Cell phones that take pictures? My first reaction: What an absurd idea. Who would want a bunch of poor-quality digital snapshots that may have been state-of-the-art a half-dozen years ago? Worse, the wireless carriers want you to pay for sending and receiving them, and pay by the megabyte, whatever that means.
But now I'm hooked. Cell phones with built-in cameras are all the rage in Europe and Asia and are coming to the U.S. Virtually every maker will offer a couple of models by the end of the year. I have been playing with the only two on the market today: Samsung's SGH-V205 from T-Mobile and Sanyo's SCP-5300 from Sprint (PCS). I also looked at--but don't recommend--phones with camera attachments, such as Sony Ericsson's T68i with its CommuniCam. Because the tiny camera is a separate piece that plugs into the phone, you lose the instant gratification of an integrated camera-phone.
What I discovered is that the picture quality is good enough for the intended purpose. These gizmos aren't designed to take portraits or landscapes to hang on your living room wall, or even to paste in a photo album. They simply give you another way to communicate--with a picture instead of a voice or text message. Over the holidays I sent off snaps of the perfect roast turkey to family members who couldn't make our feast. My Valentine's Day message was a corny self-portrait. It said as much as the proverbial thousand words.
Right now, most of the pictures you send will go to e-mail addresses as attachments or, in Sprint's case, as a Web link to the photo, which is stored in your own album on a computer at Sprint. The phones really are designed so you can send photos to other phones. For that to work, however, your picture pen pals must have a phone that can display pictures, and the service usually must be from the same wireless carrier.
You can also turn your best shots into wallpaper or screen savers for your phone. With the Sanyo model, my favorite, you can store snapshots of your friends as Caller ID photos: When a friend calls, his or her picture will show up on the 1-inch color display on the outside of the flip. The Sanyo camera also has a tiny flash and a 16X digital zoom capability.
These camera-phones list for $400 at Sprint and T-Mobile, but check around for deals. (Amazon.com has the Samsung model for $150 after a mail-in rebate, and the Sanyo phone for $270.) Prices are sure to drop as more camera-equipped phones come to market later this year. The cost of "air time" for photos is surprisingly reasonable. T-Mobile charges $2.99 a month for a megabyte, enough for a picture or two a day, or $9.99 for 10 megabytes--hundreds of pictures a month. At Sprint, it's $10 a month for unlimited use. A small price, I'd say, for an ingenious, entertaining way to keep in touch. By Larry Armstrong