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Say Hello to Your New Phone

Tips on shopping for cell phones and service.

Buying a cell phone these days is not as simple as it would first appear. Any of a dozen factors could impact your decision on which phone to purchase. Here’s a quick survey of what to look for based on your preferences.

Business or pleasure?

Since most cell phones have many similar basic features including call waiting, caller ID, conference calling, calendar and camera, it’s best to decide how you will use your phone. More and more people are dropping their land-based phones and going wireless altogether. Others may use their mobile phone exclusively for work. At this juncture, the ability to play MP3 tunes, pick up FM radio, download Jessica Simpson polyphonic ring-tones, game-play options, text-messaging features, or the number of pixels in the camera are secondary issues.

If you choose to have your cell be your primary phone either for home or for work, than better to concentrate on performance and basic features. Look for phones that have better-than-average battery life, at least three hours of talk time. You may also want to consider the number of contacts you can store, Bluetooth handset capabilities, and whether you’ll be using your cell to handle e-mail while on the road.

Quality of speakerphones is critical, especially when driving in a car or typing at your keyboard while talking to a client. Do you want to employ GPS for those journeys into uncharted territory? Road warriors may also want to consider roaming capabilities and how much overseas travel they log as these issues will not only affect what kind of cell platform to buy into, but also what kind of technology will best support your wanderlust, and which carrier and plan will best suit your needs.

Beyond that, quirky subjective factors regarding style and usability are more important than you think. Flip tops, clamshells, sliders, swivels, watch, candy bars, three-way morphing game platforms, thin, fat, small, big; go figure.

When my Treo 600 grew legs and walked away last year, I purchased a Motorola v60, and at first thought it very cool. But after using it for a week, I was thoroughly dumbfounded by what I considered an obtuse navigation system and contact list and calendar functions, not to mention the inability to sync with my PC. I gave up on Moto and rushed out to purchase a new Treo 650.

PDA or smart phone?

PalmOne’s Treo line and RIM’s Blackberry mobile phones are leading PDA-based cell phones that include touch-screen or pen input as well as 10-key and keyboard navigation. In addition to PalmOne and RIM, a number of smart phones are now available that incorporate operating systems such as Windows Mobile (Palm Treo 700 and others) or Symbian (Series 60 by Nokia also licensed to Siemens and Samsung).

These phones typically sport larger memory and storage, more powerful processors, and larger color display than less advanced cell phones. The operating system of Smart Phones and PDAs provide a platform that third-party developers can use to create add-on applications with a consistent user interface. They can also run games and full applications.

Carriers and plans

Probably the most important decision you’ll actually make, even above choosing a phone, is what carrier and plan you’ll use. There are three basic technologies here. GSM phone networks are the standard in Europe and have been introduced in the U.S. by Cingular and T-Mobile. Meanwhile, Sprint and Verizon are two of the major carriers using CDMA, and Nextel uses the iDEN standards. You’ll want to examine all of them for service and reliability.

Despite spotty reception as it integrates with AT&T Wireless, I enjoy Cingular’s roll-over of unused minutes from month to month. Plus, you can add lines for around $10 each so you can consolidate multiple cell phones in the family onto one monthly bill. And, Cingular is rolling out its Edge/Wi-Fi plan nationally. Other carriers also have their unique features: Nextel pioneered the walkie-talkie phone, but since its merger with Sprint, one has to wonder how much longer its offerings will last past the merger.

Sprint also offers a “push-to-talk” feature and offers a variety of “fair and flexible” plans that enable families to share a bucket of common minutes. T-Mobile gets high ratings for customer service and its GSM technology is great for world travelers, but its U.S. coveragestill needs to be built out.

Verizon offers walkie-talkie, and a wide variety of plans. Its EVDO/VCAST enables customers to quickly download news and entertainment content from CNN, NBC, and Comedy Central, as well as mobile games.

When picking a plan it’s best to give a serious look at your usage and gauge accordingly and within your budget. Will you be adding a data plan for e-mail and Web browsing? Do you or other users on the plan send a lot of text messages, or send or receive videos or graphics? Do you have an existing plan and just want to upgrade your phone? What about long distance and roaming? Give some thought to your usage as it effects time of day, as many of the carriers offer various plans that shift evening and weekend hours that might work best for you.

Caveats and resources

If you’re a gadget geek or phone freak, you already know about the sites listed below. They are a good source of online news, reviews, comparisons, and where-to-buy information. That said, other good resources include friends, family and colleagues, and the occasional trip to the mall. Keep your eyes and ears open and ask questions. If your friend is always kvetching about her cell, well, there’s a review for you to consider.

Also, asking questions at the store at the mall may also reveal some critical buying info that you don’t hear about during the sexy Super Bowl commercials. For instance, when I went to the local store to buy my Motorola v60, I had originally intended to buy one of the first revs of the black Motorola Razr. I was totally sold by the slick TV commercials that showed the Razr knifing its way through steel butter. Not! “Don’t buy it,” said the store clerk. “Your carrier won’t offer insurance.” That was enough for me. If returns are a problem for the reseller–rough translation: “hinge breakage”–then it’s time to dial 411 and check in with reality.

Bill Gram-Reefer has written for MicroTimes, Boardwatch Magazine, and other tech publications. He is a public relations consultant based in Concord, Calif.

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