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May 29, 2009

Want to Buy a Cell Phone?

With hundreds of handsets to choose from, it can be tough to find the right one. Here's what you need to know to dial up the perfect phone.

These days, smartphones get all the buzz, but the vast majority of handsets sold in the U.S. are actually feature phones: camera phones, music phones, rugged phones, messaging phones, or just plain voice phones.

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, as does the iPhone, for example. That doesn't mean they only make calls, though you can find phones that only make calls, if a basic phone is what you want. But most feature phones include some combination of a camera, a basic Web browser, e-mailing and text messaging apps, and music and video players.

Feature phones are typically less expensive than smartphones. They're available in a much wider range of shapes and sizes, and on a broader range of plans, including prepaid options. Monthly service fees for feature phones are generally cheaper too, which can make a multipurpose feature phone a good bet.

Ready to find your phone? Here's what you should consider before you start shopping:

First, Choose Your Carrier

Because all the national carriers sell a wide variety of phones, choosing your service provider should be your first move. Here's a quick rundown of what each of the primary U.S. carriers offers:

AT&T boasts nationwide coverage and a terrific selection of phones, particularly for texting. But some folks, especially in the Northeast, complain that AT&T's coverage isn't all it's cracked up to be when it comes to reliability and quality.

Cricket and MetroPCS are new "unlimited" carriers that offer much lower rates than their competitors and don't require contracts. But they aren't available everywhere, and they have a somewhat limited selection of phones.

Sprint is relatively inexpensive, and offers some neat media services and a solid high-speed network. It also has the most open approach to third-party apps, running the best e-mail software and letting its subscribers add a wide range of Java applications to their feature phones.

T-Mobile offers cutting-edge phones at relatively low monthly rates and enjoys a reputation for good customer service. But its nationwide coverage isn't as complete as AT&T's or Verizon's.

Verizon Wireless is famed for its excellent network quality and good customer service. Its prices, however, can be higher than the competition's, and the carrier is typically slow to offer new handset features, like 5-megapixel cameras. But when it comes to voice quality, many Verizon phones excel.

Virgin Mobile is a nationwide prepaid carrier that uses Sprint's network but can undercut Sprint's rates. Virgin has relatively few phones on its roster, and those it does offer are mostly low-end.

You may also see unlocked phones on the market that work with GSM networks such as AT&T and T-Mobile but aren't sold by the carriers. These handsets are often imports. Because they're generally more expensive than carrier-approved-and-subsidized phones, few are sold in the U.S.

Next, What Are Your Feature Priorities?

Because feature phones do almost everything, you should decide what capabilities you need or want most. Start narrowing down your choices by first ranking the five major categories of features in order of importance: voice, messaging, camera, media playback, and Web/GPS/games/miscellaneous. Once that's done, you'll be able to concentrate on a filtered-down selection of feature phones.

If you're big on text messaging, you want to focus on messaging functionality. If you've got a small child, a camera is probably important. If you want to ditch your iPod, keep an eye out for good media features.

Since it's a given that you want your calls to sound good, you may feel you should focus mainly on voice rather than other features. You don't need to worry too much about that. The vast majority of phones sold today have solid voice capabilities. Paying attention to the other features you like, and then double-checking to make sure the phone you choose delivers on voice quality, makes it easier to sift through a long list of handsets.

What to Look for: Voice

Reading reviews and trying out a phone before you buy it are the best ways of gauging voice quality. Most phones fit into a broad middle range of reception and sound quality. But you can still find phones that are uncommonly loud or have a lot of "side tone," that is, the feedback of your own voice in your ear (which can help you avoid yelling into the phone).

If you're primarily interested in voice and you're looking at AT&T or T-Mobile, focus on 3G phones. Those carriers' 3G networks offer superior voice quality to that of the 2G networks. The major downside is that AT&T and T-Mobile 3G phones have about half the battery life of 2G phones.

Important voice features to look for include no-training voice dialing, Bluetooth headset support, and a standard (2.5mm or 3.5mm) wired headset jack.

Yes, there are still super-simple phones out there that basically only make calls. The Sanyo PRO 200 on Sprint and the Samsung Knack SCH-U310 on Verizon Wireless are two high-quality voice-only phones.

What to Look for: Messaging

Texting, e-mail, and IM capabilities are showing up in more and more phones these days. If you intend to text often, get a plan with unlimited text messaging—it'll likely save you money in the long run. The best phones for heavy messaging have full QWERTY keyboards, like Verizon Wireless's Samsung Alias 2 SCH-u750 and AT&T's Pantech Matrix C740. You may also want to check to ensure that the phone supports threaded texting, a feature that groups together all text messages from the same sender. The Alias 2 supports threading, but relatively few other phones do.

Don't expect e-mail or IM on feature phones to give you a full smartphone experience. Feature-phone e-mail programs typically download your e-mail in text-only mode, without attachments, and feature-phone IM programs often won't let you access your AIM buddies. Sprint's e-mail program, on handsets like the Samsung Rant, is the best of the bunch, supporting multiple accounts and some attachments.

What to Look for: Camera

The great thing about a phone with a camera is that you always have it with you, so you end up photographing moments you would have otherwise missed. Camera phones are becoming as good as low-end digital cameras, in many cases taking print-worthy photos.

If you're interested in taking shots with your camera phone at all, don't settle for less than 2MP. Keep an eye on reviews to see which phones take washed-out, compressed-looking photos and which take bright, clear shots. It's harder to find a good video phone than a good camera phone. If you want to post your videos online or burn them to DVD, look for a phone that takes 320-by-240-pixel videos, at 15 frames per second or better.

A few camera phones we've seen really stand out. The Motorola MotoZINE ZN5 and Samsung Memoir SGH-T929 on T-Mobile take 5MP and 8MP photos, respectively. The ZN5 has very little shutter delay. The Memoir takes somewhat better pictures, but you have to wait for them.

What to Look for: Media

If you want to get rid of your iPod, your best bet is one of Verizon Wireless's phones with V CAST Music with Rhapsody; these sync with the powerful Rhapsody music program on Windows PCs. Otherwise, look for the many phones that sync with Windows Media Player. Mac users are pretty much out of luck for syncing music on feature phones—you'll have to drag and drop your songs onto a microSD memory card.

You also want a phone with a 3.5mm headphone jack, so you can listen to your songs with standard music headphones. If you get a phone with a 2.5mm jack, or even worse, a proprietary one, you'll need a clumsy adapter to use quality headphones. As an alternative, look for a phone that supports stereo Bluetooth wireless headphones. Verizon's LG Chocolate 3 VX8560 is one example of a top-notch music phone, with a standard jack, stereo Bluetooth support, and access to Rhapsody.

Feature phones typically don't make very good video players. They often can't sync video with PCs and don't come with software to convert video into the often-obscure formats they support. (If you're a bit of a hacker, you can force your video into a phone-friendly format.) Look for a phone with a larger screen for video watching, like the LG Dare VX9700 for Verizon.

What to Look for: Web/GPS/Games/Etc.

Some phones have decent browsers that display most Web pages; others only have basic WAP browsers. If you want to surf often on your phone, you may want to consider Sprint, since the carrier will let you install the third-party Opera Mini Web browser on its devices. Most current phones come with some variety of for-pay GPS capability—but be sure to get a handset with a loud speakerphone so you can hear the directions. Phones can play games, too. Verizon's LG Versa VX9600, for example, is a great choice with its optional dedicated game pad.

And for the accident-prone, some phones, like AT&T's Samsung Rugby or Verizon Wireless's G'zOne series, are even ruggedized or waterproof.

How to Get the Best Price

Once you've made your handset decision, it's time to head to your carrier's store, right? Maybe not. The best deals you can find on feature phones are almost always online. Five places to look:

1) Your carrier's own Web site will likely have prices that are considerably lower than what you can find in a brick-and-mortar store. And you can often find online-only instant rebates.

2) You can find amazing deals on Amazon.com if you're switching carriers. You may have to send in a mail-in rebate form, however.

3) and 4) Wirefly.com and LetsTalk.com are reliable, competing cell-phone stores with their own exclusive offers.

5) Finally, true cheapskates should look for used phones on eBay. Especially if you're hoping to spend under $50 without signing a new contract, you can often find great deals on last year's models.

Here are our top feature phone picks by carrier:


Motorola Tundra (AT&T) : RightMotorola Tundra VA76r

The Tundra is super-tough, has excellent voice quality, and gives AT&T Push-To-Talk subscribers a viable alternative to Nextel.

Pantech Matrix C740 : OpenPantech Matrix C740

The Pantech Matrix C740 looks like your standard slider phone, but nimbly transforms into a QWERTY phone for texting maniacs.

Cricket Wireless/MetroPCS

These two low-cost carriers have very similar phone lineups.

Samsung MyShot SCH-R430Samsung MyShot SCH-R430

For MetroPCS and Cricket's voice-centric users, the Samsung MyShot SCH-R430 delivers the best combination of design, price, and voice quality.

Motorola Hint QA30 (MetroPCS) : FrontMotorola Hint QA30

The Motorola Hint is MetroPCS's and Cricket's best choice for texters or those who want to listen to music and watch videos on the go—but with reception and transmission issues, it's not the best voice phone.


Sanyo PRO 200Sanyo PRO 200

Best voice phone we've heard on Sprint, the Sanyo PRO 200 is a great way to usher in the new generation of Nextel push-to-talk.

Samsung Rant : FrontSamsung Rant

The Samsung Rant is a reliable texting phone with a full keyboard, high-speed data access, work e-mail support, and decent multimedia options for an unusually low price.


Sony Ericsson TM506: OpenSony Ericsson TM506

A 3G phone worthy of the name, the Sony Ericsson TM506 should please both power users and folks just looking to hop onto a clearer voice network on T-Mobile.

Samsung Memoir SGH-T929 (T-Mobile) : FrontSamsung Memoir SGH-T929

The Samsung Memoir is the nation's top camera phone, boasting 8MP images and high-res video recording. It's also a very full-featured Web-and-media gadget.

Verizon Wireless

LG Dare VX9700LG Dare VX9700

The LG Dare is the best multimedia phone that Verizon Wireless has ever released, and it's certainly the most fun to use.

Samsung Alias 2 SCH-U750Samsung Alias 2 SCH-u750

With its unique e-ink keyboard, the Samsung Alias 2 is the best texting phone so far for Verizon Wireless.

Virgin Mobile

Helio Ocean 2 (Virgin Mobile) : OpenHelio Ocean 2

The Helio Ocean 2 isn't only a master at messaging, it's a solid voice phone, too.

Virgin Mobile Shuttle : OpenVirgin Mobile Shuttle

The first 3G Virgin Mobile phone brings new Web features to the prepaid carrier.

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