Going Mobile: Choosing a Cell Phone, Part 2

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Tech guru Mario Armstrong talks about picking a cell phone or a new service provider. Armstrong covers technology for Baltimore-area NPR member stations WEAA and WYPR.

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ED GORDON, host:

NPR's Farai Chideya joins me again to continue her series on cell phones. Farai.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

Yesterday we had the first part of my conversation with our tech expert, Mario Armstrong. He offered us some tips on becoming a savvier cell phone user.

GORDON: Hey, Farai, one of the things, though, in becoming a savvier cell phone user is people always wanting to update their phones. We see additions added on constantly almost. So people are always, it seems to me, like, in the market for a new cell phone.

CHIDEYA: Well, you know, it's hard to resist when they say that it's going to have all sorts of new Web features, or there's going to be more ability to take cute pictures. But there's so many options and gadgets available, you can spend a fortune on something that's easy to lose. So I asked Mario for his opinion on when it's time to upgrade.

Mr. MARIO ARMSTRONG (Tech Expert): If it doesn't work anymore would be a good sign. If it starts dropping calls consistently, it's a good sign. But seriously, anytime really is a good time to start--if your habits change, if your lifestyle changes, if your income changes. Maybe it's time for you to take another look at the plan that you currently have. So many people, Farai, are still wasting money because they have not upgraded. The companies aren't telling you, `Hey, did you know your plan decreased by $10 and offers you now an extra 500 minutes?' They're keeping you on the old plan unless you make some type of active move to make that update and make that change.

CHIDEYA: I actually had that happen myself. It's very good to check. Let's go to a couple of other things. Prepaid cellular. Why would you want that?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: This is a way where you pay money up front for the amount of air time you think you will use. When that air time is up, your phone will die, and then you can recharge that with more air time by buying it in allotments. I think the minimum allotment you can buy is 10 or $20 of an allotment of minutes. But the minutes will cost you a little bit more per minute for the usage of one of those phones.

CHIDEYA: So it's sort of like having a prepaid calling card and a cell phone all in one.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Absolutely. That's exactly how it works. And, you know, Virgin Mobile and others are out there that have been really marketing this, and it's really been taking off well with the teen-ager population, which I gotta tell you--it's very interesting to see how many teen-agers--walk across any high school or college campus and you see cell phones everywhere. And I don't blame parents for making kids to get prepaid cellular phones.

CHIDEYA: Yeah, well, actually to that effect, I know a teen-ager who ran up a $1,000 cell phone bill on his parents' line, so what kind of controls can parents have over their kids' phones?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: They're very hard. If you do a regular phone with regular plans, there are certain things that you can lock down on that phone, but by and large, these kids are going to get past it and they're going to figure it out. One of the coolest things, though, that I've seen recently--although I haven't tested this product--it's called TicTalk. This is a mobile phone, Farai, that's actually aimed at school-aged children. This is something that the parents totally control via the mytictalk Web site, and so the parents can enter in the--only the phone numbers that this phone can dial. They can also restrict the permission-based times of when this phone can be used and when it can ring.

CHIDEYA: You talked earlier about issues of your pricing and your plan. Tell me a little bit more about cell phone pricing plans. How do you know that you're getting the best deal? What about things like international calls, as well?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: It's out of control, Farai. In preparing for this report--and I consider myself to be someone that knows a little bit about technology here--it was really still confusing to figure out who has the best plan, the best minutes, off-peak, on-peak. Can I call you in my family or in my network? Can I not? Am I charged for an incoming, outgoing? It was bananas. So really you have to understand a couple of key things. Number one, overestimate how much usage you think you'll use. And you can always go back if you end up not using as many minutes as you thought. Number two, if you travel, it's an obvious one: Look for free long distance and look for something that has roaming already including in that price. The last thing is if you're in a family and you only use it for an emergency, look at those family-share plans. They really are inexpensive and a good way for you to share minutes without spending a lot of money throughout your family with the different phones you may have for family members.

CHIDEYA: And finally, last question. Insurance: I had a little accident with my old cell phone, and I think it was iced coffee that finally killed the phone. So I had to get a new one, and they had insurance that guarded against things like iced coffee spillage. So what--how much do these things generally cost and is it worth it?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Insurance on a cell phone is absolutely worth it. I can't tell you how many times I've misplaced or picked up someone else's cell phone in a public place. I've also heard of all types of war stories, from dropping them in toilets to things that are worse than that. So you know, having the insurance, especially on phones that are pricey, is about probably 3 to $4--in some cases a little bit more--per month, but it certainly is worth it. Sometimes you have to pay a small deductible, somewhere usually around 25 to $35, but that's worth it if your phone is well over $200. And the insurance plans work really seamlessly. You go in, pay your deductibles, say what happened, fill out the paperwork, and you get your new phone. It's pretty simple. So I always recommend insurance.

The only thing that I've noticed recently, though, Farai, is make sure if you buy those very expensive phones--$400 and up--that they allow you to have insurance. Because recently there's been a lot of fraud, and some companies have been thinking twice about allowing people to have insurance on very expensive phones.

CHIDEYA: So people are reporting false claims and taking the money, and that means...

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Absolutely.

CHIDEYA: ...everyone else can't get insured.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Or they're taking the new phone that they get and then they eBay the old phone that they already had that's really still there and still works fine.

CHIDEYA: Lots of things to watch out for. Thanks, again.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Thank you.

GORDON: All right, Farai. I understand that you got pulled in. You have a new phone, right?

CHIDEYA: I do, and it's one of these fancy razors. You know, it's a trendy phone. I didn't pick it because it was trendy, but I did want to be able to keep a calender. It has some of the functions of something like a Palm, so so far so good.

GORDON: And you can operate all of the functions?

CHIDEYA: Heck, no.

GORDON: (Laughs) Well, like the rest of us. All right, Farai. Thanks very much. We should note Mario Armstrong covers technology for Baltimore area NPR stations WEEA and WYPR. He spoke again with our correspondent Farai Chideya.

Farai, thank you so much.

CHIDEYA: Thank you, Ed.

GORDON: Thanks for joining us. That's our program today. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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