What a year it has been for cell phones: They've transitioned from relatively simple voice and text messaging devices to gizmos capable of nearly everything a PDA can do, including instant messaging (typically on AOL or Yahoo's IM services), playing music (primarily MP3 and AAC files), displaying snippets of TV shows, capturing 1-megapixel photos, and running complex games.
Of course, not all phones and services are worthy of our admiration--or our cash. But several products truly stand out from the rest.
For starters, there are reasons why people keep talking about Motorola's Razr V3 and Palm's Treo 650: They do their job and they do them well. In fact, PC World gave each product a World Class Award in 2005, citing their solid performance and versatile features.
Nearly all major carriers offer the Razr and the Treo, but if you want something different, it would be a good idea to check out models that might only be available on one carrier. For example, from Alltel, I like Kyocera's Slider Remix KX5. Thanks in part to an easy-to-navigate pinwheel menu, it's user friendly; and the 1.3-megapixel camera, music player, and support for wireless Bluetooth headsets are nice bonuses. We reviewed it back in July.
Cingular sells a couple of handsets that impressed me this year, starting with the Samsung P207. This compact clamshell phone responds to voice commands--such as "Dial a number"--and accepts speech-to-text dictation for SMS text messages, so you don't have to punch keys. Other phones now offer this feature, but the P207 was the first to have it.
Although a bit late to the push-to-talk party, Cingular finally has a nationwide PTT service. The LG Electronics F7200 and the Samsung SGH-D357 are both compatible with Cingular's Push to Talk.
One major caveat about PTT: Although PTT is offered by most major nationwide carriers, you can use the service only with phones that are on the same network provider; PTT does not work across different carriers. For example, a Cingular customer can't use the walkie-talkie function with someone on Verizon's PTT service and vice versa.
Of the two PTT handsets, the Samsung SGH-D357 has a few more high-end communications features--namely, compatibility with Bluetooth and Cingular's EDGE network (a faster data service than the older GPRS technology supported by the LG phone), and support for the GSM 1800 voice frequency used in parts of Europe, Asia, and Australia. (Note that if you want to use a phone overseas, you must subscribe to Cingular's international calling plan.) The LG F7200, however, saves you a few bucks and has 64MB of internal memory for storing messages.
For a PDA phone, consider the BlackBerry 8700c. It's a tad smaller and thinner than older BlackBerrys, has a brighter screen, and supports the EDGE network for relatively speedy Web connections. We reviewed it in November.
Sprint Nextel carries a great mix of handsets with multimedia features inherited from the Sprint side of the merged companies and rugged phones from the new company's Nextel roots.
For starters, I like the new Samsung SPH-A900, which competes directly with the Motorola Razr, mimicking its slick, ultra-slim design and big LCD.
Since the SPH-A900 is a relatively new model, it has more powerful features than the Razr, including a 1.3-megapixel camera and support for a user-friendly music service. Samsung's SPH-A900 works with the Sprint Music Store, which lets you buy and download songs over the air--and later transfer the downloaded tunes to a computer. (Many music phones only let you acquire favorite tunes from a PC, using a USB cable.) The SPH-A900 comes with a 2.5-millimeter headset for listening to your tracks in stereo sound quality. Plus, you can use the handset as a modem: Connect it to a computer either wirelessly via Bluetooth or through the included USB cable.
For photo fanatics, Sprint Nextel offers the Samsung SPH-A800. Its 2-megapixel camera is capable of taking slightly sharper pictures than competing camera phones with resolutions of 1 megapixel or lower. Its built-in MicroSD memory card slot allows additional storage--another handy feature for shutterbugs. Sprint Nextel supplies a 32MB memory card to get you started, but if you want to take hundreds of photos, consider buying a higher capacity card; MicroSD cards currently go up to 512MB.
Both the SPH-A900 and the SPH-A800 support PictBridge, a photo-printing standard that lets you send files from the handset to a compatible printer without installing any special software; you simply connect the devices using a USB cable. Another handy feature on both handsets is speech-to-text input: You dictate your SMS text messages into the phone instead of punching keys.
If you want a rugged phone with push-to-talk capability, consider the Sanyo RL-4930. This candy bar-style phone supports Sprint Nextel's nationwide PTT service. The phone's rubberized edges protect against rough usage. The RL-4930 accepts voice commands: Speak the name of the contact in the phone book and the phone dials the number automatically.
If you want to use PTT with coworkers and family in Canada, some countries in Europe, and parts of Mexico and Central America, consider one of Nextel's handsets such as the Motorola i710 and i860. As I mentioned above, PTT won't work across different carriers. You can link only with users on your network.
T-Mobile customers can choose from a few phones that no other carriers offer, including the new Motorola Pebl, the new Samsung t809, and the Sidekick.
The Pebl works in many countries, including parts of Europe, Asia, and Australia. To use the phone overseas, you must subscribe to T-Mobile's international calling plan. You can use a wireless Bluetooth headset with the Pebl. It includes a camera, and it looks more stylish than most phones, bearing a black rubber casing and a self-opening mechanism that opens the cover when you flick the top right or left corner of the unit.
If you like thin camera phones, consider the Samsung SGH-T809. It's a tad thicker than the Motorola Razr, comes in a black finish, and slides open. I like the big LCD and the global roaming capability, which lets you use the phone in many countries in Europe and Asia. The SGH-T809 is solidly built and has 70MB of internal memory, a MicroSD card slot, and an included 32MB memory card.
Verizon Wireless users can select from a variety of versatile phones from LG Electronics. But my current favorite is The V (also known as the VX9800). Although very bulky, the handset offers several features that make its size a fair trade-off, including a relatively easy-to-use QWERTY keyboard and support for Verizon's VCast entertainment services. In addition to instant messaging, the keyboard works for other functions, including Web browsing and picture taking. In comparison, competing keyboard-enabled phones work only in IM and SMS text messaging modes. For more details, read my November review of The V.
Meanwhile, BlackBerry fans should check out the 7130e, the first BlackBerry that works on Verizon's fast EvDO data network. The 7130e combines numeric and alphabet keys onto one keypad; the handset automatically recognizes when you're in messaging mode so you can use the alphabet keys instantly (this function is available on other BlackBerry 7100 series phones from Cingular and T-Mobile). The large screen makes Web browsing a pleasure, too.
Finally, if you want to use the carrier's nationwide push-to-talk service, you can choose among three phones: the LG VX4700, the Motorola T300p, and the Kyocera KX444. These phones lack a camera--a plus if your employer does not allow cameras in the workplace.