Smile, you’re on cell phone camera!

Though wireless data services let you surf the Web and send and receive text and graphics messages, people haven’t yet made widespread use of these services.

The latest camera-enabled phones could change that: Imagine being able to snap a vacation photo and instantly e-mail it to a friend or relative. At the very least, these versatile phones certainly offer a novel way of communicating.

I looked at three models: Motorola Inc.’s T720i, which features an attachable camera, and Nokia Corp.’s 3650 and Sanyo Electric Co. Ltd.’s 5300–each with an integrated camera. Like many of today’s mobile phones, all three are compact and light. The shipping Motorola and Sanyo are clamshell models; the preproduction Nokia I saw is a standard handset. While all are suitable for quick shots, don’t expect the picture quality of standard, megapixel-range cameras.

So-So Snapshots

In general, the two phones with cameras built into the handset delivered better-looking snaps than did the $300 Motorola with its attachable, external camera.

The pictures captured by the Nokia 3650 (expected to cost less than $400), and the $400 Sanyo 5300 looked reasonably bright but a little grainy. A few of the Sanyo’s shots suffered from a yellowish tinge, while some Nokia photos had color artifacts and looked a tad blurry. The Motorola’s pictures were crisp enough, but tended to be dark overall.

Part of the problem is the low-capture resolution of each of these cameras: The Nokia and the Sanyo offer 640 by 480 pixels. The Motorola captures only a quarter as much detail–just 320 by 240 pixels.

You can’t view images at their highest resolution on any of the handsets, which display even fewer pixels than their cameras capture. Of the three phones, the Nokia 3650 and Sanyo 5300 have the better displays; they were adequately bright, and each has a good screen size. In contrast, the Motorola T720i’s display was dark and inadequately backlit, making it hard to read in bright sunlight. Its display also updated an image incredibly slowly when I aimed the camera in picture-taking mode. The Sanyo’s camera, unlike those on the other units, is paired with a flash–useful for lighting dark indoor shots.

It’s All in the Service

After you take the photos, you need to send them. The key ingredient in making these phones a success is their wireless service plans–without which the photo-capture feature is almost useless.

T-Mobile USA Inc. is the exclusive carrier for the Motorola T720i phone and its digital camera module. The Nokia 3650 uses the GSM network that is supported by AT&T Wireless Services Inc., Cingular Wireless LLC, and T-Mobile, but at press time Nokia had not announced a carrier. The CDMA-based Sanyo 5300 is offered exclusively by Sprint Corp.

Overall, I found T-Mobile’s service easier to use than Sprint’s. And the Motorola phone’s menus are intuitive and easy to follow: Simply select the photos you want to send, type in the e-mail addresses, and boom–you instantly share your shots.

However, with the Sanyo phone, my recipients received a link to Sprint’s Vision Web site in their e-mail message instead of an attached photo. Still, the phone is relatively easy to use, and Sprint offers three sending options: E-mail pictures directly from the phone; send the photos to another Sprint Vision-enabled phone; or upload them to the Vision home page, where you may organize the photos and e-mail them as well.

Phone Basics

All three phones come with the bells and whistles necessary for making calls quickly and easily. For example, each handset features voice-activated dialing, one-touch access to voice mail, and phone books that store hundreds of contacts.

Because of the exclusive agreements the phone makers have with the carriers, you may not have a choice in the camera-enabled phone you buy. If you don’t require a lot of detail in your photos, any of these phones will do just fine.