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Holiday Gift Guide 2005

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Dec 1, 2005, 5:50 AM   by Eric Lin

A cheat sheet for choosing the perfect phone to give. Find exactly what they're hoping for.

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For those of you who are thinking about giving someone special a cell phone for the holidays, but have held off because you wanted to be sure you buy the right phone, we're here to help you make the right decision. We've done all the work for you, narrowing down the best choices for every person on your gift list on every national carrier. Because you have many people on your gift list, we've limited our selections to phones that sell for $250, most cost much less — especially with a contract.

We believe the first step in choosing the right phone for someone is to choose the right carrier. The freedom to choose a carrier near you with the best coverage, calling plans or just the one he's been on forever ensures the gift recipient the best experience once he or she has the right phone to use on that network. To choose what phone to buy your loved ones as a gift, you need to consider how they're going to use it. Some people are still a bit scared of mobile phones and may only want them "for emergencies." At the other end of the spectrum are people who will try to do everything on their phone; and of course most folks actually fall somewhere in between. Find the type of person you're buying for, and in most cases you'll find a phone for him on whichever network you deem the best choice.

After you've picked out the pefect phone, there's still one more thing to do. When you or the lucky person you're giving a phone to has moved everything off of the old phone, don't just toss it in your junk drawer or a closet corner, recycle it. If you want to know anything about phone recycling, from reasons to do it to where to take your phone, check out our Cell Phone Recycling Guide.

Consider Prepaid


Before you go off researching which network is best for your loved ones, there are few types of people who are probably better off with prepaid phones and plans than with the big four carriers. While pre-paid services were originally developed for customers with uncertain credit, that stigma has long since disappeared. Today's pre-paid services now offer as many features as traditional post paid services, and at a much more competitive rate than before. Cingular, T-Mobile, and Virgin Mobile are even offering pre-paid monthly plans that are nearly as good as post paid, but still provide pre-paids tight budget management.

These recent improvements make pre-paid a viable option for many more people than they used to. While it's smart to investigate pre-paid for almost any person, there are a few groups of people for whom pre-paid should be the only option. If the person your buying for rarely make calls or is a young adult just leaving the nest, look into prepaid and your work here is done.

Just In Case 

Emergency users:

There are people, maybe like some of your parents, grandparents, or other older relatives who still refuse to use a cell phone, but say they'd like one to have in case of an emergency. They're just going to leave the phone off sitting in their purse or glove compartment until some suitable occasion arises, and then they'll turn it on and call to tell us they'll be two hours late for dinner one Christmas. Many of us just get another handset and add them to our family plan, or hand them down one of our old phones and help them subscribe to a cheap monthly plan, but this is a waste since emergency users are where prepaid really shines. Why pay $20-30 a month for a cheap plan when most these folks will barely use $30 a year in pre-paid time.

Although there are a number of reliable prepaid services, 7-Eleven's is a clear winner for these folks. Purchased minutes don't expire for a full year, no matter how little a subscriber purchases ($25 is the smallest amount). Circle K, which recently announced a similar prepaid service is a distant second with 120 day expiration on minutes. 7-Eleven charges a flat 20 cents / minute with no daily fees or catches - one of the least expensive rates available. And they piggyback on Cingular's GSM network, ensuring a high likelihood your auntie will actually have service when her car breaks down and she needs to call for help.

For true emergency only users, 7-Eleven now sells the Nokia 1100. It offers few extras, but those would only confuse emergency callers. It also has a simple interface (Series 30) with a well laid-out keypad to further usability for cellular novices. The 1100 is durable, small, has a sharp monochrome screen (good for older people with poor eyesight), and is highly reliable. It is the perfect phone for a glove compartment or handbag.

The 1100 must be purchased at a 7-Eleven store.

Leaving Home 

18-25 year olds, just getting out on their own:

No matter how much parents of guardians try to instill good values among teens, everyone makes mistakes, especially financial ones, when they step out on their own. Who can resist all those temptations? Prepaid phones help this generation control their spending, while still providing access to phones and services all their friends will respect or even be jealous of.

There are a number of successful MVNOs targeting young, independent users, and now carriers are getting in on the game too, further expanding the number of choices. Additionally, even more youth-focused MVNOs will be launching around the holidays and early next year. We suggest holding off on joining one of the new MVNOs like Amp'd, ESPN Mobile or Helio until their service and handset have been tested. Instead we've opted for long-standing prepaid options.

Boost:  Motorola i855 *
Virgin Mobile:  Kyocera Slider Sonic
T-Mobile Prepaid:  Motorola RAZR
* Boost is available in most, but not all states

These prepaid handsets can be purchased through the carrier's website, company stores and many large retail chains.

Keep On Talking


If your gift recipient doesn't fall into one of the prepaid categories, he or she will certainly fall into at least one of the call-centric or feature-centric categories that follows. These users will probably benefit from a monthly plan with a national carrier if they are not on one already.

Light Users 

Voice only users:

My mom can barely figure out how to change the channel on her TV, let alone program her VCR. but like many other people, she knows how to gab on the phone non-stop and can (with a little help) figure out how to put her oft-called contacts into speed dial. Even with tech support, she's still not going to try text messaging or browsing, in fact it's unlikely she'll change her ringer. Each of these phones has standard keypads and simple menus. They are physically reliable, with solid build quality, decent battery life and good signal strength. They should be both drop- and dummy-proof. Although a camera is typically not a requirement for such light users, more and more people are interested in having a camera phone. Some of the models have cameras or a few other extra features, but still possess the simplicity and clarity required by technophobic light user. Because these phones are light on features, we've made sure to choose models that are light on your wallet as well.

Cingular:  Nokia 6102 Sprint:  Sanyo VI-2300
T-Mobile:  Nokia 3220
Verizon:  LG VX5200

Heavy Users 

People who live on their phone:

You know the type, they practically have a hands-free kit permanently affixed to their ear. They are always on the phone whether it's for business or for personal use. In fact, you might think they're on the phone a little too much. This crowd doesn't just need long battery life and great signal strength, they also need a few of more advanced features like customizable wallpapers, downloadable ringtones and easy to use text messaging. These people tend to make the most of their phones, so we've chosen ones packed with tons of useful features. The one feature we can't imagine any heavy user living without these days is Bluetooth. Whether they're pairing a phone with a headset or their new car, Bluetooth has become a necessity for those who are always yakking. In fact, Bluetooth, as well as excellent sound, signal strength and battery life were our most important criteria for these phones.

Cingular:  Sony Ericsson Z520a
Sprint:  LG PM-325
T-Mobile:  Motorola V360
Verizon:  Samsung A950

School Kids 

Kids young enough to still be living at home:

It's pretty common that Jr. High and High school kids get their own cell phone these days, especially in major cities. Family plans let parents control the spending, but give kids the freedom of their own phone number. Sadly, most parents just hand down old phones to their kids or get them the cheapest model available. Parents, do your kids a favor and buy them some street cred. You don't need to spend much to get your child a phone he will actually like. Each of these models is good at text messaging, has IM clients for popular services like AIM, and looks good enough to impress judgmental peers. Most have a camera as well.

Cingular:  Nokia 6102
Sprint:  Samsung A840
T-Mobile:  Samsung T309
Verizon:  Samsung N330

Feature Focus


The phone as a status symbol:

These people tend to talk about their phones more than they talk on them. This year it's not about how many cool features you can pack into a phone, but how many features you can pack into the smallest phone possible. Thin is in. Most carriers will have an ulta thin model packed with every top of the line feature for this holiday season. These will be the "it" phones of the year, and will be priced accordingly. Music and video players, high speed data, Bluetooth, Megapixel cameras - these phones have all the hot features too. To their credit, each of them is also quite capable at making calls as well.

Cingular:  Sony Ericsson W600i
Sprint:  Samsung A900
T-Mobile:  Samsung T809
  • Find out more
  • This phone is not available from our partners yet
Verizon:  Motorola RAZR V3c


IM / email / text addicts:

Some people are always on the phone, but you can't ever remember them talking into it. These people are probably using it to send text messages or log into an instant messaging client or even send email. Like showoffs, voice calls are far less important than other features to these people, but in their case what's important is written communication. This year most carriers offer a regular phone with a full QWERTY thumbboard. They come pre-loaded with IM clients, are excellent for sending text messages and can access most email accounts.

Cingular:  LG F9200
Sprint:  Sanyo MM8300 *
T-Mobile:  Sidekick II
Verizon:  LG VX9800
* Sprint does not offer any regular phones with QWERTY keyboards, nor do they pre-load IM clients on to their phones. IM clients are, however, available for download.


Compulsive picture takers:

Some folks will sacrifice everything for megapixels. They have been dying to have a good camera on hand, even when they leave their digital SLR at home. Although none of these phones is ready to compete with even $300-400 digital cameras, they do take better than average snapshots. And since your shutterbug will have his cameraphone with him all the time, he'll be taking many more interesting pictures. Most of these models have 2 megapixel sensors with zoom and/or auto-focus. a big step up from last year's cameraphones.

Cingular:  Sony Ericsson W600i
Sprint:  Samsung A940
T-Mobile:  Sony Ericsson K750 *
Verizon:  Samsung A970
* The K750 is not sold through T-Mobile, but is available unlocked through resellers. It packs an excellent camera in a very small and usable phone.


Corporate email addicts:

A few unfortunate souls do all their business by email, but work for companies too small or too cheap or too - whatever - to buy them a proper Blackberry. However, that shouldn't stop them from being able to go laptop-free when they need a break from luggin one around. These people need a powerful phone with powerful PIM applications and a powerful email application. Most carriers offer a new generation of more affordable Blackberries now. Although they cost less than before, they are smaller, faster, more full-featured and have bright, high-resolution screens. If the Blackberry is not an option, we still suggest the Palm Treo 650 as a viable alternative for most email addicts.

Cingular:  Blackberry 8700
Sprint:  Palm Treo 650
T-Mobile:  Blackberry 7105t *
Verizon:  Blackberry 7130e
  • Find out more
  • This phone is not available from any of our partners yet
* Be sure to look for the updated 7105t - not its predecessor - the 7100t.

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Dec 15, 2005, 5:58 AM

Don't Get Prepaid


Do not get prepaid especially if it's Cingulair. I worked for a company doing prepaid payments and if you want to lose your money then go right ahead. People actually think it's cheaper then having a post paid account got news for you it's not. If you have concerns or problems or just general questions that you need to talk to a supervisor, be prepared to wait on hold for over 30 minutes mostly it was for 45 minutes or longer. Also, no ability to transfer to customer care at all. Also the other companies were able to tell you the minutes you got with payment unfortunately Cingulair never gave that info out, so they would need to make another phone call to talk to customer care to see how many minutes were put on if they were on a ...

Dec 12, 2005, 12:54 PM

Prepaid Coverage

Keep in mind that most prepaid offerings DO NOT include ROAMING, so if you are looking into prepaid be sure to check the prepaid coverage, specifically for Cingular, as their Post-Paid coverage maps do not show where you are roaming.

Dec 1, 2005, 7:56 PM

nice article

I thought it was a good article, but have two comments.

1. You recommended 3 Blackberry phones. Does this mean that you guys feel that the pending injunction from NTP is a non-threat?

eric Lin said:
Parents, do your kids a favor and buy them some street cred.

Great job on the article. Covered everything from the pre-paid and basic phones, to high end phones. My only thoughts, nothing was mentioned about Sprint iDEN although iDEN was atleast mentioned by the presence of Boost Mobile. 7100i from Nextel would...
djdelay, while i do suspect that rim will be hit with a big fine in the final ruling, i also believe that an injunction temporary or permanent, is unlikely. i weighed that when recommending these phones.

despite this week's rulings and statements a...
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