Choosing the Right Phone and Plan for You

    Whether you're buying for a family or shopping for yourself, we can guide you to the right ones

    Consumer Reports magazine: January 2013

    You're buying for a crowd

    You're a couple plus at least one child who use multiple devices (perhaps including a tablet or two) in a variety of ways.

    Leading option: An array of phones—smart and basic, new and old—used with a well-priced family plan that shares data and offers ample voice and messaging for at least three users. Two-year cost for four phones and service: about $5,000 and up.

    Service: Family plans from standard-service carriers are one area where cell customers get a break, and more than two-thirds of users are on such plans. Consider U.S. Cellular if you live in its service area. It was one of the top carriers in the Consumer Reports National Research Center annual survey, which covered 23 metro areas. It offers one of the lowest-priced family plans—$190 a month for a family needing two basic and two smart phones. The plan includes 2,000 voice minutes, unlimited messages, and 4GB of data service.

    Thinking about changing your wireless company? We'll help you find the best cell phone carrier.

    Credo Mobile (which uses the Sprint network yet rates higher than Sprint on every measure), is another good option at the same price and limits. Although Credo doesn't carry as many phones as the majors, it offers the Samsung Galaxy S II and S III among its 10 smart phones.

    Verizon should be our example family's third choice. It offers a plan comparable to the one above for $210 per month. AT&T and T-­Mobile cost the same or less—$210 and $180, respectively—but they're lower-rated on service quality. The appropriate Sprint plan would be the most expensive of the six carriers we compared, at $230 a month.

    For $10 a month you can add a tablet to your plan with AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon. You may need to spring for more data as well. All three provide average or better 4G service.

    Phones: The handset needs of specific family members can vary widely, so we can't recommend one model that would suit everyone. Consult our Ratings. That said, consider a mix of smart and basic phones. If you're buying more than one phone at a time, look for discounts—or simply ask, because some readers have been successful in haggling over them.

    Wondering how your carrier did in our survey? Take a look at our U.S. cell phone carriers Ratings and Ratings of cell phone carriers by city for full details. And find the best place to buy cell phones in our Ratings of cell phone stores.

    You want the best

    You're an avid smart-phone user, perhaps the owner of an iPhone or a leading Android model who's eager to upgrade to a newer version. And you want service that makes the most of such a device.

    Leading option: A top-scoring smart phone to use with 4G LTE service from a carrier with top scores, especially for data satisfaction. Two-year cost for phone and service: about $2,500 and up.

    Service: With its superior scores and wide array of marquee phones, Verizon is your best bet overall among national carriers. AT&T, though it rates lower than Verizon in most respects, is also worth considering for want-it-all types because of its top 4G network rating and lower pricing for people who have lighter data, voice, and messaging needs.

    Although AT&T offers a 300MB-per-month data plan add-on at $20, an avid user with a 4G phone will want at least 2GB, and possibly more. AT&T's voice plans for individuals offer an option with 3GB of data—ample for most people—for $30 a month. Verizon's data-share plan, the only option for new 4G customers, charges a hefty $60 for a 2GB plan. But voice and texting can be pricier with AT&T. That makes it more expensive to get a plan from AT&T than Verizon if you need 2GB of data plus unlimited voice and texting.

    U.S. Cellular was top-rated almost across the board but isn't nationally available and has only two high-profile phones, the Samsung Galaxy S III and Galaxy Note II. But if either phone appeals, this carrier is worth considering if you live in one of the 24 states where it's available (in the Midwest, Pacific Coast, and parts of New England and the South). Plan pricing tends to be on a par with AT&T, but readers judged U.S. Cellular to be a much better value than any of the four biggest carriers.

    No prepaid carrier that has favorable data scores in our Ratings offers any of the hottest smart phones.

    Phone: The Apple iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy S III are available from Verizon and AT&T starting at $200. Any of the recommended 4G AT&T and Verizon models from our smart-phone Ratings should suit your needs as well.

     You want smart-phone features but don't need extras

    You want what a smart phone offers, including apps, e-mail, and Web surfing. But you don't crave the cutting-edge features and jumbo screens of the hottest new models, and you can settle for OK service—especially if forgoing extras saves you money.

    Leading option: Buy a smart phone that performs well, maybe an older model. Use it with an inexpensive unlimited voice, texting, and data plan from a no-contract carrier with standout scores for data service. Two-year cost for phone and service: about $1,500 and up.

    Service: A leading, nationally available option is prepaid Straight Talk, which was more satisfying overall than contract service from any major carrier. It received data scores on a par with Verizon. (Some of its phones use the Verizon network.)

    Straight Talk also scored highly for value; it charges $45 a month for unlimited data, voice, and messaging, half as much as Verizon's least expensive plan. There's also no contract. If you're unsure about whether you really need a smart phone or will like Straight Talk, you can quit the service at any time and sell your phone or switch it to another carrier without paying an early-termination penalty.

    Another leading prepaid-carrier option is Virgin Mobile, which also received high marks for value and data satisfaction.

    Phone: You might pay more for a smart phone bought without a contract, but you should recoup the price difference within a matter of months through the lower monthly service fees.

    Straight Talk has the Samsung Galaxy S II, a 4G phone (an older model that costs $100 with a two-year contract from AT&T) for $350. Virgin has the HTC Evo V 4G for $300 and HTC One V 3G for $200.

    You can also spend less—as little as $99 or so—for competent smart phones from prepaid carriers. The phones usually have smaller screens and less impressive cameras than the phones mentioned above, among other differences.

    Just the basics

    You're among the 29 percent of our readers who get along without mobile Web and the 59 percent who make no more than a few cellular voice calls a day. Or perhaps you're buying a first cell phone for your tween or young teen and want to keep data costs and usage down.

    Leading option: An inexpensive voice-and-texting arrangement from a no-­contract carrier, for use with a basic flip, slider, or keyboard phone. Two-year cost for phone and service: about $200 and up.

    Service: Consider Consumer Cellular, a highly rated national carrier catering to simpler wireless needs that bills monthly, even though there is no contract commitment; that's less complicated than a prepaid arrangement. Consumer Cellular uses the AT&T network. The carrier has a $15 plan with 150 voice minutes a month; you can add a second line for $10 a month. (A $30 plan offers 750 minutes per month.) If you need to text, Consumer Cellular is affordable for that, too. It charges as little as $2.50 for 100 messages per month, and bigger buckets are available.

    Still more than you need? TracFone, among the better-rated prepaid carriers, offers 60 minutes of airtime that must be used within 90 days for $20, or less than $7 per month. It also has monthly plans for as little as $10.

    Phone: With no-contract service, you must buy the phone, but simple models are relatively affordable. For Consumer Cellular, consider the Doro PhoneEasy 410, $60, which has large buttons and other features that the carrier says make it easier for seniors to use, or for easier texting, the Motorola EX430, $80, which has a physical QWERTY keyboard. With TracFone, the LG 500G, $10, offers 5 hours of talk time on a battery charge.

    Can't wait for that must-have phone?

    Think twice about buying that new model early. Upgrading can cost you, especially if you can't wait until your two-year contract runs out. Here's what the big four cell carriers charge to upgrade to a Samsung Galaxy S III (16GB) halfway through the contract and at the end of the term. Totals below are for the cost of the phone, typically with a new two-year contract, plus upgrade fees and penalties.


    Month 12

    Month 24













    Editor's Note:

    A version of this article appeared in the January 2013 issue of Consumer Reports magazine with the headline "Which Phone and Plan?"

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