Pick another fruit: Apple isn't the only option for 'smart' phones

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Despite all the buzz over Friday's debut of the iPhone, Apple's latest i-offering isn't the first smart phone to hit the cell phone market.

Anita Dufalla, Post-Gazette
Above: Apple CEO Steve Jobs unveiled the Apple iPhone at the MacWorld Conference in San Francisco in January. It goes on sale Friday.
Below: A closer look at the iPhone

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Sure, the iPhone comes with a two-megapixel camera and full Internet capacity. But before committing to its hefty $499 to $599 price tag, you might want to check out other multimedia phone options that come with their own bells and whistles -- for a fraction of the cost.

Jen O'Connell, an independent wireless consultant based in Atlanta, said that this high demand for media phones can be attributed to the trend of being entertained while communicating. "More and more of our time interacting with our cell phones is part of social networking," she said.

A veteran of the wireless industry for almost 13 years, Ms. O'Connell recommends the BlackBerry Pearl for those just starting out with a smart phone. It is a "fantastic e-mail device," she said, and it's also fashionable and smaller than a regular BlackBerry. She also recommends the Palm Treo for first-timers, which is easy to use and reliable. The Pearl runs about $150 on T-Mobile, and Treo devices start around $300 on Sprint.

David Clevenger, spokesman for Verizon Wireless, said the company offers 18 multimedia phones, including the popular LG Chocolate. Motorola's RAZR and KRAZR phones are other popular multimedia devices, although their music capability is their best feature. The company also offers the Treo line, which can run on Microsoft Windows Mobile. Prices for Verizon devices range from $29.99, after rebate, to about $500, he said.

Verizon offers the V CAST Music Store, an online store that allows Verizon customers to buy music straight from their cellular devices or from a computer. Songs purchased through a wireless device cost $1.99 each. A copy is sent to the wireless device and the person's home computer, resulting in two files from one purchase. Songs purchased on a computer cost 99 cents for one copy on that machine.

Another unique service Verizon offers customers is V CAST SongID. Hold the phone to a music speaker and this application will identify the song title and artist. It even gives users the option to buy that song's ringtone, ringback tone or the actual music file. This application is free on seven devices, and charges apply only if the song, ringtone or ringback tone is purchased.

Sprint is catching on to this multimedia craze, too. Dubbed the "ultimate flip-phone" by Sprint communications manager Jack Pflanz, the Samsung UpStage is a single device with two separate screens -- one for music, one for phone. Stream music with Sirius, VH1 and MTV and watch more than 50 live television channels on Sprint TV. Wireless downloads also are available on this device, offering songs at $.99 each plus the cost of a data plan, which starts at $15 a month. Sprint offers the phone for $99 with a two-year contract.

The company's newest media phone, the LG Muziq, was announced yesterday and will be available July 15. With this you can download music from the wireless Sprint Music Store right onto the device. Another cutting-edge feature of this phone is its built-in FM transmitter, allowing music to be played through a car stereo or FM receiver up to 10 feet away. It costs $99 and comes with a two-year contract.

Sprint also offers many other MP3 phones, such as the LG Fusic and Samsung Power Vision M510, starting as low as $25 plus a two-year contract, Mr. Pflanz said.

Most cell phone providers already offer an Internet service that can be accessed with the push of a button or touch of the screen. However, unlike the iPhone, which will be able to access the Internet in full, most of these versions offer an abridged version of the Internet or offer only a few sites on a WAP -- Wireless Application Protocol -- browser. Phones include such sites as Amazon, Yahoo! and The New York Times on their browsers.

Some phones, such as the BlackBerry and Treo, have a keyboard right on the device to type in the Web site, whereas with others you have to type out the letters for a Web address using the number keys.

No matter the service, a monthly mobile Web plan is required to access the Internet. Prices range from about $5 to more than $20 a month.

So, which of these alternative phones is the best? Ms. O'Connell released a book in April titled "The Cell Phone Decoder Ring" to help consumers decide which phone and options are best for them. When people ask her which cell phone is No. 1, she can't provide an immediate answer.

"My response has always been, 'There's never one right answer -- it's whatever is appropriate for you, based on your needs.'"

The Samsung UpStage
Click photo for larger image.

Caitlin Price can be reached at cprice@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1419.


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