Tried & Tested: The answer is at hand: Mobile phones are no longer simply toys for loadsamoney types. Our panel tests the best on offer

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The Independent Culture
ONCE, owning a mobile phone identified you as a nouveau riche executive. But in future, the companies running the networks hope, it will be as unthinkable to leave home without your mobile phone as to forget your wallet or keys. For those considering joining the ranks of mobile phone owners, we've tested five models. Four can be used on national networks operated by Cellnet and Vodafone; the fifth, the m300, is for users of the Mercury One-2-One service. This initially operated only within the M25 but it is now being extended.

Bear in mind, before you sign up, that choosing your phone is only a small part of the process. You will have to pay a one-off connection charge (around pounds 20- pounds 60), monthly rental and the cost of your calls, and you need to work out which of a number of tariffs on offer is best for you. This depends, for example, on how many calls you're likely to make each month and at what time of day. The cost of the phone itself varies from dealer to dealer and, frequently, depends on which tariff you choose. You may well be charged more for the phone if you go on a low user's tariff. We have given a range of prices, though watch out for special offers.

You will have to sign a contract with one of 50 or so service providers who sell airtime to consumers. It's a good idea to compare their charges and work out exactly what your bill for the year is likely to be. You could pay around pounds 775 a year in rental and call charges if you use the phone for two hours a month at peak time. If you were to use it only for off-peak calls for 20 minutes a month, it would cost you about pounds 175 a year with Mercury One-2-One, which has free off-peak calls, or pounds 220 with Cellnet or Vodafone. To cut down on the hard slog of picking the best buy, you can find the service providers' charges listed in What Mobile and Cellphone magazine. This is available from W H Smith, Menzies and other newsagents.

THE PANEL

Steve Speller, freelance photographer; Ann Robinson, GP and medical writer; Mike Cross, freelance journalist specialising in technology; and Jonathan Bayliss, investment manager at BZW Investment Management, London.

THE TEST

Testers gave each model marks out of 10 for sound quality, how easy it was to use the phone and understand the instructions, how useful its features were and how good it looked. Scores were converted into a best buy rating.

We've given the life of the battery supplied as standard for each phone. This is measured in terms of stand-by time (how long you can keep the phone switched on, but without using it) and talk time (how long you can spend using the phone continuously). The weight given includes the battery. The Swatch and m300 have set prices. We have given some idea of the price range you may find for the other three phones.

*NEC PIOO POPULAR

pounds 175- pounds 235 (business tariff);

pounds 210- pounds 340 (personal tariff);

weight 32Og;

stand-by time 22 hours;

talk time 120 minutes

Unenthusiastic reception

Rated poorly on looks and features, although testers did find it easy to use. Jonathan Bayliss said: 'The electronics may be Japanese, but the outside looks as if it was made in North Korea. It's the only model with recessed keys. A colleague with long nails couldn't press them.' Mike Cross, who did like the phone's appearance, praised the recessed keys. This phone scored least well on sound quality.

***MITSUBISHI MT-7

pounds 205- pounds 295 (business tariff);

pounds 265- pounds 395 (personal tariff);

weight 230g; stand-by time 8 hours;

talk time 50 minutes

Good marks all round

Testers found this phone easy to use and they liked its compact size and light weight 'Smart. Light. My favourite over all,' said Ann Robinson. The main disadvantage was the short stand-by time, although you get a spare battery. Mike Cross also pointed out that the raised buttons could be pressed by mistake.

**SONY CM-RIII

pounds 185- pounds 295 (business tariff);

pounds 185- pounds 340 (personal tariff);

weight 185g; stand-by time 14 hours;

talk time 60 minutes

Splendid design

'A masterpiece of miniaturisation, incredibly light and small, the size of a pack of cards,' said Jonathan Bayliss. 'Very discreet,' said Ann Robinson, 'though onlookers in Sainsbury's looked bemused - they must have thought I was talking to my trolley]' But the phone's small scale meant that the keypad was fiddly, particularly for people with larger hands. It also didn't score very well on features. It doesn't have a visual display to show, for example, battery life or the number dialled.

*** M300

pounds 299.99; weight: 315g; stand-by time 9 hours; talk time 55 minutes

Top-scorer overall

The m300, which uses a different technology from the other phones, was rated highly on all criteria. Testers particularly liked its features, such as the instructions which pop up on the visual display screen. The phone can also take messages or redirect calls if you can't answer. 'Connection quality in a league of its own. Good chunky design, easy to use,' said Mike Cross. Ann Robinson found the call redirection useful: 'I could divert calls to our answering service if I was tied up with a patient.' But she found the stand-by time short 'I had to recharge at 4pm, having been on call since 7am.' The limited geographical range of the Mercury One-2- One service put testers off.

* SWATCH

pounds 199; weight 37Og; stand-by

time 30 hours; talk time 135 minutes

Garish colours a turn-off

This phone, which comes in an intense blue, green or red was described as 'tacky', 'flashy' and 'ugly' by the panel, though Ann Robinson said her husband liked it. So although it's been dubbed the designer phone, the Swatch got the lowest marks of all on its looks. Testers also thought it was big and heavy. It does have very long battery life, but Steve Speller commented: 'It would have been better to cut the stand-by time to 24 hours and reduce the bulk.'

(Photograph omitted)

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