What Cellphone









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 technology.


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 display panel?


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 systems.


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 menu.


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



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