When I think about the features that I need in a smartphone, I tend to be pretty practical. Sure, apps, a media player, and a good-quality Web browser are great, but what I really want is a good dual-SIM card phone. And fortunately for me, the 2013 Mobile World Congress didn't disappoint.
Now I know that dual-SIM phones have been around for years, but the biggest OEMs in wireless haven't put a lot of resources behind them. Smaller manufacturers, particularly from China, have made up the slack, but those devices can be hard to find outside of Asia. What's worse, most of the devices that I've tested are pretty forgettable. The Duet W002, for example, was a poor iPhone knockoff and the Duet D8 was maddening to use. The Duet D888 was a little better, but it stopped working completely after a two-week trip to Australia and a shorter trip to Spain.
Hands-on with the Samsung Galaxy Grand
That's why the mini rush of dual-SIM handsets at Mobile World Congress was so refreshing. Indeed, the devices that CNET handled were a diverse bunch. At the bottom end, the basic Nokia 301 has a signature Nokia candy bar design that may remind you of 2002 (the company also showed a dual-SIM phone at the 2012 show). Acer's Liquid Z2 and the Alcatel One Touch Star went midrange and Samsung gave us a complete Android Jelly Bean smartphone in the Samsung Galaxy Grand (it's a step up from Samsung's existing dual-SIM models). I'm happy to see a stronger push from top manufacturers.
More from Mobile World Congress
Why you want one
If you don't know, a dual SIM card phone is just what it sounds like: a GSM handset with slots for two SIM cards. SIM cards, as I'm sure you know, are the little plastic (or one day paper) cards that give your phone its number and identify you as as a subscriber to a carrier when you make a call. You also can transfer your number to another handset just by swapping the card out.
So, as you'd expect, a phone with two SIM cards can hold two numbers and two identities at once. You can make or receive calls and send or receive texts on either number and give each number only to the people that you chose. Imagine these scenarios.
Let's say that you're going to Greece on vacation. You want to take a phone so you can keep in touch with local friends and traveling companions and still be reachable by your family back home. Traditionally, you had two choices: either use your existing number and pay expensive carrier roaming fees or take an unlocked handset and pair it with a Greek SIM card. Each option has its pros and cons. Keeping your usual number meant that the folks back home can reach you without making an international call. On the the other hand, you'd have to fork over roaming fees to call home and to reach anyone in Greece.
Getting a local SIM is great for calling within Greece, but you'd still have to pay more to phone anywhere else. Also, remember that once you remove a SIM card from a phone, the number attached to it is essentially useless. If someone tries to contact you, the call goes straight to voice mail and you get no alert that they rang. Similarly, text messages would be lost in space while your SIM card is out of commission. With a dual-SIM phone, however, you don't have to select one or the other. Anyone at home can reach you immediately and cheaply (not vice versa, though) and you can chat with local friends without incurring roaming fees. It's convenient, it saves money, and you don't have to carry around two handsets.
Hands-on video with Nokia's back-to-basics 301
Work and play
A dual-SIM phone also is a great way to carry one device while keeping your personal and work lives separate. You don't have to give your personal phone number to your boss or clients and you can keep your work number out of the hands of telemarketers. Also, when an unknown number shows up on your caller ID, you'll be able to see which line is ringing and get a clue as to what the call is about.
When can I get one?
The good news is that you can buy a dual-SIM phone now. There are a growing number available online, so I'd encourage you to read reviews and compare prices to find the right handset for you. National Geographic, for instance, sells a few models like the Talk Abroad Lite made by a company called Blu. CNET's Jessica Dolcourt reviewed it here. I've also seen the handsets in brick-and-mortar stores, though to a lesser degree. If you want to buy one from a real shop, I'd try independent and specialty retailers.
Unfortunately, it will be a long time before a U.S carrier sells a dual-SIM phone, if it happens at all. Carriers, after all, would prefer that you use a handset locked to their services. At home, they'd rather you not swap in different provider's SIM. And while this last part is changing to some degree, carriers would prefer that you use one of their roaming partners when you take your phone overseas (they get some money that way).
So if you really want a dual-SIM phone, screw your carrier and go buy one. You can use it all the time or just keep it in a drawer for those international trips. Either way, you'll get something out of it.