Cell phone buying tips for a new user?
June 16, 2006 6:16 AM   Subscribe

First time cell phone buyer. I'm looking for a cell phone with an interface that won't make me want to kill myself: the equivalent of an Ipod for cell phones. I'd also like it too be small, and I want to buy it online. Finally, I'm looking for general tips and suggestions, since I've never owned a cell phone before.

I've avoided buying a cell phone before now, despite tremendous pressure, primarily because 1) I think they're generally horribly designed pieces of technology, and every time I use a cell phone I find myself gritting my teeth as a result, and 2) I think the cell phone companies are generally slimy, untrustworthy corporations with terrible business practices.

That said, I need a cell phone for work now, and it has to be Cingular.

Since I've never owned a cell phone before, I'd appreciate any tips on how to pick the right phone, how to avoid getting locked in to a bad plan, how to avoid getting overcharged, etc. But primarily I'm looking for suggestions as to which phone I should buy. As I said, I'm looking for a small, well-designed phone with excellent voice quality. Eventually, I may want to add a data plan, to check my corporate email, but that's not too much of a concern at the moment. Price is no real object.

Thanks in advance for your suggestions!
posted by gd779 to Technology (34 answers total)
Response by poster: Oh, and I am particularly looking for suggestions as to where I should shop online. I'm sure it's possible to get a better phone/plan combination than I'd get by going to Cingular's website directly, right? Thanks!
posted by gd779 at 6:17 AM on June 16, 2006

Avoid the Motorola Razr family. Beautiful shape, but very bad interface.

Get the plan you need. If you have to change your plan in mid-year (if you use more minutes than you're alloted in a cheaper plan, for example, and need a larger plan), you'll be locked in for yet another year at the time of the change.

If you get a Bluetooth phone, you can use your phone as a (slow) modem to connect to a network service. This may be less expensive than an EVDO phone card and plan.

Funny that you mention you're looking for an iPod-esque cell phone. There are rumors Apple may release a cell phone soon, but you need something now, so nevermind.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 6:29 AM on June 16, 2006

When I finally buckled and got a cellphone, I purchased mine through Amazon.com. If you're a first-time buyer you can get a good deal if you sign up for a service plan--I ended up getting a $150 rebate check for a phone for which I paid $100. A quick search for "cingular" at Amazon shows several phones available at a net cost of one cent. (Though you say that price is no real object--still, it's good to know.)

I have a Verizon Wireless plan, not a Cingular plan, but I did find that Amazon's options for service plans were much less restrictive than the plans I could get directly from Verizon. The same may be true for Cingular as well.
posted by Prospero at 6:32 AM on June 16, 2006

I'm using a Sony Ericsson T610 and have been for more than 2 years now. I'd describe the interface as fairly iPod like. There's a joystick in the middle of the thing, and four buttons (back, clear, and two select buttons that select the functions written on the screen above them). Push the joystick down, you get the phonebook. Push it in, you get a menu with icons that you navigate. The email functions are not the best, however.

As far as where to buy, Amazon.com always seems to have lots of deals. Often times, they'll take a good bit off the price if you buy a plan with it, and then offer a mail-in rebate on top of it that makes the phone either free or even gets you some money back.
posted by dsword at 6:36 AM on June 16, 2006

Although Cingular doesn't carry very many, I would suggest getting a Nokia. Their interface isn't terribly fancy, but it is dead simple, and well designed. For the most part, their phones are known for their superior sound quality and reliability.

And indeed, the Motorolas, while pretty, tend to have awful interface issues. I'd never seen a phone's menu interface give a "please wait" message until I used a Motorola.

That said, I've not used the Samsungs or LG's very much, so they're worth checking out.
posted by Mercaptan at 6:40 AM on June 16, 2006

Whatever you do, don't go with the standard phone from Cingular. Without any abusive treatment, I went through three in two years. Their shitty, their reception sucks, they break.
I'd tell you to avoid Cingular altogether, as their customer service is solid as a bootful of vomit, but it looks like you have no choice. They called my mother a liar over phone calls she couldn't have made and fought with us on every interaction. Be prepared for hell.
posted by klangklangston at 6:49 AM on June 16, 2006

Get a phone that can charge by USB if possible, then you have a charger anywhere there's a computer, and even some places where there isn't a computer. I have a duplicate charger at work so I don't have to unplug/lug around a charger for when my battery is running low or I use it with unexpectedly high frequency. My current job supplies me with a BlackBerry which is pretty sweet, but temporary :(

You might want to consider going out of pocket and getting a smartphone which could replace your PDA/mp3 player as well, but feature bloat is likely going to cause you more frustration than benefit. As you can probably tell most of my cell phone frustrations stem from battery-related issues.

Oh, and definitely get a phone with a vibrate-notifier. Further to this mefi thread a silent alert is essential to prevent awkwardness during meals, dates, meetings, etc. There is actually a complicated (alt.: fascinating) etiquette with my BlackBerry and the various alerts/tones we enable and in what context. Anyway, good luck!
posted by KevCed at 6:51 AM on June 16, 2006

Response by poster: I'm surprised to hear so many negative comments about the Razr. I thought that was the phone that everybody loved. Good to know.

I'd tell you to avoid Cingular altogether, as their customer service is solid as a bootful of vomit, but it looks like you have no choice. They called my mother a liar over phone calls she couldn't have made and fought with us on every interaction. Be prepared for hell.

Yippee. Thanks for the warning. (Sadly, I don't have a choice on that).
posted by gd779 at 6:53 AM on June 16, 2006

Every Motorola phone since the Startac sucks due to the interface/software, or at least the triplets (of which the RAZR is one). That said, I use a RAZR and just deal with it, due to work reasons.

I'd vote for a Nokia of any stripe. The user interface has always been uniform across the various models, and requires a minimal number of key presses to get there.

My experience with Cingular hasn't been that bad. I switched to them from AT&T before the merger and was much happier (AT&T really had gone to shite). The couple of times that I've had billing issues (going out of the country without upgrading my plan) they've taken care of me (credited my account), and I get good reception all over (Orlando metro area). My one complaint is their customer service isn't 24/7.
posted by kableh at 7:04 AM on June 16, 2006

Response by poster: Those of you who are suggesting Nokia's: Which model would you currently suggest? I did a search on Amazon (as Prospero and dsword suggested above) and came up with only a handful of hits, most of which were "smart phones". Any suggestions?

(I'm still open to phones other than Nokia, of course, if anybody has a better suggestion).
posted by gd779 at 7:09 AM on June 16, 2006

According to google maps and T-Mobile's coverage zone, IMHO you should choose T-Mobile. Their service is the best in the industry (as noted by JD Power & Associates for a few straight years now), their coverage in your area is strong, they offer better plans, and give you the most flexibility (they e-mail you GSM unlock codes in case you ever need to go abroad with your phone or switch carriers; their CSRs go above and beyond when they're at fault (or even when you guilt trip them into believing they're at fault); and IMHO they're small enough to genuinely care about keeping you as a customer).

All that being said, I agree with everyone above that you should stay away from Motorola. I'd add that LG and Samsung are hit-or-miss. As you could already tell, I'm about to recommend Nokia. They are the most experienced phone company out there. They create the simplest phones and some are quite elegant.

Specifically for you, I'd recommend the Nokia 8801 if all you want is a damn good looking phone that has only the most basic features. If you need something with more features, MyWorldPhone.com has some great options to choose from. The Nokia N80 is amazingly feature rich. The Nokia 6131 is a very clean, simple, small flip phone. Or, if you're like me, you're waiting for the Nokia N73, which features a Carl Zeiss camera lens, MP3 player, and incredibly small, elegant design. (This phone is scheduled for a July release, but I'd bet on August or September).
posted by SeizeTheDay at 7:12 AM on June 16, 2006

I also have a Sony Ericsson T610, and although I like the industrial design, the interface is hardly iPod-like: many things that should be easy aren't.

I understand that the newer S-E phones have much improved interfaces (the T610 is a bit old), and some of them have some pretty spiffy features. There are a lot of GSM phones that aren't offered by any US carriers, but you can still use them in the USA, and (especially if money is no object) you can get them via places like import gsm. The SE W700 looks pretty sharp to me.
posted by adamrice at 7:19 AM on June 16, 2006

I currently have a Nokia smartphone, and I'm seriously considering down-grading to a Nokia 1100.

If your primary issue is with the UI you might want to check one out, as the old-school Nokia UI is (IMO) the best ever seen on a cellphone. I find that the more functions crammed into the package, the more the interface gets compromised.

Pluses (for me): I won't feel tied to the damn thing any more if it can't do much, way better battery life because of the B+W screen, improved and simplified UI, cheap enough that I don't care about trashing it, and I get to be anti-fashion and escape the eternal cycle of sleeker, shinier, slimmer, more expensive fetish objects.

Minuses: No camera, no Opera browser.

Might be worth a look, anyway.
posted by Leon at 7:39 AM on June 16, 2006

I want to second Mercaptan's recommendation of a Nokia phone. Aside from my big, fat geek-phone, every cell I've ever owned has been a Nokia. Every cell I ever recommended to parents has been a Nokia.

IMHO, the interface "just works" and makes most others look ugly in comparison.

They also mostly use the same type of charger, which can be very convenient if you're traveling.
posted by clango at 8:08 AM on June 16, 2006

I really like my RAZR and I really like Cingular. Such sweeping generalizations are bound to be the result of personal experience and may not be your experience.

I wouldn't recommend a Treo with Windows Mobile. I tried out the 700 when I needed a replacement for my 600 and the darn thing crashed three times in the store - no thanks. Besides, the 700 is only available from Verizon (last I checked). I got a 650 from Cingular instead, and I like it plenty.

I have the RAZR for personal use and the Treo for work. I'm happy with them both, and with Cingular, who provides the service for both.
posted by MeetMegan at 8:16 AM on June 16, 2006

Response by poster: Any experiences with the Nokia 9300? It's a smartphone, yes, and therefore a bit bloated I imagine, but it would let me check my email if I ever get a data plan, it looks like a nice phone, and it's available on Amazon. Any positive or negative experiences I should be aware of?
posted by gd779 at 8:30 AM on June 16, 2006

I'm canceling my T-Mobile account because of their customer service. I've been with them for over two years, and recently missed a payment for the first time. They included the missed payment on the next bill, which was fine, but then they started harassing me.

First, they text-messaged me demanding payment. That was on a Friday, after I had already gotten the bill and scheduled a payment for the full amount due. The following Monday, a customer service rep called me and demanded to know when I'd be paying the bill. He wanted me to pay the late amount immediately, but he had to settle for me telling him I'd already scheduled a payment on the due date, and he "made a note" that I'd be paying. (I told him that I didn't appreciate being hassled over a first-time missed payment.) Then a couple days later I got a letter saying they were going to cut off my service if I didn't pay immediately. Again, this is after one missed payment after several years of paying on time.

I have to confess that I called their customer service to yell and swear at them as soon as I got the letter. (They'll hang up on you if you swear three times, so prepare your swears in advance.)

When I called again a few days later to see if my contact had expired and tell them I was planning on canceling my service because of their harassment, they said I had an excellent payment history.

I have a Sony Ericsson T610, and another reason I'm going to be canceling my service is that the reception is spotty for me in the Bay Area. I'm tired of not having a signal when I see other people talking on their cell phones. The interface is OK, but my phone also freezes pretty quite a bit and often asks me to insert the SIM card when it's already in the phone.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:15 AM on June 16, 2006

Nokia's come in two main variants, series 40 and series 60. You can spot a series 40 device (the one you want) by the fact that they are generally smaller, cheaper, have a square screen and don't have a dedicated menu button. There are exceptions, but the above is a good rule.

After that, pick one of those that is in your price range and looks nice. If you want to use it for data then look for one with bluetooth and being sold with the option of a data plan.

Avoid Motorola at all costs. It'll look nice but you'll hate the user interface.
posted by mr_silver at 9:17 AM on June 16, 2006

Huh. I was actually *just* about to buy this Audiovox SMT5600 Smartphone from amazon.com. It's gotten *really* good reviews, seems to be one of the *smallest* smartphones you can get; it's only $49.99 right now (because i think it's being discontinued) *and* it has activesync so you can use it with Exchange. For $60.00 a month you can get 450 minutes with a unlimited data plan.

The only reason I didn't buy it is because there's a two year contract involved and I think I'd rather wait for the next-gen smart phones with something a little speedier than GPRS.

but yeah, I'm still thinking about getting it, but i *hate* contracts, and there's a cancellation fee of $175 for leaving early. there's no way that phone is going to be awesome two years from now, and I don't think I want to pay for a phone without the activation rebate.

although maybe i do. damn it. anyways, there's only two left, so maybe if two people here buy them the decision will be made for me.
posted by fishfucker at 9:17 AM on June 16, 2006

As a side note, I've had service with almost all the major carriers. T-Mobile is my favorite for customer service, but they have CRAPPY CRAPPY coverage in my area. Sprint was my second favorite for coverage and service. Cingular had kinda asinine service but gets better coverage than Tmob in my area.

I haven't used verizon yet, but I've heard their coverage is the best in the US. However, their plans are ridiculous compared to tmob (as are the new sprint/nextel plans), and none of their phones look that cool.

if tmobile had better coverage in my area I wouldn't even think about leaving them.

posted by fishfucker at 9:20 AM on June 16, 2006

No vibrate on the 9300! Keyboard and form factor are great. Uses an uncommon operating system in Nokia's line, so software is a bit limited, but it comes with most everything you need from the get go. If you have the cash, import a 9300i instead so you can use wifi, or if you like the blackberry form factor, get the E61 (cingular is coming out with the E62 which is the E61 sans wifi). I've played with the E61 and it is a thing of beauty...
posted by lovejones at 9:30 AM on June 16, 2006

I don't know what phone you should get. But my tips are: plug it in before you go to bed every night (as part of your brush your teeth, take of your clothes routine). Don't carry it in the same pocket as other stuff, and the screen won't get scratched up nearly as quick.
posted by aubilenon at 9:49 AM on June 16, 2006

Don't know which phone you should get (personally I've always loved every Motorola phone I've had, currently the PEBL) but bluetooth is really nice. You're right, every phone is sort-of awkward ergonomically -- using a wireless earpiece fixes that problem.

Whatever phone you get, there will be something about it that drives you crazy. The good news is that it will probably break in a year and you'll get to choose a new phone all over again.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 10:47 AM on June 16, 2006

Congrats on resisting the borg this far, I'll bet your friends and family hate the fact that you don't have a cell phone.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 10:48 AM on June 16, 2006

Just to throw my two cents in, I've been extremely happy with Cingular and with the RAZR and SLVR I've had (some RAZRs are prone to battery issues). When my RAZR was lost, I had to get a low-end LG, which wasn't bad--it was a decent, cheap, solid cameraphone that did everything I needed (and I will probably pass it on to someone else who wants to get a plan but doesn't feel the need for a new phone), but I wasn't happy with it. I'm happy with my SLVR. If you need certain features, look for a phone with those. If you're into feng shui or how your things "feel," then play with and hold the phones at the local wireless store (you don't need to buy) to see what will make you feel good. This includes the interface--sometimes a "simpler" interface has driven me mad looking for things, so try to look at them (especially if you have a friend with a phone you're thinking about who'll let you play with it long enough to find your way around the menus) and see what you find intuitive.
posted by Cricket at 11:00 AM on June 16, 2006

Audiovox SMT5600 Smartphone (Cingular)

fishfucker, i had the Audiovox SMT5600 for about a year, and just upgraded a few weeks ago. IT'S A KICK ASS PHONE, but it is indeed being discontinued because the "enter" button is a bit too loose, and therefore it is hard to make a concise selection (when you get to this level of cell phones, the OS is so perfect, that design issues are the only ones that matter to the manufacturer). I finally got used to the action after a few weeks, but still led me to making a few wrong selections because it's a bit 'wonky'. But the phone itself is light, sleek, and pretty tough (withstands drops very well).

I will never go back to a normal nokia or motorola, etc...because now they feel like crappy toys. The audiovox smartphone is a fucking OS. One time it almost made me pancakes in the morning. almost.

I now have the Cingular HTC Faraday 2125, which is the industry standard updated version of the SMT5600, and really love it. a lot. I sort of miss the SMT5600, but this one is a pretty good replacement.
posted by naxosaxur at 11:21 AM on June 16, 2006


would you say buy or wait? The only thing for me is the two year contract. The only having GPRS thing isn't TOO big of a deal because I think I won't be able to afford the faster network stuff out there (EDGE or EV-DO or whatever).

I could see myself being fine with the 450 min plan and the unlimited internet (i don't *really* need a smartphone, but it'd be nice to read my exchange shit on the road, since I work out of the office a couple days a week).

The other big downer for me is no keyboard -- i had the motorola v300, and although it had absolutely no uh, "enterprise" features whatsoever, having the keyboard was awesome. The other big selling point was the small form-factor. I promised myself that I will never never never never carry a phone in a holster.

man now I'm so conflicted about this. FWIW, I'm paying $50/month with Tmob right now, unlimited internet (got grandfathered in), but I've got a phone that basically can't do much more than make calls (the motorola died a slow death -- i broke the outside screen, and then the battery charger connection got to the point where it took me 30 minutes to line up the plug *juuuuust* right so it would actually charge. Then the battery started dying.).
posted by fishfucker at 11:37 AM on June 16, 2006

i guess my main goals are: works well as a phone, followed by push email, followed by web browsing (google maps, that sort of thing).
posted by fishfucker at 11:38 AM on June 16, 2006

I don't have any advice on specific phones, but my advice is to get a tri-mode phone. A lot of the phones they sell these days are digital only, which is fine if you live in an area that has digital towers, but as soon as you travel to a place that has analog towers only, you lose all signal.

Also, fwiw, I find my LG to have a very easy to use interface.
posted by geeky at 11:42 AM on June 16, 2006

Nokia. Nokia. Nokia.

While Nokia's hardware hasn't always (ever?) been as sexy as Motorola's, but Motorola's software is crap, and Nokia's is great. Many people do just sort of "deal with it" when it comes to Moto, to get the sexier hardware. I however, am not able to compromise function over form, I've traditionally stuck with Nokias, although Sony-Ericcson's aren't bad either.

If you have a Mac, try and make sure the phone you are getting, whatever you decide on is compatible with iSync. Here's a device compatibility list, although it is NOT exhaustive. It is my understanding that any Nokia series 40 or 60 will work with it, although I may be wrong on that (Does anyone know?)

I've owned/played with many Nokia phones, and the only one that has ever disappointed me was the 6620, although I hear the entire 6600 line is plagued by the same problem: A terribly SLOW interface. It is a series 60 phone, so the interface is nice, but too slow to use.

My next phone: a Nokia 6131.

Finally, Although buying an unlocked phone online may seem like a good idea (and usually is, but be careful when dealing online blah blah), I would strongly reccomend going to a store and playing with the phone you are looking at buying first. Make sure you like it.

Good luck!
posted by patr1ck at 1:32 PM on June 16, 2006

Response by poster: My next phone: a Nokia 6131.

Yes! After looking at it, this is clearly the sort of phone that I want. The 9300 is too large and too "smart", plus it doesn't have a vibrate mode. The Motorola V557 (another phone that I'm considering) is small and convenient, but it seems to have mediocre sound quality and it's not as "cool" as the Nokia 6131. Sadly, the Nokia 6131 isn't supported officially by Cingular, so the discount that I'd get on another phone for signing up for the service would be lost. Money isn't much of an issue, but I'd hate to just throw a couple of hundred dollars away because I had to have an unsupported phone. The bottom line is: is there another Nokia phone along these lines which is supported by Cingular, or is there a way for me to affordably obtain the 6131 given that I'm signing up for new service?
posted by gd779 at 2:14 PM on June 16, 2006

I've had a Nokia 6230 on Cingular for about a year. Great service so far, and it's a *great* phone: small, fast, easy to use. The camera sucks, etc., but I have absolutely no complaints about the phone itself. It's substnatially better interface-wise than the Sony Ericcson T68i I used to carry.

I'm definitely sticking with Nokia from now on, although the S-E k750i is also tempting.
posted by josh at 2:20 PM on June 16, 2006

fishfucker, i'd wait. life changes quickly, and technology even quicker. there are new generations of smartphones being dreamed of right now.

the smartphone 5600 is already out-dated, and another problem i just remembered is that although i would lock the keypad constantly, it constantly became unlocked in my bag, and i ended-up making random text messages of gibberish to my friends at all hours of the day. the phone rawked last year, but wait because even the new smartphone i have is a bit better.

also, 2 year contracts suck indeed. i had one going with cingular, (and still do until August 06), but jumped onto a new carrier in December 05, as i ended-up moving out of the US. I still pay my nominal $40 a month just to sustain the contract (of a phone number that is never ever used anymore) so i didnt have to pay the $200 breaking fee.
posted by naxosaxur at 3:06 AM on June 17, 2006

thanks naxo. i'm thinking you're right..
posted by fishfucker at 1:24 AM on June 18, 2006

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