Cell phones have never been more ubiquitous. And finding the right phone — and the right service plan — has never been more complicated. Remember when your only question was, "Who has service in my town?" Now there may be five or more providers competing for your wireless dollars, each with different phones, each with plans so confusing that you can't begin to compare them. And if you make a mistake or change your mind — fuhgedaboudit! Once you sign up, you're locked in for a year or more, unless you're willing to pay a hefty cancellation fee. (At least by next November, the FCC promises to let us take our wireless phone numbers with us when we switch carriers.) This month, Fast Company comes to the rescue. Just take this simple four-question quiz. Then match your answers with the right phone and service plan.
The Four Questions
1. Where are you calling to?
a) My business is multinational and so are my phone calls.
b) I've got family spread coast-to-coast — not to mention my friends.
c) I call local friends and business contacts and my immediate family.
d) I call lots of places, but I use my phone's Web capability as much as the voice options.
e) Urgent local phone numbers: 911, the baby-sitter, my boss.
2. Where are you calling from?
a) Everywhere and anywhere. If I'm there, I'm on my phone.
b) Near my home and near my office.
c) In busy urban centers.
d) It doesn't matter, as long as I can find out where local movies and shows are playing.
e) In my car, sometimes off the beaten track and away from developed neighborhoods.
3. How much do you travel?
a) I'm a globe-trotter, and I need my phone to keep up, no matter where in the world I am.
b) Sometimes I travel a lot, sometimes just a little. I get sent to cities around the country, and my phone comes with me.
c) When I travel, I go unplugged so that I can unwind.
d) I love to travel — but whether I'm waiting for the crosstown bus or the cross-country flight, I'm playing the latest game on my wireless handset.
e) I don't travel.
4. What do you use the phone for?
b) Calling Mom, calling the kids, calling friends, and even calling the boss, just to let her know I'll be late.
c) "Dahling, when are we doing lunch again?"
d) Text-messaging, sending photos, downloading music, and oh yeah — sometimes I make a phone call.
e) Emergencies only!
A: The Wheeler Dealer Power Broker
The Persona: They might as well plant a communicator chip right in your brain: Whether brokering a deal, making plans for lunch, connecting with headquarters, or just calling the boss to check in with her, your cell phone is your lifeline.
The Plan: At the very least, you need a national or "coast-to-coast" plan. As a nonstop talker, get as many "anytime" minutes as you can. Beware of hefty international rates: Without Sprint's $10-per-month international calling plan, for example, a call to Hong Kong costs 82 cents per minute. With the $10-per-month plan, that same call costs only 37 cents per minute.
The Phone: For the globe-trotting executive, try the Nokia 8890 on the Cingular network: It's a triband phone that works in 179 different countries and offers voice-dialing, SMS- and photo-messaging capabilities — even a currency converter. (Visit www.nokia.com. Price: $400.) Don't forget to buy a travel adapter and a hands-free earbud while you're at it.
B: The MultiTasking Head of Household
The Persona: You've got a busy business life, but it's well under control. What's impossible is keeping track of the family at home and keeping in touch with the extended family out of town.
The Plan: Take advantage of the latest trend in wireless calling: the family plan. Every major carrier has one. The big benefit: These plans allow families to pool their monthly wireless minutes. For example, with the AT&T Shared Advantage plan, a family of four can collectively talk for 1,000 anytime minutes and 1,500 night or weekend minutes each month for a flat rate of $89.99. Extra minutes cost 35 cents apiece. Be sure to ask about special deals for adding more phones or more batches of airtime.
The Phone: Your Palm organizes life at work. Now let it organize life at home, and get rid of an extra device while you're at it. Try the Samsung i500 from Sprint: In a package the size of the clamshell phone you're using now, you get a fully functional Palm-powered PDA, plus a top-notch phone. (Visit www.samsungusa.com. Price: approximately $500.) Accessories worth adding: a case to protect this pricey treasure, and a car charger.
C: The Savvy Fashionista
The Persona: Sure, your cell phone is a tool — but do they have to be so ugly? You need a phone that's as stylish as you are!
The Plan: Your phone is all about coordinating those vital social engagements. That means you're one of the few who can benefit from the cheapest calling plans, which allow for a few daytime calls but mostly provide tons of night and weekend minutes, when your social calendar is busiest. For example, Cingular's SuperHome 300 plan will get you 300 anytime minutes, plus 5,000 night or weekend minutes, for just $29.99 per month.
The Phone: For a sleek look, try the Motorola v70, available from Cingular and T-Mobile. The twisting clock-face design keeps the phone tiny when closed; it spins open to reveal a comfortably sized device when making calls. At only 2.9 ounces, you won't find anything more discreet. (Visit www.motorola.com. Price: about $275.)
D: The Early-Adopter Gadget Freak
The Persona: You always have the latest thing, no matter how new or unproven. You had an iPod before it was cool, you knew the secret code for forwarding commercials on TiVo before the network execs realized that they had a problem, and now you need a phone with enough built-in toys and tricks to keep even you entertained.
The Plan: As an entertainment junkie, you value services above all else. So you'll want a plan that gives you game! Check out Sprint's new deal with Warner Music that allows you to download samples of the latest pop tunes. Or, if interactive entertainment is more your style, you can use your AT&T phone to vote for the next American Idol or play trivia games with other users at NFL games next season. Both providers offer multiplayer game downloads. Be sure to choose a plan that has lots of minutes, because you'll eat them up quickly if you're surfing the Web and playing Internet-based games.
The Phone: Take a look at Samsung's new model v205, available from T-Mobile and Sprint. It sports an integrated camera that swivels, allowing you to take digital photos of yourself or your friends and send them from the phone. It also boasts a full-color screen that is great for viewing photos and gaming. (Visit www.samsungusa.com. Price: $350.)
E: The Average Joe
The Persona: You hate it, but you've bowed to the inevitable: You're finally carrying a cell phone. But you only want it for emergencies, so you don't need any bells and whistles.
The Plan: Go rock-bottom. Order the lowest number of minutes, and be sure to ask your carrier if it offers emergency plans: Some providers will charge you as little as $15 per month if you promise only to use the phone to call 911 and certain other emergency phone numbers. Most important, ask around about good coverage, because when that emergency finally does happen, you will need to be sure that the call will connect — and it's surprising how often 911 calls from wireless phones are dropped. Select a carrier that provides analog back- up service. That way, if you're too far from a digital-signal tower, your call will still go through.
The Phone: Get a simple, workhorse phone. Just make sure that it fits comfortably in your hand and pocket, so you'll have it with you when the time comes to make that emergency call.
A version of this article appeared in the April 2003 issue of Fast Company magazine.