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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

(continued from page 1)

Though performance differences exist from phone to phone, I've found that when you just say no to the "free" and incredibly cheap phones available today and move into the $100-and-up category, the voice quality of the phone you get is pretty good to excellent, as long as you're in a strong signal area.

The real question, then, is which cellular carrier provides the best coverage in the area where you'll do most of your calling. Your first resource here is a coverage map, which is available either at retailers or on the Web sites of cellular service providers. Make sure your home area and the areas where you most often travel are included. By and large, you'll find major metropolitan areas covered across the board, but systems vary widely once you get out into the hinterlands.

Unlike Europe and Japan, the United States doesn't have a single cell phone standard -- there are three, incompatible standards called TDMA, CDMA and GSM, with further subdivisions within each. For the most part you can ignore this bit of alphabet soup when choosing a phone, since no standard has a clear service quality edge. However, in the United States, GSM systems aren't as geographically widespread as the others, but GSM is the more prevalent global standard.

The coverage map is a good starting point when choosing a carrier. Next, pick the brains of friends and colleagues. Ask what they think of their cellular carrier. Can they get through without multiple redials? Do they experience a lot of dropped calls? How's the voice quality? If coverage by a particular carrier in a given area is substandard, that fact will come through loud and clear.

Next, you'll need to wade through the morass of deals offered, each with its own unique combination of fixed fees, included minutes and cost-per-minute charges. I can't recommend a best-buy carrier for you, since cell phone rates are a floating crap game, shifting day by day. However, a few Web sites will help make sense of the cacophonous claims. Take a look at wireless.cnet.com for an easy-to-understand summary of all the rate plans available in your area, plus lots of additional information about cellular service.

A Tangled Web

The big push among cell phone providers today is the so-called "wireless Web." To watch the commercials, you'd think that computers are an endangered species, as the digital elite cut the cord and start surfing the Web wirelessly on their cell phones. There's a grain of truth here, but it's buried in an absolute avalanche of hype and misinformation.

To clarify: the "wireless Web" is not the Internet as we've come to know and love it. Instead, it's a set of information and commerce providers that dish up content in a form that fits on a tiny screen. Many genuinely useful services are available through Web-enabled phones today, including stock quotes, sports scores, news headlines and flight status reports. And, though I've never felt the need to order a book or bouquet while careening down Fifth Avenue in the back of a speeding cab, the wireless Web does make it possible.

Keep in mind, though, that even the best of the Web-enabled phones provide a display that's much smaller than a computer monitor, meaning you'll end up scrolling repeatedly to read through most articles. Many Web-enabled phones have four-line screens displaying only a dozen characters across -- by the time you get through the news headlines, your thumb aches from mashing the scroll key. Even more inconveniently, the phone doesn't have a full alphabetic keyboard -- creating words requires hitting a key repeatedly to get to the letter you need (typing an s, for example, means hitting the 7 key five times in a row -- 7-p-q-r-s). Somehow, I don't think the computer makers face much of a threat from the phone companies. Which doesn't mean the information available via Web-enabled phones isn't valuable -- it's just important that you understand their limitations and think about how often you'll use them before choosing a larger, more expensive phone to get the bigger screen and better keyboard that make Web access easier.

Here's one more point to consider: many top-rated cell phones let you connect the phone to your laptop computer and use it as a wireless modem to dial into the "real" Internet for fetching e-mail or visiting full-fledged Web sites. This generally requires additional software and a cable to connect the phone to your computer, available in an accessory kit. This is a very slick and practical feature for many travelers -- the only caveat is that using your cell phone as a modem is slow (about 14.4 kbps) and can be expensive, depending on your calling plan.


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