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Hold The Phone On Cellular Services

The two-year contract on my old cell phone service finally expired a few weeks ago, prompting me to look for a new service and equipment. What I found — compared to the last time I shopped — was a great deal of confusion along with some pretty good offers and much-improved phones.

Deciding which service provider to go with is a lot more important than buying a particular phone. Not only does the provider determine the cost and quality of the service but — thanks to nearly mandatory contracts — once you sign up with it, you're pretty much stuck with the service for a year or two unless you're willing to pay a termination fee.

I've had service with several of the major cell phone carriers, AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and Cingular. All are good in some locations and bad in others. The one that's "best" for you depends a great deal on where you live, where you travel to and how you plan to use your phone.

Also, the carriers each have different pricing plans that are often confusing. To make things more complicated, they are constantly changing plans and offering special promotional deals. Your best bet is to check their Web sites. Links to major cell phone service companies and equipment manufacturers can be found at

When choosing a plan, be sure to consider your special circumstances. Until recently each member of my family had a separate account because we each had special needs. I travel a lot, so I needed a plan with no roaming charges; my wife and kids mostly used their phones near home, and it seemed silly to pay for national service for them. But now some of the carriers are offering shared family plans with free roaming. We signed up with Verizon's America's Choice Plan. We pay $75 a month for the first phone and $20 for each additional phone to share 900 anytime minutes a month in addition to 3,200 night and weekend minutes. The plan works as long as we're on the Verizon network (which includes almost any reasonably sized U.S. city and most major highways). If we stray off the network, we pay a rather hefty 69 cent per-minute roaming charge. Both Verizon and AT&T offer full national coverage or a lower-cost option that only covers their network. Sprint, VoiceStream and Cingular offer free roaming options only on their networks.

All providers offer special deals on nights and weekends, but they have different definitions of what constitutes "night." Verizon defines "night" as starting at 8 p.m., while Sprint and AT&T start the clock on lower-priced calls at 9 p.m. Cingular has different definitions of nights and weekends depending on which state you live in.

Another option — popular with kids and teens — is to buy a phone with a prepaid plan. You don't have to worry about credit or sticker shock at the end of the month, but you will pay more per minute than you would typically pay for a regular plan.

No matter how good the service is, there will always be some dead spots, which vary by carrier depending on the location of their cellular transmitters. Before you sign a contract, ask others who live or work nearby about their experiences, and make sure there is some type of grace period when you can return the phone and cancel the contract if you're not happy. During that period, test the phone in locations you're likely to travel. (You can make free test calls by dialing 611 — the company's customer service line.)

Choosing a phone is almost as confusing as selecting a service. Prices range from zero to several hundred dollars. In almost all cases, the advertised price is lower than the actual retail value of the phone because the service provider subsidizes it. But they don't subsidize phones just to be nice. To get the lower price on the phone, you will be asked to sign a one- or two-year contract.

All services provide low-cost phones, which are usually pretty good, but if you're willing to pay more, you can get phones that are smaller, have longer battery life, look cooler or have better screens or more features. I've recently been testing Motorola's V60, which is the company's latest version of the "flip" phone with a lid you open to make calls or close to hang up. Personally, I like the flip models because they are easier to carry in a pocket and you don't have to worry about making calls by mistake by accidentally pushing a button when you put it away. I've had some embarrassing — and costly — experiences after unknowingly pressing a speed-dial button. Not only did I have to pay for the call, but the person on other end could eavesdrop on me while the call was active.

The V60, which is available from most major service providers starting at about $199, has a 400-name phone directory and voice dialing, which I find quite handy at times. Unlike Motorola's hugely successful StarTac series, it has an external LCD screen so you can see the ID of the person calling before you open the phone. The Verizon version of the phone comes with a slim battery, while the AT&T and Cingular versions come with a slightly larger and heavier high-performance battery (a $69 add-on from Verizon). Personally, I recommend the extended battery, unless you plan to use it mostly in the car with a 12-volt adapter.

Although it's not a flip phone, I also like Motorola's V120 model, which has the same screen and interface, even longer battery life and a much cheaper price tag — $49 with activation.

I also tested Motorola's slick new V70 phone, which is currently available only from Cingular. This is the phone that Motorola gave to nominees and presenters at this year's Academy Awards ceremonies. It weighs less than 3 ounces and opens by swiveling the lid to the left or right.

Personally, I find the phone's buttons too small and screen too hard to use but, I have to admit, this is one of the coolest looking phones on the planet. My kids and their friends love it, but at $499, I don't think too many of them are likely to buy one any time soon.

If you're thinking of using your phone to connect your PC to the Internet, then I recommend one of the new "3G" (third-generation) phones that are just starting to hit the market. LG's VX1 ($199 from Verizon) is a very well-designed flip phone with an extra-large screen, easy-to-use buttons and a generally attractive look and feel. The Mobile Office Kit, required to connect the phone to a PC, costs $79.99.

A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."

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By Larry Magid
Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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