How to buy the right cell phone

This buying advice on picking out your perfect phone is good year round, but it's especially key to remember a few points when shopping during the holidays.

Josh Long/CNET

Buying a cell phone as a holiday gift is a bit more complicated than buying a television or a camera. It's not that shopping for those products is easy--indeed, one TV can present you with a mind-boggling array of specs--but a cell phone also requires you to select a carrier and choose a service plan. (Also see my colleague Jessica Dolcourt's FAQ on picking the right mobile operating system .)

Those extra steps, combined with the staggering amount of choice in the mobile space, can confuse even cell phone fanatics. So if you're wondering where to start, don't feel bad.

Rest assured that CNET is here to help. With a little preparation, gift shopping for a cell phone can be a stress-free experience. If you keep in mind the following steps, the only pain may be to your pocketbook.

Step 1: Choose your carrier
If your recipient has asked for a specific, carrier-exclusive phone, then you'll be able to skip this step. But if that's not the case, remember that choosing a carrier is equally, if not more, important than selecting a phone. The carrier, after all, is what makes a phone "work," so it's absolutely critical that you find a provider that will deliver reliable service in your area. If not, even the fanciest handset is worthless.

Consider, for example, the iPhone 4S. Though it's the same phone inside, you'll get a completely different user experience on each carrier that sells it. So base your carrier decision on which provider offers the best service in your home, workplace, and everywhere else in between. Carrier coverage maps aren't terribly reliable so we suggest using tools like RootMetrics to see how different carriers compare in your neighborhood.

Word of mouth is important as well, so ask your neighbors, friends, and colleagues which carrier they use and if they're satisfied. You even can ask to borrow their phones and test them around the house. Just keep in mind that a variety of factors, from the time of day, to how many people are using a network at one time, to the materials a building is made of (metal walls, for instance, won't do wonders for cell phone signals), can affect cell phone reception. Excellent customer service is important, too, but hopefully that will come with quality coverage.

Think also about which cellular technology a carrier uses. T-Mobile and AT&T use GSM, whereas Sprint, Verizon Wireless, U.S. Cellular, MetroPCS, and many smaller carriers use an incompatible technology called CDMA. The latter has very strong coverage in the United States, particularly in rural areas, but GSM service has a larger global footprint and GSM phones use the convenient SIM cards. As a result, GSM is better for someone who travels abroad frequently and likes to swap phones.

Though the "Big Four" carriers of AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless, and Sprint will be your most obvious choices, they don't rule the U.S. market completely. Regional providers like MetroPCS, C Spire, and U.S. Cellular have aggressively expanded their handset selections, service plans, and special programs in the last two years. If one or more of these smaller providers offers service in your area, it's definitely worth considering. You'll accept some trade-offs by going to a regional carrier, but you also see some nice benefits that the larger players can't provide.

Step 2. Pick a phone
Hopefully, you'll get some direction in this department from whoever is getting the gift. But for the sake of argument, let's say that you're starting from a blank slate. You could be a parent buying your kid's first cell phone, or you could be helping your spouse join the smartphone revolution. And with so many options available, I don't blame you for being overwhelmed.

I'm going to overgeneralize just a bit here, but most cell phones sold today fall into three categories. When shopping, think about what your recipient will need and how he or she will use the phone.

At the bottom end of the scale are basic phones. Designed mainly for communication, these models have minimal features and simple designs that have scarcely changed in 10 years. They're cheap (often free with service) and easy to use, but aren't capable of much. As such, basic phones are best for anyone who will use a phone in emergencies or very occasionally.

Next up are feature phones. These are devices that sit in between basic handsets and full smartphones. Typically, they'll offer a few more features like a music player and a full Web browser, and their designs may include a QWERTY keyboard or even a touch screen. Feature phones are great for anyone who wants to get more out of a handset without paying for a full data plan. You'll pay a bit more for a feature phone, but some models are free with service.

HTC Rezound
The high-end HTC Rezound comes with all the fixin's, including these Beats by Dr. Dre headphones, but it faces tough competition. Josh Miller/CNET

At the top end of the scale are smartphones. Both phone and PDA (remember those?), smartphones come with just about every feature that you could want from a mobile device, including a media player, e-mail, a personal organizer, a Web browser, GPS, and support for apps. They will require a data plan and you'll pay more for them, but low-end models are available for less than $100. Of course, you'll need to decide which operating system is best for you. Google's Android and Apple's iOS (the OS that powers the iPhone) are the most popular, but Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 is slowly winning fans. RIM's BlackBerry devices remain an alternative for worker bees, though the company has struggled to innovate over the last couple of years.

Here are some other points to consider when buying a phone.

  • Design: Smartphones look more or less alike, but basic and feature phones can have slider, flip, and candy bar designs. Each design has its advantages and disadvantages, so decide which you prefer. Also, see how the phone feels in your hand. Is it comfortable to hold? And what conditions will you use it in? If you work outside, for example, you might want a rugged phone with a durable shell.

  • Display: Is it big and bright enough? Can you read the text without straining? If it's a touch screen, is the interface quick and responsive?

  • Buttons and controls: Think about their size and placement. Are they big enough and easy to use? Some handsets have physical keyboards and others show a "virtual" keyboard on the touch screen. If you don't know which you prefer, try them both.

  • Menus: Take a dive into the menus. Can you understand them?

  • Call performance: Make a call to a friend to experience the phone's audio quality. If the store doesn't have working display phones, ask a sales rep to let you use one. CNET also includes audio samples in our cell phone reviews.

  • Data and media performance: Check out the Web browser to see how fast it loads. Speeds will vary by the handset and the quality of your carrier's data network. Music quality and camera quality are points to consider as well. You can evaluate photos from many current phones in CNET's camera phone image gallery.

  • Battery life: Smartphones and handsets with large touch screens will have less battery life than simpler models. You can check a manufacturer's rated battery life before buying, but real-world use may differ, so check out CNET's reviews and our battery life charts for actual tested times.

  • Unlocked phones: Some GSM phones are unlocked, meaning they don't have any programmed settings that tie them to one carrier. They're great for frequent world travelers, since you can use the same phone in the United States and abroad just by switching out the SIM card. See CNET's Quick Guide to world phones for more information.

Step 3: Select a service plan
The last step is to think about a service plan. Just like when you're choosing a phone, it's important to think about what you need and then choose accordingly.

If you're going with a traditional monthly plan, you'll have quite a few options available. Many plans are based around your allotment of anytime minutes, which are for calls placed during peak periods (typically Monday through Friday between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m.). As a general rule, the more anytime minutes you have, the more expensive your plan will be. Alternatively, most carriers now offer unlimited plans that let you use as many minutes as you want. These plans will be the priciest, and may be required for certain phones, so consider your budget wisely.

Service rebates will require you to sign a new contract and extend your service with the carrier, usually for two years. Yes, being stuck with a carrier can be constrictive, but it will entitle you to significant rebates on a new model. The 16GB iPhone 4S, for example, costs $199 with a service contract and $649 without. Don't forget, though, that carriers charge early-termination fees for customers who leave a contract early.

Motorola Triumph
Virgin Mobile's Motorola Triumph is a high-powered smartphone that's only available prepaid. Josh Miller/CNET

Alternatively, you can avoid a contract entirely with a prepaid phone and service plan. You will pay more for such handsets up front, but you won't be tied down to one carrier. Prepaid carriers like MetroPCS and Cricket Wireless now offer a wide variety of smartphones and data services. Other options to consider are shared or family plans, which allow you to share your monthly airtime allowance with additional lines for family members.

Finally, before you sign on the dotted line, keep the following points in mind.

  • Ask about the carrier's grace period, which will allow you to return a phone if you're unsatisfied with the service. You will have pay for the calls you made during that time and maybe a restocking fee, but you can leave the contact without penalty.

  • Most carriers limit how often a customer can claim service rebates, so be sure to check to see if you're eligible. Keep in mind that you might have to pay an upgrade fee as well.

  • Know how many minutes you have (both peak and off-peak) and when off-peak hours begin and end. In addition, know where you can track your usage.

  • Be aware of all extra fees (activation, international calling, overtime, 411, and so on). Also, remember that taxes will increase the cost of your monthly bill.

  • If you're going to use text messaging or multimedia messaging on a regular basis, it's best to get a message bundle or a data plan. Otherwise, you'll be charged on a per-use basis. For e-mail or Web browsing, a data plan is a must, and carriers will require you to get one if you get a smartphone.

  • If you're a parent purchasing a phone for a teenager or a younger child, you may want to consider limiting features, such as picture messaging, data use, and downloads. Some carriers even offer Web-based programs with which you can track your child's location when he or she is using the phone. And on the other end of the age scale, some carriers offer handsets designed for senior users.

  • Carriers are constantly offering special programs like free calls to other cell phones. Ask about what's available.

  • You can buy at a carrier's retail store or Web site, but you should also check third-party retailers like RadioShack and Best Buy. There can be a couple of advantages to going this route. Not only may prices be different, but you may get extra rebates and find alternative models not directly sold by a carrier.

  • If you're prone to losing your phone, consider an extended warranty in case your handset is lost, stolen, or damaged. Some carriers also offer roadside assistance services in case you need help while driving.

Now you know what you need to know. Happy shopping and happy holidays!

 

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