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This is usually the time of year when gadget news, like school, takes a summer break. Come fall, the gadget hype returns in anticipation of the coming holiday shopping season.


Not this year.


The hype for Apple Inc.‘s iPhone, which hits shelves on June 29, has been building since the start of the year, and now, thanks to the commercials that have started to air, has hit overdrive.


“It’s way out of line with reality,” technology analyst Rob Enderle said of the iPhone hoopla. “This is a generation-one device for Apple. It’s a lot different than with their first MP3 player (the 5-gigabyte iPod), where they kind of eased into the market.”


Since Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs announced the iPhone in January, it has been one of the most anticipated consumer-device releases in recent history. And when the iPhone goes on sale, expect long lines and sellouts as trendy techies rush to be the first on the block to have one.


But priced at $499 and $599, it will be “five times the cost” of many other smart phones, said Enderle, president of The Enderle Group in California.


Overall, a typical U.S. phone user in 2006 paid $94 for a mobile phone, according to a J.D. Power survey released in May.


Add to this that industry competition is fierce, and those looking for a smart, sleek, feature-rich phone can choose from lots of options in a range of prices. In fact, phonemakers and wireless carriers such as Nokia, T-Mobile and SprintNextel are getting wise to the iPod hype and have stepped up the promotion of buzzworthy models such as the N95, Wing and UpStage.


I tested these three cool-looking phones with the goal of seeing how smartly they performed when it came to getting tunes and e-mail from the gadgets to the computer. My question: Ease of use made the iPod a great product. Do today’s phones match that?


The answer: Primarily, yes. But there’s room for improvement. Here’s a look:


At the high end, the Nokia N95 is $750, more expensive than the $600 that Apple wants for its 8-gb iPhone. Both prices are absurd, but when it comes to the N95, I wouldn’t fault anyone willing to pay.


One reason for the price - it’s not sold through a carrier. Interested buyers must get the N95 directly through Nokia (www.nseries.com, Nokia stores) or an independent phone retailer.


The N95 doesn’t really look like a phone. If you saw somebody holding it, you might think it was a digital camera.


On the front, it has a 2.6-inch screen (the iPhone will have a 3.5-inch screen), great for framing and viewing photos and videos. Below the screen sits a four-way navigation pad with menu buttons on either side.


The back houses a 5-megapixel camera with Carl Zeiss-made optics. (The iPhone comes with a disappointing 2-megapixel camera.)


Without doubt, the N95 produced the best images I’ve ever made from a phone. The pictures were on par with a standard point-and-shoot digital camera, and the videos were crisp and colorful. I made frameworthy 4-by-6-inch prints, and the videos reside on a Hewlett-Packard laptop for future use.


More impressive, the music I transferred onto the N95 from my laptop sounds better, honest, than my iPod. I transferred 115 songs, which took about 20 minutes, and I have space left for several hundred more with the 2 gb storage card I was using.


This phone is a multimedia powerhouse, a gadget lover’s delight.


If there was one disappointment, it was that the Nokia software didn’t work as well with Microsoft’s new Vista operating system as the other two phones reviewed here. The Nokia software couldn’t find the music stored on the computer, even though the Windows Media Player recognized the phone as a music player. I was able to transfer songs into the phone that way.


Hence, Nokia didn’t pass the ease-of-use test Apple made famous. But this would not be a reason to pass on this phone. My workaround was not hard to figure out.


Another great feature is the built-in Wi-Fi. The phone recognized the wireless network I have at home and the one I used in a coffee shop.


Also, the N95 includes built-in GPS navigation, a feature I plan on testing further, and applications for Google’s Gmail and YouTube services that work better for phones than the Web versions of these products.


Frankly, the more I used the phone, the more functionality I discovered.


That’s the same feeling I had while using the new T-Mobile Wing, priced at $299 with a two-year contract. This phone is a continuation of the carrier’s proprietary line of smart phones, first made famous by the Sidekick and followed by last year’s Dash.


The Dash was among the first phones to include Wi-Fi access, and T-Mobile continues that on the Wing. This is a true smart phone, complete with a Qwerty keyboard that cleverly slides out from under the phone or a keypad you can access by tapping the screen, much like a Palm device.


This is the first phone to use Windows Mobile 6, the upgraded operating system found on most smart phones that aren’t BlackBerries. Like Palm Treos, the Wing uses a stylus for navigation. This is an improvement over other Windows Mobile devices because it addresses some of the criticism that Windows Mobile required too many steps to use. Navigation is improved.


For a smart phone, this is also a fine multimedia device. It has a 2-megapixel camera and a 2.8-inch screen that can change its orientation, like the N95, depending on if you hold it horizontally or vertically. You can shoot videos and take pictures, but the imaging doesn’t blow the competition out of the water as the N95 does.


The phone really shines with its integration with Vista. Plugged into that HP laptop, the Wing was quickly recognized, and I clicked over to the Windows Media Player to move songs into the mobile version of the Windows player on the Wing.


The software told me exactly how much space I had left for music after each song transferred. Navigation was simple and easy for any mobile music novice to figure out. The sound quality was good, on par with an iPod.


The media player on the Wing was the best of all three phones reviewed here, so it easily passed the iPod ease-of-use test, an impressive feat for a device designed primarily for messaging, not media.


Finally, at the low end of the price spectrum, we have the Samsung UpStage, sold exclusively by Sprint. This stylish phone, which is barely longer than the iPod Nano, is priced at a friendly $99 with a two-year contract.


It is actually a dual-sided phone, with one side dedicated to playing music and the other for making calls. The UpStage includes a 1.3-megapixel camera, a 2.1-inch screen (on the music side) and can be used to watch Sprint’s mobile television service. For the price, this is a remarkable device.


The two-sided design is striking, but I did have some problems with the touch controls used to navigate the music player. I found them too sensitive, but I think that’s a minor complaint.


It is the only phone of the three with access to an online music store, where I could buy and download songs to the phone for 99 cents. Once I plugged the phone into the laptop, I could transfer songs bought with the phone onto the computer.


Transferring music onto the phone was relatively easy - not as simple as with the Wing but better than the far-pricier N95. I loaded the Sprint music software on the HP laptop and was impressed at how sophisticated yet simple it was. The music software resembled Windows Media Player but was as easy to understand as iTunes.


The Sprint software scanned the music on the computer and within seconds filled with the 172 songs on the computer. (Hey, it’s new.)


It passed the ease-of-use test, but there were two drawbacks.


First, the phone comes with a paltry 64-mb card, so you need to buy a bigger card. I could transfer only about 20 songs.


Second, the sound was tinny, not nearly as rich as the N95. Still, for the price, this is a phone that should have lots of appeal for people who want mobile music on a stylish, affordable phone.


I would recommend each of the phones reviewed here. And while you may have iPhone-envy - that remains to be seen - you’ll be carrying a gadget others will covet.

Tagged as: apple | iphone | steve jobs
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