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New Cell Phones Live Longer, Travel Lighter

'Tis the season to consider a wireless telephone. Mother's Day and Father's Day are full of deals. Often, cellular and digital carriers will give you the phone if you sign up for their service.

Before taking the plunge, however, take a good look at the phone they're offering. Is it the right model for you?

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Choosing a telephone has gotten a lot more complicated since the days of black and beige, Princess and Trimline. To some extent, picking a wireless carrier will narrow down your choices. Still, customers should consider the phone's size, battery life, and special features. ("Yes, Madam, that particular model does come with a built-in answering machine.")

Here's what to look for:

Size. This is many consumers' chief concern. Clearly, if you're going to lug this thing all over creation, you're going to want the lightest, most compact model.

But what if you're not going to take it everywhere? If the phone is going to sit in your glove compartment and be used only for emergencies, then an older, cheaper phone will do fine.

Price. Despite all the ads about free phones, no phone costs nothing. Carriers will make you pay in service fees what you don't spend on the phone. However, so many consumers are gravitating to the smallest and lightest models, carriers are anxious to unload their stock of older and heavier phones. The newest, lightest models can cost anywhere from $200 to $1,800. But look around. Good deals abound.

Battery life. For a month, Sprint let me use one of the hottest wireless models in the market: Sony's Zuma CM-Z100. This is a honey of a phone. Sleek, smaller than a man's billfold, it weighs only 5.3 ounces with the battery. The mouthpiece is attached to a thin plastic arm, which folds up when you're not using it.

The problem with the "Z" phone - as some people call it - is battery life. Standard wireless phones will let you talk four hours continuously before conking out. (Or you can turn the phone on and have it on standby to receive calls for 60 hours.) The "Z" phone - and others like it - boast only 2.5 hours of talk (or 24 hours of standby).

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Obviously, if you plan to spend hours talking on your wireless phone, the longer battery life in bigger models could prove far more important than sleekness. Of course, some users try to have both.

A Sony spokesman has three batteries for his "Z" phone: one in the car, one in his briefcase, and a third in the phone. When David Pinsky of Motorola's cellular division traveled to Europe and Africa earlier this month, he took along five batteries (and no charger) to keep his Motorola StarTAC phone up and running.

Battery type. Older battery technology works OK, if you use your phone regularly and charge it every night. But I prefer newer lithium-ion batteries that appear to hold their charge for longer periods of time. That could be important if your wireless phone hides out in the glove compartment for weeks on end.

Single and dual-mode phones. If you sign up for digital wireless service, often called PCS (personal communications services), you may be given this choice. Single-mode digital phones work well for urban dwellers who never use them outside the city. Dual-mode phones can switch to traditional cellular service in suburban and rural areas where the new digital systems don't yet reach.

* Send comments to or visit my "In Cyberspace" forum at

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