There's never a single, definitive answer to the vexing question "What's the best deal on a cellular or PCS phone plan?"
There are dozens of possible service plans -- more than 75 from the five major carriers in the Washington area. When you're looking for the perfect phone with the perfect service for your needs, the criteria can seem endless: How much "peak time" does a service claim? What's the coverage? What's the quality of the connection? It's almost impossible to imagine people crunching through all this information on their own and making much sense of it.
Fortunately, this is another of those odious chores that seem well served by Web technology.
Two Internet sites, Point.com and Decide.com, offer interactive tools to help in the mobile-phone decision.
Both Point.com and Decide.com are free. They make a commission if you use them to sign up for a plan, but they're not making more money off any one service, so the emphasis is on helping users figure out what they're looking for rather than pushing a potential customer in any particular direction. As a result, both sites are user-friendly, with lots of no-nonsense articles to get newbies up and running.
The main difference? Decide.com's strength is its added editorial content; Point.com's strength is a nice search interface, built for sheer data management.
Barely two months old, Decide.com is already giving Point.com a run for the money. Not only does it break down cell phones and wireless plans, but outside the wireless arena, it can also help figure out which long-distance plan is best for you.
Decide.com breaks usage patterns into a few categories, ranging from "Road Warrior" to "Safety User." If you're not sure which category you'd fall under, answer seven questions about your phone use and the site will attempt to figure out which will match your phone needs for the best price. This site promises to reimburse customers the difference if they're able to find a better deal elsewhere.
The information here appears to be reliable and impartial -- in particular, the reviews of phones are very useful, since Decide.com's team of reviewers is perfectly willing to bash a model for having weak batteries or poor interfaces. The site is even taking on the gargantuan task of reviewing call quality -- but it hasn't gotten around to the D.C. area yet, unfortunately.
The only puzzling thing about this site is that it has an odd habit of ending your "session" and sending you back to Decide.com's home page if you spend more than a few minutes on one page, even if you're a casual window shopper who hasn't registered an account.
This site has an impressive and flexible search engine -- enter your Zip code, then select a plan according to how much you're willing to spend or how much time you'll be using the phone each month.
Pick up to five of the plans from the resulting screen, which refreshes instantly as you enter criteria, and Point.com will show you everything about the plans, side by side, along with coverage maps -- a great tool for figuring out which service plan you'd like to go with. For many plans, there's also a $50 rebate if you select a service using Point.com.
Inevitably, you'll end up with a few plans that seem equally good, so Point.com addresses the issue with a list of nine "tiebreakers," with tips that might not occur to an inexperienced subscriber (go with the plan that bills by the second, not the minute; go with the plan with the shortest peak calling time and the lowest cancellation fee). It's too bad that some of these tips aren't somehow factored into the search engine as well.
Following the same structure, however, the site's phone reviews only tick off a long list of features for each model and don't address a phone's strengths and weaknesses.
The bottom line? I'd take advantage of the strengths of each site: Point.com for picking a service plan, and Decide.com for picking out a phone.