Dialed In: Two Sleek Cell Phones With Handy Data Entry

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If you've ever entered contact info into your cell phone's address book, you know it's a tedious task that usually involves pressing a number on the dial pad multiple times to get the desired letter. Give your thumbs a rest, and consider investing in a new cell phone with a mini keyboard.

I looked at two of the latest handsets in this category: the LG VX9800 from Verizon Wireless and Samsung D307 from Cingular Wireless.

For the LG phone, Verizon offers a choice between $400 with a one-year contract and $300 with a two-year contract. Cingular sells the Samsung for $250 with a two-year service contract.

Of the two phones, I like the LG better despite its higher price: The keyboard is much easier to use than Samsung's, and the phone offers a few extras, including a 1.3-megapixel camera and a media card slot.

Some Things in Common

The two phones share a few features.

For one thing, since both provide QWERTY keyboards, they're well suited for people who want to constantly stay in touch via text messaging--SMS, e-mail, or instant messaging.

Both handsets support popular instant messaging clients including AOL Instant Messenger, ICQ, MSN Messenger, and Yahoo Messenger. IM on cell phones works pretty much the same way as it does on computers: You sign in and send messages to your friends and coworkers. But because a phone screen is small, you'll need to do a bit more scrolling to view your options and to access certain settings.

If you're exchanging IMs and Web browsing on your cell phone, you'll want a device that supports fast data networks--and both these phones do. The LG VX9800 is compatible with Verizon's EvDO (Evolution Data Optimized) network and the Samsung D307 works on Cingular's EDGE (Enhanced Data for GSM Evolution) network. Cingular offers a faster data network called Universal Mobile Telecommunications System, but it is available in only a few U.S. cities.

Both phones handle voice commands, allowing you to dial a number in your phone book simply by speaking the person's name. Samsung's D307 also features speech-to-text that lets you dictate a text message instead of typing. Like many speech-recognition programs, you must speak clearly and slowly, and you need to pause after each word. The software recognizes grammatical errors and offers corrections.

Both phones are also compatible with add-on Bluetooth headsets for hands-free chatting. If you're not a fan of wireless headsets but still want the option to talk hands-free, you could use each phone's speaker phone, although this option forgoes the incoming caller's privacy.

Both units sport a somewhat quirky design. They work like clamshell phones, but they're designed to be used vertically or horizontally. How so? Keep reading.

LG VX9800's Unique Design

LG VX9800 front view

The LG VX9800 looks like a bulky brick of a phone. One side of the exterior bears a small LCD screen, a five-way navigation button in the center, and a numeric keypad. The opposite side shows the embedded camera, and below the lens is a slider to toggle between close-up and portrait modes.

LG VX9800 camera

The camera sports a horizontal orientation to mimic the look and feel of a point-and-shoot digital camera (this is a design trait that Sony Ericsson phones were first to offer). A dedicated button on the side panel initiates the camera and works as a shutter button. But when I pressed it a few times, the camera still wouldn't power up. After reading the manual, I discovered that you must press and hold the button for about 4 seconds in order to go into camera mode--not very intuitive.

Though it looks like a candy bar-style phone, the LG is a clamshell. Once you open it, you shift it horizontally to use the keyboard. In addition to the keyboard, the interior sports tiny speakers flanking a LCD that is larger than the one on the exterior.

Easy Keyboard

LG VX9800 keyboard

The LG VX9800's keyboard is far easier to use than the Samsung D307's. Its key layout is nearly identical to one on a standard PC keyboard. The main difference is that many of the symbols, such as the + sign and the semicolon, are intertwined with some alphabet keys. Even with this layered concept, entering symbols is a snap, thanks to the phone's orange Sym key (equivalent to a Shift key on a standard keyboard). However, the rounded keys are tiny. They won't suit every user, but they worked just fine for me because my fingers are relatively small.

For some background, this model wasn't LG Electronics' first attempt at keyboard phones. About a year ago, it came out with the F9100, which is available from Cingular. It's in limited distribution, and some retailers such as Amazon.com and Radio Shack also sell it. Overall, the F9100 has a flimsy feel, and the keyboard works only in IM mode. In contrast, the VX9800's keyboard can be used for many functions, including e-mail, IM, SMS, and Web browsing. Using the phone in its open, notebook-like format, I even watched a snippet of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.

You can listen to MP3s on the VX9800 as well. You could either download them or run them off an optional Mini Secure Digital card. This requires transferring your tunes from, say, your PC to the card. To transfer the files, you could connect the phone to a PC via USB or use a MiniSD card reader attached to your PC.

Compact Samsung D307

Samsung D307

The Samsung D307 is smaller than the LG VX9800, in height and thickness. For phone calls, you use it like any other clamshell phone. To use the keyboard for text messaging, you open the cover horizontally on one side. While the LCD screen is large and bright, the keyboard is a whole different ballgame. You'll need to invest some time to master the keys and learn which shortcuts work for what function.

Samsung D307 keyboard

The alphabet part of the keyboard is straightforward, although the tiny square keys are a little slippery. Navigating menus using its various shortcut keys is very confusing as well. Part of the problem is the keypad is designed for both vertical and horizontal modes. For example, the numeric keypad is meant only for dialing numbers in vertical (Cingular calls it "portrait") mode. When using the QWERTY keyboard to type messages, the numeric keys--which include the letters associated with each number--are still in view (though sideways), making it difficult to find letters or symbols. Plus, the unintuitive and layered menus on-screen contribute to the confusion.

Another big drawback: You can't use the keyboard to browse the Web, which is a shame because such a feature would come in handy when you want to, say, do Google searches. You can use the keyboard for SMS, IM, notetaking, calendar entries, and addresses.

A bit of good news for Bluetooth seekers: If you want a Bluetooth phone without a camera, the D307 is worth considering. The lack of a camera comes in handy if your employer bans camera phones on its premises.

Software Options

If you need an easier way to manage your contacts list on your cell phone but don't want to buy a new, keyboard-enabled handset, you could use your PC and syncing software (which comes with some phones). Or you can buy a standalone program such as DataPilot or FutureDial SnapSync. These programs let you enter information on the computer and then transfer the data to your phone--and vice versa.

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