Category Archives: Technology

Shopping For a Cheaper Mobile Plan With My Parents

The other day I went to the AT&T store with my parents to help them get a cheaper plan for their cell phones.  I hadn’t realized how complicated phone billing options have become.  AT&T now has four options when it comes phone and service plan combinations:

1. Buy a new phone with a two-year contract 

This is the same option that’s always been available.  The advantage with this plan is you generally get a huge discount on the purchase of the phone.  The most obvious disadvantage is you’re locked into a contract for 2 years – no upgrading or changing service providers for a very long time.  The hidden disadvantage with this plan is the discount you received on your phone is usually more than offsite by an additional 15-$20 tacked onto your service bill every month.  Over the course of your two-year contract, this can add up to as much as $480.  The phone company generally comes out ahead when you choose this plan.

2. Buy a new phone and pay zero down…but make monthly payments

This is a fairly new option that was just introduced within the past year.  It’s similar to the two-year option, but you’re not locked into a long contract.  After a year, the service provider allows you to upgrade to a new phone at no additional cost.  Now, depending on how fancy you go with your new phone you may end up paying a higher monthly payment – you’re basically leasing a phone.  The phone company still comes out ahead with this deal, but you do have the added ability to upgrade to the latest technology every year without forking over an early termination fee.

3. Buy a new unlocked phone 

This is the most flexible of the four options.  You go out and buy a new unlocked phone  (meaning it’s not tied to a particular service company) and you pay a monthly service fee that’s 15-$25 cheaper than what you’d pay for options 1 or 2. The big advantage is you’re free to change service providers any time you want.  And, if you pick the right phone, you can actually come out ahead of what it would otherwise cost to go with either of the first two plans.  When my current two-year contract expires, I’m going with this option.  Google sells a high-end phone called the Nexus 5 for $349.

4. Keep your existing phone beyond it’s original two-year contract 

This is, by far, the cheapest option.  Instead of upgrading to the latest and greatest technology, stick with the tried and true phone that’s gotten you through the last two years without any problems.  Sure you miss out on Samsung’s latest Galaxy model with a heart-rate monitor and water resistant construction.  But, if all you care about is making calls, texting and possibly downloading a few casual apps, there’s really no reason to pay for an upgrade.   My parents went this route and saved themselves a decent chunk of change.  They also were able to upgrade from a plan with limited voice minutes to a plan that includes unlimited talk and text.  More minutes and a cheaper price – it’s a no-brainer.

These four options are not exclusive to AT&T.  The other major carries offer similar deals.  It might also be worth checking out some of the discount carriers such as Straight Talk which now lets you use the AT&T LTE network.

Free Software

It’s amazing to think how much computer software used to cost.  10 or 15 years ago you’d spend close to a thousand bucks for a decent computer, then you’d spend an additional few hundred dollars to buy the basic software – anti-virus, word processing, spreadsheets, and email.  Fast forward to today’s golden age of technology and most of this basic software can be found for very little money, even for free in some cases…


There is no longer a need to spend $30-50 on anti-virus software for your computer.  Most Internet Service Providers offer their own security packages for free.  For example, Comcast offers their Constant Guard software which includes the Norton Security Suite.  You get protection from viruses, spyware, and firewall intrusions among other things.  Comcast offer versions for Windows and Mac.

If you have Windows Vista, 7 or 8 (or 8.1) you also have the option of using Microsoft Security Essentials which is Microsoft’s own security suite.  If you have Windows XP, you can technically use Microsoft Security Essentials, but you may want to think about upgrading to a newer version of Windows.  Microsoft support for XP is officially ending on April 8th, 2014.  This means Microsoft will no longer provide security updates for Windows or Security Essentials on XP.

Word Processor and Spreadsheets 

Rather than spend the money on Microsoft Office, consider using Microsoft’s One Drive.  You can use free online versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and One Note.  You can create new documents or upload existing files.  The catch is, everything is stored on Microsoft’s servers instead of on your local computer.  But, this means you can access your documents from anywhere.

Another option is Google Drive.  This is the same concept as One Drive with Google’s own word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation programs.  Google Drive is compatible with Microsoft Office documents, so you can import your existing Microsoft files.


Free email has been around for a while, but now you have a nearly infinite amount of choices.  Try out several products and find one that you like.  Since they’re free, make a couple different accounts and use one as a junk account to sign up for sites that might spam you.  The great part about internet based email is you can access your account from anywhere using any device.

Password Storage

People use all kinds of strategies to manage their passwords.  Everything from pen and paper to using the same password everywhere.  An easier and more secure strategy is using  a password manager program such as KeePass.  KeePass is a free program that can be installed on most Windows, Mac, or Android devices.  It stores all your passwords inside a password secured database so all you have to remember is that single password.  KeePass can generate very complex passwords and offers a simple copy and paste feature so you don’t always have to type out those long cryptic letter jumbles.

Nothing is Free 

As the old saying goes, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.  Free software generally comes with some drawbacks.  You may encounter limited technical support, annoying advertising, and the company may collect and sell your personal information.  But, if you’re looking to save money, it might be worth overlooking some of these shortcomings.

Video Game Trailblazer

This morning I was sad to read that Hiroshi Yamauchi, the man who ran Nintendo for 53 years, had died.  I was a little surprised to learn that Nintendo, a video game company, had been around for that long.  Then I read that his grandfather actually started the company in 1889 making playing cards.  The video games came later.

The thing that impressed me the most about Mr. Yamauchi, was that he didn’t go into debt to fund his video game company.  In this article, Robert Fenner & Takashi Amano describe how “[Nintendo] was almost forced to file for bankruptcy in the late 1960’s after several failed attempts to expand its product lineup into toy guns, baby carriages and even to fast food…”  Mr. Yamauchi learned from this experience and “…vowed then not to borrow money to fund Nintendo’s operations.”  According to Bloomberg, Nintendo remains debt-free as of June 30th.

As a child growing up in the 80’s, Nintendo had a huge impact on me.  Some of my favorite days in the summer were spent playing Super Mario Brothers, Zelda, Top Gear, and more.  I remember how excited I was when I bought my first NES.

Nintendo Entertainment System

Then in the early 90’s the SNES came out.  My friend Matt was the first in our neighborhood to get one.  I spent hours at his house playing games like F-Zero, Pilot Wings, and Gradius III.  The graphics were amazing (for the time period of course).  I had to have one!  I saved up my pennies and raced over to my local game shop.  I was a little short on money, so I traded in my old system and games to make up the difference.  Once I had my own SNES, I probably spent more time playing video games than I should have.  Sadly I grew up and gradually stopped playing.  But I still have that SNES system (as well as a Game Boy) stuffed in a cabinet somewhere.


Super Nintendo Entertainment System


Video Killed the Internet Bill

You might remember that 80’s classic “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles.

It was the first music video ever played on MTV.  The song’s message has proven to be quite accurate.  Look at how big YouTube is now.  According to it’s the third most popular internet site in the world.

So, I got my first video bill today.  That’s right, video bill!  AT&T has decided to capitalize on our love for videos by offering your next phone bill in video format!  The video is actually a personalized explanation of your phone bill.  It was kind of creepy to listen to at first.  A woman’s voice starts off by saying, “Thanks for choosing AT&T Mr. Pennypacker.”  How does the voice know my name?  Or more importantly, how does the voice know how to say my name?  I’d be curious to know how the voice handles names that are more difficult to pronounce.

Then the video goes on to show me different sections of my actual bill while the voice describes the various charges.   It begins to resemble a fancy PowerPoint presentation with numbers flying around the screen and swooshing noises as plan details slide on and off the screen.  I notice a soft rock song playing in the background which has a calming effect.   After about two and half minutes, the video winds down and the voice throws in another name-drop: “Thanks again Mr. Pennypacker for choosing AT&T.”

I wanted to know more about why I was getting my phone bill in video format and how they were able to personalize it.  So, I found this Business Week article which explains things a little further.

Apparently, AT&T is sending these video bills out to new customers or existing customers who make changes to their service plans (I did just change my plan).  This is supposed to reduce customer service call volume.  As complicated as cell phone bills seem to be getting, I think its a great idea.  Despite the creep factor, I think I’d rather watch a 3 minute video than listen to hold music for half an hour while I grind my teeth in frustration.