Shooping: The day I got the call ...

I Want To Own ... A Mobile Phone That Makes The Tea

I am standing among the remnants of an 11th century fortification on the top of a hill on the edge of Exmoor when my 20th century pager tinkles. A five-word message on my Motorola PageOne MiniCall informs me to ring The Independent.

Congratulating myself for my investment in modern technology, I sprint down the hill and harangue the landlady of the nearest inn to give me change out of a fiver for her cursed POA pay-phone. The line, though, is dead.

Two hours, two counties and several calls to voicemail later, I finally get through. Somewhere during the journey I set aside my reservations about the cellphone's capacity to cause a meltdown in my mind and become a lapsed conscientious objector to mobile phones.

After years of being a phone hag - cadging other people's telecommunication hardware like others poach fags and never being able to use one properly - I've finally faced up to the fact that not only do I need a mobile phone, we all do.

Mobile phones are the innovation that defines the decade. You only have to walk down the street to see how they've changed the cultural landscape: their old image as the preserve of drug dealers and city spivs is way out of date. There are people using them everywhere, in cars, buses and bars. They've caused Royal Family scandals, trapped Essex murderers and booby trapped Islamic fundamentalists.

They are the glue that hold the feeblest of X-files plots together. Football hardman Vinnie Jones can promote his team's sponsors' hardware without shame (he swears by his snub-nosed charcoal Ericsson GH688, pounds 30 with contract).

Half the adult population of Sweden owns a mobile phone and Britain will soon be able to boast similar statistics.

Now you can buy hands-free car kits, smart phones which incorporate the functions of electronic organisers and two-band handsets which allow you to use your phone around the globe. Even standard phones now have the chip capacity to handle computing functionality such as diaries and reminders.

Newspaper articles and dedicated magazines such as What Mobile, Mobile Choice and What Cellphone get anal over the practical considerations: the mind-numbing payment permutations, the areas various networks cover, the quality of reception, the duration of battery life.

Old school Dyna-Tacs are now regarded like the ground-breaking code-breaking computers that filled whole rooms. Even owners dismiss barely scuffed phones as though they were ancient relics - one friend compared his 18- month old Nortel M900 to an eight-track cartridge player.

The side-effects of this rampaging obsolescence are twofold: firstly, no matter which phone you have, another thinner, faster, cooler version is limbering up to overshadow it; secondly, the throwaway culture that has been generated by this technological bumrush seems to have ground aesthetic expectations into dust.

For instance, people swooned over the Startac 85 when it came out two years ago. True, it was an incredibly discreet 110g (the latest model Startac 130 is 95g) model that you could hide in a bikini but it was designed like a flip-top communicator from the original Star Trek series.

Even this month's palm-sized eye-opener, the Nokia 8810, is a disappointment. It has no visible antennae, weighs just 98g, has a shiny, chrome finish and, despite the slightly girlie marketing of it, the 8810 is the phone de jour of World champion boxer Prince Naseem. It looks a bit like a Zippo lighter with brains but unlike the chunky firestarter, it feels disposable.

Of course it is a technological miracle - but it feels flimsy and looks tacky. The spending power status it confers upon its owner is also clouded by the arcane HP way in which mobiles are sold. Bought out of contract (ie without being tied into a deal with a certain operator) it can set you back anything from pounds 1,400 in Carphone Warehouse to pounds 740 at The Link, "If you want to walk out the door with it right now," tempts a wideboy with slicked-back hair.

However they may be dressed up, though, there is something inherently boring about mobile phone design. Harrods doesn't even do specials for the nouveau riche (Posh Spice apparently wanted a diamond-encrusted gold phone but they couldn't help) let alone the hoi polloi.

Faced with such uninspiring aesthetic options choices, the confirmed gadget-bore is forced to put functionality before beauty.

And there is currently no smarter phone than Nokia's 9000i (pounds 250 with contract), a Titanic among contemporary phones weighing a cumbersome 397g, albeit with good reason. Press a button on its midriff and the phone splits open like a James Bond warehouse to reveal an electronic organiser.

The keyboard is small and takes getting used to but its 8 megabyte brain gives it the capacity to perform all the tricks found in electronic organisers such as a calender, alarm clock and currency converter. It can send and read faxes and e-mails, browse the web and has a 62,500 name and number storage capacity.

Is there anything out there that can better it? Naturally, Nokia are already working on a update, the 9110, Ericsson are about to launch their own slimmer combi-machine and Philips are about to unleash a new smart phone in October.

The Philips Ilium Accent (around pounds 250 with contract), doesn't include all of the Nokia 9000's functions. It does faxes, basic e-mail and has a HTML 3.2 web browser - although unless the graphics are turned off, this will take an age - but it has no Telnet or bulletin board access. Most importantly, though, it comes in two parts - the phone docks into a mother unit (the phone itself weighs 209g; the whole thing 380g) and can be detached for independent use as a stand alone phone.

When docked to its base, it is transformed into a mini computer (it uses an Epoc 32 operating system similar to those in Psion organisers, with 8Mb ROM and 4Mb user RAM), albeit one without a keyboard. Instead instructions are tapped or hand written with a special tool on the virtual keyboard, a large, touch-sensitive pixel screen on the reverse of the main unit.

The only problem? There are currently only four in the country so taking one on a test drive is nigh on impossible. Would it have been the answer to all my prayers had I had one last week? Probably, although, there may have been a catch. On consulting the maps showing the extent of coverage provided by the various network providers, the digital mobiles aren't actually guaranteed to receive a signal in the remotest parts of North Devon.

Special Needs

Need to make a memo on the move? Panasonic's G600 is a light (126g) silver number which can record 50 seconds of sound and has a vibrating alert (pounds 50 with a contract).

Don't want to get cancer but don't want to look like Howard Jones either? The most stylish hands-free attachment is the Jabra Earset (pounds 39.99), which comes with washable earplugs and works with a range of phones.

Want to know the footie results and be contactable? Motorola BT Easyreach Memo Classic pager (pounds 59.99) holds up to 16 messages and offers free news and Premier League football services.

Want to get home quicker? The Cellnet traffic line (pounds 24.99) flashes a warning about upcoming motorway problems. You can then call a recorded message service for details of the delay.

Going Global

I WAS once on a video shoot on the rim of the Sahara desert with "The Cast". Even here , the manager's mobile worked, allowing singer John Power to talk to his eight-month pregnant wife. Nevertheless, cellular networks still cover less than 20 per cent of the earth's surface.

If you want a truly mobile phone, fax and e-mail system, you need a satellite phone. They used to be bigger than a briefcase but now come in bag of sugar sizes. The O'Gara Mobilfone weighs 2.2kg and costs pounds 2,595. Calls cost pounds 1.85/minute wherever you are in the world.

What Do They

Mean?

Sim card: Stands for subscriber identity module. It is a small card (they come in two sizes) which fits into the phone holding your electronic password and other details. By transferring the card between phones, you can get calls charged to your account.

Analogue phones: The old-style jobs that are more costly and easy to eavesdrop. Digital phones are securer and clearer, although they are more prone to cutting off and don't work as well in remote areas.

Networks: The companies which control the hot airspace: Cellnet, One 2 One, Orange and Vodafone.

Dual band: Mobile phones that can work on hitherto incompatible networks.

CLI: Calling line identity. Allows you to see who's ringing in.

Roaming: The term used for using your phone abroad.

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