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To Smartphone, or Not to Smartphone?

By Jason Alderman

My wife decided to upgrade her dinosaur cell phone to a "smartphone" and enlisted my help. Initially, we ran into the brick wall of decisions smartphone shoppers frequently face: How to choose among hundreds of available phones, pick the right service provider and predict which calling and data plan and other options would best fit her needs without breaking the bank?

Here are a few things we learned:

What's a smartphone? These all-in-one devices generally let you: send and receive phone calls and text, email and instant messages; surf the Internet; shoot photos and video; manage and synch-up your calendar; run applications such as weather and traffic conditions, games, social networking and maps; play music and video, and much more.

Reception. Reception in your home, commute and work is a critical component when choosing a service provider. Unfortunately, signal strength, data download speed and other factors can vary significantly from block to block.

Ask friends and neighbors how pleased they are with their service. Also, remember carriers offer a grace period (generally 30 days) before an early plan termination fee kicks in, so try out all features extensively wherever you plan to use the phone.

No apples to apples. Many variables complicate the selection process, including:

  • Some models are only available with particular service providers.
  • Most smartphones use some variation of the standard "QWERTY" keyboard, as a touch screen and/or raised keys located below the display or on a slide-out keyboard. Key size, spacing and sensitivity vary widely, so try several types for comfort and ease of operation, especially if you have large hands.
  • Screen size, handset shape, weight and battery life vary considerably, so visit carrier showrooms or an electronics store to compare phones, even if you end up purchasing online. Ask to make a few test calls and evaluate sound quality at both ends.
  • If you want to receive work emails and open documents, make sure the OS is compatible with your employer's system and that you'll be allowed to access your work network.

Cost considerations. Although the smartphone itself is pricey, to determine the true cost of ownership factor in how much you'll pay for a standard two-year carrier contract. Depending on whether you opt for limited or unlimited plans for voice minutes, text messaging and Internet data transfer, you could rack up $80 to $150-plus in monthly operating costs.

Other expenses to consider: accessories (vehicle charger, Bluetooth earpiece, home charging dock and external memory card); various monthly plan taxes and fees; software applications such as ring tones, games, on-demand TV or radio, GPS navigation; additional fees for international calls; and replacement insurance.

These additional more online resources may help you decide:

  • CNET ( has a helpful Cell Phone Buying Guide, a Cell Phone Coverage Map tool for comparing cell reception in certain cities, product reviews and other tools.
  • BillShrink has a cell phone service Price Comparison Tool (
  • TeleBright has an online tool that compares cellular plans and phones available in the top 70 U.S. markets (

As for my wife, a friend let her borrow an LG Ally and now she's hooked. The Ally is sleek, powerful and runs Google's Android. Now I've got phone envy.

This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to your situation and about your individual financial situation.

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