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How to Buy a Cell Phone

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There's no sense in denying it: For most of us, mobile phones are at the center of our universe. The typical feature set of these things is astounding. It's your phone, your messaging device, your on-the-go Web browser, your camera, your music player, your GPS navigation unit, and more.

If you thought choosing a cell phone was difficult before, it's even tougher today. That's a good thing, though, because it demonstrates how innovation in the wireless industry has skyrocketed. We're seeing rapid progress across all fronts, including displays, data networks, user interfaces, voice quality, third-party apps, and even mobile gaming.

All four major U.S. carriers now offer 4G LTE networks, which are typically 10 to 15 times faster than 3G. The latest crop of Android smartphones is more diverse and powerful than ever. Android is also far and away the sales leader in the U.S. when it comes to smartphones, a result few could have predicted just three years ago. Samsung's powerful Galaxy S6 is available on every major carrier, and probably the biggest competitor to Apple's popular iPhone 6 .

Pit against this backdrop, it's no wonder standard feature phones (handsets without app-based ecosystems) are fading in importance.

Taken together, these massive changes make much of the old advice about choosing a phone obsolete. So let's throw it all away and start over. The topic has become so important, and involves so many decisions, that we scrapped our existing cell phone and smartphone buying guides in favor of a single comprehensive story—the one you're reading right now.

So what should you be looking for when buying a cell phone? Here are some key points to consider:

First, Choose a Carrier

Despite all the recent hardware and mobile software innovation, your wireless service provider remains your most important decision. No matter which device you buy, it's a doorstop unless you have solid wireless coverage. Maybe you have friends and family on the same carrier that you talk to for free, and you don't want that to change with your next phone. Maybe you're lusting after a certain device—say, an unlocked smartphone for international travel. And of course, you want to choose a carrier that offers fair prices, and provides the best coverage in your area. These are all good reasons to put the carrier decision first.

We have two major features to help you choose a carrier. For our Readers' Choice Awards. PCMag readers told us which carrier they prefer based on coverage, call quality, device selection, and other factors. And for our Fastest Mobile Networks feature, we sent drivers to 30 U.S. cities to scope out which smartphone carriers have the best data coverage. Because each of the national carriers sells a wide variety of phones, choosing your service provider should be your first move. Here's a quick rundown of what each one offers:

AT&T boasts nationwide coverage and a terrific selection of phones, particularly for texting. It has dramatically improved its service quality in the Northeast over the past two years, and is busy building out its LTE network. It's also the worst-rated carrier by our readers.

Sprint is relatively inexpensive, and offers some media services and a solid high-speed network. It also has the most open approach to third-party apps, letting its subscribers add a wide range of Java applications to its feature phones, although this is becoming less important as smartphones take over the majority of sales. Sprint has two prepaid brands, Virgin Mobile and Boost Mobile, that sell phones without contracts.

T-Mobile offers mostly cutting-edge phones at relatively low monthly rates and enjoys a reputation for good customer service. It lets you buy phones with subsidized costs from month to month, without forcing you to keep paying extra once the two years are up. But its network can be weaker than the other major carriers' in suburban and rural areas. T-Mobile is building out 4G LTE in earnest, and also completed its MetroPCS acquisition.

Verizon Wireless is famed for its top-notch network quality and good customer service. Its prices can be higher than the competition, but when it comes to voice quality, Verizon phones often excel. That makes Verizon a perpetual leader in our Readers' Choice Awards, and it won Fastest Mobile Networks this year as well. Verizon also currently has the largest 4G LTE network in the U.S.

There are also smaller, regional carriers. U.S. Cellular is only available in about half the country, yet it consistently gets great scores on our Readers' Choice Awards because of its strong commitment to customer service. Finally, you may also see unlocked phones on the market that work with GSM networks such as AT&T and T-Mobile, but that carriers don't sell directly. These handsets are often imports. They're growing in popularity, but still lag behind carrier-approved-and-subsidized phones. Our current favorite unlocked smartphone is the Google Nexus 6 .

Do I Need a Smartphone?

As more people become accustomed to instant email, Web, music, and messaging access at all times of the day, regardless of where they are, smartphones have become almost indispensable. That said, there's plenty of variety out there—not to mention devotees of specific OS platforms. That makes sense, though; sometimes, a platform's user interface or app selection just speaks to you, and that's all there is to it. With that in mind, and at the risk of attracting flames, let's break it down as well as we can for those who aren't so fully vested.

Right now, Google's Android and Apple's iOS are the two top smartphone platforms, both in U.S. sales and in availability of third-party apps. The iPhone has the best app store and the best media features. But Apple's tightly controlled ecosystem can feel stifling to some, and iOS isn't easy to customize or modify. Android sales have now surpassed the iPhone, and there are plenty of Android handset choices. Also, Android's open-source nature makes it a tweaker's dream. But it also means fragmented third-party app compatibility, occasional bugs, carrier-installed bloatware you can't remove, and scattered, often sporadic OS updates.

If Android or iOS don't speak to you, there's Microsoft's Windows Phone. which has a solid, easy-to-use design and Microsoft's strong backing on the hardware side. However, Windows Phone lacks the same level of third-party app support as iOS or Android.

That brings us to the app question. For many folks, apps are the primary reason to get a smartphone. Apple's App Store leads with more than a million apps that are put through a rigorous quality check process. The iPhone also tends to

get the best games first and has the best music creation and drawing software. Google Play is catching up quickly, though. Many independent developers like the freedom Google Play offers, as Apple can put the kibosh on whatever app category it feels like (such as vintage game console emulators), but not all apps run on all Android phones; there are so many phone models that maintaining quality control is tough.

Regardless of your thoughts on platforms, form factor is also important. Touch screens allow for slimmer devices, smoother user interfaces, easy Web browsing, and a quality video-playback experience. And thanks to a lack of hardware buttons, third-party app developers can design their dream control schemes without worrying about differences in button layouts. But for some, typing on a touch screen can be a drag. Hardware QWERTY keyboards are easy to type quickly on, and are still ideal for many messaging fiends. But hardware keyboards either add bulk, in the case of horizontal and vertical sliders, or they reduce screen real estate, in the case of BlackBerry-like slabs; we're seeing less and less of these as time goes by.

Texting and Voice Phones

In the age of mobile apps, smartphones get all the buzz these days, but plenty of the cell phones sold in the U.S. are lower-end feature phones, including waterproof phones, texting phones, and just plain voice phones. There are still reasons to get a simpler, less-expensive device. And it's not just about being a Luddite. Maybe you want to save on the device itself and reduce monthly fees by avoiding a smartphone's $20-$30 data package, or you just don't want to be tethered to the Internet all the time.

Unlike smartphones, feature phones are a matter of "what you see is what you get." They don't receive magical software upgrades or run thousands of additional apps (some feature phones come with "app stores," but don't be fooled: These exist primarily to sell you additional-cost services, as well as ringtones, wallpaper, and basic games). If you're big on text messaging, you want a phone with a hardware QWERTY keyboard, plus an unlimited texting plan. If you've got a small child, a camera is probably important. If you want to ditch your old iPod, keep an eye out for good media features.

For voice quality, read individual phone reviews. Wireless network coverage is always the biggest factor, but individual phones can vary in reception, earpiece quality, transmission quality through the microphone, and side-tone (the echo of your own voice that helps prevent you from yelling at the other person). A phone with middling to poor reception quality can be almost impossible to use in a marginal coverage area, while one with excellent reception can make the best of the little signal that's available. Another point to consider: Some phones have much louder speakerphones than others. A few have buggy Bluetooth stacks that make pairing with headsets and in-car hands-free stereos a pain.

The same advice we gave above about form factors also applies to feature phones. In this case, in addition to touch screens, sliders, and QWERTY slabs, you'll also have basic voice phones that are either candy-bar shaped with numeric keypads, or flip phones that open up to a larger, more comfortable numeric keypad. Flip phones have the added benefit of not needing a keyboard lock; close the phone, and you won't mistakenly dial someone while it's in your pocket. For the accident-prone, some are even waterproof or ruggedized.

Cameras and Music Players

For a few years, feature phones with good cameras and music players flourished. But especially now that the iPhone and Android devices are popular, phone manufacturers across the board decided anyone who wants to take decent pictures or replace their iPod probably wants a smartphone. Many of today's top smartphones sport 8-megapixel (or greater) cameras, upgraded optics, and enhanced software for snapping and even editing surprisingly good photos.

That said, feature phone cameras can still satisfy casual users who just want snaps to post on Facebook or Twitter. Keep an eye on our reviews to see which phones take washed-out, compressed-looking photos and which take bright, clear shots.

For recording video, we'd recommend a newer smartphone for this purpose. If you want to post your videos online or burn them to DVD, look for a handset that captures at least 720p (1,280-by-720-pixel) videos, at 30 frames per second or better. Most of today's higher-end smartphones offer 1080p (1,920-by-1,080-pixel) high-definition recording, as well as image stabilization, which reduces jerkiness from unsteady hands.

For music, you want a phone with a 3.5-mm headphone jack, so you can listen to your songs with standard headphones, and stereo Bluetooth support for listening with wireless headphones. While Apple iPhones work with iTunes, many people are moving to streaming services like Spotify and Google Music, so syncing music locally is less important than it used to be.

All About Pricing

Cell phones are more expensive than they appear. American wireless carriers subsidize the price of handsets, in exchange for signing customers to binding two-year contracts. That's why you can get a phone like the powerful HTC One M9 for just $199.99 on AT&T, even though the phone's actual retail price is much higher. Following in T-Mobile's footsteps, Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint now also offer financing options in lieu of subsidized plans.

Still, amortize the up-front cost out over two years, and it pales in comparison with what you'll pay every month. Look at it in that light, and maybe it makes sense to splurge up front to get the awesome Samsung Galaxy Note you really want, instead of a much less powerful phone for $50 or $100, while maybe paring back your minutes or an extra feature or two to hold monthly costs in check. Unlocked phones lack subsidies and cost the most up front, sometimes well in excess of $500. But they let you swap in any AT&T or T-Mobile SIM card, as well as use any prepaid international cards that help you save big when traveling. Unlocked phones don't work on other American carriers, though.

There are also your monthly carrier fees. And this is where things gets tricky, as the carriers make it exceedingly difficult to figure out how much you'll actually pay per month. Verizon and AT&T plans tend to cost the most, but those two carriers have the best voice and data coverage in the nation. Sprint and T-Mobile offer considerable savings, especially on unlimited voice, data, and texting plans, but don't have quite the same level of network coverage.

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