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Cell Phones: Find the Right Calling Plan and Handset

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Consumer Reports Online

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Buying advice


Cell phones are evolving to allow faster texting, Web surfing, GPS navigation, and social networking while keeping up with their day job--voice calling. Smart phones such as the iPhone are leading the charge. Thanks to their computer-like operating systems, they can run all types of applications, from Twitter to games, restaurant guides, shopping assistants, and more. Conventional cell phones aren't gathering dust, though. Many of the newest models have large displays, keyboards, and Internet capabilities. Their e-mail and applications aren't as robust as a smart phone's, but they're less complicated to use. And there still are phones with fewer bells and whistles for users with more straightforward needs.

Before you set out to buy a phone, though, consider the service provider. Service providers determine which phone models work on their networks. So when you're replacing your phone, use this cell phone guide to help you decide whether you'll stay with your current cellular service carrier or switch to a new one. Major carriers rely heavily on two incompatible digital networks. Sprint and Verizon networks use mainly Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) technology, while AT&T and T-Mobile use Global System for Mobile communication (GSM) technology. All of those carriers also support high-speed data networks. The network plays a big part in the capabilities your phone will have and, to some extent, its performance.

When you're ready to buy a phone, you'll first have to decide which of the two types, conventional cell or smart, meets your needs and budget. Choose a conventional model if you mainly need voice and text-messaging capability, and perhaps a music player and camera. Smart phones, with their advanced operating systems, larger displays, QWERTY keyboards, and other computer-like features, are a better choice for people who need frequent access to multiple e-mail accounts, a sophisticated organizer for appointments and contacts, the ability to open Office documents, and Internet-based services. One compelling advantage of most smart phones is their ability to access a host of applications consisting of productivity tools, shopping, multimedia, games, travel, news, weather, social, finance, references, etc.

Useful features such as support for wireless Bluetooth headsets, GPS navigation, and high-speed data access can greatly enhance user satisfaction.

Conventional Cell Phones

Most models are priced from $20 to $150, but they often come free with a two-year contract. You can also buy prepaid phones, which are quickly becoming the leading low-price option in cellular. Conventional phones are often compact, and keypad and overall operation are generally straightforward. All allow you to store frequently used numbers and to send and receive text messages. Many have cameras and support for wireless Bluetooth headsets for hands-free communication. Many can access high-speed data networks to enjoy music and video-based services. Other capabilities might include a touch screen, a QWERTY keyboard, a full browser, a multi-megapixel camera, memory-card storage for music and pictures, and more options for custom ring tones, games, and other services.

Smart Phones

Long used by corporate travelers to keep up with e-mail and appointments, smart phones have caught on with consumers. A smart phone can typically handle multiple e-mail accounts (including corporate types), has a sophisticated organizer, and can handle Office documents. Some allow you to create and edit spreadsheets and documents, and they usually come with Microsoft Outlook or other personal information management software for your PC. Their advanced operating systems give them access to a host of applications: productivity tools, shopping, multimedia, games, travel, news, weather, social, finance, references, etc.

Don't forget the rebate up to $100 for smartphone upgrades with AT&T when you use your Union Plus Credit Card.  Also check out the Union Plus AT&T 15% discount here. AT&T is the only national unionized wireless company.

What's available

The providers

The major national cellular service providers are AT&T, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless. There are also many local or regional providers.

The phones

You can find cell phones in many outlets, including cellular service providers' stores, independent wireless retailers, electronics stores, and Web sites. But the cell phone is only part of what you need. You also have to sign up for service with a wireless provider and choose a calling plan.

The leading cell-phone brands include LG Electronics, Motorola, Nokia, Samsung, and Sanyo. Prices range from free with a two-year contract (including rebates) to $200 or more for an unlocked phone without carrier commitment.

Major smart-phone makers include Apple, HTC, LG Electronics, Motorola, Nokia, Palm, Research in Motion (RIM), and Samsung. Most are sold by the major carriers: AT&T, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless. Phone prices with a two-year contract, including rebates, range from about $50 to $300. Smart phones purchased unlocked without a contract can cost significantly more, starting at $500.

Some carriers sell their own brand of phones manufactured by Casio, HTC, and other phone makers.

How to choose

Consider shape and size

Phones that fold, slide, or swivel are typically more compact when closed. Phones shaped like candy bars can be used without first being opened. The best choice depends largely on personal preference, so visit a store and hold the phone if possible. Make sure that you can comfortably use most major functions such as phone calls and messaging with one hand. Make a test call and access menu items. We've found that flat or virtual keypads make dialing more difficult without looking. Other call clunkers include keys that are small, oddly shaped, or arranged in unusual patterns, especially if you're trying to dial a number in dim light.

Check the display

Most screens are fine in dim and normal light, but some are harder to see in daylight or under bright light. Try the phone outside or under bright light. In our tests, phones that displayed incoming and outgoing numbers in large black type against a white background were the easiest to read under most conditions. Also make sure indicators such as battery life and signal strength are clearly visible. Touch screen displays provide an alternate, and sometimes more direct, method to input data and launch phone features and controls. But they often require two hands to operate, and they smudge more frequently than their non-touch counterparts.

Also remember that not all touch-screen displays function the same way. Basic, or single-touch, displays typically allow you to zoom in and out of Web pages or photos with a double-tap of the screen, or a slide-bar, or another type of virtual control. Advanced touch displays, or multi touch, let you perform those maneuvers by pinching or spreading you fingers, which gives you greater control.

Consider a keyboard

A phone's shape and size are largely determined by its keyboard and display. Some models have a QWERTY keyboard that slides out from behind the phone and tucks away when not in use. Others open like an eyeglass case to reveal a keyboard, or leave the keyboard in plain sight. Still other models have a virtual keyboard on their touch-sensitive displays. Overall, we found pecking out messages on their mirror-smooth, buttonless surfaces to be a challenge.

If you plan to do a lot of typing, look instead for a keyboard with keys that are clearly labeled, well spaced, and well sized. Make sure that the keys provide solid tactile or vibration feedback. The keyboard should be easy to read under different lighting conditions. Overall, we've found that a full QWERTY keyboard, similar to a computer keyboard, is best for composing and editing text and e-mail messages. Some keyboards cram multiple letters, numbers, and symbols on a single key to save space. But those "condensed" keyboards, though still more convenient than keypads, are not as easy to handle as full keyboards. Phones with virtual keyboards tend to be less bulky than models with physical keyboards, but virtual keyboards block a portion of the display screen. Physical keyboards often have raised keys, which make it easier to type without looking. Some phones have a physical and virtual keyboard.

Smart-phone buyers:

Consider the operating system: Smart phones all share the ability to browse the Web and run apps (Web applications), handle office and personal e-mail, multitask, and facilitate social networking. But how easily and how well you can do those tasks varies by operating system (OS). Many smart phones have relatively large, multi-touch displays. Apps, which can be downloaded by the smart-phone user, vary widely in number, variety, and price, according to the operating system. Many apps are free, others cost a buck or two, and some go for hundreds of dollars. Here are some of the leading systems:


  • Android

    Google's OS excels at search and mapping and includes GPS-based navigation, usually a free app. Android supports large multi-touch displays; we've seen it on phones with 4.3-inch screens. Customized via widgets, it can gather and present in a single view contacts, calendar appointments, and other data from a variety of online sources. The phones themselves can support up to seven home screens. Android phones support real-time updates from the Web and social networks. Some support video chat and Flash video, which can enhance Web browsing. Some models support multiple-axis motion sensing for enhanced gaming experiences. You can group apps into folders to conserve desktop space. In addition to the touch screen support, four real or virtual buttons typically provide the core navigation control. There's a home button for returning to the main home screen, a menu button for summoning task options, a back button for backing out of the most recent action, and a search button for performing searches within the phone or the Web. Some Android models also have phone buttons, and a trackpad for scrolling and selecting. There are more than 100,000 apps on the Android Market. Androids can access the Amazon MP3 library. 
  • BlackBerry

    Known for its cast-iron messaging capabilities, easy e-mail setup and account management, the BlackBerry platform upgraded to a friendlier, more dynamic interface, providing easier in-phone and Web-based searches, and easier access to newly enhanced multimedia and social networking features. BlackBerry controls include a menu button for summoning task options, a return key for backing out of the most recent action, and usually have a trackpad or trackball for scrolling and selecting. They also have a green send button for making calls (sadly, an increasingly rare feature on smart phones) and the end (hang-up) button, which also serves as the home button. Most BlackBerry phones lack touch screens. There are more than 14,000 apps at BlackBerry App World, which leans toward the business user. BlackBerry App World has more paid than free apps, and there are no shopping or coupon apps. 
  • iOS

    This platform is unrivaled in the sheer volume and diversity of multimedia content and applications it supports, which has expanded to include networked, player-to-player gaming via its Game Center. The latest iPhone models support multiple-axis motion sensing for enhanced gaming experiences. You can group apps into folders to conserve desktop space. The iPhone, which it drives, is itself is a superb multimedia device, packing the sharpest multi-touch display we've seen on a phone, and a second, front-facing to facilitate video chats. And the built-in iPod interface is among the best we've seen on a phone for accessing music, videos, games, and other content. In addition to the touch screen support, iPhones have a home button for closing or backing out of apps, checking app status, launching universal search, and returning to the home screen. There are more than 300,000 at the App Store for the iPhone, including many unavailable on other platforms. iTunes access is a big plus. 
  • Palm webOS

    Palm is recognized for its strengths in organizing, contacts, and calendar features. Found on the Pre and Pixi, this operating system drives the user-friendly multi-touch-screen interface that provides easy access to many features and applications. It enables multiple apps to run concurrently, links functions more intuitively, and adds more-advanced Web, multimedia, search tools, and messaging. You can shuffle apps on the touch screen much as you would a deck of cards. There are more than 1,500 apps currently available in the Palm App Catalog. 
  • Windows Phone

    This operating system has a much simpler interface than the Windows Mobile OS it succeeds, replacing the older OS's convoluted menu system with a much smarter start screen. It consists of customizable Live Tiles, which, like widgets, show real-time updates such as news, appointments, and feeds from the Web and social networks. Windows Phone supports large multi-touch displays; we've seen it on phones with 4.3-inch screens. The phones come preloaded with Xbox LIVE, which supports networked, player-to-player gaming. Most of the phones content, including photos, videos, settings and contacts can be backed up to the users Windows Live account. The built-in Zune interface allows users to sync their multimedia content from a PC or stream or download new tunes from Windows Marketplace. In addition to the touch screen support, three keys provide the core navigation controls. There's a back key for backing out of applications, a start key for returning you to the home screen, and a search key that launches the Bing search box. There were about 1,000 apps available when the phones launched November 2010. The system can access movies and music in Zune marketplace.

Consider the data plan

Using a phone's extra, network-dependent capabilities requires a regular (voice/text) phone plan and a data plan for Web surfing and sending and receiving e-mail. Depending on the carrier, prices for the two combined start at $45 to $80 a month with a two-year contract. But you can easily spend much more than that as you add minutes, messaging, and other services.

Consider syncing options

Syncing your phone with your computer has some advantages. For example, you'll most likely find it easier to update calendar events and contact data using your computer's larger keyboard and display. You'll also have peace of mind knowing all of your documents and personal data will be safely backed up should your phone be lost or stolen. But before you buy, check with the carrier or phone maker to make sure the phone is compatible with your computer or its operating system. Also confirm phone compatibility with your company if you plan on setting up corporate e-mail and calendar access.

Check for updates

Cell and smart phones are increasingly becoming like pocket computers, adding touch screens, keyboards, and the ability to run numerous applications. This complexity has increased the odds that they won't always perform as promised. Often the cure for a buggy performance is downloading a software patch into your phone. You might automatically be notified about an update (for example, via a message to your phone), but you should check for phone updates even if you're not experiencing any problems. Manufacturers and carriers often use updates to improve performance, such as battery life, or even add new features. To update your phone, look for "update" under the settings menu, and follow the instructions (iPhone updates occur when you sync with your computer). Make sure you're in a good reception area to ensure that the file downloads fast and error free. You should also periodically look up your phone on the websites of your carrier and phone's manufacturer. You might discover new features or learn how to use the ones you know more effectively.

Look for useful features

Today's phones come equipped with many useful calling and multimedia features, including a media player, a camera, and Web browsing, and child-location and call-management services. Some features, such as programmable shortcuts, Bluetooth, speakerphone, and voice command help, make the phones easier to use.

Check for special prices and promotions

Rebates and special offers can be substantial, but they change frequently. To get the best deal, check the carrier's offerings online and in its retail stores, and then see what independent dealers offer at their websites and in their outlets. If at all possible, buy a new phone when you're switching carriers or signing a new service commitment with your existing carrier. You almost always get a better deal--either a deeply discounted price or even a free phone--when you're signing a contract. Be aware that some rebates are offered only if you also sign up for a data plan.

Check the return policy

Make sure you can return the phone if you're not happy with it. Some stores attach stiff service-cancellation fees on top of what a carrier might charge.

Don't buy phone insurance

Cell carriers will insure your phone for about $4 to $8 a month with a $25 to $100 or more deductible, but they can replace your lost, stolen, or damaged phone with a repaired, refurbished one. We don't think insurance or extended warranties are worth it. Only 17 percent of buyers polled got a new phone because the old one broke, and only 3 percent because the phone was lost or stolen. A better idea: Keep your old phone until the new phone's contract ends. If you lose or break the new phone, reactivate the old one and use it until you qualify for a free or low-cost phone. 

Find this article and similar resources on Union members save 27% off an online subscription to Consumer Reports. Find product reports, side-by-side comparisons, expert advice and more.

REMINDER: Union members can check out the Union Plus AT&T 15% discount here. AT&T is the only national unionized wireless company.

Copyright© 2006-2017 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or part, without written permission.

Member Comments

On 11/02/16 Richard said:

union only

On 06/07/14 anonymous said:

good advice

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