A Kodak Moment on Your Phone

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Thinking of getting your loved one a cell phone this holiday season? Good luck. Cell phones may or may not be hazardous to your health, but choosing one can certainly tax your sanity. You have to select a provider (such as AT&T or Verizon), a make (like Motorola or Nokia) and a plan (weekend minutes or anytime minutes?). Then there are all the bells and whistles. Remember: if the salesclerk asks if you want Java or Brew, he's not offering you a drink but rather a choice between two kinds of software for playing cell-phone games.

At least one choice is relatively simple and can be rendered in plain English. Do you want to be able to take pictures with your phone and email them to anyone from anywhere? Cell phones with cameras are all the rage in Japan, and they're starting to invade our shores. The quality isn't exactly Ansel Adams, but the quick-pic payoff — Look, Ma, here I am in the Big Apple! — can be addictive. Imagine all the day-to-day situations in which it would be nice to show someone what you're seeing at the moment you see it: house hunting, grocery shopping, bar hopping. The research firm IDC says that by 2004 there will be more cell-phone cameras sold worldwide than digital cameras.

Only a handful of these devices are on sale right now. As usual for first-generation gadgets, the balance between cool features and easy operation has not quite been struck. But at least the prices are right. You can get a Sony Ericsson T-300 phone with camera attachment from TMobile for a mere $150; buy it with the rebate on Amazon.com, and you could actually end up $50 in the black. That, of course, will quickly be eaten up by your monthly bills. (It costs $10 to send 10 megabytes of data — that's a little more than a buck a picture.)

Of course, you get what you pay for. In my tests, T-Mobile's camera was too grainy to be of much use indoors or at night. But the process of taking and emailing a photo was relatively simple. I had to peek at the manual only once. And the phone can add a lot of effects — like bubbles and hearts floating in front of the picture — that should make it fun for kids.

At the other end of the scale is Sprint's Sanyo SCP-5300 ($399). Here the lens is built in, the screen is relatively crisp, and there's even a small display on the front of the phone where pictures of your friends can appear every time they call you. Alas, you will definitely have to read the manual to figure out how to make that happen.

The best camera phone I have seen so far doesn't arrive until early next year, when the Nokia 3650 comes out for around $400. It has the TMobile's ease of use, the Sprint phone's quality and a big color screen, plus it captures up to eight seconds of video. If your loved one can wait that long, you may want to leave a nicely wrapped IOU under the tree.

Questions for Chris? E-mail him at cdt@well.com