What combination of device, carrier and plan is best for you? Consumer Reports offers some advice.
YOU’RE BUYING FOR A CROWD
You’re a couple plus at least one child who use multiple devices (perhaps including a tablet or two) in a variety of ways.
Leading option: An array of phones — smart and basic, new and old — used with a well-priced family plan that shares data and offers ample voice and messaging for at least three users.
Service: Family plans from standard-service carriers are one area where cell customers get a break, and more than two-thirds of users are on such plans.
Consider U.S. Cellular if you live in its service area: It is one of the top carriers in the Consumer Reports National Research Center annual survey, which covered 23 metro areas. Credo Mobile (which uses the Sprint network yet rates higher than Sprint on every measure) is another good option at the same price and limits. Verizon should be our example family’s third choice.
Phones: The handset needs of specific family members can vary widely, so Consumer Reports can’t recommend one model that would suit everyone. If you’re buying more than one phone at a time, look for discounts -- or simply ask, because some readers have been successful in haggling for them.
YOU WANT THE BEST
You’re an avid smartphone user, perhaps the owner of an iPhone or a leading Android model, who’s eager to upgrade to a newer version. And you want service that makes the most of such a device.
Leading option: A top-scoring smartphone to use with 4G LTE service from a carrier with top scores, especially for data satisfaction.
Service: With its superior scores and wide array of marquee phones, Verizon is your best bet overall among national carriers. AT&T, though it rates lower than Verizon in most respects, is also worth considering for want-it-all types because of its top 4G network rating and lower pricing for individuals who have lighter data, voice and messaging needs.
Phone: The Apple iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy S III are available from Verizon and AT&T starting at $200.
SMART BUT NOT FANCY
You want what a smartphone offers, but don’t crave the cutting-edge features and jumbo screens and can settle for OK service — especially if forgoing extras saves you money.
Leading option: Buy a smartphone that performs well, though maybe an older model. Use it with an inexpensive unlimited voice, texting and data plan from a no-contract carrier with standout scores for data service.
Service: A leading nationally available option is prepaid Straight Talk, which received data scores on a par with Verizon. Straight Talk also scored highly for value; it charges $45 a month for unlimited data, voice and messaging -- half as much as Verizon’s least expensive plan.
Phone: You might pay more for a smartphone bought without a contract, but you should recoup the price difference within a matter of months through the lower monthly service fees. Straight Talk has the Samsung Galaxy S II, a 4G phone, for $350.
JUST THE BASICS
You’re among the 29 percent of Consumer Reports’ readers who get along without mobile Web and the 59 percent who make no more than a few cellular voice calls a day.
Leading option: An inexpensive voice-and-texting arrangement from a no-contract carrier, for use with a basic flip, slider or keyboard phone.
Service: Consider Consumer Cellular, a highly rated national carrier catering to simpler wireless needs that bills monthly, even though there is no contract commitment. If you need to text, Consumer Cellular is affordable for that, too, charging as little as $2.50 for 100 messages per month.
Phone: With no-contract service, you must buy the phone, but simple models are relatively affordable. For Consumer Cellular, consider the Doro PhoneEasy 410, $60, which has large buttons and other features that the carrier says make it easier for seniors to use.
2013, Consumers Union Inc.