If you or someone you love carries a Nextel mobile phone, you know the chirp. For years Nextel has been the only national carrier with "push to talk" service. Rather than place calls and having to dial all those numbers, users can chat with each other walkie-talkie style, coast to coast. To initiate a conversation, you press a button on the side of your phone, which sends an attention-getting chirp to your buddy's phone. In recent weeks, Sprint PCS and Verizon Wireless have introduced their own push-to-talk phones.
Even though Nextel developed push to talk for business use, it's the off-peak appeal that makes it hot. People are using it at supermarkets and ski lodges, anywhere that a short burst of chatter from a speaker works better than a drawn-out conversation, phone to ear. You can even talk in a group, like a voice chat room.
Each carrier's system is different, and there's no operability between them. In our tests, Nextel's Direct Connect started up more quickly and relayed messages faster than the two newcomers. Though measured in split seconds, the lags between bursts of talk can make a conversation feel painfully slow. Nextel's 10 push-to-talk phones include a BlackBerry PDA ($350) and the new Motorola i730 ($300), which is chunky but sports a 65,000-color screen and a great-sounding speakerphone.
Aiming its Ready Link push-to-talk service at Generation Y, Sprint has launched three Sanyo handsets, including the rugged RL2000 ($300) and the video-camera-equipped VM4500 ($380). Playing Cyclops to Sprint's Wolverine, Verizon put out the conservative Motorola V60p ($150), a modified two-year-old executive model with a tiny black-and-white screen.
Sprint and Verizon have improved on Nextel's design in at least one way. Both separate push-to-talk contacts from regular phone-book entries. To start a chat on Nextel's service, you need to sort through your phone book until you find your push-to-talk buddy. With Sprint and Verizon, a tap of the side talk button brings up your push-to-talk buddies and groups.
Neither Sprint nor Verizon did anything to improve on the chirp itself. You'd think that in the age of the ring tone you could download a new chirp, anything from a cat's meow to a foghorn, but both carriers leave you with a single, annoying alert. Your only alternative is "privacy mode." Every phone tested could vibrate instead of chirp and route sound to your ear instead of a speaker.
Truckers have long known that brevity is the soul of radio jabber. With push to talk, you'll find yourself ditching full thoughts for choppy exclamations that you fire off then await reply. Push to talk could be a welcome shove toward succinctness in phone chatter.