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Walkie-talkie phones: efficient, but annoying

Published Aug. 27, 2005

The world is about to get a whole lot noisier.

If you find cell phone gabbers annoying _ the type who spill out their side of a phone call loudly enough for anyone within 15 feet to hear _ then get ready for widespread distribution of a type of phone that could be your worst nightmare: walkie-talkie phones. Instead of hearing just one person's side of the conversation, these phones let you hear both participants as they shout back and forth on built-in speaker phones at volumes that can't be ignored.

Sprint and Verizon have started rolling out these devices. They are cell phones, but in addition to the ability to make wireless calls, they have a large button on one side of the phone that, when pressed, can immediately open a line of communication with another phone. In this walkie-talkie mode, the normal practice is to hold the phone away from your mouth, broadcasting what is essentially a speakerphone call.

For years, the small cell phone carrier Nextel has sold such phones to businesses for use by truck drivers, construction crews and other groups of employees who needed to stay in touch quickly and easily, even having group conversations. Now, Verizon and Sprint, with their much larger reach among general consumers, are pushing the walkie-talkies, too.

My assistant Katie Boehret and I have been testing walkie-talkie phones from Nextel, Sprint and Verizon so that we could try to understand how they tick. The experience is something like instant messaging on a computer _ you don't have to fuss with the formalities of polite conversation such as greetings, goodbyes and other niceties. Instead, you simply connect to another phone, ask a question and get back to work. That can be handy.

But as we found out, this type of communication is also just another way for the rest of the world to interrupt your personal life, with even more immediacy than a regular phone call. Now, instead of receiving a call that you can choose not to answer, these walkie-talkie phones allow an actual voice to call out from your phone, "Walt, it's me, are you there?"

Each phone company has a different term for this form of communicating. Sprint calls it PCS Ready Link, Verizon calls it Push to Talk, and Nextel uses the term Direct Connect. You can connect only with others who have capable phones and use the same service as you.

Nextel naturally has more of these phones to choose from. We found nine different Direct Connect-capable devices on the Nextel Web site and tested one of the newest models, the $299 Motorola i730 color-screen flip phone.

Neither Sprint nor Verizon has as many phones to offer as Nextel. Sprint sells three and Verizon sells only one. Katie and I each used a different Sprint phone; each costs $299. I took the Sanyo RL 2500, a silver flip phone with a color screen, while Katie used the chunky, blue Sanyo RL 2000, which is a candy bar (nonflip) style phone that also has a color screen. We each also tested Verizon's Push to Talk phone, the $199.99 Motorola V60p, which is a monochrome flip phone.

Using each phone, Katie and I connected back and forth, with interesting results. The Nextels had the fastest connection, with only about a second of latency, or time passed between when I pressed the side button to speak and when Katie heard what I said. Verizon was a few seconds slower, and Sprint seemed about the same as Verizon, if not a bit more delayed.

The process of connecting was simple. We selected a name from the phone's address book, and then briefly hit the large circular button on the left of the phone, which sends a short chirp that alerts the other person of your connection request. If you want to be really rude, you can just press and hold down the button and start speaking without first alerting the other party.

These conversations are a throwback to the military-style walkie-talkie world. Only one person can speak at a time, and you have to remember to hold down the talk button when you want the floor. This can get confusing, though Sprint's system helpfully reminds you on the screen when you have the floor and when you don't.

Overall, these walkie-talkies made for brusque, impersonal conversations. And that's on top of the other big problem: In public places, they can expose your conversation to everyone around you and intrude on other people who may not appreciate hearing you and your caller. The phones have a function that cuts off the speakerphone aspect, but in our experience, few people use it.

Another problem: Even when regular cell phone service is available, the walkie-talkie service, which is separate, may not be. On more than one occasion, the Verizon phone that we used showed a message telling us that the Push to Talk network was unavailable.

One of the major differences among the three services is related to group chatting, or how many people you can talk with simultaneously. Nextel's original network was created to establish communication among large groups of people, such as those on a construction site, and so they allow for three to 25 people to chat at once.

Nextel places the participants into what they call a Talkgroup, using each participant's Direct Connect number. These numbers are 10- to 12-digit codes that each contain two asterisks and are used instead of a person's cell phone number.

Verizon and Sprint, on the other hand, stick to the same cell phone numbers for calling and instantly connecting, which is simpler. Verizon allows up to 20 people to talk together, but Sprint allows for only five.

Another important difference between Nextel and the others is that while Verizon and Sprint allow nationwide group talking, Nextel allows group talking only within your local area.

If you have a business purpose or other special reason for using one of these phones, we like Nextel. But for regular conversations, this type of device is impractical and just too rude to use, especially in public.

_ Wall Street Journal reporter Katherine Boehret contributed to this report.