NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Make your choice about buying a smartphone based on how you will use it, not on how it looks or what the most popular model is.
The up-front prices of smartphones have dropped, and you can score even some of the newest models for free with a two-year contract. But add-ons bump up the cost of ownership fast. Determine your price range for both the device and the service before you walk into a store.
Generally you'll need a voice plan, a data plan and a text-messaging plan. To figure out what to buy, look at your old cellphone bills: How many minutes have you actually used each month, and how many texts did you send? Going over your plan limit is like an overdraft fee on a checking account -- it's an expensive mistake and a waste of cash.
Many carriers require a data package of $29.99 a month or higher. If you're a light user, you may be able to cut costs: AT&T just dropped the price of its lowest-cost smartphone data package from $30 to $15 a month. All carriers tack on an early termination fee. They're typically in the range of $350 for 1-year and 2-year contracts.
One way to save money is to check out family plans, even if only one family member wants a smartphone. Some plans will let you share voice minutes without adding texting and data units to all the phones on the plan. That way, only one member of the family has to pay the additional fees -- and the overall cost may be more reasonable.
Timing your purchase can also pay off.
"Wait until December to buy a smartphone," advises Schwark Satyavalu, CEO of Billshrik.com. "Carriers will be offering specials and discounts on phones."
Do you play games?
They say size doesn't matter, but with a smartphone it does. If you want to play games, surf the Internet, use social networking sites and watch videos, a bigger screen is better.
Resolution is also very important. Start with at least 480 x 320 -- and don't even consider a phone that doesn't have a touchscreen interface.
Applications are becoming as essential as the smartphone itself. Apple is the market leader, but other competitors like Android are in full throttle.
Take a test drive
Spend hands-on time with the smartphone you like best. Make sure that it is comfortable to hold, has good sound clarity, and can easily send e-mails and photos and navigate the Internet. If the phone is too complicated for you to use, you'll be frustrated and won't use all the features. The device will be a waste of money.
That's why it's important to chose the phone that suits your needs -- the most popular model isn't necessarily the best choice for you.
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