Road Warrior

One man's experience with great cell-phone coverage, mixed features, and tasty mango treats

It's about 6:30 in the evening. I'm sitting on the lanai of a rented house in Kihei, on Maui, to which I've traveled for the longest vacation of my life: 13 days to celebrate the birthday of my wife's sister. More than a dozen fellow family members are sharing the house, but this night I have the lanai to myself. The sun is beginning to set over the Pacific, which is less than 100 yards away. Clad in my newly acquired aloha shirt, I'm sipping a glass of red wine and nibbling on pieces of li hing mango, a dried salty-sweet snack packed on the island. Life is good.

I flip open my cell phone, a Nokia 9000i Communicator, and, using the wee keyboard, begin keying in the URL of a source I need for a column. The big sell of the Nokia was that I'd be able to use it not only as a telephone but also to access the Internet; send and receive E-mail, faxes, and other short messages (160 characters or less) through its SMS (short messaging service); and have it double as a modem, if I cared to connect a laptop to it.

I wait to be connected to my source's Web site. Finally, after almost two minutes of twiddling my thumbs, the site comes up in monochrome on the 4.5-by-1.5-inch LCD screen, and I try to navigate my way through all the little boxes, circles, and diamonds that have appeared in place of graphics. I highlight one teensy shape using a tab key and wait some more. More geometric shapes appear. Then more. Exasperated, I down the rest of my wine, pop a piece of mango in my mouth, and stroll off to the oceanside, where I can appreciate the sunset sans technology.

Dream as we might, there is nothing yet to replace the laptop as a workhorse for transmitting data back and forth while we're on the road. Some new cell phones, such as the Nokia 9000i, had gotten my hopes up but just as quickly dashed them: they're no replacement for the laptop by a long shot. Another cell phone, Ericsson's I 888 World, doesn't allow Internet access, but in tandem with a laptop it promised to let me modem files from oceanside and receive SMS missives on its traditional LCD screen. But it too fell short, at least in the customer-service arena.

Before I had a chance to be disappointed by performance, though, I had to wend my way through the thicket of cell-phone service providers back home in Boston to find one that was compatible with my two models. There are two different types of digital systems for cell phones: TDMA and CDMA (which are acronyms, respectively, for time division multiple access and code division multiple access and refer to how data is transmitted). The Nokia 9000i and the Ericsson I 888 both operate on a type of TDMA system called the GSM (global system mobile), in which all your identifying and service information is stored on a tiny SIM (subscriber identity module) card that you can take out and use in any other GSM phone.

It turned out that Omnipoint Communications was the only GSM provider in my area, and a senior sales associate there set me up with an SIM card and gave me a quick tutorial on both phones. The sales associate had been using the Nokia himself, which made his advice particularly welcome; he was also tremendously helpful when I called him with questions about using the phone (such as how to stop getting cookies when visiting Web pages).

The key lesson in all this: Any time you're trying out something new, work with sales reps who've used the devices themselves.

So now I had two cell phones, one SIM card, and a trip to Hawaii to plan. I read over the start-up guides for both phones to see if there was anything I'd need. The Ericsson I 888 -- which weighs only 6.3 ounces and is 5.2 inches long, 1.9 inches wide, and less than an inch thick (think of it as an airy hunk of goat cheese) -- comes with a built-in infrared modem. If your laptop has an infrared port, says the guide, you're all set to use the phone as a modem with your laptop. But if you're like me and your laptop doesn't have an infrared port, you'll need something called an RS-232 cable. Funny thing is, although the phone comes with all sorts of cords and plugs that enable you to recharge it in different countries (one of its selling points is its transatlantic capabilities), the RS-232 is not in the box of goodies. Yes, you can buy an infrared adapter for your laptop, to the tune of $57.95. But darned if I was going to make up for Ericsson's omission.

Instead I went to the Ericsson Web site to search for the RS-232. No luck. So I E-mailed the Ericsson folks in Miami. First they suggested that I go to the Web site. I reported back that I'd already done that, and a week later I received a message promising that a free cable was on its way. Mind you, the cable would not be the RS-232 but "virtually the identical product." Well, a mobile data cable did arrive, but in order for it to work, the accompanying instructions said, I'd need an Ericsson mobile-data modem card to put into my machine for the cable to plug into. Yeah, right.