Low End Theory

Cheapo Handset Bill of Rights


By Brendan I. Koerner

Us veterans of the food-service industry know that a restaurant's best-selling bottle of wine is almost invariably the second cheapest on the list. The common assumption among diners is that the lowest priced vino is probably fit for little more than disinfecting pustular sores, and so they might as well spend the extra $4 and get something at least halfway drinkable. Plus, let's face it, no one wants their date/client/grandma to think, "Gee, this guy makes Ebenezer Scrooge look like Daddy Warbucks."

The same sort of psychology seems to be at work among pressed-for-cash cellphone buyers. In response to last week's column on ultra-cheap handsets, a reader pointed me toward some anecdotal evidence—okay, okay, a speech by a Qualcomm exec—insisting that discount-conscious handset buyers actually prefer phones one or two notches up from the biggest bargains. The cheapest handsets, it seems are perceived as too feature-poor and unreliable to be worth the scratch—the digital versions of that $18 bottle of fetid Chianti that your local Italian joint is eager to push on unsuspecting cheapskates.

In some ways, the ultra-cheap handsets are getting a bad rap based on this tic of consumer psychology. But then again, when you strip away every reasonable feature in the name of low, low price, you're eventually gonna make the product undesirable to even entry-level buyers. With that in mind, I gave a good, long think to some perks that every buyer of a sub-$35 handset should be entitled to, regardless of race, ethnicity, creed, or species. If you're reading, oh lords of Nokia and Motorola, take note and start treating my short-armed, deep-pocketed brothers right. PLUS: The first handset to break the 1,000 rupee barrier?

Before I rattle off the list, a quick note on what's not going to be on cheapo handsets anytime soon: cameras, color screens, and clamshell tops. I'm particularly enamored of the last design detail, but in the name of low-end bliss, I can do without. I do, however, look forward to the day when someone figures out how to add a one-megapixel cam to a cellphone without jacking up the overall price by 30 percent. Any companies out there working on this, or am I just a nut and a crazy dreamer?

These must-have features are in no particular order; please e-mail me with suggestions for others, and I'll try to run 'em next week:

Save Preset Text The "canned" text bites that come equipped on most low-end phones are maddeningly useless. I remember that on my ol' Samsung A300, the only one I ever ended up using was "Thank you," and even that was a rarity. (Particularly annoying was "Be there in 15 minutes"—what if I only needed 10 minutes?) My suggestion, then, is for there to be a way to type out and store some stock catchphrases of your own design. For example, why on Earth shouldn't I be able to add "Whatchu up 2?" Doesn't seem to be a memory problem, as the A300 (as well as most other basic handsets) allow you to store many of lines of text in the Notepad. A simple software fix should suffice to allow this, right?

Stopwatch Why this isn't a standard feature on every phone, I have no clue. In fact, I've never seen it on any phone I've ever owned, which makes me conclude that few handsets are designed by Germans residing in large cities. I mean, what pleasure could possibly be more Teutonic than measuring exactly how many seconds it takes you to walk a certain number of blocks, or ride the subway from one neighborhood to another. The clock may give you a rough estimate but, believe you me, there's a big difference between a 40-minute subway ride and one that lasts 45 seconds more. (For the record: I am part German and hopelessly anal retentive about maximizing efficiency.—in other words, I kid because I am.)

One-Touch Redial What's standard on cordless phone should be standard on cheap handsets. Given the problem with fade-outs, it makes sense to expedite the redial process. But most of us still have to sift through the Calls list to find out most recently dialed or received number, and then press the Send key. Yes, I realize that I'm talking about saving folks a grand total of about seven minutes per year. But you'll thank me on your deathbed, when you'd trade it all for just another seven minutes of precious life. (Like I said, I'm part German, and thus given over to bouts of morbidity. Apologies.)

Preset Games One of my biggest disappointments with the Razr has been the lack of preset games. I know that they're trying to hook you on subscriptions to Bejeweled and whatnot, but how much fonder I'd be of Motorola if they'd simply thrown Push Push on there.

SIM Card This should go without saying, but apparently it doesn't. Why on Earth would a smart company like Samsung sell me a handset that backs up via USB to my PC, but then that information can't be transferred to my new Razr? I guess that's just their way of trying to keep the little guy hooked on Samsung products—the old compatibility trick. I say a pox on 'em, and SIM cards for all—how expensive a feature can that be, given that the bottom-o'-the-line Nokia 1100 is SIMed out?

Ceaseless Alarm Clocks I once missed a train because my handset's alarm only rang for 60 seconds, then quit. I say screw the battery life issues and make those suckers ring 'til its owner either hits snooze or the off button.

Like I said before, this is only a partial list, and I'd love to hear from the peanut gallery. And while you're at it, if you've got any info on good places to eat/drink in Utica, New York, I'd be much obliged—I'm heading there tomorrow for book research, and dread having to settle for Taco Bell. Many thanks.

Low End Theory

LAST HANDSETS BIT, PROMISE: Last week, I appealed for cheapo handset info from around-the-globe. Correspondents from India to Mexico responded, and the verdict was pretty much the same—Kyocera, not Motorola, is leading the charge toward sub-$30 handsets. An Indian low-end fan, for example, wrote in with word that the Kyocera Prisma is now being offered in his land for a mere 999 ruppees—quite likely the first handset to crack the magical 1,000 rupee barrier. And down Mexico way, a Kyocera Blade can be had for 399 pesos, a price that includes 100 pesos worth of talk time.

So let's hear it for our friends at Kyocera. And, honest to God, you won't hear another peep out of me about handsets for at least the next 14 days. Unless I totally get writer's block next Thursday, which is always a possibility. (Thanks, Salvador and Aditya)

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.

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