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Cell phones & services

Cell phone & service buying guide

Last updated: December 2014

Getting started

Cell phones now allow easier texting, Web surfing, GPS navigation, and social networking while keeping up with their day job--voice calling. Smart phones such as the iPhone and Android-based models are leading the charge. Thanks to their advanced operating systems, they can run all types of applications, from Twitter to games, restaurant guides, shopping assistants, and more. Their cameras are getting better, too. The newest smart phones typically come with 8-, or higher-megapixel cameras with advanced controls and the ability to take HD videos. And unlike most stand-alone cameras, they provide a multitude of ways to share their content via Facebook, YouTube, e-mail and a new host of Internet-based "cloud" services. The data networks they run on are getting faster, too, enabling them to download and upload large files in less time, provide a better Web-browsing experience, and perform new tricks such as stream high-definition videos, and support video chats via front-facing cameras. Conventional cell phones aren't gathering dust, though. Many of the newest models have large displays, keyboards, and Internet capabilities. Their e-mail and applications aren't as robust as a smart phone's, but they're less complicated to use. And there still are phones with fewer bells and whistles for users with more straightforward needs.

Initial choices

Before you buy a phone, consider the service provider. (See our Ratings of service providers, available to subscribers.) Service providers determine which phone models work on their networks. So when you're replacing your phone, use this cell phone guide to help you decide whether you'll stay with your current cellular service carrier or switch to a new one. Major carriers rely heavily on two incompatible digital networks. Sprint and Verizon networks use mainly Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) technology, while AT&T and T-Mobile use Global System for Mobile communication (GSM) technology. All of those carriers also support high-speed data networks. The network plays a big part in the capabilities your phone will have and, to some extent, its performance.

When you're ready to buy a phone, you'll first have to decide which of the two types, conventional cell or smart, meets your needs and budget. Choose a conventional model if you mainly need voice and text-messaging capability, and perhaps a music player and camera. Smart phones, with their advanced operating systems, larger displays, QWERTY keyboards, and other computer-like features, are a better choice for people who need frequent access to multiple e-mail accounts, a sophisticated organizer for appointments and contacts, the ability to open Office documents, and Internet-based services. One compelling advantage of most smart phones is their ability to access a host of applications consisting of productivity tools, shopping, multimedia, games, travel, news, weather, social, finance, references, etc.

Useful features such as support for wireless Bluetooth headsets, GPS navigation, and high-speed data access can greatly enhance user satisfaction.

Before you choose your new phone, be sure to check out our exclusive Ratings of service providers (available to subscribers).

Types

Conventional cell phones


As the market moves to smart phones, you'll find fewer conventional phones available at the major carriers. A wider selection can be found at many of the no-contract or prepaid carriers and often priced well below that of its smart phone counterpart. Conventional phones are often compact, and keypad and overall operation are generally straightforward. All allow you to store frequently used numbers and to send and receive text messages. Many have cameras and support for wireless Bluetooth headsets for hands-free communication. Many can access high-speed data networks to enjoy music and video-based services. Other capabilities might include a touch screen, a QWERTY keyboard, a full browser, a multi-megapixel camera, memory-card storage for music and pictures, and more options for custom ring tones, games, and other services.

Smart phones


A smart phone can typically handle multiple e-mail accounts (including corporate types), has a sophisticated organizer, and can handle Office documents. Some allow you to create and edit spreadsheets and documents, and they usually support Microsoft Exchange. Their touch-screen displays are larger, and their cameras are more advanced than those on conventional phones. And they typically have Wi-Fi, and support higher mobile wireless data speeds that facilitate better Web browsing and streaming media. Their advanced operating systems give them access to a host of applications: productivity tools, shopping, multimedia, games, travel, news, weather, social, finance, references, etc. Popular, high-profile models such as iPhones, LG G-series phones, and Samsung Galaxy phones command the highest prices ($200 to $400 with a two year contract, $500 to $800 for full retail, or installment payments of about $25 per month). But there are a growing number of less-glamorous "entry-level," smart phones that can perform most of the same functions for about half the price, albeit with lower-speed processors, slower data connections, less-capable cameras, or lower-resolution displays.

Features


Today's phones come equipped with many useful calling and multimedia features, including a media player, camera, Web browsing, child-location, and call-management services. Some features, such as programmable shortcuts, Bluetooth, speakerphone, and voice command, make the phones easier to use.

Bluetooth

This technology enables the phone to work with wireless headsets and most hands-free car systems for tangle-free calls. (But avoid using any phone, even hands free, while driving.) Many phones support stereo Bluetooth headsets for music and other multimedia. They can also wirelessly exchange pictures, contacts, and other files with other compatible Bluetooth devices, such as a computer, cell phone, speaker system, or printer.

Camera


Most smart phone cameras are capable of producing respectable snapshots and can even record HD video, thanks to steadily improving image sensors, higher-grade lenses, and features such as auto focus, zoom, and brightness controls. While smart-phone cameras are still not as good as their stand-alone counterparts, they do have several critical advantages: With their built-in network and wireless connections, it's much easier to share the snapshots and videos you take. Also, their computer-like operating systems and apps can actually improve unflattering shots--even after you've taken the picture. For example, some allow you to choose the best individual facial expressions from several different shots to form one "perfect" picture. Another feature literally erases a passerby who may have strayed into your otherwise perfect snapshot.

Several models have a camera mode that starts snapping pictures even before you push the shutter button just in case your subjects flashed their best smiles before you uttered, "Say cheese." Some models let you use the front and rear cameras simultaneously so you can appear as an inset within a video or still image recorded by the phone's main, rear-facing camera.

Document editing


All smart phones, and some conventional cell phones, allow you to review documents. Some models add the convenience of creating, deleting, and editing them out of the box.

GPS navigation


All phones have some type of location-based technology to help emergency responders find you when you dial 911. Many of them support GPS navigation services that access information wirelessly over the carrier network. They integrate GPS with maps and search engines to give you real-time, spoken, turn-by-turn directions to an entered address, and also traffic info. You can even find nearby businesses by name or category. Menus and features are similar to other portable systems. Having GPS on your phone eliminates the need to carry an additional device for navigation, and you'll have the ability to call ahead to a destination with the push of a button. The service is often free on Android phones, but otherwise adds about $10 per month to your cell-phone bill, or about $3 per day--handy if you need directions only occasionally.

Hearing-aid compatibility

Some phones interfere with hearing aids. Even those with hearing-aid compatible designations are not guaranteed to work with all hearing aids. Your doctor can help you choose a phone compatible with the aid you use. For more information, go to www.accesswireless.org.

Infrared remote control


Some smart phones have an infrared (IR) port for controlling and programming TVs, set-top boxes, Blu-ray players, and more. Often, they'll also come with an app that shows local cable listings, including program details and search options.

Mac compatibility

Out of the box, many phones can act as mass-storage devices when connected to Windows-based computers. Doing this on Macintosh computers may be more of a challenge, sometimes requiring the installation of additional software on your computer.

Maps

Map apps on the latest smart phones provide an impressive amount of detail of any area, ranging from satellite views to photo-realistic, 3D views of major cities and landmarks. With the assistance of your phone's GPS connection, they can provide you with updated details on local business, traffic, and public transportation. One interesting feature available on some Android and Windows phones is an enhanced view, which superimposes the names of businesses and other points of interest that appear in range of your phone's viewfinder. Other features let you "walk" along streets or inside museums and other public places.

Media player


Many phones have very competent media players, allowing you to view videos and sort music tracks according to genre, album or artist, playlists, etc. They also typically have more than one playback option, such as repeat and shuffle. Some phones, such as the iPhone, have media capabilities better than other stand-alone players. The small number of phones that lack those convenient features are rather cumbersome to use.

Memory card


Many phones have slots that accept memory cards, typically microSD, to expand storage capacity by as much as 128GB.

Multiple windows


Some smart phones have a split-screen option that lets you interact with two apps on one screen. For instance, you can browse the Web while viewing an e-mail, or you can search the maps app for a restaurant and send a message. On some phones, you can play a video within a smaller window on your phone's display while you read e-mails, browse the Web, or perform other tasks.

Near Field Communication (NFC)

This technology lets you beam Web links, contact information, and other small files between devices after you tap them together. It can also act as a "middleman," initiating media streams or large-file transfers over Wi-Fi or Bluetooth when two devices are bumped together. Other NFC applications include reading smart tags and paying by phone at the register.

Preset and custom text messages


Besides providing a quiet means of communication, text messages have been known to get through even when networks are overloaded. Most phones come with preset messages, such as "running late" or "call home." And most allow you to program customized messages for an emergency or frequent use, for example: "I've dropped Billy at soccer."

Programmable shortcuts


These let you assign functions to the phone's controls (touch screen, jog dial, etc.) so that you can quickly access contacts, apps, widgets, text messaging, and other frequently used features.

QWERTY keyboard


Keyboards make composing and editing text and e-mail messages much easier than a keypad does. Some phones have keyboards that try to save space by having some letters, numbers, and symbols share a key. Those "condensed" keyboards, though still more convenient than a keypad, are not quite as easy to handle as full QWERTY keyboards. Phones with virtual keyboards tend to be less bulky than models with physical keyboards, but virtual keyboards block a portion of the display screen. Physical keyboards often have raised keys, which make it easier to type without looking. Some phones have a physical and virtual keyboard.

Rugged phones


Such phones are designed to better withstand rain, high humidity, dust, dropping, vibration, or other harsh conditions, based in part in accordance with MIL-STD-810. Often, their innards should remain sand- and dirt-free when you're visiting rough terrain. These models sometimes come with flashlights, compasses, and other apps that can be handy in the great outdoors, but they tend to be bulky. But some normal-looking models can, according to spec, survive a 30-minute dunk in water up to three feet deep, some even more. Of course, there are aftermarket phone cases that promise that type of protection for "non-tough" phones.

Smart screen

It's annoying when the phone screen times out on you while you're engrossed in an article or admiring a picture. But the front-facing camera on some Android phones can be set to monitor your eyes while you're reading a Web page or other document to prevent such occurrences. Some smart-screen features can even pause a video when you look away, or allow you to scroll up and down Web pages when you tilt the phone toward or away from you.

Speakerphone

A built-in speakerphone, which allows hands-free use in a car or elsewhere. (But avoid using any phone, even hands free, while driving.)

Standard headset connector


The standard connector on the handset, also known as a 3.5-mm connector, is compatible with many aftermarket wired headsets. Some phones with a proprietary connector might include an adapter to a standard connector.

Touch-free control

Some smart phones let you interact with the phone without ever touching it. For example, you can accept a phone call, move to another message, flip through photos, or skip to the next song on your playlist by waving your hand in front of the phone. However, these and other gestures might take some getting used to.

Touch screen


Multi-touch displays typically allow you to zoom in and out of Web pages or photos by pinching or spreading you fingers, which gives you optimal control. Some models let you write on the screen with your finger (or stylus) to jot down notes, draw, some even on images, Web pages, etc, which can be easily shared with others. And while many touch screen displays only react to bare fingertips, some have settings or modes that allow you interact with them while you're wearing gloves.

Voice command


At its basic level, this feature lets you dial phone numbers by speaking the contact name or calling out the digits. It can also transcribe what you say into text for messages or browser searches. Transcription accuracy has improved in recent years, but more impressive are the new levels of interaction that can be delivered via intelligent personal assistants, such as iPhone's Siri and Android's Google Now. These assistants leverage advances in artificial intelligence to "understand" the context of your commands or questions when you to speak to them in plain English. They can also respond in plain English. Besides initiating phone calls and sending dictated messages, intelligent personal assistants can schedule meetings and reminders, make notes, search the Internet, find local businesses, get directions, and make meaningful recommendations based on your GPS location, programmed preferences, and search history.

Wi-Fi

Smart phones with built-in Wi-Fi radios are able to realize fast Internet and e-mail access through home networks and Wi-Fi hotspots. Wi-Fi can be used for everything from Web browsing to swapping files with a PCs, and even making calls using Voice over Internet Protocol. Some Wi-Fi wireless network technologies and standards include AirPlay, Wi-Fi direct, AllShare, and Miracast, and Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA). These enable phones to wirelessly share content and other files with HDTVs and other compatible devices.

Wireless charging

No more fumbling with adaptors and their sometime tricky jacks. Just lay the phone down on a special mat or dock and voila: Your phone begins to charge. The feature, built into some models, is also available as an aftermarket add-on for some smart phones. That might require you to replace the phone's back cover with a special one, or put the phone in a special case.

Brands

Alcatel arrow  |  Amazon arrow  |  Apple arrow  |  BlackBerry arrow  |  HTC arrow  |  Jitterbug arrow  |  Kyocera arrow  |  LG arrow  |  Motorola Mobility arrow  |  Nokia arrow  |  Samsung arrow  |  Sony Mobile arrow

Alcatel

Alcatel is a brand within TCL Communications, one of the largest consumer electronics companies in the world.  It has established a small presence in the U.S. market with entry-to-midlevel smart phones primarily at T-Mobile.

Amazon

After successfully competing in the tablet market, this retailing behemoth launched it's first smart phone. The Fire is all things Amazon, heavily integrated with Amazon Prime, the Amazon Apps Store, the Kindle, and more. Several unique capabilities make it easy, and even fun, to spend money with the retail giant. Firefly, for instance, is an onboard app that scans objects or listens to songs, movies, or televsion programs, then finds them in Amazon's content so you can buy them. Also interesting is Dynamic perspective, which can give 3D-like images onscreen. Though technically an Android phone, its app choices are confined to Amazon's App Store, which is notably bereft of Google's apps.

Apple

Apple's smart phones have gone through years of conservative, incremental updates, but its latest models, the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, catch up to device offerings from other phone makers in a serious way. The revamping includes a larger 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch screen respectively, a better battery life, enhanced messaging capabilities, and smart tweaks to their keyboard interfaces. Their Touch ID fingerprint, which promises a safe transaction while eliminating the need to type in a PIN or perform other cumbersome steps, now support the new Apple Pay-wallet service.

BlackBerry

Once a leading handset manufacturer with fiercely loyal customers, BlackBerry has lost significant ground to devices running iOS and Android. Its relatively small lineup includes the Z10 and Q10, and the newly introduced Passport, geared toward business users. But prospective customers may want to think twice about investing in BlackBerry hardware because support from third-party app developers is lacking for this platform.

HTC

HTC, once a significant player in the category, has seen its share of the category decline but remains competitive with its flagship One series (now available in Android and Windows versions). Notable One-series features include their amplified front-firing stereo speakers and photo-rich interface called BlinkFeed.  Some models also offer wireless charging.

Jitterbug

Jitterbug offers easy-to-use cell and smart phones geared toward seniors with no-contract service through its Great Call network.  Great Call offers a host of services for customers with health or cognifive issues, including a 24-hour live operator, free directory assistance, and free remote update of your phone's address book and calendar appointments if you call in, fax, or mail it that information. You can also pay for emergency response service, wellness care, and more.

Kyocera

Kyocera's lineup is primarily focused on affordable rugged and waterproof smart phones—its newest waterproof series, the Hydro, is available at Sprint and T-Mobile, and the tough-minded Brigadier at Verizon.

LG

LG's flagship smart phone, the G3, is a top performer in our Ratings.  It's 5.5-inch quad HD display presents photos, videos, web pages, and other objects with great detail.  LG phones typically have top-notch virtual keyboards with a dedicated row of numbers, though the latest models place the power and volume buttons in the back instead of the side, which some users may find awkward.  Some LG models feature wireless charging.

Motorola Mobility

After a relatively short stint under the Google arm, Motorola Mobility has been purchased by Lenovo. Motorola Mobility offers a small but robust collection of phones, including the Droid line of phones on Verizon and the Moto X on multiple carriers. Some compelling Motorola features include always-on, voice-activated phone control, the ability to launch the phone camera with a twist of your wrist, and notifications that show up on your screen even when you're not using your phone. You can also customize these models greatly, choosing such options as wood or leather finishes and a variety of color schemes. 

Nokia

Nokia, one of the world's leading handset makers, is now owned by Microsoft.  In the U.S., it is mainly known for its Lumia line of phones that runs on the Windows Phone operating system. The Lumia line is known for its advanced, high-resolution camera (up to 38.2 megapixels) and intuitive Windows interface.

Samsung

Samsung is well known for its innovative designs and has one of the largest lineups of smart phones that run on the Windows and Android operating systems. Samsung smart phones have the industry's most advanced technologies the Android platform has to offer. They include Multi window, which lets you interact with two apps simultaneously on one screen.  For instance, you can watch a video while viewing an e-mail, or you can use Google Maps and messaging. The front-facing cameras on many Samsung models monitor you eyes while you're reading a Web page or other documents to prevent the screen from timing out. Some Samsung phones can also wirelessly share large files between each other after the phones are bumped together.  Another innovation is touch-free gestures/controls (air gestures) that let you accept a phone call, move to another message, flip through photos, or skip to the next song in your playlist by waving your hand in front of the phone. Noteable lines include the Samsung Galaxy S and Galaxy Note series.

Sony Mobile

Sony Mobile offers a relatively small but competent lineup of Android smart phones. It's water-resistant Xperia Z line of phones have proven to be solid performers in our tests.

Shopping tips

What's available

The providers

The major national cellular service providers are AT&T, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless. There are also many local or regional providers.

The phones

You can find cell phones in many outlets, including cellular service providers' stores, independent wireless retailers, electronics stores, and Web sites. But the cell phone is only part of what you need. You also have to sign up for service with a wireless provider and choose a calling plan.

The leading cell-phone brands include Kyocera, LG, Motorola, and Samsung. Prices can range from free to about $300, depending on how you choose to pay – 2-year contract, full retail, or installment payment.

Major smart phone makers include Apple, HTC, LG, Motorola, Nokia and Samsung. Phone prices range from $200 to $400 with a two year contract, $500 to $800 for full retail, or installment payments of about $25 per month.

Some carriers sell their own brand of phones manufactured by Casio, HTC, and other phone makers.

How to choose

Consider shape and size. Many smart phones have touch screens with virtual keyboards. Phones with a physical keyboard tend to be thicker. Look for phones that you find comfortable to carry and operate with one hand. Models with very large screens are great for viewing Web pages, maps, and videos, but some may be more than a handful for most users. Some users may prefer the feedback and feel of a physical keyboard, though the virtual keyboards on some of the latest phones are also very good and often offer more options for customizing their layouts and features to better match your preferences.

Check the display

To most people, a smart phone is a portable window to the world of digital information. The bigger the window, the bigger the view. A big screen has a direct impact on the presentation of Web pages, maps, videos, and photos. A large display also makes it easier to interact with your phone because Web links, app buttons, and keys on the virtual keyboard should be easier to spot. But you can have too much of a good thing. Make sure the phone is not so big that it is uncomfortable to carry or difficult to operate with one hand. Also, pay attention to resolution--many smart phones now have 1080p displays--enough for full high-definition videos--and some can exceed 400 pixels per inch, which makes for finer detail. You'll likely notice a difference, however, if you buy a phone that isn't at least HD. And not in a good way. Stick with display resolutions of 720p and higher or more than 300 pixels per inch. Also look for models that are easy to view in bright daylight. If possible, try the phone outside to make sure for instance, that you can see incoming and outgoing calls, read and compose messages, and view indicators such as battery life and signal strength. Also check the display responsiveness to touch; launch an app or two, and zoom in and out of Web pages or photos by pinching or spreading you fingers.

Consider the keyboard

A phone's shape and size are largely determined by its keyboard and display. Most smart phones have touch screens with virtual keyboards, though there are a few on the market that also include a physical QWERTY keyboard. Some users may prefer the feedback and feel of a physical keyboard, qualities that make it easier to type without looking. But phones with physical QWERTY keyboards tend to be on the thick side, and the keyboards themselves may not be much better--or even as good--as the virtual keyboards on some of the latest phones. Virtual keyboards often let you customize their layouts, change input options, and keep features such as predictive text at your fingertips to help you type quickly and accurately. One downside to virtual keyboards is that they block a good portion of your phone's display. Regardless of which keyboard you go with--real or virtual--make sure it has all the keys you'll need, and that they are well spaced and easy to read under different lighting conditions.

Smart-phone buyers:

Consider the operating system. Smart phones all share the ability to browse the Web and run apps (Web applications), handle office and personal e-mail, multitask, and facilitate social networking. But how easily and how well you can do those tasks varies by operating system (OS). Many smart phones have relatively large, multi-touch displays. Apps, which can be downloaded by the smart-phone user, vary widely in number, variety, and price, according to the operating system. Many apps are free, others cost a buck or two, and some go for hundreds of dollars. Some of the leading systems are Android, Apple iOS, BlackBerry, and Windows Phone.

Consider the data plan

Using a phone's extra, network-dependent capabilities requires a regular (voice/text) phone plan and a data plan for Web surfing and sending and receiving e-mail. Depending on the carrier, prices for the two combined start at $45 to $80 a month with a two-year contract. But you can easily spend much more than that as you add minutes, messaging, and other services. As you'd expect, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon--the Big Four--have done their best to complicate apples-to-apples comparisons. They charge different rates for additional phone lines, break data allowances into chunks that don't match the competition's, and provide differing discounts for multiple phones. As rule, many consumers can get by on 1GB of data per phone, especially if they confine their cellular-data activities mostly to browsing the Web, using news and e-book apps, and sending and receiving e-mails without large attachments. Save video calls, media streaming, and big-file uploads for when you have Wi-Fi access. If you stream a fair amount of music and video on the road, such as during your commute to work or on business trips, you'll probably need 2GB to 3GB per month. And if stream lots content from Netflix, YouTube, and other data-draining sources using cellular data and not Wi-Fi, you might want to consider a high-limit or unlimited data plan.

Consider syncing options

Syncing your phone with your computer has some advantages. For example, you'll most likely find it easier to update calendar events and contact data using your computer's larger keyboard and display. You'll also have peace of mind knowing all of your documents and personal data will be safely backed up should your phone be lost or stolen. But before you buy, check with the carrier or phone maker to make sure the phone is compatible with your computer or its operating system. Also confirm phone compatibility with your company if you plan on setting up corporate e-mail and calendar access. Some phones support cloud storage, in which your files are stored on remote servers accessible online.

Check for updates

Cell and smart phones are increasingly becoming like pocket computers, adding touch screens, keyboards, and the ability to run numerous applications. This complexity has increased the odds that they won't always perform as promised. Often the cure for a buggy performance is downloading a software patch into your phone. You might automatically be notified about an update (for example, via a message to your phone), but you should check for phone updates even if you're not experiencing any problems. Manufacturers and carriers often use updates to improve performance, such as battery life, or even add new features. In many cases, you can update your phone by looking for "update" under the settings menu, and following the instructions. Make sure you're in a good reception area to ensure that the file downloads fast and error free. You should also periodically look up your phone on the websites of your carrier and phone's manufacturer. You might discover new features or learn how to use the ones you know more effectively.

Look for useful features

Today's phones come equipped with many useful calling and multimedia features, including a media player, a camera, and Web browsing, and child-location and call-management services. Some features, such as programmable shortcuts, Bluetooth, speakerphone, and voice command help, make the phones easier to use.

Check for special prices and promotions

Rebates and special offers can be substantial, but they change frequently. To get the best deal, check the carrier's offerings online and in its retail stores, and then see what independent dealers offer at their websites and in their outlets. If at all possible, buy a new phone when you're switching carriers or signing a new service commitment with your existing carrier. You almost always get a better deal--either a deeply discounted price or even a free phone--when you're signing a contract. Be aware that some rebates are offered only if you also sign up for a data plan.

Check the return policy--and recycle old phones

Make sure you can return the phone if you're not happy with it. Some stores attach stiff service-cancellation fees on top of what a carrier might charge. Also, if you want to recycle an old phone or the battery, call 877-273-2925 or visit www.call2recycle.org.

Before turning in your smart phone for recycling:

  1. If you haven't synced your photos and other personal documents with a "cloud" service like iCloud for iPhone, SkyDrive for Windows Phone, or one of the several dozen available to Android phone users, back them up to your computer. Don't worry about e-mails, calendar appointments, and apps. Their data are stored on remote servers and will automatically flow into your new phone when you sign into your accounts. If all of your pics and docs are on a removable memory card, just remove the card.
  2. Go into your phone's settings and look for "Factory Data Reset," or something to that effect. This may be a Settings sub-menu item under "Backup and Reset" or "Privacy." Make sure you select the "erase everything" option if there is one.
  3. Repeat the reset process one more time.
  4. If your phone has a removable SIM card (fingernail-sized card that has your phone account on it), remove that as well.

Don't buy phone insurance

Cell carriers will insure your phone for about $4 to $8 a month with a $25 to $100 or more deductible, but they can replace your lost, stolen, or damaged phone with a repaired, refurbished one. We don't think insurance or extended warranties are worth it. Only 15 percent of buyers polled got a new phone because the old one broke, and only 2 percent because the phone was lost or stolen. A better idea: Keep your old phone until the new phone's contract ends. If you lose or break the new phone, reactivate the old one and use it until you qualify for a free or low-cost phone.

Smart phone operating systems

Smart-phone buyers:

Consider the operating system. Smart phones all share the ability to browse the Web and run apps (Web applications), handle office and personal e-mail, multitask, and facilitate social networking. But how easily and how well you can do those tasks varies by operating system (OS). Many smart phones have relatively large, multi-touch displays. Apps, which can be downloaded by the smart-phone user, vary widely in number, variety, and price, according to the operating system. Many apps are free, others cost a buck or two, and some go for hundreds of dollars. Here are some of the leading systems:

Read more about the leading operating systems:

Android
Apple iOS
BlackBerry
Windows Phone

Android

The phones

If you want a wide choice of phones, you've come to the right place. Google's Android platform supports the largest variety of hardware from handset makers such as HTC, LG, Motorola, and Samsung. Choices include everything from compact models to phones with displays more than 5.5 inches--the biggest around. This platform is the only one other than BlackBerry that has phones with a physical keyboard. Android phones support real-time updates from the Web and social networks, gesture and touch-free controls, and a virtual trackpad-like cursor control that makes it easier to change text. Innovative features include Wi-Fi Direct, facial recognition, and NFC (near-field communication) for wireless sharing and mobile payments. For enhanced gaming, look for models that support multiple-axis motion sensing.

In addition to touch screen support, three or four real or virtual buttons provide the core navigation control. There's always a home button for returning to the main home screen and a back button for backing out of the most recent action. A third button usually either launches Recent Apps for easy access just a tap away, or the menu, for summoning task options. Some models combine multiple functions on one button via a press and press and hold. For instance, pressing and holding the home button typically launches Google search. There's a wide variety of features, capabilities, and controls, so make sure a phone has what you want.

The interface

The Android OS is as customizable as they come, thanks to widgets and other tools for tweaking phone controls, as well as the overall look and feel. Many phones themselves can support up to seven home screens, and some even more, handy if you want separate launch pads for games or work-related apps. Pressing and holding the home screen key launches an easy way to organize the home screens with widgets, apps, and shortcuts. Customized via widgets, the OS lets you gather and present in a single view, contacts, calendar appointments, and other data from online sources. You can group apps into folders to conserve desktop space and prevent clutter and stash little-used apps in a separate app drawer. The Android OS provides fine text-editing tools, more controls for managing data usage, and enhanced voice-activated navigation and dictation. Various models offer on-screen multitasking, screens that won't time out while you're viewing Web pages or documents, and split screen views for e-mail or messages. Though, with some models there isn't a way to close all recent apps at once, a convenience found with many other phones. Some larger models let you shrink the dial pad and keyboard and slide them to either side of the phone's screen to bring them closer to your thumbs in portrait mode. The interface and features can vary greatly from phone to phone, and OS updates can radically change features. The interface of latest version Android, Lollipop, offers absorbing visual cues throughout via color, spacing, shading, graphic elements, and type, including in e-mail, settings, layouts, and more. It also improves notifications from calls, apps, social media, and so on. You can, for example, view and respond to messages from a locked screen. Priority can be set for certain contacts or notification types such as messaging vs email vs facebook messages, etc. You can also set which notifications from which contacts will result in an alert. Many of the interfaces are pre-customized by the handset maker, such as HTC's Sense, Motorola's Motoblur, and Samsung's TouchWiz, so before you invest in a new phone try it out.

Searches & navigation

Google's OS excels at search and mapping and includes GPS-based navigation, usually a free app. Google Maps are first-rate. You can use Google, Yahoo!, or Bing search engines and can simultaneously search both your phone and the Web.

Apps & more

The Google Play Store, the main source for Android apps and other content, carries a large selection of music, video, apps, e-books, and more from phone carriers, manufacturers, and providers such as Amazon.com, which provides access to its MP3 library. Payments through your Google account are easy, but sometimes you have to pay the carrier or app provider directly.

Apple iOS

The phones

The iPhones complement their sleek designs and intuitively simple operation with high-quality multi-touch displays, front- and rear-facing cameras, and music players. iPhone 6 models give Apple fans who reluctantly turned to Android phones for their larger displays a great reason to come back home. The 4.7-inch iPhone 6 and 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus higher resolution displays make images and video appear more compelling and e-mails and messages easier to view. Their smooth, rounded edges, reminiscent of earlier iPhones, make them comfortable to hold. Models that include a fingerprint reader in the Home button let you safely and quickly unlock the phone's screen or authorize an iTunes purchase with just a light press of your finger. Phones that support Apple Pay combine the security of Touch ID fingerprint reader with NFC (near-field communication), a short-range wireless communication technology that could ultimately allow you to pay by phone at the register. The iPhone 5 series was the first with a 4-inch display and support for fast 4G LTE data networks. The iPhone 5S is the first phone we've seen with a 64-bit processor and a fingerprint reader, which is built into the Home button. The 5C models sport brightly colored outer shells. Many models have a built-in voice-controlled personal digital assistant called Siri that understands context, allowing you to speak naturally when you ask it questions. It helps you make calls, send texts or e-mails, schedule meetings and reminders, search the Internet, find local businesses, get directions, and more. You can also get answers and information just by asking. Multiple-axis motion sensing for enhanced gaming experiences is another plus. All 4G AT&T and T-Mobile iPhones, as well as Verizon iPhone 6 models, can simultaneously support a phone call and an Internet-based connection over the cellular network.

Apps & more

If it's apps you want, Apple is the hands-down winner. The selection of music, video, games, and apps from iTunes and the App Store is simply unrivaled for sheer volume and diversity of multimedia content and applications, which has expanded to include networked, player-to-player gaming via its Game Center. There are more than a million apps at the Apple App Store, including some unavailable on other platforms. iTunes access is a big plus. And it's easy and safe to buy via your iTunes account. Apple's iTunes Radio service has a plethora of options for streaming--and especially buying--songs from iTune's vast library. You'll also find accessories galore--cases, compatible devices, and more.

The interface

The simple iOS interface is ultra-easy to master, and the built-in iPod interface is among the best we've seen on a phone for accessing music, videos, games, and other content. Consistency is another plus: iOS is the same from carrier to carrier and almost identical to that of the iPad and iPod Touch products. iPhones have a home button for closing or backing out of apps, checking app status, launching universal search, and returning to the home screen. The larger-screened iPhone 6 models let you slide the phone desktop down to the middle of the screen to bring the top apps and controls closer to your thumb. You activate this Reachability mode (which Apple insists is a feature) by lightly double-tapping the home button. You can create folders to organize apps, but you can only minimally customize the interface, and the screen can become cluttered. Colorfulicons make it little easy to find some often-used apps. Even when the phone's screen is locked, the interface presents a scrollable preview of your new notifications, including messages and calendar appointments. You can access the Control Center with a swipe up from the bottom of the screen which presents the user with key controls such as Airplane mode, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth, as well as access to the flashlight, calculator, and more. You can even resume playback of the last song playing.

Double-press the Home button to see preview screens of the apps you have open. This method, however, can get cumbersome if you have a lot of apps to close. Apple's Air Drop lets you wirelessly share photos, videos, and more with other compatible devices. Though, many of these features and capabilities are Apple's version of what we've seen previously supported on other OSs.

Searches & navigation

You can use Google, Yahoo!, or Bing search engines and can simultaneously search both your phone and the Web. The Safari Web browser's unified search bar accepts both URLs and search terms. Apple Maps provides effective navigation guidance, but some features can be glitchy, such as 3D views.

BlackBerry

The phones

This is the only platform besides Android that supports phones with a physical keyboard. BlackBerry seems to be refocusing on it roots. It's Passport for instance, is a square-shaped phone meant for business users. It also has a square-shaped display aimed at work-related documents and tasks rather than wide-screen entertainment.

Some BlackBerry touch-screen models have a sleek design and two physical controls: a power button at the top and a volume/pause rocker switch on the right side. Other older phones still on the market can't run the new operating system, but they'll be supported for a while. They have strong points, including a Send button for making calls (increasingly rare on smart phones) and an end (hang-up) button, which also serves as the Home button. Controls include a menu button for summoning task options, a return key for backing out of the most recent action, and often a trackpad or trackball for scrolling and selecting.

The interface

The BlackBerry OS and phones have been radically redesigned, centered on a simpler interface with square-shaped, iPhone-like icons that provide more direct access to core functions and fewer options for fiddling with settings. You can use gestures and swipes to enhance e-mail and messaging, key functions for many BlackBerry fans.

The control system, called BlackBerry Flow, relies on finger sweeps and other gestures made on a touch screen. For example, sliding your thumb up from the bottom of the screen and then to the right takes you to the Hub, a list of calls, messages, and calendar alerts received by the phone. Slide your thumb to the right again to filter messages--say, by Yahoo or Gmail account. To access wireless connections, alarms, and settings, slide your finger down from the top of the screen. To access the virtual buttons for launching the phone or camera while in an app, slide your thumb up from the bottom of the screen. You can organize apps into folders. Instead of backing out of apps using a Home button, you shuffle between them by swiping and other gestures. For example, getting to the desktop's main app Home screen often takes two swipes: one up, and another to the left. That's not as obvious as pressing a dedicated Home key, as on Android, iPhones, and Windows models.

The virtual keyboard has a predictive text tool that lets you "flick" suggested words up into a sentence. The keyboard's Flick feature suggests words it thinks will be next, based on what's already in the sentence. For example, type the word "Here" and the words "we," "you," and "is" will appear over their respective first letters on the keyboard. The keyboard can handle multiple languages at once, making it easier to insert foreign words into sentences. The keyboard also handles more traditional predictive-text tasks, such as completing a word after you type a few letters. You can press and hold the period key to engage the voice-to-text feature, or the space bar for text formatting, such as boldface, italics, bullets, and font size.

BlackBerry Messenger supports video conferencing and lets you share what's on your phone screen (such as a photo or spreadsheet) with the person on the other end. Maintaining its business bent, the BlackBerry OS lets you separate business and personal data so your IT department can control corporate info while you control personal materials. You can easily switch between both.

Searches & navigation

To share something you found online, you can post it to a social network with a few gestures. You can also view Web pages in the less-cluttered Reader mode. You can search files, settings, apps, help, and more by typing a search term on the Home screen or within an app. You can narrow the search to include only specific apps or extend it to include Internet sources. You can search and perform functions such as creating appointments by speaking commands, but it isn't always as smooth as on other smart-phone platforms.

Apps & more

BlackBerry World, the primary source for content, has more than several hundred thousand apps, games, music, videos, and more.

Windows Phone

The phones

Windows Phone is still playing catch-up, and there's only a small selection of phones from HTC, Nokia, and Samsung. It supports large multi-touch displays; we've seen it on phones with screens 4.5-inches and larger. Models that include Cortana, the voice-activated assistant, can perform searches and launch apps on your command. Cortana will either speak her answers to you or show what she thinks are relevant results from a Bing search.The phones come preloaded with Xbox, which lets you play games with your friends and use your avatar and gamer profile to keep track of game scores and achievements online through the Games hub. Various models support NFC technology for wireless sharing and mobile payments. But the older OS models lack the ability to attach videos to text messages.

In addition to the touch screen support, three keys provide the core navigation controls. There's a back key for backing out of applications, a start key for returning you to the home screen, and a search key that launches the Bing search box or Cortana.

The interface

This operating system has a much smarter interface than the Windows Mobile OS it succeeds, replacing the older OS's convoluted menu system. The interface provides straightforward yet flexible access to most functions via two main panels. One is a Start Screen with a scrolling interface of resizable Live Tiles, which are animated app icons that can display real-time updates from social network feeds, news, appointments, and other sources. The other is a simple alphabetical list of all the apps on your phone. You can pin any app in this listing to the Start Screen, if it's not already there. But panels can get unmanageably long. The simple fonts and dark backgrounds provide a clear, distinctive presentation of e-mails, calendars, and other phone content. You can easily change most Live Tiles to one of three sizes: a full-screen-width rectangle, a half-screen square, or a tiny quarter screen. And you can change their color palette. A number of models let you create folders to organize apps, though on some phones it's easier to do this than on others. Overall, it has a similar look and feel to Windows 8 computers and tablets. People Hub puts all of your contacts and social-network updates in one place. It also lets you send updates to several social networks, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter, at the same time. And it allows you to arrange contacts into smaller groups, like the default setting "Family Room," or "Work Friends, enabling you to share messages, social-network updates, and pictures just with them. Its Kids Corner feature lets you create a home screen of selected apps, games, and other preferred goodies so your kids can use your phone securely.

Searches & navigation

You can use only Microsoft's search engines, Internet Explorer or Bing. Pressing the searh key launches Bing or Cortana. Some models include the Local Scout app, which lists the details of nearby restaurants, shops, events, and other places of interest, often with reviews from Citysearch and directions via Bing Maps. Maps and navigation are via Nokia maps and are initially available only on Nokia phones. The alternative, though not free, is the carrier's GPS navigation app.

Apps & more

In the Windows store you'll find a fairly small selection of music, video, apps, games (including Xbox), and other content from Microsoft, phone carriers, and phone manufacturers, nothing yet to compare with Android or Apple. You can pay via a Microsoft account in many cases, though sometimes you have to pay the carrier or app provider directly.

Guide to cell phone carriers

Which cell-phone service provider is the best? It depends on where you live. We rate cell-phone service based on the tens of thousands of responses to our annual survey conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. The results from our most recent survey can be found in our January 2014 report, Best and Worst Cell Phone Plans.

Overall, when it comes to standard cell-phone service (meaning billed monthly, often under a contract), the most satisfying carriers in our Ratings were smaller companies, including some less familiar national carriers such as Credo Mobile and regional names such as U.S. Cellular, which operates in 24 mostly Midwestern states.

All four major national monthly-bill carriers -- AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon--were at least a step below some smaller names, and there were variations among them in overall satisfaction and in how pleasing was their service on specific attributes, including value, data service, and customer support.

Satisfaction with prepaid service (without a contract, for monthly minutes, unlimited or pay-as-you-go) was relatively high among readers, the choice in phones (particularly smart phones) is expanding, and plan costs can be lower than with contract service. Two-thirds of our survey respondents knocked more than $20 a month off their bill by switching to prepaid, and 17 percent saved up to $20 a month.

True, the same phone will almost certainly cost more (possibly hundreds more, for a marquee smart phone) from a no-contract carrier compared with a major provider, because the no-contract carrier can't be assured of recovering some of the phone's subsidized discount price through a two-year contract term. But you may soon recoup the extra expense, and more, through lower monthly bills for prepaid service, especially from prepaid specialists such as MetroPCS, which offers low-cost unlimited-everything plans. Prefer a big national carrier? AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon also offer prepaid service. Sprint does so through its Boost and Virgin Mobile brands.

Cell phone networks

Major carriers Sprint and Verizon networks use a technology loosely labeled Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA), while AT&T and T-Mobile use Global System for Mobile communication (GSM) and Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS) technologies. These major carriers have now supplemented their third-generation (3G) networks with "4G" LTE networks that provide faster data service.

Sprint and Verizon phones, and AT&T and T-Mobile phones, may be able to roam on each other's network, respectively, but they're advanced 3G and 4G services have some compatibility issues. In other words, when roaming, you may not have access to them.

GSM smartphones work more widely across the world than do CDMA models, though many CDMA models also support these frequency bands and technologies used abroad. The SIM card in your smart phone stores your account information and other details. When you switch to a new phone, you can remove the card from the old phone and insert it into the new one. But this can be tricky as there are different-size cards, and older cards may not be compatible with newer carrier services. Also, you can't use a T-Mobile SIM card in an AT&T phone, and vice versa, and you can't use a Sprint SIM card in an Verizon phone, and vice versa.

Consider the data network

Cell carriers continue upgrading their networks to fourth-generation (4G) wireless communications. Compared to 3G networks, 4G networks enable faster streaming, downloading, and uploading of high-definition videos and other large files. They also facilitate better Web browsing and support video chats. All four of the major carriers provide varying 4G coverage based on one or more of the following technologies: HSPA+ (Evolved High-Speed Packet Access) and LTE (Long-Term Evolution).

Verizon's 4G network, which launched in 2011, is exclusively based on LTE, potentially the fastest and most dynamic of the three technologies. Sprint was the first carrier to offer a "4G" network in 2010 that was based on WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) technology. The carrier began migrating to LTE in April 2012, as it phases out support WiMAX. AT&T and T-Mobile launched 4G services based on HSPA+ technology, which is actually an upgrade of their existing 3G networks. Both carriers have since deployed a 4G network based on LTE. Many of their smart phones have the ability to run on both its LTE and HSPA+ 4G networks.

Phones marooned on 3G networks are still fine for Web surfing, streaming videos or music, and downloading attachments. Check with your carrier to see which broadband data networks are supported in your area.

For more information on which wireless service provider performed best in your area, check out our cell phone service Ratings by city and our overall cell-phone services Recommendations (both available to subscribers).

Here's what you should know about the four largest wireless service providers:

AT&T

AT&T is one of the two largest carriers, along with Verizon, and uses GSM-based technology. It also has LTE (Long Term Evolution) and HSPA+ "4G" networks. Many phones can be used outside the U.S. It rated a peg behind Verizon, with mostly ho-hum marks, except for its top-rated 4G service. AT&T phones can handle voice calls and data-dependent features simultaneously over its cellular network. AT&T's prepaid service is GoPhone.

Sprint

Sprint is now distinguished, along with T-Mobile, as among the only two major carriers that still offer contract plans with unlimited data consumption, rather than those that set data limits or tiers. It has fallen to the bottom of the Ratings, receiving low marks for value, voice, text, and 4G reliability.

Sprint uses CDMA-based technology and its high-speed 4G network uses LTE technology. The carrier's rolling out its updated 4G LTE service called Spark, which is technically faster than its it "regular" 4G LTE service. Only Sprint phones designated Spark compatible can make a Spark connection. However, we found that Spark phones can't handle voice calls and data-dependent features simultaneously over Sprint's cellular network--something nearly all older Sprint LTE phones can do, except the iPhones. Sprint's other brands include Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile, which are prepaid carriers that use Sprint's network to deliver their respective services. A number of phones can be used abroad.

T-Mobile

T-Mobile is now distinguished, along with Sprint, as among the only two major carriers that still offer contract plans with unlimited data consumption, rather than those that set data limits or tiers. It rated slightly behind Verizon, with mostly ho-hum marks. T-Mobile uses GSM-based technology. It also has LTE (Long Term Evolution) and HSPA+ "4G" networks. Many phones can be used outside the U.S. T-Mobile phones can handle voice calls and data-dependent features simultaneously over its cellular network. T-Mobile offers most of its phones, smart and regular, with or without a contract. T-Mobile owns prepaid provider MetroPCS.

Verizon

Verizon Wireless is among the two largest carriers, along with AT&T. Home to the Droid line of phones, Verizon was the first to prorate termination fees. Once again, it scored the highest overall among the major contract cellular-service providers. Verizon uses CDMA-based technology and has rolled out its LTE (Long Term Evolution) 4G network across the U.S. Nearly all Verizon LTE phones, including iPhone 6 models, can handle voice calls and data-dependent features simultaneously over its cellular network. But older iPhones can't. Verizon offers many of its phones, smart and regular, with or without a contract.

   

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