Tales from the world's last first-time smartphone owner

I've never really needed a smartphone. For voice communication, a flip-phone, yes. For Internet access when traveling, a Wi-Fi-capable tablet or small laptop, yes. But combining both functions in one device? Too large to be a convenient pocket phone, too small for me to use without +2.75 reading glasses, and I spend nearly all my time at home in front of a computer anyway. Also I'm nearly aged enough to be a crotchety old geezer, so I'm allowed.

Ah well. It's finally time to retire my 3G flip-phone before Verizon retires it for me. So I now have an LG Zone 4, a low-end device that runs Android 7 (which everyone calls Nougat because remembering 7 is too difficult). It apparently makes phone calls too.

My adventure commences...

There are 4½ cellphone networks in the US

Maybe you already knew this. You could never tell from the advertising. But there are only five companies in the US that own cellphone networks: Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile (which operate nationally) and U.S. Cellular (which is regional).

Every other cellphone service is a "Mobile Virtual Network Operator" (MVNO). They all buy wholesale network service from the 4½ companies, and resell it under their own label. Generally they can't tell you which network they're reselling, and generally you can find out pretty easily by searching the net. MVNOs are frequently cheaper than the Big 4½, especially for customers who don't need unlimited data or calling plans. I've been using a Verizon-reseller MVNO for several years with my antique flip-phone.

My phone is locked!

You will read about "locked" and "unlocked" phones. You will understand that a new phone, particularly one sold for a prepaid plan, may be locked to a particular network until certain time or payment thresholds have been reached.

You may therefore believe that a phone locked to a particular network can be immediately used with any MVNO that resells that network.

This belief will eventually make you sad, so I do not recommend it.

What really happens is, you're locked to a particular company, not to a particular network. If you buy a locked Verizon prepaid phone, you will be unable to activate it with anyone other than Verizon, until you've bought enough service to make up for the low, subsidized price of the phone, or until a big chunk of time has passed.

Connecting to Wi-Fi

Me, several years ago: "If this Wi-Fi router can take a 63-character password, it is by gosh going to GET a 63-character password, WITH symbols and random capitalization! Anyway, how many times will we need this?"

Me, with my new smartphone: <headdesk> <laboriously types in 63 random characters>

Me, a week later: I could have skipped typing the 63-character password if I had read the phone manual all the way down to Page 88 where it describes the "Connect by WPS Button" feature. <repeat headdesk>

So in case you don't know about this: Most Wi-Fi routers have a button labeled "WPS" ("Wi-Fi Protected Setup"). On your phone or computer, when you try to connect to a new password-protected Wi-Fi, there should be an option to enter the password OR press the WPS button on the router. If you press the button, you get connected without entering a password.

Updates and bloatware

The first thing I did when I got my phone was to remove the Verizon SIM card. I had not yet discovered the sadness of my locked-phone beliefs, and I planned to install a SIM card from an MVNO. But also, my inherent paranoia encouraged me to do as much setup as possible using only a Wi-Fi connection.

I'm glad I wasn't using my data plan. First, since the phone had been manufactured a whole 6 months previously, it had to install System Updates 3 and 4 and 5 and 6 and 7. That was about 2.5 GB by itself, and of course the phone doesn't ask you nicely, it just downloads and orders you to restart five times.

Then there were the regular Google Play Store updates for all the pre-installed apps. ("NFL Mobile? Why is this even on my phone?") Later, after I installed the Verizon SIM card, the first thing it did was to download and install ten more apps that I didn't want. I disabled or uninstalled 15 apps with Settings > Device > Application Manager.

The secret settings menu

Android has a "Developer options" menu that is hidden by default to protect you from yourself. To un-hide it:

  • Settings > System > About phone
  • Find where it says "Build number" and tap it 7 times in a row.
  • Observe that you can now access Settings > System > Developer options.

Seriously, you should leave most of the developer settings alone. But this is the place you can disable those data-hogging automatic system updates. (If you do this, you must occasionally check for, and install, any system updates, because these are frequently urgent security patches. Go to Settings > System > System updates to do this manually. You won't get a reminder notice, so don't forget.)

AppFlash, Verizon's pre-installed spyware

According to Verizon:

AppFlash is a content discovery service, which uses the power of your smartphone to make your life easier by giving you app, movie, music, and restaurant recommendations all in one place.

Let’s say you've heard about a movie from some friends but don't know where it's playing. AppFlash shows you apps where you can stream it. If it's still in theaters, AppFlash recommends apps where you can buy tickets. Want to see the trailer, read the reviews or get a ride to the theater? AppFlash shows you these apps too.

Don't have the app installed? AppFlash has an app streaming capability that lets you use some apps without the hassle of downloading or installing them on your device.

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation:

The software allows Verizon and its partners to track the apps you have downloaded and then sell ads to you across the Internet based [on] what those apps say about you, like which bank you use and whether you’ve downloaded a fertility app.

Verizon is touting “AppFlash” as a customer benefit. In reality, it is just the latest display of wireless carriers’ stunning willingness to compromise the security and privacy of their customers by preloading unwanted apps on users’ devices.

How to disable AppFlash:

  • Settings > Device > Home screen
  • In the Layout section, set AppFlash to OFF

Everything is an app!

"Phone" is an app. SMS messaging is an app. Even the keyboard is an app. Sheesh.

Well, this is useful (although confusing) if you like customizing things. Or if you must customize things. (I couldn't login on Facebook until I replaced my keyboard app, because the default keyboard was missing a symbol I use in my password!)

Anyway, here are some apps I'm using for basic functions:

Hacker's Keyboard looks like a computer keyboard, includes all the typical computer keyboard characters, and supports 30 keyboard layouts from all over the world.

I'm trying Mood Messenger for SMS/MMS messages. Seems to work, but it does lack the ability to send an SMS message to an e-mail address. It can also handle Facebook and Google messaging, as well as its own system which only works with other Mood users.

I've been using K-9 Mail for several years (on my tablet, and now on my smartphone). Some people like it and some hate it, and apparently the current version has some sync bugs, but it's been suiting my needs.

If you want a file manager that looks like something from the MS-DOS era, check out Ghost Commander. Very useful tool, and with the SMB plugin I can also transfer files to/from my desktop computer.

Why is there an app for that?

There's this thing called the World Wide Web that was invented 30 years ago. Brilliant idea: the user would only need to install one piece of software, a "web browser", and it would work with zillions of different services.

You don't need an app to access Facebook. All you need is a browser.

You don't need the CNN app to read news, or the Reddit app to use Reddit, or the YouTube app to watch videos.

If free online services are pushing you to use their app instead of a browser, it's because it makes you more valuable to them. You, and your personal information, are the product, and the sale price of that product is enhanced if they persuade you to use the app.

Okay, of course there are many exceptions. For example, if you're trained in CPR, there's an app called PulsePoint that will alert you if somebody nearby needs CPR (and it's also great for anyone who needs to follow fire/ambulance alerts). It does also work from a web browser, but the app is customized for one narrow purpose, to assist the users rather than to market their info.

[Related article: When you really want to use the website, but the website wants you to use the app]

Oh, and speaking of privacy...

For Android phones: Settings > Personal > Google services.

For anyone with a Google account: go to a Google app, open a menu, and find Settings.

Lots and lots of privacy-related features to set here.

As a crotchety old geezer in training, I am amazed by the different attitudes towards privacy today vs the 1990s. We shared copies of PGP on floppy disks. We raised hell about the Clipper Chip. What happened? Now, we leave our unencrypted private e-mails on Google's servers, and we love the convenience of using Google or Siri or Alexa as a very personal assistant. A couple of times a year we make a big public fuss about some corporation that's collecting and abusing our private data, we demand that The Government Should Crack Down On This, and then we continue using the very same services and handing them yet more private data.

Phone activation and PO Boxes

Some companies still cannot cope with customers who have different physical and billing addresses. Verizon is an example.

I mean, we've had Post Office Boxes for how many centuries now? But to use Verizon's online phone activation website, your credit card billing zipcode must match the zipcode of your physical address.

Yes, Customer Service can provide a way around this. Total effort about 2 hours, including online forms, online chat, and a voice call. The Customer Service folks were polite and knowledgable, but their assistance should not have been required for something as commonplace as this.

All I did was buy a prepaid phone from Walmart and try to activate it. Utterly ridiculous.

Throttling apps that overuse your data plan

Android 7 and later has a nifty feature called Data Saver. From the technical docs:

When a user enables Data Saver in Settings and the device is on a metered network, the system blocks background data usage and signals apps to use less data in the foreground wherever possible. Users can whitelist specific apps to allow background metered data usage even when Data Saver is turned on.

This is a money-saver. Turn it on in your notifications panel (you know, that pull-down thingie at the top of the screen). The default whitelist is okay, but if you want to mess with it, go to Settings > Data usage, select Data Saver from the menu, and touch Unrestricted data access.

Buy gifts for your phone

I bought it a gloriously-cyan case sold by OEAGO, and a nice Supershieldz glass screen protector. (And I bought myself a pair of stronger reading glasses.)

It's sorta sad that phones are made so marvelously thin, and then we feel obligated to double their thickness by adding a case. But the poor emaciated things really are slippery and shatter-prone.

I can't say yet how protective these add-ons are. If you do choose to install Supershieldz glass, do take the time to watch their installation video first.

Warning

A few closing words from my LG Zone 4 manual:

Do not place or answer calls while charging the device as it may short-circuit the device and/or cause electric shock or fire.

If I vanish from the Internet, you'll know what happened.