Not long ago, carrying a cell-phone ensured that you'd be accessible, at least most of the time. Barring the inevitable snafus -- a dropped connection, or no connection at all -- your cell kept you in touch with clients and coworkers, whether you were waiting for a flight at O'Hare International or stuck in a cab in midtown Manhattan.
But those days are over.
Today, a new generation of smart cell-phones has emerged -- phones that are designed to act as your full-fledged communications hub. These master multitaskers can double as your personal digital assistant and as your connection to the Web. So the next time you're flying standby at O'Hare, you can dash off an email, log onto the Net to look up a company's prospectus, or sell that dog of a dotcom stock -- all from your cell-phone.
Net-ready phones use a standard called WAP (wireless application protocol), which provides a common interface for displaying Web pages. As long as you have a WAP-enabled cell-phone with data service, and the Web pages that you want to view are WAP compatible, you can use your cell to cruise the Web. If you don't have WAP support, then your cell-phone is ? just a phone.
To see how this Web-on-the-go world really works, I spent several weeks testing many of the most promising WAP-enabled Net phones. I tracked stock quotes. I checked news headlines. I even made a few calls. My conclusion: Smart cell-phones are ready for the Net, but don't expect them to replace your PC. Entering information on a phone's keypad can be a struggle. You can't read email attachments on a cell, and you'll have to remember yet another email address for the phone.
That said, if you're buying a new cell-phone, get a smart phone that's WAP enabled for the Web. Just like caller ID and voice mail, Web access will soon become a standard, must-have feature for mobile phones. By making your next cell-phone a smart phone, you'll be prepared for tomorrow -- today.
Smart Phone: Ericsson R280LX
Claim to Fame: No-frills Web access.
It's not the sexiest cell-phone to hit the market, nor is it the lightest. But the Ericsson R280LX is an inexpensive mobile phone that will get you Web access whenever you need it. Depending on your service contract, the phone's price tag ranges from $89 to $129. That will buy you a 6.1-ounce, fully featured phone with up to 4 hours of talk time and 135 hours of standby mode.
Initially available on AT&T Wireless systems, the R280LX model will work on all AT&T systems -- both analog and digital -- enabling you to make a call from just about anywhere. The phone's clarity is better than average, and the AT&T Digital One Rate calling plans start at $59.99 a month.
Internet access is a little faster than some services (9.2 KBPS versus 14.4 KBPS), but you probably won't notice the slightly faster speed when you're accessing information via the phone's built-in Phone.com browser. The phone will connect you to the standard WAP-compatible Web sites, such as ABCNews.com, Bloomberg.com, and Info-Space.com; its screen will display about four short lines of text at a time.
For receiving and sending email, the R280LX has one big advantage over the other phones reviewed here: It lets you reply to multiple-choice questions on an email (such as "Do you want to meet in your office or in a conference room?"). And the phone's 400-entry phone book can be supplemented by storing as many as 5,000 to-do items and appointments on AT&T's PocketNet servers.
Coordinates: Ericsson, www.ericsson.com; AT&T Wireless Services, www.attws.com
Smart Phone: Motorola i1000 plus
Claim to Fame: Walkie-talkie features and a great mobile modem.
One of the more unusual phone-and-service plans available for mobile motormouths is the Motorola i1000 plus on the Nextel system. The i1000 plus not only gets you on the Web but also has two-way radio features via Nextel's network.
The i1000 plus ($199) is a 6-ounce, flip-top phone with a see-through window so that you can ID the number or name of an incoming caller, read email, or have a conversation on speakerphone without having to open the cover. One battery charge gives you up to 3 hours of talk time or about 50 hours of standby time. For basic voice calling, Nextel charges $49.95 a month for 150 minutes (additional minutes are 20 cents each). One downside: Out-of-towners will discover that they can't make voice or Web connections in rural areas that don't have digital service.
Nextel's service includes what it calls Direct Connect, which essentially works like a two-way radio. Push a preprogrammed button, which dials someone's personal ID and instantly connects you to that person's Nextel phone. These calls are free but can only be made to other Nextel users within the same calling area, such as the Dallas-Fort Worth-Houston region.
To check out its Internet abilities, I tried a trial WAP-enabled i1000 plus that Nextel plans to introduce in select metropolitan areas sometime in April. Its Phone.com browser let me connect easily to the Web. Onscreen icons alerted me to power consumption and menu choices, and I could read about four lines of Web information at a time. But the i1000 plus was an even better wireless modem when I connected it to my laptop -- perfect when I needed a monitor larger than the phone's tiny monochrome screen to surf the Web.
Coordinates: Motorola, www.motorola.com; Nextel Direct Connect, www.nextel.com
Smart Phone: Motorola V8160
Claim to Fame: One of the smallest Web cells.
When it comes to mobile phones, smaller is cooler. So Motorola has adapted its smallest phone to the wireless Web. The V8160 is no bigger than a Zippo lighter, yet it works on analog and digital phone systems, can cruise the Web, and can even access pages that aren't designed for Web phones.
I tested a prerelease of the V8160, which has been available since the end of March, and it's the one phone I would never leave behind when I go on a business trip. It weighs just 3 ounces and can easily slip into a pants pocket. The small size only slightly affects battery life: It has 2.5 hours of talk time and about 125 hours of standby time.
This sleek little phone comes with a hefty price tag -- from $499 to $699, depending on your service contract. A basic Bell Atlantic Mobile calling plan costs $19.99 a month for 20 minutes, plus $9.95 for Web access.
Another drawback: The V8160's thumb-size screen was a problem when I needed to browse the Web. You can read only about three very short lines of a news story at a time, although additional icons and menu prompts make it easy to surf the Net.
But this cell does have one big compensation: The V8160 can go where several other phones cannot -- that is, to standard, HTML-based Web sites, without the graphics and pictures. Receiving and replying to email also worked without a hitch. The V8160 lets you forward, respond to, and close-copy messages. You can even add a standard signature message to your email.
If true mobility is what you're looking for -- without a geeky-looking cell-phone hooked to your belt loop -- then check out the Motorola V8160.
Coordinates: Motorola, www.motorola.com; Bell Atlantic Mobile, www.bam.com
Smart Phone: NeoPoint 1000
Claim to Fame: Big display for serious surfers.
One of the first mobile phones designed for Web access, the NeoPoint 1000 has a comparatively large screen that displays 11 lines of Web text at once. The screen size alone makes this cell better than most for reading and writing emails, though you'll have to pay for that convenience ($399) and tolerate its heft (6.4 ounces).
The silver NeoPoint 1000 has a flip-down cover that conceals the dial pad, but you can access the Web simply by using the buttons just below the screen. A four-way button launches Internet calls and lets you flip through Web pages, but I found it awkward to use. Like most of the other phones that have been reviewed here, NeoPoint uses a Phone.com browser with a preset list of sites, such as CNN and Amazon.com.
Calls using the Sprint PCS service were clear and largely trouble free. Sprint PCS's Web-ready, voice-calling plans start at $29.99 a month for 120 minutes, plus 35 cents for each additional minute. For another $9.99 a month, you get 50 minutes of Net surfing, but each additional minute after that will cost you 30 cents.
One additional note: Signing up for Sprint's all-digital service means that you may not get voice or Web service in parts of the country where only analog systems exist. If you're concerned about calling outside major metropolitan areas, you might want to wait until the digital-analog version of the 1000 is available through AirTouch Corp.
Coordinates: NeoPoint Inc., www.neopoint.com; Sprint PCS, www.sprintPCS.com
Smart Phone: Nokia 7190
Claim to Fame: Voice dialing and a browser.
Nokia 7190 tries to wrap all of your digital needs into one device. Although there are still some compromises, the 4.9-ounce 7190 comes closest to being a jack-of-all-trades, providing Web and organizer functions in a mobile phone.
A larger-than-average screen lets you read email without squinting, and a mouselike navigation button, called a "Navi Roller," lets you scroll quickly through Web pages. The phone uses Nokia's own Web browser, but many of the options are comparable to Phone.com's browser setup. The phone's LCD screen lets you read four to five lines of Web text at a time.
You can make a voice call on the 7190 either by using the phone's keypad or by saying the person's name. A standard battery gives you about 3.2 hours of talk time and about 144 hours in standby mode.
The 7190 holds as many as 1,000 phone numbers (as well as 250 to-do items and about 600 appointments). You can synchronize the information with your desktop computer's software using FoneSync cable and software, which Nokia includes. The software will work with several PIMs (personal-information managers), including Act!, GoldMine, and Microsoft Outlook.
At this writing, the 7190 was only available via Omnipoint wireless service for about $500. Omnipoint, which is merging with wireless carrier Voice Stream, offers basic voice service at $19.99 for 40 minutes of local calls, including 10 emails and 10 numeric pages. Frequent fliers should note that, similar to other digital-only services, Omnipoint doesn't cover rural areas and has one notable limitation: Service is not available in Chicago.
Coordinates: Nokia Corp., www.nokiausa.com; Omnipoint wireless service, www.omnipoint.com
Smart Phone: Samsung SCH-3500
Claim to Fame: Bargain cell with speech recognition and automatic dialing.
One of the first and most popular Web-enabled mobile phones is the Samsung SCH-3500. Designed for business and personal use, this titanium flip-top phone comes with such extra niceties as speech-recognition dialing and a nifty memo recorder.
When you open this $150 phone, a female voice asks you whom you'd like to call. If you've already programmed the phone, it will automatically dial as many as 20 different numbers at the sound of your voice. The standard battery allows you to talk for about 2.8 hours; the SCH-3500 will stay in standby mode for incoming calls for up to 150 hours. You can also store about 10 minutes of voice memos in the phone. Best of all, this is a dual-mode-dual-band phone, so you can make calls in areas with either digital service or the more widely available analog service.
Even though the SCH-3500 uses the same Phone.com browser as most of the other phones mentioned here, I found that this model's onscreen prompts and buttons made it trickier to use than the other cells' browsers. The browser does, however, include the same primary news and sports sites as the NeoPoint phone, and the same Sprint PCS charges apply. The screen is bright enough to easily scan headlines, and you'll see about three lines of Web-page text at once. At 5.5 ounces, the SCH-3500 is a midsize phone that's a real bargain.
Coordinates: Samsung, www.samsungtelecom.com
Smart Phone: Samsung SCH-8500
Claim to Fame: Poor man's StarTAC
The Samsung SCH-8500 ($199) is targeted at users who like the Motorola StarTAC's design but who want a bigger screen.
The SCH-8500 is about 20% smaller and about 1.5 ounces lighter than Samsung's less-expensive SCH-3500. The black phone is available from Sprint PCS, and it works in either digital or analog mode for voice calls. The phone includes the same vibrating alert, voice memo, and voice-activated dialing features that the SCH-3500 provides and will give you about 2.8 hours of talk time and about 150 hours in standby mode.
The SCH-8500's screen is located in the flip-up earpiece, giving you more room to read headlines and to check stock prices. Clear graphical prompts and the ability to display four lines of Web text make this model a decent cybersurfer. I found that the backward and forward keys for maneuvering Web sites made the SCH-8500 easier to use than the SCH-3500. Bottom line: This compact phone is an attractive option for those who are looking for an easy-to-read screen and good voice coverage across the country.
Coordinates: Samsung, www.samsungtelecom.com
Fast Company contributing editor John R. Quain (email@example.com) appears regularly on CBS News and MSNBC.
Action Item: Cell Sites
To view Web sites on a cell-phone, the sites have to be specially configured for the phones' tiny monochrome screens. Fortunately, a number of WAP portals are already available for cell-phone users who surf the Web. InfoSpace (www.infospace.com) has a slew of links that cover everything from news to entertainment. You can get quick stock quotes and sports scores by logging onto WAP2PCS.com (www.wap2PCS.com), which is only accessible on cell-phones. Another portal, smartRay.com (www.smartray.com), also includes a place to store all of your favorite bookmarks online.
Sidebar: Future Phones
If you're a gadget geek, chances are you already have a Walkman, a digital camera, and a PDA. Soon you may be able to replace all that stuff with one device: a cell-phone.
In Europe, Motorola already offers a mobile phone with a built-in FM radio, and Ericsson will be introducing a matchbook-size add-on to a cell-phone that plays MP3 music files through its T28 World phone.
Meanwhile, several companies are finally promising a Dick Tracy-style "wrist phone." Samsung expects to introduce a timepiece the size of a rugged sports watch that will double as a cell-phone. With built-in voice recognition and a small speaker, you'll be able to place calls just like the fictional detective. Casio wants to go one better by putting an MP3 player and a digital camera in a wristwatch.
Other coming attractions include new systems from companies like Televend, which will let you pay for store purchases on your cell-phone. You'll be able to get a Coke from certain vending machines by pushing a button on your cell. Televend eventually wants to equip all sorts of devices for coinless cell payments, such as parking meters that you can feed remotely, without having to leave your office.
That type of remote support comes with two big caveats: Expect to pay more for the convenience, and don't expect to see a wrist phone that will feed the meter until early next year.
Coordinates: Motorola, www.motorola.com; Ericsson, www.ericsson.com; Samsung, www.samsung.com; Casio, www.casio.com; Televend, www.televend.com
Sidebar: Sync Your Cell
If you use a PC, a laptop, and a PDA, you have undoubtedly experienced the ordeal of trying to keep all of your personal data coordinated on these different devices. And now you have to do the same for your cell-phone? Fortunately, you won't have to -- thanks to a new syncing solution for the Internet Age.
Instead of copying dates and contacts from machine to machine, fusionOne Inc. has launched a service that does all the updating automatically for you over the Internet. Using its eDock service, you can upload your personal information to the site, including email and notes, contacts and appointments. Then set up several Internet-enabled devices -- say, another PC at home, a laptop computer, a PalmPilot, and a cell-phone -- and have eDock automatically update each device every time that it's connected to the Web. Its Internet Sync engine ensures that the information you view in eDock is the same as what you see on your mobile devices.
Using a Nokia 7190 cell-phone with Omnipoint's wireless service, I took eDock for a test-drive. I got 25 MB of free storage online for my Microsoft Outlook planner, which enabled me to view my calendar from any PC with Web access. I could also select phone numbers and contacts to send automatically to my cell-phone -- no cables required.
At press time, fusionOne's service was still in its trial stages. But in the future, fusionOne will let WAP-enabled cell users view the thousands of contacts that won't fit in a cell's limited memory. And eDock will soon offer full service for Net-accessible PDA fans.
Coordinates: eDock, fusionOne Inc., www.edock.com