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Do You Really Need a Smartphone?

5 questions to ask yourself before you spend

3. What carrier is best for my needs?

If you’re happy with your existing cell carrier, pick a phone it offers — so you don't get your hopes up about a model that's not supported. That is, while you can often buy an "unlocked" phone, it might not work (or work well) with your carrier of choice.

To keep things simple, visit your carrier's website to see what phones it carries — or better yet, drop into one of its retail locations (or an electronics store) so you can get your hands on it.

Most of the major carriers — including AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless and Sprint — have similar smartphones to choose from, but there are instances where you’ll find exclusives (such AT&T and iPhone). Carriers usually offer similar wireless services, too, so there might not be much of a difference between each of their respective offerings.

That said, if you've decided to switch carriers, or if you're getting your first cell phone, be sure their service works well in your area by talking to friends and neighbors about reception strength. Carrier websites usually show a coverage map, too. This usually isn't an issue in major urban areas.

4. Where am I using it?

Along with assessing what you'll be using the phone for, you should also ask yourself where you'll be using the phone, primarily.

Some might only want an emergency phone to keep in the glove compartment, in which case you probably don't need the extra bells and whistles — and expense — of a smartphone.

Are you a world traveler? You'll need to make sure that your phone supports international roaming. And yes, always be sure to confirm rates before you get a surprise on your wireless bill, which can be substantial.

If it's something you'll use a lot while walking around town, you might want a phone that is small enough for a shirt pocket, lanyard or clutch purse — a consideration that might not be as important with, say, a phone used primarily in the car.

If you're in the work force — maybe in an industry such as construction, forestry or mining — a more rugged phone to withstand the elements might be a good pick (look for ones that have a rubberized shell).

You get the idea: Location matters.

5. What's my budget?

The longer you commit to a carrier, the cheaper the smartphone will be.

That is, a phone might only cost you, say, $199, with a two-year contract — or $649 without. Most carriers and electronics stores will give you the no-contract option in case you have commitment phobia.

And keep in mind that smartphones often require a monthly data plan on top of your voice plan. This is because smartphones use the carrier's data network to transmit information, such as e-mail messages, streaming video and music downloads.

So, how do you choose which data plan is for you? If you're a "casual" user — perhaps you want to simply read e-mail and download the odd song here and there — then less data, maybe 250 megabytes (MB), is fine. "Power users," however, who rely on these advanced services might opt for a more robust (and thus pricier) plan of a couple of gigabytes (GB) or more.

For example, AT&T offers data plans for $35/month (for up to 200MB of data usage) or $60/month (for up to 5GB of data).

Many of the cell carrier websites will offer calculators that help you determine your mobile data usage. It will ask you to give info such as how many e-mails you receive a day, how many websites you like to visit, if you enjoy downloading music or games, and so on.

Finally, downloadable applications for these smartphones — such as digital newspapers, crossword puzzles or photo editors — can cost money too, usually a few dollars apiece.

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