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All-in-one phone, walkie-talkie, wireless PDA

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What do you get when you add a bunch more memory plus a bright color screen to a Motorola/Nextel iDen phone? You get one of the best phones on the market today — and one that comes really close to beating some of those new-fangled PDA-phones at their own game.

InsertArt(1570161)FROM THE OUTSET you should know that I really love my Nextel cellular service. It’s far from perfect — I can’t get a reliable signal inside the MSNBC offices or my Eastern Long Island test area and their Motorola’s new i95cl handset is a little bigger than some of the other new designer phones on the market — but what it does provide is pretty amazing.

First, the new phone. The i95cl is the first iDen phone to sport a color screen. Its 1.9 inches iDen (Integrated Digital Enhanced Network) is Motorola’s proprietary system for combining a TDMA cellular phone with two-way, walkie-talkie services and even data. The color screen is larger than any of the black-and-white screens on previous iDen phones so it’s a lot easier to see in most lighting conditions. It’s just plain easier to use than previous B&W screens. The same goes for other phones and PDAs.

The newest iDen phones run on the J2ME (Java) operating system. With the newly added memory inside the i95cl, the OS runs pretty quickly. In addition to some neat J2ME business applications, the i95 has some amazing built-in games, which are improved by the addition of the color screen. In addition to little boxes and line games that move across the screen, there’s a great golf game (EA Golf) and an amazing motorcycle racing program, Moto GP, that is not only very realistic, but actually challenging and fun to play.

According to the Motorola Web site, the phone is 3.54 x 1.94 by 1.1 inches and weighs nearly 4.5 ounces. That doesn’t sound like much, but in this era of little two-ounce slivers you can speak into, this phone is noticeably larger. Those measurements are the phone with the slim battery, which provides two hours of talk time and 45 hours of standby. More than enough for me each day, but there is also a high performance battery available which nearly doubles these times.

There’s also the terrific iDen built-in speakerphone, voice dialing features as well as a voice recorder that lets you record and play back audio notes and even phone calls. Add a list of the last 20 calls you made/received, a 250-entry phonebook and a 250-entry datebook and the i95cl is a nice package.

DIFFERENT HUES FOR DIFFERENT FOLKS The i95cl has the ability to change the phone’s color palette settings on the screen, plus there are the obligatory downloadable wallpaper screens and the now ubiquitous MIDI ring tones.

It also includes a pretty good text Web browser. Data services through the phone are available at a reasonable monthly cost ($3.50 for basics, $10 for premium services) with new services coming online all the time: Mobile e-mail ($7.50/mo.), AOL Instant Messaging ($5/mo.), two-way messaging ($7.50/mo.), and Address Book ($5/mo.). There are also combination data packages for $10-$15 a month depending on which you choose.

I test all kinds of phones and PDAs but I wind-up using my i95cl for everything. I dumped my pager and get all my messages via the phone. I run a small Motorola (Windows-only) application on a desktop computer which forwards my Outlook e-mail, appointments and contact lists to my phone whenever I ask for them. I even answer my e-mail when I’m on the run.

This is in addition to my cell phone calls and that Direct Connect two-way service. In the beginning, Direct Connect was a closed service for businesses. That meant that you could speak with co-workers who were on the same system — but no one else with Nextel phones. For Nextel subscribers in the New York area that changed last year. Now, if you know a friend or relative’s Direct Connect number, they’re just one click away — and, depending on your phone plan, the call is usually free. There are also rumors in the industry that Nextel will be opening the service to all their subscribers, nationwide, by the end of this year.

One discouraging word about the new AIM service, which I’ve been playing with on my phone. The best I can say is: It’s a work in progress. The data-interface is probably the worst I’ve ever seen. It took me a long time to figure out how type my own instant message. Until then I was using some of the built-in, pre-composed responses. Needless to say one co-worker was confused when I sent him a message saying “I love you”!

The i95cl is now my phone, pager and wireless email device, lowering the number of essential electronics I need to carry to one. As with any cell phone, don’t take my word for it. Ask around. If you see someone using a phone you’re interested in, ask how it works. Any phone or wireless device is only as good as the signal you can receive with it.

Nextel is asking $399.99 for the i95cl with a $40 invoice credit available if you choose any monthly service plan costing $54.99 or more. I’ve been using mine for nearly two months. If Nextel service is right for you, I can highly recommend the i95cl.