A stylish cell phone is not hard to find these days, but try locating one that isn't loaded with techy features you'll probably never use. Cell phone makers seem determined to pack as much punch as possible into these little packages; as a result, phones are getting much more powerful but also a lot more complicated. The new devices we've chosen are phones first and foremost, though whether you need it or not, there's powerful technology under the hood.
All offer an always-on data connection using GPRS (General Packet Radio Service), a wireless channel for delivering bursts of data such as e-mail, instant messaging, and Web pages at speeds about as fast as a 56K dial-up modem. GPRS works with phones operating through the GSM network, the predominant mobile system worldwide. (A similar service for phones in the CDMA network is called 1X.) The technology has been around for several years, but it's only now making it into units reaching the market. The first step toward an even faster future service, known generically as 3G (which hopes to bring video feeds, radiolike music reception, and live games to your mobile phone), GPRS will probably be standard on new phones throughout 2002. But Web browsing may be overkill in such small devices: Do you want to read news from a screen that holds just seven lines of text? More useful extras on these phones include voice recording, three-way conference calling, and an infrared port so your phone can wirelessly beam its Internet connection to a laptop.
Also, two of our three picks are "world phones." This means they work at home but are also compatible with the GSM services that operate in more than 168 countries, including all of Europe and Asia and parts of Africa and South America. It doesn't mean that when you step off the plane in Seoul you'll be able to flip open your phone and expect it to work. Arrangements to activate your device while you're abroad need to be made in advance with your service provider. You'll pay international roaming charges (typically $1 to $3 per minute), but the convenience of keeping your own phone number while traveling may be worth it.
NOKIA 8390 The smallest cell phone we've seen yet, this Nokia model strongly resembles its popular predecessor, the 8290, but is slimmer and shorter. It's great for the petite and those saving space in a Prada bagette for mascara and car keys, but the large-handed may find dialing on the Chiclet-size keys awkward. Though it's not a world phone, the 8390 provides the basic features found in most high-end mobiles, like synching with your computer's date and address book, GPRS, short-text messaging, a mini Web browser, and voice-activated commands (for example, you can program the phone to turn off its ringer when you say "Silent"). We especially like the way the backlit keypad slowly fades to dark.
SONY ERICSSON T68 This model is already a hit in Europe and Asia, perhaps because it strikes a satisfying balance between good looks and robust performance. The brilliant color screen is not necessary but is certainly nice to look at, especially when you're playing a thrilling round of Tetris. The other feature that puts this phone in a class above its peers is Bluetooth, a technology that lets you swap data wirelessly within a 30-foot range without the line-of-sight restriction. It's a useful feature if you'd like to talk on a wireless headset (available from Sony Ericsson for an extra $199) or simply play a game with another T68 owner across the room. The phone's rubberized backing gives it a good feel in your hand, and the unusual joystick lever makes menu-surfing just a touch more sporty.
MOTOROLA A388 What's good about this phone is in some ways also its downfall. Dial buttons are replaced with a large touchscreen, which lets you make calls straight out of your contacts list and enter text for short messages and e-mail using a stylus (smartly tucked into the bottom of the chassis). The software interface is wonderfully easy to navigate and makes a task like three-way calling much easier, since you can read commands on the screen rather than having to memorize key sequences. Unfortunately, entering text using the phone's handwriting-recognition function is painfully slow, and the PDA-like touchscreen and stylus make the phone bulky and inelegant. The fashion-conscious will undoubtedly opt for Motorola's other new phone, the V70, a slick, key-shaped gadget with an innovative front faceplate that rotates to open, instead of flipping up like the company's well-known clamshell-style phones.
MODEL Nokia 8390 PRICE $200 BATTERY 2 to 4 hours of talk time, 96 to 384 hours standby STATS 2.9 oz; 3.8 inches long, 1.7 inches wide, 0.75 inch thick THE GOOD Ultracompact, with a bright illuminated phonepad and screen THE BAD Not a world phone
MODEL Sony Ericsson T68 PRICE $199 BATTERY 7 hours of talk time, 200 hours of standby STATS 2.9 oz; 3.9 inches long, 1.9 inches wide, 0.8 inch thick THE GOOD Loaded with features, including Bluetooth and full-color screen THE BAD Occasionally spotty reception
MODEL Motorola A388 BATTERY 4.5 hours of talk time, 145 hours standby PRICE $300-$400, depending on carrier STATS 4.6 oz; 3.8 inches long, 2.3 inches wide, 0.9 inch thick THE GOOD Well-designed touchscreen interface THE BAD Entering text using handwriting recognition is slow going
The Next Generation
After a few years of false starts across the industry, the Handspring Treo 180 ($399) is a triumph. It's half electronic organizer, half mobile (world) phone. But unlike previous tries by Kyocera and Samsung, this one puts a cell phone receiver into a PDA-like body rather than implanting a giant screen into a big handset that looks like a relic. Flip the lid and the device wakes up, ready to make a call. Scroll through your address book, select a phone number, and tap the touchscreen to dial automatically. There's a full QWERTY keyboard for thumb-typing e-mail that can be synched to your personal ISP account and for sending short messages. This seamless melding of data and communication is what makes the concept of these so-called convergence devices so tantalizing. Handspring wisely anticipated that those who would buy one would want a PDA that makes phone calls, not a cell phone with an address book.