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CAR KITS

 

INTRO

There’s no shortage of hands-free car kits on the market, but how do the phone manufacturers own products compare with the offerings from the accessory companies?

 

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Over the past three and a half years we’ve tested at least a couple of dozen hands-free car kits, but looking back we were a little surprised to find that only a handful of them actually came from the original phone manufacturers.

 

Part of the reason for that has been the relatively slow response of phone companies to changes in buying patterns and the growing demand for sensibly priced accessories. Back in the late eighties and early nineties most mobile phones were sold though a relatively small network of specialist dealers; the few optional hands-free car kits that were available were expensive and usually only available for installation at approved fitting centres.

 

These days most mobile phones are sold in high-street stores or mail order, often by dealers without installation facilities; the issue of in-car operation rarely arises at the time of sale. That means most car kits are a secondary purchase, made some time after the acquisition of the handset; we suspect a lot of people never get around to thinking about buying one, until they’ve had a couple of near-misses, grappling with the phone whilst driving...

 

There are now hands-free kits for almost every phone -- sometimes two or three  --  ranging from basic DIY outfits to the manufacturer’s own products. Figures are hard to come by but it’s fair to assume that DIY kits now account for a sizeable chunk of the market. It goes without saying -- but we’ll say it anyway -- that there’s a huge variation in price, quality and performance.

 

However, for many phone users, unwilling to take a chance or reluctant to install the equipment themselves, the natural inclination is to have the original phone manufacturers outfit fitted to their vehicle. Not only does this guarantee compatibility, it will not affect the phone’s warranty; there’s also the reassurance of having it installed by a qualified engineer, who should do a professional job, and be able to sort it out, if it goes wrong.

 

Manufacturers car kits are also more likely to make full use of a phone’s special features. In general they’re built to a higher standard, and that’s usually reflected in the price, the question is, are they worth the extra expense? To find out we’ve been trying out a selection of car kits from four of the major manufacturers. The kits, from Ericsson, Mitsubishi, Nokia and Panasonic are straightforward hands-free models without boosters, so there’s no increase in the actual power output of the phone. Nevertheless they all use outside antennas so they will normally perform better than an unattached handset, inside a moving car.

 

Before we get started it’s worth bearing a couple points in mind. All of the kits we’ve looked at are intended to be installed by a trained engineer. None of them come with aerials, so you will have add that to the cost. Prices vary, and some makes of car involve a lot more work than others, but as a rough guide you can reckon on the fitting and aerial coming to between £100 and £150 for a regular family saloon. You can add another £50 to £100 for more exotic wheels. That’s not to say an averagely competent DIYer couldn’t do the job themselves, but in most cases the instructions are not written for beginners, and some aspects of the job -- safely connecting power cables, choosing and aligning aerials and fitting radio mute switches -- require experience and specialist knowledge. There’s also the dismantling and re-fitting of trim, drilling holes and safety implications to consider. Our advice is, if you don’t feel 100% confident about doing the job yourself, pay the experts do it for you. This will also give you some redress if anything goes wrong, or the phone doesn’t perform to expectations.   

 

ERICSSON HF2600

Ericsson have several car kits, this is the top-of-the-line outfit for 337 and 388 GSM models; a version for the recently launched 318 will be launched shortly. The kit is superbly well built and very complete, down to the last screw, Velcro sticky pads and cable tie. The outfit includes a dash mount hook with detachable phone cradle, control box, speaker, microphone, speaker and cabling. Optional car radio mute boxes are also available; the simple mute adaptor (£18) automatically cuts sound to speakers, the advanced model (£100), pipes audio from the phone through to the car stereo’s front speakers.

 

Key features are full duplex operation -- for smooth simultaneous two-way conversations -- and acoustic training, which adapts the phone sound to suit conditions in the car and reduces line echo. The kit also makes use of the phones noise reduction facility, to improve sound quality.

 

Installation is fairly involved but all of the cables -- except for the one attached to the speaker -- are a generous length so there shouldn’t be any problems tucking wires well out of the way. It’s an installer-friendly design with good provision for a tidy fitting. The phone is a snug and secure fit in the cradle, removal is very simple. The hang-up clip is quite stiff though, and a firm tug is needed to unhook it; hopefully this should ease up with use.

 

Despite the speaker being quite small there’s plenty of volume in reserve. Received speech quality is good and the microphone is adequately sensitive. It will pick up the front passenger’s voice without too much shouting, yet -- providing the acoustic tuning is properly carried out -- it’s reasonably immune to road noise. Pricey but it’s a quality package and the best car kit we’ve seen for Ericsson phones so far.

 

Typical price                  £293.73 (inc. VAT, ex. aerial and installation)

Features                       Full duplex operation, ‘custom’ sound, optional auto car radio mute modules (£18 and £100, see text)

 

Ease of installation         ****

Ease of use                   ****

Performance                  ****

Value for money ***

WHAT CELLPHONE VERDICT 88%       

Contact: Ericsson Ltd., telephone (01483) 3033666

 

 

MITSUBISHI FA1505064

This is the cheapest car kit in this roundup by a small margin, and designed to work with the MT-20 GSM phone. Part of the reason for the low price is the integrated cradle/speaker, reminiscent of several DIY car kits. In addition to the cradle there’s a small junction box, carrying the power, microphone and optional external speaker connections. The Cradle attaches to the car’s dashboard using a metal clip; all necessary fixings are included. The phone is linked to the cradle by a curly lead, when it’s removed the phone reverts to normal operation. The handset slots securely into the cradle and can be removed just as easily; a thumbwheel on the side adjusts the volume on the internal speaker, (mounted behind a grilled on the top of the cradle).

 

Were it not for the extremely brief instructions this kit could be almost DIYable, even the microphone is held in place by a simple spring clip, and the junction box can be attached with sticky pads (screws are also provided). Our sample had a fault; a microswitch on the inside of the cradle, which is supposed to register when the phone is inserted, wasn’t working properly. This resulted in intermittent operation; this appears to be a one-off, though we will be checking others to make sure.

 

The built-in loudspeaker is quite tinny and not very loud, moreover the case tends to reverberate if the volume is set to more than three-quarters full. An external speaker makes all the difference, though volume levels are still fairly low, and it has a tough time making itself heard in a noisy car. The microphone is very good, not too directional and moderately sensitive. Transmitted speech quality was reported to be quite good, received audio quality through the on-board speaker is a tad sibilant. Worth considering but we recommended using it with an external speaker.

 

Typical price                  £149.99, optional speaker £30 (inc. VAT, ex. aerial and installation)

Features                       all in one cradle/speaker, car radio mute, ignition sense

 

Ease of installation         ****

Ease of use                   ***

Performance                  **/*** (as is/with external speaker)

Value for money ***

WHAT CELLPHONE VERDICT 85%       

Contact: Mitsubishi Electric, telephone (01707) 276100

 

 

NOKIA CARK-11/0085003

There’s probably more accessory car kits for Nokia phones than any other make, (with the possible exception of Motorola), and some of them are very good indeed, so how does their own stack up against the competition? This model, for the 2110, is off to a good start. Build quality is excellent, all of the components are made to a very high standard, and the fitting kit is unusually comprehensive.

 

The outfit contains a dash-mount cradle; it’s a one-piece design with fixed contacts, so the phone can’t be picked up and used for private conversations, without interrupting power and aerial connections. An optional extension handset, without a display or keypad, is available. The microphone, cradle and chunky little speaker all plug into a control box, that can be mounted out of sight, behind the dash or under a centre console. The socket for the holder on the control box is also marked ‘booster’, though Nokia tell us they have no plans to market a signal booster in the UK at present.

 

The control box and cradle both fix on to slide brackets, securely screwed to the car body, which simplifies installation and removal. The handset bracket has a wide range of adjustments, which also helps.  All of the leads are a good length so there should be any problems routing cables out of sight.

 

There are no preliminaries, just slot the phone into the holder and hands-free operation is automatically selected. Audio from the speaker is quite punchy, it might run out of puff in a really noisy car though. The microphone is quite directional and adequately sensitive, though passengers might have to speak quite loudly in order to be heard. Speech quality at both ends of the connection is good, some line echo is evident and there’s some slight choppiness when both parties try to speak at once, but the audio remains clear and intelligible.

 

It looses a couple of points for the fixed handset, and we would have liked a little more volume but performance is good and the price compares quite well with the better accessory kits.

 

Typical price                  £258.50   (inc. VAT, ex. aerial and installation)

Features                       car radio mute

 

Ease of installation         ****

Ease of use                   ****      

Performance                  ***

Value for money ****

WHAT CELLPHONE VERDICT 82%       

Contact: Nokia Mobile Phones, telephone (01480) 434343

 

 

PANASONIC  EB-HF400Z

Thus far Nokia have led the way when it comes to exploiting the data handling capabilities of the GSM system but Panasonic are closing the gap, and in one area at least, they’re taking the lead with the ED-HF400Z hands-free car kit. This is the first we’ve come across with an purpose-designed interface for a PCMCIA data card, for linking the phone to a laptop computer. This means the phone can stay attached to the car-kit, benefiting from the unlimited supply of power and improved reception from an external aerial. They’re important considerations when making a GSM data connection, which can be touchy at the best of times.

 

The kit is designed to work with the EB-G400 and the recently launched G350 phones. The loudspeaker is built into the control box, which simplifies installation; the instructions are clear and easy to follow, peppered with sensible advice for DIYers. It’s flexible too. The phone cradle can either be bolted to the top of the box, or mounted separately; two hinged mounting brackets are supplied, along with all necessary fixings, and unusually abundant supplies of cable. Connections for ignition sense and car radio mute are included, along with a mystery cable that appears to have no function at all. The phone slots easily into the cradle, when it’s inserted hands-free mode is automatically selected, when the phone is removed it reverts to normal operation, for private calls.

 

The small loudspeaker is just about okay in a small, quiet car but it struggles against road rumble and noisy occupants; Panasonic have wisely included a socket for an external speaker. Received speech quality is clear and intelligible, a tad strident maybe but the treble emphasis helps cut through background noise. The microphone comes with a selection of mounting clips, so there’s no excuse for not getting the location right. This needs to be as close to the user’s head as possible, as it’s not terribly sensitive. Sound quality at the other end of the line is clean, though a little on the quiet side, so it helps to speak up.

 

Build quality and performance are both very good; the accessory companies are going to find it hard to match the price. However, the main selling feature for us has to be the data card connection, which underlines Panasonic’s credentials in this increasingly important area of mobile communications.

 

Typical price                  £186.50   (inc. VAT, ex. aerial and installation)

Features                       car radio mute, ignition sense, interface PCMCIA data card, auto power off

 

Ease of installation         *****

Ease of use                   ****

Performance                  ****

Value for money ****

WHAT CELLPHONE VERDICT 90%       

Contact: Panasonic UK, telephone (01344) 862444

 

---end---

Ó R. Maybury 1996 1106

 


 

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