iStock 000015992600XSmall 7 questions to ask yourself before buying a new phoneStacey writes: I’m overwhelmed by the current cell phone/PDA market and can’t decide. iPhone? Android? String and tin cans? Nokia (do those even exist anymore?) Mostly, I just need the cell capabilities, but would not reject a multitude of uses like IM, photo, email, and the ability to download apps.

Hi Stacey! Trust me, you’re not alone. “What phone should I get?” is probably the most frequent question I get from readers, right behind “do you get to keep all those nifty gadgets?” (Answer to the latter question: nope, not unless I pay for them.)

As much as I’d like to just name the phone you should buy, I can’t. With so many new handsets and smartphones coming out each week, my advice would be obsolete two seconds after I gave it to you.

What I can do, however, is offer a little guidance for making your decision—namely, some questions to ask yourself before plunking down your cash and signing on the dotted line for a new phone, starting with…

1. What do you want to use your phone for?

 
Yes, there are still cell phones on sale that just make phone calls and send text messages—and not only are they generally cheaper than smartphones, they’ll also cost you less on a monthly basis (and remember, it’s the monthly bill, not the up-front price of the handset, that’s the true cost of owning a cell phone).

Want to send the occasional email on your phone? Again, you can still get away with a cheaper “feature” phone that supports email accounts (more and more do), not to mention a web browser (which you can use for Facebook and Twitter).

Related: What’s the difference between a feature phone and a smartphone?

But if you really, really want apps—you know, like Pandora for streaming music, Netflix for movies, Yelp for restaurant listings, or Angry Birds for fun—then yes, it’s time to start thinking about an iPhone, or Android phone, or a Windows Phone.

Related: Must-have apps for Android phones and the iPhone

2. How much are you willing to pay a month?

 
Here’s the thing about full-fledged smartphones like the iPhone or an Android phone: they require data plans, and they’re not cheap. Verizon, for example, charges a minimum of $30 a month for a 3G or 4G data plan, and that’s on top of your regular voice and texting plans.

If you go with a standard cell phone, though, you can get away with spending as little as $10 a month for basic web access—or you could even ditch the data altogether.

So if you’re on the fence about apps—as in, they’d be nice to have, but you’re not sure if you’d really use them—the cost of a smartphone data plan might nudge you one way or the other.

3. What’s your comfort level with cell phones?

 
Leery of dealing with complicated touch controls just to add a contact or send a text message? All the better reason to stick with a basic phone rather than diving into the heady world of smartphones.

That said, don’t just assume a particular phone will be easy to use because it’s cheap. Make sure to visit your local carrier store for a test drive before buying.

So, you want a smartphone but you’re still a bit of a beginner? If so, consider something like the iPhone, which (for my money, at least) has a relatively gentle learning curve.

Feeling confident, or want more choice in terms of look and feel? Then Android might be right for you. If you’re looking for a phone that plays nice with all things Windows, give Windows Phone a look. And let’s not forget the old, familiar BlackBerry, several models of which now offer touch-sensitive screens.

Related: iPhone or Android? 6 questions to ask yourself before deciding

4. Big or small?

 
Do you need a sliver of a phone that fits in a hip pocket, or would you prefer a bigger phone with a jumbo screen? These days, the smallest phones tend to be cheaper “feature” phones, while the latest Android and Windows Phone handsets are boasting displays larger than four inches diagonally. Apple, meanwhile, is sticking with a three-and-a-half inch, one-size-fits-all screen.

5. A physical keyboard, or a touchscreen keypad?

 
There’s nothing quite like the feel of an actual plastic key, particularly when it comes to tapping out lengthy email or text messages.

If a phone with a physical QWERTY keyboard is a must, you’ve got plenty of Android, BlackBerry, and Windows Phone options, not to mention bargain message phones. Apple, on the other hand, doesn’t offer an iPhone with a built-in or slide-out keypad—and it probably never will.

6. Are you in the middle of a contract?

 
If you’re currently under contract with a carrier, you won’t be able to jump to a competitor without coughing up a substantial “early termination fee,” or ETF as they’re known in the industry—think $350 or so, depending on how many months are left on your contract.

If that’s the case for you, and you’re not interested in shelling out a penalty for breaking your contract, then you’ll be limited to the phones offered by your carrier, and you might even have to pay extra if you’re not eligible for a discounted upgrade (if you’re not sure, call your carrier and ask). Just a thought.

7. Pre-paid or post-paid? Contract or no contract?

 
Not under contract, and not interested in signing one? Well, you could always go the pre-paid way. Pre-paid carriers like Boost Mobile, Virgin Mobile, Tracfone, and others offer a wide variety of bargain and high-end handsets, including Android phones (no iPhones, unfortunately), as do such major national carriers like AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless. (Sprint, by the way, offers its pre-paid phones through Boost.)

But if do choose to go with a pre-paid plan, keep in mind that you probably won’t be able to get a cutting-edge device, like the new Motorola Droid RAZR—and sorry, an iPhone 4S is out of the question.

Want the new iPhone, but don’t want to sign a contract? Well, you could always go for a standard post-paid plan (meaning you’re billed for the previous month’s usage, rather than paying in advance) but on a month-to-month basis, rather than signing the typical two-year contract. If you do, though, prepare to pay a bundle for an unsubsidized phone—for instance, $649 for the cheapest iPhone 4S, rather than $199 with a two-year contract.

Have more questions about buying a new phone? Sure you do. Post ‘em below!

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