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When Marsha Berger prepared to move cross-country, she tried to make a smart choice for a new cell phone. She signed up for a two-week trial with T-Mobile and took a phone on a trip to Palo Alto, California. The phone worked fine in downtown Palo Alto, so she kept it and signed up for a family plan. But after moving, she found that she could not place calls from her house (she has to go outside) or from her office.

Berger, a New York University mathematics professor working at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, says that the worst part was the company's lack of concern. "I called [T-Mobile] repeatedly," she says. On the first call, a representative promised to put in a request to look into the coverage issue. When she called back, a rep couldn't confirm whether anything had been done. She called customer service twice more and asked for some accommodation. "T-Mobile's response?" she reports: "'Well, our [voice coverage] map says it does work [in your area].'"

T-Mobile spokesperson Richard Brudvik-Lindner confirmed that Berger lives in "a pocket with substandard coverage." After we contacted T-Mobile, the company offered a refund on the phones and waived the penalty for canceling her contract. But T-Mobile says that to test her phone adequately, Berger should have tried it out in her new house during the trial period.

Berger's experience illustrates two of the biggest frustrations of owning a cell phone: spotty coverage and mediocre customer service. To help you shop wisely, save money, and avoid getting burned, we researched voice and data plans from six nationwide wireless service providers: AT&T Wireless, Cingular Wireless, Nextel, Sprint PCS, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless. (AT&T and Cingular will soon merge, but their representatives asked us to consider them separately for purposes of this story.)

The good news: You'll find deals on many national plans, and with some care, you can avoid surprises on your bill. The bad news: Once you're locked in to a contract, don't expect tender loving care from the customer service department of any carrier. As for choosing among hardware options, we examined three categories of cell phones--basic, camera-enabled, and PDA hybrid--to help you find one that suits your budget and needs. Armed with our tips, you'll be able to dodge some of the most common cell phone frustrations.

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