If you like a phone with a trick up its sleeve, take a look at the Nokia 5140. It is Nokia's first push-to-talk phone, which means you can use it as a phone and as a walkie-talkie. For anything from a very quick chat with a mate during a Euro 2004 football match to a group at work that needs regularly updates or to organise diaries, a walkie-talkie is going to be more useful than email, texting or phone.

To use the function you must first create a group or individual in your phone menu and send an SMS invitation to those you wish to join. Once your contacts are set up, your phone shows which members have their handsets switched on with push-to-talk enabled, in the same way that instant messaging works online. By pushing a single button on the handset, you are connected with one person or with your group. There is no need to dial numbers, nor do the recipients need to answer calls. You simply push a button and talk. As with a walkie-talkie, anyone in the group hears you almost instantaneously. The talking is one way with only one person able to speak at a time. Unlike walkie-talkies, which are infuriatingly dependent on distance, push-to-talk has no such limitations.

The service has been running in the US for several years, initially with just one network but recently two others have added push-to-talk. In tests run by ConsumerReports.org (the equivalent to the Consumers' Association, but like everything else about America, a lot bigger) East Coast to West Coast conversations took about 2 seconds to establish a call over the fastest network and then talking delay while on the call was a lightning .33 seconds. A walkie-talkie that works from New York to Los Angeles in .33 seconds is unquestionably cool. Voice quality was reasonable but not as good as on regular wireless conversations.

Success in the UK depends on the phone networks adopting push-to-talk and Nokia, like other handset manufacturers, is still in discussion with operators. Push-to-talk requires GPRS coverage and operator support for all users in the group and support for roaming to work. Senders and receivers both need compatible push-to-talk phones. Pricing is likely to be competitive since the service uses network capacity efficiently. The connection is one way and the capacity is only used when a person is talking.

Aside from all the usual functions like MMS, a 640x480 in-built camera and Java games, the 5140 handset has the added protection of an Xpress-on shell. Other features aimed at sporty, outdoor types are the integrated digital compass and a Java application called Fitness Coach that lets you record the time you've exercised, the distance you've gone and approximately how many calories you've burned.

Verdict

If you use your phone primarily as a voice communication device, then push-to-talk could be a lot more useful than a camera or an MP3 player. It is simpler and for some occasions more direct than texting. If texting brings you close, then push-to-talk is the next best thing to being there. It's also good to see functions that operate simply by pushing a button instead of opening menus, scrolling down and selecting options. Let's hope operators can forget their obsession with huge video and picture files long enough to see the potential of giving customers something as light and simple as push-to-talk. Nokia expects the 5140 to be available from July 2004.