Tips for buying
a cell phone
Costco: 1 million
cell phones strong
Costco is expecting to serve
its 1-millionth cell-phone
customer this month. That’s
a lot of phones since the
kiosks opened in May 2004.
Mark Saltzman’s tips on
buying a cell phone and a
plan are just in time for
the next million.
Q: I’m buying a new cell phone. What are the
key factors in deciding what phone and car-
rier Ishould choose? And what features
should I consider?
A: I’d have to answer this question with another one:
What are you using it for? If you are keeping the cell
phone in your car in case of emergency, I’d go with
an inexpensive one, with the least expensive carrier
plan. If you’re looking to use the phone mainly for
e-mail on the go, then I’d recommend a phone with
an intuitive keyboard (such as a PDA).
If style is important, you’d likely want a small
and sleek phone, such as the Motorola Razr. Love
music? Buy a cell phone that plays MP3s on small
memory cards. Want to take pictures, and even
watch video clips? Get a new model with these
advanced capabilities. You get the idea: A phone isn’t
just a phone anymore.
The next big issue is choosing a carrier for cell-phone service. The first question to ask is where
you’ll be using the phone. Make sure the carrier provides service to the places that are most important to
you. Carriers often have detailed maps that show
their coverage area.
You’ll likely have to sign a contract with the carrier for service. This contract is extremely important!
Your signature locks you in as a customer for a given
length of time, usually 24 months. While you usually
have about 14 days to change your mind or switch
phones, terminating your contract prematurely after
that—such as switching from one carrier to
another—will result in a cancellation fee that can
cost up to $200.
The contract covers several key issues:
Billing cycle. Most plans offer a certain number
of minutes in a 30-day billing cycle. Make sure your
plan has enough minutes for your level of use, and
look at policies covering midcycle activation.
Activation fee. Most plans charge activation
fees, which appear on the first bill. When you add
others to the plan, activation fees are also charged,
but usually at a lower rate. Some plans offer rebates
for activation fees.
Cancellation policy. If you cancel the policy
after the inital grace period, you’ll pay! Most carriers
charge a cancellation fee, and you’re also responsible
for prorated access charges, taxes and any other
charges on your account.
Upgrades. What if, over the course of a con-
tract, you want to upgrade to a new phone? This is a
good question, given that technology rapidly
changes. Upgrade policies vary from carrier to carrier. With some, you can get new phones at good
prices (rebates) after you’ve been on the contract for
a significant period of time, such as 12 months out
of a 24-month contract.
Bottom line: Be sure to read and understand the
contract before you sign. Do your research. Ask questions, and get reports from family and friends about
what service they use. Then pick the best phone and
carrier plan that suits your needs and wallet.
So what about new features that you hear more
and more about? The big three are built-in cameras,
Bluetooth wireless capability and MP3 players.
Using the camera to take pictures and short
video clips is pretty easy. To use the camera function
on your phone, simply press the button with a little
camera icon (usually found on the phone’s side) or
look for the camera option in the menu settings.
Regarding how to get photos off the camera,
you can do this in many ways, depending on your
carrier. Options include connecting the phone to
your computer via a USB cord, e-mailing them from
the phone to your PC or another cell phone, or
using a flash memory card in the phone and plugging it into a compatible port on your PC or printer.
Many new cell phones also let you wear a wireless headset that uses Bluetooth technology, so you
can chat hands-free—with no cord running
between your earpiece and the phone. All you need
is a cell phone with built-in Bluetooth—something
many new phones offer—and a small headset (
usually sold separately) that goes in your ear.
When you buy the headset you’ll first need to
pair it to your cell phone so they can communicate
between one another. You need to do this only once.
It’s a relatively simple procedure; specific instructions come with your cell phone.
And in regard to music players, most companies
offer programs that enable you to download music.
Check each program for specifics. C
Marc Saltzman, a leading high-tech reporter,
contributes to more than
three dozen prominent
publications, appears on
radio and TV, and is the
author of 13 books.
The Costco Connection
Costco offers cell phones, headsets and service
plans in special kiosks in most warehouses. As
a bonus, Costco members get a mail-in rebate
matching the activation fee.
Questions about electronics
or computers you purchased
at Costco? Send them to:
The Costco Connection
P.O. Box 34088
Seattle, WA 98124-1088
Or fax to (425) 313-6718,
or e-mail to
in the subject line.
Marc will answer
selected questions in this
column. We regret that
cannot be answered