If your cell phone contract is up, or if you’ve waited as long as you can to join the ranks of cell phone users, there’s good news: Today’s cell phones pack more features at a lower price than ever before. Need a music player, digital camera, or the Internet to go? There’s a cell phone for you. And while Apple’s pricey iPhone may be stealing the headlines, there’s a cell phone with the features you need available for less than you might realize. (see also Smart Phone Buying Guide, PDA Buying Guide).
Many cell phones work only with a single carrier. “Unlocked” cell phones may be available from third-party retailers, but their full functions may not be supported.
A basic cell phone is perfect for making calls and sending messages. More advanced phones include music players, digital cameras, and camcorders.
If you really need a cell phone with a keyboard and full Internet access, a smart phone is worth the investment. This technology is still expensive, so unless you need it, choose a cell phone with predictive text.
Always have more anytime minutes than you think you’ll need. Look into family plans for the people you call often, and consider a prepaid cell phone for younger children.
Some cell phones have everything you need in the box, while others require you to buy earbuds, car chargers, and memory cards. Add in the cost of these accessories when comparing models.
The time you spend talking on a cell phone.
The allotment of minutes you can use each month before additional charges per minute apply. Nights and weekends are free with most plans.
A wireless technology that allows a cell phone to communicate with peripherals, such as a headset.
A cell phone service provider.
A wireless telephone that uses cellular technology. Cellular uses radio frequencies to communicate with the phone through antennas, with each antenna area known as a “cell.” As you travel from cell to cell, a cell phone switches from one antenna to the next.
Communication between your cell phone and the Internet. Additional charges may apply for data transfer.
Also known as text messaging, sending a short written message to a Web site or another cell phone. Additional charges may apply for text messaging.
The region your service plan allows you to call without incurring toll charges.
Periods of time when carriers offer discounted calling charges. Nights and weekends may be free, depending on your plan.
The highest-use time of the day. Most carriers charge more per minute for calls made during peak hours.
The service contract with a carrier.
A cell phone that comes with a certain number of available minutes. Once the minutes are used up, more must be purchased to use the phone.
Use of a cell phone outside its designated service area. The per-minute rate can be much higher in a roaming area.
A two-year agreement with a carrier to provide cell phone service and airtime, along with data transfer and text messaging, if included. Breaking the contract early can result in penalties of $150 or more.
Not all cell phones work for all carriers, and choosing the cell phone before the carrier can be costly and frustrating. If you already have a carrier you like, then you might be eligible for a cell phone upgrade, which will put a new cell phone in your hands at a reduced price so long as you extend your two-year contract.
If you need a new carrier, start by thinking about where you will use your cell phone. Ask your coworkers and neighbors which carriers they use to find out who provides the best cell phone signal in your area.
You may be able to purchase an “unlocked” cell phone that works with any carrier. Be aware that some of the cell phone’s functions may not work with service provided by a different carrier.
If you just need to make calls, a basic “candy bar” or flip phone may be available for free if you sign up for or renew a two-year contract. Like all cell phones, these models include an address book, a clock, and the ability to send text messages. Basic cell phones increasingly offer color screens and wireless Internet access, something that’s standard on more feature-rich cell phones.
If you’re a shutterbug, there are cell phones with cameras and camcorders built in, but not all camera phones are the same. Look for the megapixel capacity—higher numbers mean better pictures.
Several cell phones now include built-in music players, and some even offer FM transmitters so you can play your songs through a car or home stereo. The built-in transmitters consume battery power and the cell phone may need to be kept close to the antenna for this function to work. Another thing to look for in a music phone is MP3 compatibility and the ability to sync the cell phone with your existing music library. Some cell phone service providers will try to lock you into a proprietary music store.
Whether it’s music or pictures, your cell phone will need memory and connectivity. At the higher end, you’ll find cell phones with swappable MiniSD memory cards and USB or infrared connections. At the lower end, you may need to upload photos or files from your cell phone to your carrier’s Web site, then back to your home PC.
So-called “smart” cell phones are the hot item right now. These provide full Internet access and have a built-in keypad to make typing easier. While the technology is very attractive, these are the most expensive cell phones on the market. If you use the phone for work and travel frequently, a smart phone may be worth the investment. For most people, however, a standard cell phone with predictive text will take care of messaging needs.
Cell phone plans all include a certain number of “anytime” minutes per month. Go over your allotment, and you’ll be paying 10 cents or more per minute. Nights and weekends are free with most plans, but it’s still a good idea to have more minutes than you expect to use.
If you choose a cell phone with Internet access, it’s a good idea to have a plan that includes unlimited data transfer, as casual surfing and e-mail checking can add up to a lot of time. Text messaging is not typically included in data transfer, so you may need a plan that includes texting as well. Some cell phone companies offer family plans that allow you unlimited calling and texting to a limited number of people who use the same carrier.
Roaming, or calls made outside of your service area, is less of an issue with cell phones today, as most carriers have nationwide networks. It’s still worth investigating, though, if you travel frequently, particularly to rural areas.
When choosing a plan and a cell phone, remember that you are making a two-year commitment, and you’ll pay a penalty of $150 or more if you break the contract. While you can buy a phone without signing up for a contract, it’s always cheaper to take the contract, as the cell phone company will subsidize the cost of the phone.
When is the right age for a child to have a cell phone? Most parents say around age 12. Cell phones are a great way for families to stay in touch, but there are costs to consider. First, if the phone is lost or broken, you may need to pay full price for a replacement. Second, text messaging and talking—two favorite activities for the younger set—gets expensive if the child runs over the allotted monthly minutes. Starting a child with a prepaid cell phone or “pay as you go” plan is a good way to teach him or her the discipline of budgeting time. It is also highly recommended to buy phone insurance. For a small monthly fee, often $5 or less, the phone can be replaced if lost or damaged.
An earbud that enables hands-free operation may be required by law if you plan to use the cell phone in the car. Frequent travelers may want a car charger, and you might need to pay extra for a cable to connect the cell phone to your PC or a larger memory card. When shopping, always makes sure you know what’s included, and include the cost of necessary accessories when comparing cell phone models.
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