CALL ME an old fogey, but when the first cell phones with built-in digital cameras came out, I asked, "Why would anyone want one of those?" And so, I ignored them, figuring they'd be a flash in the pan.
Well, the flash is still pretty hot. Thanks to a new generation of handsets with cameras, color screens, text messaging, Web browsing and other goodies, worldwide cell phone shipments grew by 19 percent in the second quarter of 2003, according to IDC, a market analysis firm.
Wireless carriers have great hopes for these phones, since they plan to generate extra revenue from picture sharing, text messaging, games and Web information.
Their target market, of course, is about 35 years younger than I am. But I still enjoyed a couple of weeks with one of these gadgets - a VX6000 from Verizon Wireless. Everyone who helped by posing for pictures enjoyed it, too. Just don't expect it to replace a real digital camera, or you'll be disappointed. Think of it as a phone with some visual buzz.
The VX6000 is made by LG Mobile, a Korean manufacturer that produces bargain phones for a variety of cellular carriers. That might account for its relatively low price ($150 after a $50 rebate). Given its full set of messaging, Web browsing, PDA and gaming features, this would be a good phone even without the camera.
That's a good thing, because even kids are likely to grow tired of the feature after a while.
From the outside, the VX6000 looks like a standard silver flip phone, with a colorful, exterior LED display that has enough flashing lights to keep even the Trekkies happy. At the edge of the cover is a tiny camera lens, positioned so it points away when you flip the top and hold the phone in front of you.
In addition to the standard numeric keypad, there's a dedicated camera key, which accesses all photographic functions, a four-way rocker at the top for thumbing through endless menus, and two keys on either side that change context when you're phoning, photographing, messaging or Web browsing.
The placement of those keys was my biggest complaint - they're too small and close together for my fingers so I frequently found myself accessing the wrong menu.
The 1.8-inch color screen was sharp and bright indoors, but faded in sunlight - if you're outdoors, look for shade.
Pushing the camera button takes you to the photo menu, from which you can shoot pictures, display up to 20 stored shots, and send your photos to friends. To take a picture, all you have to do is center your subject on the screen and push a button labeled OK.
The quality of the photos can be charitably described as "soft." OK, downright fuzzy, even at the highest quality setting (which decreases storage capacity). With no flash, indoor shots tend to be dim, too.
The camera's maximum 640x 480-pixel resolution produces images suitable for e-mail and Web browsing, but not quality printing. Still, everyone I snapped was recognizable and enjoyed the photos I sent them.
Once you've snapped a photo, you can send it directly to someone with another VX6000 and annotate it with a voice and text message. Unfortunately, you can't send pictures to other carriers' phone cams (a problem the industry ought to fix). However, sending to a non-phone cam will deposit a message on the recipient's voice mail, directing him to a Web page.
My phone required 45 to 90 seconds to transmit a picture, depending on the time of day.
You also can transmit the photo to anyone with an e-mail address, or post on Verizon's new picture Web site. There you can create albums and invite others to view them - although storage is limited to a stingy 20 shots at maximum image size.
A beep will alert you when a photo is sent to your phone.
All of this worked without a serious hiccup. Verizon may have been the last carrier to enter the phone cam market, but it used the time wisely.
Naturally, Verizon expects to make money with this service. The cheapest monthly plan is $39.95, which provides 400 "anytime" minutes, unlimited night and weekend minutes, and 1,000 mobile-to-mobile minutes.
Although you can buy them separately for $2.99 each, a combo photo and messaging package costs an extra $4.99 a month, which gets you unlimited photo and text messages until Jan. 1. After that, it buys 20 photo transmissions and 100 text messages a month. Additional or a la carte photos (without a plan) are 25 cents and text messages are a dime each.
You'll also use airtime when you send or receive photos, but not text messages. The bottom line: For 60 bucks a year, you can get mobile, short message service and entertain yourself and your friends with pictures.
In other areas, the VX6000 performed well. Text messaging was easy and straightforward. Just remember that entering text into messages and contact lists from a 10-key numeric pad is a pain with any phone. If you're primarily interested in messaging and e-mail, you might want to buy a pager-oriented phone with a tiny typewriter-style keyboard, or a device based on a Palm Pilot or Windows PDA. Unfortunately, PDA-phones are considerably larger than sleek cell units.
For another $4.99 a month, you can subscribe to Verizon's MobileWeb service, affiliated with Microsoft's MSN portal. Frankly, browsing on a 2-inch screen is hardly worth the effort, but if you really need headlines, stock quotes or the name of a restaurant, it's available.
If that isn't enough, you can entertain yourself by downloading games, ring tones and other goodies - all for a slight additional charge. That brings me to another gripe - all 31 built-in ring tones are annoying (even my son agreed). I don't want Ode to Joy. I don't want a polka or a mazurka. Just a simple breep-breep. Come on - give us conservative old guys something!
Still, all things considered, the VX6000 is a neat gadget - great for kids who want to snap their friends and private eyes who want to click on the sly.
Yes, it's easy to criticize the camera. But a colleague at work who sat smiling at a picture of herself that I'd snapped a few minutes before thought I was nuts for complaining.
"Hey, this isn't bad," she said. "You've gotta remember that you took it with a phone."