There's a lot of confusion surrounding portable phone technology these days. New standards, multiple carriers and a wide array of new features are fueling misconceptions. However, if you have the time and persistence to sort through this mess, you'll find this technology has a lot more to offer than in years past.
Analog: The most popular trend in analog telephones is making them as small and as light as possible. Motorola's StarTAC (starting at $1,000 retail) is roughly the size of a pager and weighs just 3.1 ounces. Although these minuscule models are easy to carry, using them can be another story. You may find the small buttons difficult to use, and the pint-sized phones can sometimes be awkward to hold and speak into. Short battery life can also be a problem.
Digital: While analog cellular technology modulates radio signals to carry voices, digital technology sends data as zeroes and ones (bits), which allows more data to be sent during a call. As a result, users can benefit from a slew of new services--including paging, voice mail and caller ID--in one phone. Digital service isn't new: In the early 1990s, it suffered from complaints of hard-to-hear conversations. Today, however, carriers claim the problems have been ironed out, and digital service boasts better sound quality, longer battery life and more reliable service (although one interview for this story carried on a digital network was dropped five times).
There are two standards for digital phones. Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA) sends calls immediately over the air; many service providers already support this standard. Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) breaks calls into coded bits and reassembles them at the other end. CDMA phones began hitting markets earlier this year, and support is becoming more widespread. Carriers claim CDMA offers high sound quality, although its merits are less well-known.
S (Personal Communications Services): While a relatively new player in the United States, PCS employs GSM (global standard mobile) digital technology that is standard in many countries. Similar to digital cellular phones, PCS' merits include long-lasting batteries and myriad services. Several carriers across the country are expected to roll out their PCS services in the coming months.
Carriers: Industry experts predict there will continue to be fierce competition among service providers in the coming months, making it a good time to sign up. Most are offering a slew of different plans; new pricing schedules are also being introduced. When evaluating a carrier, be sure to ask about coverage areas, to compare different plans and to read the fine print.