Tech Toys Guide: Cell Phones and Smart Phones

In the mid-1980s, cell phones were barely out of testing and so expensive that only emergency-room surgeons and the rich and famous could afford to use them. Today, cell phones are so pervasive that virtually everyone has one, and they're so inexpensive that many people change phones annually. Predictably, 2003 was the best year yet for cell phones, with the market merging into the smart phone category. Essentially, a smart phone is exactly what its name suggests: a smarter cell phone that includes PC-like functionality such as email, Web browsing, game playing, photo taking and management, and PIM functionality. Interestingly, today's most popular cell phones are actually camera phones, meaning they include an integrated camera for anytime, anywhere picture taking. Camera-equipped cell phones are so popular, in fact, that they outsold digital cameras in 2003.

The Nokia N-Gage ($200 with three games) is probably the most innovative phone released in 2003. Designed primarily as a gaming device, the N-Gage features fast-moving, high-resolution color graphics, wireless capabilities for playing against other N-Gage gamers, and the sort of slick design that both teenagers and adults love. You can also listen to MP3s and FM radio, read email, surf the Web, and download new games and features to the device. The N-Gage is all that, and a phone, too.

Let's take a look at some of 2003's most exciting tech toys:

Cell Phones/Smart Phones
Digital Audio and Music
Digital Photography
Digital Video & Movie Making
Wireless Technologies
Cool Mobile Technologies
TV/PC Integration
Input Devices, Game Controllers, and PC Games
Video and Computer Games

Another innovative Nokia phone, the Nokia 3650 ($150), brings style to the forefront with a uniquely curved form factor that fits well in the hand, video capture and playback and still-image capabilities, integrated Bluetooth communications, and an unusually large and vibrant color display. Like any good cell phone, it's also available in a variety of colors.

Microsoft fanatics will be interested to see the Motorola MPx200 Smartphone (about $150), the first widely available smart phone in the United States that's based on Microsoft's Smartphone 2002 software. Essentially a stripped-down version of the software that ships on Pocket PC devices, Smartphone 2002 has been engineered specifically for cell phones' form factor and input types. In the Motorola design, it's a stunning success. Only one caveat: The Motorola MPx200 Smartphone is currently available only to AT&T Wireless customers, though that should change in early 2004.

No overview of cell phones would be complete without a product from Sony Ericsson. The Sony Ericsson T616 Camera Phone ($200) is a prime example of why this company remains a dominant player in this market. Wrapped in black and gray plastics and offering a stunning wedge-shaped design, the T616 makes a statement while you make a phone call. It also features the requisite color screen, integrated camera, Bluetooth and infrared (IR) connectivity, and unprecedented customization capabilities. Highly recommended.

Another worthy contender is the LG VX6000 Camera Phone ($200), which features a traditional clamshell design, an integrated digital camera, voice-activated dialing, and all the bells and whistles you'd expect from a modern smart phone. (It comes with 31 rings!)

If you're shopping for mobile-phone gadgets, your first purchase should be a headset, or hands-free kit, which is available from a variety of manufacturers. Belkin makes various hands-free kits ($20-50) for Audiovox, Mitsubishi, Motorola, Nokia, Samsung, Sanyo, Sprint, and other phones, as do several other companies. For Bluetooth-compatible phones, consider the excellent Sony Ericsson HBH-35 Bluetooth Headset (about $100), which provides excellent battery life and range. Another must-have add-on is a car power adapter, which will help keep your phone charged on the road; various versions are available for all phone types.

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