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Cell phone challenged looking for signal strength

Hello, I am the little not so old lady who uses her cell phone infrequently. I have T Mobile service and one of their basic Samsung X495 phones which we all know stinks.

I don't use my phone as my lifeline as my kids do. It does however drive me nuts to have calls dropped constantly or not be able to get a signal in a building or the airport if I am travelling.

I don't need a lot of features and don't want to spend a lot of money on a new phone. Is there a name for the ability to have good signal strength on phone details? The decently priced upgrade phones seem like the same low quality I already have. My contract has expired as well and I really didn't want to "re-up" for two more years just for a crappy phone.

I have always been curious about phones that are available for sale that do not come from the carrier. Obviously, T Mobile isn't going to give me advice. Can I buy a phone from another retailer if it's a phone T Mobile has in its line? Who activates it? Is there anything else I need to know about that?

I would appreciate any input so that I can make a decision.

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