The Super Phone You Can Get for Free

Ditch your Treo for a dirt-cheap Nokia.

Last year, I raved that Handspring’s Treo was the first smart phone that wasn’t dumb. Still, sometimes it’s a little too smart for its own good. Before you blow $600 on an all-in-one pocket wonder, ask yourself how many of its wonders you’re ever actually going to use. Do you really need a phone with a QWERTY keyboard and a stylus? Do you need to spend half a week’s salary on an oversize screen and lightning-fast wireless? Probably not.

Instead of paying for bells and whistles you don’t want, get the cheap, reliable Nokia 6600. How cheap? T-Mobile will give it to you free after rebate if you buy a yearlong service plan that costs at least $39 per month. (By comparison, the best price I can find for the Treo 650 is $370 with a service plan.) The 6600 is such a steal because it’s incredibly uncool. People will only pay a premium for a phone if it looks really expensive. The Nokia 6600, though, looks like an out-of-shape panda. The bulbous, black-and-white phone won’t win any design awards, especially compared to Nokia’s more stylish—and yes, more expensive—7610 and 7650 models.

So, why am I telling you to rush out and get a cheap, ugly phone? Because the Nokia 6600 lets you add the cool features you want without paying for the ones you don’t care about. For the price of a calling plan, you’ll start with plenty of gadgetry you’d think they would have saved for the glitzy, high-end models. There’s a speakerphone, voice dialing, an audio recorder, a serviceable 640-by-480 pixel camera, a (silent) video recorder, RealPlayer for playing back audio and video clips, an infrared port, and a flash memory slot that comes loaded with a 32-megabyte card.

Mos t important, the 6600 comes with Bluetooth and the Symbian operating system with Series 60, the same robust, reliable platform that’s installed on high-end Nokias and the $600 Siemens SX1. * (Nokia’s numbering scheme is nearly impenetrable. The company’s Series 60 phones don’t necessarily have a “60” in the model number. All you need to know is that models starting with 6 are cheaper than those beginning with 7. Click here for a list of Series 60 phones.)

The combination of Series 60 and Bluetooth allows you to add pretty much any peripheral device you can imagine. Like to dial while driving? Accessorize with a Bluetooth hands-free headset. Hate to type with your thumbs? Add a fold-out Bluetooth keyboard for cramp-free typing. If you love to write things out in longhand, take the money you saved on the phone and invest in Nokia’s $250 Digital Pen that writes on real paper instead of a screen. If you need a full-fledged PC or Mac for a project, grab your laptop and use the Nokia as a go-anywhere cellular modem.

Nokia’s built-in e-mail client isn’t the world’s greatest, but it’ll do for checking and quickly replying to messages occasionally. If you want to upgrade, there are plenty of downloadable software applications for Series 60 phones. At the top of the list is the $32 Opera for Mobile browser, which optimizes Web pages for small screens. You can get a free trial of Quickoffice Premier, which reads and writes Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files. Agile Messenger connects you to all the major IM services for free.

Adding software and peripherals yourself might sound iffy, but it’s a lot easier than you think. You download software to your PC first, then use a program Nokia provides to transfer it to the phone via USB cable. If you’ve got Bluetooth on your PC, you can skip that step and just zap the program over to your phone. Bluetooth hardware works surprisingly well right out of the box. The third-party keyboard that I tested linked up automatically in seconds, as if I’d plugged into a PC’s USB socket. The only problem I had with the digital pen was trying to make sense of my illegible handwritten notes the next day. If you’re still wary of mixing and matching brands, Nokia has its own line of hardware, including a keyboard that should be available soon.

There’s another great reason to go with outboard hardware: When manufacturers try to pack in too many features, the phone often suffers. Last month, Best Buy pulled a Windows-powered Motorola phone from store shelves because of a “system glitch” that muffled sound volume on the $350 baubles. A do-everything gadget can also be thwarted by real-world limitations. The latest version of the Treo has been dogged by complaints about insufficient memory for power users and temporary Bluetooth restrictions imposed by Sprint.

There are some things the 6600 just won’t do. Its CPU is slower than the chips that come in more expensive models, and it can’t use the new 100-300 Kbps wireless data networks—you’ll be stuck at 43 Kbps, a speed comparable to your old dialup line. You also won’t be able to use any kind of handwriting recognition (the Digital Pen saves your notes as a JPEG image) and the screen isn’t as big or as bright as the Treo’s. But that’s like saying the Treo can’t compete with a laptop. If you want to check your mail, sync with your Outlook calendar and address book, and use Google now and then, get the Nokia. A free ugly phone beats paying hundreds for features you’ll never use and bugs you can’t afford.

Gizmos thanks Cliff Skolnick and John Richey of the Bay Area Wireless Users Group.

Correction, Dec. 16, 2004:This piece originally and incorrectly referred to a Siemens cell phone as the XS-1. It is the SX1. Return to the corrected sentence.