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How to Shop and Save on Phones and Cell Phones
Cell phones have become much more than just a way to place a call. A phone is our camera, internet access, MP3 player, GPS, digital organizer, and even our alarm clock all rolled into one.
Customers buying a new phone are faced with a lot of choices. Decisions need to be made about which carrier to use, phone to buy, type of service to get, and accessories you need. And hopefully you’re getting a great cell phone deal in the process. Read on to find out more about shopping for cell phones and finding ways to save.
When buying a cell phone, one detail you’ll need to determine early on is which provider to go with. You may already be a customer of a certain carrier, or maybe you’re considering a switch to a new one. Either way, the service provider will play a large role in the selection of phones you have to choose from as some handsets are tied to a carrier or network.
The major providers, which operate their own networks, are AT&T , T-Mobile (merged with Sprint ), and Verizon . Other carriers are known as Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs), which means the provider does not own the wireless infrastructure and utilizes the cell phone towers of larger carriers. Some of these providers are:
- Straight Talk
- Total Wireless
- Boost Mobile
- Consumer Celluar
- Google Fi
- Cricket Wireless
- Simple Mobile
Is it better to go with the big carriers? That depends. Consumer Reports surveys indicate higher customer satisfaction with smaller providers compared to the major ones. The smaller carriers mostly offer prepaid plans, which have become very similar to postpaid plans in recent years (see the Service Plans section below). Smaller carriers do offer a wider selection of options for various usage needs outside of premium “unlimited everything” service. However, during times of congestion or peak use, customers of the major carriers will get priority on the networks.
You’ll also want to do a coverage check before deciding on a provider you aren’t familiar with. Check the provider’s website, or do an internet search for the provider name and “coverage map” or “zip code map” to confirm your area is eligible for service.
When considering a cell phone provider, you’ll need to determine if you want a postpaid plan or a prepaid plan. The major carriers offer both types, while MVNOs mostly have prepaid plans.
This type of plan is billed for after the service is used. You receive a monthly statement and service is continuous as long as it’s paid. When you buy a phone from a carrier and get set up on a postpaid plan, you’ll also get a device payoff plans. In this model, you purchase the phone with monthly payments over a period of 24 to 30 months. This may require a credit check or down payment, and the phone will be locked to the carrier until it’s paid off.
Postpaid plans are generally higher in price compared to prepaid. The types of plans available tend to be more limited and may even include more options than some customers need. However, postpaid plans can also give extra perks (such as free streaming services). There are no worries about running out of minutes or data during a billing cycle, but overage charges are a possibility.
With this type of plan, service is paid for in advance of using it. Buying a prepaid plan means service is available for a limited amount of time, such as 30 days. When that time is up, a refill must be purchased — or auto-fill can be set up to continue service. Phones are often purchased outright instead of through monthly payment plans, although some prepaid providers offer financing with no fees.
Prepaid plan prices tend to be lower and don’t require a credit check. They offer a wide selection of plan types to meet various needs and overage charges won’t apply, but it is possible for service to run out during a billing cycle under some plans. You’ll have more flexibility in switching providers without long postpaid monthly installment plans, although this benefit won’t apply if the phone is financed. Even prepaid phones purchased in full can be locked for up to a year after activation.
Choosing a Phone
Besides choosing the service provider and plan type, what’s left is the phone itself. There are various features to consider, outlined below.
Unlocked vs. Locked
Unlocked cell phones will work with any compatible cell phone carrier. Some phones will only work on GSM or CDMA networks, while others can work on both. Before purchasing, you’ll need to verify the phone will work with the carrier you intend to use. Buying an unlocked phone typically means paying for the phone outright, which is a higher initial expense, but allows for more flexibility in changing providers.
A locked phone is restricted to a particular carrier and can’t be activated with other providers. If you see a model listed for a particular carrier while shopping, you would only buy it if you plan to use that provider for a while. A locked phone will usually come with options to make monthly payments or get a discount, which can be easier to fit in your budget. However, it will also require using service from that carrier until the phone is paid for.
It’s possible to unlock a phone once you’ve paid off an installment agreement. Or, if you paid in full from a carrier, it can be unlocked after 40 to 60 days for postpaid or up to a year for prepaid. You can contact the carrier to request unlocking; this would allow you to switch to another provider.
There are also options to purchase unlocked phones directly from the manufacturer — such as Apple or Samsung — and make monthly payments without interest and (in most cases) without being locked into a certain carrier’s service.
Apple iPhones use iOS, while most other phones use Android and fall under various brands, such as Samsung, LG, and Google. The majority of customers choose one of these, although there are still options out there for Windows phones, Blackberry, or even the classic flip phone.
Using iOS or Android is a matter of personal preference and how immersed you are in either the Apple or Google ecosystem. CNET and Digital Trends cite a uniform, streamlined experience across iPhones and other Apple devices and consistent software updates as strengths of iOS. With Android , it’s the ease of customizing the phone and strong voice assistant capabilities.
The internal storage a phone has will determine how much space is available for saving files, apps, and media. Common amounts are 32GB, 64GB, 128GB, and 256GB, with higher levels being more costly. To get the right amount, you can consider usage on your current phone and whether that is sufficient — or if you frequently need to clear things out to free up space.
If you can’t afford to go up right now, some smartphones have the option of utilizing MicroSD cards to add storage. Cloud storage is an option as well, with some brands and service providers offering basic plans for free and options to purchase additional cloud storage if needed.
Random-access memory stores the open programs running on a phone and can go up to 12GB or even 16GB. Higher amounts of RAM mean multiple applications can be open at once with quick switching between them. PCMag recommends 4GB as a baseline, but also notes that it can depend on how efficiently the phone uses the RAM given the speed of the processor.
The phone’s processor determines its overall performance — whether the phone runs fast or slow. Most phones are multi-core, so they will have at least two (and up to 8) cores. These cores each represent individual processing power, although the highest number of cores may only be necessary for mobile gaming and other complex uses. The clock speed should also be factored in — this will be a number with GHz after it. Higher numbers indicate faster performance, even while utilizing fewer cores in some cases.
The size of a phone’s screen and the resolution are major considerations. Screen size options range from large phones over 6” to tiny 3.3” phones (measured diagonally), and a lot more in between. Customers may prefer the portability and ease of holding a smaller phone in the hand or pocket, while others appreciate extra screen space for heavy reading or video watching.
The resolution is displayed as width × height in pixels. Numbers that are 1280x720 or above are considered high definition. 1920x1080 or above is 1080p or full HD, while 3840x2160 or more is 4K. Before spending more for higher resolution, consider the downsides as explained by TechRadar , including impact on battery life and performance.
There’s nothing worse than a device being on the brink of dying without a charger handy. Many usage factors can affect battery life, but phones with a larger battery will generally last longer. Phones use lithium ion rechargeable batteries that can go up to 5,000 mAh. You can also consider models with fast-charging or wireless charging capabilities, or just make sure to have extra phone chargers or portable power banks handy if the battery tends to run out quickly.
Many people use their phone as their primary camera and camcorder. When considering the camera, look at the megapixels or MP number as a basic indicator of image resolution. You’ll often see at least 8MP on phones, but this can go much higher. To delve into more specs, check out PCMag and TechRadar for their top picks for the best phone cameras.
To further help with your phone purchasing decision, you can check out reviews at sites like CNET or PCMag . Also, consider checking out the customer reviews at retailer sites to consider other people’s experience.
Frequently Asked Questions
How can I get a deal on my next cell phone?
Here at DealNews, we list the best phone deals we find, along with special offers for apps and accessories. You can shop specific categories using the links below:
- Apple iPhones
- Android phones
- Cell Phone Accessories
We cover price reductions on unlocked models, as well as top promotions from major service providers, like AT&T and Verizon . Deals from carriers are always available, but keep in mind that they often require a new line of service. This works well for new customers, but existing customers may not be able to take advantage of these offers if they don’t need another line. Other requirements may apply, such as trading in your existing device.
Besides the major carriers, various retailers and manufacturers sell handsets that are unlocked or compatible with service providers. These stores can offer their own sales and deals, so check around for pricing once you have a particular model or two in mind. We list deals on phones and accessories from Amazon , Apple , Samsung , Best Buy , and more stores. As mentioned previously, buying direct from the manufacturer can give no-interest financing similar to carrier deals while keeping the device unlocked in most cases.
We also cover refurbished phone deals , which can be an option to save money compared to buying new. Stores like Apple offer like-new models at a discount and a one-year warranty. However, with unfamiliar sellers, be sure to review the warranty policy and item condition details carefully. Then compare the price of buying new to be sure the savings are significant enough to make it worth doing.
When is the best time to buy a new phone?
As our Blog article mentions, November and December are great months to check for smartphone discounts. Specifically, deals on the latest flagship phones are often seen around Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
Sarah Jones is the resident coupon expert at DealNews and oversees a team that covers deals, coupons, and Black Friday content. Her articles or quotes have been featured on sites such as Christian Science Monitor, Oprah.com, Fox Business, Kiplinger, and Lifehacker.