Hottest cell phones 2014

Get the best cell phone plan for your family—and save up to $1,000 a year

Verizon “simplified” its phone plans on August 13 so that customers wouldn’t have to “do a lot of math to figure out their best options.” They are simpler in that now there’s only one access fee for smartphones: $20 per phone. Under the old plan, phone access fees varied from $15 to $25 to $40, based on the amount of data you were buying and whether or not your phone was under contract. Verizon has ended contracts, which were never a good deal, and is also presenting its four cheapest buckets of sharable data in shopper-friendly terms like small, medium, large, and X-large, and suggesting who they’d be best for.

But while these plans may appear more attractive, pricing has largely stayed the same, with modest decreases or increases ($5 to $20) compared to what customizers were paying before. Customers who signed up for previous plans will have to inform Verizon if they want to switch. Our advice: below to figure out if switching would be a wise move.

T-Mobile’s new, “limited time” 10GB Family Plan offers substantial savings to data-hogging households. It starts at $100 a month for two phone lines, each with a data allowance of 10GB plus unlimited texting and calling. Add a third line for just $20 and a fourth for free. You can also get a fifth line for $20 more ($140 a month). The “limited time” part is until Labor Day, though a T-Mobile official told us the offer may continue longer.

Oddly, T-Mobile, which bills itself as a no-nonsense cell provider, snubbed single-line users this time around. It also made this plan a bit hard to find for qualified users. If you search T-Mobile’s website, you’ll be steered to the carrier’s Simple Choice plans (see our rate-comparison tables below). Follow this link to the plan.

You can also ask for the deal in person at a T-Mobile store, or contact Customer Care Service at 800-866-2453.

Update 7/1/15: Sprint’s new All-In plan puts a top-notch smartphone in your hands with no money down and then charges you only $80 a month (plus taxes and a one-time $36 activation fee) for unlimited data, text, and voice minutes. That seems like a good deal considering other plans, including those from Sprint, charge about $65 to $90 per month per phone (including access fees) for about 4GB or 5GB of data—without the phone. The hitch: Phone choices for the All-In plan are limited to a 16GB iPhone 6, a 32GB Samsung Galaxy S6, or an HTC One M9. What's more, you'll never own the phone. It's just a lease—$20 of the $80 of your monthly bill is a phone-rental fee that never goes away.

Often, we steer people away from that kind of arrangement, but in this case, the pricing should work out well for a lot of consumers. Let's crunch the numbers for someone who needs just one phone line. With All-In, you can get a 16GB iPhone 6 and use it for two years for $1, 920 (that doesn't include the activation fee.) The same phone and 24 months of service would cost $2, 210 on the company's 4GB Family Share Pack data plan ($65 a month, plus about $27 while you paid off the phone, which costs $650).

What if you keep your iPhone for a third year? All-In will end up costing $2, 880 ($80 per month for 36 months). If you have the Family Share Pack, the monthly bill will drop to $65 after two years, once the phone is paid off, but the total for three years is still higher, at $2, 990.

That doesn't mean the All-In is better for everyone. You need to do some arithmetic to get the best deal. If you need multiple phones, the price-per-phone drops for most plans, but not for the All-In. You can economize on data usage to bring costs down on most plans, but not the All-In. And if you keep a phone you've paid off for a fourth year, trade it in—or just decide to sell it on E-Bay—the numbers change again.

Update 2/5/15: Thanks to price-war incentives and greater plan flexibility, there are more opportunities now to save a few bucks on the new, no-contract plans from AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless—a.k.a. the Big Four.

These plans separate the purchase of the phone from the service charges, effectively giving you an interest-free loan you can pay off in about two years. When you’ve paid off the phone, your monthly bill goes down accordingly. And there are no termination fees; if you want to leave the carrier, you just pay any remaining balance on the phone.

Although our recent report, "Small carriers outrank the big ones in Consumer Reports' latest cell phone service survey, " covering 63, 352 subscribers in 26 metro areas, found some very happy customers who switched to smaller cell providers, there are still good reasons for staying big.

Verizon, for example, earned decent marks across the board for voice, text, and data service, while AT&T was a standout for its 4G service. It recently slashed prices on its More Everything plans, added more data tiers to allow customers to better fine-tune plans, and monkeyed with the access fees it charges (for a limited time) to lower costs further.

T-Mobile was tops for value and customer service. And Sprint, which didn’t do particularly well in any category, has recently become very aggressive about pricing—and some people actually do like the company.

Unfortunately, these plans are rather complicated, and the carriers have done their best to make apples-to-apples comparisons difficult among one another’s offerings. For example, they charge different rates for additional phone lines, break data allowances into chunks that don't match the competition’s, and provide differing discounts for multiple phones. In fact, plan pricing is so bizzare and counterintuitive that customers, particularly those with multiple phone lines, can often save money by buying more data for each phone.

The good news: We’ve already done the math for you in the tables below to help you find the best deal. And to make sure your needs are covered, we’ve presented the service-cost breakdowns for one to five family members for light, medium, and heavy data service. All you need to do is figure out how much data your family needs, which we also help you do in

Note that in comparing rates, we couldn’t always find perfect matches, but we used the most similar plans.

For instance, AT&T, Verizon, and now Sprint sell their data in chunks that can be shared by all the phones on one account, while T-Mobile requires you to buy data plans for each phone. So we selected sharable data plans that matched (or came as close as possible to matching) the per-phone data plan of T-Mobile.

Then there's the question of what happens if you don't use your full data allotment. T-Mobile and AT&T both provide ways for you to "bank" unused data from your monthly allowance for later use. With the T-Mobile Data Stash plan, you get a “gift” bucket of 10 gigabytes of data per phone line, plus the ability to roll over unused data into the following months—it just needs to be used within a year. The AT&T Rollover Data offer is more stingy. There is no data bonus and you have to use rolled over data by the end of the following month.

Another adjustment: T-Mobile offers unlimited data plans, while AT&T's and Verizon's plans cap off at 50GB, and Sprint's at 60GB, at rates north well north of $200. We determined that 4GB to 5GB per phone would be comparable to having unlimited data, for most users.

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