Before you buy that iPhone – don’t get handcuffed

With the release of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, its as good a time as any to talk about the devious tactics the American wireless carriers use to get you to overpay for your new phone.

Of the American carriers, Verizon, AT&T and Sprint offer subsidized pricing at $199 / $299 / $399 for the iPhone 6 configurations, and $100 more for each iPhone 6 Plus configuration. You can buy these phones off contract for $450 more. Apple currently sells the T-Mobile edition of the phone for $649 / $749 / $849 for the iPhone 6 and again, $100 more for the iPhone 6 Plus.

Now you may be thinking that the T-Mobile prices are higher than their subsidized versions, but you would be wrong. Sure, the carriers are giving you a $450 credit on the purchase price of the phone, but they more than make up for it over the length of that 2 year contract.

If you want to save yourself hundreds of dollars, opt for paying for the full price of the phone upfront. If you go this route on the Verizon, AT&T or Sprint, you will forgo many of the ‘gotcha’ fees that the carriers attach to cover their outlay of that $450 subsidy.

If you want to save yourself even more money, buy the phone unlocked and off contract (with a T-Mobile SIM), and choose a carrier who isn’t going to handcuff you to a 2 year contract.

Apple has traditionally offered a ‘Unlocked’ model of the iPhone, but it usually doesn’t go up for sale until 30-60 days after the initial launch (probably to appease the carriers who see huge spikes in membership during the iPhone launches). This year however, Apple is offering the T-Mobile edition of the iPhone at launch.

Now, here’s the secret: If you buy the phone from T-Mobile (even though you are paying full price for it), the phone will be locked to their network. If you buy the phone directly from Apple, and don’t go through the activation process with the T-Mobile SIM card that comes with it, the phone is unlocked to a carrier, and will work with any GSM network.

Here are the options you have for contract free GSM networks here in the U.S.:

1) Straight Talk Wireless – Run by Walmart, using AT&T’s & T-Mobile’s network as a MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator). Straight Talk has one plan for $45/month for unlimited talk, text and data. On Straight Talk, ‘unlimited’ data means 3GB of data in a 30 day cycle. After you use that up, you are reduced to 2G (or EDGE) speeds. Straight Talk recently added LTE (if the phone you bring is LTE capable) speeds to their plan.

2) Cricket Wireless – Cricket is a venture by AT&T to offer a contract free, low cost offering. Cricket uses AT&T’s networks and offers great nationwide coverage. Cricket has 3 plans that start at $40/month and increase by $10 depending upon data offering (1GB data for $40/month/3GB of data for $50/month/10GB data for $60/month). Cricket also has a ‘auto pay’ discount. Give Cricket your credit or debit card for your monthly bill and have them auto bill you each month, and you’ll receive a $5/month discount. Cricket offers LTE speeds (where available) and is overall a great option. There’s one small downside though: Cricket limits your top LTE speed to 8mbps. 8mbps isn’t slow by any stretch of the imagination, but if you are used to LTE speeds double that (any many LTE offerings can burst to 2x-4x that speed), this might be deal breaker for you. But Cricket overall has the most rounded plans and offerings in the no contract world at the moment. $55/month (with prepay discount) for 10GB of high speed data on AT&T’s network is an amazing deal.

3) T-Mobile Monthly 4G – T-Mobile has prepaid offerings in addition to their standard ‘Simple Choice’ plans. Their most popular prepaid offering is their $30/month plan for unlimited data and 100 minutes of talk. To get this deal, you will have to go to Walmart and buy the T-Mobile SIM Starter Kit for iPhone. Walmart charges $40 for this kit, but you get a $30 credit on your first month of service, so you are getting the SIM for $10 essentially. This plan gives you 5GB of LTE data (after which you will be throttled down to 2GB speeds, and 100 minutes of talk. Additional talk minutes are available for 10 cents/minute. T-Mobile’s prepaid plans don’t require a credit check, so if your credit is in the crapper, this plan can be helpful in re-establishing your credit.

These 3 MVNO GSM carriers are your best bet for low cost, no contract cell service in the U.S. Depending upon your location, there may also be regional MVNO carriers available to you.

If you do a lot of talking, and can keep your data under 3GB/month, Straight Talk is a great option now that they are offering LTE speeds. If you want flexibility and want the best network possible off contract, Cricket Wireless can’t be beat. They offer a 3GB plan for the same $45/month as Straight Talk, but it’s on AT&T’s network, and you have the option to ramp it up if you need more data (10GB for $55/month) or down (1GB for $35/month). That level of flexibility can’t be matched by any of the other MVNOs at the moment.

If you are a cheapskate who doesn’t like talking to other people, and can keep your minutes at 100 or less each month, the T-Mobile $30/month plan will save you lots of money. T-Mobile is also the only carrier (when used with the iPhone 6) that will give you Wifi calling, a nice feature if the carrier’s signal in your home isn’t very strong. One thing to note however, is that even though your call may go out over wifi, it’s still counting against your minutes. Of course, there’s always Google Voice or calling with Facetime Calling to avoid using minutes.

AT&T and Verizon still dominate the landscape with their draconian wireless plans, but things are steadily improving. You now have many options for low cost, great feature, no contact smartphone plans nationwide. And if the trend continues, we should see many more pop up over the next couple of years.

Category: Cellphones,iPhone

Thoughts on OS X Yosemite

Another WWDC has come and gone, and now that I’ve had time to use the Developer Preview of Yosemite, I’m going to offer my opinions on some of the changes. This is not a review, as Yosemite is still very much in development, and much could still change between now and it’s shipping date.


I knew after the reveal of iOS 7 last year that OS X was going to get a similar treatment. It just makes sense for them have a familiar look between them. Not having been a fan of the visual stylings of iOS 7, this was something I was very worried about.

Now that Yosemite has been revealed, I’m breathing a sigh of relief. Yes, it drags the OS X UI kicking in screaming in to conformity with iOS, but it still retains much of it’s ‘mac’-ness. That said, there’s much to complain about. Like:

System wide use of Helvetica Neue: Look, I love Helvetica Neue. It’s one of my favorite fonts for layout and design. And maybe I’m just an old crumudgeon who can’t adapt after looking at Lucida Grande for 14 years. But Helvetica Neue as the OS X system font makes the typography look bland to me.  The kerning between some characters looks off to me, and I’m just having a difficult time adjusting to the change. Maybe a few months with the betas will soften my opinion here.

Finder 300x300 Thoughts on OS X YosemiteAnd then there are the icons. While not as dumbed down as the icons were in iOS 7, they’ve been dumbed down significantly from the beautifully detailed icons we’ve grown accustomed to over the last 14 years. The Finder icon itself, while still retaining the familiar duality face, now has a more ‘whimsical’ look to it.

In this release, not all of the icons have been given the new treatment. For example, the Migration Assistance (Applications > Utilities > Migration Assistant) is still using the old style Finder icon.

As demonstrated in the WWDC keynote, Yosemite uses transparency to a larger extent throughout the UI chrome. Safari, for example, features a semi transparent toolbar, so that when you scroll up, you can some what make out your content underneath, albeit blurred and masked. The Finder’s sidebar is also semi transparent, allowing it to take on muted hues from whatever your desktop background is.

Luckily, both of these annoyances can be disabled in the Accessibility Preference Pane.

But even with them disabled, much of the app chrome now has very little contrast between it and it’s content. I get that Apple is trying to design an experience where the app ‘gets out of the way’, but it just feels a little bland and washed out.

One feature I heralded during the keynote was the dark mode for the menu bar and menus. That feature is not present in the Developer Preview at present, but I expect it to be my default mode when Yosemite ships.

Safari 8 features some new UI features, designed to provide a better way to get to your favorites than the venerable Favorites Bar. The Favorites Bar still exists, so this is a change that isn’t obtrusive if you don’t like it. There’s also a new ‘tab view’ that shows you all your tabs, along with pages open on your other iOS devices.

All in all the UI changes in Safari seem pretty good…. except one. Apple has moved the toolbar in Safari to sit horizontally aligned with the close, minimize and full screen buttons. In theory, this is good because it reduces the amount of vertical space needed for the browser chrome – space that is at a premium on widescreen monitors. It’s bad because muscle memory means every time I try to use the back button, I end up closing the browser window. I didn’t like this change when it came to Internet Explorer, and I don’t like it now on Safari.

In an effort to make them appear more at home with the thin Helvetica Neue font, Apple has changed the menu bar icons to be thinner. For icons this size, this is a huge mistake. They are already very smaller targets that are hard to read, and now they are even harder to read. And for some reason, the battery indiciator is now green, like the old battery indicator in iOS 6 and earlier. I suspect this change might get reversed, as iOS 7′s menu bar battery indicator is a solid color (white) as well.


Screen Shot 2014 06 07 at 2.41.52 PM 300x205 Thoughts on OS X YosemiteSpotlight gets it’s first real update in years, starting with a new prominent position centered in the display when it is activated (ala Alfred or Quicksilver). Spotlight also searches more than just your computer, pulling in data from web services. So far in the Developer Preview, there doesn’t seem to be a way to turn this off. I’m hoping this is fixed, because the last thing I was is for my kids to be able to perform a search and bypass any parental filters I have put on their web browsing.


If you are a fan of Dashboard, this is the release that prepares you for it’s inevitable doom. Apple is putting a large focus on using Widgets in Notification Center. These Widgets are unlike the old Dashboard widgets in that they are written in Cocoa and not HTML/CSS/Javascript, and they conform to the size restraints of the Notification Center container.

Dashboard is still present in Yosemite, but it’s buried in the Mission Control Preference. When enabled though, it can be displayed as Mission Control space, or as an overlay.

The Dock

After living with the angled platform dock since Leopard’s release, Apple has returned us to the simplistic dock of years prior. The dock background, like so much else in the OS now, uses blurred transparency. Not much else has changed about the dock, but if you are a fan of keeping it on the left or right hand side of the screen, and liked the dark background it had in this position since Snow Leopard’s release, you will be sad to know that it now features the same blurred transparency it has in the bottom position. Another design mis-fire has the application tooltip in a gray color with black type. This is a further example of the low contrast movement foisted on us in Yosemite, and one that definitely makes it harder to read the app titles.

Screen Shot 2014 06 07 at 2.59.03 PM Thoughts on OS X Yosemite

The only other change  present in the dock in Yosemite happens when you use the new Handoff feature. In this scenario, the app that can be handed off shows up on the left hand side of the dock (in the first position before the Finder). Since I’m not moving to iOS 8 until it is released, this is not something I could test.


Even with all my griping, I think I will be happy with Yosemite when it finally launches. Yes, the UI changes are not my cup of tea, but honestly, I expected them to go much further than what they have. There’s much to like feature wise in Yosemite, and I’m excited for it’s fall arrival.


Category: Apple,OS X,Widgets,WWDC

Digitally sign documents using OS X Mavericks

One of the cooler, often overlooked features of OS X Mavericks is it’s ability to scan a signature using your iSight camera, and the ability to use that signature to digitally sign a PDF document. This tutorial will walk you through setting this up. To get started, you’ll need a couple of things.

  • A Mac running OS X Mavericks.
  • An iSight camera (either built in to your Mac or your monitor).

Let’s get started. First, you’ll need a signature that can be scanned. When creating your signature, I suggest using a black marker/pen and white paper. The thicker the marker, the better the signature will come out when scanned. Preview will not let you create new documents, so we are going to create and empty PDF file in TextEdit first that will serve as our canvas. You can use any application that can create empty PDF files, but since OS X comes with TextEdit, we’ll use this app. To this open TextEdit, and create a new empty document. Now click EXPORT AS PDF from the FILE MENU. Let’s call this file ‘Canvas.pdf’. tut 4 20 14 1 Digitally sign documents using OS X Mavericks Now let’s open the ‘Canvas.pdf’ file you just created with Preview. Now, go to the Preferences area of Preview, click on Signatures, and create signature. Your isight camera will become active. tut 04 20 2 Digitally sign documents using OS X MavericksNow hold up your signature in front of your camera and position it inside the window, using the alignment guide to get your signature as straight as you can. A couple of notes here: The better lit your surroundings are, the better quality your signature will be. Trying to scan in a dark room will make it harder to get a good scan of your signature. Once you have your signature positioned the way you want it, click accept signature. This signature is now stored inside PDF, and can be used within Preview to electronically sign documents. To do this, open your document in Preview and click on ‘SHOW EDIT TOOLBAR’ Once the toolbar is revealed, you will see an icon that says ‘Sig’. tut 04 20 3 Digitally sign documents using OS X Mavericks Click the icon and select your signature. Then click on the screen where you would like your signature placed. You can grab on one of the handles of the signature and resize it to fit. tut 04 20 4 Digitally sign documents using OS X Mavericks

Category: Apple,Mavericks,OS X,Tutorial

iPhone 6 Mock Up & Case

So much for doubling down on secrecy.

Time will tell whether this mock up and case are the real deal, but if they are, you have to wonder… With using 3rd party labor and manufacturing, is it even possible for Apple to keep something under wraps anymore? Is the secrecy that preceded projects like the iPhone and iPad a thing of the past?

Category: iPhone,Rumor

End of the upgradeable portable Mac?

In what will certainly come as no surprise to anyone who follows Apple, the company is reportedly preparing to cease production of it’s last upgradeable portable computer – the Macbook Pro (non Retina) 13″.

According to DigiTimes, Apple will stop production of the last user upgradeable Mac sometime in the second half of 2014. (more…)

Category: Apple,Hardware

Apple releases fixes for 13″ Macbook Pro, Mail

Apple has pushed two significant updates today that address a serious hardware issue plaguing new 13″ Retina Macbook Pro models, and the Mail app in Mavericks and how it works with Gmail.

The late 2013 13″ Macbook Pro update is an EFI Update (v 1.3)  that addresses the situation where the keyboard and trackpad may become unresponsive.

The update addresses the strange Gmail behavior exhibited in Mavericks when using a Gmail account.

Both updates are available using the links above, or by using the Mac App Store.

Category: App Store,Mac App Store,Software

Lion Disk Maker

ldm Lion Disk Maker

Getting your OS updates from the Mac App Store can be a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because once the file is downloaded, installing from your local drive is much quicker than the old method of CD/DVD installation. It can be a curse because downloading a 4GB disk image is not a quick task for most people. And if you have multiple Macs that need to be updated, it will require you to download that 4GB disk image multiple times. 

There have been ways to take the OS Install disk image and create a bootable USB thumb drive from it since the Mac App Stores inception. It’s not an overly tedious process, but it’s not what I’d call drop dead easy.

Lion Disk Maker changes all of that. Download the app, open it up, and locate your copy of your OS X install, and Lion Disk Maker does the rest. 

With OS X Mavericks coming soon, you may want to check this app out and get your USB thumb drive ready.

Category: Mac App Store,Software

The New iPad

It’s pretty rare in prerelease speculation that the blogs get the specs of a new device right, but get the new devices name wrong. But such is the case of the new iPad. Not the iPad HD. Not the iPad 3. Just iPad. Makes sense though if you think about it. We don’t have MacBook Pro HDs, or iPod Touch 3s. I suspect the next iPhone will probably be called just iPhone as well.

As to the new device itself, it falls in line with predictions. Retina display. 4G LTE. New graphics chip to handle the extra resolution. New iSight camera with 5MP and 1080p recording. Just about every internal component has been upgraded.

Curiously, the one component that hasn’t been upgraded – the FaceTime camera – could have really improved the FaceTime experience if it had been upgraded to take advantage of the new resolution. As someone who FaceTimes regularly with family, it’s an improvement I would have welcomed. But I’m quibbling. This is a huge upgrade. Anyone who tries to paint this as a disappointment is being disingenuous.

Each iPad iteration brings more software to the platform that allows the iPad to be used for real world tasks. With this upgrade, Apple rolled out iPhoto. In true Apple fashion, it is a beautiful reimaging of the software used to organize and edit photos. With the improved screen, the iPad has the potential to become the travelling photographers tool of choice for in the field proofing, editing and sharing.

Category: iPad

How the U.S. lost out on iPhone work

20120121 181520 How the U.S. lost out on iPhone work

Great article from the NY Times:

Apple executives say that going overseas, at this point, is their only option. One former executive described how the company relied upon a Chinese factory to revamp iPhone manufacturing just weeks before the device was due on shelves. Apple had redesigned the iPhone’s screen at the last minute, forcing an assembly line overhaul. New screens began arriving at the plant near midnight.

A foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the company’s dormitories, according to the executive. Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into beveled frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was producing over 10,000 iPhones a day.

The article skirts some of the main reasons why types of jobs aren’t coming back” Specifically, no mention is made of the high taxes companies pay in the US (which results in these jobs being filled overseas by ‘contractors’, whom Apple is not liable for).

Jobs is probably right that these jobs are never coming back to the U.S. though. And that scares the hell out of me. One day soon, the Asian companies that produce the hardware will figure out how to produce software that is good enough, and once that happens, the American companies who have used these Asian manufacturing companies will find themselves cut out of the chain, and competing with their manufacturers, who will be able to seriously undercut them.

Category: iPhone,News,Steve Jobs

10 Years of the iPod

20111023 204435 10 Years of the iPod

It’s hard to imagine Apple before the iPod now, but 10 years ago, it didn’t exist yet. Apple was back on track, but it had yet to release a device that could be considered a ‘game changer’. Initially, I don’t think anyone believed that the iPod would have the success that it has had. The early reviews were split on it, with half seeing it for the brilliant device that it was, and the other half only seeing it for what it lacked (Windows compatibility and USB connectivity).

Still, it’s not a stretch to say that the iPod is the device that defined the modern Apple. It definitely gave them the resources and clout to tackle devices like the iPhone and iPad.

Category: Apple,iPod

About the author

A user of Macs since they had silly names like Performa and Centris, Theodore Lee is a techie who prides himself on his vast knowledge of all things Apple. OS X Factor was started in 2001 (originally as macosxcentric), and continues to churn out tips, tutorials, reviews and commentary on the tech sector.