Comparing the innumerable features of smartphones and deciphering calling and data plans is serious business. Make a mistake, and it can cost you a lot of money for years. Here's how to make smart choices:
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Grab that Android. Apple's iPhone established the smartphone category, but it is no longer the leader. In the United States, iPhones account for about 29 percent of smartphones while phones based on Google's Android software now account for 52 percent of the market, according to NPD Group, and for good reason. The newer Android models beat the iPhone to faster 4G service and offer more choice of phone makers, features, and carriers, as well as thousands of free apps.
Look for smaller carriers. Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint Nextel are the largest U.S. carriers, but lesser-known cell companies offer comparable service for much less money. Regional carrier MetroPCS, for example, offers unlimited everything (voice, text, and data) for just $60 a month, no contract required. You'll have to pay full price for a good smartphone, such as $300 for the Samsung Craft 4G LTE model, but your total annual cost would be $1,020, compared to $1,680 for AT&T if you bought a similarly priced smartphone.
Forgo 4G. Although 4G is faster, nationwide coverage is still patchy, so a less expensive 3G phone and service may be a better bet. Boost Mobile, a subsidiary of Sprint, has a $50 unlimited 3G plan, but the choice of phones is limited. Still, a respectable Samsung Prevail Android phone, for example, is $180, bringing the first-year total cost to just $780, or roughly half what the top-tier carriers charge. In other words, save the money this year, and you can afford to upgrade to the latest, greatest smartphone next year.
Skip the extras. Warning! Even unlimited plans may have extra fees, like a $4 tracking service charge to find a lost phone or $10 a month more for using a smartphone as a wireless modem for a laptop ("tethering"). Avoid these extra charges by using a free phone tracking app, such as Lookout, and avoid tethering charges by downloading files to your phone when necessary and then copying them to your laptop using a USB cable.
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