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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.
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.
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. With that in mind, word of mouth is an essential tool 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.
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.
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 unliprmited. 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
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.
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 grown 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.
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.
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. are helpful, 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.