There was a time, not long ago, when using a cell-phone or pager meant you were either a Hollywood agent or a drug dealer (or both). Between 1990 and 1995, however, the number of cellular phone users in the United States grew from about 5 million to nearly 34 million. Cell-phones have become indispensable for extending the work day, for staying connected when you're on the road, for calling your spouse to see if you should pick up sesame chicken for dinner.
For all the proliferation of cell-phones, however, there is one problem: they make working with a computer look easy. There will be, for example, at least three incompatible digital wireless phone standards in the United States by year's end (see Digital Update). Consequently, if you buy a digital cell-phone today, it could be obsolete tomorrow. (That's why the cell-phones reviewed here are analog.) Worse yet, most of the cellular carriers and paging services don't understand their features and services any better than the rest of us. In researching this article, I had to talk to 15 different people at one paging service just to get its prices. A salesman at another cellular carrier told me they didn't offer a particular service -- when in fact they did.
So what do you do? Read this section carefully, of course. Determine which phone or pager meets your needs and then cross-check the hardware you want with the kind of service you need. Some cell-phones, for example, have capabilities that may not be available from a service provider in your area. And before you sign a contract for the service, as always, read the fine print.
Getting a cell-phone can be easy. Take the cheap one the dealer offers for free when you sign a service contract. Of course if you do that, you'll probably be disappointed with the new phone's sound quality and features. It's better to find the phone you want first, then sign up for the service. For all the phones reviewed here, prices can vary greatly depending on the cellular-service package.
Your Cruising Speed: The Commuter
You Need: Solid local coverage for a reasonable price
Power Tools: Nokia 638, Nokia 232
You've got a four-hour round-trip commute and you don't want to plunk down $1,000 on a cell-phone. All you need is an inexpensive, easy-to-operate phone with good, clear signal quality.
Check out Nokia's 638. It comes for as little as $25 when purchased with a cell-service package. Don't be deceived by the cheap price tag: the phone affords excellent signal sensitivity. I've found it can frequently detect a call when other models costing hundreds of dollars more don't register a thing.
Designed for new cell-phone users -- as all models should be -- the 638 has a large, 16 character display that's easy to decipher. A separate up/down menu button on the side makes it a snap to scroll through any phone numbers you've stored (up to 40, with the names) or change a setting.
If the 638 isn't snappy enough for you, check out Nokia's 232 line. It has all the features of the 638 but comes in designer colors and patterns ("slate green"; "wood grain"). It's also two ounces lighter and considerably smaller than the 638. The big difference, however, is that the 232 has a connection to hook up to a laptop computer's cellular modem for sending files. All of which will cost you about $100 to $200 through dealers.
For those who spend a lot of time cruising the blacktop, consider getting a car kit. Available for both Nokia models, the kit allows you to plug the phone into a cradle connected to a power booster. An external microphone and speaker frees you to keep your hands on the wheel.
For truly hands-off operation, use a cell-phone provider that offers voice dialing. This feature allows you to store numbers with the provider and have them dialed automatically, simply by saying the recipient's name.
Geek Factor: The Nokia 232 fulfills most needs without overtaxing the budget -- and it doesn't look like your average cell-phone.
Weak Factor: An extra battery for extended talk time can cost as much as $70.
Coordinates: Nokia 638, $25 to $100; Nokia 232, $100 to $200. Nokia Mobile Phones, Inc., 800-666-5553; http://www.nokia.com
Your Cruising Speed: Coach
You Need: A reliable, full-featured yet compact phone
Power Tool: Sony CM-RX100
You're a cross-country traveler, and you don't want another gadget that's going to bulk up your briefcase. The Sony CM-RX100 is just the ticket.
With a flip-up microphone arm and an extendable antenna, the slick Sony is a joy to use. Its backlit keys and liquid crystal display (LCD) make it easy to read in poor lighting. A dial on the phone's top left corner lets you switch between stored phone numbers (up to 99) and function settings. When you see the function you want on the 22-character display, such as lowering the volume, just push in on the dial.
While it's analog only, it can hook up to a cellular modem for digital data transmissions.
Geek Factor: When testing this phone, I lent it to a few friends. They raved about it.
Weak Factor: It's small enough to fit in a shirt pocket, but at 6.9 ounces it's a little too heavy for that -- unless you use a lot of starch.
Coordinates: $300-$500, depending on the service package. Sony, 800-578-7669; http://www.sony.com
Your Cruising Speed: First-Class Flyer
You Need: A full-featured cell-phone -- in the lightest package possible
Power Tool: Motorola StarTAC
The ultimate cellular power tool is, without a doubt, the Motorola StarTAC. It's a design marvel -- and with an average price of about $1,200, it ought to be. Instead of having the standard flip-down microphone piece, the phone folds in half. When you open it the earpiece is in the top, with the dialer and microphone in the bottom; a tiny antenna extends upward from the bottom half. Additional features include a vibration setting so it won't break up a meeting by ringing, and a cellular modem connection that enables you to send and receive e-mail over CDPD (Cellular Digital Packet Data) networks.
Geek Factor: It's like owning a Ferrari: everybody who sees it wants it.
Weak Factor: The StarTAC is really expensive. For the price, it should support at least one digital-voice standard.
Coordinates: $1,000 to $2,000. Motorola, Inc., 888-782-7822; http://www.mot.com
John R. Quain (email@example.com) is a contributing editor at Fast Company and appears regularly on the CBS News program "Up to the Minute."
"You Can't Call There from Here"
"Have Your Pager Page My Pager"
"Digital Update - Call Back Later"