Consumer Reports: Be smart when shooping for smartphones

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If you haven't shopped for a new cellphone plan in a while, the odds are good that you're paying a price for your loyalty — or your inertia. Consumer Reports suggests that you explore your options, especially when it comes to plan pricing.

Plan pricing among the Big Four carriers is bizarre and counterintuitive. Consumer Reports suggests the following:

• Consider purchasing more data than you think you need. Sprint charges a $20 access fee per phone for data buckets of 4GB or less. (The 4GB of data, all shareable, cost $50.) But if you choose the company's 8GB plan, that fee falls to $15 per phone. (8GB of data cost $70.) Do the math, and you'll find that if you have four phones, the total cost for either option is precisely $130.

• Stay away from the two-year contracts still available at AT&T, Sprint and Verizon. In addition to hefty early termination fees, you may have to contend with a whopping monthly $40-per-phone access fee.

• Consider the extras. T-Mobile allows subscribers to stream content from a number of popular video services without using a data allowance. Those services include ESPN, HBO, Hulu, Netflix, Showtime and Starz.

Boosting performance

• HD voice. People have long complained about cellphone voice quality. But this feature offers the promise that you can converse with the clarity of a face-to-face meeting. Too bad it works only between compatible phones within the same carrier network.

• Tracking blockers. A smartphone's GPS mode is great when you need directions, but not when you're roaming the aisles at the mall. You can protect your privacy by deciding which advertisers and apps can see your location and when. iPhone users can go to Location Services in the Privacy section of Settings to change restrictions. Android 6.0 Marshmallow users can go to the Permissions section in each app in the Apps section of Settings.

• Easy-to-read type. Apple and Android phones have an Accessibility menu in Settings where you can adjust screen brightness and make text larger and bolder. Apple's Button Shapes switch makes navigation controls more prominent. The easy modes on many LG and Samsung phones automatically boost the size of app icons and fonts on the phone, and make it more senior-friendly by paring the features down to the essentials. You can also experiment with the settings for users with hearing and visual impairments.

• Data savers. Because transferring data via cell service is expensive, Consumer Reports says you should try to use Wi-Fi whenever possible to back up or share large files (photos, streaming videos, etc.). You can also adjust apps settings to prevent them from downloading news or updates until you're in a Wi-Fi network — ideally one you trust (think home or office).

• Battery savers. Make sure the screen brightness is set to Auto, so the device can adjust to indoor and outdoor conditions, but lower the baseline brightness (usually a sliding switch in the Display menu). Set the screen to sleep after 15 or 30 seconds of inactivity. If you're in an area with no signal, turn on airplane mode.

• Bluetooth sharing. When a friend is at your side, you can share photos, videos or text files without fumbling around on email. As long as you both have Apple's AirDrop or Android Beam activated, you just zap it directly, phone-to-phone -- but only Apple to Apple, Android to Android.

To learn more, visit ConsumerReports.org.


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