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A fully installed manufacturerís hands-free car kit for your mobile phone could easily set you back in excess of £300, but thereís plenty of affordable alternatives. Rick Maybury rounds up a selection of sub-£100 outfits

 

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There are many compelling reasons why you should be getting a hands-free car kit for your mobile phone -- not least the growing concerns over road-safety -- but a lot of people are put off by the cost. Prices vary, but to have a manufacturers full-spec car kit installed in a mid-market family saloon can run to several hundred pounds, however that option simply doesnít exist for a lot of mobile phone owners. Dedicated car kits are available for fewer than half of the handsets on the market. This applies principally to new models and phones that have not achieved the necessary critical mass, for the phone maker, or accessory companies to develop dedicated kits

 

That neednít be a problem, there are plenty of specially configured Ďuniversalí car kits for such phones and the good news is a lot of them sell for less than £100. Moreover, most of them are designed for DIY installation, in most cases they only take a few minutes to fit. with some of them the only tool youíll need is a screwdriver. Even if you opt for one of the more sophisticated kits, the level of expertise required is no more than that needed to fit a car radio, say.

 

Hands-free car kits come in a variety of flavours. Personal kits are the most basic, theyíre normally variations on walk-and-talk outfits, that bypass the phoneís internal microphone and speaker, using an extension mike and earphone or combined headset. Most of them come with a car cord charger, to power the phone and charge the battery. Ideally the outfit will also include some form of cradle or holder for the phone, though in practice few do. A holder is important; it puts the phone within easy reach of the driver, making it easier -- hence safer -- to answer calls. Second, it raises the phoneís antenna above the carís waistline, improving reception and the quality of contact, and third, it stops the phone from rattling around on the dashboard.

 

Simple hands-free car kits are next in terms of cost and complexity. Typically they comprise a module containing a charger, amplifier and speaker, and sometimes a microphone as well. The whole unit plugs into the cigarette lighter socket. The speakers in these things tend to be quite small and are normally only loud enough to use in efficiently soundproofed vehicles. On the plus side but they are very easy to fit, and like personal kits, can be easily moved from one vehicle to another.

 

Lastly thereís the full car kits. These usually have a specially designed cradle, to hold the phone that also contains an amplifier and charger unit, sometimes the speaker, or connections for an external speaker, microphone and antenna. Full car kits tend to work better too, larger speakers improve the soudn quality, and an outside antenna can have a marked effect opn performance and line quality.

 

If you havenít already got a hands-free kit then thereís no excuse anymore, theyíre cheap and easy to fit, it could save you from a brush with the law, or save your life, or someone elses!

 

KONDOR EASY FIT, £99

The designers have clearly put a lot of thought into this kit. The speakers in a lot of modular kits are barely audible, and invariably squeaky little things, and the problem is compounded when theyíre mounted some distance from the driver, on the end of a cigarette lighter plug, or underneath the cradle.

 

The amplifier, speaker and charger in this new kit from Kondor are fitted inside a separate module, connected by cable to the phone holder. That means it can be mounted closer to the driving position, where it can do most good. The speaker box has a socket for the external microphone, and an LED indicator, to show itís working. The cradle for the Nokia phone is quite compact and has a separate cable connection for an external antenna. Our sample was quite a snug fit, but it felt secure; the phone can only be easily removed by pressing a couple of buttons on the side. The outfit comes with two mounting brackets (one for the speaker module, the other for the cradle); the instructions are rather basic but most competent DIYers should have no trouble figuring it out.

 

Being able to site the speaker box makes a world of difference, it also helps that itís a little larger than average. It would have been helpful if the power cable had been longer, and non curly, as it makes it difficult to mount the speaker on the driverís right. Speech quality is good, itís not going to deafen anyone but volume levels are fine. Audio quality at the other end was reported to be okay as well, though sensitivity was just about adequate. A little trickier to install than most other kits otherwise highly recommended.

 

KONDOR EASY FIT

Street Price                   £99

Type                             full

Features                       hands-free car kit with cradle, speaker unit, external microphone and mounting kit

Phone fit                       most popular makes and models

 

IC VERDICT 85%

 

Features                       5

Performance                  4

Ease of use                   4

Value for money            4

 

 

 

 

ORA CHARGE AND TALK, £45

This popular Ďpersonalí hands-free kit has been recently upgraded and now includes a lightweight earpiece with boom microphone. This replaces the clumsy in-line mike featured on earlier versions. It has been designed for ease of installation and the outfit comes with an air-vent mounting bracket support, for the dashboard phone holder. The phone is powered by a modified conventional charger cord, that plugs into the carís cigarette lighter socket.

 

Fitting the vent mount takes just a few minutes. The holder blocks off the vent, if you donít want to loose it, and youíre not concerned about drilling holes in the dashboard, the holder can be screwed directly to the fascia. The accessory connector on the end of the charge cord plugs into the base of the phone, the headset lead is terminated in a mini-jack, which plugs into a socket on the back of the charger module.

 

The headset is a flexible design, that can be worn on the right or left ear, though right-eared users might find the connecting cable stretched to its limit in some cars. It takes a moment or two to figure out how its worn, and to adjust the microphone, but once in position itís quite comfortable. Contact with the userís ear could have been better, but it feels secure and doesnít fall off if you turn or nod your head briskly.

 

Volume levels were adequate on the Nokia phone we tried it with. It should be okay in most family saloons, though you may have to strain to hear the caller in noisy vehicles. Audio quality is generally good, treble response is quite pronounced, which helps with speech. The microphone produces a crisp, clear sound, itís not overly sensitive, so background noise isnít a problem, and itís positioned far enough from the userís mouth, to avoid picking up heavy breathing. Overall a well thought out kit, thatís easy to use and realistically priced. Performance is good and itís simple to install. Well worth considering if you want a little privacy.

 

ORA CHARGE AND TALK

Street Price                   £45

Type                             personal

Features                       hands-free car kit with car cord, dashboard holder and air-vent mounting kits

Phone fit                       most popular makes and models

 

IC VERDICT 87%

 

Features                       5

Performance                  4

Ease of use                   5

Value for money            4

 

 

 

NOVA PORTABLE HANDS-FREE CAR KIT £30

One of the smallest and cheapest hands-free kits on the market, though you will have to budget for a holder or cradle as the kit is very basic. The charger/speaker module plugs into the carís cigarette lighter socket, the speaker is on the left side, presumably it was originally designed for left-hand drive vehicles, however, itís a simple enough matter to turn it around. The connecting curly lead to the phone emerges from the rear of the unit, a pair of minijack sockets are used for the external earphone and microphone, that are included with the outfit. The microphone comes with a generous three metres of cable, and is fitted with a spring clip, to hold it on to the sun visor or trim.

 

Volume levels are just about adequate for a well-insulated family saloon; the sound is quite tinny but speech remains intelligible. Received audio quality was described as sounding as though it was coming from inside a bucket, and you need to speak up as the microphone isnít very sensitive but it should be possible to hold a conversation without too much difficulty in most cars.  

 

Minus points are the absence of a power on or charge indicator and the lack of any phone holder is a pain, but thatís offset by the very low price, average to good performance and compact design.  Worth considering if youíre on a tight budget, and you own a very quiet car

 

NOVA PORTABLE HANDS-FREE CAR KIT

Street Price                   £30

Type                             simple

Features                       hands-free kit with modular speaker/charger and external microphone and earphone

Phone fit                       most Ericsson, Motorola TAC and Nokia models

 

IC VERDICT 80%

 

Features                       3

Performance                  3

Ease of use                   3

Value for money            4

 

NOVACELL ALL-IN-ONE HANDS-FREE £70

In this outfit the charger and speaker are built into the cradle unit. It connects to the carís electrical system via a curly lead, terminated in a fused cigarette lighter plug. The kit also includes an external microphone -- on the end of a 3-metre cable -- an earphone and a simple hinged Ďclamshellí mounting bracket, complete with fixing bolts. Itís one of only two kits in this roundup to have an aerial connection, a definite plus point, especially if youíre suffering from reception problems, or expect to use the phone in areas of poor coverage. The microphone and earphone (and optional external speaker), plug into minijack sockets on the base of the cradle.

 

Installation is fairly straightforward, which is just as well as the instructions supplied with out test sample appeared to be for the Motorola version. The only point to watch out for is to ensure the sound -- which comes from a small speaker in the base of the cradle -- is not muffled by the dashboard or fascia. A red LED indicator shows when the unit is connected to the power.

 

It takes a fair amount of pressure and a bit of a knack to seat the Nokia 2110 phone and engage the accessory connector, though it does become easier with use. Itís probably worth budgeting for the external speaker unless your car happens to be unusually quiet. The actual volume from the built in speaker is just about sufficient, but the speaker is facing the wrong way and a lot of the sound is dissipated. The microphone could do with being just a little more sensitive, though callers reported lower than average amounts of background noise. Well worth considering.

 

NOVACELL ALL-IN-ONE HANDS-FREE

Street Price                   £70 (£81.75 with optional speaker)

Type                             full

Features                       modular cradle charger with speaker, supplied with external microphone, earphone and mounting kit, external speaker optional

Phone fit                       most Ericsson, Motorola TAC and Nokia models

 

IC VERDICT      85%

 

Features                       4

Performance                  4

Ease of use                   4

Value for money            4

 

 

PLANTRONICS CLA132-EN £80

Whereís the phone holder? Without one the phone will have to be left on a seat and suffer poor reception, or on the top of the dashboard, where it will be vulnerable to damage, exposed to direct sunlight, and the gaze of phone snatchers.

 

The rest of the components are quality products. The charger cord is an old friend, with a good track record. We havenít see the headset before, though. Itís an unusual design, the boom microphone attaches to the earphone with a simple clip, it can be pulled off, and turned around, making it suitable for right or left ear operation. The hook, which fits over the top of the ear, can be bent to shape, so that itís comfortable to wear, even for extended periods. It stays put too, though will pull off, if the lead is snagged and you turn your head to the right, when parking for example.

 

Audio quality in the earpiece is fair, volume was quite good on the phones we tried it with, though it might be difficult to hear in a noisy vehicle, or a car full of kids. The microphone boom ends up to the side of the users mouth, sensitivity is about average and it doesnít pick up much in the way of background noise. Performance and build quality are generally good but for the price, which we consider to be on the high side, we would have expected some sort of mounting hardware.

 

PLANTRONICS CLA132-EN

Street Price            £80

Type                 personal

Features            combined headset with car power-cord

Phone fit            most popular Ericsson, Motorola and Nokia models

 

IC VERDICT 75%

 

Features                       4

Performance                  4

Ease of use                   3

Value for money            2

 

 

 

VIVOX VXT 20, £90

Claimed to be the first Ďstereoí hands-free car kit on the market, the Vivox VXT-20 is certainly different. But first, letís clear up the use of the word stereo. It refers to the way the kit pipes the phones speaker output through the vehicleís car stereo. Itís a clever idea, it means the phone can be as loud as the stereo, and the sound can be adjusted, using the systemís tone controls, however, since the phone output is mono, the sound you hear will not be in stereo. Incidentally, this is one of the few car-kits on the market to enable full-duplex operation, so there should be no break-up of the signal if both people on the line try to talk at once.

 

If youíre wondering how a mobile phone can connect to a car stereo, the answer lies in a cassette adaptor widget. Inside the shell of a tape cassette thereís a small coil, that beams the phoneís audio output signal to the car stereoís tape head. This arrangement is actually an option as the main unit -- mounted on top of a flexible goose-neck -- has a built-in speaker, unfortunately itís so small that itís difficult to hear in all but the quietest cars, hence the car stereo adaptor. The speaker/interface/charger module plugs into the carís cigarette lighter socket, it has three sockets, one for the cable that goes to the phone, the second is for the adaptor cassette, and number three is for an external microphone, (earlier versions had the microphone built into the main unit). The outfit actually includes two microphones, so the unit can be quickly swapped between two vehicles, without having to remove the mike. The only thing thatís missing is any sort of cradle or holder. Considering they only cost a few pounds this seems like something of an oversight!

 

The microphone is reasonably directional, received audio quality is reported to be just a little tinny, but thatís not necessarily a bad thing as excess treble can help to make speech more intelligible. The sound coming from the phone can be as good (or as bad) as your car stereo. The only downside to this arrangement is that it ties up the tape player.  Apart from the missing phone holder this is a most effective kit, and worth thinking about if you donít want a permanent installation, or move your phone from car to car. 

 

VIVOX VXT 20

Street  Price            £90

Type                 simple

Features            stereo sound, cassette tape interface, two external microphones

Phone  fit            Ericsson, Nokia, Motorola, Siemens

 

IC VERDICT      80%

 

Features                       4

Performance                  4

Ease of use                   3

Value for money            4

 

 

CONTACTS

GRM Ltd/Nova phone (01253) 773177

Kondor Ltd., (01202) 481133

ORA Electronics, telephone (01296) 415445,

Plantronics Ltd., Telephone (01793) 842200

Vivox/Aerial King, telephone 0171-483 2281

 

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R. Maybury 1997 1106

 


 

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