Is a Smart Phone a Smart Choice?

Recently, I needed to buy a cell phone to solve a simple problem: the inability to reply to e-mails. I had been using a Verizon LG music phone, which had great audio quality and quick e-mail access through Verizon's Mobile Web 2.0. But replying to e-mails via the phone keypad was difficult, so I wanted a keyboard as close to the real thing as you can get, even though the keys are half the size of Chiclets.

With prices dropping, then, it seemed like the right time to switch to a smart phone. Verizon was offering the Palm Treo 700P for just $299 after rebates. Similar deals abound on other smart phones; the Nokia E62 is just $99 after rebates on Cingular, and the hot Blackberry Pearl is $199 after rebates on T-Mobile.

Such deals require a two-year contract and separate data access fee. For example, T-Mobile offers 2,500 voice minutes for $110 a month, with a "Total Internet w/Corporate My E-mail" package for an additional $40 per month.

Deciding to stay with Verizon, I bought the Treo 700P. It's loaded with features like a color touch screen, a mobile Web browser, an alphanumeric keypad, BroadbandAccess Connect, a digital camera, wireless sync, a digital music player, built-in Bluetooth for wireless earphones, the ability to download Word and Excel files, and an organizer.

Problem is, it turned out to be too much for me—the feature overload, the setup time, the Treo's physical size, and the additional $45 a month (taxes on wireless service will make it $55) for a data plan. With the Treo's phone, there was an unpleasant echo when I spoke, and retrieving voice mail via the alphanumeric keypad was a pain. I'd have to hit the shift key and shift from letters to numbers to asterisks and pound signs for my password, by which time my voice mail had already disconnected. The on-screen touch keypad worked better—except that if I put my ear to it, the phone would dial the numbers my ear touched. I resorted to playing back voice mail on speakerphone, which is rarely desirable.

Having Web access was convenient, but many web- sites are not optimized for wireless use on a small screen. And setting the Treo to receive AOL e-mail was unexpectedly difficult. So after 10 days with the Treo, I downshifted to an LG phone that was cheaper to buy ($199 after rebate) and to operate. Instead of a $45-a-month data plan, I pay only $5 a month plus airtime for Web Mobile 2.0. It doesn't offer full Web access or let you squint at attached files, but it has news, weather, sports, entertainment, and shopping, plus the ability to get e-mail from MSN Hotmail, AOL, and Yahoo.

A compact phone with a standard keypad, the LG also has this benefit: Turn it sideways and flip it open, and a full QWERTY typing keyboard appears, as does another LCD screen with a pair of speakers. It also features a music player, 1.3-megapixel camera, and miniSD storage slot.

So it turned out that what I really wanted was 70 percent phone, 30 percent data device—and the Treo was the inverse of that. Saving $750 in the first year versus operating a Treo was pretty compelling too.

If you're shopping for a phone, then, look at the whole package. And when you do buy, make sure you can take it back in case the setup doesn't satisfy you; Verizon offered a 15-day return policy.

Extra Bytes: At Sea, In Touch
One of the biggest complaints about shipboard meetings has been how difficult and expensive cellular and Internet access are to receive while on board. But two companies—Wireless Maritime Services (www.cellularatsea.com) with service aboard Carnival, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean lines, and SeaMobile (www.seamobile.com; on Holland America, Crystal lines)—are changing that situation. The per-minute cost can range from 75 cents for Web browsing to between $2 and $5 per minute for voice calls, depending on your cellular provider.