Walt Mossberg

Ahead of the iPhone, Other Makers Offer Some Quality Devices

Despite the feverish hype around Apple’s forthcoming $499 iPhone, which goes on sale next week, the established makers of smart phones aren’t idle. They continue to turn out new models capable of not only making voice calls and exchanging text messages, but of handling email, surfing the Web, taking pictures, and playing music and video.

In fact, this category is getting so crowded that it’s hard to follow all of the contenders. T-Mobile and Sprint, for example, have just announced very similar smart phones running Microsoft’s latest Windows Mobile software. Both feature horizontal keyboards that slide out from beneath the screen. The T-Mobile Wing costs $299 after various rebates, while the Sprint Mogul, which runs on a faster network, costs $399.

But I’ve been testing two other new smart phones that I find especially interesting. One is the latest attempt by BlackBerry maker Research In Motion to appeal to consumers. The other is a high-resolution camera phone by Nokia, which costs more than even the iPhone.

The new BlackBerry Curve 8300, sold by AT&T, is sort of a cross between the maker’s low-end consumer-oriented Pearl and its larger, more traditional models like the 8800 series. It costs $199 after rebate, with a two-year contract.

Unlike the Pearl, which manages its slender size by sporting only a squished keyboard where two letters must share each key, the Curve has a full, if slightly compressed, keyboard. I found it no problem to use accurately. It does, however, use the Pearl-like trackball instead of the famous BlackBerry side-mounted wheel.

To accommodate the keyboard and a wider screen, the Curve is wider and a bit thicker than the Pearl, and has more of the traditional BlackBerry look. And it’s over 20% heavier. But it’s narrower, shorter and lighter than the 8800, though a bit thicker.

The silver-colored Curve doesn’t boast any technological breakthroughs. It’s mostly an attempt to bring the BlackBerry’s email capabilities to a model that doesn’t compromise the keyboard the way the Pearl did. It has all the traditional BlackBerry features, plus a two-megapixel camera, a slot for a memory card, and the ability to play music and videos.

In my tests, I had no trouble at all sending and receiving email on the Curve, taking or displaying pictures, or playing music. I was able to move over some songs and pictures from my own computer, and they displayed and played as promised. Voice quality was fine, and phone talk time is about four hours — reasonable but not outstanding.

In a welcome move, the Curve has a standard headphone jack, capable of playing music in stereo and handling phone calls. It also includes Bluetooth for wireless headsets and use in cars, but it doesn’t have Wi-Fi wireless networking. It also runs on AT&T’s relatively slow EDGE network instead of the carrier’s faster data network. And the Web browser is mediocre.

The Nokia N95 lacks a full keyboard, physical or virtual and its email is primitive, but that’s not its main purpose. This device is the best combination of a camera and a phone I’ve ever tested, and includes a long list of other media features.

The camera boasts five megapixel resolution, highly unusual for a phone, and it takes marvelous photos. When I transferred my shots to my computer, they were large, sharp and vivid, just as if they’d come from a standard camera. The camera has Carl Zeiss optics, autofocus, multiple flash settings and various scene settings. It also has a burst mode capable of taking six shots in rapid sequence.

But getting such a good camera in a phone will set you back a whopping $749. And you can’t buy it through any phone carrier, only from Nokia’s Web site (nseries.com) or from various electronics stores. You have to buy a phone plan separately.

Nokia’s N95, left, and BlackBerry’s Curve 8300

Like the Curve, the N95 has good voice quality, but runs on the slow EDGE network, though a future version could support faster networks. Unlike the BlackBerry, the current N95 also can use Wi-Fi networks. Battery life is only fair: 3.5 hours of talk time. While Nokia touts the phone’s Web browser, I found it to be unimpressive. But the phone includes GPS mapping, with optional navigation. It also accepts memory cards for storage.

Physically, the N95 is small, but chunky; on one side, it looks like a plum-colored camera. If you slide its screen in one direction, the keypad is revealed. Sliding it the opposite way reveals standard controls for playing music and video clips. I was able to move pictures and songs from my computer, but the songs failed to display album covers when played.

For $749, you could buy the Curve and a very nice digital camera. But the N95 is for photo enthusiasts who want an all-in-one device. The Curve is a more mainstream smart phone that aims for a balance of features at a low price.

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