QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
PHONES AND FEATURES
With almost one hundred models to choose from,
and scores of teccy-sounding feature, buying a mobile phone can be a nightmare,
if you don’t do your homework first...
Q. They look more or less the same, they all
do the same thing, so all mobile phones are the same, right?
A. Wrong! To begin with there are fundamental
differences in way digital and analogue phones work and the services available
-- we touched on that last time -- then there’s the question of size. Mobile
phones range in size from something resembling a house-brick, to a weeny little
things, not much larger than a powder compact.
Q. Yes, but apart from that?
A. Then there’s purpose-designed car-phones, hand
portables, pocket handsets, shirt-pocket portables, handsets with built-in organisers,
not to mention satellite phones (so we won’t...).
Q. Fair enough, but most people end up buying
normal-looking handsets, what are the most important features to look out for?
A. If we assume for a moment that there are
only relatively small differences in performance, and we’ll talk about
ergonomics in a moment, at the top of many people’s shopping list is operating
time. You used to be lucky to get a day’s use out of a pocket handset, it’s
getting a lot better now, with improved power management systems and battery
If you’re going to use the phone for work, short-list
models that promise at least 10 or more
hours standby, with 10 to 20 minutes worth of actual talk-time, or be prepared
to carry a spare battery around with you. If you’re only interested in a phone
for casual or occasional use, or it will spend a lot of time in a car holder --
powered by the car battery -- longer running times may not be a key issue.
Q. What about a huge number memory?
A. All mobile phones have multiple number
memories, and on GSM phones you can store a selection of important numbers on the
SIM card, but in general the value of large phone number memories tends to be
overstated. The facility to store 100 or so numbers is usually more than
sufficient for most people; the biggest difference is how easy the ‘phone books’
are to set up and use. Some models are incredibly difficult to navigate, other always
seem to have the number you want ready to hand in just a couple of button
presses. The point is try before you buy, and if the salesperson can’t
demonstrate to you how easy it is to use, without reference to an instruction
book, give it a miss.
Q. Are shape and size important, do they have
any bearing on performance?
A. The quality and reliability of connections
on very small phones is usually little different to their conventionally sized
counterparts, but really tiny models can be more difficult to use, because of
space restrictions imposed on the keypad and display. More often than not they
have fewer facilities; accessories (car kits, power cords, spare batteries,
cases etc.) are normally dearer, and more difficult to obtain.
On normal-sized phones check how easy the
keys and buttons are to use -- some can be really fiddly -- and the viewing
angle of the display panel. This could be important if you want to use the
phone in a car. If it’s mounted low down you might not be able to read it. Practice
changing the battery; could you do it in the dark, you might have to one day...
Q. There seems to be a quite lot of
difference between the display panels on mobile phones, what do I really need?
A. In addition to the number you’re dialling,
the single most useful pieces of information are signal strength, and battery
capacity. Most phones have some form of signal-strength meter, usually a
bar-graph with between three and five graduations, which is enough to show
whether or not you can make a call. Battery level indicators are often much
less satisfactory, in fact several models will only give you a few minutes
warning that the battery is about to die. Part of the problem is the steep
discharge curve on nickel cadmium and nickel metal hydride batteries. Lithium
ion batteries are more predictable, so the indicators on phones powered by
those batteries can be more informative. The type of indicator varies widely,
from a bleep or winking light, to a bar-graph; in general the more information
you have about the state of a phone’s battery, the better.
Q. What else should I look out for on the
A. Everything hinges on the phone’s ‘menu’
system. This the primary user
interface, that gives you access the phone’s higher functions, and allows you
to tailor the various options and preferences to suit your needs. This is what often
separates a great phone, from the also-rans. A good menu system should be intuitive;
in other words, it will be fairly obvious how to use it, so you won’t have to
carry the instruction book around with you. The display will tell you which
buttons to press, to make a choice, or move on to the next selection. If you
make a mistake, it should be easy to undo, or backtrack to the previous
selection. Most importantly, the menu should be idiot-proof, and prevent you
from doing daft things, like wiping the phone-book memory or switching off the
ringer, when all you wanted to do was adjust the volume.
Q. What kind of things does the menu cover?
A. Broadly speaking most phone menus are
divided into three or four sections. Phone set-up covers the basic operating functions,
like the aforementioned ringer volume; a lot of models will also allow you to
change the ringing tones, or select a different tune. Various bleepers can be turned on and off, to remind you how long
a call is taking, or indicate a low-battery. This section often covers settings
for hand-portable or in-car use.
One of the most important sections of the
menu is security. All phones have a basic PIN-operated lock, that will prevent
the phone from being used without the correct start-up code, and it is vitally
important that you use it. A lot of phones can restrict access to their
internal phone books, or prevent changes being made to other parts of the menu.
Digital phones usually have extra layers of security, to protect the SIM card
as well as the phone, and safeguard against unauthorised access to data
Then there are the various housekeeping
functions, such as call timers, total time displays, display your own phone
number and the multitude of convenience features, from greetings messages to
calculators and currency converters. Some models have service and diagnostic
modes, though they may not be accessible from the main user menus, or will
require passwords and PIN numbers. On digital phones there’s usually a lot of extra
facilities, like data connections, SMS (short message service) and voice-mail. Most
GSM phones have network log-on routines, that have to be used when the phone is
taken abroad. Finally there’s the phone book; on some models this is treated as
a separate entity, though it usually works in exactly the same way as the main
Q. Do I really need all this stuff?
A. Only you can decide, just try to see as
many different models as you can, before you make up your mind.
Ó R. Maybury 1996 0508