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How to Choose a Mobile Phone and Calling Plan

This Mobilook guide helps consumers determine their mobile phone needs. It discusses criteria and strategies for choosing a cell phone handset, service provider and calling plan. Finally, it makes suggestions for using, upgrading and maintaining your cell phone.

  1. Overview
  2. Determining Your Needs and Budget
  3. Choosing a Wireless Service Provider
  4. Picking a Mobile Phone Handset
  5. Buying Strategies
  6. Getting a Good Deal
  7. Using Your Mobile Phone
  8. Upgrading Your Mobile Phone or Service
  9. Common Problems With Mobile Phones

1. Overview

Mobile phones provide portable, convenient and easy-to-use personal communications. But new technologies and products confront consumers with a bewildering array of choices of mobile phones, features and calling plans.

If you buy a phone that does not meet your primary needs, you will not be happy with your phone. You could become frustrated and waste you time and money. Considering the amount of time you will likely spend talking on the phone, and the importance of good communications, it is worth your while to be aware of the issues discussed below.

There are three ways you can choose a mobile phone and carrier plan:

  • Shop by service provider – Select a wireless service provider by brand (reputation and trust) or recommendation. Then buy a plan and phone from them that meet your needs.
  • Shop by calling plan – Select a calling plan from available providers that meets your mobile calling needs and budget requirements. Then pick a phone from them to go with the plan.
  • Shop by handset model – Identify a phone handset that has all the features you want. Then either buy it separately and sign up with a provider or buy it with a plan from a service provider.

Because carriers determine which phones are available or work on their network, most consumers first choose a wireless service provider and then buy a calling plan and phone handset from them. More sophisticated phone users first buy the phone they want and then sign up with a carrier with which they know it is compatible and works where they live, work and travel.

Calling plans range in price from about $15 a month and up depending on features and usage. Mobile phone handsets range in price from free to US$800 or more depending on the features and length of contract.

2. Determining Your Needs and Budget

Each person has a unique set of needs for using a mobile phone. Their needs are based on their individual work, travel and communications behaviors. Be honest with yourself about why and how you will use a mobile phone. Then you will buy the right phone for you and be a happy consumer and user.

To calculate the total cost of a cellophane calling plan over the term of a service contract, see our Cellophane Calling Plan Cost Worksheet (PDF file for printing).

To calculate the total monthly usage and charges on your landline (fixed wire), long distance and cellular (mobile wireless) phone services, see our Phone Usage and Cost Worksheet (PDF file for printing).

Answer the following questions to determine your mobile phone needs and budget:

General Phone Use

Estimate your phone usage:

  • How many people are in your phone address book?
  • How many people will phone you or exchange e-mails or messages?
  • How often will you use the phone during a typical day or weekend?
  • How many minutes of local calls will you make per month? Typical usage patterns: Low: 400 minutes; Average: 700; High: 1,000.
  • How many minutes of long-distance calls?
  • Where will you use the phone: in the city, region, nation, international? How often?
  • E-mail – How many e-mails will you send and receive each day?
  • Messaging – How many text, picture and instant messages will you send and receive each day?
  • Do many of your friends or colleagues use a particular wireless service provider or e-mail service?
  • Web browsing – What information will you retrieve from websites? How often?
  • Games – Will you play basic or advanced games? Will you play online games? When and how often will you play games?
  • Ringtones – How many ringtones will you add to your phone?
  • Personal information management – Will you use and store your main address, calendar and task information on your phone? Do you need to synchronize the data with your computer?
  • Do you need two or more phones for you and your partner or family?
  • Do you need to know your global or local location?

Are there any other mobile features you will use such as: Hands-free, speakerphone, push-to-talk (walkie-talkie)?

Can you use a mobile phone provided by your employer? Will you pay for any of it's usage?

What is your budget for the initial purchase price and monthly expense for a mobile phone?

Business Use

People who use a mobile phone for business must understand the limitations of mobile devices, such as lower bandwidth and limited battery capacity. Even top smartphones or PDA phones cannot perform as well as a wireline-connected personal computer.

As a business expense, the total cost of ownership and return on investment are important. Estimate the time that employees save each day and turn into productive time by using as mobile phone. How much is the total net gain in time worth annually?

Consider less quantifiable, but no less important, issues such as being more aware of high-priority issues, dealing with customers faster and making decisions faster.

How does a mobile-enabled workforce integrate with existing people, processes and technologies? What business problem does it solve?

The two primary concerns for a business wireless strategy are coverage and reliability. Where must your employees use a mobile phone? What is the guaranteed up-time of the network?

Consider the security and legal aspects of a mobile workforce. Where is important data stored? Who has access to it and how? What happens if a mobile device is lost or stolen?

Mobile Phone User Groups and Needs

Mobile phone users generally fall into one of the following groups based on their role, activity and needs. Certain mobile phone features and applications meet those specific needs.

User Group Role or Activity Mobile Phone Needs Mobile Phone Features Example Phone
Basic Phone User Housewife, student, senior Low-cost, basic phone. For occasional use or emergencies Basic phone: Convenient size. Simple controls. Prepaid calling plan. LX 175, Samsung Stunt
Advanced Phone User Networker, socializer Constant use, anywhere, anytime. Stylish and easy-to-use phone. Advanced phone: Large address book. Easy dial. Good call quality. Voice-mail. Easy-to-mute ringer Apple iPhone, HTC Evo
Busy Business-person Executive, entrepreneur, sales-person, Multi-function communicator. Information organizer. Business phone: Address book, tasks, memos, contact-synching. Speakerphone. Conference calling. Reliable global service. Good call quality. High-capacity battery. LG Expo, Motorola Droid, BlackBerry Bold, HTC Touch
E-mail/Message Junkie Manager, field support, student Easy calling and messaging. Messaging phone: E-mail, SMS, IM. Qwerty keyboard. Maybe wide roaming. BlackBerry, Nokia N900, Samsung Messager, LG Rumor
News & Information Hound Stock investor, sports fan Up-to-minute news, sports, financial & info. Data/Web phone: Data plan for messaging. Large display. Mini-browser. Content alerts. BlackBerry Torch, Danger Sidekick
Multimedia Bug Music lover, image collector Play music. Capture & view images. Multimedia phone: Audio player. FM radio. Photo & video camera & player HTC Evo, Apple iPhone
Fashionado Women, teen. Stylish or bold. A fashion accessory. Trendy looking. Impress friends. Simple and affordable. Stylish phone: Unique or stylish design. Sleek size. Local calling plan. Mid-priced. Nokia 6700, Samsung Soul
Gamer Play games anywhere, anytime Download or online games. Game phone: J2ME or BREW. Large TFT screen. Durable controls. Dedicated gaming keys. Apple iPhone, Samsung Google Nexus, LG Optimus 2X
Gadget Freak Early adopter. Gadget user. Tech geek. All the latest and coolest features Has-it-all phone: Full-featured. Latest technologies. No accessories needed. Top priced. HTC Desire, Apple iPhone, Nokia N8
outdoors person. Weekend warrior.
Durable design. Good reception. Sport phone: Tri-band, GPS, two-way radio. Long battery life. Sonim XP, Sanyo Taho
Outside Worker Outdoor, field work Weather-proof, rough handling Resists dust, shock, vibration, rain, snow Motorola i1, Samsung Rugby
Child School-age children Contact parents. Very simple to use. Kids phone: Limited features. Low priced. FireFly, Motorola ZN300


3. Choosing a Wireless Service Provider

Most wireless service providers (or carriers) that serve busy areas offer competitive calling features and plans. But some plans are more suitable to the needs of certain mobile user groups (see above).

In general, you can't go wrong with one of the major providers. But smaller providers often focus on a market niche and might have better features or pricing that might suit you.

Follow these steps to choose a wireless service provider:

  • Identify which service providers provide mobile service in your local area and the areas to which you will travel.
  • Research public consumer information sources, such as Consumer Reports, J.D. Power studies and ratingsor your area, or other review organization.
  • Identify which calling plans match your calling needs and budget
  • Ask detailed questions about rates and extra charges or fees.
  • What is their customer service like? Try phoning them for billing and technical support. Ask your friends and colleagues about their experiences, good and bad, with their mobile phone.
  • Do they offer a money-back satisfaction guarantee or trial period? Try it at the critical locations for you, such as the office, parking garage, home, airport.

To compare wireless service providers and calling plans, see our Wireless Carriers & Plans: Reviews.

Wireless Number Portability

Wireless (or mobile) number portability allows subscribers of wireless services to keep their phone number when switching service providers. It is the mobile-number equivalent of local (landline) number portability. Wireless number portability is available in the U.S., Europe and parts of Asia.

The phones themselves are not portable. If you switch to a new wireless service provider, you will likely have to buy a new phone, unless you can unlock or reprogram it.

4. Picking a Mobile Phone Handset

Look at the handsets offered by retailers or wireless service providers that met your needs as described in the sections above. See what new models, features and prices are available.

"Must Have" Features

Which features must you have on a handset to satisfy your primary mobile phone needs? Popular must-have features for most people are:

  • Simple controls, such as keypad, volume and mute.
  • Good reception.
  • Voice mail.
  • Adequate battery life.

Now add any features that you must have in order to meet your specific mobile phone needs. For example, if you will write a lot of e-mails, you need a Qwerty keyboard. If you surf the Internet, you need a Web browser and large display screen.

If you travel outside of your local area, be careful about getting a handset that does not work on the foreign network. The GSM network is available worldwide.

"Like to Have" Features

Which features would you like to have to make the phone better for you? There is a myriad of choices for all types of mobile users and needs. .

Like-to-have features are less important than must-have ones on your needs list. They are of less value (less benefit or not worth the cost) to you. Be strict with yourself here, especially if you have a limited budget. If you can go through a typical day without using the feature, then it goes here and not in your must-have list.

To compare handset models and features, see our Reviews of Handsets and Devices.

After you have identified and prioritized the features you need, you are ready to go shopping with a clear idea of the handset and calling plan features you should buy.

5. Buying Strategies

There are several strategies for buying a mobile phone that can help you get the right features and stay within your budget:

Strategy for budget-conscious consumers – Get the least expensive phone package that meets your "must have" needs. Don't subscribe to extra features that you don't need. Use the phone up to the plan limits. As prices fall and you renew, you will always be getting the most value for your money.

Strategy for advanced mobile phone users – Get the most advanced phone you can afford and for the shortest contract term. Use the phone and all its features a lot. As new models and features are introduced, you can upgrade and will always be using the latest technology.

Strategy for corporate buyers – Get the lowest "total cost of ownership" package, including rates, service and upgrades. Be diligent about network coverage in all areas where employees must travel. What is the guaranteed up-time of the network? No or poor reception for sales or field staff is expensive. Give employees the simplest phone that meets their basic needs. Employee service and support for a complicated phone is expensive. Your employees' time is worth more than the phone, so buy a phone and plan that maximizes employee productivity.

6. Getting a Good Deal

The retail business for mobile phones and calling plans is very competitive in most countries. Even after all the discounts and rebates, the retailers, providers and suppliers are in business to make a profit. Don't believe outrageous claims of "free, discounts, rebates" or "nowhere else." If the deal is too good to be true, it probably is.

A handset and calling plan are often sold as a package characterized by its features (handset, plan, quality, performance), contract term, and total price. When you buy a package you have to make a trade-off of these three characteristics.

You can pick any two characteristics that you want. But then the third one will not be what you want. For example, you can get a free phone with lots of minutes, but you will pay a high monthly fee for three years. Or the phone, plan and price are good, but coverage is lousy.

For all combinations of tradeoffs, the wireless service providers make their profit on a sale in one of three ways:

  • Upfront with an expensive handset and no contract, or
  • Over a mid-length term contract with a mid-priced handset, or
  • Over time a long-term contract with a low-priced handset or limited calling plan.

Either way, in general, you get what you pay for. The best "deal" for you is probably where you can find a package comprised of a handset and calling plan that best match your needs and budget; no more and no less.

You may be able to get additional discounts if you buy your mobile phone service from the same full-service provider that you buy other communications services, such as local (wireline) phone, cable TV, satellite TV or Internet access. Ask them about discounts if you buy multiple services from them.

7. Using Your Mobile Phone

After you get a new phone, it is important that it performs as designed, works with the calling plan features and meets your needs.

Test the operation and reception of the phone. Make some local and long distance calls, especially from important locations such as home and office. Ask some friends to make some local and long-distance calls to you. Were all the calls completed? How was the reception?

Ask friends to leave you a voice mail. Did you receive them properly? Ask them whether your voice-mail's outgoing message is clear.

After recharging the battery three times, how long does it hold a charge? The talk time and standby time should be near the rated times. If they are constantly below, you might have a defective battery or charger. Or improper use of the charger. Use some of your phone's advanced features, such as the contact list, or download a message, image or ringtone.

Next, try group e-mail or messaging, or three-way calling. Eventually use all the features your phone has that are important to you. Make sure they are all working properly and you are comfortable using them.

Have fun with your cellophane!

8. Upgrading Your Mobile Phone or Service

After using your mobile phone for a while, your needs might change. Or you just want a new phone. Review your past use of the phone and it's performance.

  • Which features did you use the most? The least?
  • Which additional features would you like to use?
  • Did you incur any additional usage fees? What types? How often? How much?
  • What problems did you have with the handset? Size, weight, dialing, handling, dead battery? Did you have to consult the manual often to figure out how to use the phone?
  • What problems did you have with the service? Dialing out, reception, busy circuit, dropped calls?
  • Did you have any billing problems? Unjustified additional charges, incorrect calling charges?
  • Did you have any unsatisfactory customer service experiences?

If you want to get out of your current calling plan contract, what is the penalty fee?

What is your new budget? How much more or less do you want to spend on a mobile phone and service?

With your updated needs and budget, go through the process in sections 1,2 and 3 above to choose and buy a handset and calling plan.

Upgrade tip – If you travel outside of your local area, be careful about getting a handset that does not work on the analog network (AMPS). AMPS is older technology but still has the most coverage in the US Avoid this scenario: "I'm getting a lot more dropped calls since I "upgraded" because my new phone does not have the feature to use the analog network when digital isn't available."

9. Common Problems With Mobile Phones

Billing problems account for the majority of problems with mobile phone service. Common problems are unjustified additional charges and incorrect calling charges.

  • Can you understand the detailed billing report? If not, ask customer service to explain it.
  • Are the charges within the terms of the contract?
  • Are the problems resolved or unresolved?
  • Were the customer service staff polite or rude?

Common technical problems are:

  • Poor reception – Where were you when the reception went bad? Can you identify anything that would interfere with the calls? If you are frequenting a dead spot, report it to your provider.
  • Busy circuits – What area and time of day were the calls made? The cell area may be under-served.
  • Dropped calls – What area and time of day were the calls made? It could be a problem with the reception, network or both.
  • Battery goes dead too soon – Defective or worn-out rechargeable battery? Defective or improperly used charger? Check the condition of the battery and your procedures for recharging.
  • Phone crashes – Does it reboot or restart? It could be a software glitch or electronics problem. Take the phone in for service.
  • Virus infection – Does the phone have slow, random or unexplainable performance? Get virus scanning and cleaning software.

When a problem happens with your cellophane service, you want to get it resolved quickly and simply. Is customer service available 24 hours a day and seven days a week? How long will you wait on hold to speak with a person?

Check with friends about their experiences with the service or with your local Better Business Bureau about complaints.

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