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It's Easy To Tell--And Show--On Today's Cell Phones


Heard of a labradoodle? It's a mixture of a Labrador retriever and a poodle. It comes in hundreds of variations, and the owners, including my sister, tend to be fanatics. The other week I ran into a Labradoodle outside the grocery. He looked just like my sister's dog, and like hers, he came from a breeder in Virginia. They could be brothers! I promptly pulled a cell phone out of my pocket, Verizon's LG VX6000, which includes a digital camera. I snapped a picture of the dog, typed in my sister's e-mail address, and a few clicks later the photo was hurtling toward her PC inbox. Ready to pay for moments like that? An entire industry is betting you are. Camera phones are selling at a faster clip worldwide than stand-alone digital cameras. And now phone companies in the U.S., eager to replicate the camera-phone craze in Asia, are offering many of the latest handsets for about $100, when included with a one- or two-year subscription.

Camera phones should grow worldwide from 18 million units last year to 65 million in 2003, or 13% of the handset market, predicts Boston's Strategy Analytics, a research firm. For those who would rather skip the experience, plenty of camera-free phones are on the market. But telephone company executives predict that within two years, the camera will become a standard feature in a majority of consumer cell phones. The only question will be whether to use it.

These phones can be a gas. With their connections to the Web, they let you send off short colorful messages with surprising ease. Think of them as digital post cards: shots of your nephew sliding into third, the view from the cubicle at your new job, the picture of a '64 Rambler driving by, exactly like the one you wrecked 20 years ago.

But before diving into the market, there are a few things you should know: First, these are not replacements for even mid-range digital cameras -- at least not yet. The images are low on pixels. Most top out at 640 by 480 pixels, one-tenth the quality of good digital photos. The low pixel density makes them quicker to send but unsuitable for any print bigger than a snapshot. Also, since phone companies haven't settled on a common standard, you cannot yet send photos directly to most people's phones -- and must instead mail them to an e-mail address. And photo service will probably raise your bills. To send photos, carriers including AT&T (T), Cingular (VOD), Sprint (PCS), Verizon (VZ) and T-Mobile require a photo-service or Internet subscription, which adds $3 to $15 to the monthly bill.

Pick up one of these phones, and you'll hardly notice anything new. They look like normal top-of-the-line handsets. The bright color screen is standard. The menu offers the usual selection of games, Web-browsing, and a rudimentary calendar. They handle voice calls with no fanfare. What makes them different is a tiny lens barely as big as a pinhole. Push the button with a camera icon, and suddenly the screen becomes a viewfinder. Snap the picture. Next thing you know, a menu pops up asking if you want to send the picture. You're off and running.

Now is an ideal time to buy. Starting in late November, the Federal Communications Commission has ordered cell-phone companies to let customers hold on to their phone numbers if they switch to a rival. The industry fears a giant wave of churn, as customers, their numbers in hand, shop for better deals. To nail down subscribers, many companies are dangling zippy new phones cheap. And many of them boast cameras.

My favorite is the Sanyo SCP-8100. It's a jewel of a clamshell, one of the simplest to operate, and cheap: With rebates, it goes for as little as $79 with a two-year subscription. Branded by Sprint PCS, the handset shows pictures clearly on a bright screen and coaxes even a tech-challenged novice along a simple process to send them. With Sprint's Web service, Vision, shutterbugs can store pictures in folders online. And for those more interested in talking, it offers clear sound and big, bright numbers on its illuminated screen.

EASY ON THE EYES

Those who live or work in areas with weak cellular coverage might consider Verizon's LG VX6000, the silvery clamshell that transmitted the Labradoodle. Verizon is known for its broad nationwide coverage. The downside is that Verizon, apparently confident of its appeal to customers, isn't slashing prices as zealously as its competitors. The LG goes for $150 after rebates -- steep by today's standards. AT&T (T) Wireless subscribers get a similar deal with Panasonic's GU87 ($150 after rebates). It opens and shuts with a satisfying click that evokes a Zippo lighter.

When I pulled SonyEricsson's stylish T616/T610 ($99 after rebates) out of the box, I was wowed. It looks great, it measures no larger than a small box of business cards -- and it rings in symphonic stereo. While at rest, its black face recalls the darkened windows of a stretch limousine. The trouble is, this screen doesn't seem to brighten up enough when it's activated. And unlike the clamshells, its screen is always exposed to the elements. Keys and loose change can scratch it, making the image cloudy over time. The good news? Its battery life is terrific, and the speech quality is tops.

A tiny alternative to the SonyEricsson is Samsung's brand new clamshell, the e715. Available through T-Mobile, it has stereo-like sound and a camera with plenty of features. But don't count on its flash to break through shadows. For big spenders, Samsung's SPH-A600 ($350) has a swivel top -- like a tablet computer -- and a camera equipped with a 4X digital zoom.

Phone companies are practically giving away Nokia (NOK)'s $299 tear-shaped 3650 -- provided you're willing to wait for rebate checks. The Nokia is big, and its buttons are arranged in a circle. This evokes the image of old-fashioned dial phones -- and can really gum up the works when you're trying to type a fast text message.

For those who would like to skip the cameras, a zippy alternative is Nokia's 6800, available through AT&T Wireless (as low as $49.99, with a one-year contract). The phone's built for messaging. Its back flips neatly over its head, creating a full keyboard on both sides of the handset. But if you want a top-of-the-line without a camera, you'd better hurry. Nokia just announced its new 6820 in late October, and -- you guessed it -- it's coming with a camera. Mobile talkers, it's time to start snapping. By Stephen Baker


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