5 Steps to Finding a Better Smartphone or Mobile Plan

Source: iStock

Source: iStock

Your smartphone is probably the device you use and care about the most. So when it comes time to replace an aging phone, to move on to the next great smartphone, or to choose a new carrier or plan, it pays off to do your research. But what’s the most logical way to choose a new smartphone if you’re planning to switch carriers, or a new mobile plan if you also want to get a new phone? What are the factors you should consider, and which aren’t quite as important as online reviewers would have you believe?

It’s not as difficult to figure out as it might look when you consider the daunting array of options available. We’ll walk you through the process of evaluating your options and talk you through the logic of making the right choices for your needs. We’ll focus less on specific models and plan options, since those are ever-changing, and instead give you a logical starting point for making the best decision each step of the way.

1. Assess your contract, and research other plans.

Determine if your carrier’s coverage and service work for you. There are only two reasons to go through the trouble of switching to a different carrier: if you need better service, or if you can get the same or better service at a lower price. Breaking a contract can be expensive, so if you’re determined to switch to a different carrier, you should carefully consider the timing for that move.

When it comes to finding and processing large amounts of data, sometimes it’s best to let a computer do at least some of the dirty work for you. Use a tool like whistleOut, which has cataloged 305,065 different mobile plan combinations, to explore your options. You can choose the number of lines you need, which phone you’re hoping to use, and the amount of data and number of minutes you want to compare plans offered by a wide variety of carriers.

If you’re willing to pay the full retail price for a smartphone, consider a prepaid service from a provider like Boost Mobile, Virgin, AIO, or Straight Talk. These services often cost much less than traditional postpaid services, and some even offer LTE service if you have a capable device. However, you need to pay close attention to the extras that are and aren’t included in prepaid plans. International roaming and tethering, for example, are hard to come by with a prepaid service. Ensure that you aren’t making any compromises that you’ll regret later by going prepaid.

2. Choose a carrier.

AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon all offer nationwide coverage in the United States, as well as most high-end smartphones. When choosing a carrier, you should look at which offers the best coverage in your area by checking out each carrier’s coverage maps. (Here are the maps offered by AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile.) It doesn’t hurt to ask friends, family, and coworkers how their coverage is around town. If you’re a frequent domestic traveler, check coverage in your top destinations, and if you’re a frequent international traveler, consider AT&T and Verizon for their competitive international roaming options.

If you’re really looking to save on your monthly bill, you should also do some research on mobile virtual network operators, which buy service from the same major carriers we’re all familiar with and resell it to consumers, often at much lower prices than are offered by the big carriers. Some enable you to bring your own device, while others don’t, (but if you’re planning on using the phone you already own or one you’ve already picked out, make sure it’s compatible with the MVNO’s underlying network). Some carriers to check out include FreedomPop, MetroPCS, Republic Wireless, Ting, and even Google’s Project Fi, though you can easily find many other options across the four major networks if you’re interested in MVNOs.

3. Choose an operating system.

If you’re already a smartphone owner, you probably have some pretty strong feelings about the platform of your next phone. But if you’re open to change, assess your options. iOS is considered the easiest to learn and use, and is where the latest and greatest apps usually make their debut. Android is highly customizable and offers tight integration with Google’s service, and Android smartphones generally see the latest advances in hardware first. Windows Phone is a less popular option that’s more like iOS and Android, but its major fault is the substantial gap between its app offerings and those of the more popular platforms.

4. Research your phone options.

Once you’ve chosen the platform you want, you can move on to look at specific smartphones. If you plan on sticking with or switching to iOS, your choice will be pretty straightforward, since there are relatively few iPhone models available at a given time. There are a few more options when it comes to Windows Phones, but nothing compared to the huge variety of options available to Android shoppers.

Because basically all high-end phones have a touchscreen and no physical keyboard, you can focus on other factors to determine which phone is best for you. Think about how large you really want your phone to be, whether you need the processing power and graphics for serious gaming or the specs to support more casual use, how important a high-powered camera is, and how much internal storage you’re going to need. Reading reviews is a good idea, but make sure that you’re thinking critically about the factors that are important to you. And if you can, try out the phone at a local store before buying.

5. Determine how you’re going to buy.

Even if you’ve already chosen your carrier and your smartphone, you likely still have some choices to make when it comes to actually buying your phone. The most familiar way for the majority of shoppers is to buy a phone on-contract; by signing a two-year contract, you can get a high-end phone at a deeply discounted upfront price — and pay off the cost of it over the length of your contract. But beware of what you’re getting into if you don’t plan on upgrading every two years; not all carriers will reduce the cost of your monthly bill when your phone is paid off. Also be careful when considering a carrier payment plan, which enables you to pay a discounted price at the register and an additional fee every month to pay off the phone, since you can often end up paying more than the retail cost of the phone. If you don’t want to be locked into a contract, consider buying a phone at full price either from a carrier or from a third party. You can also purchase unlocked phones, which you can use at any compatible carrier (again, do your research).

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