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Looking Beyond a Pretty Faceplate


This is peak selling season for the mobile phone business, and handset makers have already unveiled some of the coolest and most alluring phones yet. Under the circumstances, it's easy to fall in love with a pretty faceplate and treat the service side as secondary.

For most consumers, that's a bad idea.

Because U.S. carriers use different--and incompatible--technologies in their networks, not all phones work on all networks. In fact, most phones are built to work on a specific kind of wireless network and a specific range of the radio spectrum, and in all but a few cases, each phone will work on only one or two carriers' networks in your market.

These days, residents of Los Angeles and most major cities have at least five mobile phone carriers to choose from, and few phones are worth eliminating all the competing providers at the get-go.

There are a few exceptions. Many of today's carriers offer high-end smart phones or specialty devices that have characteristics not found in everyday phones, and in those cases, it might be worth choosing the phone first. For example, if you absolutely must have Samsung's beautiful new smart phone/Palm device, you will have to get service from Sprint PCS, which is the only carrier selling the phone.

In addition, if you're attracted to a specific promotion that gives away a phone or sells it at a heavily discounted price in return for a lengthy service contract, then you'll be getting the phone specified by the deal and that's that.

If you have a choice of phones, though, don't fret. It's hard to make a bad choice because nearly all the phones on the market today are solidly built with lots of functions--and the majority can be had for $100 to $250. Make sure to get a dual-mode phone, one with both digital and analog connectivity.

Still, there are differences to consider, and your preferences will play a key role in choosing the best fit. First, consider your preferences concerning the phone's size, weight and form (candy-bar style or one that flips open and shut). Also think about how you'll carry it: Does it feel right in your pocket or purse, or on your belt?

Next, consider the look and feel of the phone. Press the buttons; check the size and clarity of text and numbers on the screen; find your way to the phone list and back; try making calls and moving through the menus using just one hand; and make test calls to evaluate the sound clarity.

Then, move on to the features. Make sure the phone comes with the basics, such as call waiting, caller ID, call forwarding, speed dialing, voicemail, automatic call logging, personal phone book, keypad lock, a selection of ring tones and a loudness control that includes a vibrate mode for unobtrusive notification of incoming calls or messages.

Other niceties include screen and button lighting for after dark, a calculator, alarm and games. Some phones also have numeric and/or text messaging capabilities.

Many phones also boast the ability to connect to the Internet, to download e-mail and the like. Heavy-duty users might want a phone that can double as a laptop modem and that can easily load contact information through a computer connection or infrared port to avoid the tedious task of entering dozens of names and phone numbers in the phone.

If you intend to use your phone in your car (despite the risk that entails), you should look for a phone that comes with a hands-free kit and standard-size headset jack. Some phones have irregular jacks that severely limit headset options.

Finally, there is the growing trend toward personalizing mobile phones. Teenagers have led the way, snapping up multicolored and specially designed faceplates and downloading every imaginable ring tone. If you're interested in adding a bit of style or a ring tone all your own, pick a phone that can accommodate you.

Whatever you do, don't forget to compare the battery life of the phones. The amount of talk time you get from a fully charged phone can vary substantially, especially if you choose a phone with a power-hungry color screen.


Elizabeth Douglass covers telecommunications. She can be reached at

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