Cellphone Madness

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Picking out a cellphone can make you nuts.

Eons ago I saw my first mobile phone in England – it looked like a  WWII Walkie-talkie, weighing at least a couple of kilos and about as unobtrusive to use as a flame thrower. However it was still an innovation for its time. Fast forward to today and technology – particularly cell technology – has made the cell phone cheap, ubiquitous and for many, indispensable.

As my ATT contract expired recently, I began to research different services and cell phones in an attempt to better understand what options are available. Let me confess here and now that my last cell phone was just that – a basic flip-phone without anything much beyond that. My son uses a Blackberry and as he showed me what he can do with it, I began to think long and hard about what I need and what I would like to do. Then he buys his wife an Apple 3G and phone envy begins to set in.

However true to form, I start to do some research so that I can make a choice based on some smidgen of rationality rather than “I gotta’ have this!” emotionality (hard to fight). CNET has a very nice Cell Phone Buying Guide and it’s a good read for the basics. Another resource is Consumer Reports, especially when it comes to picking a service.

So I get to the point where is comes down to ATT vs Verizon as the service provider. Verizon clearly has a better network reputation but it’s CDMA. For me, I wanted to world phone capability and rather than carry two phones overseas, I wanted one phone capability. Depending on how important this is to you, it leads straight to ATT with its GSM (the European standard) rather than Verizon. I’ve read anecdotes of users who have problems using ATT but I have never had a problem (so far), so for me it’s an edge to ATT for its GSM coverage (all ATT phones are quad-band, so coverage is quite broad).

Next I start to look at phones. Google cell phone reviews and you get a raft of sites – CNET again being a nice resource to overview what turns out to be an absolutely bewildering range of choices. So I spend literally hours poring over reviews and winnowing down what I want out of a phone.

One thing I know I want is a decent camera, so this narrows the list a bit. I also don’t want to remove a memory card to download images (not hard, just don’t want to be bothered) so I need a data cable as part of the package. The more I travel, the more I value the “less is more” travel mode. Friends find it hard to believe I travel only with a carry-on and have “trained” my wife to do the same. Considering we sometimes are overseas for a month, they marvel at this (as an aside, I traveled with a friend to England to visit another friend and he packed enough for a month – how may pants and shoes do you need for a 4 day visit?).

After a preliminary shake-out, I visit my local ATT store and begin to play with the phones on display. Fortunately they are all live so you can really try out all the features. Of course I can’t do enough on one visit and return – the staff gets to know me (“Back again?”) and I ask plenty of questions. I even open up the backs to check things out.

I then visited a local computer show (totally depressing – very few people, vendors disappearing) and a few of the vendors are selling cell phones. These are Chinese phones with features you can’t find here – routinely you see phones that can hold two SIM cards, a micro-SD card and totally unlocked – most for $100 – and lots of iPhone look-alikes. Real temptation! The overarching concern – what happens if it breaks? The answer – we send it back to the manufacturer to fix, warranty 60 days. A deal breaker – you’re looking at a lot of potential down time.

After this brief dalliance, I’m back to ATT and this time I spend time with the iPhone. The upshot: There is the iPhone and nothing else. Let’s face it – there is nothing as flexible as a computer that happens to act like a phone. Apps – use your imagination and it’s probably out there someplace. Even though it will cost more for the data plan, I rationalize that I am going to cancel some land-line services to pay for it.

The final kicker was the update to the iPhone 3G S – new, better and worth the wait. I’ll write more after I get this June 19th. If I had given in to phone-envy I would have saved a lot of time.

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