Smart Shopping: Cell Phones

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Getting Started l Types l Features

If you thought choosing your last cell phone was hard, just wait until next time. Not only are the plans confusing, but phones are more complex. Digital cameras, MP3 players, and GPS receivers are now common, and each new feature seems to add to the cost. This guide can help.

GETTING STARTED

Cell phones are evolving to allow faster texting, Web surfing, GPS navigation, and social networking while keeping up with their day job--voice calling. Smartphones like the iPhone are leading the charge. Thanks to their computer-like operating systems, they can run all types of applications, from Twitter to games, restaurant guides, shopping assistants, and more. Conventional cell phones aren't gathering dust, though. Many of the newest models have large displays, keyboards, and Internet capabilities. Their e-mail and applications aren't as robust as a smart phone's, but they're less complicated to use. And there still are phones with fewer bells and whistles for users with more straightforward needs.

Before you set out to buy a phone, though, consider the service provider. Service providers determine which phone models work on their networks. So when you're replacing your phone, use this cell phone guide to help you decide whether you'll stay with your current cellular service carrier or switch to a new one. Major carriers rely heavily on two incompatible digital networks. Sprint and Verizon networks use mainly Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) technology, while AT&T and T-Mobile use Global System for Mobile communication (GSM) technology. All of these carriers also support high-speed data networks. The network plays a big part in the capabilities your phone will have and, to some extent, its performance.

When you're ready to buy a phone, you'll first have to decide which of the two types, conventional cell or smart, meets your needs and budget. Choose a conventional model if you mainly need voice and text-messaging capability, and perhaps a music player and camera. Smart phones, with their advanced operating systems, larger displays, QWERTY keyboards, and other computer-like features, are a better choice for people who need frequent access to multiple e-mail accounts, a sophisticated organizer for appointments and contacts, the ability to open Office documents, and Internet-based services. One compelling advantage of most smart phones is their ability to access a host of applications consisting of productivity tools, shopping, multimedia, games, travel, news, weather, social, finance, references, etc.

Useful features such as support for wireless Bluetooth headsets, GPS navigation, and high-speed data access can greatly enhance user satisfaction.

TYPES

Conventional cell phones
Most models are priced from $20 to $150, but they often come free with a two-year contract. You can also buy prepaid phones, which are quickly becoming the leading low-price option in cellular. Conventional phones are often compact, and keypad and overall operation is generally straightforward. All allow you to store frequently used numbers and to send and receive text messages. Many have cameras and support for wireless Bluetooth headsets for hands-free communication. Many can access high-speed data networks to enjoy music and video-based services. Other capabilities might include a touch screen, a QWERTY keyboard, a full browser, a multi-megapixel camera, memory-card storage for music and pictures, and more options for custom ring tones, games, and other services.

Smart phones
Long used by corporate travelers to keep up with e-mail and appointments, smart phones have caught on with consumers. A smart phone can typically handle multiple e-mail accounts (including corporate types), has a sophisticated organizer, and can handle Office documents. Some allow you to create and edit spreadsheets and documents, and they usually come with Microsoft Outlook or other personal information management software for your PC. Their advanced operating systems give them access to a host of applications: productivity tools, shopping, multimedia, games, travel, news, weather, social, finance, references, etc.

FEATURES

Look for usefull features

Today's phones come equipped with many useful calling and multimedia features, including a media player, camera, Web browsing, child-location, and call-management services. Some features, such as programmable shortcuts, Bluetooth, speakerphone, and voice command, make the phones easier to use.

Bluetooth This technology enables the phone to work with wireless headsets and most hands-free car systems for tangle-free calls. (But avoid using any phone, even hands free, while driving.) Some phones support stereo Bluetooth headsets for music and other multimedia. And some can wirelessly exchange pictures, contacts, and other files with other compatible Bluetooth devices, such as a computer, cell phone, or PDA.

Camera

Most new phones have cameras with resolutions of 1-megapixel and up that are capable of producing respectable snapshots, though many lack a flash, which is helpful when taking pictures in dark environments. Look for models with 3-megapixel cameras or higher if you intend to print some of what you shoot.

Those models take photography more seriously by pairing sharper image sensors with high-grade lenses, auto focus, zoom, and brightness controls for greater photo control. However, like older digital cameras, higher-megapixel camera phones may be a bit sluggish at taking pictures.

Document editing

All smart phones, and some conventional cell phones, allow you to review documents. Some models add the convenience of creating, deleting, and editing them out of the box.

GPS navigation

All phones have some type of location-based technology to help emergency responders find you when you dial 911 or 112. Many of them support GPS navigation services that access information wirelessly over the carrier network. They integrate GPS with maps and search engines to give you real-time, spoken, turn-by-turn directions to an entered address, and also traffic info. You can even find nearby businesses by name or category. Menus and features are similar to other portable systems. Having GPS on your phone eliminates the need to carry an additional device for navigation, and you'll have the ability to call ahead to a destination with the push of a button. The service is sometimes free, but more typically adds about $10 per month to your cell-phone bill, or about $3 per day--handy if you need directions only occasionally.

Hearing-aid compatibility

Some phones interfere with hearing aids. Even those with hearing-aid compatible designations are not guaranteed to work with all hearing aids. Your doctor can help you choose a phone compatible with the aid you use. Or go to www.accesswireless.org.

Mac compatibility

Many phones let you synchronize appointments, contacts, and documents with a Windows-based computer, but only some can do that with Macintosh computers.

Media player

Most phones have very competent media players, allowing you to view videos and sort music tracks according to genre, album or artist, playlists, etc. They also typically have more than one playback option, such as repeat and shuffle. Some phones, such as the iPhone, have media capabilities better than other standalone players. The small number of phones that lack those convenient features are rather cumbersome to use.

Memory card

Many phones have slots that accept memory cards, typically microSD, to expand storage capacity by as much as 32GB. The removable cards can also serve as an easy way to shuttle files between your phone and other devices--provided that the phone's maker didn't bury the card slot behind the battery cover.

Preset and custom text messages

Besides providing a quiet means of communication, text messages have been known to get through even when networks are overloaded. Most phones come with preset messages, such as "running late" or "call home." And most allow you to program customized messages for an emergency or frequent use, for example: "I've dropped Billy at soccer."

Programmable shortcuts

These let you assign functions to the phone's controls (touch screen, jog dial, etc.) so that you can quickly access contacts, text messaging, and other frequently used features.

QWERTY keyboard

Keyboards make composing and editing text and e-mail messages much easier than a keypad does. Some phones have keyboards that try to save space by having some letters, numbers, and symbols share a key. Those "condensed" keyboards, though still more convenient than a keypad, are not quite as easy to handle as full QWERTY keyboards.

Speakerphone

A built-in speakerphone, which allows hands-free use in a car or elsewhere. (But avoid using any phone, even hands free, while driving.)

Standard headset connector

The standard connector on the handset, also known as a 2.5-mm or 3.5-mm connector, is compatible with most aftermarket wired headsets. Some phones with a proprietary connector might include an adapter to a standard connector.

Touch screen

Full touch-sensitive displays respond to light contact with a stylus, finger, or both. They provide an alternate, and sometimes more direct, method to input data and launch phone features and controls. But they often require two hands to operate, and they smudge more frequently than their non-touch counterparts.

Voice command

This feature allows you to dial numbers from your phone book by speaking the name, without the usual training. You can also dial numbers by pronouncing the digits.

Wi-Fi

Cell phone data networks -- even those designated "3G broadband"-- are much slower than the broadband Internet connections many people have at home. But a rising number of phones have a built-in Wi-Fi radio that gives them faster Internet and e-mail access through home networks and Wi-Fi hotspots. On some phones, the Wi-Fi is just for Web browsing; on others, you can use the connection to swap files with a PC or make calls using Voice over Internet Protocol.
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