Web site sorts cell phone choices; Decision: You can find the right calling plan by looking for help online.


My old cell phone is too old.

The main menu button is sticking, the battery doesn't last half as long as those in colleagues' newer phones, and I'm lusting after the latest models that can hold my appointment schedule.

I'm even a little tempted by the possibility of e-mail and Web access, though I doubt I'll bother because of the tiny size of phone screens and the slow speed of their Internet connection.

The big question is: Which phone? And along with that, which service? Some of these new phones won't work with my current provider. And maybe some of those other services offer better deals -- prices do keep dropping and I've never been thrilled with the area coverage I'm getting.

So I was pleased to see the news that www.Decide.com had opened for business. It's all about phones and claims to offer free, unbiased information without any advertising. That sure sounds good to me.

I answered the on-screen questionnaire about my home location, how many minutes a month I spend on the cell phone, what percentage of that is long-distance, how often I roam outside my home area and so on.

Then I clicked and, after a short wait, saw a table comparing the cell service providers in my area. The costs were calculated from my specific answers, not just the confusing welter of air-time cost, free minutes daytime and weekends, roaming surcharges and such.

Easy questionnaire

I could go back and change my answers to the questionnaire and click again to see new results. I love this side-by-side shopping. I was able to confirm that, unless I start roaming a lot more, my current provider is my best bet.

When I bumped into anything I didn't understand, there were definition and background help pages available.

Another click raised side-by-side maps of coverage areas offered by various services. Ouch! No wonder I keep missing calls. My service may cost the least, but the service area is also the smallest. Even three years after the company swore it was expanding at a breakneck pace, it looked about the same as when I signed up. This may change my mind.

But wait. There were also maps showing call quality, tested by Decide's people. I could spend a lot of time zooming in and out of these, inspecting their results against my experience. Apparently, you should also be able to hear sample calls, but this feature was disabled in my own tests.

Decide.com also offers comparisons of cell phone hardware, prepaid phone cards and long-distance service.

The cell phone comparisons were harder to sort and search through than the service tables because the prices were so vague. A specific phone may cost anywhere from $49 to $149, depending on the service provider. Still, the tables do help.

As long as I was at Decide, I figured I'd glance at the long-distance comparisons. I entered the number of minutes of in-state, out-of-state and country-to-country calling I do monthly (I had my latest phone bill nearby for this purpose), and soon I saw a sorted list of the plans that would cost me the least. In fact, I learned that three plans I'd never heard of could save me money.

Are "10-10" offers better?

I'll have to look into this some more and see if any of the so-called "10-10" dialing offers are any better. They weren't included in the comparison, but they were explained well.

For example, did you know you can identify the service provider of any 10-10 number by dialing 1010XXX (the number that is advertised) + 1 + 700-555-4141? It's toll-free.

More importantly, Decide warns you that minimum charges can make 10-10 calls more expensive than a good long-distance plan, and that monthly fees can kick in if you make even a single 10-10 call. (If you make that call from a friend's phone, they may not be too happy to find the fee on their bill.)

I love Decide.com. As a professional critic I'm almost embarrassed to be so enthusiastic. I wish more Web sites provided this kind of service and wouldn't think of buying cellular again without checking in here first.

Not that Decide is the only place I'll go. For example, www.Point. com (formerly WirelessDimension) has a similar charter. Enter your location and it shows you the wireless plans available -- 68 in my neighborhood (that includes all the various pricing plans from a half-dozen different wireless providers).

www.ePhones.com (formerly TotallyWireless.com) also does a good job of listing service plan availability and prices. And it does the same for cell phones themselves, as well as for pagers and GPS locaters -- those last two items are left out of Decide. But ePhones doesn't have Decide's personalized cost calculations, coverage area comparisons, nor the call-quality maps and long-distance help.

www.CellMania.com beats the others in its coverage of two-way radios, mobile e-mail and phone accessories. It also has a unique Rant&Rate; area where you can read or contribute real-world experiences with cell phones.

Essential.com is a shopping site for all sorts of utilities, from electricity and gas through phone, cell phone, and Internet access to Satellite TV. The long-distance and cell phone comparisons aren't yet running for all areas, though.

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