The Swiss-Army Cell Phone

When I went to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas a couple of weeks ago, I picked up a lot of gadgets: a digital camera, a calculator, a cellular phone, a portable Web browser, a pocket-size game console, an e-mail terminal, a device that keeps track of phone numbers and appointments, and a handheld device for downloading and listening to music.

Admittedly, there is nothing new about any of these devices -- I could have found them all at last year's Consumer Electronics Show. But what's unique about this collection of mobile toys is that they are not several separate gadgets but one single 4-ounce device that fits easily into a shirt pocket.

The Sanyo SCP-5300 is a cell phone with a color screen and a built-in camera that works on the Sprint PCS network ( Like many new phones, it can also access the Web, send e-mail and track appointments.

Although it's not an MP3 player, Sprint has entered into an agreement with Warner Music that allows customers -- for a fee -- to download 30-second music clips from Warner artists such as Devo and Third Eye Blind. These songs can be played and, in some cases, turned into ring tones. The phone also allows you to download screen savers, games and other applications, also for additional fees.

With the amount of features built into this phone, you'd expect it to be big and complicated, but it's about the same size as most other "flip" phones and it's actually a lot easier to use than most phones I've tried. In fact, even if it didn't have a built-in camera and all the other features, I'd enjoy using the SCP-5300 simply because it's an excellent phone.

The phone has a retail price of $399 but, as with most cellular phones, you may be able to get it for less if you activate or extend your service. Sprint charges $10 extra per month for access to its PCS Vision service, which includes the ability to e-mail and upload pictures as well as access the Web, e-mail and send and receive messages. Plans, which start at $40 a month, include free roaming (as long as you're on the Sprint network) and free long distance.

Unlike other camera phones currently on the market, the camera is built into the phone itself -- there is nothing to attach. To take a picture you press the camera key on the keypad, frame the subject on the camera's 2.1-inch color screen and push the camera button again. At that point you have the option to upload the picture, via the Sprint network, to a private Web site or, if you know someone else with a Sprint Vision phone, you can send it to his phone. You can also use the phone to send a link to the picture to anyone's e-mail address. That person doesn't get the picture itself, but a URL that lets him view it on the Web.

The picture quality is OK when you're looking at it online or on the phone itself, but this is not a replacement for a digital camera. With a resolution of 640 by 480, (1/3 megapixel), it's definitely on the low end. Though you can print pictures from the Web site if you want, they won't look nearly as good on paper as what you can get from even a relatively inexpensive digital camera.

Still, despite the limitations there are advantages to having a camera built into a cell phone. Aside from the fact that you can instantly e-mail pictures or post them to the Web, the big advantage is that having a camera as part of your phone means you're likely to have it with you all the time. I carry a good digital camera on vacations and when I know I'm going to be taking pictures, but unlike my cell phone, I don't carry it with me wherever I go. Now, thanks to the cell phone/camera, I do have a camera with me at all times, albeit not the best camera in the world.

The camera came in handy a few weeks ago when I got a parking ticket that I'm certain I didn't deserve. I immediately took photographs to prove my innocence, which I can use to defend against this major miscarriage of justice. I may not win, but at least I can put up a good defense. I've also used it a few times to take pictures with friends whom I run into around town.

The backlit color screen is a plus even when you're not looking at pictures. It's easier to read than most monochrome screens and certainly more pleasant to look at.

Having a camera and a color screen does draw more power than a traditional monochrome phone, yet I have been impressed by the phone's battery life. It comes with both a standard and slightly larger extended battery, which, according to Sprint, will give you approximately 2.7 hours talk time or up to 10.4 days of stand-by time when you're getting a digital signal. I don't know if those numbers are correct, but I find myself not having to worry about running out of juice on most days. That's because the phone goes into "sleep" mode when not in use, sipping very little power.

After using Sanyo's SCP-5300 for several weeks, I can say I'm impressed, but that doesn't mean I'd be willing to part with $400 for it. Personally, as cool as the device is, I find myself mostly using it -- you guessed it -- as a phone. For that purpose, just about any cell phone -- including the ones you can get for free or cheap -- works just fine. Eventually, phones like this one will drop dramatically in price, making it an attractive temptation.

A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."

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By Larry Magid