Consumer Reports - Cell Phones

By: Brooke Yan

Switching operators is now much easier than ever, thanks to the government mandate on local number portability. However, keep in mind that the phones themselves aren’t portable. If you switch carriers, expect to buy a new phone.

Reviews on Cell Phones
The cell-phone itself is only part of what you need. You also have to sign up for service with a wireless provider and choose a calling plan. You can find phones in many outlets, including independent wireless retailers, electronics stores, and Web sites.

Major Cellphone Providers in America 
The major national companies are Cingular (which merged with AT&T Wireless), Nextel, Sprint PCS (which is in the process of merging with Nextel), T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless. There are also numerous local or regional providers.

You’ll often find phones described as tri-mode, dual-band, tri-band, or multi network. Those terms describe the ways a phone can connect to one or more wireless networks. Here are the specifics:

  • Tri-mode phones can access a digital network in two frequency bands and older analog wireless networks.
  • Dual-band phones can connect to a digital network, but in two different frequency bands. GSM providers often use the term 850/1900 MHz instead of dual-band.
  • Multinetwork phones are compatible with more than one digital network, often in two frequency bands. Some can also access analog networks.
  • Tri-band or ‘World Phones’ operate on GSM networks in both the U.S. and abroad. Those with 850/1800/1900 MHz capability can operate on two bands domestically and one internationally. Those with 900/1800/1900 MHz capability operate on one band in the U.S. (1900 MHz) and two bands internationally.

The calling plans
Most providers offer a range of plans based around a “bucket” of calling time minutes. The more minutes in the bucket, the more the plan costs you each month. However, the total number of minutes isn’t the most important figure. Some of those minutes may be good anytime, others available only on nights and weekends; if you exceed the allotment of minutes, you’ll be charged 35 to 50 cents per minute, depending on the plan. Cingular, alone among the major carriers, lets customers roll over unused minutes to the next month. Most plans require you to sign a one- or two-year contract and levy a hefty fee if you want to cancel before the contract expires.

Prepaid plans can be a good alternative if you’re averse to a long-term contract. Many wireless providers, as well as Virgin Mobile, Liberty Wireless, Metro PCS, and Tracfone, offer prepaid calling. You pay in advance for airtime minutes, which typically last 45 to 60 days before they expire.

Cell Phone Important Features

Some cell-phone makers and service providers are offering so-called 3G & 4G services, which enhances the speed of data transfer. 3G services deliver reasonably fast, secure connections to the Internet and allow you to use the cell phone for playing and downloading audio and video, multimedia messages, and e-mail.

Among basic cell-phone features, look for a display that is readable in both low- and bright-light conditions. The keypad should be clearly marked and easy to use. Programmable speed dial allows you to recall stored names and numbers by pressing one key. Single-key last-number redial is useful for dropped calls or when you’re having trouble connecting. 

If you frequently use headsets but hate fussing with cords, consider a phone with Bluetooth voice capability, which allows you to use a cordless headset. Not all phones with Bluetooth are equal.

Bluetooth data lets you transfer pictures and contacts, etc. to other Bluetooth-enable devices like printers, PDAs, and computers. Bluetooth data capability is found on GSM phones, but no on CDMA phones.

CDMA Phones
Many CDMA phones have analog backup capability, which may be important if you travel through rural areas, or places where your digital carrier doesn’t provide service. Phones with analog capability can sometimes connect in places where digital-only phones cannot.

HOW TO CHOOSE

Begin by selecting a service.
Finding good service where you want it can be a challenge. The best way is to ask your friends and business associates--people who literally travel the same roads you do--how satisfied they are with their cell-phone service. In addition, keep in mind that Verizon Wireless has consistently come in first in Consumer Reports satisfaction surveys and so is worth considering first.

Choose a calling plan.
You need to determine when and where you’ll be using a cell phone most in order to select a plan that’s right for you. As a rule, a national calling plan (which typically eliminates extra long-distance charges or fees for “roaming” away from your home calling area) is worth considering first, even if you don’t travel often. With a regional plan, roaming charges can be stiff if you make calls too far away from your home.

If two or more family members use cell phones, consider a family plan that lets up to four people share a large monthly pool of minutes for a small additional monthly charge. If you aren’t sure how many minutes of phone time you’ll use in a month, choose a plan with more minutes than you think you will use. It’s often better to let minutes go unused than to have to pay stiff per-minute charges if you exceed your allotment.

Select a phone.
You can spend as little as $20 or as much as $600 on a cell phone. You need to begin your selection in the right price tier. Once you’ve settled on a price range, follow these steps:

Hold the phone.
In the store, take the phone in your hand and make sure you can comfortably access most keys with one hand. Try to make a test call and access the menu items on a working demo. We’ve found that phones with radical shapes are difficult to use. So are keys that are small, oddly shaped, or arranged in unusual patterns, especially if you’re trying to dial a number in dim light.

Consider insuring pricey phones.
All major carriers provide insurance that covers lost, stolen, or damaged phones, typically for about $4 to $5 a month, with a $35 to $50 deductible. At those rates, it wouldn’t pay to insure a low-priced phone. But if you paid $200 or more, then insurance may be worth considering. Some insurance plans require a police report. Damaged phones are replaced, often with a refurbished model

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