Assessing Cellular Services

6 August 2004

David Pogue sends me an email every week. He writes for the New York Times, and one of his articles gets emailed to those who have chosen to subscribe to his (free) email.

The title of this week’s article is Judging a Phone by Its Carrier. Here’s what he had to say:

As I flew back from a trip to California last night, I tried to analyze why I felt so wiped out. Then it hit me: speaking engagements, trade shows, meetings and family vacations have taken me away from home 11 times since June. (Out of 22 flights, moreover, four of them turned into all-day stranded-at-airport nightmares. When one particular flight was canceled, in fact, the employees were so hostile and noncommunicative, I’ve sworn to change the airline’s name in my Rolodex program from Spirit to AvoidIt.)

But I digress.

Anyway, the bright side is that all of this traveling was a perfect opportunity to test the two cellphones I reviewed today and last week in the ”State of the Art” column. Each is a ”communicator”-a cellphone with built-in camera, thumb keyboards, Web browsing and so on. All those layovers, cab rides and airport shuttles were great opportunities to test these phones under a wide variety of conditions.

As it happens, both of these phones-the HP 6315 PocketPC and the Sidekick II-are offered exclusively by T-Mobile. As it also happens, both phones often said ”No Service,” or displayed very weak signal bars, in a few situations where my own Verizon Wireless phone was going strong. (For example, T-Mobile phones say ”No Service” in my home in the New York suburbs. Bummer-I really liked that Sidekick II.)

Now, T-Mobile, in my experience, isn’t noticeably worse than Cingular, AT&T or Sprint; the phenomenon I’m describing is a testimony to the superiority of Verizon’s national range. In four years of writing cellphone reviews for the Times, I’ve often found myself carrying phones from several different companies-and where there’s a difference in reception, Verizon nearly always wins. (Consumer Reports’s much more scientific testing arrived at the same results.) Which made me realize three things.

First, I can’t believe the gall of AT&T Wireless’s new newspaper ads. They show a full-strength, all-bars signal indicator along with claims that suggest that AT&T has the best cellular coverage in this country. In my experience, that’s pure wishful thinking.

Second, tech reviewers seem to ignore the fact that the carrier you choose may actually be more important to your happiness than the phone you choose. Coverage, pricing and customer service will probably mean a lot more than this bell or that whistle. Every phone review ought to include this warning in bold red type: ”NOTE: You’re not just buying a phone; you’re buying a carrier.”

Finally, it’s too bad you can’t get the best phones with the best coverage. I love the signal coverage of Verizon Wireless, but man, are its phones boring.

For example, my Toyota Prius has a microphone built into the rear-view mirror, a ”Make a call” button on the steering wheel, and Bluetooth circuitry that lets you make calls without even removing the cellphone from your pocket or purse. But you can use this feature only if your cellphone has Bluetooth-and at this moment, Verizon doesn’t offer a single Bluetooth model.

Verizon doesn’t offer any phones that capture video, either. And it took until last month for Verizon to offer the Treo 600 smartphone, only about a year after the other carriers.

Sprint offers at least two videophones, not to mention the only TV phone. T-Mobile offers the cool communicators I just reviewed. Cingular has a phone with built-in radio and MP3 player. AT&T offers five Bluetooth phones and four BlackBerry models.

So I asked a Verizon spokesperson: What does Verizon have against high tech?

She emphatically disagreed with my ”good coverage, boring phones” premise. She said that Verizon simply tests its phones much more thoroughly than the other carriers, who may actually be trying to compensate for their smaller networks by offering trendier phones. And she pointed out that Verizon will finally offer its first Bluetooth phone-with a 1.2-megapixel camera and video capture, no less-on August 11 (called the Motorola 710).

I may just have to upgrade.

But if I had to choose between a cool phone and a boring one that works almost anywhere, in the end, I’d pick the coverage. Verizon had me from ”Hello. Can you hear me now?”

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