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Try cell phones before you buy, online

A new Web site, TryPhone, lets you try out cell phones online before you buy them in the store

TryPhone UI

The buying experience of cell phones has always been frustratingly full of unknowns: you don't have a good idea of what the service coverage will be like before switching plans, you don't know what reception your specific phone will get, and you are usually stuck with a dummy non-operative phone to look at in the store that gives you little idea how it will actually work.

A new Web site has come into beta that aims to plug that last hole. TryPhone provides onscreen simulations of handsets and shows how different button presses let you navigate through the user interface. Right now the phone selection is limited to four hot models (iPhone, BlackBerry Pearl, Verizon Juke, and Sprint Muziq), and not all functions can be tried out, but it's certainly a big help.

You can do your own freeform actions (within the limits of the functions simulated), including important ones like making a call, taking a photo, adding contacts, or sending text messages. You can also try out some of the customization options, but they don't (understandably) actually take effect on the phone demo itself. There are canned demos of key functions, and you can imagine how this can be used as a rich online tutorial for post-purchase. Perhaps users will also be able to generate their own walkthroughs.

In addition to these dynamic elements, the site also offers standard items like user reviews, specs lists, and the ability to buy the phones through vendors (presumably paying TryPhone a fee). I tried to buy a Pearl, which popped up a dialog box to pick between Amazon and another vendor. I chose Amazon and was presented with a page for the Sprint Muziq. Oops!

In my trial of the site, it worked fairly well, but seemed either buggy or slow at times. On the iPhone demo, I couldn't get back to the home screen after trying Yahoo mail. On one of the canned demos for the Pearl, things got out of sequence. And in general, the iPhone demo was missing much of the user interface magic that comes from its animations and gestural touch control. The Pearl demo missed the scrolling capability of the pearl "button" itself, part of the whole point of the design. Indeed, one wonders how TryPhone will simulate what are sure to be more complex interaction methods in the future.

For right now, however, kudos to TryPhone for filling a knowledge gap that the carriers and retailers themselves have sadly been slow in addressing. Let's hope they can work out the kinks during the beta period.