By Columnist
msnbc.com
REVIEW

This year, the arrival of autumn also marks the arrival of new and exciting cellular phone designs — especially three terrific phones being offered by AT&T Wireless, Cingular and Nextel.

Let's start with the first Microsoft Smartphone to be sold in the United States. Last week, Motorola announced the MPx200 cellular phone for the AT&T Wireless network. The MPx200 runs on Microsoft’s Windows Mobile 2002 operating system, a paired down version of the Pocket PC handheld computer operating system. (Microsoft is a partner in MSNBC.)

There are two angles to discuss here: the hardware (the actual handset) and the software (what the phone can do). As for the hardware, Motorola has come up with a well-crafted little device. This is a flip-phone made to run on the 1.8 GHz (foreign) and 1.9 GHz (U.S.) GSM/GPRS (voice/data) phone networks. The handset itself is barely 3.5 by 1.9 by 1.1 inches and weighs 4 ounces. Inside, there’s 32MB of memory and a SD/MMC card slot for extra storage.

The color display on the inside is 176 by 220 pixels while the monochrome display on the outside is a 96 by 32 pixels, two-line design for caller ID, date, time and icons, The rechargeable lithium-ion battery is said to provide 210 to 310 minutes of talk time or 70 to 120 hours of standby time.

What you need to know about the software is that somehow they’ve stuffed an amazing number of Pocket PC essentials into one very small cellular phone. There’s Pocket Outlook, Pocket Internet Explorer, Windows Media Player 9, MSN Messenger and Active Sync for allowing the phone to become an active part of your desktop computer or your company’s server.

As for how it works, it’s unfair to compare this phone to a Blackberry or ones operating on the Palm OS or Java because they handle similar tasks in different ways. It’s like comparing apples and oranges. I would compare it to the Smartphone marketed by Orange that I tested in London a year ago, but there’s no comparison. The Motorola is one slick device.

The Motorola handset seems to be better built than the Orange device — and the Motorola seems a lot more stable. I couldn’t get it to crash at all. All the smart dialing, navigation controls and Web browsing seemed to work as advertised. The dialing is especially cool. Just press the keypad with the first two letters of the person you’re calling and you’re rewarded with a list of matching contacts. Move the cursor, press one button and you’re connecting. A near-perfect, one-handed operation. I also liked the plethora of built-in ring tones and the fact that you can sync and recharge all with the same USB cable. Overall, using the Motorola was a great experience.

I wish I could get MSNBC to run email software on our server so I could see how well those features work on any phone. But I can tell you the Smartphone synched up flawlessly with my desktop via USB and IR ports.

AT&T Wireless is marketing this phone at $299.99 — a very reasonable price. If AT&T has good service in your area (for me it was good in New York City, but nonexistent on eastern Long Island) then you must check out this phone/PDA all-in-one.

New Nextel
If you read my column you know I’m a big Nextel fan. In the past, their phones have tended to be big and clunky, but they had features that just plain worked for me.

Over the past few weeks I’ve seen pictures of a new Nextel phone, the i730 in the new print ads they’ve been running — and in those annoying TV commercials where people beep/spurt out single phrases at each other. That’s not exactly how I would advertise the Direct Connect walkie-talkie feature. Anyway, Nextel was nice enough to send me a new i730 to play with this past weekend.

The i730 (all Nextel phones are made by Motorola) runs on the Java OS but is radically different that previous phones. Not only is it smaller in size than the current i95 but there’s a whole new interface, the ability to store 600 contact entries on a newly-designed SIM and the addition of global positioning (GPS).

The handset itself is 3.6 by 2.0 by 1.1 inches and weighs 5.1 ounces, which means it’s a lot thinner but otherwise nearly the same size and weight as the i95. Its new design is sleek — with lots of rounded edges and what appears to be metal instead of plastic in places. The new square screen is smaller than in the i95 but a lot better to look at (65K colors) and a whole lot brighter. Battery life is similar to that of the i95 — and the AC cord now winds into the new egg-shaped charger.

As for the new interface, there are icons on all the new buttons (all the control buttons are now arranged in an oval/circular control section above the keypad) and when you navigate through the screens you’ll notice new icons for everything and anything.

This is a Nextel phone and if you’ve used them before you’ll take to this new device in a few minutes. I tried the GPS to see if it worked (it did) but didn’t have time to try any of the GPS software built into the phone, such as TeleNav 2.2 with compass.

There are some new ring tones (there should be a lot more) and the exterior display now lights up when you’re getting a call. Nextel sells the i730 on their Web site for $299.99. Your old SIM card will work in the i730, but to get all the features (GPS and the new contact list) you’ll have to visit Nextel and have them transfer the information from your old SIM to a new one.

Siemens’ slider
Finally, there’s the new Siemens SL56 phone — “a revolution in desire,” as Siemens puts it. What that means is: when you’ve seen one you’ll want one.

The SL56 is tiny (although not really that much smaller that the Motorola Smartphone). It’s 3.2 by 1.8 by 0.9 inches and barely weighs in at 2.8 ounces. It’s a dual band GSM/GPRS phone that runs on the 850 MHz and 1.9 GHz domestic bands only. The color display is 101 by 80 pixels and provides 4,096 colors. The lithium-ion polymer battery is said to last up to 180 minutes for talking and 175 hours for standby.

The SL56 is very cool. The slide-out lighted keypad makes it one of the coolest designs you’ve ever seen. They were giving them away to some of the “beautiful people” attending the New York City fashion shows last month — probably a sign that the phone is not for me!

The phone makes and receives calls perfectly. The small size doesn’t seem to get in the way of using this phone, although I wish the keys were a little bigger for my fingers.

This little thing also syncs with your Windows desktop computer. Install the software on your computer (free from AT&T and optional from Cingular) and you can store your phone numbers, appointments and notes on your phone. I had less luck with e-mail. The Siemens software didn’t like to sync e-mail with Outlook 2003.

As for price, both Cingular and AT&T Wireless are selling the SL56 for $249.99 but AT&T is currently offering a $100 rebate. One final note, I tested the phone on the Cingular network and noticed the voice quality was very, very good. Not that others are bad — just that voices on this system sounded extraordinarily clear. I was pleased to see Cingular advertising that fact in their new TV ad campaign.

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