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INTRO

If you own a mobile phone and drive a car then you need a hands-free kit, but which type? Rick Maybury considers the options

 

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As yet there are no precise figures showing how many road traffic accidents are caused directly or indirectly by drivers using their mobile phones, but if you’ve ever watched some idiot trying to negotiate a roundabout, steer, change gear, indicate and hold a phone conversation at the same time, it’s fairly obvious that it must be a daily occurrence.

 

Using a phone whilst driving is almost certainly breaking the law -- there’s still one or two  legislative loopholes -- but not for much longer.  Hands-free operation is likely to become a legal requirement in the near future, but why wait? Aside from the safety factor a good hands-free car kit will make your phone easier to use and it can improve performance, but the big question is, which sort?

 

As recently as five years ago you would have had little option but to go to a specialist installation company and spend upwards of £300 on having  manufacturers approved car kit fitted. You still can, but nowadays there’s a much wider range of alternatives, from basic DIY kits, costing from around £50, to sophisticated models with voice controlled dialling and radio muting, that mean your hands rarely have to leave the wheel.

 

SIMPLE SOLUTIONS

For obvious reasons ‘simple’ car kits, as they’ve become known, are the most popular. The common features are low cost and ease of installation. In most instances there’s no need to make holes in the dashboard or centre console and they can be fitted, and removed, in a matter of minutes. Needless to say there’s a trade-off, usually in performance, though most of the kits we’ve tested meet all of the basic requirements for safe operation. However, there is still no substitute for a full car kit, with the installation tailored to the vehicle and allowing access to all of the phone’s most useful features,

 

Most of the simple kits on the market fall into one of two categories. The easiest to fit are those with loudspeakers built into, or attached to the power adaptor module, that plugs into the car’s cigarette lighter socket. They normally come with cup-style holders, that attach to the dashboard using pads of double-sided sticky tape, air-vent or sucker-type mounts. Sticky tape is the least preferable method as the adhesive can soften in hot weather. Size and weight limitations mean the loudspeakers in these devices are quite small, volume is generally quite low so it can be difficult to hear the caller, particularly in a noisy vehicle. A couple of simple kits have car-stereo adapters, that feed the audio into the radio using a special adaptor cassette, through to the car speakers. This solves the volume problem, but at the expense of tying up the cassette player.  

 

However, because these kits rely on the phone’s own microphone, one built into the loudspeaker module, or in-line with the handset connecting lead, it will usually be some distance from the user’s mouth. The result is engine, road and other noises are mixed in with the user’s voice, so you may have to shout, to make yourself heard. Consequently these kits are really only suitable for cars with good sound insulation.

 

Where noise is a problem, or when privacy is a consideration, then kits that have a personal earphone and microphone, or an all-in-one headset, are worth thinking about. They’re available in a variety of configurations; most outfits include a car cord that plugs into the cigarette lighter socket, to power the phone and charge the battery, and a stick-on or vent-mount dash holder.  

 

AERIAL FEATS

The majority simple kits have no provision for an external aerial, so they have to rely on the phone’s own antenna to maintain contact, and that can cause difficulties. If the handset is mounted low down on the dash, or on a centre console, below the window line, then signals are going to have trouble getting through. This will affect the range and the reliability of the contact, that will almost certainly mean the phone only works adequately in areas with good coverage. The solution is to mount the phone as high as possible, preferably with the aerial extending above the vehicle’s waistline. Better still, choose a kit that has an external aerial connection, and fit a glass-mount or mag-mount antenna.

 

Aerial connections are a standard feature on full car kits, but the main distinguishing features are that they’re dedicated to one particular model of phone, which is reflected in the price, and the kit is  permanently installed in the vehicle. This has a number of implication for the budding DIYer. To begin with the choice is a lot narrower, confined to the most popular makes and brands of phone. Full car kits are simply not available for a lot of new phones, or models that have sold in relatively small numbers.

 

THE FULL MONTY

If you’re contemplating fitting a full car kit you should have some knowledge your vehicle’s electric’s. That’s important from a safety perspective, numerous car fires have been started by careless wiring. It’s also important to know your way around the car’s interior, and be able to remove and refit trim and carpets. It’s not difficult, but it’s certainly not the sort of job we’d recommend you tackle unless you’ve fitted a car stereo, for example.

 

Nevertheless, the advantages are obvious. An outside antenna will do wonders for range and quality of contact. Most full car kits have larger external speakers and microphones, that can be placed in the most effective positions. The phone in its cradle can be mounted for maximum accessibility, driver comfort and safety. Top-end car kits, particularly those marketed by the phone manufacturers, have additional facilities, including automatic radio muting -- to kill the sound from the car stereo when the phone rings -- and security systems, that will activate an alarm, if the handset is tampered with.

 

CHOICES

If you can afford it, and one is available, a full car kit is by far the best solution. Simple car kits make sense if fast installation is important and you can’t, or don’t want to drill holes in the dashboard.  However, bear in mind the problems with volume levels, noisy cars, and impaired performance. In all cases, though, the bottom line is obvious, any sort hands-free kit has to be better than risking your life, and others, without one.

 

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Ó R. Maybury 1997 1104

 

 


 

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