Give your old cell phone new tricks

Your cell phone is smarter than you think.

In fact, your cell phone has enormous potential. Here is a guide to checking your e-mail or looking up information, just by sending text messages. You can use any cell phone, but you'll need a generous text-messaging plan.

For e-mail, I tested TeleFlip, a free service. It works with the major Web-based e-mail providers, including Yahoo Mail, Hotmail and Gmail.

Signing up took under five minutes. All I needed to enter was my Gmail e-mail address and password, my cell-phone number, and a confirmation number that TeleFlip sent to my phone. TeleFlip then had me build a list of contacts, by importing my address book or manually adding e-mail addresses. If I receive an e-mail from someone not on that list, I don't get it on my cell phone – an annoying quirk. (TeleFlip has plans to let users access all of their e-mails, beginning around August.)

TeleFlip does what it promises – but it's neither fast nor pretty. It took from three to 35 minutes for TeleFlip to text me my e-mails after Gmail received them, averaging about 10 minutes. Because cell-phone carriers typically limit text messages to 160 characters, TeleFlip chops each e-mail into snippets, sent in successive text messages. You can decide how many snippets you want to receive.

You can also instantly send e-mail. TeleFlip assigns a nickname to each of your contacts – the first six characters of their e-mail address. To send e-mail, text TeleFlip at 33715 and type the recipient's nickname and the message.

To search the Web, I tried services from Google, Yahoo and 4info. Google can be reached by sending a text message to 466453 (“Google”); for Yahoo, text 92466 (“Yahoo”); for 4info, text 44636 (“4info”).

To find information, it's useful to know shortcuts: For a stock quote, text message a ticker symbol. For sports scores, type a team's name. For local information, type “weather” or the name of a local business, along with a ZIP Code or the name of a city. In my tests, all three services responded to my text messages in under 10 seconds.

Each service has unique features. To find local businesses, I liked Yahoo because it includes cross streets.

I liked that 4info lets you set up customized alerts to your phone – texting you, say, when a stock falls by more than 5 percent. Google, meanwhile, sends you driving directions if you text it this: “directions from (address, city or ZIP Code) to (address, city or ZIP code).” You can also do rudimentary searches by texting Google: “web” plus the search term.

In response to Web-search queries, Google typically sends back text messages with words from the top search results. So, be extra-precise with your search terms. While parking my car, I couldn't remember what a blue curb meant. I texted Google, “web blue curb” and got an unhelpful result from a university Web site. Next, I typed, “web parking blue paint curb” and received a message telling me that a blue curb designates parking for the disabled.