Hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons took one look at the Motorola (MOT) Razr V3 mobile phone and declared it "hot." After all, at half an inch thin and just 3.35 oz. -- with the look of a classic straight-edge razor -- the Razr is, well, quite sharp. But what's most remarkable about this svelte pocket pleaser is that it squeezes a video-clip player, zoom camera, and polyphonic speakers into a matchbook-thin frame no wider than a credit card. "Just like a cool pair of sneakers or a watch, a phone says something about who you are," says Simmons in an e-mail. "But it's got to be functional to be in the game."
The days when a mobile phone was just for gabbing are long gone. Years ago, they started handling short text messages and (slowly) browsing the Web. Last year was the coming-out party for starter camera-phones. And this year? Get ready for what amounts to mini digital-entertainment centers that simply masquerade as mobile phones. Watch snippets of ABC News (DIS) or Fox Sports on vivid color LCD screens. Listen to National Public Radio or any other radio broadcast. Shoot video clips of the kids' weekend soccer games. Snap digital photos that rival those from your digital camera. You can even fire up your favorite Rolling Stones MP3 and listen in slammin' stereo sound.
These goodies don't come cheap, though. This year, for the first time in recent memory, average phone prices are actually going up. You can still buy a decent phone with a color screen and low-end camera, for $50 or even get one free, if you sign a service agreement. But the full-featured models hot off the assembly line can cost as much as a PC -- up to $799 for Motorola's Razr. So a word to the wise: Use the Web to shop for the best prices. Sites such as Amazon.com (AMZN) and LetsTalk.com let you compare prices from a variety of sources. Discounts can be substantial. The Razr drops to $499 with a two-year service agreement. Prices quoted here are with two-year contracts, unless otherwise noted.
I have two favorites among this new crop of phones: the Razr and Sony Ericsson's S710a. The Razr is simply the flashiest phone around. Even its keypad, made of a flat sheet of magnesium, has distinctive style. It's also good for music, video, and games. With its crisp screen, the Motorola phone got me hooked on playing the puzzle game Bejeweled as I rode the bus to work.
Sony Ericsson's $399 phone isn't quite as winsome, but it does simply everything. Plug in headphones, and you get full-fledged FM radio with killer reception. The sound is so good that jazz enthusiasts will be able to discern the hushed reed whispers in John Coltrane's tenor sax. The phone's camera is 1.3-megapixels with an 8X digital zoom, much better than others on the market. I zoomed in tight on the engine of a car I'm trying to sell that you could see the brand name on the spark plugs. And it shoots reasonably high-quality video clips. I used it at the Ruffled Feathers Golf Club in Lemont, Ill., to let my buddy, Billy, see how he could lengthen his backswing.
There's one caveat for both these phones, however: You can get them only from Cingular, at least for the next several weeks. The company cut unusual, exclusive deals with Motorola and Sony Ericsson to kick off its acquisition of AT&T Wireless. T-Mobile will probably get both phones early next year, while Verizon Wireless, Sprint, and Nextel may have to wait longer, since they use different wireless technologies. The broader point is important: Certain phones are available only from specific carriers.
Of course, most people don't want to spend hundreds of dollars for a mobile phone anyway. Never fear. You can still get many of the new capabilities at more reasonable prices, but you need to decide which features are most important for you. Listening to music on your phone? Watching news clips? Taking video?
In the Picture
If you're looking for a good camera-phone, there are loads of choices. This year's models are a big step up from the first grainy camera-phones, and they don't cost a fortune. One good option is the Samsung MM-A700, a flip phone with a large screen that goes for $200. Motorola's V710 flip phone is another solid choice for less than $150. And of particular note is the Nokia (NOK) 6620. It's a brushed-silver model with the same candy bar design -- albeit wider, more like a Kit Kat than a Snickers -- that made the Finnish phonemaker famous. The $150 phone lacks a flash, but it does have a nifty self-timer, which you can set for 10, 20, or 30 seconds -- just enough to let you jump in the shot with your friend.
Want to shoot video clips of your kid's birthday party? If you aren't inclined to dish out the big bucks for the Sony Ericsson S710a, there are some reasonable alternatives. The LG VX7000, which goes for $199, shoots good-quality clips and boasts a flash and rotating lens. And the Toshiba (TOSBF) VM4050, available for less than $200, has a super-bright, high-quality screen. Still, keep your expectations for video phones in check. Phones with video now are like camera-phones last year -- more interesting novelties than satisfying substitutes.
Music phones are another matter. Several models can store a dozen or more high-quality MP3s. They're hardly encroaching on the iPod's turf, but these phones are becoming a threat to low-end portable music players. Among the best are the Siemens SX1, the Nokia 3300, and Motorola's e398. The $200 Motorola phone boasts awesome acoustics and enough memory to hold several dozen songs.
A good screen makes a world of difference when it comes to mobile multimedia. That's especially true for gamers and those brave enough to try tuning in to television shows on their phones. To get the best experience playing iRobot or Family Feud, look for phones like Samsung's MM-A700 or Sony Ericsson's S710a that have 262,000 colors. That's a big improvement from the 65,000 colors available on last year's best phones, although it's still far short of the 6.5 million standard on today's top TVs. Size matters, too: Nokia's 6620 has an extra-large, 2.25-inch screen, measured diagonally.
Finally, take a tip from Russell Simmons: Never neglect style. No longer just phones, these gizmos are Hollywood on your hip. From music to videos to making calls, they have it all.
By Roger O. Crockett