Mobile phones are now conveniently small and, with a sufficiently long contract, often conveniently free. So what substance and style could compel people to drop $150 or more on a phone?
We tried out one such luxury model from each carrier doing business in the Washington area -- all flip-open camera phones that remain primarily phones, not handheld organizers.
Cingular's Motorola Razr V3 ($200) is the best-looking model in this batch, pleasantly light and head-turningly thin -- barely half an inch thick. Its relentlessly sleek design turns the keypad into a single flat plate, with small ridges between the keys that keep the buttons usable by touch alone. And talk time ran to 61/2 hours, while some other phones tested couldn't last 3 hours.
The included Bluetooth wireless capability allows the Razr to pair up with wireless headsets and, with some tweaking, synchronize its address book to your computer's.
In other aspects, however, Motorola's obsession with slimness forces trade-offs. Although you can watch videos on the Razr's wide, bright screen, without a memory-card slot you'll get little use out of it. The Razr's camera lacks a flash. Lastly, its interface is somewhat inconsistent, at times making it hard to know that it's responding to a command.
Nextel's Motorola i860 ($250) is no Razr, even when compared with Nextel's more bricklike models. It is the only Nextel model to include a camera and camcorder, but those are limited to low-resolution shots and clips lasting up to 10 seconds each. It also includes the same walkie-talkie Direct Connect mode and speakerphone as other Nextels.
The i860's signature feature is its Global Positioning System capability, which allows it to offer location-specific data such as business listings (it can list gas stations by their prices) and driving directions (which you can request by speaking the name of a destination). This feature could be done more elegantly -- for instance, it displays driving directions a bit too slowly, causing it to miss turns that come in rapid succession -- but it beats what other phones offer.
Its battery, however, yielded only three hours of talk time, and our test i860 started picking up scratches after a few days.
Sprint's Sanyo MM-5600 ($280) looks and feels like a thicker version of a standard flip phone. Its camera is better than most, with a 1.3-megapixel resolution. It also supports Sprint's walkie-talkie ReadyLink service.
But its best feature is what you can add to it -- an included USB cable and 16 MB MiniSD card allow you to copy over MP3 and AAC music files for playback on the phone. You can also download and watch videos from Sprint's Web site, although our viewing was often interrupted by pauses.
T-Mobile's Motorola A630 ($300) features a standard keypad and a small grayscale display on the outside, but flips open to reveal a small QWERTY-layout keyboard and a larger color screen.
This setup makes the A630 extremely convenient for e-mail, text messaging, managing address books and jotting down notes. But it's awkward to hold the phone to your face with the keyboard opened (use the built-in speakerphone instead).
The controls also demand some practice, with an onscreen labels that don't line up with the function keys they're supposed to describe. Talk time was just under three hours.
Verizon's relatively hefty LG VX8000 ($130) supports Verizon's EV-DO data service, which allows downloads at near-DSL speeds with only momentary waits to get online. This allows this phone to download news, sports, weather and entertainment video clips (Verizon charges $15 a month for this "VCast" service), with playback starting within seconds of your choosing a clip among the hundreds offered.
Other content costs extra, such as music videos that sell for $4 each. Although the VX8000 includes an MP3 player and stereo headset, you can't play your own songs, only those bought from Verizon. In a similar vein, photos taken with the VX8000's camera are held hostage: You can only send them to your computer via e-mail, at 25 cents each. Talk time clocked in at slightly over four hours.
Each of these phones has some special feature -- but none combine them all. The stylish, rapid-downloading, GPS-enabled, music-playing phone that we all want remains tragically absent from the market.