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Pick a cell phone service provider

Buying a cell phone is more than a matter of choosing a handset--you also have to pick a service provider, or carrier, as well. Each carrier in the United States offers a different selection of technologies and services, so it's important to think about your needs when making a choice. For that reason, selecting a carrier should be the first step in the cell phone buying process.
Twisting technology

Wireless carriers in the United States operate over two different networks: Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) and Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM). Though each technology transmits voice and data, they do so in different ways, which makes them incompatible. As a result, you can't take a CDMA phone and use it on GSM or vice versa.

Of the U.S. carriers, AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM while Sprint, Verizon, and smaller carriers such as such as MetroPCS and U.S. Cellular use CDMA. Though Nextel is part of Sprint, Nextel-branded phones use a third technology called iDEN, or Integrated Digital Enhanced Network.

CDMA coverage is very strong in the United States, particularly in rural areas, but GSM service has a larger global footprint (it's the standard in Europe, for example) and GSM phones use the convenient SIM cards, which you allow you to, among other things, switch phones more easily. Also, when taken on a global scale, GSM users will find a wider selection of handsets.

With that in mind, if you travel overseas frequently or you enjoy switching out your phone often for the newest model available, then GSM is the better choice. Not all GSM phones will work overseas, however, so be sure to read CNET's Quick guide to world phones. But if you'll be making calls mostly in the United States, then CDMA is an equally good option. What's more, some CDMA phones now also support GSM networks for international use.

The T-Mobile G2 uses GSM.
Besides technology, there are other factors that should play in your carrier decision. You should begin by deciding which carrier has the most economical service plans and the most attractive selection of phones. The quality of customer service is another determinant, but that can be difficult to evaluate beforehand. Since knowing the pros and cons of each operator isn't easy, we invite you to take a closer look at service providers in our Quick guide to cell phone carriers. Besides the major operators, you might also consider Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) carriers that cater to a special demographic or lifestyle. For example, Virgin Mobile is targeted toward younger users while Boost Mobile is centered on urban users who want advanced features. MVNOs do not operate their own cellular network, but they lease network space from national carriers instead.
Ultimately though, you should base your decision on which carrier offers the best reception in your area. Because evaluating wireless 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. Be sure to check it out. Word of mouth also is helpful when selecting a provider. Since reception varies sharply by location, ask your friends and family which carrier they use. Also, since there's no substitute for real-world experience, ask to borrow a friend's phone, and test it in your house and your workplace. Remember that carriers have a grace period during which you can test the service and return the phone without voiding the contract. Yet if you do return a phone and cancel a contract, you may have to pay for calls made during the usage period.

Choose a cell phone plan

Calculate your usage Unless you choose a prepaid plan--more on that later--your carrier will ask you to sign a contract. While the contract does bind you to that carrier for two years, and you'll have to pay a fee for breaking the contract early, you will be entitled to rebates on a new phone. Before you sign anything, think carefully about how much you'll actually be using your phone, as usage time is the basis of every calling plan. In short, the more minutes you need each month, the more you pay. And if you go over your minute allotment, you'll be saddled with expensive overage fees.

The RIM BlackBerry Style uses CDMA.
With most plans, you'll mainly be limited to anytime minutes, which are calls that can be placed during peak periods (typically, Monday through Friday between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m.), while off-peak minutes, which are calls placed during weekends, nights, and holidays, typically are unlimited. Be sure to think carefully about how many minutes you'll need and pick a plan accordingly.

By and large, you're better off overestimating the number of anytime minutes you'll need rather than paying overage charges. If you find that you've miscalculated your usage, you can easily change your rate plan, although that may result in an extension of your contract. All the major carriers allow you to track your minute usage through their Web sites, and some allow you to do it on your phone.

Figure out what you need

Almost all plans now offer nationwide roaming, though some regional carriers may operate charge for leaving the home coverage area. This practice is becoming increasingly rare, but it's worth confirming that you won't run up a lot of charges during a road trip.

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 prepaid plans, which allow you to 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.

Before you sign on the dotted line
  • Know how long the grace period is for trying a service, how long your contract lasts. When your contract expires, your carrier cannot force you to sign a new one, nor can it prevent you from leaving your contract early. Remember that you will have to pay an early termination fee for leaving your contract early, but most carriers are now prorating the fees so that the amount decreases over time.

  • 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). And if your plan charges for nationwide roaming, pay attention to your home area's boundaries.

  • If you're going to use text messaging, multimedia messaging, e-mail, or Web browsing on a regular basis, it's best to get a message bundle or a data plan. Otherwise, you'll be charged on per-use basis.

  • If you're a parent purchasing a phone for a teenager or a younger child, you may want to consider special handsets with restricted features. Alternatively, you can ask your carrier about how to limit features, such as picture messaging, on other handsets. 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.

  • Get only what you need. Don't be pressured into purchasing a data plan if you won't use it. 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.

How to pick a cell phone

The Motorola i335 is a candy bar phone.
Picking the right cell phone has as much to do with personality as it does with needs. Handsets vary from the feature-rich and slickly styled to the strictly functional and unassuming. Ultimately, though, it's a personal choice, and you'll want to buy a handset that is right for you--one that you'll enjoy using and carrying around. And while there are many factors to consider, it all boils down to which handset will offer the best blend of design, features, and performance.

The Sanyo Vero is a flip phone.

Cell phones come in a variety of form factors. Flip phones and candy bar models are the most common, but slider phones are popular as well. Swivel phones are also available, but they are relatively few in number.

Each form factor has its unique characteristics, so you'll want to think carefully about which is best for you. For example, flip phones are useful if you frequently store your mobile in a pocket when on the go since the shape prevents accidental dialing. Also, since they cradle your head naturally, flip phones can be more comfortable for some users. On the other hand, candy bar-style phones can be sturdier. Lastly, slider models can provide the best of both worlds, and many people just find the sliding action appealing. When making your decision, be sure to hold the mobile in your hand and next to your ear to see how comfortable it is to hold in your hand.

Now it's time to think about more specific design concerns. When evaluating a new phone you should first examine the size and placement of the buttons and controls and the size of the text on the display. Make sure that the controls are big enough and that you can understand how to use them. Though thin phones are very popular they usually have keypads that are flat with the surface of the phone, which can be difficult to use. If you're considering a phone with a full alphabetic keyboard, you should test that as well.

Secondly, look at the display and see if you can read the text without straining. If you have a flip phone, an external screen is a must so you won't have to open the phone to see your caller's identity. Thanks in part to the iPhone, touch screens have also exploded in popularity. Like with tactile buttons, touch screens can vary in their usability so you give a phone a thorough test drive before buying. Though touch screens provide a nice "wow" factor, they can entail a learning curve for many users.

Finally, remember that you'll want to enjoy using your phone and carrying it around. So go for a menu interface that's attractive and easy to use, and pick a color and shape you won't mind holding in your hand. And since some handsets are more rugged than others, find something that fits your activity level.


The LG Octane has a full keyboard.

If you thought picking a design was hard, choosing your features isn't any easier. The list of possible mobile features is extensive, so carefully consider each point. As a general rule, you shouldn't buy anything more than you need, so don't let a carrier salesperson pressure you into buying an expensive handset. If you want a handset just to make calls, stick with something simple that doesn't offer a lot of extra features. Though basic phones are often overshadowed by high-end handsets in carrier stores, a variety of such models exist. But you may have to ask for them.

If you're going to use your mobile for e-mail or organizational tasks, go with a higher-range model or even a smart phone. Alternatively, if you'd like entertainment options on your handset, consider a camera phone or a device with a digital music player, 3G, streaming video and even live TV. A full range of features is discussed on the next page.


The Samsung T249 is a slider phone.

Though design and features are very important when buying a cell phone, performance is the most critical point to consider. Remember, a cell phone is only as good as the calls it makes, so even the most feature-rich and design-centric handset is worthless if it can't offer decent call quality. And while the strength of a carrier's network is critical to making good calls, the strength of the phone's antenna and receiver play a big part in performance as well.

Determining call quality will take some work on your part. Editorial reviews are helpful and CNET includes audio samples in our reviews, but call quality is ultimately subjective and will vary sharply--even for the same kind of phone--according to the user's geographic location, the numbers of callers using a carrier's network at a given time, and even atmospheric interference. You can start by asking your friends and see what they recommend. Also, ask to test their phone for yourself. When shopping in a carrier store, ask to make a test call with any handsets that perk your interest. If they don't have working display phones, ask a sales rep to use one. When evaluating call quality listen for the clarity of the voices and the volume level. Check to see if the phone picks up any static or interference and ask you callers how you sound to them. Remember, you can always test a phone during the grace period and exchange it if necessary.

If you're looking for a good camera phone or multimedia handset, you should also consider how those features will perform. Every camera phone will vary in photo quality and some music phone will be better than others. Performance also will fluctuate among 3G phones that play streaming video. If possible, evaluate these features before buying.

Finally, ask about the phone's battery life. At the very least, you'll want a handset with more than three hours of continuous talk time and more than five days of standby time. Though every phone will have a rated battery life as set by the manufacturer, your real-world experience will vary, so you should check editorial reviews as well. CNET lists the tested talk time in all cell phone reviews.

10 key cell phone features

  1. Organizer applications: Even the most basic handsets offer organizer applications. Typically, you'll find a calendar, an alarm clock, a stopwatch, and a calculator. Higher-end handsets will have many more options, while other models will offer offbeat applications such as a compass or a thermometer.

  2. Calling features: Consider how many contacts you can store. Voice dialing lets you make calls without using the keypad, which is particularly handy when you're on a headset or if you're using the speakerphone. Speaker-independent voice dialing is best, since the phone will respond to your voice without any training. Also, get a unit with a full-duplex speakerphone, which allows both parties to speak at the same time.

  3. Web browser: This lets you surf the wireless Web and get information such as news and sports recaps, weather reports, and stock quotes. It also lets you download files including games and ring tones. WAP (Wireless Access Protocol) browsers are optimized to view sites configured to display on small, mobile devices but keep in mind that not all sites are made for WAP browsing. On the other hand, most higher-end phones have full HTML browsers, which offer a better browsing experience. You can use some Internet-ready phones as a modem for your PC, but this isn't a universal feature.

    The iPhone 3G has a touch screen and a full Web browser.

  4. Messaging and e-mail: Text messages send text only, and multimedia messages send pictures and videos as well as text. Some handsets support instant messaging from services such as AOL and Yahoo. If you'd like to receive personal or work e-mail on your handset, make sure it supports this feature. Most handsets that support e-mail use a Web interface for accessing your inbox, which can be clunky, but smartphones and high-end models can sync e-mail automatically with your server. Messaging and e-mail cost extra, however, so purchase a data plan if you'll be using the features frequently. You might also consider a phone with a full alphabetic keyboard for faster typing. Some users prefer physical keys, but others are fine using a virtual keyboard.

  5. Camera and video recorder: Use them for taking pictures and shooting brief video clips. A few models still have a low-grade VGA resolution, but most camera phones now have resolutions of a few megapixels or more, which offer much better photo quality. Similarly, while some camera phones offer just a few extra features, other models offer a flash and editing options that resemble those on a regular camera.

  6. Memory: For the best experience with a multimedia phone, make sure your phone has plenty of storage space (an external memory card slot is best.

  7. Push to talk: A walkie-talkie-like service that lets you immediately connect with individuals or call groups, which is especially useful for business users who need instant contact with their colleagues. Best of all, you don't need a cell signal to use them and you won't use standard calling minutes. Not all carriers offer this feature, however, and it's not available on all phones.

  8. Bluetooth: This feature lets you wirelessly connect via low-frequency radio waves with external devices, such as a headset for making calls. Many phones also allow you to use Bluetooth to exchange or sync data with other Bluetooth devices or to connect to stereo headphones to listen to music. For more information see CNET's Bluetooth Buying Guide.

  9. Multimedia options: Some features to look for include a digital music player and an FM radio. Also, many phones now support streaming video through 3G wireless broadband networks, live TV, and wireless music downloads. For a complete list of carrier-operated services, check out our carrier reviews for AT&T, Sprint Nextel, and Verizon Wireless. There will be an extra fee, of course, and you'll need 3G service in your area.

  10. Applications and games: Though every cell phone supports games not every model comes with integrated titles. In that case, you'll have to buy them for a few dollars a pop, and your selection will change by carrier. Extra applications are available depending on your phone model and your carrier. The iPhone supports a wide-range of third-party applications through the iTunes Apps store. For example, Sprint offers a wireless backup service to save your contacts, while Verizon Wireless has a GPS application called VZ Navigator.

    GPS with directional services is an increasingly popular feature. Verizon Wireless, Sprint, and AT&T offer their own GPS services while other handsets, like the iPhone, use Google Maps.

Buy & upgrade your cell phone

  1. Find a phone you like. Keeping in mind the points in the previous section, find a handset that offers the best combination of style, features, and performance for you. You might also consider a Bluetooth headset, but make sure it's specifically designed for your phone of choice.

  2. Check with your carrier. Carrier stores and Web sites are the easiest place to buy a new phone as you can get the new handset activated, sign up for service, and make changes to your account all in one place. If you're a new customer, your contract agreement will entitle you to rebates and discounts for phones. Find out which ones they are, as they can offer significant savings. Additional rebates might also be available for online purchases.

    If you're a current customer, ask your provider if any deals are available if you get a new model. This is essential as carriers will limit how often you can get rebates on a new phone. Remember, however, that some will carriers will charge an upgrade fee even if you're eligible for a rebate. Also, while you don't have to buy a phone that comes with rebates (doing so will mean a new contract) but it can be more economical to do so.

  3. Check third-party retailers. You also can buy phones from general electronics stores such as RadioShack that are not affiliated with any carriers. 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, while third-party retail stores aren't owned by a carrier, they can partner with providers to offer the activations services and rebates.

    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.

  4. Do you need a smart phone? Smart phones combine cell phone and PDA functions in one unit. They're most appropriate if you require access to your work e-mail and calendar when on the go. Also, some smart phones allow you to access and edit Word and Excel documents. Smart phones will also vary widely by design. While some models use a stylus and touch screen, others offer full QWERTY keyboards.

    Need help choosing a smartphone? Check out this video for useful tips.

    Though smart phones are considerably larger and much more expensive than standard handsets, often costing upward of $600, they eliminate the need for two separate devices. Smart phones are available in Palm WebOS, Symbian, RIM BlackBerry, Apple iOS, Google Android, and Windows Phone 7 operating systems, each of which has unique characteristics. Be aware that you'll need to purchase a separate data plan, which varies by carrier.

  5. Read the fine print. Some things to keep in mind before you commit:
    • You can search auction sites such as eBay for good deals. Use caution when going this route, however. If there's an outstanding balance tied to the number, the carrier won't activate the phone to work on a new account. Also, if you receive a broken device, make sure you can return it.
    • 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.
    • Finally, remember that during the grace period, you can return a phone for a full refund if you decide you don't like it. Check with your provider for exact details.
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