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smartphone buying tipsAre you looking to buy your mother the perfect smartphone? Finding the right device for the woman who carried you around for nine months takes a great deal of research and planning. For those of you looking to do the same, here’s the story of how I found the best smartphone for one of my favorite people in the world.

Meet my mother, a retired pay-roll services specialist for the State of California and a cyborg. Yes, my mother is literally a cyborg. We’ll get to that later.

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Like most retired state workers, she bears the ubiquitous arm brace, a battlefield splint for injuries endured during 30-years of faithful, and repetitive, service to the state. After retiring, she spends the majority of her days welded to a computer, hammering away at a newsletter, studying genealogy and surfing the web. Unlike most state workers, my mother is hearing-impaired, or in other words, deaf.

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At the age of five, her mother remarked that she was a poor listener. To which she replied:



Unfortunately, no doctor diagnosed her with the degenerative nerve disorder that would eventually destroy her hearing. Throughout the 1940s, 50s and early 60s, the audible world around her shrunk by inches, until one morning – aged 21 – she awoke to a deafening silence. Her ears finally quit.

In 1990, a cochlear implant restored the rudiments of hearing. The implantation surgery threaded an electrode into the core of her cochlea, the seashell like structure which enables us to hear. The electrode transmits an electrical signal from her magnetically attached processor, a device worn above her ear, to her cochlea.

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Even after the surgery and countless hardware upgrades, spoken language remains almost impossible for her to understand. My mother can only distinguish between noises in a very crude fashion. For her, sound can be described in terms of pitch and rhythm – but little else. However, her skill at reading lips is quite impressive. So much so that I learned from a very young age that swearing in front of your parent is not a good idea.

Ironically a woman who doesn’t know the difference between a browser and the Internet became one of the first 2,000 cybernetic organisms on the planet. Like the fictional character, Johnny Mnemonic, she literally carries around a chip in her head. But that doesn’t mean she has any special connection to, or understanding of, technology. Like most individuals from her generation, she’s not especially tech savvy. My mother still yells at me for all her computer woes, as if I was somehow responsible for designing Windows and Microsoft Word. It’s quite endearing.

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My mother is something of a tech pioneer. She and my father married over 35-years ago, something of a miracle in post-modern, divorce-prone America. They met through one of the first computer match-making services ever, at the University of California, Davis. For many of the deaf, computers can connect them to the hearing world in ways that previously were impossible. In the very recent past, employers heavily discriminated against the deaf. Thanks to the computer, she managed to find a good job with the state.

In fact, the first semi white-collar job she ever landed was with the state – one of the few organizations then that actively encouraged employment of the disabled. In her profession, the computer enabled her to break-away from the prison of manual labor and perform jobs that formerly were reserved for the hearing.

The same computer technology that partially restored her hearing and provided her with employment could give her even greater freedom from her pocket. But what kind of phone should I get for my trend-setting mom?

Part One: Gather Mom’s Information

When I decided to pick out a phone for my mother, it was with prior knowledge of her habits and tastes. My mother isn’t a very picky person. She loves studying genealogy, playing games and surfing the web. On occasion she needs to text message me or fire off an email on the go. All of those actions can be done from a smartphone, without much fuss. But before making any purchasing decisions, speak to your mother.

The most important questions in choosing a phone:

  • How many minutes a month does she chat with people on a cell phone?
  • How many text messages does she send or receive?
  • What kind of websites does she use while mobile?
  • What are her favorite websites and are there corresponding apps for them?
  • What are her favorite colors?

In my mother’s case, her major interests all have related smartphone apps. Her favorite genealogy website, has an official app (and it’s good, too). Angry Birds, of course, is available on nearly every Android and iOS product ever made. She doesn’t communicate much with her friends over the phone because of her disability, so she relies primarily on text messages and email. All of these things are a snap to handle on a smartphone. And she likes red.

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Unfortunately, there are complications.

She once mentioned feeling a sense of admiration after seeing her friends flashing iPhone 5s. Unfortunately, premium phones fall outside of her budget and signing a contract for a subsidized phone costs a great deal more in the long-run. Because she needs only text messaging functions and Internet access, any service plan with a monthly allotment of talk time would waste her money.

So what does mom need?

A fast and easy-to-use phone that plays games, handles text messages and comes with an inexpensive data plan.Her deafness precludes voice calls, so SMS and data are her only requirements. Aside from that, she’d also enjoy a great-looking phone.

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Part Two: How-to Get Mom a Smartphone Service Plan

I always advise buying a service plan Get Your Prepaid Mobile Phone Plan As Cheap As Possible: Four Tips To Save Hundreds! Get Your Prepaid Mobile Phone Plan As Cheap As Possible: Four Tips To Save Hundreds! In the United States, T-Mobile made history by becoming the first cellular carrier to not force customers into buying multi-year contracts. After the policy shift, T-Mo users can purchase subsidized phones independent of a monthly... Read More before the phone itself. Smartphones generally are interchangeable, with relatively few features to distinguish from one another. On the other hand, differences between plans can be extraordinary – the wrong plan can costs hundreds more per year!

A little known fact about smartphone plans: The phones are actually pretty expensive and the service plans should come cheap. The carrier subsidies disguise the true price of the phone while bloating the monthly payments.

There’s a single rule to buying a smartphone or regular phone and that’s never buy a locked device. On locked devices, the up-front costs may be lower, but the long-term costs are always dramatically higher. For example, an unlocked iPhone 5 costs $600 as of 2013. You can buy one for $200 with a ~$90/month contract, but over the length of a two-year contract, you (or she) will pay $1,000 extra over the cost of an iPhone without a contract, in the US and Canada.

If your mother already signed a multi-year contract (she’s likely an American or Canadian if so), don’t have her sign a contract extension in order to get a new phone. Just wait out the current contract and buy an unlocked phone.

There’s a large number mobile virtual network operators No Longer Tied to a Cellular Contract? 10 Reasons You Should Switch To An MVNO No Longer Tied to a Cellular Contract? 10 Reasons You Should Switch To An MVNO Are you out of contract with your cellular provider? Rather than upgrading your phone, and signing a new contract, consider switching to a mobile virtual network operator, or MVNO. You can save hundreds, even thousands,... Read More , which provide inexpensive alternatives to the big carriers, available for the United States and Canada. Elsewhere, you can find lists for India, EuropeAustralia and Asia.

Part Three: Where Do I Buy a Phone For Mom?

The best place to find unlocked phones is on Amazon. While I prefer the variety offered by the low-cost of Android devices, another great place to buy an unlocked smartphone is the Apple Store, which has both the iPhone 5 and the 4S. In general, most retirees with little computer experience have few issues learning to use an iOS product.

When selecting a phone, be aware of the various components available in modern devices. Here’s a list of the competing technologies that modern smartphones come equipped with:

  • Smartphone or a dumbphone? Some moms may not want to deal with the complexity of a smartphone — in which case, a regular candy bar phone should do fine. Candy bar phones may lack functionality but they make up for that with simplicity and long battery endurance.
  • iOS or Android: The first question you should ask is whether or not your mother has a great deal of iOS products already. If she isn’t locked into a particular app market, you may want to save some money by going with an Android phone. However, you may want to visit a mobile phone dealer to try out the various operating systems.
  • Single VS multi-cores: The majority of apps and user interfaces are single-threaded. Having multiple cores helps, but any core beyond the second will make only a marginal improvement in the handset’s performance. For most consumers, a dual-core phone is fast enough. For hardcore gamers, you may want a more state-of-the-art device.
  • NFC technology: NFC technology allows its user to tap the phone against an NFC tag, which triggers an app within the phone. It’s already widely adopted, although few phones include this feature. Unless your mother regularly uses public transit, though, chances are she won’t require this feature. If you’re interested in learning more about the latest uses for NFC technology, you can read more here.
  • CDMA VS GSM: There are two major cellular technologies in wide adoption worldwide. CDMA is more popular in the US and Japan, whereas GSM dominates the marketplace worldwide. However, GSM remains the easiest to work with out of all the technologies. I recommend GSM.
  • AMOLED VS IPS LCD screens: AMOLED screens generally use less power than IPS screens, although IPS technology tends to present better screen quality.

My mother wasn’t particular interested in the details. For the most part, she wanted her phone to look good and run fast, while providing easy access to her favorite apps. I chose a GooPhone i5S phone How to spot an iPhony! Are GooPhones as Good as iPhones? How to spot an iPhony! Are GooPhones as Good as iPhones? Do you own an iPhone 5? Or do you wish you could own Apple’s latest but can't afford the ridiculous cost? It may surprise you to hear that the iPhone 5 has a cheap knock-off... Read More , which appears remarkably similar to the iPhone 5. It came with all the requisite features and a lot more, for very little money.

Part Four: How to Outfit Mom’s Phone

Believe it or not, smartphones are status symbols. If your mother is anything like mine, she’ll want her phone to distinguish her from her friends while providing eye-candy. For those interested in creating something beautiful, I suggest using a combination of either a Gelaskins or Dbrand skin with a colored bumper. Also consider a screen protector – one of the best is from Zagg, although pretty much any kind will work. Another accessory to remember is the road kit, including a GPS mount and Bluetooth earpiece.

The red Dbrand faux-leather skin and bumper, pictured below, cost approximately $12, together. Aside from looking great, they also give a great rubbery grip.

  • Bumper: A bumper provides a sleek alternative to a bulky case, since it only covers the sides of the phone. While these provide a very minimal amount of protection for the phone, they combine beautifully with some of the various skins on the market.

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  • Rear skin: A rear skin can really make your mother’s phone stand-out. However, if she prefers durability over beauty, strongly consider buying a hybrid two-layer case instead.


  • Screen protector: For the fastidious, who hate air bubbles ruining the aesthetic beauty of their phone, consider researching proper application. Aaron does an exceptional job explaining the various methods The Best Way To Apply a Screen Protector To Your Phone Or Tablet The Best Way To Apply a Screen Protector To Your Phone Or Tablet Have you ever seen someone’s phone with a giant bubble in the middle between the screen protector and the screen? Perhaps you’ve been that person or are trying not to be that person. Whether you... Read More of applying a screen protector. I suggest using his tape method.
  • Bluetooth earpiece: In many countries in Europe and North America, driving with the phone up to your head is a crime, punishable by a rather steep fine. Your mother shouldn’t have to worry about getting pulled over. Consider a Bluetooth headset.
  • GPS mount: If she occasionally uses the phone for navigation, a GPS mount is the absolute best peripheral device possible.


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My mother couldn’t have been happier with the GooPhone i5S phone How to spot an iPhony! Are GooPhones as Good as iPhones? How to spot an iPhony! Are GooPhones as Good as iPhones? Do you own an iPhone 5? Or do you wish you could own Apple’s latest but can't afford the ridiculous cost? It may surprise you to hear that the iPhone 5 has a cheap knock-off... Read More I picked out for her. It cost $150 and comes with a $4.00 per month service plan — well within her budget. In particular, she liked the phone’s feel and its speed.

I like how it’s so easy to hold — because of the rubber sides. It’s so quick, and snappy.

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The GooPhone brand uses the same form factor as the iPhone 5, so all third party peripheral devices for the iPhone 5 fit perfectly on the i5S. While GooPhone’s device lacked the polish and reliability of Apple’s latest, it’s still a relatively good phone for the value.

Lately she’s been using the phone to shoot me all-caps text messages while waiting in line at the supermarket.

Anyone else love their mother and want to get them the perfect phone? Let us know in the comments.

Image Credits: Cochlear Implant via Wikipedia.

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