Free Phones for the Masses

Grace Aquino
PC World
Thursday, January 25, 2007; 11:10 PM

When I hear the word free, I can't help but think "what's the catch?" "what's wrong with it?" and "do I really want something from the reject bin?" But today's free cell phones don't deserve any such reaction. Though you won't see any premium handsets included among the freebie options, carriers now offer no-cost phones that go far beyond basic.

I tested one phone from each of the four major U.S. carrier--Cingular, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless--and found handsets that ranged from fair to very good. Cingular's selection was easily the most generous, while Verizon had the slimmest pickings.

Clearly, many carriers have improved their array of free phones, but you may have trouble finding these models at their retail stores: Many freebies are available exclusively via the carrier's Web store. That introduces a time lag before you get the phone. Also, in some instances, the phone becomes free only when you obtain a rebate, meaning that you'll incur up-front costs. And typically you'll have to sign a two-year service contract, as you would when arranging to get any other new handset through a wireless provider.

If you're okay with these constraints, a free phone can go a long way. It's a great choice for folks who need multiple phones for, say, their family or their employees. If you tend to lose or drop your phone--or don't care what happens to it--why not save your cash and go for a free phone? Here are a few worth checking out.

I found a wider selection of free phones at Cingular than at any other major U.S. carrier. Cingular invites you to choose from among nine capable handsets--ranging from clamshell-style LG, Pantech, Nokia, Samsung, and Sony Ericsson phones to candybar-style Motorola Slvrs--all gratis. I tested the innovatively thin Motorola Slvr L6. To get the L6 for free, you'll need to request a $50 mail-in rebate, but this handset just might make the potential hassle worthwhile.

With a weight of 3.3 ounces and a thickness of 0.4 inch, the Slvr is lighter and thinner than many other current cell phones. A nonfolding cousin of the Razr, this handset sports the same flat, blue-backlit dial pad and five-way navigation button in the center. Though flat, it's comfortable enough to hold for phone calls. Don't want to hold it indefinitely? Use the speakerphone. The volume control on the L6 is not readily apparent, unfortunately, because this model lacks an up/down button on the side; instead, you use the left/right arrow keys on the five-way navigation button.

The L6 features a 640-by-480-pixel camera; is compatible with a Bluetooth headset; runs the AIM, ICQ, and Yahoo Messenger instant messaging clients; and lets you view Web-based e-mail, including AOL, MSN Hotmail, and Yahoo Mail. It's nice to have the IM and e-mail in a pinch, but the L6 isn't ideal for these communication modes; it lacks a QWERTY keyboard and runs at dial-up or slower connection speeds. Another shortcoming: The unimpressive 1.8-inch screen showed visible lines that made images and text look rough and hazy.

Other members of the Slvr family are the cameraless L2 (offered for free at Cingular.com) and the iTunes-compatible L7 ($150 with a two-year contract from Cingular.)

The slickest-looking clamshell-style phone I checked out is the Samsung a640, which has an '80s retro design. In fact, this shiny black handset reminds me a lot of KITT, the cool talking car from the 1980s TV showKnight Rider. Its narrow and elongated dimensions (1.8 by 3.6 inches) make it very comfortable to hold. It's also light (at 3.2 ounces) and compact enough (at 0.9 inch thick) to fit in most pockets.

Though the casing feels plasticky, Samsung and Sprint have made the a640 easy to use. For example, it's equipped with buttons for quick and easy access to features such as the speakerphone, camera, Ready Link walkie-talkie (service costs extra), and volume.

The front consists of a 640-by-480-pixel camera and a 1.2-inch external screen. With the phone closed, you can easily take self-portraits. My photos came out reversed in this mode, as if I had taken them while looking through a rear-view mirror, but it's a fun feature nonetheless.

Inside, you'll find the 1.8-inch internal screen, the usual five-way navigation button, a dedicated back button, two soft keys, a Talk button, an End button, and the alphanumeric keypad. Like the Slvr L6, the a640 suffers from lackluster screen quality; visible lines on the display tend to make graphics and text look shadowy.


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