Do you think of pagers as "those little buzzing, beeping boxes" that let you know who called?
That was your father's pager.
Pagers have gone literate. They bring not just phone numbers, but words - lots and lots of words. The new pagers are "alphanumeric," and the words they receive can be dictated to a phone operator or sent as e-mail from most Internet-connected computers. A few of the latest pagers carry voice.
Pagers have also gone two-way. Before they could only receive. Now some can also send numbers and words back.
Paging-service companies are eager to push these new services. They can collect extra fees - generally by giving a limited number of alphanumeric or two-way messages for free with monthly service, then charging for messages above the limit.
The changes involve more than the pagers themselves. Most of the features and functions come from the service company's network of computers, phone lines, antennas and satellites. After all, a pager is just a specialized radio receiver. You need a specialized radio station - that intricate network - to feed it.
Modern pagers aren't restricted to displaying the words of friends and colleagues. They can furnish up-to-the-minute sports scores, stock quotes, weather details, traffic reports and news. Of course, you'll pay extra for many of those things.
Whatever features you want, try not to buy a whole lot of pager service in advance, even to get a better rate, unless you're sure the service company is stable. You could lose your entire payment if the company goes belly up.
Keep in mind that you'll often buy a pager and the service at the same time, and that the service may slap its own name on a pager made by someone else, just to make life a little more confusing.
You can still get the simplest pagers, of course, that beep or vibrate when a number comes in. Most have enough memory to store the last few incoming numbers in case you want to look back.
The least expensive alphanumeric pagers, such as the Intek Intrigue (800-724-3719), cost as little as $50. This has only a one-line, 10-character display and only shows preprogrammed word messages, not your correspondent's own words.
As a gadget lover, if I'm going to get by with a small display, I want the entire pager to be small. The MessageWatch from Seiko (800-724-3585; www.messagewatch.com) costs around $100 and can display two lines at eight characters per line. Messages can also alert you to waiting voice-mail. And the watch portion synchronizes to the national atomic clock.
MTX (888-727-2931) has a similar idea in the $130 Beepwear watch, designed by Motorola and Timex. It lets you set 10 alarms and can catch and hold up to 16 alphanumeric messages using the SkyTel service. Messages scroll across the tiny screen.
There's more voice power in the Tenor Advanced Voice Pager from Motorola (800-520-7243; www.mot.com). For $250, this feels more like a portable answering machine than a pager. It stores messages in the caller's own voice, holding up to four minutes total. It wait for you to check for messages or play them automatically.
MobileComm's $150 Voice Organizer (818-757-1100; www.mobilecomm.com) has a two-line display and can store 24 messages. It can also record your own voice messages to yourself. Uniquely, it has voice-recognition built in. With a little training, it can translate some of your own messages to schedule appointments or retrieve stored phone numbers. Best of all, the pager portion takes advantage of this ability, so when someone with a stored phone number pages you, the Voice Organizer will announce their name.
Getting away from voices, NEC's Message Maker II (800-225-5664; www.nec.com) is a $150 numeric pager. Seem expensive? Maybe its choice of beep, vibrate and musical melody alerts improves the value. Not enough? How about a variety of styles and colors? That's important to some folks. As are a mere three buttons, which make it simple. Still not enough for a numeric pager? Well, it can break out of that mold by using a sort of canned message that identifies calls by type with symbols representing urgent, voice-mail, office, home, etc.
The $300 MessageMaker Vue is a true alphanumeric, with a 4-line, 20-character screen. The same size screen crops up on Sony's $200 MP-7000 Alpha (800-578-7669; www.sony.com), but the Sony is less than half the size of the Vue. In part that's because Sony uses a rotating dial instead of lots of buttons. Motorola's PageFinder, at $180, falls in between those two in size and also has the 4-by-20 display.