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Gift Guide: Navigating maze of phone, plan choices

By Annick Jasdanun | 12/13/2013, 6 a.m.
So you're ready to buy a new smartphone for your loved one. Which do you choose?
A sales person pulls out an iPhone 5s for a customer during the opening day of sales of the iPhone 5s and iPhone 5C, in Hialeah, Fla. AP photo.

NEW YORK (AP) - 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.


GOOGLE'S ANDROID:

Android addresses a major shortcoming with iPhones: choice.

Sure, there are three iPhone models, but their screens are no larger than 4 inches diagonally, and none is in high definition. Although the iPhone has a great camera, images are limited to 8 megapixels.

Android is also adaptable. Phone makers can tweak Google's operating system to offer a variety of useful features, though in doing so, they also add confusion and make it difficult for app developers to keep up. That's one reason some apps are slower to reach Android. By contrast, Apple pushes the latest iOS updates as they come out.

If you've settled on Android, you must decide on the right mix of features:

• Looking for cheap? Consider Motorola's Moto G ($179) or Google's Nexus 5 ($349). Both are good at the basics, with few frills. Moto G won't run on the faster, 4G LTE cellular networks, while the Nexus has shorter battery life than many phones tested.