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The New Slimmed Down Cellulars

You see them all around you--on commuter trains, at ball games, walking down the street--people talking into handheld phones. If you need to stay in constant touch with your office, or if long lines at pay phones are getting you down, you, too, may be ready to cut the cord.

Today's portable cellular phones are smaller, lighter, and cheaper than ever. Extra functions, such as paging, new designs, and longer battery life, which allows for more talking per charge, have added to their appeal.

HEFTY BARGAINS. In choosing a portable, stick with name brands such as Motorola, Fujitsu, Panasonic, NEC, Audiovox, Oki, Nokia, and Mitsubishi. Consider where and when you will use the phone. Do you want to carry it in the breast pocket of your jacket, your purse, your briefcase, or on your belt?

If size is an issue, Motorola's MicroTac models flip shut for the most compact package. But keep in mind that the smaller the phone, the bigger the price tag. The MicroTac Lite and NEC's P600 both weigh less than 8 ounces and usually retail for upwards of $1,000. The P600 looks more like a TV remote control than a phone, which NEC says makes it easier to hold.

For ease of dialing, Panasonic's PalmPhone ($1,000) offers bigger-than-average keys and a large liquid-crystal display screen. And to help lighten your load, the Oki 900 ($750) doubles as a pager. There are bargains on the heavier end of the scale: Audiovox's 10.5-ounce MVX500 runs about $500.

Many manufacturers offer deluxe and basic versions of the same phone. At about $850, Fujitsu's 9-ounce Stylist comes with a second battery, leather carrying case, and car cigarette-lighter adapter. The Pocket Commander--the same item without the accessories--costs $795. But it often makes sense to buy the deluxe model since most owners wind up purchasing a second battery for $65 to $85. Other popular add-ons include a rapid charger and a car adapter with an antenna and a hands-free speaker attachment.

SYSTEMS CHECK. It makes a difference where you purchase your phone. Most cities have two cellular systems, and dealers are usually affiliated with one or the other. So before you buy, settle on the service that best fits your needs, based on monthly fees, per-minute charges, and coverage area.

All cellular quality is not the same, so ask friends who already own portable phones about the clarity of their service. That way, once you have your portable, you never have to rely on pay phones.

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