Android Technology Explained

How I Helped My Mom Buy The Perfect Smartphone

Kannon Yamada 05-07-2013

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.

buy the best smartphone

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 4 Tips for Saving Money on Prepaid Mobile Phone Plans 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 10 Money-Saving 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? 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.



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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? 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.

2013-06-26 07.28.11

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.

Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the site alive. Read more.

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  1. Dave P
    July 8, 2013 at 6:04 pm

    Great article, Kannon. My parents are far too independent to let me even help them pick out a phone for them, but if that day ever comes I'll know how to start the process :)

    • Kannon Yamada
      July 8, 2013 at 7:36 pm

      Aw, thanks Superior Dave! ;-)

      My parents are totally dependent on me for tech tips. You will never know how lucky you are.

      • Dave Parrack
        July 9, 2013 at 8:46 pm

        I am inferior, secondary Dave, surely!

        You might be right, but then they do ask for help when something goes wrong...

  2. Eweforia
    July 6, 2013 at 7:12 pm

    Great article, Kannon. I was particularly interested in your comments about Lycamobile. I am a neanderthal and use a cell phone only for emergencies. No one has my phone number. So a pay-as-you-go plan would work best for me. I tell myself that I don't need a smartphone but I've enjoyed my Kindle Fire and suspect that I'd use a smartphone more for its apps than for its cell coverage. Do you think that Lycamobile would be the best option for me? Do you just prepay $5 and then pay another $5 in three months? Or is there a start-up fee? (I know these are very naive questions, but you write with patience, so I feel safe asking you.) And is there a cheaper way to go if I decide against a smartphone? (These are good questions for you to use in a new MakeUseOf article.)

    • Kannon Yamada
      July 7, 2013 at 8:33 pm

      Eweforia, thank you very much for the kind words!

      Lycamobile is a very new company and whether or not their customer service is on par with Ptel remains to be seen. But their prices can't be beat for those who don't use their phone often. Unfortunately, they recently raised their prices on their other plans and I imagine that they plan something similar for their pay-go offering. Another issue with Lycamobile is how little information they've published on their pay-go. I'm not sure whether or not they have minute expiry (where your balance expires after a set period of time) and the $5/90 days isn't published anywhere I could find on their site - and I looked really, really hard.

      That leads me to suspect they will change this at some point.

      Another concerns with MVNOs like Lycamobile is coverage. Lycamobile uses the T-Mobile network. They rent broadcast spectrum in bulk and sell to us at a discount. So if you don't get T-Mobile coverage in your area, you will need to find a company that rents spectrum from AT&T, which has higher prices. And if you're not covered by AT&T, unfortunately, your options narrow dramatically. Fortunately, because these are cheap plans without contracts, you can try different services out before committing to one.

      Regarding the payment - PayGo plans are common among prepaid carriers (MVNOs). They work like this:

      1. You pay into an account to maintain "service" or, in other words, to keep your phone number. If you fail to make a payment, even if there's money in your account, the phone won't be able to make calls or use mobile networks.

      2. Use of the phone subtracts money from your account at a predefined rate. Lycamobile's rates are something like 2 cents a minute of talk time. 6 cents per megabyte of data transferred and 5 cents per text message. This is an industry best. But again, because they're a new company it's not clear whether or not they plan on changing their prices at any point in the future. Also, their website is notoriously difficult to use.

      3. Any startup fee is in the price of the SIM card, which will be inserted into your phone. SIM cards normally cost about $5, but some are offered for free. Make sure you have the right size SIM card. There's two common size standards right now - miniSIM and microSIM. These can actually be cut to fit or adapted to fit onto any size SIM standard, but it's tedious.

      If you elect to use a regular phone, and are only making emergency calls, Lycamobile and Ptel still have the best PayGo plans around. You just wouldn't be using their data service. And, in fact, it would actually be quite a bit easier to use a regular phone, since the data-coverage issue that MVNOs suffer from isn't a concern.

      BTW, I think the neanderthals actually had much larger brains than our species. :-)

  3. dragonmouth
    July 6, 2013 at 12:18 am

    You're a very good son, Kannon. :-)

    My wife is looking for a phone. The article will be very helpful. Tnx

    • Kannon Yamada
      July 6, 2013 at 5:33 am

      Thanks DM! :-)

      I would suggest an MVNO if you are getting onto a new plan. I wrote several articles on the subject.

      I tried my best to explain what an MVNO is here:


      Basically, they offer cheaper rates at the expense of data connectivity coverage. So you will experience a slight (depending on your region) to moderate reduction in smartphone data coverage. But if you are using a regular mobile phone, they're almost indistinguishable from the big four carriers in terms of call quality. Thanks again for the comment!

  4. Paul
    July 5, 2013 at 8:26 pm

    OK, I'll bite. Where can you get a GooPhone i5S phone for $150 that comes with a $4.00 per month service plan.

    Nice job explaining needs/benefits and laying it all out. I bet she's really happy.

    • Kannon Yamada
      July 6, 2013 at 5:25 am

      Good question. I would try getting an unlocked phone from either Amazon or eBay.

      You can also import them from a variety of sources, such as DHgate, Alibaba or several other places online.

      However, I would warn that buying from a Chinese importer is risky. DHGate has an escrow service, but it requires that you use Western Union to transfer them money. Therefore, if the seller never delivers, then you don't pay. But if they ship a lemon, you're going to have to file a complaint with DHgate and you may or may not get your money back.

      To pay around $4 a month, you need to sign up with a prepaid carrier, also known as an MVNO. Lycamobile charges $5 every 90 days and has the lowest rates out of all PayGo services. Another great service is Ptel, which (pay-as-you-go) using a 25% discount coupon (which will periodically show up) costs about $4-5 per month, depending on whether or not you pay the $10 per sixty days or the $40/180 days plan.

      Unfortunately, LycaMobile JUST raised their rates, but I think you can still get in on the $5 per 90 days deal.

      Unfortunately, many of the phones produced in China won't fully work on a T-Mobile network. You might be restricted to 2G data speeds, depending on a number of variables.

      In this article I explain some of the variables involved. You would do best to use an MVNO that uses the AT&T network.

      Hope that answered your question. Thanks for the comment!

  5. nigelboor
    July 5, 2013 at 8:00 pm

    iPhone form factor = knock off
    + Apple branded case?
    Look out for Infinite Loop lawyers!

    MakeUseOf also dubious about quality (// so how good a deal is this compared to mid range Samsung or Sony?

    • Kannon Yamada
      July 6, 2013 at 4:40 am

      Good point! I wrote that article, by the way. :-)

      How much do you pay for those Samsungs or Sonys unlocked? In the United States, most customers aren't aware that they can purchase unlocked phones (pseudo-knockoffs and brand name) from Amazon and eBay.

      They tend to pay around $100-200 USD for "subsidized" phones under legally binding contract, which cost over a thousand per year in service charges.

      I presume you are from Europe? I've never known an American or Canadian named Nigel. :-) Europeans are very lucky to not suffer under the same conditions. Although United Kingdom does have contracts similar to the US, I'm not aware of their specific legal obligations.

      The part that's particularly dubious regarding the "knock-off" phones is the lack of warranty. Officially, GooPhone warranties all their products, but whether or not they honor them outside of China is completely up in the air.

      In the US an unlocked midrange Sony would run about $400-500. If you can grab a Chinese branded phone for $100-200, unlocked, even if it fails, you still have around $200-300 left to throw around. I would imagine their reliability isn't quite up either Sony or Samsung, but the amount you save might make up for that difference.

      There are also a number of legitimate Chinese companies that build very well priced phones, such as Jiayu.

      So in a very long-winded way, the answer to your question is this: It's a good deal for those who want to save money and don't mind a higher failure rate. For example, if you misplace your phone frequently, or live in a high crime neighborhood - or if you need a burner.

      • Rajaa Chowdhury
        July 7, 2013 at 12:03 pm

        Case in point, a pretty well built chinese phone is the Oppo Find 5.

        • Kannon Yamada
          July 7, 2013 at 5:58 pm

          Nice! XDA did a review of the Oppo Find 5 - it's a shockingly good phone. The styling, design and build quality are very high.

      • Rajaa Chowdhury
        July 7, 2013 at 12:07 pm

        So ultimately the GooPhone featured in your article Kannon. :) BTW, you got your mother's good looks. My regards to auntie and you both a very happy and healthy life ahead. :)

        • Kannon Yamada
          July 7, 2013 at 6:05 pm

          :-) That's probably the best photo ever taken of me. And it's a few years old, so I look much younger. But thank you Rajaa! My mother will be very happy to hear that!