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Is this the world's best cell phone?

Motorola C116 phone proves super cheap can be super great. Review by's Gary Krakow.
Motorola's C116 phone may be basic, but it's built amazingly well for such a cheap device and calls sounded great.
Motorola's C116 phone may be basic, but it's built amazingly well for such a cheap device and calls sounded great.Motorola

NEW YORK — Motorola’s nifty little C116 just might be the best cell phone I’ve ever had the chance to play with. That said — you can’t get one. Not here. Not yet.

A very, very basic GSM handset that handles incoming and outgoing calls as well as SMS messages, the C116 is sold all over the world — except for the United States. It’s not sold here because it’s too cheap!

I learned about the C100 series of phones while covering 3GSM in Barcelona, Spain last month. The C116 that I’ve been testing is one of the basic new phones that fit into a new category called Ultra-Low Cost Handsets.

These phones are being targeted at emerging markets — areas that have no phone service of any kind. Instead of spending billions to run wires everywhere in the world, cellular phones are now seen as the solution to bringing telephone communications to everyone on the planet — and at prices they can afford.

The candy bar-sized handsets are currently being sold in places like Algeria and India. Prices run approximately $39 for the phone with no service contract needed to subsidize paying for the phone — or any obligation to buy minutes. 

I got to see the C113 and C113a handsets in Barcelona. Very small and very cute. They work in nearly every country on the planet — except for the United States. Our GSM phones use different frequencies.

I immediately asked the Motorola people if I could try one the next time I’m in Europe. They said: "Why wait?" It turns out that Motorola makes these phone for use on our frequencies, too. A few days after returning home to New York I received a very small package.

Inside was a C116a. I couldn’t wait to slip my SIM card inside and see what it could do.  I’ve been using it ever since. This is one great phone.

It measures less than 4 by 2 by 1 inches and weighs in at less than 3 ounces. It’s barely there. The plain black and white screen tells you what you need to know about making a phone call and sending/receiving SMS messages. Nothing more, nothing less.

Five days without a recharge
The C155 model comes with a color screen, but since I wanted maximum battery life I asked for the monochrome model.

That was a good thing, because the thin battery in this phone lasted five full days before needing a recharge. I’m not exaggerating. It’s the most I’ve ever gotten out of a cell phone — rivaling some of the Palm PDAs of the past. I'm not a heavy user, but I make or receive a dozen or so calls a day. The rest of the time the phone lived in my pocket. 

Of course, there are trade-offs with such a basic design. Forget bells and whistles. My phone had the absolute minimum of everything — one ring tone and one meager game. Contact numbers are saved directly to your SIM card. Most modern-day phones come with at least some internal memory, but the C100 series phones have none.

Using the C116 was and is a pleasure to use. Build quality was amazingly good for such a cheap device. Incoming and outgoing calls sounded great. In fact, nearly everyone I spoke with commented on how good my voice sounded when I spoke with them. Once I found the little speakers they sounded great, too. Speaker volume was adequate, but then, I like things loud. (Too many front-row seats at rock concerts.)

Overall, this is one of the best cell phones I’ve ever had the pleasure of using. No, it doesn’t do e-mail or play MP3s or receive TV programs from Mars. It just does its job well. What else can you ask of a phone?

The color model, the C155, is available in the United States, sold by the prepaid wireless company TracFone online and through retail outlets such as Wal-Mart. For $29.98, you get the phone and the right to buy pay-as-you-go phone services. Telefonica MoviStar sells the C116 phone in Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries.

The C116 isn't sold by either Cingular or T-Mobile, the two big GSM-based cell phone providers in the United States. That’s a shame. They’re missing out on letting us have access to a terrific handset.