Five steps to buying or upgrading your phone
· Check with your carrier. Carrier stores and Web sites are the easiest place to buy a new phone as you can get the new handset activated, sign up for service, and make changes to your account all in one place. If you're a new customer, your contract agreement will entitle you to rebates and discounts for phones. Find out which ones they are, as they can offer significant savings. Additional rebates might also be available for online purchases.
If you're a current customer, ask your provider if any deals are available if you get a new model. This is essential as carriers will limit how often you can get rebates on a new phone. Remember that you don't have to buy a phone that comes with rebates (doing so will mean a new contract) but it can be more economical to do so.
· Check third-party retailers. You also can buy phones from general electronics stores such as RadioShack that are not affiliated with any carriers. Going this route can offer a couple of advantages. Not only may prices be different, but you might find alternative models not directly sold by a carrier. Just make sure your carrier will support the phone you want. For example, a GSM phone will not work with Sprint or Verizon. Also, while third-party retail stores aren't owned by a carrier, they can partner with providers to offer the activations services and rebates.
If you have a GSM carrier, you also might consider buying an unlocked phone, which are available only from third-party retailers. Unlocked phones differ from carrier-branded phones in that they have no settings that tie them to one operator. In contrast, a handset sold by T-Mobile can be used only with T-Mobile service. Unlocked phones are especially attractive to frequent international travelers because they can change providers simply by changing the phone's SIM card. Just keep in mind that if you buy an unlocked phone, you won't be eligible for any carrier-sponsored rebates.
· Do you need a smart phone? Smart phones combine cell phone and PDA functions in one unit. They're most appropriate if you require e-mail and access to your calendar when on the go. Also, some smart phones allow you to access and edit Word and Excel documents. Smart phones will also vary widely by design. While some models use a stylus and touch screen, others offer full QWERTY keyboards.
Though smart phones are considerably larger and much more expensive than standard handsets, often costing upward of $600, they eliminate the need for two separate devices. Smart phones are available in Palm, Symbian, and Windows Mobile operating systems, each of which has unique characteristics. Be aware that you'll need to purchase a separate data plan, which varies by carrier. For more on smart phones and handhelds see CNET's Quick guide to handheld operating systems or CNET's PDA buying guide.
· Read the fine print. Some things to keep in mind before you commit:
- You can search auction sites such as eBay for good deals. Use caution when going this route, however. If there's an outstanding balance tied to the number, the carrier won't activate the phone to work on a new account. Also, if you receive a broken device, make sure you can return it.
- Again, be aware that if you're a current customer and your contract has expired, you don't need to sign a new contract to get a new phone. But if you don't sign a contract, you'll pay full price for the new handset since you won't be eligible for rebates.
- If you're prone to losing your phone, consider an extended warranty in case your handset is lost, stolen, or damaged. Some carriers also offer roadside assistance services in case you need help while driving.
- During the grace period, you can return a phone for a full refund if you decide you don't like it. Check with your provider for exact details.