Q: I currently have an "ancient" BlackBerry that I love. But it's time to update. I am a Mac user so I thought if was reasonable to upgrade to an iPhone.
Can you walk me through a "decision tree" or survey to help me decide what is the best device for my use?
A: We Americans hunt for a new phone about every two years, whether our contract is up or not, says Mike Gikas, senior editor for electronics at Consumer Reports: That's how long it takes for us to get fed up with our current phone or to give in to our cravings for the newest phone with the flashiest features.
Sensibly, the hunt should go like this: Choose a carrier with the plan that fits your budget and needs, then pick one of the phones in their stable of offerings.
But it doesn't always work that way. We often see the phone we like, then hope our current phone company has it. If not, the choice comes down to paying the early-termination fee to get out of our contract and go to a new phone service provider, or endure the tyranny of our current phone—a phone we were thrilled to get just a few months ago—until the contract is up.
Stay strong. Don't give away your money in the form of an early-termination fee. Gikas breaks down your choices like this:
How do you use the phone? "It's not enough to say, 'I want a smartphone.' You'll need to consider one of the Big 4 (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile) or a smaller carrier that offers better prices. If you're a talker/texter, you'll want one of the bargain-focused carriers, such as T-Mobile, and avoid Verizon. Alternatives include Virgin, Cricket and Consumer Cellular, which is a high-rated regional carrier. If you are couple and you want more than one line, you can get two-line service for $76 a month and split 1,500 minutes.
"Those who want it all, are on the phone constantly, contacting everybody every second, downloading media, you will do better with Big 4, especially Sprint and Verizon. They cater to the heavy data user. Verizon recently got rid of their unlimited data plan for $30 a month, but people will pay $30 a month for 2 gigabytes and that will serve most people who want it all."
Do you want to play or make calls? "For feature phones, making a call is secondary or tertiary. Those phones bury phone functionality under applications, Facebook, Twitter, texting and more. For those who want just a phone, their best plan is to look for a plain flip phone or a BlackBerry because it's one of the few feature phones with buttons dedicated to making phone calls and has hard buttons for speed dialing."
If you go with a basic phone: "Consider avoiding large carriers, which have prices on the high side. [Gikas calls Verizon Wireless, AT&T and Sprint the Big 4.] Get an inexpensive carrier and pay as a you go for $15 a month versus $30 to $40 with big carriers. Flip phones have better call quality because the microphone and speaker would be closer to the mouth and ear, unlike the rectangular speaker phones."
If you go with a smartphone: "The operating system determines the phone's personality. The Big 3 are Apple's iOS, Google's Android, and Research in Motion's BlackBerry. Windows Phone is a newcomer (a remake of Windows Mobile, which is older than iOS and Android) but a relatively small part of the market. the latest offerings with Palm's WebOS have been disappointing."
Android: "If you're very much into social networking with Facebook and Twitter and texting and email, Android phones have an advantage. Their operating system and apps integrate things and make them very easy to access. The apps share data more easily. If you have several accounts, the OS will aggregate that info so you can have one contact list, and if you have different information for one person, you won't have three contact entries for that person—one for Facebook, one for Twitter and one for voice: Android phones also use widgets, small apps that you can check—to see what the weather is like, for instance—without launching a full app, which would interrupt what you're doing."
iPhone: "The iPhone is a multimedia powerhouse, As an entertainment device, it's superb. It has so much content: games apps, music, videos. There's nobody that can compete with them."
BlackBerry: "It has been losing ground but is still the best messaging system. If you're more work-focused and want email and organizational tools, it's very hard to beat BlackBerry "
Windows Phone: "They offer these tiles that let you organize their features, and one neat trick: If you like to take pictures, you can have a hard button for launching the camera when the screen is off and have it go right into taking a picture. We have one or two Windows Phone models recommended in our ratings."
Saving money on your data plan: "The initial cost of the phone is nothing compared to the amount of money you'll spend on your monthly phone bill over the life of a two-year contract. You'll spend $2,400 for service and fees. Don't pay for data you don't use or minutes you don't use. Ask yourself, how many minutes do I really need a month. In our recent surveys, most people rarely get above 1 gigabyte of data use. If you're with AT&T or Verizon, they provide a way to buy less data. Start out with that to save money.
If you're spending $40 a month for a 400-minute voice plan and use only 200 minutes, you're giving $20 a month to the phone company."
Monitor your usage. "On your smartphone, there's usually a bookmark on the phone's browser, if it's not an app. You lose money by going over or by not using the resources. Try to get the plan that very closely matches your usage."
Thanks, Mike. I couldn't have said it better myself.
Have a question about your computer, cellphone, camera or any gadget? Let us know! E-mail Eric Gwinn at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you could be featured in an upcoming Gadget Q&A column.
The Gadget Q&A
What you need to know to upgrade your phone
Thinking of switching to a different service or type of phone? Here's everything you need to ask yourself before you make your decision.
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