New services make cell phone use even easier

There was a point when watching someone snap a picture with his or her cell phone left bystanders wide-eyed and agog. Times have changed, and the consumer market is getting pickier. Cell phones double as camcorders, Palm Pilots, personal navigators, and mp3 players. They provide users with convenience, entertainment, security.

Cell phones give a lot, but expect quite a bit in return. Monthly

service bills at $50 without tax can take quite a blow on any wallet. So it's nice to know that there are a few embellishments out there for cell phones that are still free. Here is a rundown of some of the newest.

Free Directory Assistance is the new 411. Instead of tacking an extra $1.50 onto the bill with a call to 411, anyone can get the same directory assistance with a call to 800-FREE-411. A computer or a human will look up a number for free, after playing a 20-second ad.

If sacrificing time for money is an issue, Google offers a similar free service. With a simple text message to the number 46645 (G-O-O-G-L), Google will find a person's address and phone number. In the body of the message, just type what is needed: "Smith 10980" or "Pizza 14454" and a reply message with the listing will quickly appear.

Google's text messaging services can help with much more than phone numbers. Google can deliver the weather (text "weather geneseo" or "weather 14454"), stock quotes (text "goog"), movie times and locations, definitions, unit conversions, currency conversions, and even driving directions.

Google can rarely fit all of its information into one text message, so be prepared to receive anywhere from two to six messages, with driving directions spanning over eight or nine messages. It's helpful to have a good text messaging plan for this service.

By calling 800-555-TELL, one can find what Google provides via a recording. The cheerful voice goads users to say things like "Travel," "News Center", "Stock Quotes" and so on. The system knows where phone calls come from, so it will reply with automatically location-customized results.

Banish calling cards, never-ending access codes, and dubious-looking international calling companies with free international calling. With a single call to an access number in Iowa (712-858-8883), one can place a call to any of 50 countries and talk for as long as necessary. Nearly all cell phone companies have national coverage, meaning that the call to Iowa will cost only airtime with no extra fees for long distance. Calling during nights and weekends is free. There is nothing to sign up for.

If free international calling sounds too good to be true, there are a few glitches. In some countries, only land lines, not cell phones, are accessible. And because the company's lines are often in great demand, it's somewhat luck of the draw whether the call will be placed or not.

Pinger is a new company that allows users to send a free voice message, called a "ping," to someone without calling them. This is useful because sending someone a ping combines the quickness of text messaging with the personalization of voice mails, allowing users to leave a message without causing the phone to ring. It's especially useful for those who want to leave a voice message, but don't want to risk a 20-minute conversation. Pinger also saves users the excruciatingly long roll over to voice mail and the annoying instructions on how to leave a message.

After signing up at www.pinger.com, users simply call one of Pinger's access numbers and say the name of the person they want to reach. The recipient receives a text message saying that he or she has a voice mail and can listen to it with the push of a button.

Pinger is free until January, but even then users will receive 10 to 20 free messages, and messages above that would only cost a few cents a piece.

Youmail.com allows users to customize outgoing messages to each contact. After signing up at the Web site, instructions tell users how to reprogram their phone - completely replacing the cell phone carrier's voice mail service with Youmail.

Sprint users be wary, however, because Sprint charges for "conditional forwarding," a feature that Youmail uses. But overall, Youmail is a great way to avoid hearing "…When you're finished recording, you may hang up, or press one for more options" for the millionth time.

Information for this article was taken from a Nov. 23 article in The New York Times.