In the second of our two-part series on tech-saving tips, Tom Pullar-Strecker looks at how to contain spending on mobiles and gadgets.
Picking a mobile service used to be a straightforward affair. Businesspeople who used a phone a lot would be best off with a postpaid plan and most consumers with prepay. Telecom and Vodafone operated as a bit of a duopoly, often with identical pricing. Telecom arguably offered the better network and Vodafone the better range of devices.
But that was before a host of changes including 2degrees' entry into the market in 2009. Now there are wide range of different plans to choose, not just from the three operators but in some cases from their resellers and sub-brands.
The lowest "strings-free" casual prepay pricing has for some time been offered not by 2degrees but by Telecom sub-brand Skinny, at 39 cents a minute to call and 8 cents to text any mobile.
Telecom markets Skinny to youth in an attempt to "segment" its market. But a sim card doesn't know if you are aged 16 or 61 and Skinny's will work in a phone just the same as any other Telecom sim.
2degrees' rates, at 44c per minute and 9c per text, aren't far behind. Telecom's standard prepay charges are 44c for calls and 20c for texts, Vodafone's 49c and 12c.
All three operators provide a variety of add-ons, including good-value bundles of calls, text and data that last for a month and cost $19. These will automatically renew on expiry if there is enough money in the prepay account to pay for them, but the bundles can be cancelled at will, so there is no need to make a regular commitment.
Telecom's $19 "Value Pack" provides slightly the best deal, offering 60 minutes of calling, unlimited texts and 500 megabytes of mobile data. 2degrees' $19 "Text Combo" offers the same but with 10 fewer minutes of phone calling and Vodafone's "Smart Data 19" pack is effectively the same as 2degrees' but with a cap of 5000 texts.
2degrees has clear instructions on its website on how to buy one of its $19 packs and then immediately cancel the service so there is no risk of forgetting to turn it off and incurring subsequent charges. You can still use the text, minutes and data you have bought after you have cancelled, but the pack won't "auto-renew" once the month is up.
Even people who don't have a smartphone may find some use for the data allowance offered by $19 packs. Buy a USB data stick from your operator for about $50 to $60 and you can slip the Sim card out of your phone and into the data stick to check email on your laptop when you are out and about or on holiday.
If you don't have a laptop, a data stick is still handy to provide back-up internet access for your home computer if your fixed-line broadband provider has an outage.
If you need more mobile broadband for a smartphone or tablet computer, it makes sense to research the latest offers from the various providers. Even for bargain hunters, coverage, speeds and customer service may be as much as a factor as price.
Purchasing mobile broadband for a family member with a new iPad, I found 2degrees the best value. A micro-sim loaded with 12 gigabytes of data valid for a full six months (though only in the main centres where 2degrees runs its own network) costs $109; $10 for the sim itself and $99 for the data.
I found it necessary to call up 2degrees after registering the micro-sim to get a password to check data usage and arrange future top-ups online. That is because there was no way of retrieving the password that was automatically sent by text to the micro-sim from the iPad in which it was installed. But don't be put off if that sounds daunting or confusing; 2degrees' contact centre staff were able to help and the issue was easily sorted.
With a smartphone, you can reinvest some of the money you are spending on mobile broadband to cut call charges and instead make calls over the internet. Skype is one option but an alternative free mobile app, less clunky on smartphones, is Viber, developed by Israeli start up Viber Media.
Viber lets iPhone, Android and now Windows Phone smartphone users makefree calls to other Viber users - who number more than 175 million worldwide. The start-up has yet to decide how it will actually make money.
Key to its rapid uptake is that Viber automatically shows who in your address book already has Viber installed on their phone and there is no registration or password required. Instead it identifies subscribers by their phone number.
Calling via Viber consumes about half-a-megabyte a minute of mobile broadband, so that 2degrees $99 data pack should buy 400 hours of mobile calls. That's a saving of $10,000 at 2degrees' standard prepay rate - if you could find people to talk to for that long.
Do you need a desktop computer, a laptop computer, a tablet or smartphone? A growing number of consumers are ending up with at least three out of the four.
Then, if you have bought an iPad, do you need a stand, a case, a wireless keyboard or all three?
There are lots of "form factors" to choose from when buying a portable computer, but carrying them all around with you at the same time probably isn't an option, so even if you spend several thousand dollars on a range of gadgets and all the accessories, at some point you are going to have to choose.
If you want a computer you can comfortably use as a desktop but still have some need for mobility, the cheapest option may be to opt for a netbook and turn that into a desktop when required by buying an external monitor, keyboard and mouse.
For example, this feature has been written on an Acer netbook (bought for $399, cheapest new Windows 7 equivalent $480), partly on the couch and in a home office where it has been attached to a Logitech K120 USB keyboard ($29), AOC 18.5 inch monitor ($128) and Logitech M325 wireless mouse ($39).
Add a 2degrees Huawei datastick ($59) and two consecutive six-month 12Gb data packs ($210 with sim) and you have a "budget" but complete mobile and desktop environment you can use anywhere from the office to the beach with a year-long big bucket of mobile data for less than $1000. Better still, if any one component does break down, it will cost a lot less than that to get back in business.
For the times that sort of set-up doesn't suit, you could try borrowing your kid's high-spec gaming computer or your wife's iPad.
The only snag, netbooks appear to be a dying category, brushed aside by the marketing push behind iPads and their look-alikes.