Tech Support

The truth about all of those fancy, feature-packed cell phones.

Want to tick off the CEO of Nokia? Tell him how much you love your no-frills, bottom-of-the-line cell phone. Last year, when I ran into Jorma Ollila, chief executive of the world's largest cell-phone maker, I did just that. I owned a basic, battered Nokia 6160 that worked like a charm. Like the original Model T, it was black -- and reliable as heck. I told Ollila that I planned to own that phone until it either croaked or was accidentally left on the train.

The Finnish chairman and CEO looked at me as if I had just smacked him with a wet herring. At a conference, he'd just finished touting the wonders of Nokia's high-end wireless handsets, such as the Communicator. Ollila hopes that by continually adding new features, he can boost the average price (and profits) of his phones and prompt consumers to trade in their old handsets more often.

As a corporate strategy, that might make sense. But as Nokia, Motorola, and other cell-phone makers pursue that path, their products drift further and further from what consumers really want.

List your biggest frustrations with your current cell phone, and it's inevitable that two of them will be bad reception and a battery that burns out too quickly. So how do cell-phone makers respond to those peeves? They come out with an increasing number of new models that get worse reception and have shorter-lived batteries.

Little-known fact: Those sleek, stylish phones that lack external antennas perform 15% to 20% worse than phones with stubby or extendable antennas, according to research from Ethertronics, a San Diego company. The bigger the antenna, the better. What's more, all of those flashy features, such as color screens, speakerphone-capability, and digital cameras, sap battery life. And the smaller, lighter phones hitting the market tend to get less battery life than their full-size counterparts.

One positive trend: durable phones with long battery life, such as Motorola's i58sr, which can endure months in hostile environments. But manufacturers will also keep throwing as many features at us as they think they can sell. So here's a strategy to cut through the clutter: Draw up a list of features that are important to you, such as voice dialing or vibrate mode. Seek out a phone that offers what you want without too many superfluous features. If good reception is important, look for a phone with a visible antenna. A knowledgeable salesperson -- while a rarity -- can help you compare battery lifes.

And if you see Jorma Ollila, tell him I'm keeping my old Nokia until I hit five years or 50,000 hours -- whichever comes first.

Gear: Watching your wallet

Here's the latest in integrated personal technology: A watch that keeps time and pays at the pump! Timex has built ExxonMobil's Speedpass technology -- tiny radio-frequency-identification devices -- into its Easy Reader, Expedition, and Ironman watches. Swipe these sleek timepieces at a reader, and the tab is automatically charged to your credit card. The watches can be used at more than 8,000 Exxon and Mobil stations across the United States, 440 McDonald's restaurants in Chicago and northwest Indiana, and a handful of Stop & Shop supermarkets in the Boston area. Cost: $35-$45. Learn more about Timex on the Web (www.timex.com/speedpass). -- Heath Row

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