Phone Sexy

Should I Buy a Snazzy New Cell Phone?

 Q: Seems like every other TV commercial is pushing me to buy a snazzy new cell phone—you know, with instant photos and Web access and all that. Don't quite understand the benefit, but I'm a sucker for T-Mobile spokeswoman Catherine Zeta-Jones. Should I heed her siren's call?

Those next-gen phones boast high "gee whiz" factors, but the novelty value quickly wears thin. Sure, there's an initial thrill to downloading a ringtone version of "All 4 Tha Cash," or guiding Uruguay to sweet victory in a stripped-down version of FIFA World Cup. After a few days of noodling, though, only the cameras still excite. What you've got to figure out for yourself is whether that's worth an extra $300 or so.

Mr. Roboto has recently tested out next-gens from Sprint PCS, Verizon Wireless, and, yes, Ms. Zeta-Jones's German-backed employer. The Sprint model, a $300 Samsung A500, had the crispest LCD display of the lot. You'll need to sign up for a PCS Vision service plan (pcsvision.com) to make your phone work; expect to pay an extra $10 per month for Web access or use of instant messaging. If only Sprint's service were more reliable—the signal winks out on a whim, rendering the A500 no more useful than a brick. (A Sprint flack has promised Mr. Roboto that the company's engineers are hard at work on the dead-zone problems. Uh-huh.)

illustration: John Ueland

The Verizon and T-Mobile units were virtually identical Motorola T720s. Not quite as sleek as what Sprint's offering, with annoyingly hard-to-press keys, the palm-sized T720 is still an upgrade on what's currently in your pocket. The LCD is more than passable, and the sound is satisfyingly sharp; Mr. Roboto was impressed by the phone's blip-hop rendition of Harold Faltermeyer's "Axel F.," one of the ringtone options.

The Verizon plan (verizonwireless.com) is definitely geared toward entertainment, with a long roster of downloadable games. The more complex titles, like a Two Towers-inspired adventurer, don't translate well on a screen that measures six square inches. Jeopardy! was an enjoyable time-waster for a few days, until the questions became reruns. Each game costs about $3 per month, though, so be careful about what you purchase—avoid Tiger Woods Golf! Restaurant finder Vindigo is a relative steal at $3.75 per month; if only the connection didn't fail me 25 percent of the time.

Verizon sells its T720 for $230; T-Mobile (t-mobile.com), née VoiceStream, is currently offering it for $200 (after rebate), plus a free camera. There are (lackluster) games here, too, as well as text messaging—a feature that Mr. Roboto has never really warmed to, despite its popularity among Scandinavian and Japanese schoolkids. Maybe it's a generational thing: The day has long since passed when tapping out "U R Cute :-)" could get Mr. Roboto's Evinrude cranking.

The real lure is the snap-on camera, which Verizon and Sprint offer, too. All three are dogged by awful resolution—the resulting pictures resemble absinthe-fueled Van Gogh paintings—but it's still an intriguing feature. Since next-gen bandwidths average around 50-60 kilobits per second, you can even zap your shots to a pal. Be mindful of what kind of service plan you've signed up for, though—some of the bargain plans cap your data transfers at a few megs per month, and every kilobyte over that costs extra.

Phone cams are also a great way to latch onto the photo-blogging trend. Want to think the world gives a hoot about the wounded rabbit you spotted in the forest? Snap the shot, send the JPEG to your laptop, and post away. Of course, you could do the same with a sub-$150 digital camera and a USB cable, without the subscription fees. Though, as Ms. Zeta-Jones points out in one ad, you couldn't instantly e-mail a JPEG of a jade frog to an antiques dealer. Worth the scratch, then? Hey, Mr. Roboto reports; you decide.


Danke schön to reader "juliere" for passing along a link to Googlism.com. Last week, this column ended with a pained query as to why Google's new glossary feature didn't contain a definition for "Mr. Roboto." The unaffiliated Googlism cross-references Google search results to solve that problem. According to Googlism, then, Mr. Roboto is "a new kind of Level B villain," "played by Nobu Matsuhisa," and "the only bright spot on this turd." Nice.


Input questions at bkoerner@villagevoice.com.

 
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