... and this is me on the bus

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The theory goes – at least judging by the billions of pounds paid for licences by phone companies – that within a few years we will all have signed up to 3G (third-generation) phones and will be spending our time downloading news clips, playing online games and making video calls to each other, which will leave the mobile phone companies, racking up charges by the (mega) byte, rubbing their hands with glee. I'm here to tell you that the truth is – probably not.

The theory goes – at least judging by the billions of pounds paid for licences by phone companies – that within a few years we will all have signed up to 3G (third-generation) phones and will be spending our time downloading news clips, playing online games and making video calls to each other, which will leave the mobile phone companies, racking up charges by the (mega) byte, rubbing their hands with glee. I'm here to tell you that the truth is – probably not.

3 (www.three.co.uk), the mobile-phone operator that presently has the lead in offering these phones in the UK, lent The Independent an NEC e606 handset – the sort of handset that should be in the hands of paying customers some time in the next few days. These handsets cost £399, and you then have the choice of a monthly contract at either £60 or £100 per month, or a pay-as-you-go contract where the call charges for standard calls are fairly standard (5p, 10p, 25p per minute to other 3 users, to landlines and to non-3 mobiles). But the exceptional – the video call – costs 50p per minute.

Let's talk about video calls, since those are what 3 has been advertising on the television. It turns out that making video calls is easily the best fun you can have on these phones. There are cameras mounted in the front and outside of the handset, so you can either show the person you're talking to what's around you, or let them look at your face. A great selling point, though at the back of one's mind is the question of how much it's costing and whether the novelty will wear off.

What wears off, or rather wears out, rather more quickly are the batteries. Making video calls hammers them – to the extent that we were able to get only a couple of hours' life out of the phones. Two video calls left the batteries gasping for a recharge. In a world where we are used to mobile phones that can be left on for days, and where talktimes extend into days too, the prospect of phones that give up after a bit of light chatting doesn't seem guaranteed to delight.

Even worse than that, though, is the user interface. Step back for a moment and consider this: the third-generation phone is a monster of a computer squeezed into something that fits in your hand. It can capture and play real-time movies, it can play music, it can detect the phone signal from multiple base stations, decode them and pick out the best, it can play Java-based games, it can hold hundreds of contacts, it can hold your calendar. What else? Oh yes, you can make voice phone calls too.

Using that sort of power effectively means the interface needs serious taming. It calls for not just world-class but solar-system-class, galaxy-class user interface design. Sadly, you don't get it.

The phone function feels like a last-minute addition to the NEC handset – to the extent that (having refused, perhaps unwisely, the manual) I sat bemused for five, perhaps 10 minutes, just trying to find the correct buttons to press in order to find the "last called" list of numbers and make a video (or even just voice) call.

On most phones it's a matter of pressing one of the main menu buttons a couple of times. On 3's NEC-branded phone, no dice. I hunted high and low. I found buttons that let you optimise internet settings, send e-mail, send an SMS, download a news clip from ITN (with whom it has an exclusive deal), listen to a music file, watch a video clip of a Premier League goal being scored, download a new Java game, play yet another Java game, and change the colour of the 3 logo that comes up when you turn the phone on. Oh, and the button to turn it on and off.

Eventually I discovered that to get the phone menu (which is different from, and not shown on, the doing-anything-else menu) one has to press a particular button twice. I felt like a fool; but also annoyed that so basic a function was that well hidden by the user interface. It's as if Word offered you every preference under the sun, and forced you down a tunnel of menus, before letting you open a new document. (I know, it's close, but it's not that bad.)

Just as annoying was that in trying to traverse some menus, the "down" button of the four-way navigation button doesn't work; you have to keep going sideways, which will eventually take you down. And to cap it all, the phone crashed once when we were trying to delete a file, which apparently we did at the same time as something else was happening. ("You have another application open", it noted sternly; we had thought that phones only did one thing at a time.) 3 insists that the software is still being worked on, and that these things can all be updated. We say – tame this beast now. These phones have a depth of functionality that is overwhelming. Unless you are a very exceptional user, you will barely scratch the surface of what they can do.

We didn't manage to see how well the phone handles the shift from a full 3G network to a GPRS and then bog-standard GSM and back; we have heard that it's not good, though others' experience may differ.

Yes, the news clips and sports clips are nice; for news and sports junkies these phones are going to come into their own, especially in the summer (think Wimbledon, the Cup Final) and for updates on the war in Iraq. Yes, the video calls are fun, especially if you're not having to think about the cost. And certainly one can see that some years' hence, once 3G networks are available throughout the country with high download speeds, your phone will become an adjunct of every part of your life. As long, that is, that you can work out how to configure it. That, however, will be easier said than done.

network@independent.co.uk

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