DIMBERU: How to Build a Poor Man’s iPhone

I am cheap. No, wait, I’m frugal. There is a difference. When you’re cheap, you don’t want to pay for anything. When you’re frugal, you are willing to pay for things that are worth it. Ask anyone who really knows me and they will confirm this. I wear multiple layers of clothing at home and put plastic on my windows so I can keep my heat turned off for much of the winter. I use Relay Rides to rent out my car to people in the community since I mostly walk or bike around town. (Quick, shameless plug: if you are looking for a hot set of wheels on an hourly or daily basis, look me up!) I try to vacation in places where it’s the off-season so everything is heavily discounted. I went to Iceland last winter. OK, you get the point.

As I grow bolder with each cost-cutting success, I’ve decided that nothing is off the table. I often like to say that despite my political leanings, I take the Republican approach with my personal budget: cuts, cuts and more cuts. So while looking for ways to save money, I thought that paying $60 a month for cell phone service was too much. Reviewing my voice, text and data usage for the previous year confirmed it. I had to find an alternative.

Now, my only dilemma was that I really wanted an iPhone — mainly because of all the useful apps, but also because iPhones are just cool. My Palm phone (yes, the company that used to make the Palm Pilot) was very limited in the apps department simply because developers weren’t interested in making them for the wacky webOS operating system. Plus, Sprint charges an extra $10 premium data fee for the iPhone.

So what would a frugal guy do? Well, after learning about several apps that allow you to use Google Voice as a phone, he’d come up with a plan to build what I call the “poor man’s iPhone.” Did I mention it’s completely free? I bought an iPod Touch (used, of course) since it’s basically an iPhone minus the phone and ditched my real phone altogether. Now, after several months of testing in the real world, I’m ready to share my experience with all of you.

First, if it wasn’t already apparent, using an iPod Touch as a phone requires a Wi-Fi connection and a hands-free set if you don’t want to be on speakerphone constantly. Whenever I’m on campus or at home, Wi-Fi isn’t an issue. The calls are clear and texting is easy. As I mentioned above, you also need a Google Voice account. It’s free and you can either get a new number with any area code you want or you can use an existing number. I would suggest creating a new account for this, though, rather than simply adding Google Voice to your regular Gmail account. This way, you avoid your email account being inundated with messages about every single call, text and voice mail you make or receive.

OK, so how about the apps? Well, they all work basically the same. You sign into Google Voice through the app and it routes all your communication to the iPod. But that is where the similarities end. I was initially using an app called Talkatone, but I quickly grew weary of it. Talkatone is slow to load, crashes much too often and has a weird lag when you are talking to someone. This lag results in an awkward silence that the other person tries to fill while I’m in the middle of replying. As you can imagine, it was very annoying.

Now I use Mo+ GV Phone, and it is fantastic! The user interface is superb and all the features are very intuitive. Most importantly, there is no lag when you’re on a voice call, so it works just like a real phone. There are other apps too, including one made by Google, but this is by far the best I’ve tried. The many glowing reviews at the App Store confirm its superiority.

Finally, you may be asking what I do when I’m not on a Wi-Fi network. I figure there are two main options besides moving to a place with free and almost ubiquitous Wi-Fi. You can get a cheap prepaid cellphone (which I currently have) or get one of those mobile Wi-Fi devices so you have Wi-Fi anywhere you go. To test the latter option, I briefly tried Virgin Mobile, but the service was spotty. I’ve heard a similar complaint from a friend using T-Mobile. From my experience, the only network that would be worth it is Verizon because it is simply the best and fastest — and the most expensive unless you share a plan with one or more people. So, anybody want to tag team a Verizon data plan with me?

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