There are now more than 190 million cell-phone subscribers, more than one per household, on average. A small but steadily growing number of people use a cell phone (a.k.a. a mobile phone) as their only phone. Phone manufacturers and wireless-service providers are promoting new generations of equipment that let users do much more than merely make phone calls.
Despite its popularity, wireless service has a reputation for problems: dead zones, where you can’t get service; calls that inexplicably end in midconversation; inadequate capacity, so you can’t put a call through when you want; hard-to-fathom calling plans; and errors in bills. Problems like those are why one-third of the cell-phone users we’ve surveyed say they’re seriously considering a switch of carrier.
Switching 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.
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.
The providers. 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.
The phones. Some are simple rectangles with a display window and keypad on the front. Others are curvaceous or have a flip-open cover to protect the keys. The major phone manufacturers are Audiovox, Kyocera, LG, Motorola, Nokia, Panasonic, Samsung, Sanyo, and Sony-Ericsson. Light weight is pretty much standard. All the newer phones can send and receive text messages up to 160 characters long to or from any other cell-phone user, and most phones now come with a full-color display. You’ll also see phones that can play popular computer games, are integrated with a digital camera, offer wireless Internet access, or that are combined with a personal digital assistant (PDA).
Some cell-phone makers and service providers are offering so-called 3G service, 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. Be sure it’s easy to see the battery-life and signal-strength indicators and the number you’re dialing. 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. Most phones these days have voice dial, which lets you dial someone’s phone number by speaking their name. But the number and name have to be in your phone’s contact list, and you have to program each voice dial name–a time-consuming process. Voice command-enabled phones don’t require training. You can dial anyone’s number in your contact list, and even dial a number not in the list by speaking the digits.
In addition to ringing, most handsets have a vibrating alert or a flashing light-emitting diode to let you know about an incoming call, useful when you’re in a meeting or at the movies. Handiest is an easy-to-mute ringer, which switches from ring to vibrate when you press and hold one key. Volume controls on the side let you change the earpiece volume level without moving the phone too far from your ear. You can’t do that if the volume controls are on the keypad. A speakerphone boosts the earpiece volume and microphone sensitivity, so you carry on a conversation without having the phone against your ear.
Some cell-phone models include a headset. That capability is sometimes demanded by various local laws for drivers using cell phones. A standard headset connector (also known as a 2.5-mm connector) is the most common type of headset connector. 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.
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.
Phones vary widely in keypad design and readability of screen displays, as well as in the ease of using the function menu or performing such basic tasks as one-button redial and storage of frequently called numbers for speed-dialing later. It’s important to handle a phone in the store before you buy, to be sure its design and your fingers are well-matched.
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:
First look for practical features. Cameras, games, music players, and the like are appealing, fun, and even useful for some people. However, features such as a folding case, volume controls on the side, and an easy-to-mute ringer will prove useful every day.
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.
Check the display. Most color screens perform well in dim light, but some are hard to see in daylight. Try the phone outside or under bright light. In our tests, phones that display incoming and outgoing numbers with large black fonts against a white background were the easiest to read under most conditions. Also make sure indicators such as battery life and signal strength are clearly visible.
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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