on July 15, 2013
Basic conclusions for the three phones discussed below, as well as some travel tips:
Sony Xperia Tipo Dual-SIM ST21A2 ($129)- nicest screen and camera, has dual SIMs. If you need dual SIMs, this is by far the best phone for the money that I found. The charger handles both US and European voltages for charging, but it only came with US plug, so need a European plug adaptor (should be $5 or less).
LG LG P350 Optimus Me ($89)- Basic, reliable phone. about 1/3 cheaper than the Sony and Samsung models I looked at. The LG phone was the only one that came with an adaptor for both US and European (not UK) electrical outlets.
Samsung Samsung Galaxy Y Duos S6102 ($127)- No reason to buy this phone. Similarly priced Sony phone was superior in every way. The charger handles both US and European voltages for charging, but it only came with US plug, so need a European plug adaptor (should be $5 or less).
In a nutshell, these are small form factor smart phones (think palm of your hand) that use old (but inexpensive) technology to deliver very basic smartphone performance (not good for games). The main upside for the Sony phone turned out to be better screen resolution and brightness and a better camera than similar price/size phones. The other advantage is that it is sold directly by Amazon, which means more reliable shipping times and very little chance of getting a knock-off, or used or refurb phone that wasn't properly disclosed.
I purchased three different "smart phones" for a recent family trip to France (Paris and Nice, and some side trips), and I will compare them here. They were the Sony Xperia Tipo Dual-SIM ST21A2 Phone (about $129), a Samsung Galaxy Y Duos S6102 ($127), and LG P350 Optimus Me ($89).
All are unlocked GSM quad band phones, which is what you need for pre-paid service in Europe (LTE smart phones are still expensive, so not part of this discussion). For a tourist, pre-paid service is the cheapest route, and you don't get any unexpected charges. Using your US phone with an "international" plan is really expensive in my experience, especially for data.
I wanted basic smartphone functionality, which included wifi, GPS, email, texting, and voice. Didn't really care about the camera and wasn't willing to pay up for a phone to play games on (can use your US phone with Wifi for that anyway). I have looked at the cheaper voice only or legacy feature phones, but they aren't that inexpensive (usually $30-$50) and seem to have reliability issues for the really cheap ones. Plus, if you think about how you are likely use a phone in a foreign country, being able to pull up a maps screen and pinpoint your location and find nearby food, medical, etc is a huge benefit. Also, for texting I wanted a keyboard, not a legacy phone keypad.
All three phones performed their tasks reliably and competently. The GPS is especially helpful when you are overseas and don't speak the langauge. The GPS also efficiently integrated with Google Maps on all three phones, which meant I could use the full Google search engine to find restaurants or store places (useful if you switch phones and log in under your Google ID).
One difference among the three phones was that the Sony and Samsung were dual SIM, while the LG was single SIM. The SIM card is what lets you use a particular carrier's service and provides your phone's phone number, etc. Having dual sim cards would let you switch between carriers without opening your phone, removing the battery, and also keeps you from losing the other sim card when you aren't using it. I just used one sim card per phone on this trip, but if you were driving though different countries in Europe or wanted a separate data provider, you might want to have dual sim cards.
If I didn't need dual SIM cards, I would just go with the LG phone b/c it had all the functionality I needed at the lowest cost. The Sony phone is much nicer, though. The Samsung phone was basically identical to the LG phone in terms of functionality, but it had an extra SIM slot.
Also, battery life was great on all three phones. When out and about, I typically turn WiFi off so the phone doesn't waste battery looking for wifi, so this helps. But I run GPS pretty much the whole day. I also set the screen to turn off on the shortest possible interval. Doing this I got about two days of use (a lot of texting, emailing, moderate maps use, not a lot of voice usage) out of a single charge. If you use a tone of battery, all three phones have a removable battery, so you could order an extra and keep it with you, but I don't see that as a huge problem.
A note on signing up for service:
I did try ordering a SIM from Orange from Amazon before I left. This was a waste of time and much more expensive than doing it in France at an Orange store (I know b/c I went to the Orange store in Paris). The Amazon SIM was $29.99 and included about five Euro of benefit- i.e. you are paying $25 for the physical SIM card, and then you have to go online and sign up for a calling plan.
If you visit one of the many Orange (or another carrier's) stores in France, here is what I paid- For twenty Euro I got a SIM card with unlimited voice and texting for the month plus 150 mb of data and a five Euro credit. I also paid ten Euro for an extra 500mb of data. So for 30 Euro, I got unlimited voice and texting, plus a five Euro credit and 650mb of data during my stay.
Also, rate for using your cell to call to the US was 0.09 Euro cents per minute, so the five Euro credit gave you almost an hour of calling back to the states. The phone data plans do not allow you to use cellular data for skype, but you can use wifi to skype.
To recap- buying a SIM card in the US- $29 and you get only a five Euro credit.
buying the SIM card in France- 30 Euro and you get a five Euro credit plus unlimited voice, texting, and 650mb of data.
If you must have a working phone when you land, you should order the SIM in the US and get it set up before you leave, but if you can wait until you check in to your hotel and then go to the Orange store it is a much better deal. Also, I never found any SIM vending machines at the Paris airport (CDG), though I see them all the time at Heathrow.
One more note- if you use an android phone, when you set it up, make sure you disable automatic and background refreshes (unless you really want them :-) I went through 500mb of data in two weeks because of Android refreshes, and that was with WiFi on in my condo (I do self catering lodging in Europe).
If you visit the Orange store in France, make sure you walk through the process of how to "refill" your phone's plan in case you need to buy data. You basically enter #123 on the phone, then follow some menus in French and enter your code. But there are no English menus, so if you want to be self-sufficient, get them to show you at the store.