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How Much Is That Cell Phone?

by Larry Magid

Dec. 19, 2006

Cell phones are popular holiday gifts but before you buy a friend or family member the latest cool phone, think about what your cell phone gift can give (i.e., what can it do?) and what it can take away (how much will it cost to own and use).Carriers can give you a subsidy if you bundle the phone with service or extend your (or your recipient’s) contract, typically for two years. The downside of such deals can be a loss of flexibility, if you wind up stuck with an extended contract.

And don’t forget taxes: depending on where you live, they can add a hefty amount to the monthly bill. Doesn’t hurt to find out how much the tax will be, when figuring out whether your loved one (or you) can afford it.

Another thing to be aware of: higher fees to use the cool services that work with that new phone. The list can be endless. Most new phones, for example, come with a built-in camera, but using that camera isn’t usually free.

Depending on your service or your plan, you can pay by the picture, by the month or both. Verizon, for example, charges 25 cents for each “picture message” you send or receive. The company also offers plans starting at $10 a month for people who send and receive a lot of pictures or text.

Most cell phones these days can be used for “texting,” otherwise known as SMS (Short Message Service). Texting is very popular in Europe and among American teens and young adults and is just starting to catch on among older adults in the U.S. As with pictures, you’ll pay a price for sending and receiving text – typically between 5 and 10 cents a message – but once again, ask your carrier for special plans if you think you’re going to be doing a lot of texting.

Click here for Larry Magid’s podcast report on, a service for viewing videos on cell phones.

The same is true if you plan to surf the web on your phone, exchange instant messages (some phones come with AOL and other instant messaging services) or get or receive email. There are almost always additional charges involved.

A Blackberry, Treo, Windows Smart phone, Sidekick and other advanced messaging phones can make an excellent gift for someone who wants to be able to send and receive e-mail from the road but, once again, check to see what it will cost to use the device.

Aside from making international calls or talking beyond your allotted minutes, the data plans associated with these phones can be among the most expensive cell phone services.

Cingular, for example, sells the very cool BlackBerry Pearl for $199 (with activation) but that’s only the start. In addition to your voice plan you’ll have to pay $49.99 a month for unlimited data service or $39.99 for the limited plan that gives you 4 megabytes of data.

Other carriers have different plans and often it’s difficult to figure out exact pricing from the carrier’s website. Sprint has a pretty good deal at $15 a month for the data plan on top of your voice plan.

By the way, you no longer need to get a PDA-type phone with a keyboard to send and receive email. If you’re comfortable pecking out your messages with the standard phone keyboard, you can use a number of different services for email.

Google’s Gmail, for example, offers a free cell phone version that makes it very easy to read your mail and easy to send mail other than having to type on that numeric keypad. Of course, to use Gmail you have to have a Gmail account and people need to send mail to that account.

Flurry offers a service that lets you route mail from most other types of email accounts to your cell phone. Again, it’s free, though you may get a data charge from your cell phone company.

With the success of YouTube, video is all the rage and there are now services that let you watch video on your phone. Some, including a service launched this week by MyWaves, Inc. are free but, once again, check with your carrier to see if there’s a charge to receive video.

MyWaves is actually quite good. It gives you access to numerous short segments from categories such as comedy, sports and recreation, news and politics, kids and family and health. There are news clips from a variety of network sources.

To install the service, you visit the company’s website, tell it your phone number and wait for a text message on your phone with a link to where you can download the software to your phone. I tested it on a Sprint PCS phone and it works great, though watching video on a tiny screen and listening through my phone’s speakers is not my idea of entertainment. For best audio quality, it’s a good idea to use a headset.

Video on cell phones is a nice way to kill a few minutes at the airport or between meetings but it’s not likely to catch on as a way to watch longer programs. For that, most of us want to kick back and watch shows on one of those nice large high-definition TVs but – just as with cell phones – there could be additional costs associated with that, too, from your cable or satellite company.

Don’t you just love the 21st century? Gadgets are getting cheap but using them… is getting expensive.

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