be here tomorrow.

OK. So enough with raving about the super deal I got. The phone is the LG vl5225 that Sprint gave for free (plus activation fee) with a 2-year contract up until they redid their website because of the Sprint-Nextel merger. As said before, I'm really and truly getting it for better than free (other people have had good experiences with the rebates). It's a color flip phone with the biggest screen on any phone I've owned (second prize goes to my Nokia 3560 running on Beyond Wireless; if I didn't cover them I'll cover them sometime later). It also has an external screen, which is nice, large and black-and-white. The external screen normally shows the time, date, signal strength, battery bars and other such status information, or the number of someone calling (STi has Caller ID), or how long the call you just ended was.

Interestingly, LG cut a few wierd corners to get a color flip with an external screen this cheap, albeit OK corners to cut. The backlight is shared by both the internal and external screens, which I guess affects battery life somewhat, but I can live with that since you can use the phone, closed or open, as a stopgap flashlight if needed. Also, there is one speaker for the ringer and the earpice, the happy byproduct of which being a one-way speakerphone (don't talk, just listen) and a nice, loud earpiece. The only thing bad about it is when you set the speakerphone on High (or rather turn speakerphone on when the earpiece volume is set to High) or when you set the ringer on High, clipping occurs. Not a hugely bad deal though.

The phone is generically programmed, leaving you with 12 or so seconds of the LG logo on both screens at startup, plus the rollerblader startup animation, and only one logo physically on the phone. The good thing about this is the phone isn't crippled by Sprint's firmware (which doesn't like people hooking cables to their phones) and doesn't have the Sprint logos plastered all over it (I don't care for either Sprint logo, the old or the new). The bad thing is you have a huge front area of shiny black plastic on the phone that, in addition to looking smashingly good when clean, attracts fingerprints\finger oil\other such stuff like a magnet.

The phone isn't small, but it isn't as big as even a Nextel i836 either, or a Moto v60 for that matter. As a consequence of its fair size though all of your buttons are nice and large. You get, besides your number keys and 5-way D-pad, two selection keys, a back key and talk end end\power keys, plus a volume control rocker on the side of the phone, which will also scroll through menu choices or turn the backlight on when the phone is closed.

The phone supports text messaging and web browsing, as well as J2ME apps (they take awhile to load though but run smoothly once there). The problem is that all the java stuff either need Net access or are trial versions, but I'll talk about why this is a problem later. The phone also includes, built in with the OS, a tip calculator, a regular calculator and a world clock.

OK. Here's where I gripe about the OS. The thing takes 18 seconds from the time you start pressing the power button to the time the phone is ready to use, although in this time the phone also searches for and 99% of the time finds a home signal so no extra waiting involved there. It also takes 6.5 seconds to turn off. All of my Nokia phones that I've had (3595, 3560, 1221, 5165) turn of instantly.

Also, I all too often press the left selection key in a menu, thinking it's the OK key, when in fact it just brings up an option as to whether I want a list view or the poor-frame-rate scrolling icon view. The OK function is assigned to the OK button, not wheree I'm used to having it...or is it just Nokia me? Then there's the right selection button, which no longer functions as the Back button. Hooray for me (NOT!), that button has its own specific place. Ah well.

A few more (admittedly minor) gripes. The backlight appears on the outside to have a shift toward pink, and it partially washes out the external display, but I can live with that. You also have to be reasonably careful with the charger cord, because bumping it in battery charge mode will make the phone turn off, then turn back on, possibly in regular mode. And the speakerphone is one-way, so no talking back when you're in that mode.

Overall, this phone is pretty solid, physically and feature-wise, but I wouldn't be willing to buy it if it had no rebate.

Now to the service. As stated on the website there are two plans. I opted for Plan 2 because I don't make international calls. Right now all they have is voice and Caller ID but both things work well and cheaply. Oh, and they have Sprint voicemail. More on that in a second.

As advertised I paid 12 cents a minute weekdays, 10 cents nights and weekends (starting at 9). Actially I'm paying a lot less because of the aforementioned deals and the fact that, with the discount CheapPhoneCards gives on STi cards (3%) and the refill5 coupon I can get a $10 card for $9.22...thus more like 11 cents a minute weekdays and 9.2 cents nights and weekends.

As with all modern plans, you're only charged if someone (or someone's voicemail) picks up on the other end. Busy signals and no-answers are free. So is calling the refill line (*555), Sprint customer service (*2), STi Mobile Support (611) and, of course, 911. Your balance (in money and in hours and minutes) is announced at the beginning of each outgoing call, with any answer before the announcement is done interrupting the announcement (which, IMO, is fine).

OK. Now about voicemail: retriving it from your phone costs 10 cents a minute PLUS airtime. So 20-22 cents a minute. It's cheaper than normal minutes for lots of prepaid carriers but still more expensive than it should be. The solution: check your voicemail from another phone and don't pay anything. The one problem with this is you can only set up your voicemail from the phone itself, which takes about 6 minutes, but I can live with that. Another neat thing about voicemail is that numeric paging works on STi Mobile and pages show up on your phone as nicely formatted "call me back" text messages that arrive a few minutes after the page is left.

The other cost that you'll encounter is a $4.95 fee on activation, changing of rate plans, changing numbers, or changing phones. All but the first are highly unlikely, so I can live with this charge too, especially since STi gave me an extra $1 at the start of my service.

STi Mobile will have Call Waiting, Text Messaging, Web Browsing and 3-Way Calling, but yes that means that none of it is here yet. I can wait though. I'm betting that, along with their release of new phones before mid-November (when the LG's rebate is no longer active), they will implement these new features. By new phones a rep I talked to before buying my phone suggested Sanyos, Nokias and Kyoceras (and maybe others).

as you might have guessed, STi Mobile works off the Sprint network. Roaming doesn't work (you can't make or take calls while roaming; you just get whoever's error message) but at least around here Sprint coverage is strong and the phone keeps a signal well. Voice quality is for the most part excellent, even on one or sometimes no signal bars, probably due to Sprint (and because of this STi) being on the lower-interference 1900MHz PCS band. One wierd thing about STi is you can't activate on a Sprint affiliate's network (US Unwired, Ubiquitel, etc., which are coverage-wise Sprint home area but are in fact different companies) but this is getting to be less of a big deal as Sprint is buying out these companies.

To sum it all up, for right now, STi is not for people that want to do texting or other stuff, but for voice users who have Sprint in their area STi is by far the cheapest out there, considering that with refill5 minutes are at most 11.06 cents and your phone ends up being free.

If you have any questions about STi, I may be able to answer them; just email me.

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