Look up a book called "Gravity's Rainbow" and see how a master writer renders techno-anarchy. A guy named Thomas Pynchon wrote it, and I can only hope he turns to cell-phone analysis next: Pynchon would have had a field day with Sprint Nextel ( S).

Sprint has always had a reputation of being telecom's dim relative-by-marriage to Verizon Wireless.

Sprint and Verizon run the same flavor of cellular network, called code division multiaccess (CDMA). But Verizon always had game. Sprint did not. Verizon offered more coverage and services earlier. It claimed better service. It had the cute little guy in the TV commercials: "Can you hear me now?"

Well, hear this: Sprint's position of cell feebleness is officially over.

Sprint Nextel was formed in the summer of 2005 when two subpar wireless carriers, Sprint and Nextel Communications, merged. The idea was to bulk up to battle stouter players like Verizon, Cingular and, to a lesser extent, T-Mobile.

Sprint Nextel got to work. It rolled out a beefier wireless network called Power Vision. In March 2006, Sprint said the service was available to more than half of Americans. Furthermore, the company said, the system would be available to more than 190 million people by the end of 2006.

Sprint offers a full range of data and voice products with Power Vision: average download speeds rival those found in wired broadband products: 400 to 700 kilobits per second, with peak speeds of 2 gigabits per second.

Sprint has done exciting music and video deals. It offers a full library of songs, and even launched the first live cell-phone country music concert with Interscope Records. (Johnny Cash, you missed your time.) And Sprint's partnership with the National Football League, which lets consumers view clips, see scores and get cell-only content, is leagues ahead of what flashier carriers like Mobile ESPN are offering.

Most importantly for consumers, Sprint tends to be cheaper than Verizon, particularly for data products. Sprint charges $15 per month for unlimited data to its handsets. PC-card modems require different, more expensive plans; Verizon charges about $50 for similar services.

Unleashing the Genius

To see how all this Sprint service actually measured up, I took a fresh-from-the-box UTStarcom PPC-6700 out for a spin.

UTStarcom bills the 6700 as the "genius phone," and that's accurate. It is the current state-of-the-art in personal digital assistants, particularly if you run Windows software. Small, but not too small -- about 4 inches by 2.25 inches -- the 6700 felt as natural in my hand as the handle of my favorite Sabatier carbon-steel 8-inch chef's knife.

The 6700 does the best job of integrating email, voice and what passes for Web browsing on wireless cellular networks.

It's packed with features: 1.3 megapixel camera, mini secure digital-media slot, pocket voice recorder, long battery life and what must be the best small keyboard in mobiledom: a slide-away job that tucks in snugly beneath the screen.

Sprint's PPC-6700

Sprint's version of the 6700 charged, booted and installed easily enough on my PC; that is, if you can consider any installation of mobile software easy. But at least the 6700 didn't bring my computer to its knees.

Contact lists, calendars and even media transferred just fine, though I did find it irritating that music I purchased on Verizon's VCast music service would not run directly on my Sprint phone. Why do have to pay $1.99 a song to be so annoyed?

Next came the network. I could actually make a voice call on the 6700 from my home office. This is no small achievement. I live in an affluent New York City suburb where cell towers have been driven from the landscape: We hate them and don't care that cell service is terrible. But with the 6700, I could make calls right in my home. Not bad.

Around town, the 6700 held up in both voice and data. Emboldened by my early success, I took the 6700 on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. With its deep walls, mazes of tunnels, millions of chatty New Yorkers and a Consolidated Edison power plant nearby, the BQE is a classic wireless-device technological obstacle course. But the Sprint unit came through; it worked on par with my other Verizon phones.

For the final -- and ultimate -- test, I took the 6700 on the Merritt Parkway. If you think my town is tough on cell operators, Connecticut is worse -- and the Merritt runs smack through dozens of cell-tower-hobbled burbs: Welcome to the dropped-call zone. Yet the 6700 shined. It ran as well as any of my Verizon units.

My verdict? The new Sprint Nextel is a viable contender to Verizon. Better yet, by going with Sprint, you should save some money.

But be warned: It is the nature of wireless networks to be capricious-- just because Sprint worked well for me doesn't mean it will work well for you. You'll just have to try the system for yourself.

And Sprint claims to make this easy -- the company has a 15-day trial offer. Buy the phone. Try it. If you don't like the phone or the service, you can take it back. You'll be responsible for the charges you run up, and I have heard complaints about the return process, but you are not obligated for the full term of your contract.

The 6700 is not perfect. It is still a wireless device. Pynchon's rules still apply: "If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about answers." Maybe the thing works for you. Maybe it does not.

Still, Sprint Nextel has taken a step forward. The company deserves a fresh look.



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Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester County, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.