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Buy and Cell

Which cell phone is for you? We pick the best
Steve Morgenstern
From the Print Edition:
Dennis Hopper, Jan/Feb 01

Eeny, meeny, miney, mo, 50 cell phones in a row. What's the best choice? I don't know! My mother said to pick this one and out goes Y,O . . . Wait! I know it's difficult choosing the right cell phone, but that's no reason to leave the decision to chants. You're going to carry this thing around with you for months, possibly years-it pays to spend a few minutes now arming yourself with the knowledge needed to make a smart selection. As you look more closely at the array of cell phones available, you realize there's no one phone that's the best pick for everybody. Instead, different models accentuate different features and capabilities. One is smaller than another, while a second does a better job fetching information via the "wireless Web," and a third offers the brightest, easiest-to-read display. After the following quick briefing, you'll be able to choose the phone that best fits your own particular needs and preferences.

The Basics
Whether you prefer an inexpensive phone or feel like splurging on a luxury model, the basic considerations remain the same.

Size: Compactness makes a tremendous difference when choosing a cell phone. For me, a tiny phone like the Motorola V8162, weighing in at a scant 3 ounces and just 3 1/4 inches long, offers perfect pocket-size portability. Some folks I've shown it to, though, can't stand the small buttons on the touchpad, and prefer a wider, heftier phone.

One additional point to consider sizewise if you're going to do much traveling -- how big is the charger that comes with the phone? It's often a good idea to part with a few extra dollars and buy a travel charger to go with your new phone, instead of lugging a power brick and charging stand in your overnight bag.

Modes: All of our recommended models are digital phones. Digital models have superior battery life, generally better voice quality, and support more high-end features than older analog phones. However, the analog cellular network is still out there and affords geographical coverage practically everywhere. If you choose a dual-mode phone (one that supports both digital and analog networks) you get the best of both worlds -- the advantages of digital when you're in a digital coverage area, the fallback of analog if you roam outside the digital network.

Battery Life: Cell phone battery life has increased tremendously in the past few years -- most phones today provide at least three days of standby time and over two hours of talk time between charges. Models differ significantly, however, and longer life between charges is a big advantage. Most phones use nickel metal hydride batteries, a few use lithium ion. While lithium ion batteries are preferable (they weigh less and hold a charge better), nickel metal hydride is significantly less expensive.

Vibration Alert: I haven't heard a report yet of a murder triggered by a loudly beeping cell phone in a public place, but it's only a matter of time. Better to be safe than sorry -- choose a cell phone that can vibrate quietly when a call comes in. And for pity's sake, use it, at least when you're sitting in a theater near me.

Style: It used to be that just carrying a cell phone was enough of a status symbol. Now practically everybody who wants one has one, and it's going to take some serious style to make a gee-whiz impression. What you find impressive is going to depend on who you are -- the elegant Champagne case with chrome trim of the Nokia 8890 will appeal to the fashion-conscious, while those of us who hang out with certified, professional tech geeks will appreciate the Palm organizer/cell phone hybrid offered in the Kyocera Smartphone.

What About Sound?

You're probably wondering why sound quality and call reliability aren't mentioned above. Rightly so. Cell phones today can do lots of cool tricks, but first and foremost, you want a reliable phone that gets your calls through consistently and delivers good voice quality in both directions. However, the most important factor in making that happen has little to do with the phone itself.

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