Four major carriers pop up as partners in ads for the iPhone X and 8 and the Samsung Galaxy Note 8: Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint.
But there's a new kid in town, Comcast's Xfinity Mobile, selling those phones with a surprising offer. While hardware prices are the same all round, XM offers a monthly calling and texting service for less than $2 a month in taxes and fees. Or, with modest data use, XM can cost a mere $12 a month.
Of course, there are ifs and buts in this plan, now being rolled out nationally.
For starters, it's available only to Xfinity internet customers. It's "definitely" a customer retention tool "to increase the value of our bundle," shared Randall Hounsell, vice president of product and marketing for this new unit. "When customers take more products, the relationship lasts longer."
There's also specific gear required. Early XM adopters must buy software-tweaked variants of Apple, Samsung and LG phones, available online at the Xfinity website or Xfinity-branded outlets. (Staffers were knowledgeable at the flagship King of Prussia and Cherry Hill stores.)
"We wanted to get out the gate quickly," Hounsell said. So in the first quarter of 2018, "customers will be able to bring over other qualified devices." We've heard that means CDMA-platform Apple, Samsung and maybe LG phones going back a couple generations.
On the upside, XM provides free, unlimited phone calling and texting on "America's best rated" 4G LTE network. That's Verizon Wireless, though by the terms of its line leasing, Comcast can't advertise the relationship. Should you want to switch carriers later, an XM-tweaked phone will be usable on Verizon, Sprint, Virgin, Boost, Metro PCS, US Cellular and other CDMA/LTE-based services, "as long as Xfinity unlocks the phone," said Apple's Hannah Wong.
What isn't "free" with XM is access to cellular data, the bandwidth hog of a mobile network that people need when in transit to surf the web, watch videos, hear streaming radio and send pictures. Still, that could be a blessing for parents "who only want their kids to carry a phone for emergency calls and messaging, as use of data is easily turned off in a phone," noted XM rep Joel Shadle.
Leave your XM phone's data setting "on," and added charges start clicking like a cab meter — $12 per Gigabyte. Once you've hit 3 GBs, it's better to switch to an unlimited plan at $45 a month, still a good deal for a single user. XM comes without a contract, and billing (electronic only) is flexible month to month, though for unlimited service, you must pay for at least two months.
What does a 1 GB allowance get you? Just one and a half standard definition Netflix movie streams. One GB could sustain one of the following: 29,257 plain text emails, 5,120 emails with Excel or Word attachments, 1,024 (1 MB) photos, 353 videos (one minute each), 256 MP3 downloads, or 34 hours of light-gaming.
But as mentioned, Xfinity Mobile has a special feature: Users' phones can switch data communications automatically, where available, from Verizon's fee-based access to free WiFi connectivity at one of the 18 million Xfinity Hotspots, including "tens of thousands" in the Philly region. While a locator map on their hot spot app pinpoints only the free WiFi zones associated with Xfinity Business customers, almost every home internet customer with a recent "dual band" Xfinity Gateway is also beaming secure but accessible WiFi. "Any Xfinity internet customer can access the hot spots, but has to join the service manually if not on an Xfinity Mobile-linked phone," Hounsell said.
So how well does the WiFi work-around with the new iPhone X and 8? Not bad in Center City, once you learn the turf, but best studied with the cellular data turned off.
In my zone, there's good Xfinity WiFi reach around Pennsylvania Hospital but zilch in Washington Square. The Vivino wine rating app clicked helpfully at a South Street State Store. Emails could be scarfed at DiNic's in the Reading Terminal. But the WiFi went dead in the nearby Pennsylvania Convention Center. Note: these hot spots are not places to transact online business or share personal information.
Strolling even in densely WiFi-ed zones, expect some streaming entertainment drop outs with the data option "off." But just download podcasts ahead of time for smooth listening.