By Stephen Baker
The Good The Internet radio is fun, and the still camera works nicely
The Bad The standard phone keyboard and herky-jerky video
The Bottom Line A solid multimedia phone that fits in your pocket
Look at all those people walking down the street with phones pressed to their ears. Sure, most of them are chatting. But a fraction of them just might be listening to the news or a ballgame on Internet radio. That's right, radio. With all of the hoopla in the phone world surrounding camera phones, many of them with tiny movie cameras and shimmering color screens, the phone's potential as a radio is often ignored.
Nokia's snazzy new 6620 gives Internet radio its due. The pocket-friendly, open-face phone lists at $329.99, but it's available with service subscription and discounts at prices down to $99.99. It boasts plenty of impressive video features, including a still camera that produces surprisingly good photos. But it's the radio, available on a service through AT&T Wireless -- now part of Cingular -- that sets it apart.
Why is the radio so important? Because it's live. Most of the video on phones available in the U.S. market is canned. On select phones, including the 6620, you can watch herky-jerky highlights from last night's games and a handful of news clips. But viable live TV on handsets in this market is at least a couple of years away. Radio, by contrast, works right now.
It did the trick for me. One evening in mid-October, when the Yankees appeared to be beating the Boston Red Sox, I was marooned at a suburban bus stop, anxious to hear the latest from Fenway Park. With three clicks, I was into the 6620's sports menu. After a couple more clicks to pick the game, I was listening to the action. True, on nationally broadcast games, a transistor radio will do just as well. But for out-of-town sports fans, a service that provides live audio of a distant game provides real value.
Needless to say, it costs real money. Voice subscriptions start at $39.99 per month. The all-you-can-eat data service on AT&T-Cingular costs an extra $24.99 per month. This features programming from National Public Radio, Fox Sports, CBS MarketWatch, and others. Subscribers can download all sorts of video features, from the latest White House pronouncements to touchdown passes. The sports extra, with content from Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Assn., costs an additional $4.95 per month. The whole package costs about $80 per month, including tax.
Is the data service worth it? For radio-loving sports fans, it could be a hit. But those eager to watch the action could be disappointed. A speedy data connection on the 6620 -- a standard known as Edge -- shuttles the bits two or three times as fast as the standard that emerged two years ago, known as Generation 2.5 Despite the added speed, however, the video quality remains iffy, with clips that all too often freeze and black out.
STILL A NOVELTY.
The 6620 has plenty of other virtues. For a compact 4.4-ounce phone, this model boasts a solid digital camera. It produces far more vivid and detailed photos than most of the camera-phones that burst onto the U.S. market last year.
One word of warning for camera bugs: Those interested in camera quality should make only a one-year commitment to the latest camera-phones, including the 6620. Phones with megapixel cameras are already commonplace in Asia. These produce far richer images and will be spreading into the U.S. market within months.
Flip a switch on the 6620, and it turns into a movie camera capable of shooting 10-minute clips -- of low-quality video. Move the camera a bit too fast, and the picture breaks down into pixels. It's not hard to imagine scenarios where such a camera could be useful. A baby takes her first steps. The parents shoot the movie and send it winging through the wireless network to tech-savvy grandparents. But for most people, I'd predict, the movie camera will be forgotten as the novelty wears off.
Still, if you want to shoot pictures and movies, the 6620 has lots of room to store them. It has 12 megabytes of memory built in with 32 megabytes available on a plug-in memory card. It can hold more than 200 photos at a time. Music in the MP3 digital format? That works too, but the 6620 has room for only a handful of songs. For listening pleasure on the 6620, stick to the radio.
Baker is a senior writer for BusinessWeek in New York
Edited by Jim Kerstetter