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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), apple.com

Samsung Instinct

It's a twisted tribute to the technological and marketing clout of Steve Jobs and company that there's a category of cell phones unofficially dubbed "iPhone killers"—phones with large touch-screen displays, music and video capabilities and at least a whiff of cool about them that don't come from Apple and don't run on the AT&T network, which is the exclusive home of the iPhone. You just don't see this kind of dominance in other digital product categories—nobody really talks about a Sony Bravia killer in the LCD TV world, for example, or a Dyson killer in the fiercely competitive vacuum business (at least nobody who isn't a marketing manager at a competitive company, eager to inject a little homicidal juice into the annual sales conference).

One phone that makes inroads in the head-to-head, feature-for-feature class wars against iPhone is this sleek new Sprint phone, which is clearly influenced by Apple's product yet noteworthy in its own right.

The family resemblance to iPhone is evident at a glance. This is a large, slender, flat-faced touch-screen device, nearly identical in size and shape to the iPhone 3G, although at 3.1 inches the screen is noticeably smaller than the iPhone's 3.5-inch display. In this, as in so many of life's competitions, size does matter—four-tenths of an inch may not sound like much, but in practice it does give Apple a substantial visual advantage when it comes to screen real estate. And you can't beat the convenience of using iTunes software to load up your phone with multimedia goodies, whether it's your own ripped CD tunes, music purchased from Apple (still not my favorite choice, based on copy-protection limitations) or a TV episode or movie you missed (an easier-to-justify expense, as long as you're renting rather than buying movies).

The Instinct does outshine iPhone in certain important areas, though, from the fundamental (you can replace your own damn battery, for instance—the phone even ships with a spare at no additional cost) to the esoteric—e.g., visual voice mail. Apple pioneered the visual voice mail concept—an audio message shows up on your device in a listing that displays caller ID info, allowing you to pick and choose which message you listen to, and in what order. The Instinct sees this bet and raises it: in addition to listening to the voice mail message, you can forward it to someone else or save it on your computer, two capabilities Apple doesn't provide.

The Instinct's keyboard, though it's only an image of keys on a flat screen, has an interesting feature that makes it somewhat easier to manage. When you press on a key (or any virtual button on the phone, for that matter), you feel a subtle buzzing sensation in your fingertip. This is called haptic feedback, and while it still can't compare with pushing down on actual keys, it does help reassure you that your fingers are in the right place and the phone knows it. What's more, you can pivot the Instinct so the keyboard runs the full length of the phone, making typing much easier.

Another nice feature for precise input is the ability to use a stylus to pick out on-screen items or even enter text, a trick the iPhone doesn't share. (Apple's screen technology relies on reading heat, while this one responds to pressure.) You get a decent camera plus video recording, access to Sprint's TeleNav GPS navigation system along with 150 live radio channels and the option to listen to them using a wireless Bluetooth stereo headset. On the other hand, there's no support for transferring contact or calendar information from a Mac, and while you can read attachments to an incoming e-mail, you can't edit them. All in all, the Instinct is a fine, full-featured companion both for work and play, and surprisingly inexpensive at $130, though it's worth noting that the phone comes with 2 gigabytes of memory versus 8 gigabytes in the least expensive iPhone 3G.

4.6" x 2.2" x 0.5", 4.4 oz., $130, sprint.com

LG Vu

The marquee feature for the Vu is the view—the ability to watch live streaming television over AT&T's new Mobile TV service. Well, it's new to AT&T, at any rate—a similar system has been available from Verizon for a year now, with a slightly different channel lineup. On both systems, it's truly an enjoyable experience to have a quick TV fix in your pocket, even on a small screen (the Vu display measures 3 inches diagonally). Unlike the herky-jerky, low-res video sent over the cellular network, Mobile TV is broadcast to subscribers on unused UHF bandwidth. As a result, the picture is razor-sharp, the audio is clear and the programs are full-length and varied. During prime time, you'll find that many of the 12 channels broadcast on the same schedule as their providers, which include CBS, NBC, Fox, ESPN, Comedy Central and MTV.

While I brought the Vu in to check out the TV feature, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I like this slender, lightweight phone overall. It's significantly smaller than the iPhone or Instinct, making it much more pants-pocket friendly. This is another touch-screen phone controlled by pressing pictures of buttons and dragging your finger across the screen to scroll lists up or down. It uses the same kind of haptic feedback system found on the Instinct, which makes the lack of physical buttons easier to accept, and with the phone display in landscape view (i.e., sidewise), the keyboard works well for typing messages or entering Web site addresses. And speaking of the Web, the Vu includes an excellent Web browser. While instant-messaging fans are well served with support for MSN, Yahoo and AOL, the e-mail client is more limited: you can't enter your own provider settings, so unless you get your mail via Yahoo, Earthlink or one of the other preprogrammed mail services, you're out of luck. Other than that limitation, though, I'm a big fan of this phone, for its stylish good looks, extensive feature set and the option to watch John Stewart or a live ball game while riding the train home at night.

4.25" x 2.16" x 0.51", 3.16 oz., $300, wireless.att.com

LG enV2

If, like me, you use your phone as much for sending and receiving e-mail as for conversing, this is one attractive little device. And "little" is really the key here. I've toyed with several phones in the same format as the enV2—a phone keypad on the outside, and when you flip open the case, a horizontal keyboard on the bottom and a wide screen on top, ready for messaging or Web surfing. The problem generally is that while this layout works fine if you carry the phone in your briefcase all day, in the pocket it is a long, fat device that's too bulky for portability. With the enV2, LG effectively thinned out both the screen and keypad components, so the entire phone is only 0.65 inches thick—that's only slightly deeper than so-called candy bar—style flat phones like the iPhone or Instinct. LG also shrank the height and width drastically, to just 4 inches and about 2 inches, respectively. I was afraid this might have led to a keyboard that's too small to use, but thanks to well-designed "clicky" keys with adequate space between them, I soon found my fingers flying through text-entry tasks. The biggest adjustment was getting used to having space buttons on either side of the bottom row of alphabetic keys rather than a full-length one beneath it.

The external screen is very small—only about an inch tall, which is fine for dialing but not for all the other cool services Verizon offers. Fortunately, GPS navigation, e-mail, V Cast music and video services are all available on the high-res internal screen, along with an extensive set of convenience features, including a notepad, alarm clock and voice recorder. And while the Web browser is limited, the speakerphone works loud and clear, a particularly nice feature that lets you open the phone, sit it down on a tabletop and enjoy comfortable hands-free conversations.

4.0" x 2.0" x 0.7", 4.2 oz., $200, verizonwireless.com

Nokia 5310 Xpress Music

OK, masters of the obvious, can you figure out what the outstanding feature of Nokia's 5310 Xpress Music might be? Right—it's the phone's extraordinarily thin physique.

Oh sure, it's a terrific music phone, with dedicated play/pause, forward and back buttons along the outer left edge and a 3.5mm earphone jack—that's the size that works with regular audio headphones, rather than the smaller 2.5mm plug found on most cell phones. (It also works with wireless stereo Bluetooth headphones, if you prefer.) The phone can play files in pretty much any musical format you'll encounter (except for copy-protected tracks bought from the iTunes store, of course), though you'll want to invest in a microSD memory card to supplement the phone's meager 7-megabyte built-in capacity. When you've loaded the phone with tunes, you can choose to use any of them as your ring tone, which is a whole lot better than spending good money buying snippets of songs as canned ring tones. Another nice extra while listening to music is that the album art is displayed on the screen.

And speaking of the screen, this one's a winner, capable of showing 16.7 million colors—a real treat for anyone who likes showing off his favorite photos on a phone. There's also a built-in FM radio and a camera that shoots both stills and videos.

Even if your musical interests stalled sometime around "The Eensy Weensy Spider," the Nokia 5310 offers two slender temptations. The 0.4-inch-thick phone will barely bulge even a buttoned-up, slim-fit Italian suit jacket. And to complement that pricey bit of tailoring in these tough economic times, T-Mobile is offering the 5310 for a petite $50 price tag.

4.1" x 1.8" x 0.4", 3.0 oz., $50, t-mobile.com

Motorola Rokr E8

Oh, how far Motorola has come since I first owned the aforementioned MicroTac. The new Rokr E8 not only adds first-rate music and imaging to a cell phone, but it makes each capability effortlessly accessible. No confusing menus when you want to shift modes, just press a button and you move to the next task. If you're listening to music and you go to make a phone call, the music controls disappear completely and you're looking at a telephone keypad. Press again and it becomes a dedicated camera.

This neat bit of sleight of hand is done with the company's first use of haptic technology and something that Motorola calls ModeShift. The phone's face is flat with a black background. The control panels exist only as lighted images below the surface and only when you call them into service. The buttons, which are nothing more than slight dimples, give tactile feedback when you touch them and the FastScroll navigation takes you through menus with a slide of your thumb. Depending on your speed you can go song by song or, with a satisfying whirl, whisk through your MP3 library from "All Along the Watchtower" to "Sunshine of Your Love."

As the name suggests, the Rokr is born to play music. It loads songs easily from an array of sources and connects to Windows Media Player to download from online music services. The E8 also has a built-in FM radio (you must plug in optional 3.5 headphones to use it). You can listen to music by Bluetooth or on the built-in speaker. Motorola also offers the pocketsize EQ5 Wireless Travel Stereo Speaker that is quite serviceable. One of the sharpest features is a song ID function. Say you're in a bar and you can't place what's playing on the jukebox. The Rokr will record a clip and compare it with a database to tell you what you're hearing.


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