Basic features matter most
The newest cell phones can perform compatible digital networks, it can be im-
plenty of stunts. You can easily find possible to get service away from your
phones with cameras, cutting-edge home calling area without analog. You’ll
games, organizers, Web access, a have to hope that your carrier has made
walkie-talkie, and more. Given the roaming agreements.
wealth of such appealing features, the • Phone numbers are portable but phones
ability to make simple phone calls are not. If you want to switch carriers,
might seem to be an afterthought. you’ll need to buy a new phone. That’s so,
It’s not. That’s why our tests focused we found, even if you switch to a carrier
less on the extras and more on the basics that uses the same phones as your old
to help you get the most from your cell- one. Case in point:AT&T and Cingular.We
phone service—a phone with high voice bought several models through AT&T,
quality, decent battery life, and a design serves as a common language and makes then tried to have them switched to
that’s easy to use. The major develop- it easier for phones from different carri- Cingular’s service. But AT&T refused to
ments in this market include these: ers to use each other’s networks. Digital- change the codes it had locked into the
• Most cell phones now rely mainly on only phones work longer on a battery phone.
digital technology, although many have charge than digital/analog phones do. On • AT&T and Cingular are converting their
analog circuitry as a backup. Analog the downside, because the phones use in- Continued on page 24
First things first. Decide how much phone you need.
Unprecedented numbers of rebates and price cuts at the end of the year made even top-line phones look like close-out bargains. But
because those deals aren’t likely to last forever, it’s important to understand how the cell-phone market is usually structured.
$100 OR LESS: NO FRILLS $100 TO $200: MANY FEATURES $200 AND UP: CUTTING EDGE
What’s available Relatively simple phones What’s available A large selection of new What’s available Pull out all the stops.
from most major manufacturers, plus phones with many widely advertised These products combine a phone with a
phones that have been on the market for features—camera, games, a push-to-talk game console or a personal digital assis-
a while. Expect a decent array of phone option, Internet access, and so on. Color tant, low-resolution video capability, and
features, including text messaging, but not displays are other extras. However, spending a lot on a
a color display or other fancy items. Perfor- common. phone doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get
mance is on a par with superior voice quality or longer battery life.
Best suited for
more expensive anyone who wants Best suited for people
phones. to trade up from a who want to be the first
Best suited for any- basic phone or with a new piece of
one who wants a cell wants certain hardware or want to
phone just for phone special features. combine the phone with
calls and messaging. another device.
F E B R U A RY 2004 &Z C O N S U M E R R E P O RT S 21
PUSH-TO-TALK SERVICES, HEAD TO HEAD
For years, Nextel alone offered cell phones Only one person can talk at a time on a analog backup and works in two frequency
that also worked like a walkie-talkie. Push- push-to-talk call, as is the case with regular bands, increasing the odds of getting regu-
to-talk, as it’s known, is a feature widely walkie-talkies. lar service. But the push-to-talk feature
used by businesses as well as individuals The bottom line. Nextel wins on per- works only with Verizon’s newest digital net-
who want an alternative to regular calls for formance, mainly because it’s faster. With work. (When “1X” appears in the phone dis-
very quick chats. Nextel, we established a call in about 2 sec- play, you know you have the right service.)
Last year, Verizon moved in with its onds; it took 7 seconds with Verizon. Talking There’s no clear winner on price. Veri-
push-to-talk service. (Sprint announced delay while on the call was one-third second zon’s Motorola V60p phone sells for $200;
push-to-talk service, but too late for us to with Nextel, about 11⁄2 seconds with Verizon. Nextel’s phones are generally priced from
include here.) Verizon uses the Motorola Voice quality was OK with both, but neither $50 to $250. Both carriers have calling
V60p. Nextel offers nine phones, all from was as good as on a regular wireless con- plans that include unlimited push-to-talk
Motorola and all with push-to-talk capability. versation. If you’ve never used a Nextel calls; where there is a charge for that call-
But you can’t use a Nextel phone with Veri- push-to-talk phone, the Verizon delays ing time, the rate is 15 cents per minute.
zon service, and vice versa. The two aren’t might not be objectionable. Nextel users If push-to-talk is a must-have feature for
compatible. However, all the push-to-talk might be bothered, though. you, then make Nextel your choice. But
services work nationwide. Verizon wins on flexibility. Nextel casual push-to-talk users should consider
We tried both services in tests in our employs a technology that’s incompatible Verizon first for its broader coverage. How-
laboratories, measuring the time needed to with the others, so Nextel users can’t roam ever, take advantage of the carrier’s trial
make a connection and the delay in voice on other networks. The Verizon phone, period so that you can switch if your first
transmissions. We also judged voice quality. CDMA-based (see glossary, page 20), has choice isn’t satisfactory.
Trouble in the GSM network
Cell-phone systems in Europe and Asia generally use the same dig- erage on Cingular’s TDMA and GSM networks. The T62u that we
ital network technology: GSM, for Global System for Mobile Com- purchased for testing worked well for a while, then could no longer
munications. In the U.S., however, GSM is only one of four digital pick up a GSM signal. Even though we had the help of Cingular
technologies in use. T-Mobile uses it exclusively, while AT&T Wire- store clerks and customer-service personnel, exchanged the phone
less and Cingular are building a GSM network alongside their older for a new sample, and obtained a new phone number, the T62u
one, which uses TDMA technology. Both carriers plan to offer new continued to work erratically.
data services only on GSM. But the change is creating problems for What you can do. If you’re planning to switch to AT&T or Cingu-
current AT&T and Cingular customers. lar, choose the phone carefully. Some phones, such as the recom-
One problem is coverage. The two carriers’ GSM networks don’t mended Siemens (12), also work on the more-extensive TDMA net-
appear to provide the same coverage that TDMA customers get. An work, bettering the odds that you’ll get service (see table below).
AT&T spokesman told us that the two networks mostly coincide, Four of the tested GSM-only phones have what’s known as
but he concedes that “there could still be Bermuda triangles where 850/1900-MHz capability, a feature mentioned in stores and ads,
you get coverage on one but not the other.” A look at AT&T’s map that should offer better coverage nationwide as the GSM networks
of coverage in North Carolina (see illustrations below) shows how grow. Cingular offers other multinetwork phones, such as the
different the two networks can be. With GSM, the home calling area T62u; if you choose one, take advantage of Cingular’s trial period
is smaller and thus, the roaming area is larger. so that you can exchange it if it doesn’t meet your expectations.
Another problem, which we encountered in our testing, affects If you’re a long-standing AT&T or Cingular customer using the
the Sony Ericsson T62u phone sold by Cingular. It uses a multinet- TDMA network, sit tight. You can continue to use the phone you
work technology that’s designed to provide the best possible cov- have for the foreseeable future.
Backup for GSM
North Carolina-TDMA North Carolina-GSM Phone Backup
12 Siemens S46 •
13 Panasonic GU87
14 Siemens S56 •
15 Nokia 3595 •
On the AT&T maps above, orange represents the home calling area—a much larger 16 Nokia 6800 •
territory on the TDMA network than on the current GSM system. For AT&T’s or
17 Nokia 3650
Cingular’s coverage in your area, check the carrier’s Web site.
18 Sony Ericsson T616 •
22 C O N S U M E R R E P O RT S &Z F E B R U A RY 2004
CR Quick Recommendations
We’ve grouped the tested phones by carri-
er to make it easier for you to find a
phone once you’ve settled on a carrier.
Overall, the phones are closely matched
• Availability Most models at stores at least through June.
in voice quality and sensitivity. We found
Within types, in performance order. Blue key numbers indicate Quick Picks; see box at left.
larger differences in the amount of talk
Brand & model Price Overall Score Performance Features
time they offer; the phones for Sprint
Std. headset connector
were the worst in this regard, but still fine
Vol. control on side
in small type,
for most users.
We have reservations about the extent
Talk time (hr.)
Ease of use
of coverage on the AT&T and Cingular
GSM networks. That’s why two of the 0 100
phones we recommend below in Quick P F G VG E
P F G VG E
Picks have a backup system for better
coverage. We tested the Sony Ericsson VERIZON CDMA PHONES
T62u, a GSM phone from Cingular, but 1 LG VX6000 $200 75 &X &Z 3 1⁄2 &X • • • • •
can’t recommend it because it performed 2 Samsung SCH a530 205 74
&X &Z 3 ⁄4 3
&X • • • •
erratically. (The T62u is not in the Ratings.) 3 LG VX4400 160 72
&X &Z 3 1⁄2 &X • • • • •
The phones weigh between 21⁄2 and 41⁄2
ounces and measure 4x2x1 inches, give or
4 Motorola V60p 200 70
&C &Z 3 1⁄4 &X • • • • •
take a fraction. Try phones in the store to 5 Audiovox CDM-8300 70 64
&C &Z 3 &C • • • •
find a design that works for you. 6 Motorola T730 165 60
&C &Z 2 3⁄4 &X • • • • •
The Ratings rank phones strictly on 7 Motorola V120e 40 60
&C &Z 3 3⁄4 &C • • •
performance. The Quick Picks consider
SPRINT CDMA PHONES
other factors, such as coverage and value.
8 Samsung SPH-A460 100 66 &X &Z 2 &X • • • •
QUICK PICKS 9 Samsung SPH-A600 350 65
&X &Z 2 ⁄2 1
&X • • • • •
Best for Verizon: 10 Sanyo SCP-8100 230 62
&C &Z 2 1⁄2 & C • • • • •
1 LG $200 11 Nokia 3585i Ï 3588i, 135 53
&C &Z 2 & C • •
3 LG $160
4 Motorola $200 AT&T, CINGULAR, AND T-MOBILE GSM PHONES
The LG’s (1, 3) are closely matched in per- 12 Siemens S46 (AT&T) 100 74 &C &Z 5 &X • •
formance and features. The Motorola (4) 13 Panasonic GU87 (AT&T) 300 73
&X &Z 4 1⁄4 &C • • • • •
is Verizon’s only phone with push-to-talk.
14 Siemens S56 A56 150 70
&C &Z 5 &X • • •
All three have a folding case. (AT&T, Cingular)
Best for Sprint: 15 Nokia 3595 (AT&T, 40 68
&C &Z 6 &C
8 Samsung $100
16 Nokia Cingular)
(AT&T, 220 66
&C &X 6 &C • •
10 Sanyo $230
Nokia 3650 3600 (AT&T,
11 Nokia $135 17 Cingular, T-Mobile) 300 65
&C &Z 5 &C • • •
All performed well overall; battery life is
their only shortcoming. The Samsung (8) 18 Sony Ericsson T616 180 59
&C &X 4 1⁄2 &C • • •
and Nokia (11) have a monochrome display AT&T AND CINGULAR TDMA PHONES
that’s usable in bright and dim light. The
Sanyo (10) has slightly lower voice quality
19 Motorola V120T (AT&T) 50 65 &C &X 4 &C • • •
but includes a camera. Its color display 20 Nokia 8265 (AT&T) 150 65
&C &X 4 ⁄2 1
&C • •
washes out in bright light, we found. 21 Motorola V60i V60ti 100 63
&X &C 3 1⁄4 &X • • • •
Best for AT&T, Cingular, and T-Mobile: 22 Nokia 6360 (AT&T) 150 62
&C &C 3 ⁄2 1
& C • •
12 Siemens $100 Ï Discontinued but similar models available. Price is for similar 3588i.
15 Nokia $40
Guide to the Ratings
21 Motorola $100 Overall score is based mainly on voice quality and sensitivity. Voice quality covers perform-
All three phones offer long battery life ance in noisy and quiet environments, for talking and listening; testing was done using live
and talk time. The Siemens (12) uses GSM phone calls. Sensitivity is a measure of a phone’s voice quality when a call is placed using a
technology with TDMA as a backup, to weak signal. The scores are applicable only within a Ratings group, not between groups. Talk
help maximize coverage in AT&T’s net- time is the average time we think you should expect, based on our tests with strong and weak
works (see box, page 22). The widely signals. Ease of use takes in the design of the display and keypad and the ease with which we
available Nokia (15) also has a backup sys- could program and access speed-dial numbers, redial, send or receive text messages, and the
like. Features columns show which are tri-mode (able to operate in digital or analog mode in
tem. If you’re signing on with AT&T or Cin-
two frequency bands) and have a folding case, built-in speakerphone, standard headset con -
gular but don’t want a GSM phone, then nector, easy-to-mute ringer (lets you mute the ringer and vibrate with the press of one key),
the Motorola (21) is a good choice. volume control on the side, or a built-in camera. Price is the average for a phone purchased
from the provider, before rebates or other promotions, in October and November 2003.
F E B R U A RY 2004 &Z C O N S U M E R R E P O RT S 23
systems from the older TDMA network to
GSM, the technology widely used in SMALL DETAILS, BIG DIFFERENCES
Europe and Asia. If you choose either of
Examples from the phones we tested that point to small but critical design details.
those carriers, you need to select a phone
that will maximize the coverage you get. DOING FLIPS Small bar-style HANDY CONTROLS Many
(See “Trouble in the GSM Network,” page phones, such as the Sony Ericsson phones (see Ratings) put
22.) (below left), can be too tiny for volume controls on the
• “Push to talk,” which lets a cell phone some fingers. A folding phone, such side, where they’re easiest
work like a walkie-talkie even for coast- as the Panasonic (below center and to use without interrupting
to-coast conversation, is becoming more right), is small when it needs to be your conversation.
and opens up to a handier size.
widely available. Nextel, which pioneered
push-to-talk, now has competition from
Sprint and Verizon. AT&T is expected to
introduce a version this year.
HOW TO CHOOSE
Set your price. You can spend as little
as $40 or as much as $600 on a cell phone.
You need to begin your selection in the
right price tier (see First Things First, page
21). Many of the phones we tested fall into
the $100-to-$200 tier. HIDDEN KEYS Millions of text DIAL M FOR … Nokia seems to delight in
Look first at folding phones. A fold- messages are sent from cell finding new key arrangements. The
phones each day, most laboriously 3650’s rotary design (below left) has
ing model—what Motorola dubbed the
pecked out on the phone keypad. needlessly small keys. The 3595 (below
flip phone—has two important advan- right) puts two numbers on a key; you
The Nokia 6800 (below) flips open
tages over other designs, we have found. have to mind which side you press.
to reveal a full typewriter-style
First, the phone is small between calls but
opens to a handy size when in use. memos, messages,
Second, the folding style puts the micro- and entries in the
phone close to your mouth for better built-in datebook.
Be wary of fanciful designs and
diminutive keypads. Phones that resem-
ble small sculptures may prove difficult to
use. (See StyleWise, at right.) Keys that
are small, oddly shaped, or arranged in
unusual patterns can be a challenge,
especially if you’re trying to dial a number
in dim light. Our testing includes an eval-
uation of ease of use. Before you settle on
a phone, try one at the store to get a feel
for its handiness.
Look for sensible features. Cameras,
games, music players, and the like are ap-
pealing, fun, even useful for some people. • An easy-to-mute ringer. Etiquette de- parts. Other recycling programs raise
Other features, listed in the Ratings, will mands that you keep the phone quiet in funds for charity, resell phones as alterna-
prove useful every day.They include: restaurants, movies, and other public tives to new ones, or provide phones to
• Volume controls on the side. They let places.The best phones in this regard can the homeless and victims of domestic vio-
you change the earpiece volume level be set to vibrate rather than ring with the lence. (As the report beginning on the
without moving the phone too far from push of a single key. next page explains, cell phones may not
your ear. You can’t do that if the volume Don’t trash your old phone. Phones work reliably to reach 911.The shelters
controls are on the keypad. can be recycled (but be sure to erase we contacted said they hadn’t experi-
• A standard headset connector. Most names and numbers in the memory). enced problems.) For more information
hands-free headsets have a 2.5-mm plug, Staples and other retailers will take used on recycling, go to www.collectivegood
which fits many phones. Many new GSM ones. Some are refurbished and sold in .com, www.charitablerecycling.com, or
phones use proprietary connectors. developing countries; others are used for www.recyclewirelessphones.com.
24 C O N S U M E R R E P O RT S &Z F E B R U A RY 2004