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THE HARD CELL...

 

INTRO

If you think a mobile phone is like a BT phone, but without the wires, you're in for a nasty surprise; fighting your way through the jungle of technologies, handset designs, tariffs  and air-time contracts is only the beginning...

 

COPY

Here's something to think about if you're planning to buy a mobile phone in the near future. Industry research suggests that owners of hand-portable phones spend between 50 and 100 on accessories in the first couple of weeks after purchase. It's rarely by choice, but a reflection on the woefully inadequate accessory packs that come with most mobile phones. Normally all you get is a mains charger and single standard-capacity battery pack, leaving the phone singularly ill-equipped for the rigors of life on the street, or on the move. Needless to say the after-market accessory businesses are booming...

 

The mobile phone accessory market can be broken down into three broad areas. The largest sector covers power-supply products, which includes replacement batteries and chargers. This overlaps the second most diverse category, accessories that enable a hand-portable phone to work more efficiently in a car, things like car power cords, cradles, antennas and hands-free kits. Lastly there's the protective and general care products, which covers everything from carry-cases and holsters to replacement antennas.

 

POWER TO THE PEOPLE

Make no mistake, you are going to need an extra battery or two for your phone, and sooner rather than later!  Mobile phone manufacturers are notoriously optimistic about battery running times, so assume the worst and always carry a spare, preferably a higher capacity type with enough energy to see you through a whole day. The nickel cadmium or 'nicad' rechargeable batteries that power most mobile phones lead short but eventful lives, and don't take kindly to repeated top-up charges, and fast-charging in general. In theory a new nicad pack can be re-charged up to a thousand times, before there's a significant reduction in capacity. In practice you'll be lucky to get more than 500 charge/discharge cycles, or about eighteen months use from one, on a phone in daily use. Newer types of rechargeable battery, using nickel metal-hydride or Lithium Ion cells last a lot longer but they're still quite expensive and are being introduced only very slowly as new phones come on to the market.

 

The prices of  replacement mobile phone batteries vary dramatically. It depends on a number of factors, including the make and model of phone, the battery's capacity, and whether or not it is an original manufacturers branded replacement, or one from a third-party accessory company.  Needless to say quality also has a bearing on cost and there's been a worrying increase in the number of batteries using low-grade or sub-standard cells. They turn up in street markets or 'cowboy' phone shops, performance is generally very poor and for obvious reasons are best avoided. Then there's the profit motive, and it's not unknown for battery packs made in the same factory, on the same production line, to differ in price by as much as 100%, so shop around and expect to pay anywhere between 30 and 60 for a standard replacement battery, and up to 120 for a high-capacity nickel metal-hydride pack.

 

CONDITIONAL DISCHARGE

The best way to look after nicad packs is to make sure they're fully discharged before re-charging, and if the option exists, trickle-charge the battery overnight whenever possible, rather than subject it to a life of damaging fast-charging. Trickle chargers are available for most phones, and they cost from about 15 upwards, however, it's only putting off the inevitable and most nicad batteries eventually acquire a 'memory' that limits their ability to hold a full charge. Memory is a catch-all term used to describe a number of ominous-sounding conditions that include voltage-depression and cell-imbalance, but the end result is the same, a nicad battery can lose up to fifty percent of its capacity in just a few months. Fortunately these effects are mostly reversible and can be largely eradicated using a conditioner.

 

Conditioner or refresh circuits are a comparatively recent innovation and they're increasingly featured on after-market chargers. They work by deeply discharging the battery, normally to a point below the cut-off voltage of the phone, after which the battery is automatically re-charged; badly affected batteries may require two or three sessions to revive them. So far only a handful of phone manufacturers incorporate refresh circuits into their standard mains chargers. Prices appear steep, typically 40 to 90 for a charger-conditioner, compared with under 25 or so for a normal desk-top accessory charger but they're definitely worth the extra, and heavy-duty mobile-phone users can easily recoup the cost by restoring or prolonging the life of just a couple of battery packs.

 

CASE STUDY

Mobile phones are tough little customers and most handsets can take the odd tumble without much more than scratch, but it makes good sense to get a protective case for your hand-portable phone, if only to preserve its looks, and resale value. The majority of cases have belt clips, which allows them to be kept safely out of sight, or on display, if that's what you want, and are prepared to risk the consequences...

 

Carry cases are now available for most makes and types of mobile phone, though it can take accessory companies a  while to catch up with newer models or odd-shaped handsets that sell in comparatively small numbers. The vast bulk of soft leather cases are made in the Far East, Taiwan and China, and the standard of construction is normally quite high, though always check the integrity of the stitching, and look inside for any sharp rivets or metal fittings that could scratch your phone. Make sure your phone fits snugly, preferably with a high-capacity battery pack attached, as they're usually fatter than standard batteries. Ensure the microphone and earpiece holes in the case line up with the handset, and that all of the controls are accessible, not forgetting any buttons or sockets that may be on the side or the bottom of the phone. Prices for soft leather carry cases start at around 15 for plain unbranded ones, rising to 60 or more for smarter designs and phone manufacturers own custom cases.

 

The trendy alternative to a case is a leather or suede holster, either worn on the belt, or a shoulder strap. Once out of its holster a phone is far more accessible, no flaps or covers to get in the way or undo. They tend to be bulkier than soft cases, and can present pick-pockets with an easier or more tempting target, if worn in view. Not surprisingly holsters are more expensive than regular soft cases, so reckon to pay up to 40 for one, more if you want something out of the ordinary.

 

ON THE ROAD

The distinctions that used to exist between car-phones and hand-portables have been gradually eroded and most pocket phones can be persuaded to work quite well inside a moving car, with the right accessories of course. The most basic in-car installation consists of a holder or cradle, and a power cord, to run the phone from the car battery, and in some cases, charge the phone's battery pack as well. A cradle does three things: it raises the phone's antenna up above the car's waistline, for improved reception; it places it within easy reach of the driver -- an important safety consideration -- and it keeps it safe, preventing it from rattling around inside the glove box, on the passenger's seat, or on the floor!. Cradles come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and styles, from cheap and simple cup-type holders that stick or screw to the dashboard, to complicated goose-neck or articulated brackets with sprung fingers that grip the phone.

 

Cup holders, which purport to fit a range of different handsets are the cheapest option, normally costing less than 20, but try before you buy as the fit may be too tight or too loose. The more elaborate 'universal' cradles start at around 30; add to that the price of a mount, a simple bracket costs 10, rising to 30 or more for a gooseneck or adjustable 'head-mount'.

 

Some cradles, designed for specific makes or model of phone, have built-in power-cords, (also variously known as battery eliminators or savers), but in most cases it's necessary to get a separate power cord. They plug into the car's cigarette lighter socket, a small voltage reduction and stabiliser circuit is built into the plug, or in some cases, a dummy battery pack that replaces the phone's own battery. Power cords that drive the phone and charge the battery at the same time are clearly preferable, though not all handsets have that facility. Car cords are generally quite reasonably priced, for popular phones at least, and those marketed by the accessory companies start at under 20, but you can pay as much as 100 for one from a phone manufacturer's own accessory range. Cradles and car-cords are frequently bundled together by accessory companies, and sold as basic car-kits. Buying both together can save a few pounds, but it's still worth checking the cost of buying the parts separately.

 

AERIAL SURVEY

It's remarkable that hand-portable phones work as well as they do inside a moving car, but in poor reception areas they can be unreliable, or completely unusable, in which case it's worth installing an external antenna. Not all handsets have the necessary sockets, but there are a number of clip-on aerial adaptors that attach to the phones own antenna. There's also a type of car antenna that has no physical connection with the phone at all, they're called 'passive-repeaters' and supposedly work by acting as a conduit for signals passing in and out of the car; their effectiveness is questionable...

 

Broadly speaking there are three styles of car antenna; the ones best suited to DIY installation are the glass-mount types, which stick to a side or back window. Signals to and from the handset pass through the glass, via a coupler stuck to the inside of the window. The most efficient types are body-mount or mag-mount aerials, which are either bolted to the car's metalwork, or stick to it with a powerful magnet. Installation takes a little longer, and in most cases involve drilling holes in your car bodywork. The last type are temporary or stick-on antennas, that attach to a window with rubber suckers. They work reasonably well but being inside the car they're not as effective as a glass or body-mount aerial extending above the car's roofline. Antennas cost from as little as 10, for a simple bodymount type, to 50 or more.

 

Take all performance claims with a large pinch of salt, the position of an antenna, and care taken during installation have as much, if not more influence on efficiency than fancy-looking widgets and coils. It's usually worth paying the extra to have a cellphone aerial fitted by an engineer.

 

LOOK, NO HANDS

It is possible to upgrade some hand-portables to the same level of effectiveness and performance as a purpose-designed car-phone. Car-kits vary in scope from model to model, but it has to be said that not all phones adapt well to a life on the road, and it's the handset, rather than the car kit which determines how well it works. Most mobile phone manufacturers market hands-free kits, which generally include a remote microphone and loudspeaker, so the driver has no need to pick up the phone when making or taking a call. After that it's usually down to the additional facilities incorporated within the handset, and these can include features such as auto-answering, after a pre-determined number of rings, to full voice-activated operation on the more sophisticated models.

 

Most car kits can also be fitted with signal boosters, which increase the phone's power output from a few hundred milliwatts, to the same level as a normal car phone. This will reduce the number of dropped calls and improve both range and reception quality in marginal signal areas. The cheapest hands-free car kits start at around 150, but you could pay as much as 1000 for one with a booster plus all the bells and whistles, at which point it's probably simpler and a whole lot cheaper to go for a proper car phone instead!

 

---end---

R.Maybury 1994 2004

 


 

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