Thursday, July 21, 2011

Cell Phone Plans and How To Choose The Best Plan For You

Cell Phone Plans and Service
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, surf your favorite Web sites, 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 monthly service plan in your area. Then you'll have to select a phone from the assortment that 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 now 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.

Though the availability of 3G service has improved, it remains a mixed bag outside most major metropolitan areas. 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. AT&T and T-Mobile support a 3G network called HSDPA (High Speed Downlink Packet Access), which is available only on select handsets. (AT&T's HSDPA is also available for use with PC Cards.) In theory, HSDPA can reach download speeds of 3.6 megabits per second; in actuality, it delivers average download data rates of 400 to 700 kbps with bursts to more than 1 mbps. AT&T is currently upgrading its network to support HSDPA 7.2, which can deliver download speeds of up to 7.2 mbps; the upgrade won't be complete until 2011, however. While more phones are offering support for HSDPA, many AT&T and T-Mobile phones still support EDGE (Enhanced Data rates for Global Evolution), which promises data transmission speeds of 384 kbps, and GPRS (General Packet Radio Service), with an average speed of 40 kbps but the capability to go 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. Most of the world uses networks based on the GSM (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), GPRS (General Packet Radio Service), EDGE (Enhanced Data rates for Global Evolution), and/or EvDO (Evolution Data Optimized) standards. AT&T runs on the AMPS, EDGE, GSM, GPRS, and TDMA networks. Sprint Nextel uses the iDEN network exclusively. Sprint and Verizon Wireless run on CDMA and EvDO. T-Mobile supports GSM and GPRS networks. It is important to note that while AT&T runs on both GSM and TDMA networks, the services and the phones that use them do not interoperate.

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.

Wi-Fi support: A phone that can connect to Wi-Fi hotspots enables you to surf the Web or transfer data at much higher speeds. Even if your phone supports 3G networks, you may want Wi-Fi support, too, as it tends to be faster and more reliable than cellular networks. It can be cheaper, too, since surfing on a Wi-Fi network doesn't require using your carrier's service.

Design: You can choose among flip-open, clamshell-style phones; nonflip, candy bar-style phones; slider-style phones that--obviously--slide open; and swivel phones that twist open. Low-end flip phones may lack a separate caller ID screen, but many of today's 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? Consider 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 less than 4 ounces, and cell phones continue to get smaller and slimmer than ever. Smartphones with full QWERTY keyboards, such as a Palm Treo or BlackBerry device, tend to be a bit larger, which you should keep in mind if you plan to use one for long phone calls.

Battery life: Most new phones allow at least 4 hours of talk time and 2 to 6 days on standby. Some phones can last up to 14 days or more on standby. Keep in mind that several factors affect battery life; high-speed 3G networks tend to be power-hungry, for example, and the phones that support them often have shorter battery life. The signal strength of your cellular service also has an effect, since 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. Make sure it's big enough for you to take full advantage of the phone's features. If you're going to surf the Web or edit office documents on your phone, a screen that's less than 2.5 inches diagonally will feel very small.

The screen'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.

You also should consider the screen's resolution. The higher the resolution, the better the screen will look--an important consideration if you plan on using your phone to watch videos or look at photos.

When the first-generation iPhone launched in 2007, it touched off a touch-screen frenzy. Since then, more and more phones have come out with touch screens. If you're looking for such a phone, keep in mind that not all touch screens are created equal. Some--like the iPhone's screen--support multitouch, which means they can register more than one touch point at a time. This technology allows you to pinch and grab the screen to zoom in and out on a Web page, for example. Other phones support single touch only, and can register only one tap at a time. Some touch screens also offer a type of feedback--either a slight vibration or a sound--when they register your touch, which can prevent you from tapping needlessly. Finally, consider ease of use: How simple is it to scroll through items on a particular touch-screen menu? Can you adjust the sensitivity of it to your liking?

Keypad: If you can't figure out how to use certain functions on a phone pretty quickly (with or without consulting the manual), try another; remember, though, that if you're looking at a phone that packs a lot of features, you should spend some time learning how to use them. Regardless, 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 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 can be much easier to use than a software-based keyboard on a touch-sensitive screen.

Operating system: If you're looking to do more than make calls and send text messages with your phone, you should consider the platform on which it runs. The mobile operating system you choose will greatly affect the capabilities of your phone. Smartphones that run the Windows Mobile OS, for example, usually come with mobile versions of the Microsoft Office suite, so you can view and edit documents when you're away from your PC. Windows Mobile is available on a wide range of handsets from all carriers, so you'll have plenty of choice in hardware. BlackBerry smartphones run the BlackBerry OS, which has recently been updated. It sports a newer, more modern look and is easier to use than in the past. Various third-party software titles are available for BlackBerry phones, and with the launch of BlackBerry App World (an on-phone download catalog), we should see even more. The Palm OS is not as widely available, but it retains a devoted following, largely because of its easy learning curve; you'll also find a good deal of productivity software available for Palm OS-based phones. The Symbian platform, which is available on most Nokia smartphones, is not as user-friendly, but it supports a range of business and productivity apps.

Newer platforms include the modified version of the Mac OS that runs on Apple's iPhones. While the iPhone doesn't ship with any true office applications, it does include easy access to Apple's App Store, where you can find an incredible range of applications--for work and play--available for download. Another new platform is Google's Android, which is available on relatively few handsets so far, such as the T-Mobile G1 smartphone. Android phones include access to their own marketplace for downloading applications, but the selection there isn't as vast as that at Apple's App Store--though it is growing. The newest platform is Palm's WebOS, available on the Palm Pre. WebOS offers many refinements not found on other mobile platforms--including the ability to keep more than one application at a time open for multitasking. WebOS also offers its own application catalog, but the platform is still quite new, and the selection of applications is sparse.

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. Many 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, which allows you to pair the device with a wireless Bluetooth headset.

Wireless data: Nearly all cell phones are capable of sending and receiving e-mail and instant messages, downloading custom ring tones and simple games, or connecting to the Internet (sometimes merely by way of 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 and HSDPA, provide faster connections at up to 2 mbps. A Wi-Fi connection can be faster and more reliable than a carrier's data network, but you must be within range of a wireless hotspot in order to use it.

Key Service Provider Features
Coverage: The biggest nationwide carriers are AT&T Mobility, 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 the service and one of its phones. Most 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: The national phone plans that the major carriers offer will let you send and receive calls anywhere in the United States (and even in parts of Canada) at no extra charge. You may be able to sign up for a local or regional plan that limits the areas where you can originate a call and still pull from your monthly pool of minutes; this option may be worth considering if you use your phone for local calls exclusively. 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: Activating service to your phone or switching the service from your old phone to a new one almost always incurs a fee. 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 contact 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?" Those two questions will help you 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 (one 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 both 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 $100. 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 $100 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. (Smartphones with QWERTY keyboards, 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. A phone that supports a 3G network is likely to have a shorter battery life than a non-3G phone. "Standby battery life" refers to battery life while the 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 Good2chat 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 deciding 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 smartphone.
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 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 of most carriers offer 300 to 450 minutes. Unless you intend 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 provides the best mix of minutes, features, and cost.

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 earphones: Inexpensive hands-free earbud 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. Ask your provider if its emergency services can track a handset to its exact location. Enhanced 911 service is critical if you intend to use the phone for emergencies.


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