Toys for Techies

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As a proud member of the anti-cell phone crowd, I almost felt guilty asking Motorola to let me test its newest model, the Digital V phone, coming out this week. Sure, it was a marvel of miniaturization and techno-chic, weighing in at just 3 oz. And I was intrigued by the notion of browsing the Web and sending e-mail on something smaller than a Twinkie. But I've always thought carrying a cell phone everywhere you went was silly--just another must-have gadget designed to keep boredom at bay. Factor in the $400 list price from Sprint PCS (or $500 from Verizon Wireless), and this bauble struck me as something I could live without.

What really seemed cool to me was the Talkabout T900, another gizmo from Motorola that's also going on sale this week. A tad larger and heavier than the V phone, the T900 opens up like a makeup case to reveal a miniature keyboard and screen about twice the size of the V phone's display. You can't make calls with the T900, but you can send and receive e-mail. You can also get daily news, sports, weather and entertainment updates. Even better, it costs half as much as the V phone, and monthly fees from PageNet start at $10--a fraction of what you'd pay for a cell phone.

Rather than make any rash judgments, however, I decided to tote both toys around for a month and see which I ended up liking most. Like a junior high school crush, the T900 came on hard and fast. I used it in the subway to send a message to a friend in Prague. I sent love notes to my boyfriend while lounging in Central Park. And the one-sentence news updates made me feel totally plugged in. But the clincher was this: instead of looking like just another annoying yuppie yapping on my cell phone for all the world to hear, I could discreetly type messages in silence. People around me could see I was typing something, but who knew if it was a memo to the President or a reminder to buy toilet paper at the corner drugstore?

Meanwhile, the V series languished at the bottom of my briefcase. When I tried to use the minibrowser, the postage stamp-size screen made "browsing" a fantasy. Instead I was stuck with a series of multiple-choice menus that felt like the sats all over again. Besides, typing on a cell phone is bizarre. To produce a D, for example, you hit the 3 key once. To type an F, you hit the same key three times.

But after a while, I got bored with the T900. I wanted the news headlines I cared about, not the generic stuff. And while it was easy to get the hang of the petite keyboard, my e-mails got cut off after about 1,000 characters (shorter than it sounds), and several times I typed an entire message, then accidentally (and irretrievably) deleted it. Other messages never arrived in friends' In boxes.

So I gave the cell phone a second chance. I discovered I could access my AOL e-mail. I found movie times for Chicken Run at my local theater. I sent a recipe for Blueberry Monkey Bread (whatever that is) to a perplexed friend down the hall. And one day, when my flight was delayed and I needed to find a quick alternative route, I discovered that a phone is actually a lot more useful than an e-mail device. So even though the T900 is better for typing secret messages, the V phone is ultimately more versatile. Now I just have to decide whether I can afford to pay $400 for the convenience.

For more on these products, visit Motorola's website at . You can e-mail questions for Anita to hamilton@time.com