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Smart Buying

Cell Phone Flicks

Entertainment that's packed into a tiny package.

The cell phone is rapidly evolving into a portable entertainment center. You can now watch more than 30 TV channels -- including CNN, Cartoon Network and ESPN -- depending on your plan. Many phones are also iPod-style players that let you download and listen to tunes anytime, anyplace. Games? Absolutely, and with three-dimensional, high-definition graphics.

Naturally, this amusement isn't free. A Sprint video package with live shows and clips from ABC News Now, Fashion TV, Fox Sports and other channels costs $4.95 a month. Verizon Wireless charges $15 a month for its V Cast VPak, a video service with news, weather, sports and entertainment clips from NBC, CBS and VH1. Music and games cost extra, too. You'll pay $1.99 to download a song using your Verizon phone; Sprint charges $2.50. Games such as Madden 06 3D and Tony Hawk PS 3D cost Verizon users $2.50 a month or more.

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Both Sprint and Verizon estimate that their high-speed services reach about half the U.S. population. Cingular's nascent Cingular Video service is available in just 16 markets, including Boston, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. (but not Los Angeles and New York City). And T-Mobile won't launch its high-speed network until next year.

Currently, Sprint's Power Vision service is the best buy because Sprint offers the broadest mix of video and audio content. For example, a plan that delivers live TV and streams 21 channels of Sirius satellite radio is $6.95 a month. By contrast, Verizon and Cingular offer only repackaged video clips.

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Best phones

Multimedia-ready phones aren't expensive, as long as you're willing to ink a two-year contract with a cellular provider. Our favorite is the Samsung MM-A920. It lists for $350 but costs $119 with a two-year Sprint contract, which starts at about $30 per month. The flip-top A920 is just an inch thick and weighs 3.8 ounces. Its brilliant and colorful 2-inch-diagonal display does justice to Sprint's live TV and video clips, although image quality varies. Other A920 features include an integrated MP3 player with toggle controls on the outside of the case (handy for playing music while the phone is closed), a 1.3-megapixel digital camera and Bluetooth for connecting with a wireless headset.

If you are addicted to e-mail and text messaging, the LG VX9800, also known as The V in Verizon stores, is a good choice. This chunky handset has a miniature keyboard with proper key spacing for hunt-and-peck typists. Its internal screen, slightly larger than 2 inches, is sharp and colorful, and it's flanked by a pair of tiny speakers that deliver good-quality, if occasionally scratchy, audio. One gripe: The LG phone would occasionally pause a video clip while retrieving more data. The V also plays and stores MP3 files, and it includes a 1.3-megapixel camera. It's priced online at $150 with a two-year Verizon plan or $200 with a one-year deal.