The Hard Cell

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted December 01, 2000
by Deborah Johnson

The Web is being reinvented in a big way, and this time it is smaller and wireless. In the past, phone manufacturers pitched business users with expanded contact lists, plans with more minutes, and even some Personal Digital Assistant (PDA)-like features. Now they want to give you the Web, sans wires, on your phone. We went to six of the top phone manufacturers and asked them to supply us with a model they recommend for a business user. Five of them sent us Web-accessible models.

Let us be clear by saying that when we say the Web, don't think of the vast World Wide Web that can be accessed from any office computer. Think a smaller, more limited version. You can't (at least not yet) pick up a phone and type in any WWW address and expect to find it.

Right now, the Web sites have to be made Web phone-friendly. This means companies have to take the initiative and invest money to transfer their Web content into the Wireless Application Protocol format, or another wireless format, that will make it viewable on phones. Third-party companies are now coming into play that will do this for businesses large and small. Some of the more popular WAP-friendly consumer sites are Yahoo, Amazon, and Bloomberg.

Although limited in scope, there are benefits to connecting wirelessly to the Web via a cell phone. We looked up local weather forecasts, read daily news feeds, checked sports scores, and even located cuisine-specific restaurants in various locations as we conducted our testing. We found Web connections to be similar to digital connections: sometimes you have them and sometimes you don't.

There are additional monthly fees for Web access. Ask your service provider about Web-specific plans and/or any additional costs. Remember, only certain phone models are programmed to be Web-capable. Simply adding Web service to your existing phone is not an option unless you have a newer WAP-enabled model. Conversely, you may purchase a Web phone and not activate Web service initially.

PHONE FEATURES
If this seems like too much technology too soon, there is no need to worry. Today's new Web models are still, first and foremost, phones. For the most part, these phones are more intuitive and simpler to operate than older models. Many phones now include scrolling navigator buttons to make choosing from ever-expanding lists of options as simple as possible. Several units are even voice activated for additional convenience.

All the standard services, including call waiting, caller ID, 3-way calling, and voice mail are still present. E-mail, paging, fax transmission, and SMS text messaging -- the star features of last year's models -- haven't been abandoned.

An increasing number of vendors are choosing to data-enable their phones with PDA-like features for business users. Some models come standard with data synchronization software and cables so information can be seamlessly shared between phone and PC. Since the newer WAP-compliant phones have modems built in for wireless Web browsing, most can also double as a wireless modem for laptops.

In the name of safety, several units come with ear sets and hands-free microphones. One other safety-conscious effort we noticed was that several phones come with a stern warning, either directly on the boxes or included in their paperwork, that alert users to the dangers of driving while on the phone. Some even advise users to check the local laws in their area to avoid fines.

NETWORKING
Last year there was a big pitch for digital networks with better call quality and support for new data technologies. But the reliability still isn't there. When testing phones that operate on the all-digital networks (Nextel, Sprint PCS, and VoiceStream) there was always a certain amount of dropped calls and areas we didn't receive any coverage in. However, digital networks may work just fine for your business if it is a local company whose employees don't do a lot of traveling outside the coverage area.

But, for most traveling folks, dual- or tri-mode phones are still the way to go. If one digital network isn't available, they can switch over to another (there are two: CDMA and TDMA), or they can go back to good old analog to pick up a signal and ensure calls get through.

Keep in mind that, for now, phones still work only on compatible networks. This means that a Nokia phone programmed for Verizon service can't be switched over to Sprint service. You will need a phone that operates on Sprint's all-digital network.

So where does all of this leave a cell phone buyer? Buyers can purchase these cellular phones directly from the manufacturers (Motorola, Nokia, etc.), from wireless service providers (Verizon, AT&T, etc.) who sell phone and service bundles, as well as various retail stores that also sell both phone and service packages. More often than not, purchasing phones is cheapest when a customer signs up for service at the same time. The vendor will often discount the price of the hardware (the phone) in order to get a potential user to commit to monthly service charges. Also ask about volume deals when purchasing several units.

HOW WE TESTED:
Audiovox, Neopoint, Nextel, Kyocera (formerly Qualcomm) and Motorola sent us the phone(s) they would suggest for the average business user -- not someone interested in simply making calls but a busy, working individual who needs more than just a phone.

Since many of a phone's features are service provider-dependent, such as call quality and feature availability like caller ID and call waiting, we had to stick with what we could objectively evaluate on just the phones.

First and foremost, we considered ease of use. Convenient features like readable displays and large and intuitive buttons all go a long way. Phones are more than objects that make calls. They are communications devices, and in order to be truly productive they must be easy to understand and use.

Next we considered the range of options available. Granted, this area is subjective since the features one user needs another may have no use for at all. Still, we took a look at what each model had to offer.

That led us to the best value category. Money is always an important factor in any purchase, so we needed to determine if the phones were worth their asking price. To do so, we spoke to as many users as possible, mostly business folks who use the phones to work and communicate daily. We also looked to them for insight on the support, which primarily comes from the service providers. If no users were available to comment we accessed the providers' Web sites and toll-free numbers for help.

We used the phones on regular business days, toting them around, making and receiving calls, checking out the level of service we received in various areas, and trying out the features, including Web access.

Audiovox CDM9000
Rating 92

The CDM9000 from Audiovox is a sleek and thin phone that we admire for its lightness and simplicity. It is a big step up from the dual-mode 4000 model we looked at last year. The layout of the buttons has changed to make the phone more intuitive and better for accommodating the new Web and data functions.

This year's model is a tri-mode, Web-browsing, digital CDMA phone that picks up analog, digital, and PCS service so your calls get through. In our tests this was the one phone that didn't have any connection problems.

Audiovox user Glenn Wiener is the vice president of PR 21 in New York. "I love this phone," Wiener says. "It is light, easy to use, and hardy as well." He admits that he has dropped his phone in the past.

Wiener previously used an old phone from Bell Atlantic that was also an Audiovox. When Verizon was formed and he switched plans, he decided to stick with Audiovox since he had no major complaints about the old model. "I was attracted to the CDM9000 because it is a tri-mode phone. I do a lot of traveling and being able to always get a signal is extremely important," he explains.

Of the 35 employees in the New York office, "a bunch of them also use Audiovox phones," Wiener says. He doesn't use the Web feature yet but plans to in the near future. "Right now I primarily use it to stay in touch with colleagues, customers, and my family," he says. "I also use the ear piece and voice commands while driving."

The phone itself weighs 4.8 ounces, has a navigator key for easy pickings when it comes to options, basic green and red (talk and end, respectively) buttons, a vibrating alert, and is equipped for voice dialing.

The three-line browser and four-line display could be larger but other phones have even smaller screens. Some available sites include Quote.com, Wap.totalsports.com, Rovenet.com, Mobileyahoo.com, Cnn.com, and Msnbc.com.

The CDM9000 comes standard with battery, desktop holder, AC adapter, and wrist strap. Options include extended battery, car charger, data cable, earphone microphone, and leather carrying case.

We liked this model. It is small, light, and very comfortable to use overall. The connection couldn't be beat and call quality was almost always excellent, so if Verizon offers service in your area we suggest checking out the Audiovox.

Kyocera QCP 860
Rating 92

The QCP is all grown up and living under a new roof. Kyocera Wireless Corporation, formerly Qualcomm, has updated and expanded on last year's model. The QCP 860 thin phone now has Internet access and comes in new colors. During press time, many carriers were selling this model to new users who also signed up for service at a discount price. Sprint PCS, Verizon, Qwest and ALLTEL sell the phone with a standard one-year warranty.

Weighing about 4 ounces, this digital CDMA, dual-mode phone provides Internet access and is also a pager. One of its unique features is the built-in battery (providing 2.5 hours of talk time), which keeps the phone extra compact. Optional external batteries are also available to extend talk time to six to ten hours.

The 860 is slightly wider than the Audiovox CDM9000 (the other thin, basic model phone in this guide), making it also slightly more comfortable to use, we found. We appreciated the minimal number of basic buttons on the phone. Navigation is done using two smart keys located front and center on the phone, and two up and down arrow buttons on its left side.

Basic call operations are all simple and intuitive. The phone can display the last 10 incoming and outgoing calls with the option to save the numbers to the phone book. There's also a mail icon button, and an "i" button that conveniently displays the phone's service carrier and phone number.

The five-line display screen -- four lines (12 characters each) for text and one for symbols -- makes reading information fairly clear, and the phone book stores up to 99 entries. Car kits, chargers, data synchronization products, headsets, and cases are also available as options.

The 860 thin phone is intuitive and a good model for average business users. It is Web-accessible and serves as a pager as well. And, for the price carriers are offering this model, it is hard to go wrong.

Motorola Timeport 8167
Rating 89

The Motorola Timeport is very similar in design and form to the company's popular StarTac model we took a look at last year. In addition, the phone now features a built in micro-browser for Internet access. For basic access to information the format works fine but we don't suggest doing any e-mail or data entry on this model, as the screen and buttons are too small. The upgraded P8167 TDMA phone we looked at was only available on the Sprint PCS Network as of press time.

For data transfer, Starfish TrueSync Software is available as an option. Motorola also sells a clipOn Organizer ($199) as an add-on, which may be used by itself or attached to the phone. Connected users can dial directly from contact lists, among other options.

Weighing only 125 grams, the phone provides up to 225 minutes of talk time and 175 hours of standby, according to Motorola. It also has a VibraCall alert and like the StarTac and Nextel phones, is compatible with the popular clip-on holder accessory. The phone comes standard with a battery, charger, user manual, and a one-year hardware warranty. Extra batteries, carrying cases and holsters, data/modem accessories, and hands-free kits are also available.

When Web surfing on the Timeport, destination choices include AOL, Amazon, Yahoo, Fidelity, Bloomberg, and Go2online. Scrolling and selecting options are done via three small buttons located on the left side of the phone. Information is displayed in small chunks on three lines at a time. A wide variety of content is available on the browser including finance, shopping, travel, entertainment, news, and weather. The connection and processing times were excellent most of the time. Several of the menu options feature scrolling news information, minimizing the navigation required by the user.

The phone features three buttons on the face that are marked with symbols. While navigating we were asked to select these buttons to make choices. We found this confusing and preferred to conduct all operations with one button or key.

We liked the three buttons on the left side and found overall this was the best location for navigation keys. The top and bottom keys are for scrolling and the middle button is used for selection. Menu options include phone book, messaging, launch browser, last 10 numbers dialed, set system mode, and call guard. We liked that behind each option were minimal choices, because it is far too easy to get lost in extensive lists of options. We also liked that every time we went back on line (without turning off the phone) the browser took us back to where we left off last time.

If the design appeals to you, and Sprint provides good coverage in your area, check out the Motorola Timeport line. We found the small screen a bit trying at times but satisfaction will depend on what your primary uses are for the phone. It has all the standard features and we liked the option of using the clipOn Organizer.

NeoPoint 1000
Rating 95

The NP1000 represents the best combination of features and functionality on the market for business users who want to carry one device for all their basic communication needs. It is a phone and contact manager in one, with a wireless Internet connection. Just plug the phone into a PC and fax and e-mail from the road.

This smart phone operates on the CDMA (PCS frequency) network so service is all digital (available from Sprint PCS). We found service sporadic, like most all-digital networks at this point and time. The upside is that when service is available, it is as loud and clear as can be.

Chuck Lowe's company, Knet, provides DSL service to the rural areas surrounding Kansas City, Mo. Four of the seven employees at Knet use NeoPoint phones to stay in touch. Lowe says the phones hold the signals well in the area and that they have never had any service complaints.

The sleek silver phone weighs in at 6.4 ounces and is an attractive model that promises 2.5 hours of talk time (5 hours with optional extended battery) and 40 hours of standby time (70 hours with extended battery). It features a flip-down front panel, navigator button, and red (end) and green (talk) keys for easy dialing. We loved the simplicity of the design and the minimal number of buttons.

The extensive capabilities of the NP1000 are well disguised behind its basic appearance. What is apparent from first sight, however, is the large 120 x 160 pixel, 11-line screen that makes reading weather, stock quotes, and news stories a pleasant experience. The phone uses the Phone.com service to connect to the Web. Sprint PCS, Amazon, Yahoo, and Bloomberg are among the sites available.

The phone features a 30-number call history log, and a built-in organizer that holds an impressive 1,000 names and numbers. The NP1000 is also voice capable so it "understands" voice dialing and commands.

"The best feature of all is that, unlike most other phones, you can retrieve numbers from your contact list while you are on the phone," Lowe says. A small feature like this can make a world of difference to busy travelers.

On the data side of things, the NP1000 comes with synchronization software (SoftSync Plus) and the Intellisync Mobile Desktop PIM (Personal Information Manager). It can also sync with Microsoft Outlook, ACT, and Lotus Organizer for seamless data transfer between phone and PC.

The standard package includes the slim battery, travel charger, desktop holder, hand strap, and SoftSync software with cable. Available options include a hands-free car kit, SoftSync Station (for simultaneous data transfer and phone charging capability), car charger, and extended battery.

The simply laid-out menu has seven options: Web, SoftSync Plus, Inbox (voice mail, text messages, and browser alerts), Call History, Contacts, Schedule, and To Do List. The NP1000 comes with a standard one-year warranty and well-presented documentation. In addition, the company has an informative and easy-to-navigate Web site.

"I absolutely love it. It is the phone that does it all," Lowe says. Lowe particularly appreciates the phone's ease of use, ergonomic design, and durability. "I can navigate the phone easily with my thumb while driving," Lowe explains. As for durability, Lowe's phone is still alive after several falls, including one especially bad spill down a flight of stairs.

The NP1000 is a nice looking phone that is chock full of features. The large screen is a pleasant surprise in the world of tiny viewing spaces. Now all you have to do is hope for a nice strong connection in your area to support the phone.

Nextel-Motorola i1000plus
Rating 90

Nextel is the one exception to the separate-is-better model. It offers both the phone (a Motorola handset) and the service based on its proprietary iDEN technology. Nextel added Internet access to last year's i1000 model. We still love the see-through flip cover and appreciate the abundance of options.

The DirectConnect two-way radio feature is a popular selling point for the unit because the minutes used are independent of cellular minutes, which equals big savings for groups that talk all day long. If there isn't a signal, employees can use the two-way radio feature to stay in touch. It is ideal for small workgroups of people that stay within a defined proximity.

Gary Peck, senior manager at U-Haul's New Orleans location, chose his Nextel phone for the DirectConnect feature and the savings it provided. There are about 30 people in his division and several use the Nextel phones. The only complaint Peck had was the lack of digital coverage.

Adrienne Aiken, operations manager at Texas Executive Couriers in Houston, is also a Nextel customer. "We love the versatility of the phones and how easy they are to use," Aiken states. The company has 12 full-time employees and numerous independent drivers in the field. Half of them use Nextel phones. "We like them so much that we are upgrading the number of phones we use to 40," Aiken says.

Aiken has had her i500plus for a little over a year now, with no major problems or technical difficulties, and finds it to be very durable. The employees at Texas Executive Couriers are also big DirectConnect fans. "Our drivers can talk to one another from anywhere via the radio without having to worry if they receive a cell signal."

When it comes to features the Nextel phone has plenty. So much so that it is the only model to come with an instructional video in addition to the user manuals and standard documentation. This is one phone that takes a little longer to figure out and understand. However, the effort is well worth the time if all members of a group utilize the features. Features of the i1000plus include text and numeric paging, voice mail, speakerphone, last 10 numbers called list, one-touch dialing, and vibrating alert.

The phone comes standard with battery, charger, carry holder with belt clip, and user's guide. Optional accessories include desktop charger, car adapter, slim battery, leather case, and data accessories. A standard one-year warranty is in place.

If you have several employees working from one main location we recommend the Nextel phones. For stand-alone use, there are sleeker, slimmer and lighter models that offer the same functionality. But when it comes to durability and ease of use for workgroups and employees who work outdoors, the Nextel i1000plus can't be beat.

WHAT WE THINK:

When all is said and done it comes down to a matter of preference. What do you want? What do you want your employees to have the ability to do? And most importantly, who can provide the best coverage for the lowest prices where the most calls are being made? The key is to understand the offerings, and then decide what is really needed and what can be shelved for the moment.

Several different approaches to solving business users' woes are evident in the crop of phones we tested. NeoPoint incorporated a PDA into its phone, staking its claim in the smart phone arena. The folks at Motorola took a slightly different approach with their Timeport model. Similar in appearance and functionality to their popular StarTac phone, the Timeport is compatible with an optional add-on organizer that may be used as a stand-alone product or in combination with the phone to expand its functionality.

Kyocera (formerly Qualcomm) chose two separate product lines. It offers a Web-compliant thin phone as its basic business model. It also sells the PDQ, the monster of all-in-one devices. Audiovox takes a similar approach to Kyocera's thin phone, with its high-quality, Web-browsing model in a basic, thin, and easy-to-use format.

Nextel is continuing to expand on its innovative design and proprietary technology with the i1000plus. The company's DirectConnect feature gives it a clear slice of the market. Organizations that have many field workers or that are broken into separate workgroups can especially benefit from the "walkie-talkie" feature, as it is affectionately known.

We took our best stab at rating these phones, but buyers must choose models based on individual company needs and requirements.

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