When the walk sign flashes red and the tempo picks up as falling leaves around you carry the tune in your ears, there's only one explanation...

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When the walk sign flashes red and the tempo picks up as falling leaves around you carry the tune in your ears, there’s only one explanation: You’re hearing the soundtrack to your life.

To get a copy, simply buy a collection of music, carry it around with you and listen to it.

The hard part is in deciding what device is up to the task of playing the tunes.

The classic tape or CD players can’t be discounted. Neither can the wide selection of iPods, some smaller than a pack of gum.

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But the way to ensure you’ll have your music with you at all times is to store it on your cellphone — the item you most likely grab when leaving the house.

The cellphone that can play back music isn’t for everyone. There’s something to be said for having a workhorse MP3 player that has the gigabyte capacity to entertain you on a trip around the world. But that’s not what we are talking about here.

We are diving into a much smaller universe — cellphones that have music playback capabilities. In looking at this small but quickly growing segment of the device chart, I tested four cellphones currently on the market or scheduled to come out soon.

In no particular order, the phones I poked, prodded and occasionally dropped were the LG VX9800 from Verizon Wireless, the Samsung A940 from Sprint, the Motorola Rokr from Cingular Wireless and the Sony Ericsson W600i (available through a soon-to-be-announced carrier).

After three weeks carrying these phones in my pockets or my purse, I realized none is perfect. Each had a flaw. Likewise, each one had at least one strong music-related feature, which leads me to believe there is a phone out there for everyone.

The phone I found myself gravitating to most often was the Rokr, which comes loaded with Apple Computer’s iTunes software. I was surprised. Before its release it received endless hype, only to be criticized upon its arrival. The biggest rub was that it was a mediocre music player in the eyes of die-hard iPod fans.

I saw it a different way. As a Discman user with no biases toward any digital device, I found the Rokr to be an easy-to-use phone that played music. That’s a winning combination to me.

Here’s a detailed look at all the phones. I considered mainly three things: the functionality of the music player, the functionality of the phone (it has to make calls, right?) and the price.

Motorola Rokr

The Rokr, as a music player, ranked highest on my chart.

A button labeled with a green musical note leads to the iTunes software. From there a little joystick helps you navigate the playlist. It’s easy and fast to get into and out of my quick music escapes.

When a call comes in, the music pauses. When the call ends, the song picks up where it left off. Likewise, the music player can run in the background while you surf the Web or send a text message, making for a good music player and communication device. Battery life was superb.

The downsides were that it takes 40 minutes to load 100 songs onto the phone using a USB cable attached to a computer, and the maximum the device allows is 100 tracks, regardless of your memory chip size. Also, you can’t set a song as your ringtone.

The phone, which comes with a basic camera, is $150 with a two-year Cingular contract.

LG VX9800

This phone, offered by Verizon Wireless, has extraordinary features, but the music player isn’t one of them.

The candy-bar-sized phone flips open on its side to reveal a full keyboard and a big screen. It runs on Verizon’s high-speed EV-DO network and gets VCast, the carrier’s TV service. That’s what it is good at.

Playing music is easy, too. The player launches with the press of a key on the navigation pad. A list of songs pops up, and you simply pick one. Getting the music there is also easy. Its 128-megabyte mini SD card can be loaded into a SD reader, which plugs into your computer’s USB port. Music and movies can be transferred over using a drag-and-drop approach.

However, listening to the music is what doesn’t work well. It’s too quiet on a headset. Road noise easily drowns it out. And when a call comes in, the song is dropped and doesn’t pick up again. Ditto when using other features, including text messaging or Web surfing.

This high-end phone, which comes with endless accessories such as Bluetooth and a 1.3-megapixel camera, is $300 with a two-year contract.

Samsung A940

The Samsung is a great overall phone and has stellar music features no other carrier has been willing to match as yet.

Although users have been purchasing snippets of songs as ringtones for some time, Sprint is the first carrier in the U.S. to allow over-the-air purchase of full music tracks.

It’s not without a cost. Each track is $2.50, a heavy premium to pay over the 99-cent songs on iTunes. The only part that makes it easier to swallow is that you get a copy both for the cellphone and for the PC, which can be downloaded off of Sprint’s Web site. Also, songs you’ve already purchased on the PC can be moved to the phone through a USB cable, leaving the phone’s music store for more spontaneous purchases.

The store has more than 25,000 songs (Eminem alone occupies a few pages). The application lists songs bycategory, such as What’s Hot and Breakthrough Artists. You can choose Search or look through such genres as Opera and Spoken Word. Songs download quickly over Sprint’s high-speed EV-DO network.

The problem, as I see it, is that the player is packaged with the store. Each time you want to listen to music, you have to load the player, which requires a couple of clicks and then a wait. But once running, it works well and doesn’t interfere with incoming calls or any of the phone functions.

I give the Samsung a lot of credit in other areas, especially for packaging all the fancy extras in such an intuitive phone. It has a 2-megapixel zoom camera. It even scans business cards and plays live TV in sync with national broadcasts. The price? $250 after rebate.

Sony Ericsson

This phone is by far the coolest. The sleek design is a showstopper. The compact phone is silver and metallic orange in the style of the Sony Walkman. It twists up and open, a difficult move at first, but thankfully not one you have to do often unless you make a lot of calls.

The music features are similar to those of the Rokr. The player launches at one touch, and the layout of the software is similar, with playlists.

To get music on the phone, it has to be loaded from a PC through a USB cable. You also must download special software to the PC, but it’s easy enough that you’ll never have to read the instruction manual.

The phone has many other functions as well. It lets you listen to the radio. Users can take videos, edit them on the phone, even adding comments of text on the screen.

I think the phone’s best feature is its ability to set a song from your music collection as a ringtone. This is the only model I tested that allows you to do this.

My one complaint is that the design is so cool that the buttons aren’t labeled, making it confusing to use. Over time, this could be just a minor annoyance. It’s also slightly irritating that the phone isn’t readily available through a carrier yet. But when it is, the price — expected to be about $200 — is right.

Tricia Duryee: 206-464-3283 or tduryee@seattletimes.com