Cell phone buying tips

If you're looking for a cell phone on the big shopping weekend, CNET tells you what you need to know to make the best purchase

Kent German Former senior managing editor / features
Kent was a senior managing editor at CNET News. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he reviewed the first iPhone and worked in both the London and San Francisco offices. When not working, he's planning his next vacation, walking his dog or watching planes land at the airport (yes, really).
Kent German
8 min read

Whether you're buying for yourself or for someone else, a cell phone can make a great gift for the holiday season. Parents can guilt their children into calling home more, young adults can graduate to their first smartphone, and cell phone newbies can finally take up the technology.

Before you go to the store and take advantage of those Black Friday deals, however, there are a few points to remember. Shopping for a cell phone is a little more complicated than buying other gadgets, as you also have to consider a service provider. But fear not; CNET is here to help with everything you need to know about buying a new cell phone. And for more information, check out our cell phone buying guide and our Quick Guide to cell phone carriers.

Read the latest CNET cell phone reviews
See CNET's top cell phone picks in several categories

Image by Dino Salee/CNET

The first step
Choosing a carrier is just as important, and sometimes more important, than choosing a phone. Many shoppers will be able to skip this step because their recipient has asked for a specific device or they just don't want to switch providers. If that describes you, remember these points before forking over your cash:

  • Service rebates will require you to sign a new contract and extend your service with the carrier, usually for two years. U.S. Cellular recently ended this practice through its Belief Project, but that's an exception.

  • As always, you'll be subject to an early-termination fee if you end the contract before it's up. Most carriers are now prorating the fees so that the amount decreases over time.

  • Alternatively, you can avoid a contract entirely with a prepaid phone.

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

Considering a carrier
If you're selecting a carrier, you have other points to consider. Service and coverage reliability are top priorities, but selecting the right plan for you is essential as well. We'll start with the carrier's network.

Ultimately, you should base your decision on which carrier offers the best reception in your area. Because evaluating cell phone coverage requires experience with the network in a wide variety of physical locations, CNET does not rate wireless carriers, but we've partnered with Root Wireless to create a tool for determining the best carrier for your neighborhood, commute, or workplace. Word of mouth is important as well, so ask your neighbors, friends, and colleagues which carrier they use and if they're satisfied.

Think also about which cellular technology a carrier uses. T-Mobile and AT&T use something called GSM, whereas Sprint, Verizon Wireless, U.S. Cellular, MetroPCS, and most smaller carrier use an incompatible technology called CDMA. CDMA coverage is very strong 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.

The Samsung Have is so simple, it doesn't even have a camera.

Next, you'll need to think about which service plan is right for you. 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 run 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. Alternatively, most carriers now offer unlimited plans that let you use as many minutes as you want. These plans will be the priciest, so consider your budget wisely.

Other options to consider are shared or family plans, which allow you to share your monthly airtime allowance with additional lines for family members and the aforementioned prepaid phones, for which you pay for an allotted amount of service up front. When you've used all of your minutes, you have the opportunity to buy more service. And like we said earlier, prepaid plans don't require you to sign a contract.

In addition to the bullet points we mentioned in the previous section, we'd advise you to think about the following before signing on any dotted line:

LG Octane (Verizon Wireless)
With a keyboard, lots of messaging options, a camera, and a media player, the LG Octane is a great feature phone. Josh P. Miller/CNET

  • Ask about the carrier's grace period for trying a service. Typically lasting a month, a grace period will allow you to return the phone if you're unsatisfied with the service. You will have pay for the calls you made during that time, but you won't be subject to additional fees.

  • 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 most carriers now require them when using 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 where you can track your child's location when they're using their phone. And on the other end of the age scale, some carriers offer handsets designed for senior users. Ask your carrier for more information.

  • Get only what you need. Don't be pressured into purchasing more services if you won't use them. And if you can't get direct answers to your questions, go somewhere else.

  • Carriers now offer a variety of free calling minutes to a select group of phone numbers. These can include calls to other cell phones on the same carrier, calls to cell phones on any carrier, or calls to a select set of phone numbers--even landlines. Check your carrier for specifics.

  • You can buy at a carrier's retail store or Web site, but also you should check third-party retailers like Radio Shack and Best Buy. Going this route can offer a couple of advantages. Not only may prices be different, but you might find alternative models not directly sold by a carrier. Just make sure your carrier will support the phone you want. Also, though third-party retail stores aren't owned by a carrier, they can partner with providers to offer the activations services and rebates.

  • 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.

T-Mobile G2
The T-Mobile G2 is a full-fledged smartphone with just about every feature you'd want. It's powered by the Andorid operating system. Sarah Tew/CNET

Picking a phone
Many shoppers will have a specific phone in mind when leaving for the store. But if you still need to decide, the choice need not be as daunting as it might sound. It helps to break it down into a few simple points, which is what we've done here:

  • Design: Most handsets are either flip phones or candy bar models, though swivel and slider models exist as well. Each design has its advantages and disadvantages, so decide which is best for you. Also, see how the phone feels in your hand. Is it comfortable to hold? You might want a rugged phone with a durable shell if you work outside, for example.

  • Style: You're going to be carrying this thing around all the time, so consider whether you just like how it looks. It's all subjective here.

  • Display: Is it big and bright enough for you? Can you read the text without straining? And 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 how do they feel beneath your finger? Also, are they easy to use? If you're a frequent messenger or e-mailer, try a phone with a full keyboard. Some handsets have physical keyboards and others use a "virtual" keyboard on the touch screen. If you don't know which you prefer, try them both out.

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

  • Features: The list is immense, but as with a calling plan, get only what you need. If you just want to make calls and use the phone for emergencies, a basic model--quite a few still exist--may be your best bet. If you're more geared toward messaging and some media use, perhaps you'd enjoy a feature phone. And if you want to download apps, access multiple e-mail accounts, use a full music player, get PDA features, browse the wireless Web, and download apps, then go with a smartphone.

  • Operating system: If you're looking for a smartphone, the operating system will be a huge decision factor. Palm WebOS, Symbian, RIM BlackBerry, Apple iOS, Google Android, and Windows Phone 7 operating systems each have their unique characteristics. Our Cell phone product finder offers more information.

  • Call performance: Make a call to a friend to experience the audio quality. If they don't have working display phones in a store, ask a sales rep to use one. If they don't have them, go somewhere else. But even before you leave the house, CNET now 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.

Other options
If you have a GSM carrier, you also might consider buying an unlocked phone, which are available only from third-party retailers. Unlocked phones differ from locked phones in that they have no settings that tie them to one operator. As such, you can change carriers simply by changing the phone's SIM card, which can be an attractive option for international travelers. Just keep in mind that if you buy an unlocked phone, you won't be eligible for any carrier-sponsored rebates.

For stocking suffers you can choose from a variety of accessories like Bluetooth headsets, cases, wired headsets, belt clips, and screen protectors. Whatever you buy, just makes sure it's compatible with your chosen phone.