In this review, I will examine Verizon Wireless’ CDMA cellular service in the New York City area (your local Verizon service plans may vary from what you read here) and the Motorola StarTAC 7868W. Before I get into the guts of a review that includes swapping out three Motorola StarTAC 7868Ws in less than 24 hours, let me provide a little of my “cellular background” so you’ll know where I’m coming from in evaluating these services and products. These introductory comments will frame the pearls to be divined later. In order to keep this review relevant and evergreen, I will continually update it with results – both good and bad – of my ongoing relationship with Verizon Wireless.

Even though this review is over 10,600 words and wide-ranging as to scope and variety of experience, I will still evaluate Verizon Wireless and the Motorola StarTAC 7868W with a single rating of GO INSIDE Magazine Review Lights. Your cell phone and service provider come together to form a gang of one and it is that singular sensation that will warped and woofed together to determine the final score of this review despite the allure of creating 10 mini-reviews.

MCSI & NYNEX Mobile
I have owned three cellular phones in my lifetime. The first phone was a black analogue Motorola phone purchased directly from Motorola Cellular Service Incorporated (MCSI) 10 years ago. I lived in New York City, so the cellular footprint for making and receiving calls was pretty good everywhere.

You may remember those “direct from Motorola” phones cost $1,000 and you purchased a cellular contract directly from Motorola. One nice thing about purchasing your phone and cellular plan from Motorola was that you got a black phone (resellers could only offer you a gunsmoke version at that time) and you could switch calling plans as often as you desired without penalty. If you had a black Motorola phone, you were not only a hepcat of a Telecommunications Giant, but you let the world know you had money to burn on the style of life. NYNEX was my carrier at the time. The quality of the analogue system was not great. Static and noise permeated every conversation even if you were standing still on the street.

When I expressed an interest in digital over analogue, I was told by MCSI that NYNEX had great plans to become a CDMA digital service provider, but that it would be several years before that plan would be implemented. I loved the phone even though the first one they sent burned my fingers and ear and made my eye throb. My knuckles were sore. My hand peeled for a week. The replacement phone was a dandy and delivered by hand directly to me (so MCSI could take and destroy the phone that burned me) and I used it for a year without any further trouble. When my contract was up in a year, I sold the phone. $39 a month for 30 minutes of airtime was just too much to pay.

Cellular One
I waited a year before I purchased my next cell phone. Having a cellular phone was a great way for a freelance writer to stay constantly in touch with editors and agents seeking work and input. I was no longer interested in purchasing a phone from MCSI since I didn’t need to buy my way into a phony lifestyle that no longer interested me. I decided to try the new TDMA digital service that was available from what was then Cellular One.

I was sold the very first Nokia digital phone for around $200. The phone was heavier than a brick. The digital signal was pretty awful. I did not like the “digital whistle” that punctuated all calls when I spoke. At that time, the reason you went digital was for security reasons, not sound quality. Many folks did (and still do!) listen in on analogue cellular calls with a scanner even though it is illegal to do so. You may remember Newt Gingerich had an analogue call tape recorded by a couple with a scanner. The couple was prosecuted, but that doesn’t erase the damage done to Newt when — what he thought was a private conversation — was aired in the public media.

Digital cellular service was a convenient way to scramble conversations from prying ears. Cellular One’s service was okay. I didn’t have any fast busy signals or dropped calls and I seamlessly Roamed (but paid huge Roaming fees) into Canada. After my year contract expired, I dropped the service and threw away the phone. I didn’t want to wish on anyone that horrible digital whistle. $34.95 for 30 minutes of airtime was just too much money for too little time for the quality expected and delivered.

MCSI & NYNEX Mobile Revisited
A couple of years later, I decided to re-up with MCSI because a friend of mine there was able to get me a black (still a status symbol at that time in the cellular community), analogue, StarTAC (the last model made with the red LED display) with a built-in answering machine for half price! Instead of paying $1,000 for the phone, he could get it for me for $450. The catch was that these phones had been used in the Buick Open as a promotional item. Since Motorola was a huge sponsor of that event, they set aside 100 phones for the players and their families to use during the tournament.

When the event was over, the “used” phones were returned to MCSI and were sold at a deep discount. My rep told me 80% of the phones were never taken out of the box. The phones also had “The Buick Open” in gold burned into the earpiece part of the phone. My rep said that special imprint could be valued by collectors. Tiger Woods got his first big professional win at that Buick Open, so, my Rep reasoned, the collectibles factor of the phone increased if I ever wanted to sell the phone. Against the wishes of my better Angels, I went with NYNEX’s analogue system again because digital service in New York City was not yet up to par. I loved the phone and its built-in answering machine.

The sound quality was quite good for analogue, but I always held contract and business negotiations on a landline phone: I knew too many people who still made their hobby listening in on analogue cellular conversations. I used the phone for a year and confessed to myself that $29 a month for 30 minutes of informal chatting on a non-secure analogue cellular phone was simply silly since the main reason I wanted a cellular phone was to do business away from a hardwire phone while roaming the streets of New York City! I subsequently sold the phone on Ebay for $650 to a cellular phone collector (they really do exist!) who also happened to be a Tiger Woods fanatic. Making a $200 profit on a year old analogue phone was lovely.

Verizon Wireless or AT&T?
It had been several years since my last cellular phone purchase. MCSI was a dead dog in the “buy this black phone directly from us for $1,000” business and that’s a good thing. Why not let everyone have a black Motorola phone if it means widespread pride and happiness at a reasonable price?

I recently did some heavy duty research into the cellular options here in the Bronx area. Sprint PCS had a horrible reputation for fast busy signals and voice quality. AT&T was generally despised because of dropped calls and their use of the antiquated TDMA digital cellular technology. Verizon Wireless (formerly Bell Atlantic/NYNEX) had excellent word-of-mouth on the street and in the Internet newsgroups. Folks, friends and associates liked Verizon’s high quality CDMA digital system and they enjoyed Verizon’s high rate of completed calls and on-demand dialing ability even though Verizon Wireless wasn’t the cheapest rate plan provider.

Verizon Wireless was also offering web access and email from their line of tri-mode phones. I wanted a tri-mode phone because it meant I could go anywhere in the nation and be able to place a call since a tri-mode phone can do CDMA at 800MHz and 1900MHz as well as doing analogue. With a tri-mode phone, you don’t have to worry about analogue or digital or any other cellular protocol because the phone takes care of choosing which system to use when making or receiving a call.

I also wanted a nationwide plan with no roaming charges or long distance fees. Verizon offered a slew of interesting calling plans at terrific prices. I wasn’t wholly convinced, however, that Verizon was the right choice for me after AT&T announced PocketNet. PocketNet was offered free to all their digital subscribers with web capable phones and that meant you were fed all you can eat basic web access via your phone for free! For a few extra dollars, you could get email on your phone and for a few dollars above that, AT&T offered organizational tools like a calendar and to-do list accessed from your phone.

I wanted to wait a few more months until the Verizon merger deal was wholly done: Verizon Wireless consists of what used to be Bell Atlantic Mobile, Airtouch Cellular, PrimeCo and GTE. Verizon Wireless is large, growing and a future powerhouse but I wanted to make sure all the seams were seamless before I took the plunge and cast my bet with Verizon Wireless. AT&T obviously felt Verizon Wireless was a big threat since they created PocketNet to lure those away from Verizon Wireless’ superior technological digital CDMA edge. Was Verizon ready for prime time? I wanted to find out. I also wanted to find out if Verizon Wireless offered free web access on their line of tri-mode phones. On a whim, seeking information only, I picked up the phone and dialed Verizon Wireless.

Andre, The Wireless Giant
Andre at Verizon Wireless Inside Sales answered my call. I started my conversation by asking if Verizon Wireless offered a similar unlimited free web deal from your phone like AT&T’s PocketNet. Andre took the cusp of what I was seeking and ran with the opportunity to sell me on Verizon Wireless. Yes, he said, Verizon Wireless offered web access via phone, but at the present time it was not free and you also had to pay per minute to use the service. I could have the wireless web via PHONE.COM and the ability to send and receive email via my phone using CELLSCAPE.COM as my address. The monthly cost for phone web and email was $9.99. That $9.99 fee provided me everything AT&T offered for $14.99 but web browsing was still charged at the per minute airtime rate.

I asked why Verizon Wireless charged a per-minute fee for basic Web surfing while AT&T didn’t. Andre didn’t have an answer. He did go on to say that Verizon Wireless’ web implementation was better than AT&T’s because AT&T used older browser technology and that Verizon’s CDMA technology was vastly superior overall to AT&T’s TDMA service. I knew Verizon was growing and that, as Bell Atlantic Mobile, they’d won several award for their service and cellular system. Andre was being honest and upfront with me and I appreciated that take. He wasn’t playing me.

I asked Andre for prices on the nationwide cellular plans. He suggested a Qualcomm 860 tri-mode phone. I’d hear horrible stories from other folks about the build quality and bad ROMs on that particular phone. I told Andre I didn’t want the Qualcomm phone and I gave him my reasons why. Andre didn’t fight me. He moved on to suggest the Motorola StarTAC 7868W. I told him I liked that phone a lot based on my extensive research. He told me he’d knock $30 off the price of the phone and give me an additional $30 mail-in rebate. That dropped the price of the phone from around $250 to somewhere near $190. That’s a good deal for that phone. Purchasing that phone without a cellular service contract costs around $500.

Uncut Again
I wasn’t planning on purchasing a phone or service from Andre, but the ability to basically cut the landline for my main means of communication and jump to a cell phone only was too keen to pass up. The nationwide SingleRate plans were superb and beat the pants off the previous $29 dollars for 30 minute deals I’d been used to paying.

Andre offered to waive the $25 activation fee for a one year contract (only a two year contract has no activation fee). I knew Verizon (when it was formerly Bell Atlantic/NYNEX) lived on two year contracts while the rest of the industry strutted around on single year deals. Shorter is better when you sign a cellular service contract because you don’t want to be stuck with a service that isn’t serving you. Having to pay a contract cancellation fee of anywhere between $130-$175 dollars for getting rid of your service provider early made the one year offer with free activation appealing.

We talked about various price plans. Andre reminded me shipping and handling via FedEx was free. Andre said if we did the deal right then, I’d have the phone in my hand by Monday (it was Thursday). I bit! I wasn’t planning on making a purchase, but I liked Andre. I liked his style. I felt like he was interested in me and my desire to get a nationwide plan with no roaming or long distance charges.

Andre set me up on the 400 minute SingleRate Plan for $55 (I actually wanted the SingleRate 600 plan for $75, but I was able to fix that myself later) and the web and email setup for $9.99. I also ordered the SpeakEasy over-the-ear headset and tiny boom mic ($25) from him as well as the Motorola Easy Install hands free car kit ($65) and the Andrew desktop speakerphone ($99). Andre knocked off more than 20% off the price of the accessories quoted here.

Phone #1 – Judgment Day
Monday at 1:30 pm, my phone arrived via FedEx. I tore open the box, snapped in the Li Ion battery, turned on the phone, and discovered to my dismay that the phone would not place a call. I was also disappointed that when the phone booted up, the initial ROM image welcome screen presenting itself on the large LCD said “Bell Atlantic Mobile” instead of “Verizon Wireless.”

The phone was quite beautiful and tiny. The Motorola StarTAC 7868W backlit LCD display was huge! I loved having the date and time right there on the screen at all times along with my signal strength and battery reserve. I didn’t need a calendar or a watch with the Motorola StarTAC 7868W. CDMA technology allows for the silent updating of your digital phone’s information services.

I was shocked to see four signal bars of strength. Five signal strength bars are best and no other phone or pager I’ve seen operate in this building could do more than a single bar. My wife’s two-way Bell South RIM 950 alphanumeric pager varies in this building between no bars of signal to one bar (if you hold it up to the window). Nextel phones barely get a single bar in this building and folks lose signal in dead spots as they walk along the corridors. Verizon Wireless gave me four bars of punch everywhere – event the elevator and the basement! Outside my phone was at a solid five bars everywhere in the Bronx and Manhattan. Verizon Wireless CDMA technology and the Motorola StarTAC 7868W pack one powerful wallop.

I checked the Motorola StarTAC 7868W’s phone number by hitting RCL+#. The area code for the phone was set to 718. I knew 718 was a landline area code for New York City and I’d never heard of anyone having a cell phone with a 718 area code. Now for the real test: How did the phone sound on the Verizon Wireless CDMA network? I’d have to get the right area code set up in my phone first to find out.

I called up Verizon Tech support and spoke to a woman named Laura. Laura quickly figured out that the Verizon Tech folks who set up my phone programmed it wrong. She helped me change the area code on my phone to 917 and my phone was able to be initialized and set up. I hung up the phone with Laura and started to test the phone. I wanted to see what a CDMA digital conversation would sound like. Would it whistle? Would it break up? Would there be any background squeal?

I dialed *611 in order to get free airtime and to speak with call customer service about getting on the 600 minute SingleRate plan. Oh, my! The sound was bassy, brassy, ballsy and LOUD! My was the Motorola StarTAC 7868W LOUD! Incredible! Bye Bye Bye Landline! I sounded better and heard better than any phone and phone system I’d ever used in my life and that includes my current hardwire Panasonic KX-TMC98-B home phone system. I planned to get rid of one of my landline numbers in favor of using Verizon Wireless as my main personal communications provider.

Another great thing about the Motorola StarTAC 7868W are the Digital and Analogue display icons. You instantly know if you’re in a digital or analogue area. When you’re in digital mode, a bold “D” in a box appears. When Analogue is active, you get a thin “A” in a circle. I made a few test calls to my home phones and I immediately noticed my calls would start out in digital mode and then connect in analogue mode.

Why?

I called *611 and the call instantly went through as purely digital. I’d call another landline phone in Manhattan and the call would flop into analogue before connecting. That was unfortunate. I called up Verizon Tech support and once again spoke to Laura. Laura had no idea why my phone was dumping out of digital mode during dialing and then connecting my calls in analogue. I told her a strange thing happened during the placing of the call. Before it switched from digital to analogue, the signal strength bars would flash in digital mode then disappear for a blink entirely and then reappear in analogue mode. That didn’t happen when I called *611.

Laura said the problem was either with my phone or with my local cell tower. I told her it couldn’t be my phone because when I called *611, the call went through as digital. Laura had no comment. She dispatched a tech to the cell site to see if digital calls were being properly passed through that system. In the meantime, Laura decided to take me though the Extended Programming sequence to see if something other than my area code was mis-programmed.

As Laura led me through the 23 steps of Extended programming, she grunted “Ooof!” several times at what was programmed into my phone. She then had me change the current settings to the ones preferred on her Motorola tech spec sheet. We finished the programming session by turning off and then turning on my phone. We placed a call to see if it would go through as digital.

No luck.

Laura got a response back on the condition of my local cell site: All was okay. Digital calls were being “connected back and forth” just fine. Laura said the problem had to be with my phone. She urged me to go into a Verizon Wireless store and swap phones. I once again asked her why, if my phone was defective, would it connect to *611 in digital mode? She had no answer. I asked her again if everything was good with my phone on the computer system on her end.

She confirmed everything was perfect on the Verizon Wireless end. Since I was under deadline to get this review done (I was planning a far-flung trip to help me test the nationwide capabilities of this phone that later had to be dashed as you’ll soon see) I decided to head to a Verizon Wireless brick and mortar store.

Phone #2 – White Plains
According to Verizon Wireless customer support, the closest Verizon Wireless store to me was in White Plains in the Westchester Mall. Since there was no easy way to get there from here (many New York City dwellers do not own cars), I had to call a car service to get me there at – what I would later discover to be – a whopping cost of $40 each way! Since I was writing this piece for GO INSIDE Magazine, the cost of the commute there and back was going to sting out of my personal pocket since this magazine is all volunteer all the time.

The While Plains Mall was beautiful. The floors were carpeted. Beautiful, shining, children galloped about perfectly coiffed, Liz Claiborne styled, French-manicured, besotted housewives. I spoke to Manager Patty. She knew Andre The Wireless Giant! He had worked for her in that store for four years. I told her what a good salesman Andre was because I hadn’t planned on purchasing a phone until he got a hold of me. She smiled knowingly.

Patty found my story odd.

She asked me if I was going from digital to analog while moving in a car? I told her that was not the case. She informed me that there isn’t a solid digital signal between White Plains and the Bronx. What will happen, she explained, is the phone will lose its digital connection and you’ll have to re-dial in analogue mode. Patty went on to tell me that sort of strange situation would not last forever, but some folks are not aware of how it all works.

Patty also said FedEx could be very hard on phones and that it was likely something got jarred loose inside the phone during delivery. When I told her I could make a wholly digital call to *611 but no where else, she seemed stopped at the illogic of it all.

Patty took back my phone, asked for my Driver License, made me sign a piece of paper and swapped me out a new phone. When she tried a test call with the new phone, she had the same problem I had with the original! A call would still start in digital and then connect in analogue. She tested her 7868W against my replacement phone. Hers would place a digital call. My replacement phone would not.

Patty had never seen anything like this before.

I mentioned the problem with the area code being wrong and another salesman in the store suggested the problem might be in the 917 area code since they weren’t being given out any longer on new activations. Patty decided to change my phone number entirely. I happily agreed to try that since the phone number I had was quite ugly and hard to remember. Patty set me up with a new number in the 646 area code and tried the test again. Same result: No digital!

Patty got on her landline phone and placed an insider call to Verizon Wireless’ Technical Support. She found someone there who checked every single setup on the phone with her. After about five minutes of fiddling, Patty was told my phone service was set up in the Verizon main computer to disallow digital calls!

Ugh!

The Verizon Wireless Tech changed setting to allow digital calls and Patty was instantly able to make digital calls without delay on my replacement 7868W. Patty told me she had never heard of a phone being mis-programmed that way in the computer, but the Tech told her “it’s a glitch in the system and it unfortunately happens quite a lot.” I thanked Patty for her help and she wished me good luck with the replacement phone.

One thing the new phone lacked was the keen “Verizon Wireless” logo on the earpiece. In its place was the generic Motorola bug and logo.

Refund
I called Andre and told him about the trouble with the phone. I also asked him to give me an $80 credit on my account for the time and expense I had in having to hoof it up to White Plains and back to fix a problem that was solely Verizon Wireless’.

If someone at Verizon Wireless had bothered to check my setup in the computer, I’m plainly certain – as was Patty – that the first phone did not need to be replaced. Andre checked with his Manager and they agreed to credit my account $80 because I was told by Laura in Verizon Wireless Tech Support that my phone was defective and needed to be replaced and Laura instructed me to go into a store and swap the phone since the problem was not on the Verizon side of things.

A Fitful Night
When I returned to the Bronx, I placed a few calls and was astonished at the high quality of the calls. The sound and voice quality was just simply beautiful and amazing. I plugged in the phone and let the Li Ion battery charge. In the morning when I woke up, I noticed a shadow the size of a pencil eraser looming in the LCD directly behind the forward slash between the month and the day. I work with computers. I had seen this behavior before: The LCD was dying. I had to swap out another phone! I would soon be on my third Motorola StarTAC 7868W in less than 24 hours. I cancelled my far-flung trip for testing Verizon Wireless’ nationwide footprint: I had a deadline to meet and I had to get a phone that worked properly first!

Phone #3 – 3rd Avenue & 73rd Street
I was able to bum a ride for the long trek into Manhattan. I had called Tech Support about the LCD and a very kind woman told me that certainly sounded like a phone problem that would not get better with time. She called the Verizon Wireless store at 139 5th Avenue (on 5th Avenue between 20-21 Streets) and the Tech she spoke to at the store basically accused me of dropping the phone and scratching it and that they would not swap out the phone “unless it was clearly making the phone unusable.” Ooof! Let’s stay away from them! I wish I’d only listened to the “Ooof” advice from my own gut. You’ll understand what I mean just a bit later…

The Verizon Wireless Tech who was on the phone with me was also put off by the brusque, unhelpful attitude of the Verizon Wireless store at 139 5th Avenue as much as I was. She continued to help me and found a different Verizon Wireless store: She called ahead to the 3rd Avenue and 73rd Verizon Wireless store so I would have little to no hassle swapping out for my third phone. As I was in the car zooming into the City, my phone rang. The kind woman from Verizon Wireless Tech support told me she took care of everything and that I should seek out James. He knew the situation and would have a new phone waiting for me. I thanked her for her quickness, her kindness and her generosity.

Upon arrival at the Verizon Wireless store at 3rd and 73rd, I found James. He silently swapped out my phone. He didn’t need my Driver License. He barely looked up from his computer screen. He only asked me to sign a piece of paper. In less than 30 seconds I was out of the store with my third phone in less than 24 hours.

When I arrived home, I noticed the phone was not put together properly. The lower back right corner of the phone was depressed pass the point of perfection and the lower lip of the phone jutted out and made for a very sharp razor edge an inch in length. I burned in the phone for three days and the LCD was fine. Shwhew!

Calls were clear and cogent. Half hour calls get the phone warm, but not hot. I spoke to Verizon Tech about the problem of the razor edge poking up on the phone and they told me I could go into any Verizon Wireless store and they would fix or replace my phone without pause. I took them at their word. I was tired of swapping, so the next time I happened to be near a Verizon Wireless store, I’d bop in for the quick fix. The third 7868W also had the Motorola bug and logo on the earpiece instead of the Verizon Wireless stamp.

Tri-Mode or Bi-Mode?
I had a flashback to the programming phone call I initially shared with Laura where she changed several deep function settings in the phone. I decided to call Tech Support to see if they would go into Extended Programming mode with me to make sure the phone was set up right. I spoke with a Tech named Dave who had no idea what I was talking about. I described the Extended programming session. He said he’d have to call Laura to find out exactly what she did with me.

He promised to call me back at 2 pm. At 6:32 pm he called back. He got the Extended programming sheet directly from Motorola. Together we checked 23 settings and Dave only had me change two. When I asked him about the first one he changed, he told me the phone had been set up to “work in bi-mode instead of tri-mode.”

I told him that’s a nasty mistake since the whole reason for spending $200 on the Motorola StarTAC 7868W is the fact that it can do three modes instead of only two! Dave concurred. The second thing he had me change was related to charging. He didn’t think it was terribly important, but it sounded to me like it was a preference setting for use in a dual desktop battery charger and the priority given to the charge order of the batteries.

Do This!
I suggest if you have a Motorola StarTAC 7868W on the Verizon Wireless system, you call Tech Support immediately and DEMAND that they walk you through the Extended Programming sequence to absolutely guarantee your phone is programmed right from the start.

Phone #4? Everick Thinks Not! – 139 5th Avenue
After two weeks of living with the razor edge on my Motorola StarTAC 7868W, I decided on June 26, 2000 at 11:15 am, that I’d had enough! Every time I pulled the phone from its holster I ran the risk of slicing my finger. I had to grip the phone in an unnatural way to release it from the holster and that added to the percentage of my dropping the phone one day.

I headed into Manhattan on business and bopped into the Verizon Wireless store at 139 5th Avenue. Oh, what a mistake that was! I had forgotten the rudeness of that store when Verizon Wireless Tech Support had tried, in vain, to send me there to get my phone swapped when I had the shadow on the LCD.

I spoke to a disinterested Tech about my razor edge. He told me he wouldn’t fix the phone. He said he’d have to send it in to Motorola and it would take up to 12 weeks to get the phone back. He said he’d give me a loaner phone while mine was being fixed.

When I asked him if my loaner phone would be a Motorola StarTAC 7868W, he shook his head and told me it would be “whatever we have in the back.” I asked him why he couldn’t just stick a thin awl or something in the two holes on the bottom edge of the phone to pop up that depressed corner to reset it? He repeated that there was nothing he could do.

Dissatisfied with the Tech’s response, I asked to speak to a Manager to see if any other solution could be found. A brittle, stiff, salesman with dead eyes named Everick, told me, “The Manger is out. He’s gone all day. You cannot see him.” He then said coldly, “I will have to help you.”

I told Everick of my trouble. I told him I was in the final leg of writing this review of Verizon Wireless and Motorola StarTAC 7868W for GO INSIDE Magazine. I told him in less than 24 hours two weeks ago I’d had three Motorola StarTAC 7868W and so on and so on. I asked him to check my account to see all the annotations. He called up my account on his computer and said flatly, “You’ve already been given a credit.”

I told him that credit had nothing to do with the current situation. He stared at me and said, “You’re not going to get another credit.” His black eyes stared icicles at me. I refused to be touched by his icy stare and I warmly repeated I wasn’t seeking a credit. I wanted the razor edge of my phone fixed as Verizon Wireless phone Tech support had promised.

Unwilling to melt, Everick took my phone and disappeared behind a window and spoke to someone. He came back and told me they’d have to send my phone in to Motorola to be fixed and that he’d set me up with a loaner. I told him I didn’t want a loaner. I told him the phone worked great. I told him the only problem was the razor edge on the bottom of the phone because it was cutting me. If the Tech couldn’t fix it, then I’d like to please swap out the phone for a new one that didn’t cut my finger every time I pulled it from the holster.

I watched Everick disappear again behind the window. He had another silent conversation. He returned and said, “Since the phone works fine and was new, we will not swap the phone.”

When I asked him why I was paying $4 a month for cellular insurance? I told informed him that insurance was sold to me as “set it and forget it” — if your phone has any problem, bring it in and Verizon Wireless will swap it out and take care of you. Everick said that did not apply in this case since the problem was “cosmetic.”

Cosmetic? I was dumbfounded. I could feel the bile of being bullshitted rising in the back of my throat. I calmly asked Everick, “Does a phone place itself against your ear? Does a phone pull itself from the holster? Does a phone hold itself for an hour while you repeatedly hit up and down keys?”

Everick, now dead-eyed, dumbly looked back at me and provided no response.

I made my point harder: “A phone is used in a hand, Everick. If I run the risk of getting cut every time I use my phone, that is not a cosmetic flaw, it is a design flaw. A phone that cuts you is a phone that does not work properly. Does your Motorola StarTAC 7868W have a razor edge like mine? If not, then the problem is beyond cosmetic, it is a mistake in manufacturing and Verizon Wireless needs to make the situation whole.”

Everick repeated in a monotone that he “would not swap out the phone.”

I asked for his name. I told him I wanted to include our discussion in this review. He not only gave me his name, he gave me his business card. It was good to have hard proof of my meeting with Everick because no one would believe a Verizon Wireless salesman could behave so callously.

A Bloody Battle
What difference did it make to Everick if he swapped out my phone or not? He didn’t make the sale, Andre did. Why did he care? Did he get a bonus for brushing me off? I believe it was simply a question of testosterone. He wanted me to know he had the power and I didn’t. We’ll see if he’s finally right or not.

I then told Everick he was making a mistake not fixing the problem with my phone and he told me it was “time to go.” I stood there, still disbelieving my eyes and ears. I was tempted to head back to the room with the window where he had previously disappeared twice to allegedly plead my case, but then I suddenly knew the better path was to simply report what happened here to my 2.5 million monthly readers and let the judgment of humanity be his burden to bear.

Beware!
I ask you to consider not darkening the door of the Verizon Wireless store at 139 5th Avenue in Manhattan. In my experience, you will not be treated well, you will not be valued.

I can tell you right now if I had Everick instead of James (at the Verizon Wireless store at 3rd Avenue & 73rd Street) I would not have been given a new phone due to the shadow on my LCD because, according to Everick’s logic, the phone was working fine and able to place and receive calls! Following his own advice, Everick would’ve made me wait until the LCD actually died in order to get service.

I left the Verizon Wireless store at 199 5th Avenue and fired up my still edge-cutting Motorola StarTAC 7868W. I called a friend of mine in Washington state. He’d set up a new Verizon Wireless SingleRate account a week ago based on my recommendation and he, too, was using the Motorola StarTAC 7868W. I ran by the blow-by-blow conversation I’d had with Everick. I asked him if I had been unreasonable in any of my requests?

My pal laughed in my ear and said: “No, you just got New Yorked!”

How right the old boy was! Up until that point, Verizon Wireless had behaved like a kindly old grandmother from the Mid-West. “Any trouble, honey? Say the word and I’ll fix it for ya, my dear!” I had grown accustomed to Andre’s warmth and the generosity of Verizon Wireless’ Technical support. I had come to expect to be treated with honor and respect as Patty and James and Laura and Dave had treated me.

Motorola StarTAC 7868W
Despite the trouble I had with the phone and with Everick at the Verizon Wireless store at 139 5th Avenue, the 7868W is a heady experience. The phone is made out of the same plastic used to create football helmets. That means the phone is tough. It can be dropped and it will likely survive intact. The Li Ion battery is incredible. I can make many long calls over two days and the phone won’t drop to a single standard battery bar on the LCD until the third day.

The battery likes the hot, humid New York Summer. Inside with air conditioning, the phone has two battery strength bars. When I head outside, the battery bar will rise in strength to three and then stay there bars even when I return to my air conditioned den. The ring tones and strong alert vibe are both delightful. I like the unique icon with vibe and/or beep that alerts me to new email or Voice Mail arriving.

The ability to change the banner of the phone from “Ready” to “David Boles” makes the phone mine.

My wife loved how light the Motorola StarTAC 7868W felt on her hip. She said her RIM 950 pager is twice as heavy. She knows her future will bloom brighter when she can dump her two-way pager in favor of a phone that can do messaging and email as well as manage her contacts.

As I mentioned earlier, but it bears repeating again because of its import, the Motorola StarTAC 7868W is a VERY LOUD phone! You could be tumbling in a cement mixer while tooling around Times Square on New Year’s Eve and still HEAR and BE HEARD without a problem. Motorola builds great audio systems for all their phones — that is their hallmark — and they understand the key to not shouting while speaking into a cellular phone is this: If you can hear, you won’t shout.

The phone book is much improved from previous Motorola phones. The phone book is now icon oriented and you can create Work, Home, Pager, Fax, Cellular and “Other” phone numbers for a single person! That saves you memory slots, time and inconvenience. While the icons are nicely designed, the phone is not able to provide graphics when you surf the web. You also only get three lines of text on the phone when you surf the web because the “fourth line” is dedicated to browser menu action instructions.

I also wish you could touch the dedicated “envelope” button on the phone and be taken directly into email when that icon is active. That button works great for email: You press it down for a few seconds and your Voice Mail is dialed. I wish the phone were intelligent enough to know the difference between the email icon and the Voice Mail icon so that a single button would direct you to the active icon. If both icons were present, then the phone should ask you which service you seek first.

Verizon Wireless Service
I’ve had my phone for more than a couple of weeks and I still really love it despite the razor edge that threatens to cut me every time I pull the phone from its clip-on holster. I miss the built-in answering machine of my previous Motorola StarTAC, but the free services included with my Verizon Wireless nationwide plan are quite wondrous. Here are the services I get for free with my nationwide SingleRate 600 minute calling plan:

3-Way Calling (You pay airtime for both calls)

Caller ID (Numeric only, no name)

No Answer Transfer (You pay airtime for the length of any call transferred)

Call Forwarding (You pay airtime for the entire length of any call forwarded from your phone)

Call Waiting (You pay airtime for both calls if you answer the incoming call’s beep during call. If you do not answer the incoming call after two beeps, but the calling party leaves you Voice Mail, you will get a two second stuttering dial tone during your call to let you know the second party left a message. That’s a nice feature since you’ll know without withdrawing the phone from your ear to check the Voice Mail icon that you have a message waiting.)

Voice Mail (You get a neat icon on your phone that tells you Voice Mail is waiting. The system is outstanding and clear. Incoming messages are limited to five minutes. You have a 40 message mailbox limit. Messages are retained 30 days. Saved messages are kept for 30 days. Customized Greeting length is 30 seconds. You can call and pull your Voice Mail messages from a landline phone for no additional cost. Unlike some Verizon Wireless markets, there is no per-minute charge for messages left in your Voice Mail. You are only charged for airtime if you use your cellular phone to listen to and manage your messages and mailbox.)

PHONE.COM & CELLSCAPE.COM
The Yankee Group claims that of the 90 million cell phone users in the United States, seven million of them are accessing the web on their phones. I can understand why only seven million are using web access: It isn’t quite ready for widespread use. While the PHONE.COM browser generally works well with the Motorola StarTAC 7868W, you only get three lines of text at a time and there is no “Page Down” key to move the information before your eyes a page at a time. So, you’re stuck scrolling. You can’t even continuously scroll. You have to manually scroll. That means if you want to read the next three lines of text on your phone, you have to hit the down button (or the # Key) three times. That methodology is not an ergonomic or fluid way to experience the web and do serious reading. If I read the web for 10 minutes on my phone, my wrist gets store from all the scrolling down and urges me to stop.

However, Verizon Wireless (unlike AT&T), doesn’t really want you doing much surfing since they charge you for every moment you are online surfing the web or reading and composing email. Perhaps that is a ploy to keep their web experience quick and fast. In my experience, the Verizon Wireless implementation of phone web surfing is disappointing. Many times the extended news has no story. 70% of the time I get an error message that the “data server” is unavailable.

When I surf for longer than 20 minutes, my phone will spontaneously re-boot. The backlight will go off and the phone will, for lack of a better term, Warm Boot (restarting the phone without turning it off). The phone resets itself entirely and I get the “Bell Atlantic Mobile” startup ROM image. When the phone re-boots like that, it’s a bit scary – is the phone causing the re-boot or is the PHONE.COM browser somehow corrupting a memory stack? The problem needs to be addressed and fixed by Verizon Wireless or Motorola with the utmost urgency.

Verizon Wireless simply must meet the challenge of AT&T’s PocketNet and immediately offer unrestricted and unlimited basic web surfing for free. Surfing the web can, in fact, be an enjoyable experience if you aren’t fretting about time-outs and getting tossed off the system. Right now with Verizon Wireless, you’re paying to get a less-than-profitable experience. Calls to Technical Support at Verizon Wireless yield the following response: “Yes, New York is having trouble.” When asked when the problem will be solved, the reply is always, “Try again in four hours.”

The idea of being able to read news, weather sports and to shop online via my cell phone is delightful. Perhaps I would feel less bitter about the present implementation of the experience if the ticking meter of per-minute charges weren’t haunting me with every key press. When you pay, you expect perfection. When you ride for free, you excuse re-boots and system unavailability because “What do you expect for free?” becomes the mantra that leads that adventure boom.

Be aware Verizon Wireless have set an inactivity timer on your PHONE.COM experience. If your phone does not send or receive data for 30 seconds, you will be made inactive and you will be disconnected from the service to save you the per-minute air time fees. Unfortunately, if you time out in the middle of an action and then have to log back onto the system to simply complete that action (like sending an email reply) in, say, 10 seconds, you will be charged for a full minute of airtime for that quick re-log onto the PHONE.COM system.

PHONE.COM is a great way to kill some time if you’re bored and seeking a news or weather fix. In its present implementation on the Motorola StarTAC 7868W, it won’t replace the current power of printed paper or the convenience of reading news and weather via Avant Go on a Palm V.

Now let’s talk about doing email on the Motorola StarTAC 7868W. I must advise you that my experience so far has been less than satisfactory. 80% of the test email I composed on my phone or sent to my phone never arrived here or there and vice-versa.

Why would anyone use CELLSCAPE.COM (the email provider for Verizon Wireless’ web phones) if they can’t come close to accurately receiving or delivering email? That unreliability makes email on the Verizon Wireless system only a curiosity and not a dependable necessity. Half the time I try to compose email on the phone, I am told the system is busy and I have to try again later.

It’s too bad Verizon Wireless can’t put a System Status page on CELLSCAPE.COM, so we’d know immediately if something wonky was up with their system. I have become best friends with Verizon Wireless Data Support because I have to call them so often to find out if their system is down and the ETA for getting back online. When I asked them how an end user can get an update on the web and email, they say you have to call them to find out. That is a cudgel of a way disseminate information for a company that claims Wireless communication as its service mantle.

In further receipt and delivery testing (when mail would actually arrive or get through the CELLSCAPE.COM mail server), it would do so anywhere from between three minutes and four hours. Since the delivery time between sending and receipt (going from the phone and to the phone) was so unpredictable, I cannot presently recommend relying on the CELLSCAPE.COM email system to serve as a means of regular and cogent communication if expediency and dependability are paramount issues for you.

On the rare occasion when an email sent to my phone would actually arrive, I enjoyed the envelope icon that popped up on the phone to let me know I had mail waiting. Setting up the phone to do email was painless. I called Verizon Wireless Tech Support and they quickly walked me through the process of choosing a username and a password and… Poof!… I was online with email. Setting up the secure key connection between my phone and the Verizon Wireless web/email server was painless and seamless.

Being able to set up and manage my contacts, To-Dos, Bookmarks, Calendar and Email via the CELLSCAPE.COM web page was great. Everything you create on that personal website is immediately available on your phone the next time you access those features.

The final question for me becomes, “Is $10 a month too much for too little when it comes to PHONE.COM web and CELLSCAPE.COM email from Verizon Wireless?” I am undecided because I think Verizon Wireless is experiencing exponential growth and trying to lose the seams in their nationwide system with the currying together of several landline and wireless powerhouses. Six months from now should tell a better story.

In the meantime, I confess it is a bit of magic creating email via the Motorola StarTAC 7868W’s keypad and whooshing it off into the ether to have it sometimes reappear in full in someone’s mailbox. I also like the ability to exchange wireless email with my wife when she uses her two-way RIM pager and we’re both out in the field.

If Verizon Wireless’ email and web worked as promised, would I want to keep the setup for $10 a month? Yes! When the Verizon Wireless system works, it works well. Email is quickly sent and received and the web pages (lines) snap into place when called.

Being able to touch the web from the wilds of the New York Botanical Garden while my wife basked in the glorious, arcing, sun was a piece of the future entire I deliciously pinched in the palm of my hand.

Quick Fixes
If your Web browser locks up, here are two ways to attempt a fix. With the PHONE.COM browser active, hit FCN+15: That will restart your browser and clear any junk stuck in your phone’s cache. If that doesn’t work and your browser is still unresponsive, hit FCN+15 and then, immediately after your browser restarts, turn off the phone and then turn it on again. That, I’ve been told by Verizon Wireless Data Support, should clean up any web or email problems you might have. Turning your phone off to get the browser and email to work again is a drastic measure, but one that should be expected in these days of Windows where a Cold Boot (turning the machine off and then on again) can do wonders for unsticking a stuck device.

Another thing to keep in mind while browsing or making calls is how your Motorola StarTAC 7868W keeps track of airtime. Verizon Wireless keeps track of airtime by the minute. If you spend 15 seconds on a call, you’re charged for a full minute. The Motorola StarTAC 7868W keeps track of your airtime in seconds. You can see how six, 10 second, phone calls on your Motorola StarTAC 7868W would be recorded by the phone’s resettable timer as one minute, while Verizon Wireless counts those same 6, 10 second, calls as six, 1 minute, calls. That means airtime can pile up quickly if you don’t keep a close eye on it all.

Since the Verizon Wireless math can be tricky for the uninitiated, the best way to track your minutes using the Verizon Wireless standard is to hit “#646+SEND” on your phone — that will take you into a special Verizon Wireless menu system that will tell you how many minutes of airtime the Verizon Wireless system believes you have used so far.

You should know #646 IS NOT A FREE CALL and that goes against what I had been originally told by Verizon Wireless Customer Support. They told me to call *611 instead to get an estimate of minutes used because that was a free call. I called *611 and Customer Service gave me an estimate of 100 less minutes used than the #646 computer! Checking and re-checking with Customer Service confirmed the #646 computer was right! 100 minutes is a large chunk of airtime and boils down to exactly one sixth of my airtime package per month. I hope Verizon Wireless will find a way to get the #646 computer information in the hands of the Customer Service representatives manning the phones at *611.

The Verizon Wireless system makes it clear #646/*611 is only a guesstimate and that it generally won’t include airtime used over the last 48 hours, but it should give you a good idea how long the Verizon Wireless meter believes it has been ticking on your service plan. Unfortunately, the Verizon Wireless computer doesn’t know if you’re on a SingleRate plan or not, so your airtime usage is read back to you using the old, rusty, dusty, “Peak” and “Off-Peak” minutes combination. Simply add those two numbers together to get your overall estimate if you’re on a SingleRate plan.

You should also know that while you are in email or browsing the web with your phone, you will not be able to receive calls on your phone. All calls will be forwarded to Voice Mail. If you’re bored and expecting a call and want to do some email or web browse to kill time… don’t! Play a modern day Luddite and twiddle your thumbs instead so you’ll be certain your phone is free to ring through.

It is important when you make or receive a call on the Motorola StarTAC 7868W that you have the antenna fully extended. Do not give in to the lazy temptation of leaving the antenna retracted. A retracted antenna will cook the phone’s guts because its transmit and receive wavelength will be off. You also risk cooking your soft tissue if you don’t extend the antenna. Only a fully extended antenna will work as designed and if you notice the angle of the phone while pressed against your ear, an extended antenna is much farther away from your head than a retracted antenna.

Messaging
Verizon Wireless also offers text Messaging via the Motorola StarTAC 7868W. That allows you to read, but not respond to, text messages on your phone. Think of it like one-way paging and you’re on the right track. For $20 a month, you can get Operator Assisted text Messaging where you would have folks call an Operator and the Operator would type their message and send it on to your phone. For $9.99 a month, plus a one time $9.99 software fee, you can have folks send you a text message to your phone via their computer. Or, for a flat $5 a month, you can give folks a web URL where they can go online and send you a text message via their web browser. I did not opt-in for any of the Messaging options from Verizon Wireless.

Voice Dialing
If you plan to make a lot of calls from the quiet comfort of your car, Voice Dialing may be a feature that interests you. For $4.95 a month, you can store up to 20 names on the Verizon Wireless system. When you want to make a call, you dial a special Verizon number and speak the person’s name and the number will be automatically dialed for you. That is a great feature if you prefer your hands to be on the steering wheel while driving instead of hunting and pecking your kepad. You don’t want Voice Dialing if you make calls in a variety of noisy environments. You must train the system to recognize your voice in a certain environment and if that environment changes, the Verizon Wireless computer system will not be able to recognize your previously recorded voice name.

Accessories
Let’s take a quick review of the accessories I purchased.

The SpeakEasy Headset: I really like the design of the unit. A triangular piece of plastic hooks over my ear and holds the small speaker to my ear. The tiny “boom mic” is all of 2.5 inches and stops at mid-cheek. The sound I produce and receive is throaty and clear and extremely good. People know I’m on a digital phone because I sound so good. I sound clearer and not as far away like on an analogue cell phone or a landline connection. I also enjoy having the phone antenna away from my head when I make calls with the headset. Having 44 inches of cord gives me great leeway in maneuvering the antenna away from any soft tissue body parts.

The Motorola Easy Install Car Kit: Heavenly! The sound is terrific. Installation was easy. Works as advertised.

The Andrew Hands Free Desktop Speakerphone: A big WOWSER! The Motorola StarTAC 7868W has a user settable “Speakerphone” setting, but I really didn’t know if that meant what I thought it meant, or if it was some kind of Verizon Wireless technical setting I couldn’t control. I know Motorola makes a clip-on speakerphone for the StarTAC – and it’s been unavailable for as long as I care to remember.

The Desktop Speakerphone is a different beast. It not only provides perfectly clear and delightful speakerphone communication, it also charges your phone’s battery! Slide in your Motorola StarTAC 7868W and the AC juices you up and keeps your backlight and keypads lighted on for as long as you have the unit open. Neat. The sound quality cannot be beat. I placed several calls on the Motorola StarTAC 7868W with it in the desktop Speakerphone and no one knew I was on a speakerphone. Checking Voice Mail is very simple now and calls to *611 are easy and quick to make without being tethered to a headset. The antenna also is comfortably away from my head as I chat and create email and surf the web.

Fire Test
The true test of a company comes not during the easy times, but during the hard events of its customers. How does a company respond? Do they hurdle to the rescue to find you a solution? Do they try everything in their power to make good? Or do they ignore you? Do they brush you off as replaceable and unimportant? Do they stare you down with cold, prickly eyes while you’re begging for help? I’m honored to report that Verizon Wireless generally stepped up to the plate at every opportunity to do everything within their power to do me right.

Andre The Wireless Giant has been there for me from call one. Andre used his experience and muscle to take care of me at every turn that was within his domain to control. It is because of folks like Andre that will lead me to sign a new service contract a year from now with Verizon Wireless when my current term is up.

Andre The Wireless Giant’s GO INSIDE Magazine Special!
If you live in the New York/New Jersey area and would like to purchase a phone and service on the Verizon Wireless system, Andre will give you a special deal. Call him at 914-391-4135 and tell him, “David Boles from GO INSIDE Magazine sent me,” and he’ll maneuver you the same sort of smart setup he did for me.

You can also visit Verizon Wireless online directly by touching here.

Conclusion
Verizon Wireless Tech Support was wondrous to me and unbending to dismay and they are certainly painfully aware of their problems with their current implementation of web and email service. In store personnel like Patty and James made me feel wanted and valuable.

Verizon Wireless can’t be blamed for Motorola’s build problems with the 7868W – but you can blame them for not taking responsibility for offering defective phones in that line. But that brickbat cannot be solely left at their feet. Verizon Wireless nearly replaced every phone for me without comment or reservation even when, in hindsight, my original phone was probably just fine since the problem was in Verizon Wireless’ system and not the phone hardware.

As we all move away from the security of a hardwire phone and into the total freedom and portability of wearable digital communication devices like the Motorola StarTAC 7868W, it is important to find a cellular service provider that can offer you peace of mind as well as a kick ass signal and bassy digital voice quality. Verizon Wireless wins those wants and dreams hands down.

Verizon Wireless, however, must be held accountable as a company for the bad as well as the good and personnel in the mold of Everick are a problem. The Evericks of Verizon Wireless do not add luster to the company. The Evericks do not graciously or appropriately bridge the tenuous and tremulous communication gap between consumer and company that can widen in frustrating times of despair and uncertainty.

Your cellular phone is only as good as the system it’s on and Verizon Wireless is simply the best system built today.

I would like to give Verizon Wireless and the Motorola StarTAC 7868W our highest rating of five out of five GO INSIDE Magazine Review Lights, but that nasty experience with Everick still stings in the back of my throat and tempers the excitement of this review with a cold, harsh reality: Not everyone at Verizon Wireless is Andre, the Wireless Giant, and that undeniable, undisputable, undistinguished fact influences this review to become a four out of five GO INSIDE Magazine Review Lights experience… for I am reminded every day that, thanks to Everick at the Verizon Wireless store on 139 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, I still have a Motorola StarTAC 7868W that cuts me.

(four green, one red)

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