Shopping smartphone plans for the budget-minded consumer – Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

My frugal sister will get her first smartphone when her flip phone runs out of minutes.

That may take a while. She doesn’t make many calls on it. In the meantime, her friends keep saying: “What?” The sound quality is dreadful.

I suggested the Pixel 4a for $349 with Google Fi cell service for $20 a month for unlimited talk and text, not counting whatever data you use. But a friend’s deal may be better. She went with Consumer Cellular’s iPhone SE for $250. Consumer Cellular is known for its friendly tech support, especially for senior citizens. The monthly cost is lower than Google’s Fi service if you use more than 500 megabytes of data per month.

At Consumer Cellular, unlimited voice and unlimited texts with 500 megabytes of data is $25 a month. If you go over the data limit — by surfing the web when you’re away from a Wi-Fi connection — they only charge an extra $5, even if you use three gigabytes worth. Three gigabytes of data with unlimited talk and text on Google Fi would cost $50. That’s $20 more than the Consumer Cellular deal.

When I visit my sister next week in California, I’ll hand her my Pixel 3a phone so she can compare it to her husband’s iPhone. She’s leaning toward the iPhone. It’s a good idea to get the same type of phone as your loved one or friend, so they can show you the ropes. I’ll always regret getting my 90-something aunt an iPad when all her friends had computers. She never did learn how to work it.

For budget-minded folks who rarely use a phone out of range of Wi-Fi, it’s hard to beat TracFone’s $30 Android smartphones, such as the LG Rebel 4 with a $125-a-year service plan. It offers 1,500 call minutes, 1,500 texts and 1.5 gigabytes of data. If you spread it out evenly, that’s about two hours of talking a month, 125 texts a month and 125 megabytes of data a month. To escape the voice and text limits, use a free app like Signal or WhatsApp when you’re in range of Wi-Fi. But in my experience, TracFone doesn’t offer good tech support.


A reader wrote to say he tried clicking on the link in what I thought was a fake AOL message. Nothing bad happened. He was right, I was wrong.

My earlier suspicions came from Googling it. I also examined the link itself. The text in a link is often just decoration; it doesn’t mean that’s where you’re going. When I hovered over the link and looked at the bottom of my computer screen where the real address was displayed, it looked phony. I should have tried clicking on it anyway. I have the free extension Malwarebytes Browser Guard, so I would have gotten a warning if it had been fake.

AOL would like all users to either download their new iOS or Android app, or to click one of the links in their message to get third-party apps, such as Gmail, in sync with their new sign-in procedures. Those who go to AOL’s website instead of using an app don’t have to worry about this.


One of the earliest games I ever played on a computer was pinball. It’s still fun. So I eagerly turned to Stern Pinball’s new Star Trek game. It’s $5 from

Stern is the biggest manufacturer of arcade-quality pinball machines on the planet, going back to the early 1930s. It also makes computer games. The new Star Trek pinball I played was fun, with chatter about alien civilizations. I don’t think it beats the old Microsoft Pinball for Windows 98, which a friend of mine plays in Windows 10, but it’s good.

The download at said it would take 55 minutes — unheard of! But trying it again later, it was zip quick, for reasons known only to the gremlins who haunt these things. Besides the Star Trek game, I played Stern’s free pinball game, Last Action Hero, named after the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. It’s a good thing I bought the $20 Logitech game pad to play it with. A mouse just doesn’t cut it.


Google’s free app Arts and Culture has a new feature: It lets you step into a famous painting, by tapping “Art Filters.” You need a phone that has augmented reality to make it work. I used my Pixel 3a. Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” put a headdress on my head. Frida Kahlo’s “Self-Portrait with Monkey,” put a monkey on my shoulder. I snapped a picture of myself and saved it. But the app’s links to the world’s best art museums are better than these augmented reality filters. No augmented reality required. No app required either. Just go to on your computer or phone.


I’ve just read the umpteenth tech columnist saying I should go to to find out how fast my internet connection is. I doubt they’ve actually gone to the site since the last Ice Age. It’s not working anymore. Now it takes you to the Chrome Web Store to install Safe Search, which warns that it can read all your data on the websites you visit, heh heh. Does that include the bank password I just typed in?

Instead of Speed Test, just Google “What’s My Internet Speed?” Besides giving you precise numbers, it will tell you if your speed is good, bad or indifferent.

Joy Schwabach can be reached by email at [email protected]