Picking the Right Plan
While shopping for a new plan, be realistic about how you'll use your phone. If you're getting a smartphone, you'll probably benefit from getting a plan that offers at least 2GB of allotted data. Having at least 2GB of data will enable you to download apps and browse the Web without having to worry much about going over your data cap. On the other hand, if you like to do a lot of bandwidth-heavy activities such as streaming music or video, you'll be better off paying the premium for a higher data tier.
One upside to getting a smartphone plan is that the carrier usually includes unlimited talk and text. The days of mobile carriers charging users for a set number of minutes or text messages are quickly drawing to a close, though the cost of data usage is going up. Customers on AT&T and Verizon face caps on how much data they can use before extra charges or restrictions kick in. T-Mobile and Sprint offer unlimited data plans, but their networks are smaller than Verizon's and AT&T's.
If everyone in your family wants a smartphone, or if you have a lot of phones and tablets that you pay for data on, it may be worthwhile to look into shared data plans. Such plans offer unlimited talk and text, and all devices on those plans share their data from a set pool.
The big benefit of having a shared data plan is that you don't have to pay for data on each device individually. If you or your family members never use more than 500MB apiece, you could save some money by paying for only the maximum data you'd use. Shared data plans also usually include tethering, which allows you to share your wireless connection with other devices such as laptops and Wi-Fi-only tablets.
The biggest drawback of a shared data plan is that it can cost more if you or your family use a lot of data. Before switching to a shared data plan, it's best calculate how much data your family uses in a typical month and compare the amount you currently pay with the amount you'd pay if you had a shared plan.
Feature phones don't need data plans, so you can get away with signing up for a plan that covers just talk and text. Plans for feature phones generally cost less than those for smartphones, but you'll have to pay extra for unlimited minutes and text messages. In addition, you'll have a limited selection of feature phones to choose from, as many companies are now starting to manufacture smartphones exclusively.
When selecting a plan, it's wise to overestimate the number of minutes you'll be using for every sent and received call. Because one carrier's definition of off-peak hours may be different from another's, ask the carrier to specify the times for its peak, off-peak, and weekend hours. It's also important to overestimate how much data you'll use, as smartphones can easily burn through 1GB of data if you're not careful.
Choosing the Right Carrier
Tired of your current carrier, or shopping for your first smartphone ever? Choosing a carrier is a daunting task. Most likely you've heard of the Big Four: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon. You'll also encounter smaller, regional carriers such as Cellular One and U.S. Cellular, as well as prepaid carriers like Boost Mobile, Cricket Wireless, and MetroPCS.
Before you begin examining plans, find out which (if any) carriers offer solid coverage in your city, town, or area. Ask your neighbors about the carrier they use, and whether they have reliable service. If you don’t have good coverage in your home, you’ll be in for a frustrating two years. You should also check the coverage in any other areas where you spend a lot of time, such as your office, or a friend's or relative’s house. Carrier coverage maps are a good place to start, but we strongly recommend using a service like OpenSignalMaps to determine which carrier has the strongest reception in your region.
If you don't like the idea of signing up for a two-year contract with a carrier, try a prepaid plan. These days, you can find full-featured smartphones with prepaid plans that offer unlimited minutes, text messages, and data—plans that cost less than half of what the equivalent ones would cost with AT&T or Verizon. Such plans vary from region to region, so shop around to see who has the phones you want at a price you're willing to pay.
Comparison-shop at a third-party retailer: You can purchase a new phone directly from a carrier store; but if you're not sure what to buy, we recommend going to a third-party retailer. Best Buy, RadioShack, Target, and even Walmart sell phones, as well as carrier plans. A big advantage of buying a phone or a tablet from a third-party seller is that you have dozens of phones from multiple carriers at your disposal.
If your contract has expired and you're trying to choose between the Nexus 5 (T-Mobile) and the AT&T exclusive Nokia Lumia 1020, for instance, you can compare the two phones side-by-side in the store. You can't do the same at a carrier store, because the phones are on different networks. If you're willing to wait a few days, Amazon can be a great place to purchase a new phone. The online retailer frequently has sales on hot new devices, and you can sometimes get a high-end phone for just a penny.
Don’t give phones as surprise gifts: If you're considering buying a phone as a gift, consult with the recipient before you go shopping. Although it will ruin the surprise, you should probably bring the recipient along on your shopping trip, too. We recommend getting as much hands-on time as possible with multiple phones before settling on one.
Cut to the chase: When dealing with store representatives, ask them to be as straightforward as possible. Tell them exactly what you're looking for, and describe the kind of phone or plan that fits your requirements. If you're completely unsure, ask the reps what phone they use, or which phones impressed them this year. Don't let them launch into a sales spiel, or you'll spend way too much time in the store. But remember, they're human beings, and they're just doing their jobs; so be courteous, and you'll receive the same treatment in return.
Still not sure which smartphone to pick? We’ve compiled a list of ten top-rated phones to help you find the right device for your needs.
This is an updated version of a previous article that includes the most up-to-date information as of Nov. 18, 2013.
This story, "Smartphone buying guide 2013: Find the phone that's right for you" was originally published by TechHive.