Untangle Your Wireless Options

The long-hyped technology is finally at hand. Here's how to choose the right stuff

This is a good time to be a cell-phone customer. Six national companies in the U.S. are battling for market share, offering hundreds of minutes at bargain rates, and practically giving away calls on evenings and weekends. And lots of the new phones have color screens.

Who cares about color on a phone? Many pooh-pooh it. But when Ericsson (ERICY ) launched its color-screened T68 in Europe a year ago, madness ensued. Color-crazed consumers waited in long lines for the phones.

Color, it appears, sells. It's especially appealing to people who play games on their handsets. And the T68i, now offered by Sony Ericsson, gives you a U.S. version of Europe's phenomenon. The little tri-band phone can operate in much of the world (minus Japan) and is a gadget lover's dream. Its Bluetooth technology can transmit to a wireless headset. So, if you can pry your eyes from the color screen, you can make calls without even taking the handset out of your purse or briefcase. The T68i sells for $150, when included in a subscription.

Not your style? Maybe you're an economy buyer, someone who wants the convenience of mobile communication--without wading through manuals or receiving eye-popping phone bills every month.

Or perhaps you're a business user, like Kelly Smith, a 34-year-old self-employed software dealer in Seattle. He spends $59.99 a month for 1,500 minutes, plus free weekends and nights, on AT&T Wireless (AWE ). "I hardly ever use my home phone anymore," he says. Smith spends an extra $7.99 for a mobile Net service, and checks his e-mail on his SonyEricsson T68i.

Let's say you're an economy buyer. The first thing to do is shop for a network, not a phone. Ask neighbors which company they use. The key is to find a service that provides good coverage where you live and work. This is a matter of economics. If your mobile phone works well at home, you can switch to the cell for your long-distance calls. They're free, as long as you stay within your monthly minutes. For low rates, you might consider T-mobile. One $39.99 plan offers 600 anytime minutes and unlimited weekend talk.

Once you pick a carrier, go to the phone shop and do something counterintuitive: Buy gobs of minutes. Here's why: In the U.S., you pay for calls you make and receive. And when you top your limit, the phone companies nail you for extra fees. If, for example, you sign up for Verizon's bargain 300-minute plan but end up speaking 550 minutes, extra charges drive your bill from $39.99 to $152.49--lots more than the $54.99 you pay for the 550-minute plan.

For gadget lovers, the Samsung SPH-A500, available at Sprint PCS (PCS ), provides a heap of handset in a small package. Its color screen is sharper than the SonyEricsson, perfect for downloading games. And Sprint PCS's new Net service, which costs $10 a month, provides unlimited megabits of data.

Techies will find plenty to like in a host of new phones loaded with pioneering features. Among the hottest is multimedia messaging services, or MMS. Until now, wireless phones could only receive digital photos from other callers as e-mail attachments; MMS allows people to snap and send photos from one multimedia phone to another.

The $199 Motorola Inc. T720i (MOT ), unveiled in October, is among the slickest of the breed. It features a large color screen, great for multiplayer Internet games.

Tired of lugging around a laptop? Phone companies are offering lots of bargains for full-featured smart-phones. In late October, Sprint PCS announced a special package for data gluttons. For $499 to $599, you buy a Handspring Treo 300 (HAND ). For $95 per month, you get 2,000 anytime minutes, unlimited nights and weekends--and unlimited data. Pig out!

After years of hype, wireless services have arrived. Who knows? With all these new features, maybe even economy users will start dabbling in mobile data.

By Steve Rosenbush

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