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Finding the best online broker

Over the past few years, the nature of online investing has changed. Online brokers have added many new products and services, ranging from new investment options to more online education and social networking features. Mobile apps in particular have proliferated and are now used by the majority of investors, according to Barron's, which now takes mobile offerings into consideration in its annual rankings of online brokers. Most are available for iOS and Android; the best allow investors to make trades, check their accounts, stream real-time quotes and access in-depth research.

Many online brokers have also lowered their commissions and fees, opting for flat-rate prices rather than sliding-scale or tiered pricing. You can expect to pay around $7 to $10 per trade these days, though some offer even lower prices (with fewer services). While the flat-rate pricing trend is becoming the industry standard, however, it's imperative that potential customers read the fine print to understand online broker's commissions, fees and maintenance costs.

Online brokers offer more than just stocks

Gallup reports that just over half of Americans hold stocks, though most online stockbrokers also offer access to everything from options to mutual funds to international stocks (though the latter might be limited). Research and educational resources are key in deciding which investments to make, and many online brokers have stepped up their offerings in this category. Real-time quotes are the industry standard, and many brokerages offer free research reports from well-known third-party sources like Morningstar and Standard & Poor's. In addition, detailed charts, graphs and even recommended retirement plans and investments (based on your portfolio and risk tolerance) are likely to be offered with an online account.

Traditional brokerages like Fidelity, Charles Schwab, Scottrade, TD Ameritrade and Vanguard dominate the online brokerage market, but nipping at their heels are innovative lower-cost firms like TradeKing, OptionsHouse and Interactive Brokers. In addition, online broker E*Trade is making a comeback as one of the stronger firms.

Many online brokers receive stellar reviews from numerous expert sources and financial bloggers. Based on professional reviews, three companies stand out amid the stiff competition: TD Ameritrade, for IRAs; Scottrade, for overall investing; and TradeKing, for discount trades.

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