Cellphone and Service Buying Guide

If you haven’t looked for a new cell-phone plan in a while, you may be paying a price for your loyalty—or your inertia. In a recent survey of almost 90,000 Consumer Reports subscribers, nearly half of those who switched providers in the past year saw a big drop in their monthly bill. We’re talking $20 or more. After making the shift, some respondents said they got more reliable coverage, faster data service, and better customer service, too.

If you’re considering a new plan, you might want a new phone, as well. Have your eye on that top-of-the-line Samsung or Apple handset? In the past, getting a new phone meant locking yourself into a two-year contract that had multiple financial disadvantages for consumers. Now, you can lease a new phone like a car, pay it off in interest-free installments, or buy it outright and enjoy a lower monthly bill.

Follow these steps to find the best service and phone for your lifestyle–and budget.

Provider: The First Choice You'll Make

Go Big or Go Small

Generally speaking, prepaid service from the smaller carriers such as Consumer Cellular, Ting, and Republic Wireless benefits people with modest data needs (Web browsing, email, Facebook) and little lust for the hot phone of the moment. Heavy data users, especially those who want three or more phone lines, will most likely be happier with one of the Big Four carriers (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, or Verizon Wireless).

Confirm the Coverage

Large carriers such as AT&T and Verizon have a distinct advantage. They have the country well-covered with high-speed 4G Internet service. Use the providers’ zip code maps and other resources to confirm basic coverage. But these references don’t take into account small dead zones in your neighborhood or home. (You might want to ask friends in the area how well their phones work in those spots.)

The Lowdown on Data

How much data you’ll burn through each month depends on your Wi-Fi access (and how often you’re away from it), how much you regularly stream or download, and whether you’re a gamer.

Light data use (1 GB/phone)

You spend more time calling and texting than checking e-mail and using apps like Facebook and Twitter. When streaming content like movies or YouTube videos, you do it almost exclusively on Wi-Fi.

Medium data use (2 GB/phone)

You are less reliant on Wi-Fi and engage in a little bit of everything—streaming some movies and TV shows. Additionally, one of you does limited live gaming.

Heavy data use (4 GB or more/phone)

You are also less reliant on Wi-Fi, and additionally everyone in your household loves to download movies and TV shows, plus watch YouTube videos—and two of your kids are heavy live gamers.



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