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Next-generation phone services, meet reality. After years of hearing about what our mobile phones will be capable of and watching longingly as countries like Korea and Japan exercise advanced features, we're finally getting a taste of the future right here at home. Third-generation, or 3G, cell-phone networks are starting to roll out across the country.
To find out what all the fuss is about, we looked at a handful of phones that can take advantage of these faster networks. For example, we took the $200 LG VX8000 (all prices vary with contracts) out for a test drive on the Los Angeles portion of Verizon Wireless's EV-DO network. There, Verizon's VCast on-demand video service lets you watch streaming video clips right on your phone. We checked the local weather forecast, caught a short CNN story on social entrepreneurs and got a rundown of the day's headlines.
The quality is decent considering the screen size, though finer details are lost. The streaming worked flawlessly, even in locations with iffy reception. Many clips are free, but premium clips cost extra. We were also able to access up-to-date traffic reports and surf the web at acceptable speeds. The volume was good in a quiet room, but you'll want to make sure you have a headset if you're listening in a cafe or at the airport.
Another way to experience VCast is with the $230 Audiovox CDM-8940, which includes a camera, camcorder, MP3 player and mini SD card slot, all packed nicely in a clamshell design. Verizon has been quickest out of the gate with this 3G upgrade to its CDMA networks, but high-speed coverage won't be widespread until late next year.
Meanwhile, over on EDGE-enhanced portions of GSM/GPRS networks, you'll find the Nokia 6682 well-stocked with a camera and camcorder, Bluetooth and a Multimedia Memory Card. The candy bar-style phone delivers data rates that are about twice as fast as dial-up in EDGE areas. That's not exactly full-blown 3G, but you'll find it plenty fast for cell-phone applications.
One of the most popular applications is photo uploading from mobile shutterbugs, something for which Sony Ericsson's s710 is particularly well-suited. This $500 phone's unusual swivel design and Memory Stick Duo storage are sure to impress.
In the smartphone arena, PalmOne's $449 Treo 650 is ideal for entrepreneurs looking for both the perks of a high-speed network and the features of a Palm OS PDA. It works on Cingular's EDGE network. Likewise, on the EV-DO side of smartphones, the Samsung i730 fits the bill for a Windows Mobile device with handy extras like Bluetooth, a camera and a nifty sliding qwerty keyboard. Also keep an eye on Motorola, which came out last year with the A845 for the newly constituted Cingular high-speed network.
More typical of smartphones is the $430 Siemens SX66. Not quite up to EDGE standards yet, it is still a fully loaded Windows Mobile OS device with a qwerty keyboard, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi that's ideal for 2.5G GPRS networks. The truth is, 3G coverage will be limited for some time, and frankly, it's not something all 134 million cell-phone-carrying Americans need yet. But if you try it, you'll be thrilled. It's a fun and convenient way to keep up on news, weather, stocks and e-mail. There's definitely a "wow" factor.
Different providers will be offering different types of 3G with coverage in many urban areas expected in 2006. As the carriers continue their 3G rollouts, expect your phone and service choices to widen, too.