THE HARD CELL...
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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!
© R.Maybury 1994 2004