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Adrienne Owens

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Cell phones: more than just talk

If you're like many cell-phone users, you're using your phone for more than just talking these days. In a recent survey of more than 50,000 ConsumerReports.org subscribers, more than one-third reported having used their phone's text-messaging capability.

Messaging now seems almost quaint, though, as more phones are equipped with cameras to send and receive photos, or designed to accommodate TV news, weather, and music services (see "Beyond Voice Calls," on page 22).

You may not want those additional capabilities yet. In our survey, only 15 percent of ConsumerReports.org subscribers said they used their phones to access the Web and only 2 percent to send video clips. But such services are already shaping cellphone prices and selection.

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As the Ratings for this report indicate, you can still find a number of good, basic phones priced below $100 if you shop carefully. But the number of such phones is dwindling as cell-phone manufacturers seek to offer more-expensive models to support the new services.

Those fancier phones may actually hamper your ability to make old-fashioned phone calls. For example, their buttons, which often perform double or triple duty, can behave unexpectedly if you're in the wrong mode. And the new models cost more than basic phones, even if you take advantage of heavily discounted offers.

Here are some other developments that may affect your choices when you shop:

Higher-resolution cameras. For several years, the cameras built into cell phones have had VGA (one-third of a megapixel) resolution, OK for viewing on a phone's tiny display, but not enough for making good snapshots. Now more than a few new models include a camera with 1 megapixel or greater resolution. In the Ratings, 10 models did so. Though cameras with higher resolution will typically yield better print quality, other factors such as the quality of the lens can greatly affect it. Even very basic stand-alone digital cameras outperform the best camera phones.

More music. Not long ago, pricey smart phones--phones that incorporate a PDA--were your only option if you wanted a phone with a full-featured MP3 player. Today two phones, the Sony Ericsson W800 and Motorola Rokr E1 (see Ratings), come with built-in MP3 players with control and playlist features that equal stand-alone players. Those early MP3 phones use memory cards to store music, meaning they have a smaller capacity than the many dedicated MP3 players that use a small hard drive. And more MP3 phones are coming, including a Nokia model with a 4-gigabyte hard disk that can hold up to 3,000 songs. Last October, Sprint introduced a service for downloading songs directly into a phone, for $2.50 per song. Verizon plans a similar music-download service this year.

HOW TO CHOOSE


Because your choice of phones will be limited to those compatible with your service provider, select your provider first (see "Best Cell Service," on page 20). Then use these guidelines to select a phone:

Decide on how you'll use it. The range of capabilities you want will steer you to a particular type of phone. For help choosing among the three main types, see First Things First on the facing page.

Consider the digital network. Major carriers use one of two network technologies, GSM or CDMA. Most phones are designed for one or the other, and each technology has characteristic strengths.

In general, GSM phones--used by Cingular and T-Mobile--provide more talk time on a battery charge, typically five hours and up. They also are better for exchanging photos and other data with computers and other mobile devices without going through the wireless network. Many GSM phones with Bluetooth capability can wirelessly swap their address book with other phones or beam photos directly to a printer or photo kiosk. And because GSM is more widely used across the world than CDMA, many phones sold in the U.S. will work in Europe and Asia. But no GSM phones have the analog backup needed for times when the digital network is inaccessible, as in some rural areas.

CDMA phones, used by Alltel, Sprint, and Verizon, use higher-speed data networks. Most provide analog backup. They're also more likely than GSM phones to have historically useful features, like a standard, 2.5 mm headset connector.

Nextel, which merged with Sprint last year, uses a proprietary network technology that's incompatible with CDMA and GSM. Because of the network's incompatibility and uncertain future, we did not test Nextel phones.

Look for useful everyday features. Features That Count, page 26, covers some capabilities that go beyond the basics. Most features listed in the Ratings will prove useful every day. They include:

* An easy-to-mute ringer. Etiquette demands that you keep the phone quiet in restaurants, theaters, and other public places. The best phones in this regard can be set to vibrate with the press of a key.

* Built-in speaker phone. Lets you talk hands-free in a car. For other hands-free options, see Features That Count, page 26.


* Bluetooth. This feature gives you the ability to use wireless headsets ($80 and up) and speaker phones ($180 and up). Some new headsets, such as the Jabra JX10, $180, are as small as a postage stamp. Before buying a headset, make sure it has an answer/end button and is comfortable to use. There are two types of speaker phones for cars: In-car models come with the car or must be professionally installed. Portables can be used in a home or office. Before buying, check the speaker-phone manufacturer's site for a list of compatible phones and the features they support.

Hold the phone. In the store, take the phone in your hand and make sure you can comfortably access most keys with one hand. Try to make a test call and access the menu items. We've found that phones with unconventional shapes are difficult to use. So are keys that are small, oddly shaped, or arranged in unusual patterns, especially if you're trying to dial a number in dim light.

Check the display. Most color screens perform well in dim light, but some are hard to see in daylight. Try the phone outside or under bright light. In our tests, phones that display incoming and outgoing numbers in large black type against a white background were the easiest to read under most conditions. Also make sure indicators such as battery life and signal strength are clearly visible.

Check the return policy. Make sure you can return the phone if you're not happy with it. Some stores attach stiff service-cancellation fees on top of what a carrier may charge.

Check all retailers for specials. The prices in the Ratings on page 27 don't take into account rebates and special offers, which can be substantial but change frequently. For example, as we went to press in the fall, some basic phones in the Ratings were available for $20, or even free, after rebates. To get the best price, check the carrier's offerings both online and in its retail stores, as well as independent dealers' sites and outlets.

Don't buy phone insurance. All major cell carriers provide insurance policies that cover lost, stolen, or damaged phones, typically for about $4 to $5 a month, with a $35 to $100 deductible. But we don't think those are worth buying. Besides charging for premiums and deductibles, some insurance plans require you to fill out a police report. And damaged phones are often replaced with a refurbished phone, perhaps not even the same model as the original.

First things first

Narrow your choice of phones to one of the three main types.

BASIC PHONE


Choose for voice and text messages only.

Pros Inexpensive or free with a contract. Simple keypad, easy to operate. Usually compact. Adequate capabilities; for example, all allow you to store frequently used numbers and send and receive text messages. Some models have basic cameras.

Cons Lacks features such as Bluetooth, which allows you to use wireless headsets. Usually won't support advanced services such as video and music.

Expect to spend no more than about $100. Some basic phones are available for as little as $20, or even free, after rebates.

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ADVANCED PHONE

Choose for advanced voice features such as Bluetooth and capabilities such as music, photos, and video.

Pros Capabilities that may include Bluetooth for a wireless headset, an MP3 player, the ability to access music and video services, and memory-card storage for music and pictures. More options for custom ring tones, games, and other services. Some can connect directly to a printer to print photographs.

Cons Can be larger and more expensive than a basic model. Extra features can make the phone more difficult to use for the basics.


Expect to spend up to $500, depending on features and rebates.

SMART PHONE

Choose if you want a top-of-the-line, advanced cell phone with a built-in personal digital assistant (PDA).

Pros Simple solution if you rely on a PDA and cell phone. Most versatile access to e-mail. Easily tracks appointments and addresses. Synchronizes with a PC. A touch screen, as found on the PalmOne (9), and keypad help in entering text and navigating applications.

Cons Usually bulky and expensive. Hardware can't be upgraded. If a carrier upgrades its network, you'll need a new phone to use it. Some carrier plans are confusing or expensive.

Expect to spend $350 and up.

stylewise

Most cell phones fall into two tried-and-true designs. Compact folding or flip phones, the most common type, tend to offer better voice quality in noisy surroundings. A cover keeps keys from being accidentally pressed. Number keys are usually laid out in standard pattern. Many models have an external antenna that's susceptible to damage, however. With the case closed, you can't always see who's calling. With candy-bar phones, you answer calls by pressing any key and the antenna is usually tucked inside the phone. But voice quality is often low in noisy surroundings. Unless you lock the phone, number keys can easily be pressed by accident. The Kyocera (5), PalmOne (9), Nokia (17, 26, 30), Sony Ericsson (23), and Motorola (25) are candy-bar phones.

Here are two of the newest designs, generally found on phones with multimedia features, megapixel cameras, and MP3 players.

SWIVEL

Pros Compact. Open like a pen knife. Display is always visible, so you can always see who's calling. Most have internal antennas.

Cons Thicker than folding or candy-bar phones. Can be clumsy to operate. In noisy places, voice quality isn't as good as folding phones. Found on the Sony Ericsson (32).

SLIDER

Pros Tend to have innovative designs with multimedia capabilities. Display is always visible, so you can see who's calling. Most have automatic lock to prevent accidental key presses.

Cons Thicker than folding or candy-bar phones. In noisy environments, voice quality is not as good as folding phones. Some have external antennas that are susceptible to damage. Found on Samsung (6, 10, 27, 33) and LG (12, 19).

Features that count

How to fine-tune your phone choice.

In additional to the useful features in the Ratings, consider these:

Programmable jog dial. Lets you program all the pressure points on a circular jog as shortcuts to the most-used features and functions, such as address book and text messaging. Found on LG (11, 12, 19), Motorola (1, 22, 24, 25, 29), PalmOne (9), Samsung (10, 21, 33), and Sony Ericsson (23, 31, 32).

Standard headset connector. Also known as a 2.5 mm connector, this is compatible with most wired headsets and speaker phones. Found on all CDMA phones (Alltel, Verizon, and Sprint), plus Motorola (22, 25, 28, 29) GSM models. As a rule, models with this connector don't come with a headset. Wired headsets start at about $20. Options include in-ear buds, models that hook over the ear, and those that clip onto your lobe. Look for one that has an answer/end switch in the cord, so that you don't have to fumble with the phone. Another hands-free option in a car is a wired speakerphone, less cumbersome than a headset, for $100 and up. Typically, the speaker sits in a phone cradle and the microphone clips to a sun visor or your collar. It's powered by a cigarette-lighter outlet.

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Voice command. Follows your commands right out of the box, without the usual training, and lets you dial numbers by pronouncing the digits. Found on Motorola (1, 28), LG (3), and Samsung (6, 10).

External memory card. Stores mainly pictures and sometimes music so that you can use it on computers or printers and at photo kiosks. Types include Multimedia Memory, Secure Digital, and Memory Stick Duo, as used in digital cameras and PDAs. Smaller versions known as Transflash, Mini SD, and Reduced MM cards come with adapters so that other devices can read them. Found on Motorola (1, 25, 28), LG (3, 19), Samsung (10, 21), Sony Ericsson (23, 32), and PalmOne (9).

Custom preset messages. Save keystrokes by letting you create messages that you use frequently or need for an emergency. Found on all phones tested except LG (12) and Samsung (20, 27).


MP3 player. Plays MP3 songs and ring tones. Some let you create and edit playlists. Found on Motorola (25, 28), PalmOne (9), LG (3, 19), Samsung (10, 21, 33), and Sony Ericsson (23, 32).

Hearing-aid compatibility. Some phones interfere with hearing aids. The LG (3), Samsung (6), and Motorola (24, 29) have hearing-aid compatible designations, but that's no guarantee they will work with all hearing aids. Your doctor can help you choose a phone compatible with the aid you use. Or go to www.accesswireless.org/reference /wirelessphonestotry_accept.htm. Ask the salesperson for a home trial to test the phone.

safety wise

HOW TO MINIMIZE THREE CELL-PHONE RISKS

Research is continuing on two potential cell-phone hazards:the risks of using a handheld phone while driving and the possible health effects of absorbing the electromagnetic energy a cell phone radiates. In May 2005,the Consumer Product Safety Commission drew attention to a third type of hazard:overheating of cell-phone batteries or chargers. Responding to scores of incidents,some of them causing burns,the commission issued safety recommendations for cell-phone users.

Here is the latest advice on how best to protect against those potential hazards:

DON'T DRIVE AND TALK

Using a handheld phone is now illegal in three states--Connecticut,New Jersey, and New York--plus the District of Columbia and several cities,including Chicago. Some 30 other states are considering similar laws. Banning handheld use while driving has been backed by studies showing the practice to be hazardous.

However,there's growing evidence that it may be no safer to talk on a cell phone using a hands-free device than it is to do so using a handheld phone. For example,an Australian epidemiological study published in an August 2005 issue of the British Medical Journal concluded that using a hands-free device with a cell phone didn't reduce the risk of a serious road crash. And a study published in the March 2003 issue of The Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied,found accident risks equally high for both hands-free and hands-on callers.

For safety's sake,pull your car over to a shoulder or other safe place off the road before making a call.

REDUCE RADIATION EXPOSURE

Scores of studies have reported a range of effects of cell-phone radiation on living things,but their health significance remains unclear. Two upcoming studies should shed more light on the subject:a 13-nation analysis by the World Health Organization,which is expected to be completed early this year,and an animal study by the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences,which is scheduled for release in several years. The preliminary findings from the WHO study suggest little or no risk of brain cancer in the first 10 years of cell-phone use,but risks from exposure longer than 10 years haven 't been ruled out. If you 're concerned about radiation, you can follow these precautions:

* Use a hands-free device,such as a headset or speaker phone,to keep the phone's antenna away from the head and body.

* Limit use by children and teens. Encourage them to wear a headset or send text messages,both of which keep the phone away from the head.