10 Tips to Help Keep Your Cell Phone Working at Its Best

Consumer Reports
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Want to keep your phone working as well as it can—and should? We'll bet at least one of these tips from our experts will surprise you.

1. Weak signals kill your battery. Phones use more power when they're trying to access a weak network signal. In fact, just leaving your phone on in area with little or no signal can completely drain your battery in a handful of hours—even if you never touch your phone. And avoid stashing the phone in a crowded purse or briefcase or inside a lower desk drawer: It can be harder for a phone to get a signal in those places.

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2. Smart phones need a fresh (re)start. With Facebook, Twitter, and so many other compelling apps to keep you glued to you cell-phone screen, you may be tempted never to turn your phone off. But smart phones, which are actually full-fledged computers, need to be restarted every one or two days to purge memory reserved by programs no longer running and to correct various other glitches that can hinder performance.

3. Smart phones get slower with age. Operating systems are designed and updated for the newest smart phones, with their faster processors, expanded memory, larger displays, and improved cameras. Accepting over-the-air updates to your OS and apps helps stave off obsolescence. But within a few years, your phone could struggle to muster the processing power, memory, or features it needs to make the most of new apps or an upgraded operating system—if it can handle them at all.

4. Video kills your data allowance. It's easy to burn through the 2-gigabyte monthly allowance of typical data plans. For example, a single HD movie could eat up 700 megabytes of data—or more than a third of that 2-gigabyte budget. Other data drainers include streaming music and playing connected games online. Try to use your phone's Wi-Fi connection instead of the data connections when you're doing these things.

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5. Skip screen protectors. Many of today's touch screens already come with a protective layer of Gorilla Glass or other hardened material that make scratching them nearly impossible. Some screen protectors reduce glare, but they can also make your display less responsive and harder to see in other ways. And screen protectors, even when properly installed, often develop unsightly air bubbles and annoying scratches of their own.

6. A weak case for cases. Today's smart-phone bodies often include Kevlar, carbon fiber, or other hardened materials that are quite tough. Aftermarket cases may offer a bit of extra protection, but they'll often hinder access or slow the responsiveness of the phone's screen, buttons, and ports that you access frequently.

7. Phone camera zoom lenses really aren't. Unlike standalone cameras, cell phones don't have optical zoom lenses. Instead they come with digital zoom, which enlarges pixels and actually reduces image detail as you zoom in. For those close-up shots, we recommend you move in closer. Also consider trying small, affordable add-on lenses that fit over a smart phone's own tiny lens. They let you get in closer to the action or shoot a wide-angle or fish-eye photo without reducing image quality.

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8. Think twice about insurance and extended warranties. It can easily cost $500 to $600 to replace a smart phone. But a recent survey conducted by Consumer Reports found that only 15 percent of those polled bought a new phone because the old one broke, and only 2 percent bought one because their phone was lost or stolen. And the warranties themselves are no bargain: Plans cost $5 to $9 a month and come with a deductible of between $50 to $150. What's more, you might be entitled only to a repaired, refurbished phone rather than a new one. Here's a better idea: Keep your old phone until the new handset's contract ends.

9. Prepaid carriers are great place for smart phones. The phones offered with prepaid plans used to be just the basics. But some prepaid carriers now offer smart phones. The Samsung Galaxy S III is even available from Metro PCS and the Apple iPhone 5 is available from Cricket—another prepaid company. What's more, two-thirds of Consumer Reports subscribers who switched to prepaid knocked off $20 or more off their monthly bill. Even though you have to pay full price for the phone, you'll save in the long run.

10. Haggling works. Most shoppers don't think to negotiate for a lower cell-phone price, but 17 percent of our cell-phone-buying survey respondents took a shot. Of that group, more than one in four succeeded. The median discount was $54, but a handful knocked $100 or more off the price.

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