Cell Phone & Service Buying Guide

If you haven’t looked for a new cell-phone plan in a while, you may be paying a price for your loyalty—or your inertia. In a recent survey of over 100,000 Consumer Reports subscribers, more than half of those who switched providers in the previous two years said they saw a big drop in their monthly bill. After making the shift, some respondents said they got more reliable coverage, a bigger data allowance, and better customer service.

If you’re considering a new plan, you might want a new phone as well. Have your eye on that top-of-the-line Apple or Samsung model? In the past, getting a new phone meant locking yourself in to a two-year contract that had multiple financial disadvantages for consumers. But those offers are now long gone. Now you can lease a new phone like a car, pay it off in interest-free installments, or buy it outright and enjoy a lower monthly bill. 

And before you sign up, think about how much data you need. Some people don’t require that much and sign up for more expensive plans than they need. But if you stream a lot of music or movies over your cellular network, an unlimited plan may be a smart move.

Follow these steps to find the best service and phone for your lifestyle—and budget.

Provider: The First Choice You’ll Make

Go Big or Go Small
Generally speaking, prepaid service from the smaller carriers—such as Consumer Cellular, Google Fi, Republic Wireless, and Ting—benefits people with modest data needs (web browsing, email, Facebook). Heavy data users, especially those who want three or more phone lines, will most likely be happier with one of the Big Four carriers (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless).

Confirm the Coverage
Large carriers, such as AT&T and Verizon, have a distinct advantage. They have the country well covered with high-speed 4G internet service. Use the providers’ ZIP code maps and other resources to confirm basic coverage. But these references don’t take into account small dead zones in your neighborhood or home. (You might want to ask friends in the area how well their phones work in those spots.)

You should also make sure you can cancel service and return any phone that you might have bought if a coverage problem crops up. For some carriers the grace period is a brief 14 days. They also might charge you a restocking fee.

Count Your Phone Lines
That’s easy: That’s pretty much you plus your immediate family, but it’s okay to cover people who don’t live with you, too.

Do the Math
For smartphone users, the biggest charge is usually related to data use. See below to estimate how much data you’ll need on a monthly basis.

The Lowdown on Data

How much data you’ll burn through each month depends on your WiFi access (and how often you’re away from it), how much you regularly stream or download, and whether you’re a gamer.

Light Data Use (2 Gigabytes Per Phone)
You spend more time calling and texting than checking email and using apps such as Facebook and Twitter. When streaming content such as movies or YouTube videos, you do it almost exclusively on WiFi.

Medium Data Use (5 Gigabytes Per Phone)
You are less reliant on WiFi and engage in a little bit of everything—streaming some movies and TV shows. Additionally, one of you does limited live gaming.

Heavy Data Use (More than 5 Gigabytes Per Phone)
You are also less reliant on WiFi, and additionally, everyone in your household loves to download movies and TV shows, plus watch YouTube videos—and two of your kids are heavy live gamers.

Note
When buying data bundles that can be shared among family members, it’s sometimes better to buy more than you need because the cost per phone will drop. Also, if you have a lot of people in your family and use a lot of data, think about signing up for an unlimited plan. These plans usually provide the best value.

Do You Need a New Phone?

Take a clear-eyed look at whether your phone is past its prime. Here are three cases when it might be wise to replace it.

Your Current Phone Is Giving You Trouble
You can replace a cracked display or an anemic battery (you can do it yourself on many Android phones), but when system improvements from Apple or Google reduce the performance of your phone, it’s probably time to replace it. Ditto sluggish response times, frequent crashes, and a battery that gives out before the end of the day.

You’re Moving to Another Provider
In the past, switching carriers meant you were definitely getting a new phone. Providers locked the phones they sold so that they could be used only with their service. Once you met the terms of your agreement, you might persuade the company to set yours free, but chances are the device lacked the technology to function properly on a rival network. That’s no longer true for all phones: Apple, for instance, sells unlocked phones with the technology to operate in multiple networks. Okay, so you don’t have to get a new phone if you’re switching providers. But it can still be a great idea. You may be able to trade in your old phone for money toward a new one, or even replace a model from your old provider with one that’s the same or similar at no additional cost.

You Can’t Resist a New Gadget
These days, annual improvements in handset technology are less significant than they were a few years ago, so there’s less incentive to upgrade. For instance, the iPhone 8 is still recommended by Consumer Reports, even though it was introduced back in 2017. Ditto for the Samsung Galaxy Note8. Phone cameras and displays have been excellent in many smartphones for several generations now. Only you can say whether the incremental improvements are enough to make you want to upgrade.

Consider Your Options in Operating Systems

Smartphones all share the ability to browse the web and run apps, handle office and personal email, and facilitate social networking. But how easily and how well you can do these tasks varies by operating system. The OS also affects apps selection, though highly popular apps such as Facebook, Google Maps, and Spotify are available on multiple platforms. And although most people tend to stick to the same OS, it’s worth knowing all the facts. A switch could bring you additional features or a way of interacting with your stuff that’s more appealing than what you have now.

An Android phone.

Android

If you want a wide choice of phones, you’ve come to the right OS. Google’s Android platform supports the largest variety of hardware from handset makers such as HTC, LG, and Samsung. Options include everything from compact models to phones with displays larger than 6 inches.

The Android OS is highly customizable, thanks to widgets and other tools for tweaking phone controls, as well as the desktop’s overall look and feel. Android’s native Google search engine, Maps app, and cloud-based Drive and Photos services are among the most widely used smartphone apps (even among iPhone users).

Android gives users precise control over what personal information individual apps can access. Now, on an app-by-app basis, you grant or deny permission for an app to access such personal data as your location, your contacts, and other potentially sensitive information. 

The major drawback to Android is that many phones are sold with older versions of the OS, and users don’t always get updates in a timely way. However, Google says it’s working on a solution that will allow updates to be pushed through more quickly.

Smartphones Ratings
An Apple iPhone.

Apple iOS

iPhones complement their sleek designs with intuitively simple operation. The iOS interface is not only ultra-easy to master but also among the best for accessing music, videos, games, and other content. Consistency is another plus: iOS is the same from carrier to carrier and almost identical to the OS on the iPad and the iPod Touch. Older iPhones have a home button for closing or backing out of apps and returning to the home screen. Newer versions eliminate all of that in favor of a system of presses and swipes. 

The Siri voice-controlled assistant is quite adept at interpreting and executing an impressive number of requests. Recent versions of iOS brought peer-to-peer payments to Apple Pay, along with new augmented reality (AR) capabilities.

And it’s hard to beat the immense selection of apps, content, and gaming options from iTunes and the App Store. You’ll also find accessories galore from Apple and third-party vendors. On the downside, iOS is less customizable than Android, though you can create folders to organize apps. 

Smartphones Ratings

Cell-Phone Carriers

Odds are you haven’t made changes to your cell service in years. That’s too bad. According to Consumer Reports’ most recent member survey, roughly 60 percent of the people who had recently switched cell-phone carriers said they saved money. Many of them also said they now enjoy more reliable coverage, faster data service, and better customer service. But only 9 percent of our readers switched cell-phone carriers—perhaps more should consider shopping around.

All the big four carriers—AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon—received low scores for overall value and customer satisfaction. For more, check our cell-phone service provider ratings.

Features Worth Your Consideration

In addition to making calls and giving you web access, today’s smartphones are loaded with features to help you be more creative, productive, and efficient.

How to Pay for Your Phone

With the demise of the two-year contract, the cost of your phone is now clearly separated from the cost of your service. That leaves you with three solid options:

Pay Up Front, Enjoy Lower Monthly Bills
Not a bad choice if you’re eyeing an affordably priced model. It also makes sense if credit problems prevent you from buying a phone in installments.

Pay for It Over Time
This is a great way to purchase a phone, especially if you have expensive tastes. The full retail price is usually divided into 24 monthly installments. After two years, you can scratch that fee from your phone bill. Plans differ by provider, so read the fine print before signing up. And if you bought the phone from your carrier, you’re going to have to commit to that provider until the phone is paid off. If you leave, the balance will most likely be due immediately. 

Lease It
Depending on the terms, this could be a good deal for someone who likes to trade up to a new phone every year or two. The monthly cost to lease varies by provider, device, and how much you put down. At the end of a specified number of months, you can turn the phone in for a new model. You’ll keep paying on a month-to-month basis or pay the remaining amount due on the phone to own it outright.

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