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Beyond the Call

Today's cell phones have to do more than make a simple connection. Here are handsets that deliver style when you dial.
Steve Morgenstern
From the Print Edition:
Daniel Craig, November/December 2008

My first cell phone was a Motorola MicroTac, purchased around 1990. It was battleship gray, weighed about three quarters of a pound and did something amazing—it let me place calls without searching for pocket change and a funky pay phone. Little did I know then how many extraordinary tricks the Cell Phone of the Future would eventually handle, from music and video playback to GPS navigation to e-mail and instant messaging, capturing photos and video clips, and on a good day ringing when someone calls and letting me hold a conversation while yelling only a little.

For this roundup, I borrowed some of the most buzzed-about überphones on the market today, each with its own distinctive claim to fame, and put them through their paces. Overall, it's clear that after releasing several generations of feature-packed phones that were overpriced, hard to learn and disappointing to use, manufacturers have finally figured out how to bring style and performance together, at prices that won't make you wince. And the best part of my product testing? Only my wife and daughter had the number of the phone I was carrying at any given moment. What a luxury!

iPhone 3G

When I covered the original iPhone in these pages, I found a lot to like but still had some qualms. "The bottom line: this first iPhone is a digital trophy wife, attractive and envy-inducing but expensive and tough to live with after the initial flush of acquisition fades," I wrote. "The next-generation iPhone, on the other hand, will probably justify a long-term relationship."

Was I right with my next-gen prediction? As usual, the answer is yes and no. Apple broke down several significant barriers this time out. The first-generation iPhone ran on AT&T's older, slowpoke data network, which made using the attractive Safari Web browser an exercise in frustration. The new one moves up to the carrier's high-speed 3G (as in "third generation") network, which makes a huge difference. Pricing for the new iPhone is also far more attractive—$199 for the 8-gigabyte model is a very good deal, especially when you consider the best-in-class music and video features (including the option to rent movies for $1.99 and watch them on the go). Apple swapped the annoyingly easy-to-scratch metal back for plastic, and in this case, plastic is a much smarter choice. I'm not a huge fan of cell phone GPS navigation—it's great for walking around unfamiliar neighborhoods but far less practical than a dedicated GPS unit when driving—so the fact that the 3G iPhone adds GPS doesn't move the needle one way or the other for me. The effort to allow outside programmers to create insanely great software for the iPhone, on the other hand, is a very big deal both for enterprise customers and fun-seeking civilians.

Several key annoyances remain unchanged, though. You still can't swap out the iPhone battery yourself, a user-hostile decision by Apple that runs counter to industry-standard design. The camera, poor in the first iPhone, is unimproved, and you still can't record video, a surprising exclusion in the age of YouTube. Still no voice control or voice dialing (very handy when driving using a hands-free car kit or earphone), and still no support for wireless Bluetooth stereo headphones, a natural feature for a music-centric device. And while the purchase price of the phone itself did drop dramatically, AT&T's charge for the data plan required to use iPhone's cool Internet features went up by $10 a month, so over its two-year contract life span the new low-cost iPhone is actually more expensive than its predecessor.

My big problem, though, is still the keyboard, or lack of one. I use my phone as a messaging device even more than for voice communication. I write e-mail. I send instant messages. And after weeks of attempting to peck out messages on the iPhone's flat screen festooned with pictures of keys, I never achieved a reasonable combination of speed and accuracy. I can hear iPhone fans snorting as they read this: clearly I must be a fumble-fingered foul-up. But considering that I type fluidly on other devices—not only with true keypads (including the LG Env2 and BlackBerry models below) but with the virtual keyboard provided by the Samsung Instinct, which offers touch feedback while typing—I'm sticking with my warning for fans of mobile messaging.

The bottom line on iPhone this time: an extraordinary entertainment device, a respectable value for the money and a much more tempting choice than the original, but still with significant room for improvement.

4.5" x 2.4" x 0.48", 4.7 oz., $199 (8-gigabyte), $299 (16-gigabyte),

Samsung Instinct

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