It sounds like an irresistible offer for the ringtone-addicted. Rather than pony up $2 or $3 for each new tune on your cell phone, you can pay a one-time fee of $20 for software for your PC that lets you create as many ringtones asyou want. Not only do you get to change your ring whenever you want for no extra cost after your up-front investment, but you can have personalized ringtones that no one else has.
The reality, though, falls far short of the promise. Creating a ringtone on your PC and moving it to your phone provokes a series of exquisite headaches. You have to weave through an array of digital music formats, bone up on the software and cable technology that connect your PC to your cell phone, and read many software guides before you can figure out which programs work for your phone and wireless carrier. Even when all this prep work is behind you, the quality of the ringtones you make pales next to those you buy. So unless you're a music fanatic and also a techie, do-it-yourself ringtones are not ready for you.
My own odyssey started off innocently enough. I got the software from a few companies, including Xingtone, Magix' ringtone maker, and FutureDial's SnapMedia, and installed the programs on my PC with little hassle. I downloaded Xingtone, for instance, over the Net. Everything seemed straightforward until I realized that Xingtone doesn't work that well with my carrier, Verizon Wireless. The hitch? You either already have to subscribe to a Verizon service called Picture Messaging (which I don't) or pay 25 cents each time you send a freshly crafted ringtone from your PC to your phone. Verizon also limits the length of Xingtone's clips to 3 to 8 seconds, instead of the typical 15 or 20 seconds. So much for creative freedom. Fed up, I switched to a test phone from Sprint.
That wasn't the end of the hassles. These ringtone software programs can't handle music that is copied in the formats used by the most popular music-playing software, including Apple Computer's (AAPL) iTunes and RealNetworks' (RNWK) RealPlayer. That means you need to convert any music that's in those formats into MP3s or Microsoft's (MSFT) music format. That's possible, but a pain.
Once the music is in the right format, the ringtone editing software itself is intuitive and easy. You can pick different parts of the track to turn into a clip, play around with bass, volume, and beat, and even lay different tracks on top of one another. That's a trip. I zipped through U2's Vertigo and 50 Cent's Candy Shop, slicing them so that they were a little different and a little louder than the popular for-fee versions. That part really was a blast.
Getting the ringtone from a computer to a cell phone can be frustrating, though. Magix required a cable, built-in Bluetooth, or infrared technology, which isn't in most phones yet. Even then, the ringtones can only be downloaded to a limited number of very high-end phones. Xingtone, by comparison, is a snap -- the software simply zaps the file wirelessly from your computer to your phone via the Internet and then the wireless network. But I found the quality of these do-it-yourself ringtones to be much worse than those you buy.
Ringtones are mini reflections of people's personalities. That's why do-it-yourself ringtones have such potential. Today's software, however, is anything but liberating.
By Heather Green