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Services on your Cell Phone

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E-Mail

While the text messaging discussed above is actually a form of e-mail, most cell phones will also let you send and receive e-mails from web-based providers such as AOL Mail, MSN Hotmail, and Yahoo! Mail. Most PDA devices will let you retrieve POP3 e-mail (e.g., Microsoft Outlook/Outlook Express).

Information Services

The information services category includes Internet access and downloads of things such as sports scores, stock quotes, games, weather, movie times, horoscopes, television programming, and more. Keep in mind that data speeds and available content vary widely, not only across carriers, but also with the same carrier in different locations or with different phones. Most carriers are in the process of upgrading their networks for faster speeds, but it will be awhile before these faster speeds are universally available.

Removable Memory If you plan on using your phone for storage-intensive activities, such as music or videos, look for a phone that has a slot for removable memory. There are several card types. Some cell phones can now support over one gigabyte of expanded memory.

Cell Phone Games

Some phones come with installed games, and many more can be purchased, either from your carrier or a third party. Companies like Electronic Arts (formerly Jamdat) offer a full library of games designed for mobile phones. As with other data services, your phone and carrier will dictate which games are available to you.

Music

Many phones now have an integrated MP3 player that will allow you to download and play music on your phone. Many of these phones are designed so that the music will pause when a call comes in, and begin again from that spot after the call ends.

Downloaded music is a complex topic, as the carriers, in an effort to grab a piece of the huge market, have created a maze of restrictions. For example, your carrier may only allow you to purchase and download music from their proprietary music store. In another example, phones that are compatible with iTunes are currently limited to 100 songs.

In addition to downloadable music, some carriers offer the ability to listen to streaming music. A small number of phones, mostly from Nokia, offer a built-in FM radio.

Ringtones and Ringbacks

Ringtones are short snippets of sound that people often use to personalize their ring, or to create a distinctive ring for certain callers. A ringback is a sound file that those calling you hear while waiting for you to pick up. It replaces the phone “rings” one normally hears when calling someone. As with ringtones, different ringbacks can be assigned to different people on your contact list, enabling you to customize what your friends will hear when they call you.

Define 'Free,' Please

There are plenty of third-party sites from which ringtones can be purchased and downloaded to a phone. Often these sites offer a “free” ringtone as an inducement. You access your free tone by entering your cell number on their site, and agreeing to the terms. But be careful. Often hidden in these terms is the fact that you are agreeing to an ongoing subscription for ringtones. You may be completely unaware of this until you get a charge of up to $10 on your next cell phone bill.

We're not saying these ringtone sites don't have a good product and that you shouldn't buy from them — just be aware of what you are agreeing to when you sign up.