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Sound Advice For Cell Phone Shoppers

Washington Consumer's Checkbook -- the semi-annual, ad-free magazine put out by the Center for the Study of Services, a K Street nonprofit -- takes a look at cellphone services in its just-released spring/summer issue.

I'll summarize the piece, but I can't point you directly to it: Checkbook's Web site requires a subscription, and individual copies cost $10. Your library should carry the magazine also; just look for its astoundingly dorky cover photo. (The new issue also rates Washington-area medical services, air conditioning and heating contractors, optometrists, and computer shops -- the Apple Store ranked very high, but so did a handful of local shops, and for computer repair, a few locals outranked the name-brand options.)

Checkbook's guide to wireless calling begins by surveying the state of the market and offering basic advice on how to shop: "try out the phone in every room of your house, at work, during your commute, and in other areas where you often travel."

For this 15-page piece, as with its other stories, Checkbook surveyed its own subscribers to see who they liked. Verizon did best in terms of coverage, with 94 percent of subscribers judging its network "adequate" or "superior" around the Washington area; Sprint ranked second, at 82 percent, followed by T-Mobile (76 percent), AT&T/Cingular (75 percent) and Nextel (57 percent). In "Overall quality," Checkbookers liked Verizon best (93 percent), followed by T-Mobile (88 percent), Sprint (86 percent), AT&T (78 percent) and Nextel (a woeful 63 percent). Note, however, that only 35 readers voted on Nextel, a much smaller sample than for the other carriers.

The story also estimates the yearly costs for a dozen different calling patterns -- from 10 to 8,000 minutes a month -- among the five big nationwide carriers as well as 21 resellers and prepaid options. The chart reveals that at 500 minutes a month, the big five all cost the same, $480 a year. But if you only yap on your phone for 250 minutes a month, you can save $120 a year with Sprint, Nextel or T-Mobile.

Checkbook's opus, however, glosses over text messaging and the higher fees charged for picture messages or Web use on smartphones. It offers little advice on how the big carriers' selection of phones varies and none about their competing wireless technologies -- the story doesn't explain that GSM phones work in most overseas countries and, with some tinkering, can be moved among different GSM carriers. It was also odd to see no mention of cellphone access in Metro (only Verizon has service underground, but Sprint phones can also roam on that signal for free).

I don't mean to sound too critical; the Checkbook staff put a ton of work into this, and the product is not only helpful, it reminds me that I am badly overdue to chime in on this subject myself. That column should come around later this spring; when it does, what would you like to see in it?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  April 6, 2007; 12:30 PM ET
Categories:  Recommended reading  
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Next: A Phone That Makes You Feel Powerless


Please, a comparison of the fees for downloading information, rather than just the phone service. Cingular's fees for simply checking my e-mail three times a week and doing perhaps two Web searches a month on my Treo 650 are killing me.

Thank you.

Posted by: Downloader | April 6, 2007 2:03 PM | Report abuse

You've been BLOG-only for a while now. I liked it better when I got an email teaser with a link I could follow if I was interested. Having to check all the time myself whether there is anything new in a separate program is a drag. Is there any way to get new topics emailed to me?


Posted by: Patrick McClure | April 7, 2007 2:58 AM | Report abuse

Since I spend 4-5 months a year outside the US, I want a pre-paid plan without a monthly charge. There seems to be little comparison of these and not much competition. Any suggestions?

Posted by: Anonymous | April 7, 2007 2:57 PM | Report abuse

I'd like a recommendation for a good phone with these qualities: (i) good sound and communications circuitry (ii) relatively small and lightweight, (iii) long-lasting battery. I don't care about "smart phone" features or GPS. I don't want a camera or a music player. I don't care about the latest "style." I just want a phone. A good, reliable phone. Can you help?

Posted by: Bill from Dallas | April 8, 2007 10:27 AM | Report abuse

"I'd like a recommendation for a good phone with these qualities: (i) good sound and communications circuitry (ii) relatively small and lightweight, (iii) long-lasting battery. I don't care about "smart phone" features or GPS. I don't want a camera or a music player. I don't care about the latest "style." I just want a phone. A good, reliable phone. Can you help?"

For starters, you can quit whining about what you don't want. Good, reliable phones with strong reception and good battery life are most likely to come with the other features. The Moto E815 is a prime example...reception is outstanding and the call quality is almost landline, and especially after disabling the EV-DO, the battery life is really quite good, too. And it still comes with the camera and multimedia and so forth.

Posted by: 23112 | April 9, 2007 11:38 AM | Report abuse

I'd like you to include a discussion about Customer Service. Those of us that support cell service for several dozen users can waste many hours on the phone if the support is bad. I could provide details, but then I'd just be whining.

Posted by: Jeff | April 9, 2007 1:13 PM | Report abuse

Contrary to the information at the cell phone stores, different phones have different reception quality. My daughter's new Razr gets calls in places where all our old phones couldn't. Which phones are best? Also, I can't take a phone to work if it has a camera. Are there any high-tech (Bluetooth, etc) phones without cameras?

Posted by: MikeD | April 9, 2007 6:03 PM | Report abuse

I'm looking for a simple cell phone that will easily synch (not just backup) its address book with a PC application like Thunderbird or Palm Desktop.

Posted by: DavidB | April 10, 2007 9:01 AM | Report abuse

I'd like to see an actual discussion of the low-end carriers (Virgin, Amp'd, etc.) For those of us that need/want a mobile, but only use 100 minutes/month, it's hard to figure out what the differences are between the carriers,

Posted by: J | April 10, 2007 10:50 AM | Report abuse

Amen to DavidB.
I want a phone where I can synch the contacts to a file on my computer. (and no, not a Blackberry, Treo, etc...just a phone)

Posted by: R | April 10, 2007 2:19 PM | Report abuse

I am looking for a very reliable phone with excellent voice quality, battery life, ergonomics, speaker phone, QUERTY input, world phone capabilities, and e-mail. I don't care about ring tones, video, pictures, mp3, etc. I can't seem to find such a phone at any price. Every candidate seems to have substantial draw backs. There must be many like me -- adults with light business needs for a quality phone without juvenile frills. Can you help?

Posted by: Edgemoor | April 11, 2007 1:34 PM | Report abuse

I also like it better when I got the email. The RSS link doesn't make it through my security (I guess). I use a Nokia 9300 which doesn't have a camera but is superior to the blackberry for email and other desktop type uses. It's good enough on the Cingular system that googlemaps is very effective, although slow. Any site supporting a mobile browser works well, and it is excellent at showing off grandkid pictures.

Posted by: cb | April 11, 2007 9:55 PM | Report abuse

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