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December 15, 2013

Gift guide: Choosing a smartphone, plan

Navigating maze of phone, plan choices

NEW YORK — So you’re ready to buy a new smartphone for your loved one. Which do you choose?

Before you do anything, you have to decide whether to buy the phone outright or go the traditional route of buying a carrier-subsidized one with a two-year service contract.

In most cases, you’re better off with the contract price, as long as the person you’re buying it for plans to keep the phone for two years and doesn’t change carriers. Prices vary, but expect to pay $500 to $700 without a contract, or $100 to $300 with one.

Even with the $15 monthly discount that AT&T and Sprint offer to those who bring their own phone, you or your loved one will be paying $27-a-month installments for a high-end device. The discounts are great if you want to upgrade phones frequently or find a used or cheaper phone. And with T-Mobile, you must buy or bring your own device, but its service fees for voice, text and data have been reduced for everyone.

Next, you need to decide on an operating system. Here’s a guide to that, along with some of the devices available. Keep in mind some phones are limited to certain wireless carriers.

Apple’s iOS

Although hardcore users might find the software behind iPhones irksome because Apple limits how much you can customize it, the iPhone is an excellent choice for people simply needing a well-rounded phone. What makes iOS especially powerful: the thousands of apps available for it. Many leading apps come to iOS first or have more features for it.

Resist the temptation for a free iPhone 4S with a two-year contract. It’s a 2-year-old phone that will be 4 years old by the next upgrade.

Your best choice is the iPhone 5S ($649 without contract, $199 with contract). A sensor lets you use your fingerprint to bypass the phone’s four-digit security passcode. I find the phone’s camera among the best for everyday shots, and improvements in the 5S make it better for low-light shots, too. For $100 less, you can get an iPhone 5C without the fingerprint sensor or the improved camera.

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