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Image: iPhone, BlackBerry Bold 9700, Palm Pree and Motorola Droid
Apple, BlackBerry, Palm and Motorola
Among the hottest phones of the season are Apple's iPhone (AT&T), the BlackBerry Bold 9700 (T-Mobile), the Palm Pre (Sprint) and Motorola's Droid (Verizon Wireless).
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msnbc.com
updated 11/23/2009 8:57:39 AM ET 2009-11-23T13:57:39

Thinking of buying a smartphone as a gift? Some might put it in the category of kittens and puppies as presents: not a great idea because it’s such a personal decision.

But odds are if you’re going to give such a device, you know exactly what the recipient wants. It also helps to know what wireless carriers’ policies are when it comes to returns, restocking and other fees.

Smartphones, which handle data like e-mail and Web surfing, are on the top 10 list of tech holiday wish lists, according to the Consumer Electronics Association’s annual holiday study. Apple’s hugely popular iPhone specifically is named on the list.

You can also buy a phone without going through a carrier, then sign up for service. You’ll need to make sure the phone works with the carrier’s network technology. Verizon Wireless and Sprint use CDMA networks; AT&T and T-Mobile’s phones run on GSM networks.

Some good deals
You may not get as good a price, or even a subsidized price, as you would buying from a carrier. But deals are to be found. For example, the Palm Pre (one of the year’s best smartphones) was selling for $79.99 on Amazon.com recently, almost half of what it costs through exclusive carrier Sprint ($149.99) with a two-year contract.

The Motorola Droid, which went on sale just a few weeks ago for $199.99 with a two-year contract from Verizon Wireless, is being offered for $149.99 on Amazon.com.

Another example: The BlackBerry Curve 8520 costs $50 with a two-year T-Mobile contract if you buy the phone at Wal-Mart. Otherwise, it costs $129.99 from T-Mobile directly.

In addition to considering the monthly cost of minutes, text message and data plans, arm yourself with information about the nation’s four largest wireless companies as you set out to shop in the weeks ahead.

Returns/restocking fees
AT&T, the exclusive carrier of the iPhone in the United States, has a 30-day return policy for all devices and services.

However, Steven Schwadron of AT&T said that in the case of the iPhone only, if the phone is returned within three days of purchase, the $36 activation fee (for a new plan) will be refunded.

10 smart phone tips for dumb peopleIf the phone is returned in “like-new condition with all components,” he said, the carrier’s early termination fee will be waived, although there will be a restocking fee of 10 percent of the cost of the phone if it was bought at an AT&T-owned retail store.

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A $35 restocking fee applies to other phones and devices purchased at an AT&T-owned retail store.

Verizon Wireless, which carries the new Motorola Droid and HTC Droid Eris, as well as the BlackBerry Storm2 and the BlackBerry Tour, said it is extending the standard 30-day return/exchange time for part of the holiday shopping season.

Purchases made Nov. 15 through Dec. 14 will have until Jan. 13 to be returned or exchanged, said Brenda Raney, Verizon Wireless spokeswoman.

Also, “customers who purchase phones between Nov. 15 and Dec. 25 have 45 days to activate phones,” she said. “Normally, customers have seven days to activate a phone or they are charged the full price of the phone, not the advertised price, which is based on a two-year contract.”

Verizon Wireless charges a $35 restocking fee.

Sprint has a 30-day return policy on its phones, with recent models including the Pre, Palm Pixi, BlackBerry Tour, HTC Hero and Samsung Moment.

The carrier’s restocking charge is $35 on activated phones that are exchanged for a different color or model, said Michelle Leff Mermelstein of Sprint. The fee is “collected at the point of the exchange,” and is “not charged under certain conditions such as non-activated phones, 30-day returns only or defective or damaged phones.”

T-Mobile, which has the new BlackBerry Bold 9700 as well as popular phones such as the T-Mobile G1 and myTouch Android phones from HTC, has a 14-day “trial period” for customers who activate a new account, and a 30-day return policy for phones that are purchased at full price without a contract or service, according to spokeswoman Amanda Ginther.

The company charges a $10 restocking fee.

Early termination fees
Early termination fees are charged when you agree to a two-year contract and want out of it before the contract is up.

Those fees typically have been between $175 and $200, with the amount decreasing the closer you are to the end of the contract.

Verizon Wireless recently doubled its early termination fee to $350 for “advanced devices” such as BlackBerrys and the new Motorola Droid.

“Generally, advanced devices include a combination of advanced capabilities that combined drive up the cost of the device,” she said in explaining the company’s increase in the early termination fee. “These capabilities can include a premium (Web) browser; high-resolution megapixel camera with optical zoom; dual-processor chipsets; Wi-Fi; very high-display resolution and operating systems such as BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, Palm, or Android.”

The fee decreases by $10 a month, said Raney, who noted that early termination fees for feature phones remains at $175 and decreases by $5 a month.

She also said that early termination fees “are optional because customers can purchase phones at full retail price with no contract.” Of course, doing so means paying hundreds of dollars more, especially for smartphones.

AT&T charges a $175 early termination fee, and says after 30 days, the penalty decreases by $5 a month.

$200 maximum at Sprint, T-Mobile
Both Sprint and T-Mobile have a $200 early termination fee.

“Our early termination fee is the same for any of our devices,” said Mark J. Elliott of Sprint. “It is also prorated over the life of the service agreement.”

At T-Mobile, customers who terminate their contract with 91 to 180 days remaining on it pay $100, said T-Mobile’s Ginther, and it “decreases again to $50 with fewer than 91 days remaining. If customers terminate in the last 30 days of their term, the early termination fee is $50, or their standard monthly charge, whichever is less.”

Gift cards
If you're not sure what phone or what accessories to get, you might want to consider a gift card. AT&T and Verizon Wireless gift cards are available in company-owned stores and can be used to buy phones, accessories or even pay phone bills.

Sprint gift cards can be used for phones and accessories, but not to pay bills or be used as a deposit on an account, said Elliott.

T-Mobile does not offer gift cards, Ginther said. One new smartphone offering the carrier has does not require a contract. It's for the BlackBerry Curve 8520, with an $80-a-month plan that covers unlimited talk, text messages and Web access. The Curve 8520 can be purchased through T-Mobile for $299; if you go with a contract, it's $129.99 (or $50 at Wal-Mart), as mentioned above.

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