Lost In The Phone Zone?

Cellular, PCS, dual mode--here's a guide through the maze of what's hyped, hip, or just right for you

Russell Simmons' phone is more than just a phone--for him, it's a statement. The 40-year-old entrepreneur was just offered a six-figure endorsement contract from a cellular telephone maker because, as founder of Def Jam Recordings and Def Pictures, he's frequently photographed on a call. But he plans to stick with Motorola Inc.'s StarTAC, even though he gets no money from the company. "Why would I want to change to another phone?" he asks. "All my friends have StarTACs. I gave one to Tommy Hilfiger as a gift. I gave one to Warren Beatty. This is the hottest phone out there."

Take it from Simmons: Style counts. But it's only one of many reasons that people buy a mobile phone. As the number of wireless phone users has boomed to 51 million in the U.S., so, too, have the types of models. You can get a phone loaded with features like Caller ID, voice mail, even paging. Or you can get a plain old bricklike phone for nothing if you sign up for a year of service. If your heart desires, you can even get a bright red handset that plays "Jingle Bells" when you get a call.

But to buy the right phone, you need a little background on the kinds of services that come with your purchase. Most important is the distinction between cellular and what's called PCS, or personal communications services. Both transmit signals over radio waves, but there's a key difference. Cellular has been around for a while, so most systems use analog technology. The PCS systems have been built in the past couple of years, so they use higher-capacity digital technology.

COUNTRY COUSINS. And that brings trade-offs. PCS is the clear choice for gadget fans who want the latest features, such as Caller ID, paging, and 25 different phone rings. PCS service also tends to be cheaper, especially for heavy users. Sprint Corp., for example, offers 600 minutes a month for as low as $60, while a similar number of cellular minutes can easily top $200. Many cellular providers say that their systems are being converted to digital, but, with few exceptions, that's wishful marketing.

Still, cellular has a clear advantage in one area: coverage. Cellular systems blanket much of the U.S. PCS operators have built decent urban systems, but they still have gaps outside major metropolitan areas. If you're a suburban soccer mom or an executive who commutes from the 'burbs and simply want a reliable phone without all the bells and whistles, cell phones are your best bet.

Cellular phones are also the ticket for those who don't want to spend much up front. If you sign up for a year or more of service, cellular providers will knock some $300 off the price of a phone. That means there's a good chance you won't pay a dime for a decent model. Phones that wind up coming free with a service contract include the Nokia 232 and models from Ericsson, Motorola, and Sony.

For now, cellular also is the hip choice. Example No.1 is Simmons' StarTAC. Slightly smaller than a cigarette pack and a mere 3.1 ounces, the phone opens like a clam shell and is an electronics wonder. More than that, it has Space Age style that helps it command prices as high as $1,200. That has attracted the likes of actress Farrah Fawcett, musician Herbie Hancock, and model Cindy Crawford. "I like it because it has all kinds of neat features--and it can also be used as a toaster oven," says Ellen DeGeneres.

Well, maybe not a toaster oven. But the StarTAC does allow you to switch between using two telephone numbers--say, one in New York and one in Los Angeles--so you get calls on a local number in each city and don't pay roaming charges. It's also a great memory aid: It can store 99 phone numbers that you can call at the touch of a button.

The only phone that gives the StarTAC a run for its money is the Ericsson 738, a gently curved 4.2-inch phone introduced last year by Sweden's L.M. Ericsson. Even at $550, retailers have had a hard time keeping the sleek phone in stock.

HANDY DIRECTORY. But if you want all the latest features, you need to sacrifice some of the looks. The best compromise is the Q phone, introduced earlier this year by Qualcomm Inc. At $550, the PCS phone is packed with extras, including Caller ID, paging, and short messaging capabilities. Particularly useful is a telephone directory that can store 99 numbers and that can be searched alphabetically. That doesn't mean the Q phone would lose a beauty pageant. It looks enough like the StarTAC that Motorola sued Qualcomm for infringement (the lawsuit is pending), but it still doesn't have the design genius of the Motorola phone.

Look for better PCS phones in the future as digital service becomes more popular in the U.S. Ericsson plans to introduce its $500 CF788 in late November, just in time for the holiday season.

If you're torn between cellular and PCS, don't fret. Manufacturers are coming out with "dual mode" phones that can handle both services. These phones--from Qualcomm, Motorola, and others--are best for executives who want PCS features but need coverage in remote regions, too. The downside is that the dual-mode phones cost $200 to $500, some $50 more than their single-mode counterparts.

As for how much style you want to pay for, each buyer must follow their taste. If you want to be in the company of actors, models, and Russell Simmons, you'll have to shell out several hundred dollars for a StarTAC or a Q phone. Just don't expect an endorsement contract to come with it.

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