Last year, about a third of the conventional cell phones in our Ratings had a touch screen, which is almost standard on smart phones. This year closer to half the conventional phones have a touch screen to help you navigate to websites or open apps.
So-called smart features track with changing use patterns. Almost all respondents to our survey still made at least some voice calls on their cell phone, but 75 percent used it to send or receive text messages, and half used it for access to the Internet or personal e-mail.
At least one downside exists to the rising sophistication of conventional cell phones. Almost all smart phones require data service, and some also require a messaging plan. Some of the higher-rated conventional phones in our Ratings also require a messaging service (AT&T) or a data plan (Verizon) even if you don't want it. The AT&T messaging plan costs $20 per month and up, and the Verizon data service runs $15 to $30 per month.
Data plans are moving away from the all-you-can-eat flat rates that have been the norm. New smart-phone data services from AT&T are sold only in metered packages of 200 megabytes or 2 gigabytes per phone and expire at the end of each month. The new Walmart Family Mobile brand of T-Mobile services sells data in 200MB, 500MB, and 1GB bundles, which can be shared by all phones on the account and don't expire until they're used up.
Plans with data limits are not necessarily bad. The average phone user with data access uses only 200MB a month and would now pay less with AT&T than with the old unlimited plans. An average iPhone user, eating up 344MB per month, would pay the same or slightly less. But cell-phone data consumption promises to rise, which could eventually drive up bills.