Christmas Gifts: Festive phone-buying

A mobile makes a great gift. But which tariff is best?

Derided by some and desired by others, the mobile phone was one of the most popular gifts last year and looks set to top the tables again this season. There is no doubting the value of mobile phones: for many of us, they are indispensable. But there are few other gifts that are so difficult to choose and - potentially - so expensive.

The price for the phone on the ticket is just the starting point. At the very least, anyone who owns a mobile phone will have to pay for calls, and those calls can be as high as 50 pence per minute. Pick the right deal, though, and it can be almost as cheap as the phone at home.

Mobile phone companies sell their services in two ways: with a contract, or a "pay as you go" deal. Contracts last for 12 months and charge a monthly fee; this almost always includes a fixed amount of calls. The mobile operators bill subscribers for any extra calls they make once the "free" minutes are used up. The networks - Orange, Vodafone, One2One and Cellnet - usually charge a connection fee, normally around pounds 35. The phone, though, can be very cheap, if not free, as the networks subsidise the cost.

Pay as you go phones cost more, but there is no subscription. Instead, users buy vouchers to make the call and, in most cases, to keep the use of their number for incoming calls. Calls on pay as you go packages are higher, too, although the networks offer deals with low off-peak charges which can be an attractive option.

Recently Virgin Mobile has entered the market with a deal which is effectively a hybrid of the two systems. Virgin Mobile users pay more than contract users for their phones, but there is no monthly line rental. They can use vouchers to call, or opt for monthly bills.

A further variation on the theme is the boxed set, where buyers pay for the phone, the monthly line rental and connection in one go, with charges for any extra calls.

Pay as you go phones, Virgin mobiles and boxed sets are ideal for gifts, and the range of phones on offer is improving all the time. Even so, some of the latest phones are only available on contract. This means you will have to involve the recipient if you want to buy it as a gift (unless you also want to sign up for their calls too). But with a top-of-the-range mobile weighing in at just a touch under pounds 300 this is hardly an impulse buy.

The best option is to seek the advice of an independent retailer such as Carphone Warehouse or The Link that stocks phones from all four networks. Only a specialist will be able to give up-to-date advice on the phone, running costs and the all-important issue of network coverage.

Mobile phones

Motorola Timeport Tri-band L7089

Motorola goes where no phone has gone before with coverage across Europe and major cities in the United States. A threeband phone gives the best choice of networks, and for anyone travelling to North America, there really is no competition. The Timeport is not the smartest or smallest phone on the market, but it does boast features such as voice activation and an infrared link to computers and personal organisers.

From pounds 99 with a contract, depending on network (eg Orange pounds 129.99), or pounds 279.99 on Virgin Mobile.

Bosch 509E

A translucent, orange phone from Orange. This looks good, has the features you need, and if you buy it as a pay as you go phone, it comes with 10 free text messages a day as an introductory offer. A natural companion for that tangerine iMac.

pounds 69.99 on Orange Just Talk or pounds 129.99 for a year's subscription on Orange Boxed and Ready.

Nokia 5146/NK 402/5110

A quality handset from market leaders Nokia, this is a good-sized phone with decent battery life and the option to connect to a laptop. Style watchers will appreciate the changeable covers, but as a single-band phone it will only work in some parts of Europe.

pounds 99.99 on One2One's More 2 Say, Vodafone's Pay As You Talk or Orange's Just Talk.

Bosch 909

Small and extremely stylish in silver. Anyone who finds the Bosch giftwrapped for them will know they are valued.

pounds 199.99 on One2One's More 2 Say.

Motorola V3688

Now in millennium silver, this is the phone to be seen with, although its tiny size makes it an understated fashion statement. The Motorola is a dual-band phone with a built-in modem for PC, as well as great looks.

pounds 299.99 on a contract (all networks) or pounds 379.99 with Virgin Mobile.

Accessories

Headset recoiler: coil up that all-important headset with a yoyo-like device from the Carphone Warehouse (pounds 7.99) or try the neat retractable headset from Virgin Mobile (pounds 19.99).

Press-on covers: why buy a new phone when you can buy a new case? Tasteful, stylish or South Park covers for Nokia phones. Around pounds 20, Carphone Warehouse and other dealers.

Ericsson Chatboard: if you use your phone to type text messages, invest in this. The Chatboard is a miniature keyboard that clips on to Ericsson phones (pounds 19.99 with a contract).

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