Top tips on buying the cell phone that’s right for you

Few tools of modern technology have become as prevalent as the cell phone, which allows you to be in touch (almost) all the time, (almost) anywhere.

And you can do more than just talk–modern phones let you send and receive e-mail and text messages, and even surf the Web. Sifting through the sea of service plans and handsets can be difficult, but we’ll walk you through what you need to know to get the phone and service plan that’s right for you.

The Big Picture

Cell phones are more than just convenient communication tools: They allow you to check e-mail, sync with the calendar and contacts on your PC, dial a number by the sound of your voice, look up breaking news on the Internet, take photos, play games, send text messages, view and edit documents, listen to music, and more.

But choosing a phone–and the service plan to go with it–requires some legwork.

Your choice of phone may depend on your choice of wireless service provider. If you’re shopping for a carrier, you first need to figure out which carrier offers the best coverage and the best monthly service plan in your area.

Then you’ll have to select a phone from the assortment your chosen service provider offers. With the exception of a few handsets, most phones work only on one provider’s system because carriers have mutually exclusive networks, and many carriers lock their phones so you can’t take the same phone to another provider.

The third generation of mobile communications technology, commonly called 3G, is becoming more widely available.

It’s supposed to boost data-transfer performance to 2 megabits per second from the more common data-transfer rate of 19.2 kilobits per second, and is particularly handy if you use a phone to wirelessly access data such as e-mail, text messages, and the Web.

The availability of 3G service remains a mixed bag. Sprint and Verizon Wireless use the Evolution Data Optimized (EvDO) network, which offers average download speeds of 400 to 700 kbps and potential maximum download speeds of 2 mbps.

Cingular’s 3G network, called High Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA), is available on only on select handsets. (Cingular’s HSDPA is also available for use with PC Cards.) HSDPA promises average download data rates of 400 to 700 kbps with bursts to more than 1 mbps.

Currently, most Cingular phones still support Enhanced Data rates for Global Evolution (EDGE), which promises data transmission speeds of 384 kbps, and General Packet Radio Service (GPRS), with an average speed of 40 kbps but a capability of going up to 115 kbps.

Key Phone Features

Wireless standard: World travelers are more affected by wireless standards than are users based strictly in the United States.

This is because most of the world uses networks based on GSM, which is the global system for mobile communications standard. U.S. carriers, however, use a variety of networks in addition to GSM. U.S. carriers work on the CDMA (code division multiple access), TDMA (time division multiple access), iDEN (integrated digital enhanced network), AMPS (advanced mobile phone service), GPRS (general packet radio service), EDGE (enhanced data rates for global evolution), and/or EvDO (evolution data optimized) standards. Cingular runs on the AMPS, EDGE, GSM, GPRS, and TDMA networks.

Nextel uses the iDEN network exclusively. Sprint and Verizon Wireless run on CDMA and EvDO; Verizon also uses AMPS. T-Mobile supports GSM and GPRS networks. It is important to note that while Cingular runs on both GSM and TDMA networks, the services and the phones that use them do not interoperate.

Wireless mode: Dual-mode phones, which send and receive both digital and analog signals, tend to be more reliable than single-mode models. In rural areas where digital service is often spotty or nonexistent, a dual-mode phone can fall back on an analog signal to allow service, though roaming fees may apply.

Bear in mind that using an analog mode consumes more battery power than using a digital mode. If you use your phone mainly in big cities,where digital service is widespread, you can stick with a single-mode model, which is often cheaper than a dual-mode phone.

Band support: The more radio bands a phone supports, the more frequencies it picks up. Quad-band phones, as their name suggests, operate across four frequency bands. Theoretically, they provide better coverage than triple-, dual-, or single-band phones.

These so-called world phones are compatible with four GSM frequencies–850 MHz (prevalent in the United States), 900 MHz (prevalent in Europe), 1800 MHz (prevalent in Asia), and 1900 MHz (also available in the U.S.). As a result, they function around the globe. You can also find tri-mode phones that work on two digital frequency bands in addition to an analog network, a particularly handy feature if you travel to rural areas.

Design: You can choose among flip-open, clamshell-style phones; nonflip, candybar-style phones; slider-style phones that–obviously–slide open; and swivel phones that twist open. Flip phones can be more difficult to use with one hand because the cover may be heavier than the base, and low-end models may lack a separate caller ID screen on the cover.

Fortunately, many new phones sport dual screens–a small, external LCD on the cover plus an internal display. If you buy a nonflip phone, make sure it has a keypad lock that prevents inadvertent dialing–a helpful feature when you put the phone in a pocket or bag.

Whichever type of phone you choose, check its ergonomics. Is it comfortable against your ear, and can you hear callers without constant adjustment? Can you use the phone with one hand? How about hands-free use: Can you comfortably hold the phone to your ear by scrunching your neck and shoulder?

Also, look for the placement of the headset jack–a jack located on top of the phone is often more convenient than one located on the side.

Size and weight: Part of what makes a phone easy to use is its portability. A typical standard cell phone weighs about 4 ounces, and most non-flip models are about the size of an energy bar–5 inches long, 2 inches wide, and 1 inch thick. Anything above that is considered large.

An exception is a PDA phone, like a Palm Treo or BlackBerry device. While these hybrid units continue to get smaller and slimmer, they will be larger than a basic cell phone, and you should keep that in mind if you plan to use one for long phone calls.

Battery life: Most new phones allow at least four hours of talk time and two to six days on standby. Some phones can last up to 14 days or more on standby. Keep in mind that usage affects battery life, as does the signal strength of your cellular service.

A phone that constantly searches for signals will run itself down quickly. Depending on the phone, recharging the battery should take about an hour or longer. When you buy a phone, consider optional accessories such as a higher-capacity battery and a portable charging adapter for use in a car.

Screen: If you intend to send and receive text messages, surf the Web, or use the phone’s organizer, make sure the screen is up to snuff. Six lines of text are sufficient for most folks; anything less will make your eyes–and your thumb–sore from scrolling.

Some handsets let you adjust the font size to fit more text on the screen, but the more digits you pack in, the tinier they get. Consider a PDA phone if you plan to go online or send lots of messages; many models come with a large LCD.

An LCD’s contrast and backlight strengths are also important. The phones we’ve seen show marked differences in viewing quality. If your phone allows you to adjust such settings, you can make text and graphics easily viewable–even in bright places. These days, most phones offer color screens, which are easy on the eyes.

Keypad: If you can’t figure out how to use certain functions on a phone within a few minutes (with or without consulting the manual), try another. The keypad layout and menu system should be intuitive. The buttons should be responsive and easy to press. Check out the navigation buttons on the keypad.

A joystick-style knob on some phones can make navigating menus quick. Most handsets come with up/down and left/right arrow keys. Buttons that protrude slightly are much easier to use than flat or recessed keys.

Many PDA phones and a few standard cell phones come with a small QWERTY keyboard. The tiny keys may not suit everyone, but they can save you a great deal of time if you plan to use your phone for sending e-mail messages and editing office documents. Even very small QWERTY keyboards tend to be much easier to use than a software-based keyboard on a touch-sensitive screen.

Voice communications and organizer: Mobile phones bombard you with call-management features–voice-activated calling, voice recording, phone books, call histories, speed dialing, and so on. Enabling some of the features (such as caller ID, call waiting, and three-way calling) depends on your service plan. Most phones also provide security features that can restrict incoming and outgoing calls, lock the keypad, and protect or mass-delete phone book entries. Some handsets also provide a speakerphone.

Some even function as two-way radios, connecting you with others on the same carrier; and in many cases, such communications don’t count as airtime–a great benefit for IT personnel and other roving staff.

If you want to talk on the phone hands-free (a must if you use the phone while driving), look for a model that comes with a headset or an earphone. If you don’t want to mess with cords, consider a phone that supports Bluetooth; it allows you to pair it with a wireless Bluetooth headset.

Wireless data: Nearly all new cell phones are capable of doing tasks such as sending and receiving e-mail and IM, downloading custom ring tones and simple games, or connecting to the Internet (usually through a minibrowser that’s designed to work best with text-only versions of popular sites like Amazon, Google, and Yahoo). Such features, however, are heavily dependent on your provider and your service plan.

Going online while you’re waiting for the elevator is a cool idea, but most phones connect at slow speeds: only up to 115 kbps on a GPRS network and up to 384 kbps on EDGE; 3G networks, such as EvDO, provide faster connections at up to 2 mbps.

Key Service Provider Features

Coverage: The biggest nationwide carriers are Cingular, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless. Not all networks are created equal, however. Service can be erratic even if a carrier claims to have coverage in an area; the quality of the reception varies, too. One way to find out about a carrier’s network reliability is to try out the service and one of its phones.

Nearly all nationwide carriers offer a trial period of up to 30 days where you pay for only the minutes you use. You should also poll friends and colleagues about their experiences. Find out how good the phone signal is at your home, office, or anywhere else you’ll need to use it.

Plan type: If you do a lot of cross-country traveling, signing up for a national phone plan is best because it will let you send and receive calls anywhere in the United States (and even in parts of Canada) at no extra charge.

A local or regional plan limits the areas where you can originate a call and still pull from your monthly pool of minutes. If you have a world phone and plan to use it in other countries, choose service with international roaming.

Data plan: You should also take into account your data usage (e-mail, photos, IM, and Web access) when selecting your cell phone plan. Some carriers bundle voice and data plans together, while others let you select a voice and data plan separately. You can always pay for messaging and data use a la carte, but you’ll likely be charged a higher rate.

So if you think you’ll be sending and receiving data with your phone, you’ll want to select some sort of data plan.

Minutes: When choosing a plan, it’s best to overestimate the number of minutes you’ll be using for every sent and received call. Because one carrier’s definition of off-peak may be different from another’s, ask the carrier to specify the times for its peak, off-peak, and weekend hours. Other service charges include a data plan (see above), three-way calling, and downloads.

Contract: Virtually all carriers offer discounted service fees if you commit to a specified period of time, usually two years, though one year is sometimes available. The longer the contract period, the lower the rate. If you break the agreement, you’ll incur hefty fees.

Other services: There’s almost always a fee for activating service to your phone or switching the service from your old phone to a new one. Look into phone replacement plans or extended warranties, both of which typically entitle you to a new phone if yours is lost, stolen, or goes kaput. You should also find out who you can call if something goes wrong with your phone. Find out exactly what you’ll need to do–and how much you’ll need to pay–in order to fix your phone.

The Specs Explained

While a cell phone can make your life easier, just getting one can be a huge hassle. When you look at handsets and service plans, the sales reps may bombard you with a ton of terms and restrictions.

The two most important questions to ask yourself before you decide on a phone and plan are, “How much will I use the phone?” and “Where will I use it?” These two questions will help determine how many minutes you need and whether to go with a local, regional, national, or international plan.

The service meter starts running the minute you place and receive calls. The most common plans are national plans, which allow you to call from anywhere in the United States (and perhaps from some parts of Canada) without additional charges.

You may also be able to sign up for a local service plan that allows you to make and receive calls from within your local area without so-called roaming charges being added; or for a regional plan that allows you to call from a wider area without incurring additional charges. If you travel overseas, look for an international plan that lets you use your world phone stateside and in several other countries.

Many companies require that you buy a phone from them when you sign up. Some offer great discounts when you do so. In some cases, you can buy the phone from a third party and sign up for service with the carrier of your choice.

Cell Phone Specs

If you’re shopping for a low-end cell phone, you can expect to spend anywhere from nothing to about $149. Many low-end phones are free when you sign a contract with the service provider, or after a mail-in rebate. Also, many cell phone companies offer great discounts when you purchase phones online.

A typical cell phone costs anywhere from $150 to $299, while higher-end cell phones run $300 and up.

Because you’ll be carrying the phone, its weight and size are fairly important factors to consider before you buy. Most cell phones weigh from 3 to 6 ounces; generally, the more expensive a phone is, the smaller and lighter it is. (PDA phones, however, are an exception to this rule; they tend to be bulkier and heavier than standard cell phones.)

Battery life is another important factor, since it determines how long you can go without recharging the phone, and you don’t want to be stranded with a dead battery.

Talk-time battery life can range from little more than 1 hour to over 10 hours, depending on your handset. “Standby battery life” refers to battery life while phone is on but not in use. Vendors will estimate both talk-time and standby battery life, but their estimates do not always reflect real-world usage; for more on battery life, check out PC World’s cell phone reviews.

Today’s phones let you do more than just talk. You can send and receive instant messages and even listen to songs or watch videos after downloading them. You need to take into account what you’d like to do with your phone before you can decide on the right handset for you. Most low-end phones support sending and receiving text messages, handling basic e-mail chores, and doing limited Web surfing.

More low-end phones are adding features like built-in cameras and music playback, but if you want faster or more-advanced Web access, video playback and recording, or GPS functionality, you’ll probably have to spring for at least an average or higher-end cell phone. And if you’re looking for a phone that will let you view and/or edit Office documents, consider a more-advanced PDA phone.

Deciding between single- and dual-mode phones is less critical. Dual-band phones work on both analog and digital networks. They provide far greater coverage because digital networks don’t cover the entire nation. Sound quality on analog networks isn’t as good, however, and you may have to pay additional fees if you use the analog network on a digital plan.

Similarly, choosing among single-, dual-, tri-, and quad-band phones isn’t critical for most users. The more bands a phone supports, the more frequencies it picks up. Quad-band phones, as their name suggests, operate across four frequency bands. As a result, theoretically, they provide better coverage than tri-, dual-, or single-band phones.

Cell Phone Shopping Tips

Here are PC World’s recommendations for cell phones and service plans that fit the needs of most users.

Service Plans

Does your plan have enough minutes? The basic plans offered by most carriers offer 300 to 450 minutes. Unless you plan to use your phone only for emergencies, you’ll need at least that many.

Go national: Even if you don’t travel extensively around the country, a national calling plan often offers the best mix of minutes, features, and cost. While local or regional plans may have more minutes included, most don’t offer free long distance.

Phones

Get at least 3 to 4 hours of talk time: Make sure a single battery charge on your phone covers at least that. This can save many headaches later.

Pick up a headset or earphone: Inexpensive hands-free ear-bud headsets let you safely converse while driving, working, or just walking. Some phones even allow you to set voice commands to dial frequently called numbers, so you rarely need to touch the keys.

Ask about E911: This is especially important if you are purchasing a cell phone to replace your home phone line. You should ask your provider if its emergency services can track a handset to its exact location. Enhanced 911 service is especially important if you intend to use the phone for emergencies.

Comment: edit@itworldcanada.com

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