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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.

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.

How Smart Is Your Phone?

You need to carry a cell phone for communication. You need to carry a personal digital assistant -- a Palm, Pocket PC or what have you -- for information. What if we could duck into Dr. Frankenstein's lab and merge the two into a single multifunction gadget?

Carrying one device instead of two sounds like a good idea at first blush, especially when the different functions can share a single phone number list. Early attempts in the category, though, were big, hulking things -- carry one in your jacket pocket and it looks like you work for Tony Soprano. Recently, though, so-called smart phones have improved tremendously. The Kyocera Smartphone and Ericsson R380 are slim and stylish but still offer pocket-size access to your contact information, calendar and to-do list. Unlike the other phones in this survey, the Kyocera even offers access to the full-blown Internet instead of the wireless Web. Both phones come with software and cables that let you transfer information from your computer to the phone, so you don't have to retype anything. And unlike their predecessors, these new smart phones don't feel like a brick when you hold them to your ear to make a call.

The Next Big Thing

Seems whenever you make a high-tech purchase, a new development is just over the horizon. Right now it's Bluetooth, a technology that will be widely available in 2001. Basically, Bluetooth is a short-range radio system that lets the devices you're carrying talk to one another. For example, your Bluetooth-enabled phone could wirelessly share a phone list with your Bluetooth-equipped desktop computer or PDA. Ericsson will offer a cordless headset able to make and receive calls via the Bluetooth-enabled phone placed in your pocket, using voice commands.

Bluetooth technology is supported by essentially everyone on both the computer and telecommunications sides of the industry. What's more, the radio transmitter/receiver required to provide Bluetooth support in a device adds only about $20 to $35 to the cost, so expect plenty of interesting uses. Does it pay to buy one of the first Bluetooth-enabled phones? As always, that depends on your appetite for the cutting edge. With full bragging rights come the rough edges and high prices of first- version technology. As more people embrace Bluetooth technology, add-ons for existing phones will appear, and prices will plunge. You may want to choose one of our other favorite phones and wait it out.

Steve Morgenstern writes often on technology.

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