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HANDS-OFF EXPERIENCE

 

INTRO

If the cost of fitting a hands-free car kit has put you off the idea, then why not do-it-yourself?  Rick Maybury looks at what’s involved, and some of the kits on the market, designed for home installation

 

COPY

You’re driving along the motorway and the phone rings, it could be important, urgent, or both, what do you do? It takes tremendous resolve to ignore a ringing phone, but to answer it whilst moving would be both dangerous and illegal. Of course you could switch the phone off when you’re out and about in the car, but that’s not much good if you need to stay in touch. Fixed car-phones which have a ‘hands-free’ facility are the obvious solution for those who spend their working lives behind the wheel, but the whole point of having a pocket phone is to be able to take it with you wherever you go, in the car, or on foot.

 

A hands-free car kit is the answer. They make it easier, and safer, to make and take calls in a vehicle, moreover most kits can be fitted with an external antenna that increases the range, reduces the number of dropped calls, and helps to improve sound quality. Some car kits can also be fitted with signal boosters, so they perform as well as dedicated car-phones. Until fairly recently the choice of kits has been somewhat limited, or non-existent! The majority of them were produced for, and marketed by the phone manufacturers themselves, moreover, a lot of phones slipped through the net altogether, and on some models a car kit isn’t even an option.

 

The situation began to change a couple of years ago, with a growing number of accessory companies producing hands-free car kits, though initially they were only for the most popular models, and intended for fitting by installation engineers. In the past year or so the number of new car kits coming on to the market has markedly increased, and as a general rule they’re usually a fair bit cheaper than phone manufacturers own kits. In some cases it still makes sense to stick to the manufacturers offerings, they’re most likely to make full use of any specialised features the phone may have, and there’s no chance of any incompatibility, however, phone manufacturers do not encourage DIY installation, which brings us to the central theme of this month’s accessory survey.

 

The kits we’ve been looking at here are all available over the counter from accessory dealers or by mail order. Some of them can be fitted in just a few minutes, and require no specialist tools or knowledge. Others require a modicum of expertise, though it’s fair to say even the most elaborate kits are no more difficult, and in some cases, a lot easier to fit, than a car stereo for example. That said, it’s not a job you should undertake lightly, there are safety considerations to bear in mind, we’ll be looking at them in a moment.

 

We’ve tried to bring some sense of order to the proceedings by only looking at accessory kits,  designed to fit the ever-popular Motorola ‘flip-phone’ family, which includes the Micro TACs,  Classic and Elite. Kits for other phones obviously vary to a considerable degree, as far as the design of the cradle and connections to the phone are concerned, but the rest of the components, and the mounting hardware are usually pretty much the same from model to model.

 

When assessing these kits we focused on four main areas: the contents and completeness of the package; how easy the kit was to install; how useful and informative the instructions were, and lastly, how well it performed.

 

Value for money is extremely difficult to gauge, as with all things cellphone there are no rigid pricing structures, they vary enormously from one dealer to another, and from one month to the next. Reluctantly we’ve included some prices, given to us by distributors, dealers, or published in advertisements (we’ve added the VAT), but treat them purely as ball-park figures. Be aware that some installers may include the cost of fitting the car kit in the price, and/or an antenna, especially if the car kit is purchased at the same time as the phone. Don’t be afraid to haggle and as always it’s a good idea to shop around.

 

SIDEBAR 1

DIY INSTALLATION

If you want to do the job properly you should familiarise yourself with a Department of Trade and Industry document called ‘Code of Practice for Installation of Mobile Radio Equipment in Land-based Vehicles’ (better known to its fans as MPT 1362), before you begin. This hefty tome is aimed at installation engineers and it covers all types of mobile equipment, from two-way radios in cabs to cellphones,  but it makes clear all of the obvious, and not so obvious hazards involved with this kind of work. The DTI tell us that they’re considering a version more closely targeted at cellphone installation, and possibly even one for DIY installers, we’ll keep you posted.

 

It’s mostly common-sense in any case. Plan the installation carefully, map out the routes for the cables, decide where you’re going to put items like microphones and speakers. Before you get out the Black and Decker make sure there are no cables or pipework behind the panels or dashboard you’re going to drill holes in, and double check that cables cannot chafe against sharp edges. It’s a good idea to have a dummy run first, so you can experiment with different locations for the various bits and pieces. Mount the phone so that it’s in easy reach of the driving position, and you can see the keypad and display clearly.  Once you’ve found a suitable place make sure it can bear the weight of the cradle, some of them are quite heavy, it’s no good trying to attach it to dashboard padding, it will drop off!  Ensure the cradle wont interfere with any of the car’s controls or instruments, and when you come to wire it up pay particular attention to the power cable polarity, if you get it wrong you could fry both the adaptor and the phone.

 

Antenna location is something of a black art, and it can have a big influence on a phone’s range and efficiency. The simple rule of thumb is to mount the antenna as high as possible. Another top tip is to see where the aerials are located on other cars of the same make and model as your own, or seek advice at your nearest cellphone installation workshop. Glass-mount antennas are a lot easier to fit, and move (if you get it wrong) than body or wing-mount types. If you’ve any doubts about your ability to fit a car kit yourself don’t take chances, get it installed by a professional

 

THE KITS

 

ANDREW

IN CAR HANDS FREE UNIT  Typically £230

The kit contains a cradle, with built-in speaker, hinged mounting bracket, microphone and power leads. Absolutely everything is included in this outfit, right down to a couple of alcohol impregnated cleaning swabs, to ensure the supplied glass-mount antenna gets a good grip. The phone’s feature connector is physically mounted on the cradle, rather than on the end of a lead, making it a lot easier to insert and remove the handset. A passive coupler is built into the top end of the cradle, next to the phone’s antenna. The microphone is fitted with a spring metal clip, so that it can be easily mounted on door post trims or sun-visors.

 

The step-by-step instructions that accompany the kit are a model of clarity, they’re packed with useful hints and tips and although written primarily for installers, are simple enough for a competent DIYer to follow. A separate user guide is also included.

 

There’s only one control, a volume thumbwheel situated at the bottom end of the cradle. A single LED indicates power on and charge status, it glows red when the battery is being fast-charged, and green during trickle charge.  As the speaker is mounted on the underside of the cradle the volume has to be turned up quite loud, unfortunately the case resonates a little at higher volume settings, received sound quality is okay, though finding the right volume setting can be tricky, especially in noisy cars. No complaints from the other end; the transmitted sound quality is good, the microphone is quite directional, so it’s important to get the position right. A very well thought-out design, simple to install and use, performance is okay, though it could do with an external speaker option.

 

Ease of installation                     ****

Instructions                               ****

Build quality                              *****

Transmission quality   ****

Reception quality               ***

Value                                        ***

WHAT CELLPHONE VERDICT 90%

 

 

AVANTE HANDS FREE CAR KIT Typically £150 (antenna extra)

Avante are now concentrating on the digital phone market, and their kit for Motorola flip phones is intended for the GSM model. It’s actually very similar to Atec kit, marketed by Vega, and like them Avante leave the choice of antenna is up to the installer or customer. The cradle which holds the phone is unusually compact, that’s because all of the electronics are contained in a separate control module, which can be hidden away under a seat or the dashboard. The phone is connected to the cradle by a curly lead, two other cables link the cradle to the control box, and to the external antenna. There are no controls, just a single LED to indicate whether or not the phone’s battery is charging; speaker volume is controlled from the phone.

 

The instructions are scant and assume a certain amount of familiarity with car electrics, so this probably isn’t a good outfit for inexpert DIY installers.

 

Performance is generally good, the sound coming from the speaker is quite punchy, it’s loud too, so it can make itself heard, even in a noisy environment. The microphone produces a crisp sound, though could do with being a little more sensitive, those on the other end of the line sometimes ask the caller to speak up. Mounting it closer to the driver helps, which may explain why it comes with a screw-on mounting plate, rather than the more usual sun-visor clip. Worth considering.

 

Ease of installation                     ***

Instructions                               ***

Build quality                              *****

Transmission quality   ***

Reception quality               *****

Value                                        ***

 

WHAT CELLPHONE VERDICT 82%

 

 

CDM & GRM

‘ONE FOR ALL’  & UNIVERSAL HANDS-FREE KIT (CDM £76.38)

Definitely the odd ones out, the ‘One For All’ (not to be confused with a universal infra-red remote control of the same name) from CDM and Universal Hands Free Kit from GRM (they’re exactly the same), are designed to work with virtually any analogue or GSM phone;  the one from CDM retails for just £76, making it the cheapest hands-free car kit on the market by quite a margin.

 

So how is it done? On paper it seems like a clever idea; the phone is held in what looks like a standard universal mounting cradle, with sprung grippers either side, the outfit also includes a hinged mounting bracket for the cradle, and a small box containing a loudspeaker, amplifier, control circuit and battery box that holds four AA cells. On the top of the cradle unit there’s a slide-out stem to which is attached a microphone on the end of a spring-loaded double jointed arm (they call it a ‘sound picker’...). Once the phone is in place the sound picker is placed over the phone’s earpiece. (An adaptor tube is included in the outfit, to extend the reach of the sound picker for longer Motorola 8900 series phones).

 

Installation is very straightforward, which is just as well as the single sided instruction sheet doesn’t go into a great deal of detail. The cradle mounting bracket is screwed to the car’s dashboard, it’s unwise to mount it too low down as there’s no external antenna facility. The loudspeaker box is held in place by double-sided sticky tape, the cable is quite short.

 

Operation is fully automatic, as soon as you dial out, or take an incoming call the amplifier is activated (it senses RF emissions from the phone) and the sound from the earpiece is heard through the loudspeaker; a volume control thumbwheel is mounted on the side of the speaker box. There’s no on-off switch but CDM reckon that a set of batteries will last for about a year on standby, or give around 20-hours of continuous use.

 

The biggest drawback is that there’s no provision for an external microphone, so unless the one on the phone is especially sensitive (most are not) you have to either shout or speak loudly, or get closer to the phone, which is not a good idea whilst driving! There’s no power supply facilities, indeed it may not be possible to use a power cord with some phones as the supply socket may be obscured by the cradle., Heath Robinson would have been proud of it; it’s incredibly ugly and looks so out of place alongside a piece of high-tech wizardry, like a mobile phone! Apart from that... Plus points -- and yes, there are some -- include the universal fitting , indeed it may well be the only hands-free car kit available for some phones; sound quality from the speaker isn’t too bad, and it works quite well as a speakerphone, handy if you do more listening than talking. However as an alternative to a proper hands-free car kit it leaves rather a lot to be desired.

 

Ease of installation                     ****

Instructions                               ***

Build quality                              ***

Transmission quality   see text

Reception quality               ***

Value                                        ***

 

WHAT CELLPHONE VERDICT 70%

 

ONLINE

HANDS FREE CAR KIT Typically £100

This kit is also aimed at DIYers, anyone who knows one end of a screwdriver from the other should be able to fit one without too many problems. Installation has been simplified by using the car’s cigarette lighter socket as the power source, and it doesn’t come with an external antenna, though it has a built-in coupler and there’s a socket for one, mounted rather inconveniently on the top of the cradle. In addition to the purpose-designed cradle the kit also contains a hinged mounting bracket, loudspeaker and microphone with sunvisor clip. There’s also a set of screws, though for some reason there’s only enough for the mounting bracket and cradle, what about the speaker? The phone connects to the cradle by a curly lead, a set of contacts in the base mate with the phone’s battery for charging. There’s a volume knob and a single LED indicator, to show charge status.

 

The instructions are short and to the point, but then there’s not a lot to say. Find a place for the cradle, mark the holes for the mounting bracket and screw it on. After that fit the loudspeaker and microphone, tuck the cables out of sight, plug it in and switch on.  Operation is perfectly straightforward, and it behaves impeccably, though the phone is held quite tightly in the cradle, and can sometimes be difficult to remove; hopefully it becomes easier with use.

 

The small speaker produces a surprisingly strident sound, though it’s not especially loud. The microphone on the other hand is quite big, but it does the job, and strikes a good compromise between sensitivity and directionality; transmitted speech is clear and background noise levels are low. A particularly well designed outfit, ideal for DIY installation, the price is fair, though don’t forget to add on the cost of an antenna, too bring this outfit up to full spec. Recommended.

 

Ease of installation                     *****

Instructions                               ****

Build quality                              ****

Transmission quality   ****

Reception quality               ****

Value                                        *****

 

WHAT CELLPHONE VERDICT 95%

 

ORA

MTACHF HANDS-FREE SPEAKERPHONE CAR KIT Typically £100

This outfit, which is now compatible with GSM phones, includes a cradle (with the  amplifier and control electronics built-in), external speaker module, microphone, glass mount antenna and all necessary fixing hardware and cables. The kit and instructions are oriented towards professional installers, and they warn that DIY fitting will void the guarantee, but it shouldn’t pose any problems for anyone who knows their way around their vehicle’s electrical system. The cradle is a fairly conventional, though not especially elegant design; a spring plate covering the retaining catch looks a bit tacked-on, and the aerial lead emerges from the top of the unit, which looks a little untidy. The phone connects to the unit via a plug and curly lead, the microphone and loudspeaker leads plug into sockets on the bottom of the cradle. Unlike most other kits this one has an ignition sensor connection, so it can be wired to work only when the ignition is switched on.

 

Our review sample was supplied with a stubby 1/4 wave glass mount antenna, the pack is very well presented and includes three wipes, one to clean the glass, another to dry it off, and an alcohol swap, to ensure maximum adhesion. A silicon-based adhesive is used to glue the antenna and coupler to the glass, rather than the more usual double-sided sticky pads; it take a little longer to fit but it shouldn’t come off in a hurry!

 

The instructions are very comprehensive and easy to follow, though they’re written primarily for installers. The speaker and cradle mount are very straightforward, and the microphone is fitted with a clip that can be attached to trim panels or a sun-visor. There are no controls or indicators on the unit, and volume is adjusted using the phone’s own controls. The power circuit will trickle-charge the phone’s battery for as long as it is connected.

 

Sound quality from the chunky speaker is excellent, a little bass-heavy maybe though still completely legible. Transmitted quality is equally good, and the microphone is quite directional, so it is fairly insensitive to background sounds, engine and road noises. This overall quality of this kit is excellent, it’s not the prettiest one we’ve seen but performance is very good and it can be installed by a competent DIYer.

 

Ease of installation                     ****

Instructions                               ****

Build quality                              ***

Transmission quality   ****

Reception quality               ****

Value                                        ***

WHAT CELLPHONE VERDICT 85%

 

 

ORA

PERSONAL: HANDS FREE KIT Typically £50

If you don’t fancy drilling holes in your nice new car, or tampering with the electrics then this could be just what you’ve been waiting for. This outfit contains a car power cord and an earpiece with a clip-on microphone, there’s even a spare foam cover for the earpiece, should you have waxy ears, or want to share it with a friend...

 

The power cord and earphone/mike plug into a little box, this has a lead which connects to the phone’s accessory socket. The phone can then be left on a seat, or better still held in a dashboard cradle. Calls are answered in the usual way, after that there’s no need to touch the phone, other than to hang up again. Sound quality through the earpiece is satisfactory, it’s a bit choppy, though, and a little tinny but that’s not a problem for speech. The microphone produces a clean crisp sound, and because it’s relatively close to the users mouth background noise is not a problem.

 

It won’t do anything to improve range or reception, and the earpiece can get a little uncomfortable if worn for long periods; you can’t take it out because the ringing tone is heard though the earpiece. Only one person can use it at a time, and handing the phone over to someone else in the car can be a little awkward. They’re relatively minor quibbles though, and more than outweighed by the plus points. There’s no need to worry about fitting, important if you want to use your phone in someone else’s car, it’s brilliantly simple, cheap and very effective.

 

Ease of installation                     *****     

Instructions                               **

Build quality                              ****

Transmission quality   *****

Reception quality               ***

Value                                        ****

 

WHAT CELLPHONE VERDICT 87%

 

VEGA

ATEC HANDS-FREE KIT £199.95 (antenna extra)

Vega, currently best known for their classy cellphone holsters, are now distributing a wider range of accessories in the UK. Their car kits are made by the Italian company Atec, (similar to the Avante kits),  it’s a smart-looking design, the cradle is smaller than most of the others in this roundup, because it doesn’t contain any electronics or a speaker, just a passive antenna coupler, contacts for the phone battery, so it can be charged in-situ, and a red/green LED indicator that shows charge status.  Three cables emerge from the cradle, the one on the right is for the antenna, the curly one in the middle goes to the phone’s accessory socket, the third goes to a discreet adaptor unit, that can be mounted behind the dashboard, under a seat or centre-console.

 

The adaptor box houses the amplifier, power and control circuits, and it has sockets for the loudspeaker and microphone. The speaker box is slim and unobtrusive, and the microphone is a very distinct design, though the fixing arrangements are a little crude, there’s a strip of double sided tape on the back of the mike, which sticks to a small mounting plate, that is screwed to the car body. The brochure and instructions talk about a clip type arrangement, which would seem far better. Talking of which, the supplied instructions are very brief, Vega supply slightly more detailed information sheets, but in either case there is not really enough information for a novice to fit this outfit.

 

Vega leave the choice of antenna up to the customer or installer, their range of Swedish made Carant antennas covers most eventualities and includes both body and glass-mount designs. The glass mount kits are very easy to install, they even include an allen key, to lock the antenna into place, and glass fixing clips for the cable, as well as the obligatory alcohol wipe.  

 

Received sound quality is good, volume is controlled from the phone, and there’s plenty in reserve. The microphone isn’t especially sensitive, you have to speak quite loudly to make yourself heard, on the plus side background noise levels are quite low. The separate control box is a mixed blessing, the cradle is a lot neater but it makes installation a little trickier, and the interconnecting cables could do with being a little longer. Apart from that this outfit looks good and works reasonably well. Worth considering.

 

Ease of installation                     ***

Instructions                               ***

Build quality                              *****

Transmission quality   ****

Reception quality               *****

Value                                        ***

 

WHAT CELLPHONE VERDICT 80%

 

 

CONTACTS

 

ANDREW Ltd, Ilex Building, Mulberry Business Park,

Fishponds Road, Wokingham RG11 2GY. Tel: (01734) 776886

 

AVANTE 28 Hercules Way, Bar Hill Ind Estate, Melksham Tel:(01249) 444960

 

CDM , PO Box 143, Salford, Manchester M6 7BU. Tel (0161) 7378388

 

GRM, Copse Road, Fleetwood, Lancashire FY7 6RP. Tel (01253) 773177

 

ONLINE ACCESSORIES, 1-15 Kingston Road. Freemantle,

Southampton SO15 3DB. Tel: (01703) 237111

 

ORA 28/29 Faraday Road, Aylesbury, Bucks HP19 3RY

Tel: (01296) 415445

 

VEGA Bamford Village Centre, Martlett Avenue, Rochdale OL11 5QY

Tel: (01706) 44177

 

---end---

Ó R. Maybury 1995 2205

 


 

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