Nokia's Bare Essentials 2128i

If you're looking for a basic handset, this no-frills model is surprisingly competent, even better at some tasks than far-pricier phones

By Burt Helm

Life as you know it can change in the blink of an eye, or at least a washing machine spin cycle. One minute, you're the proud owner of a snazzy new handset that's slim, stylish, and chockablock with fancy features: a high-resolution camera, e-mail, even the polyphonic ring tone of Laffy Taffy that you downloaded the day before. The next, that phone is waterlogged and dead, having been left in your jeans pocket and inadvertently sent through a hot-water rinse with the rest of the laundry.

I wish I could say this was just a hypothetical example, concocted to kick off a product review. But sadly, it actually happened to my LG VX6100 soon after the new year got under way. And the thing about putting your phone in the wash -- it's not covered by the warranty. On many calling plans, that means paying the full retail price for a replacement, unless you're game for an upgrade.

I wasn't, and the low promotional price offered to new customers by my provider, Verizon Wireless (VZ), didn't apply. The least expensive phone offered in my local Verizon store cost $150 at full retail, and the LG VX6100 retails for $250. And being on a budget, I no longer had a shot at the slick Motorola (MOTO) RAZR (retail: $419) I had my eye on. Suddenly, I found myself in an entirely new market: the land of what a Verizon spokesperson calls the "send-and-end" phones -- simple, no-frills models that make calls and do little else.


So, in the name of cell-phone talkers who share my plight, and for those who just want a cheap and simple phone that does a great job with the basics (and because I want to buy the best cheap-o phone out there), I've decided to do a series of reviews of several of these "send-and-end" phones from a few different providers. Today, I'm starting with the Nokia (NOK) 2128i on the Verizon Wireless plan. It's one of the least expensive models from Verizon, with a full retail price of $150, and only $30 if you sign up for a two-year agreement.

The Nokia 2128i isn't much to look at: It has a humdrum candy-bar design that looks clunky. The white-plastic casing of the phone feels cheap, and the display screen is fairly primitive, letting you view only one icon at a time. That results in a lot of scrolling to find the feature you want.

Looks aside, the phone carried some pleasant surprises. The user interface is straightforward and intuitive, and it does a great job of overcoming the inherent clumsiness of the primitive LCD screen. It was a breeze to save phone numbers into the phone book, send and view short text messages, and perform other basic tasks. The phone also excels at letting the user customize three different ring settings -- "Normal," "Meeting," and "Silent." It took me a little while to set up, but I was also able to set ring type and alerts for text messages and voice mails just the way I like them.


In other basic functions, the Nokia beat even many of the more advanced phones I've tested. Friends immediately commented that my voice sounded clearer and crisper than on my old phone (on my end, the voice quality was satisfactory, but nothing special). The battery life is also very strong, supporting tons of talk time (246 minutes, with a standby time of 212 hours, according to Verizon Wireless).

The simple design has limits, though. The most basic problem is that it lacks an easy-to-use button for volume control during a call. In addition, you have to buy a special Nokia-brand headset, meaning my old one didn't work.

The bare-essentials phone also lacks features that I'll miss. Cell-phone cameras can be fun for snapping random pics of friends and for creating custom wallpaper for the display, but this model doesn't have one. As a matter of fact, the phone doesn't even have a wallpaper feature -- the LCD display just has a white background. The 2128i also has no access to Verizon's Get It Now network -- meaning no video games, weather, or Top 50 pop-music ring tones. Goodbye, sweet Laffy Taffy.


Despite those limitations, I found myself liking the little no-frills "send-and-end" 2128i. It even had a feature I had never seen on any high-end model: Push and hold the "up" button on the control pad, and an internal LED turns the phone into the flashlight.

It's not all that gee-whiz a feature, but it came in handy. The first day I had the phone, I used it to find my keys in the dark. It won't impress friends, but in terms of basic functionality, the Nokia 2128i shows up to work and does a very competent job.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.