Image: Serene
Jesper Jorgen  /  Cingular
The drop-dead beautiful Serene phone from B&O — as seen in its very stylish charging cradle.
By Columnist
msnbc.com
updated 12/1/2006 2:16:15 PM ET 2006-12-01T19:16:15

I've just had the pleasure of testing three new world phones — each one a gem in its own right.  But one of the models may just be the most beautiful cell phone ever made.

It’s called the Serene and comes from the Danish masters of beautifully designed electronics — Bang and Olufsen (B&O).  It costs more than you would probably want to spend on a cell phone.  But until you actually hold one in your hand and marvel at how it opens and closes you won’t understand why you need one.

The Serene is this year’s ultimate holiday gift idea.

The phone itself was designed by David Lewis and is manufactured for B&O by Samsung.  It is a GSM world phone — but unlike most world phones available for sale in North America, the Serene works on both bands of world GSM frequencies  (900 and 1800 MHz) and just one U.S. band of frequencies (1900 MHz).  Most other world phones we see here have both U.S. bands (850 and 1900 MHz) and one (or maybe two) world bands.  Basically, the Serene is a phone for the rest of the world that also works here.

The phone itself is quite small — 2.17 by 2.76 by 0.94 inches — and weighs less than 4 ounces. The battery is said to be good for 3 hours of talk and up to 250 hours of standby.  There’s a low-res camera (300K pixels with the lens discreetly buried on the camera’s side), Bluetooth, and a WAP browser. It can also sync with Microsoft Outlook to deal with your calendar and to do lists.

You'll discover the Serene’s ability to astound when you try to open it. Just a light prying touch engages a silent motor that gently pries open the clam shell design. No need to exert much pressure. Serene is ready to respond when called upon. Closing Serene also requires the lightest nudge to get the motor to help do the job.

Inside, you’ll find the dial on the top and the screen on the bottom. B&O say they like it that way.  Notice I used the term dial. That’s because Serene has a circular keypad. Inside the keypad is a thumb-controlled wheel to switch between functions. I found that for me it took a day or two to get used to dialing in the round.

The docking station allows Serene to interact with other B&O telephone devices. If you receive a call or text message while Serene is charging the phone automatically opens so you can handle the incoming message.  My test sample came with a European round-prong AC charger along with a U.S. flat-prong adapter.

I got to play with Serene on two recent trips to Europe. It did its job very well in England and France in big cities, as well as some very rural areas. It was a little less successful in the United States where, at times found itself searching for a network signal.

You can buy your Serene at your local B&O boutique store. I’ve seen Serene selling on the Web at prices from $1,150 to $1,500.  The Serene is sold as an open or unlocked phone (not attached to or sold by any one particular cellular provider) and can be used with service from T-Mobile or Cingular here in the Unites States

The B&O is not the only new world phone to hit the market for the holiday shopping season.  There’s also a new Palm Treo 680 being distributed by Cingular and is also available as an open phone.

The 680 is a quad-band GSM/GPRS/EDGE world phone and it is the first one without the antenna hump on top. It's also the first one to be initially offered in a number of different colors: gray for Cingular and red, white and orange for unlocked models. It runs on Palm’s operating system version 5.4.9 and therefore can sync with both Windows and Mac computers.

There’s a 320 by 320 pixel TFT touch screen, a VGA digital camera, Bluetooth, MMC/SD expansion slot, a full QWERTY keyboard and basically everything you’d expect on a Treo. The 680 is 4.4 inches long, 2.3 inches wide and 0.8 inches thick and weighs 5.5 ounces. 

Palm Via Business Wire
The new Treo 680 comes in a rainbow of colors.
The 680 was a top-notch performer wherever I tried it. The Palm OS was quick and accurate and never gave me problems. That’s a big deal when it comes to anything as technologically complex as a smartphone.

Cingular is marketing the 680 for $199. Palm sells unlocked 680s sell $399 on their Web site. What that really means is that you're still paying the $200 difference in price between locked and unlocked models only you're paying it out, with Cingular, as part of your monthly fees. That, by the way, is an industry-wide practice.

UMTS/HSDPA
Finally, there is the new Cingular 8525 smartphone. It holds the distinction of being the first super-high-speed GSM smartphone to be sold for use in the United States. The phone is the first to use wireless technology equal to what Verizon and Sprint call Broadband Access and Power Vision Network (EV-DO technology).

Cingular
A head-on view of the 3G 8525.  The ample keyboard slides out from under the screen.
The 8525 looks a lot like a bunch of other smartphones on the market because they’re all made by the same company HTC. (They also make the wonderful T-Mobile Dash.)

The 8525 is a quad-band Windows Mobile smartphone with all the bells and whistles that come with a modern-day Windows Mobile smartphone. The 8525’s best feature is its keyboard — the screen slides off to the side revealing the largest and best smartphone keyboard in the business. 

The 8525 makes the Treo look svelte. It’s also got Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and infrared connectivity, a 2 megapixel camera and a battery pack which lasts for up to 5 hours of talk time and up to 10 days of standby. There’s also talk of a push-to-talk upgrade for 2007. 

The 8525 performed flawlessly in both the United States and overseas. When it connected to a high-speed network (sometime it didn’t find one) it was really fast at downloading Web pages and the like. 

When it couldn’t find a fast 3G network EDGE speeds were fine.  Overall, a very good showing for a device with more features than some inexpensive PCs.

Since the 8525 is the first 3G world phone in North America you will have to pay for the right to own one. Cingular is charging $399.99, after a mail-in rebate, when you agree to a 2-year contract.

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