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AT&T makes shopping fun again

The new AT&T Experience store takes the pain out of shopping for a cell phone.

Inside the AT&T Experience store. Click on the photo for a full slide show. Kent German

Going to a cell phone store can be like going to the DMV. Typically you have to wait a long time to be helped, and there's seldom a place to sit while you kill time. The lack of chairs in carrier stores has always baffled me, but then a sales rep at the AT&T in Pasadena, Calif., told my mom that they removed the chairs because some klutz fell off one of them and sued. Who says baseball is the American pastime?

But seriously, buying a cell phone can be a trying experience, particularly if you're not a cell phone geek. While many store representatives mean well, I've found that getting basic information often comes with a sales pitch for services you don't need. That's a disservice to customers who just want to grab their new phone and go.

The AT&T Surface. Kent German/CNET Networks

But I have to give credit to AT&T, as the carrier is making a push to redefine the cell phone shopping experience. The carrier recently opened five AT&T Experience stores across the country. Two are in New York City, one is San Antonio, one is in Atlanta, and one is in San Bruno, Calif., which is just outside San Francisco. The Experience stores are meant to be a destination of sorts. AT&T said it plans to open more in major markets.

I recently visited the San Bruno store to experience (sorry) what the new AT&T stores has to offer. While my expectations were low, I came away quite satisfied (check out the slide show for a full gallery of photos). Not only is the store bright, clean, and spacious, but also it's very welcoming to harried shoppers. The staff was polite, the displays are plentiful and shiny (including a dedicated iPhone section) and there's a comfortable lounge where you can view AT&T programming. But the best thing about the store is the new AT&T Surface displays. They really do make shopping fun again.

The surface provides a variety of useful information. Kent German/CNET Networks

Developed by Microsoft, the AT&T surface is an interactive display that resembles one of those old tabletop videos games. Using the surface you can access a variety of information to help you make your purchasing decision. You can research available service plans, scan coverage maps, and check out a selection of phones. The coverage maps are especially cool; you can start with nationwide maps before zooming into your region or neighborhood. In a city like San Francisco, where geography plays such a big role in cell phone reception, it was helpful to see how coverage changed block by block. If you're looking for 3G service, you can research that coverage as well.

Just below the surface are a few AT&T phones on display. Each handset has a sensor sticker on its back for interacting with the surface. When you place a phone on the surface, it recognizes the handset and offers you a variety of options. You can see the features, the specifications, the applicable plans, and the available colors. The surface also lets you compare two handsets by showing their feature lists side by side. At present, only eights models can interact with the surface. While that selection includes AT&T's most popular models, such as the RIM BlackBerry Curve and the Samsung SGH-A737, according to AT&T, it will add more models soon.

AT&T's phone selection. Kent German/CNET Networks

The surface is entirely touch sensitive so its quite easy to use. What's more, it even has some elements of the iPhone. By pinching your fingers together you can zoom in on the coverage maps while the opposite motion will zoom you out. Also, you can move multiple windows around the screen by dragging them.

What makes the AT&T surface so cool is that you can get en enormous amount of information on your own. Everything is right there in front of you in an unedited, unabridged format free of any sales pitches. But even better, the surfaces have an exceedingly easy-to-use design and interface. As a result, you can arm yourself with everything you need to know before you to talk to a sales representative. I can imagine everyone one from cell phone old-timers to cell phone newbies having a pleasant shopping experience. The San Bruno store has six surfaces in the store, so if you live nearby and you're AT&T customer, be sure to check it out.