Thursday, October 16, 2008

5 reasons why it's hard to pick a cellphone

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When people ask me what cell phone I carry, I mumble. I equivocate. I hide. In part, that's because I don't want my personal choices to look like some sort of official PC Magazine endorsement. But it's also because, like most Americans, I'm trapped in a series of two-year contracts and paying more than I'd like to for less service than I want.

My contract just came up for renewal, and it's time to buy a new phone—but I can't. I just can't decide. I've pinpointed five problems that are making my choice difficult, and I think you'll be able to relate. Want to suggest an answer for me? Tell me on our discussion boards.

1. Two years is a long time, and carriers don't hold up their end of that bargain. I'm about to slap down a two-year commitment. That should be a two-way deal: If this was any other business deal, I'd ask for a detailed plan of what my investment will get me over the next two years, including product roadmaps, network buildouts, and possible mergers or divestitures. Of course, that's not going to happen. Mobile phone companies merge without warning, hide their product plans, and take their customers, once they're on the hook, for granted. (Any former Nextel or Blue AT&T customers will be nodding ruefully here.) That makes it hard to commit.

2. Too few people today talk about voice quality. I'm shopping for a family plan, and one of my family members is even pickier than I am about voice quality. Now, this is one of those situations where I'm in a much better position than the average consumer. I can tell you that the Nokia 6263 sounds tinny and the Nokia 5310 has a bit of hiss, because I try dozens of phones. But if you go into a mobile-phone store and talk to the salespeople about voice quality, you'll get a lot of blank stares. There's still an infuriating insistence that although phones may have different cameras, screens, music players or whatever, they all sound the same when making calls. That's flat-out wrong. Anyone with half a brain knows it's wrong, and it has to stop.

3. Deals are still phrased in terms of devices, not monthly costs. If there's one lesson to learn from the subprime mortgage crisis, it's that monthly payments matter to your personal finances. A lot. And when you're locked into a contract, your personal circumstances might change but your monthly payments won't. So one of my top priorities is to lower my monthly payments. (Paying more per month is not an option right now.) Wireless companies are deaf to this. They'll make a million deals for free phones (a one-time cost), but there are very few deals for lowering the payments you'll be saddled with well into 2010.

4. Why can't I find out how much I'm going to pay? Amazing but true: Even once you find a monthly payment you're comfortable with, it's almost impossible to figure out exactly how much you're going to pay. That's because a mysterious amount of "taxes and fees" are added to every wireless bill, and so far, the salespeople have refused to tell me how much the charges are. Yes. They're telling me that I will be on the hook for some amount that is larger than what they're charging, but not by how much.

5. Trade-offs between carriers are still too sharply defined. I've been a Verizon customer for nine years, but I'm sick of being beholden to the claustrophobic insularity of Verizon. I run across a lot of GSM phones in my travels, and I'd love to be able to use them. Sticking with Verizon is like being what a Mac user was in the mid-1990s: It's a great niche, but you're out of the global mainstream. I'd also like to access the Web from my phone. (Yes, you heard me, I don't have a data plan.) On the other hand, I also need to lower my bills—and get solid voice quality.

I've celebrated the vibrant competition between wireless carriers in the past, but when you're shopping, it can be really annoying. The trade-offs are sharp. T-Mobile has great rates and offers GSM, but it doesn't have a single really good 3G phone to provide rich, 3G voice quality. Calls sound great on Verizon, but you're locked into Verizon's offbeat ecosystem. AT&T is expensive and has problems where I live. Sprint is cheap, but its ecosystem is just as closed as Verizon's.

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