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Renee Bernhard didn't give a hoot that Nokia (NOK) is the world's No. 1 cell-phone maker. The Aurora (Colo.) mom was tired of what she calls her "basic" Nokia phone -- no camera, no music player, no TV content. It was a cellular relic, and she wanted a model with all the multimedia goodies. After checking out phones on the Web and at retailers such as Best Buy (BBY), Bernhard decided that the best of the bunch didn't come from giant Nokia or the No. 2 phonemaker, Motorola (MOT). She picked a new phone from upstart Sanyo because it came loaded with a powerful camera and TV channels -- all for about $250, with a two-year contract and rebates. "I love it," she says. "I guess I'm not really loyal to Nokia."
Step aside, big boys. Cellular Lilliputians such as LG and Sanyo are becoming the leviathans of the emerging multimedia age in wireless. These Asian consumer-electronics companies have made cell phones for a few years, but now that they're bringing out mighty cool products, they're suddenly starting to turn heads. Sanyo, LG, Sony Ericsson, and Samsung are the first to market this spring with phones that function like digital Swiss Army knives: They can handle photos, video, music, and even streaming snippets of Powerpuff Girls cartoons.
It's no coincidence, really. The long experience these electronics companies have with TVs, cameras, and stereos is paying off as they turn to fully loaded, easy-to-use phones. Nokia and Motorola both make solid, stylish camera and music phones. But their grooviest products have either been limited to overseas markets or aren't quite ready for prime time. Motorola's thumping, stereophonic E398, for example, isn't sold in the U.S. And the new Nokia 6682, which I tested, isn't out yet, though insiders say it will arrive at Cingular Wireless in June. Meanwhile, Asian manufacturers are delivering cutting-edge multimedia phones to the U. S. market now.
Two stand out from the pack: the LG MM-535 and the Samsung SGHP-777. Both feature a design that's becoming increasingly popular. From the front they look like the candy-bar phones that Nokia made so popular, with the main screen exposed to view. But rather than flipping open, as Motorola's fashionable Razr V3 does, the front slides up to reveal the keypad -- pretty nifty. The blue-and-chrome LG is a bit bulky: nearly 4 inches tall when closed and almost 5 1/2 inches when open. Still, this $200 mini-entertainment center, sold by Sprint (FON), impresses. It boasts a brilliant 2-inch, 262,000-color screen for watching CNN or Fox Sports clips. The stereo speakers rock. And you can save up to six digital songs as MP3s on a 20-megabyte memory card that slips into the phone's data-storage slot.
The $300 silver Samsung is more elegant. At just a smidgen over 3 1/2 inches when closed and under 5 inches when open, you can more easily slide it into your pocket than the LG. The screen is smaller than the LG's, but it offers the same 262,000 crisp colors and high-quality sound. Although not a gamer, I was so smitten by the booming sound and vibrant screen that I found myself firing missiles at enemy planes for minutes at a time while playing the air-war game Archangel.
As addictive as games are, music is emerging as cellular's killer app. Each of these phones can play tunes, and most come with multimedia headphones that fit in both ears rather than just one, as standard cellular headphones do. And sound can be excellent. The folks at Nokia sent me a 6682 preloaded with several tunes by The Crystal Method. I strolled through downtown Chicago's Millennium Park listening on stereo headphones and didn't miss my iPod mini one bit.
But beware: Getting tunes onto these phones can be a hassle. They handle music in the popular MP3 file format but not key alternatives. They can't, for example, play copy-protected music from popular Web services such as Apple's (AAPL) iTunes or RealNetworks' Rhapsody. Worse, they don't play Windows Media files -- a crying shame, since most PC users burn CDs with Windows Media. These headaches should ease over the next year. Phonemakers are developing models that can play a variety of formats. And storage space is swelling. Nokia just announced the N91, a phone with a 4-gigabyte hard drive, enough for more than 1,000 songs, that it hopes U. S. carriers will begin to offer later this year.
These phones can also put TV in your pocket. Bernhard confesses to tuning in to E! Entertainment updates on her Sanyo so she can follow the Hollywood gossip. She even uses her cell phone's TV feature to keep her 3-year-old son Simon occupied while she waits in line at the post office. After launching the Cartoon Network, "I just give him the phone, and he's quiet," she says.
The Sanyo is good for TV viewing because it has a sharp display, with rich colors and plenty of detail. But the screen is hard to see in direct sunlight. I prefer the LG because its screen doesn't wash out as much in the sun. Plus, the LG's slider design means you don't have to flip it open to catch the news. Another option is Nokia's 6682: Its jumbo-size screen measures almost 2 1/4 inches diagonally.
Big, colorful screens also make taking photos and videos a snap. All of the phones I tested have 1.3-megapixel cameras, except the Motorola V710, which has a 1.2-megapixel shooter. While they produce fuzzier images than those taken by today's 4- to 6-megapixel digital cameras, they're not bad for most shots. Just be sure to look for phone cams with at least an 8x digital zoom, such as the LG or the Sony Ericsson. Robert Clark, a professional photographer, has even used the Sony Ericsson S710a to take moving shots of the Washington Monument and Vietnam Veterans Memorial, posted at americanphotomag.com.
Despite their whizzy features, these phones ought to be easy to operate. To me that's where the Asian makers excel. When using the Nokia and the Motorola, I often had to guess which key or icon lets me e-mail a photo, for instance. The menus on the LG and Samsung are more intuitive. Bernhard feels the same about her Sanyo. "What I like about this phone is it's easy to figure out," she says. So if you're eager to try a multimedia phone, check out the ones by consumer-electronics makers from overseas.
By Roger O. Crockett