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IN-CAR COMMUNICATIONS SUPPLEMENT

 

INTRO

Cradles and hang-up cups are the quick, simple and cheap way of getting a mobile phone into your car and on the road, but it’s only the beginning. Now we look at ways of powering the phone, simple car kits and full-blown hands-free installations

 

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Now you’ve got your mobile phone safely installed in a holder or cradle the next logical step is to power it from the car’s electrical system. Of course you could just rely on the phone’s own battery but you’ll need no reminding that operating times can be limited, even with a high capacity battery. Furthermore, if you’re going to be away from home or the office for any length of time, you will need some means of charging the battery.

 

The solution is a car power cord, also known as a talk and charge adaptor, it’s a simple and inexpensive widget that connects between the car’s cigarette lighter and the phone. Inside the adaptor -- a small module attached to the cigarette lighter plug --  there’s a regulator circuit that does two important jobs. Firstly it reduces the voltage from the car battery to the six volts supply needed by most phones, and secondly it controls the amount of current drawn by the phone and its battery. Accurate voltage regulation is critically important, the output from a car battery can be as low as 10 or 11 volts on a cold day, rising to 15 volts or more when it’s being charged.  Moreover, when the car is started, high voltage peaks or transients -- generated by the starter motor and ignition system -- could find their way onto the supply cable and damage the delicate micro circuits inside the phone, so they have to be suppressed. Not all power cords have this facility so it’s usually a good idea not to connect the phone to the cord until after the engine is running.

 

Current regulation is equally important. If allowed to do so, a flat phone battery will draw a large current, that could damage the cells inside, due to overheating, so the current has to be carefully controlled. Some power cords incorporate sophisticated charging circuits that work like a mains desktop charger. Initially the charge current is high, so the battery charges quickly then, once the battery is fully charged, the current reduces to a trickle charge, keeping the battery topped up. The cord will also deal with variations in current consumption that occur when the phone is in the standby condition, and in use.

 

POWER CORDS

There are basically two types of power cord. Simple battery savers, which replace the phone’s own battery pack, , and the more common talk-and-charge type adaptor. Battery savers do not charge the battery so we consider them to be of limited use, in any case they’re becoming increasingly rare these days.  Saver-chargers or talk and charge adaptors cost only a little more than simple battery savers, so you might as well charge the battery when it’s being powered by the car battery. The remaining talk and charge adaptors fall into one of two sub-categories: trickle chargers, and more advanced types with fast-charging facilities. Trickle chargers are kinder to your phone’s battery, but they’re not much use if you need to charge the battery quickly. If you think your phone is going to spend a lot of time connected to a car power cord it’s a good idea to regularly discharge the battery, to prevent the build-up of a ‘memory’ effect, which can reduce the batteries capacity by as much as 50% in just a few months. Here’s a small selection of car cords that we’ve tried and tested:

 

WHAT CELLPHONE RECOMMENDATIONS

Algon Charger Cable, £35

Advanced adaptor using a delta V charging system (just like a desktop charger) for automatic fast and trickle-charge operation. A two colour LED indicator (red and green) signals when fast charging has finished and the unit reverts to trickle-charge mode. Pricey but well presented and easy to use.

 

Make/model                  Algon 10.915

Typical price                  £35

System             fast/trickle

Features                       2-colour (red/green) charge indicator, replaceable 2A fuse

 

Build quality                  *****

WC Rating                    90%

 

Contact ALLGON ANTENNAS, Unit 11, The Courtyard Whitwick Business Park, Stenson Road, Coalville, Leicester LE67 3JP. Telephone (01530) 510013

                       

 

Andrew Rapid Charger, £35

Not all cigarette lighter sockets are the same but this one fits most types with its slide-action plug. A well-designed fast charger that automatically reverts to trickle charge. Charge status is shown by a two-colour LED indicator and there’s provision for both high and low capacity batteries. Worth thinking about.

 

Make/model                  Andrew Rapid Charger

Typical price                  £35

Charge system  fast/trickle

Features                     2-colour (orange/green) charge indicator, custom-fit lighter plug

 

Build quality                  *****

WC Rating                    90%

 

Contact ANDREW Ltd, Ilex Building, Mulberry Business Park,

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

 

 

Ora Power Cord £20

Basic controlled current trickle-charger that works on 12 or 24 volt supplies (useful for truckers). Just the job for topping up the phone battery on a long run. A single colour LED confirms power is on. An interchangeable tip for the plug is supplied, so it will fit most types of cigarette lighter socket.

 

Make/model                  Ora MOTCP5

Typical price                  £20

System             trickle

Features                       12-24 volt supply, red LED power-on indicator, 1.5A fuse, interchangeable plug tip

 

Build quality                  *****

WC Rating                    90%

 

Contact ORA  28/29 Faraday Road, Aylesbury, Bucks HP19 3RY. Telephone (01296) 415445

 

Power Wave Plug-In Charger,  £25

A sophisticated stepped-current pulse charger that alternates between high and low current cycles for a more efficient charge. Suitable for both 12 and 24 volt supplies, and rated to up to 60 volts. Quick and effective.

 

Make/model                  Power Wave Plug In Charger (Motorola)

Typical price                  £25

System             stepped current

Features                       green LED power-on indicator, 2A fuse

 

Build quality                  ****

WC Rating                    90%

 

Contact GRM Ltd., GRM Building, Copse Road, Fleetwood, Lancashire FY7 6RP. Telephone (01253) 773177

 

SIMPLE CAR KITS

So now the phone is safely secured, it has an unlimited supply of power and the battery is being charged, what next?  No ifs or buts, the only safe way to use a mobile phone in a car, whilst you’re driving, is with a hands-free car kit. Pick up the phone to make or take a call and you could be prosecuted for driving without due care and attention, and it happens! If using the phone contributes to an accident then at best you could end up with penalty points on your licence, or loosing it altogether, at worst it could cost you or others their lives. That happens too!

 

Okay, lecture over, you know it makes sense, the only problem is they’re expensive to buy, difficult to fit, and you have to have a degree in computer engineering to use one, right? Wrong on all counts. As far as cost is concerned the cheapest ones start at less than £50. Difficult to fit? That depends on whether you’re capable of finding your car’s cigarette lighter socket and a figuring out a piece of double-sided sticky tape. Difficult to use? On the contrary, the whole idea is to make it easier to use the phone.

 

Even if we haven’t managed to convince you with compelling safety and legal arguments there’s the prospect of improved reception, better sound quality, fewer dropped calls, greater range, almost indefinite operating time, added security and a free charge for your phone’s battery thrown in for good measure. Then there’s the cost-saving. Yes, that’s right, a hands-free car kit can actually save you money, by allowing you to use your existing mobile handset, rather than having to invest in a dedicated car-phone.

 

Hands-free kits come in wide range of styles, we’ll begin with the simplest ones, the sort that you can easily fit yourself in a couple of minutes. At this point the range of options begins to narrow because unlike power cords, which are available for most makes and model of mobile phone, most hands-free kits rely on the phone having the facility built into its operating system, and not all do, especially older models.

 

As far as the very simplest ‘wired’ kits are concerned you’re in luck if you’ve got one of the many variants or clones of Motorola’s Micro TAC and ‘Flip’ phones (digital and analogue), Ericsson models -- especially the ever popular 237 and 337s -- and the Nokia 2110. which are very well served by the accessory companies. On other makes it’s patchy, especially if the phone hasn’t been around long, or hasn’t sold well, in which case accessory manufacturers may not have caught up. The best bet in those cases is to see if the original manufacturer has something suitable in their accessory range.  

 

Simple hands-free kits usually consist of an adaptor module with a wired microphone and earphone, that plugs into the phones accessory socket. The adaptor module often has provision for a power cord as well; your existing car cord -- assuming you have one -- may not fit, or the outfit will come with one that’s been specially designed for the job. This arrangement will allow you to carry on a conversation, without removing your hands from the wheel, other than to dial, or answer the phone.

 

There are some disadvantages to this kind of set-up to be aware of. Firstly with most of them the phone’s ringer can only be heard through the earpiece, so it has to be left in all the time. Not all of them are especially comfortable, something to bear in mind if you’re going on a long journey. Secondly, only you will be able to use the phone, if a passenger wants to use it you’ll have to swap the earphone -- not very hygienic -- or disconnect the kit, and that’s not very convenient if you’re passing a call between yourself and a passenger.  The plus points are that this kind of kit is quite cheap -- £50 or less in some cases -- and there’s no problems with installation, no holes to be drilled, or cables to be routed.  There are a couple of kits that dispense with the wired earphone in favour of a loudspeaker, and we’ve included one in our roundup. They’re a little more expensive and clearly a lot easier to use but the downside is the microphones tend to be a fair distance from the user’s mouth, so you might have to speak up to make yourself heard above the road noise, and thus far they’re only available for a very limited number of phones.

 

We’ve also encountered a couple of kits that have no connection to the phone or the vehicle, these so-called ‘universal’ kits fit any mobile handset. They quite cheap -- typically £70 to £100 -- and the one’s we’ve seen are powered by internal batteries. The phone is held in a simple cradle, sound from the phone’s earpiece is picked up by a microphone, on an articulated arm, and fed to a small amplifier which drives a separate speaker. So far so good, except this arrangement relies on the phone’s microphone to pick up the users voice from some distance away. Most are simply not up to it, they’re designed to pick up sound from just a few centimetres away, so you end up shouting.  Apart from anything else they’re ugly looking things as well, our advice is to give them a miss. Here’s some simple kits that have caught our eye recently.

 

 

WHAT CELLPHONE RECOMMENDATIONS

 

ALLGON HANDS FREE PORTABLE £120

Currently only available for Ericsson phones (Nokia 2110 soon), this ingenious two-part design comprises a speaker module with boom microphone, that attaches to the headrest on the drivers seat, using an elasticated band. The interface module clips to the phone and is powered by a car cord. Neat and effective, though a tad pricey.

 

Make/model                  ALLGON 11.103/3

Typical price                  £120

System/fit                     Ericsson 197/198, 237/337

Features                       plug-in hand-free kit with integrated speaker/microphone module and separate car-cord

 

Build quality                  ****

WC Rating                    85%

 

ORA TRAVEL TALK £80

Clever one-piece design that plugs into the car cigarette lighter. It contains power/charger circuit, amplifier and loudspeaker. The microphone module is wired into the cable that connects to the phone’s accessory socket. Brilliantly simple but you do need to talk quite loudly to be heard at the other end.

 

Make/model                  ORA MTH F5 ‘Travel Talk’

Typical price                  £80

System/fit                     Motorola phones including: Micro TAC MkII, Classic, Flip-Phone, Cuo, Pro, BT Pearl, Ford, Blaupunkt 582, Pioneer 740, Bosch Cartel S/SC/SL

Features                       plug-in hands-free car kit with integrated speaker/power supply unit and microphone

 

Build quality                  *****

WC Rating                    90%

 

Contact ORA  28/29 Faraday Road, Aylesbury, Bucks HP19 3RY. Telephone (01296) 415445

 

ORA CTM5, £45

Yes, it’s them again, this time with a well designed kit containing a phone holder, car cord and earphone/mike lead. No drilling required, just stick the holder to the dashboard using double-sided sticky tape, plug the car cord into the ciggy lighter and you’re in business. All it takes is a couple of minutes, there’s nothing to go wrong, it works well and its cheap!

 

Make/model                  ORA CTM5

Typical price                  £45

System/fit                     Motorola phones including: Micro TAC MkII, Classic, Flip-Phone, Cuo, Pro, BT Pearl, Ford, Blaupunkt 582, Pioneer 740, Bosch Cartel S/SC/SL trickle

Features                       simple hands-free car kit with phone holder, car cord and microphone/earphone

 

Build quality                  *****

WC Rating                    75%

 

Contact             ORA  28/29 Faraday Road, Aylesbury, Bucks HP19 3RY. Telephone (01296) 415445

 

FULL CAR KITS

Simple hands-free car kits are fine for the occasional user, but for those who earn their living behind the wheel, and depend on staying in contact then there’s no substitute for a proper car kit. But what about dedicated car phones? They’re good too, but these days differences in performance, convenience and features between purpose-designed car phones and mobile handsets used in good quality hands-free car kits have narrowed to the point where there’s almost nothing to choose between them. In some ways mobile handsets are better, because you can take them with you when you get out of the car. 

 

Hands-free car kits for mobile phones have been around for a while but they’ve only been to be a viable alternative -- economically at least -- to dedicated car phones in the past two or three years. Initially they were only produced by the phone manufacturers or OEMs (original equipment manufacturers); they were horrendously expensive and only available through authorised dealers or specialised installation companies. Everyone did very nicely out of this tightly controlled market, thank you very much. Then a few more kits began to appear, made by accessory companies, though at first they too were mainly marketed through installation companies who would fit them for you, for a price of course. Then, about two and a half years ago, the floodgates opened, and hands-free car kits found their way onto the open market, freely available from everyone from high-street retailers, to market stall holders and mail-order companies.

 

Full car kits differ from simple car kits in three ways. First they’re permanently installed in the vehicle; secondly they have the facility to connect an external antenna, and third, there’s the option to boost the signal output to the same level as a proper car phone. Full car kits also mark the dividing line between have-a-go DIY installations, and letting the experts do it. With these outfits there’s no way of avoiding drilling holes in your car, rooting around under carpets and trim, threading cables through small holes and fiddling with the car’s electric’s. In short there’s a whole bunch of opportunities to foul up, possibly with disastrous consequences. Nevertheless, it’s fair to say that it’s not beyond the resources of a typical handyperson, and anyone who has installed a car radio or alarm shouldn’t have any problems doing it. 

 

If you fancy having a go, it behoves us as a responsible consumer-oriented magazine to draw your attention  to a publication called ‘Code of Practice for Installation of Mobile Radio Equipment in Land-based Vehicles’ or MPT 1362 to its friends,  published by Department of Trade and Industry. It has been written for professional installation engineers,  and it covers a wide variety of mobile communications equipment, but it’s jam-packed with sensible advice and guidance regarding the hazards involved with this kind of work. A while back the DTI told us they were toying with the idea of putting together a more digestible version for cellphone installers and DIYers but the last we heard they were still thinking about it. 

 

Most of what this sizeable tome contains is common-sense. The golden rule is to plan the installation beforehand, well before you reach for the electric drill. Lay out all the cables first, check the length of runs, and make sure they’re not going to chafe against sharp surfaces, or get in the way of any moving parts. The position of the phone is very important -- this applies equally to all types of car kits -- and make sure that whatever the holder is attached to can bear the extra weight or strain. Its location should be within easy reach of the driver, and preferably within their field of vision, though make sure it doesn’t interfere with any controls or instruments.

 

Mobile phone antenna installation is probably something most DIYers won’t have come across before, but again there’s no great mystery to it. For the best results the aerial should be mounted as high up as possible, with as much of the radiating element clear of the car’s roof-line as possible.  Make a note of where the aerials have been fitted on cars of the same make as your own if you’re unsure where to put it.  There are lots of different types of cellphone aerials on the market, and a wide variety of mounting systems, but the most convenient (and cheapest) ones are 1/4-wave glass-mount whips, which are suitable for 95% of all cars. They do not require any drilling, and can be fitted (and removed) in a matter of minutes. The trick with these antennas is to thoroughly clean the class beforehand, most outfits contain cleaning swabs for this purpose. If the glass is dirty then the antenna will drop off...

 

 

WHAT CELLPHONE RECOMMENDATIONS

 

ANDREW HANDS FREE KIT £230

This is one of the most complete kits on the market, and eminently suitable for DIYers. The kit is very complete, it even includes an antenna, which is normally  supplied separately with most other kits. The cradle/holder has the speaker built in, which further simplifies installation.

 

Whilst the instructions have been written principally for installers they’re clear and easy to follow. Operation is very straightforward. The phone slots into the holder, the feature connector is built into the cradle, so there’s no cables or plugs to worry about.  Performance is generally good, though it could do with being a bit louder and it might be a struggle to hear the caller in a really noisy car.

 

Make/model                  ANDREW SIMPLE CAR KIT

Typical price                  £230

System/fit                     Motorola Micro TAC, Flip and family,

Features                       integrated cradle and loudspeaker, kit includes microphone, antenna and all cables

 

Build quality                  ****

WC Rating                    90%

 

Contact             Andrew Ltd., Ilex Building, Mulberry Business Park,

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

 

 

ONLINE HANDS FREE CAR KIT, £100

This kit is intended for DIY installation, and that’s reflected in the simplified power connection -- it uses a cigarette lighter plug -- and lower than average price. That’s also helped by the fact that the kit doesn’t include an antenna, though it has the necessary connections. The kit does, however, include a microphone, loudspeaker, mounting bracket and a set of fixing screws. The phone connects to the unit via a plug-in curly lead, so it can be picked up and used as normal.  The controls are confined to a volume knob and LED charge status indicator.  Sound quality is good at both ends of the connection, the speaker is not very loud though. Good value.

 

Make/model                  ONLINE HANDS-FREE CAR KIT

Typical price                  £100

System/fit                     Motorola Micro TAC family and clones

Features                       simple power connection, kit includes cradle, speaker microphone and cables but not the antenna

 

Build quality                  *****

WC Rating                    95%

 

Contact             Online Accessories, 1-15 Kingston Road. Freemantle,

Southampton SO15 3DB. Telephone (01703) 237111

 

ATEC HANDS-FREE KIT £170

A smart-looking kit all the way from Italy with an unusually small cradle. That’s because all of the electronic gubbins are housed inside a separate box, that can be tucked away under a seat or behind the dash. The extra cabling and box of tricks makes it a little harder to install, and the instructions are a bit thin, but it should still be within the capabilities of most handypersons.

 

Audio performance is good, bags of volume and speech quality is fine, at both ends.

Worth considering.

 

Make/model                  ATEC HANDS FREE KIT

Typical price                  £170

System/fit                     Motorola Micro TAC family and clones

Features                       separate control electric’s and power supply module, outfit includes cradle, mount, speaker and microphone

 

Build quality                  ****

WC Rating                    95%

 

Contact             Lemon, telephone (0500) 282104

 

BOOSTERS

All of the car kits we’ve looked at have no influence on the power output of the phone they’re used with, though clearly an external antenna will improve transmission and reception performance, particularly in difficult conditions. However, hand-portable phones have a Class 4 output of just a few milliwatts, which is well below the Class 2 output of a dedicated car phone or transportable. A device called a signal booster can be fitted to most car kits, that increases the output to Class 2. Signal boosters fit in between the aerial and the cradle and are powered from the car battery. Because they only handle radio-frequency signals, and operate independently of the phone they’re not normally specific to a particular make or model of phone or car kit.

 

Unfortunately this is a rather touchy subject. A good proportion of the cellphone boosters sold in this country are technically illegal. These devices, known in the trade as linear amplifiers are classed as transmitters, and as such require BABT approval before they can be sold for use in the UK. Accessory companies we have spoken to have told us that the procedure for obtaining approval takes forever. One firm commented that a phone could be obsolete before the certificate is granted, so whilst many companies stock signal boosters, they only sell them for ‘export’.  

 

It’s a different situation when it comes to the boosters sold by the phone manufacturers, for use with their own car kits. In most cases they will have (at least we hope they do), BABT approval; phone manufacturers, unlike accessory companies don’t have to concern themselves with the vagaries of the market, and their products are less price sensitive. So there you have it, signal boosters are available, but the ones we’ve looked from accessory companies did not have BABT approval, so we can’t really recommend them to you.

 

By the way, watch out for products that purport to ‘boost’ the signal from your mobile phone, most of them do nothing of the sort, unless of course they are linear amplifiers. Most of them involve some form of antenna trickery, and creative use of ‘gain’ figures, to suggest you get something for nothing. In fact antenna gain is nothing more than a trade-off, a stronger signal in one direction means a weaker signal in another. Some of them may indeed yield small improvements -- every little helps with a Class 4 output -- but there’s always a price to be paid, normally with increased directionality or reduced sensitivity, resulting in less reliable contacts when on the move. That’s the good news, the bad news is that many of these snake-oil remedies have no effect at all, some even impair performance. Just remember that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, not even in the cellphone market.

 

---end---

Ó R. Maybury 1996 0403

 

 


 

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