Cell Phone Buying Guide For the Savvy Shopper

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If you are going to be using your service only in the US, any of the major cell phone service providers and most available phones will probably do the job for you. However if you travel overseas frequently you will need to be sure that you are getting a tri–band or quad-band GSM phone and GSM service (which is standard in Europe) to meet your needs. You will find out that it will definitely make a difference in the provider that you choose, as Cingular and T-Mobile are the only providers that offer widespread international roaming. For use primarily in US all of the major service providers have many of the same options and services available and you should do the research to decide which ones are best for you and your family. In terms of how to get the provider that has the best reception in your area the best way to decide this is by talking to friends, relatives, or even people in the local businesses that you trade with to find out who they use and are happy or unhappy with. One other issue which should be considered is analog roaming. If you live or spend a lot time in a rural area you may find that analog roaming is a must for you. If this is the case you will want to make sure that you choose a phone and provider that offers analog service.



Sprint is working on a high-speed EV-DO data network that should roll out in 2006; has push to talk service; and you can pay an extra fee to expand your night and weekend hours. Their Fair & Flexible plan adjusts to monthly usage. Their pricing is not as competitive as some of the other providers due to limited local calling plans and they do not have prepay plans. They also have a very limited selection of Bluetooth phones.


T-Mobile has an optional three day weekend calling plan, very reasonable extensive international roaming rates, and highly rated customer service. Their network coverage is somewhat spotty in the US, with short weekend hours, and a high-speed data network is still in development. Although service is nationwide it is very limited in Alaska, but does offer international roaming in 140 countries. They are ideal for world travelers, but operate the least comprehensive GSM network in the US.


Verizon has a large selection of local calling plans, push to talk service, and 3G EV-DO high-speed data network. However they have short night and weekend hours, limited selection of Bluetooth phones, and EV-DO service is not nationwide. They are nationwide although all services are not available in Alaska, but only have CDMA roaming available in 11 countries. You can get better coverage with a combination CDMA/GSM phone. In the US, Verizon has widespread coverage and offers the most extensive 3G network, with its EV-DO V Cast service.


Cingular lets you roll over unused minutes month to month, has a variety of data plans which include EDGE and UMTS high-speed date networks. The 3G UMTS network is very limited and roaming charges vary. They are nationwide, and offer widespread international roaming in 150 countries. In 2004 they merged with AT&T Wireless creating the largest wireless provider in the US. They recently began offering national unlimited EDGE/WiFi plans and have a wide selection of handsets.


Nextel is great for business users, with rugged, durable phones, and pioneered push to talk walkie-talkie technology. The non-business user may find the rate plans limited and expensive and they have no prepaid plans, as well as a limited selection of camera phones, Bluetooth handsets, and smart phones. They are nationwide except for Alaska and Montana and offer iDEN roaming in eight countries with more coverage available with a rented GSM phone.


The first thing to consider is how much you will actually be using your phone, and if you are going to get a family plan you will want to consider how much time your other family members will need and what services you will all use. It will always be better to overestimate your usage rather than underestimate it, as the overage fees can be unbelievable. The major carriers offer plans that range from 300 minutes a month up to 5000 minutes so choose what you need, keeping in mind that many plans have anytime minutes, which are calls that can be placed during peak periods (typically, Monday through Friday between 7am and 9pm), calls during weekends, nights, and holidays have much higher limits or can even be completely free. Moreover, calls made to other cell phones on a provider’s network can also be free. But keep in mind that incoming and outgoing calls can count toward anytime minutes, as well as even checking your voicemail, make sure you know all of the details before you sign up.

If you have credit problems or you feel you can’t calculate a monthly average you may want to consider a prepay plan. These plans are offered by most of the major carriers. Usually, they allow you to pay a certain amount in advance and give you a certain amount of time to use your allotted minutes. When you use all of your minutes, you have the chance to purchase more time. Another advantage to this arrangement is that there is no contract involved so there is not termination fee if you decide to stop your service in a short time.


There will almost always be additional fees to consider, such as taxes that are added to your statement. To set up service, providers charge an activation fee to begin your service. Most major providers charge around $35 for activation. Number portability surcharge covers the providers costs for complying with federal regulations. The amount varies from provider to provider, while some providers have dropped this fee altogether, others group it with other fees. Also if you wish to use text messaging, multimedia messaging, or web browsing on a regular basis, it is best to get a data plan that covers these features. Also, be sure to ask whether download times are deducted from your allotment of anytime minutes. In addition to using up part of your anytime minutes, using your phone for local 411 service can cost as much as $1.50 per call, so try to use these services sparingly.


Choosing a phone for yourself or any other adult should be a personal choice and while you should consider many factors just be sure that the one you choose offers the best blend of design, features, and performance for you. But, remember you can always test a phone during the grace period and exchange it if necessary. There are many things to consider including size and style of the phone, size and placement of the buttons and controls, and be sure that the screen and text are large enough for you to read easily. Be sure to consider that some phones are more rugged than others so this may be a consideration in choosing your own phone or a phone for one of your family.


Phone book & voice dialing

How many contacts do you need to store? How often will you need to make calls while using a headset? The answers to these questions will determine how important the phone book and voice dialing may be to you.

Multimedia features

Some phones include FM radio, polyphonic ring tones, and MP3 support. Also some phones now support streaming video and videoconferencing, though there will be extra charges for these services.

Bluetooth & infrared

These features let you connect wirelessly to external devices. If your phone has an infrared port it allows information to be exchanged wirelessly with PDA’s or PC’s. In addition, you can use Bluetooth to connect to a wireless headset which allows you to use your phone without the use of your hands and without obstructing wires interfering with your movement.


This option allows you to surf the wireless Web. If your phone features wireless access browser, it can view sites set up to display on small, mobile devices, not all sites are set up for this. You can use some phones as a fax modem, but you will have to have data cables to use this option.

External screen/caller ID

On flip phones this function allows you to see who is calling before you open the phone. Push to talk

This is a walkie-talkie type option that lets you connect with other users immediately, it can also be used in call groups. A cell signal is not required to contact the other users. Not all service providers offer this feature.

Camera, picture messaging, and video recording

These phones can be used for taking pictures and shooting videos and in some cases they can be shared with others. Most of these phones do not offer high resolution photos, but some do offer more than a megapixel of resolution. There are service providers who offer better online services than others, but plans will vary. Just remember that a camera phone is not a substitute for a real camera.

Speakerphone/conference calling

A speakerphone could be useful for working on more than one task at a time, such as working on the computer or even doing housework while on the phone. If you are going to use the phone for business you will want to look for a phone that supports conference calling.

Text Messaging, e-mail, instant messaging

Text messages are a quick way to send a message without making a call and are a favorite communication method of teenagers and young adults today. Most provider’s plans allow you to send and receive a certain number of the messages monthly, be sure you find out how many messages (if any) are allowed on your basic plan. If you are signing up for a family plan involving children, teenagers, or young adults you will probably want to make sure that your plan includes a reasonable number of these messages monthly for a set fee. Also if you are going to use your phone for email be sure that it will support this function and decide if you need data plan in addition to your basic service.


Smart phones are a combination of cell phone and PDA in one unit. These units are usually larger and more expensive than regular phones, however they do eliminate the need to carry more than one device. If you regularly use a PDA and a cell phone for your job and/or your business and spend a lot of your time away from the office and need to have access to your email and appointments you may want to consider a Smart phone.


Okay, you’ve chosen the phone that suits you best, so where do you go from here? If you already have a phone and a plan you can either upgrade or if you are out of contract you can choose a new phone and a new service provider. There are many options to consider in choosing where to obtain your new phone, but you never need to consider paying for your phone and in come cases you can also obtain other accessories as free bonuses. The phones and equipment are available to you directly from the manufacturer with the purchase of new service plan usually free or often with money back, after rebate.

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