The virtual smorgasbord of sleek new cell phone features can leave even the most decisive consumer bewildered. Does your ideal phone include a digital camera, voice-activated dialing, but no text keyboard? Or do you need a speakerphone, an MP3 player, and text messaging? Are 200 contacts in your phone book enough? What about battery life?
According to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, an estimated 158 million Americans subscribe to cell phone service. Buyers are caught up in a frenzy of finding the latest and greatest feature as providers compete for their business. And, as more and more people turn to their cell phone as a replacement for a regular phone, choosing the right options becomes especially important.
So where can you go to step back from the madness? How can you get a glimpse of the big picture without a big headache? Is the quest to find the perfect phone an impossible dream?
By using the following guidelines, you can conquer the confusion by doing a little comparison shopping, reading a few reviews, and making an educated choice.
First, Find a Phone
Unless you're already tied to a provider, forget about walking into a specific service provider's store armed with nothing but unadulterated glee that it's time to buy a new phone. Because providers have their own specific sets of phones, it's impossible to find a phone you like and then shop around for a better service plan.
One way to compare the huge selection of phones without provider influence is to find web sites that allow you to choose options that will narrow your choice of phones. They'll offer you a list of some of the more popular features, such as these:
Downloadable ringtones. This popular feature allows the user to customize the sound the phone makes when it rings.
Two-way radio. Works like a walkie-talkie. This feature might be useful for businesses currently using two-way radios to communicate.
Speakerphone. Good for hands-free talking.
Voice-activated dialing. Good for hands-free dialing.
Camera phone. After the first batch of photos, will it continue to amuse?
Picture caller ID. Enables user to view a photo of an incoming caller.
Multiuse PDAs. Many users are enamored of the more expensive toys that have text keyboards, short-message service, and email.
Outlook syncing. This feature allows the user to sync with both Contacts and Calendar data in Microsoft Outlook.
Bluetooth-enabled. Provides wireless mobility.
Whatever your particular options, compare side-by-side a variety of phones with your options offered by different providers. For example, if you go to the "find and compare" section of LetsTalk.com and enter your ZIP code, the site will provide a list of available phone providers and phone choices for your area. I chose the option for "phone and plan," which let me know immediately that I had 89 phones from which to choose in my area. Then I narrowed the field to 12 choices by requesting the speakerphone and digital camera features. I could click each phone for more details, knowing that each selection had my specific requirements. I could also see the price of the phone with a plan or with no plan. The chart even listed battery talk time.
Other sites, including GetConnected and Point.com, are much the same, but use a slightly different format. They allow you to compare phones without making you choose a provider right away. You can order phones and plans directly from these sites, or you can use the sites to gather information before contacting a particular service provider.
These sites don't list every phone available, but it's a place to start.
Another site, WirelessAdvisor.com, isn't out to sell anything, but there's no side-by-side comparison of phones. The site simply gives you a choice of available providers and sends you to their individual web sites. But it also has a consumer's discussion forum and recommended newsgroups.
MyPhoneFinder offers Top 10 lists. The site ranks phones according to price and features and then sorts them into nine Top 10 lists, such as "Top 10 Cheapest Phones" or "Top 10 PDA Phones."
At this point, you may not be ready to make a decision, but you can spend some time trying a few combinations of features. If you're still uncertain about what features you really need, take the Find Your Perfect Cell Phone quiz at About.com.