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MOBILE EXTRAS

 

INTRO

Hold onto your assets, keep your hands free and go green using the power of sunlight with Rick Maybury’s monthly selection of cellphone accessories

 

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CROC, £3.99

No, don’t laugh, this piece of foam rubber really does cost four quid. Amusement, followed by incredulity is a fairly typical reaction to Croc, but leaving aside the price for a moment, consider this: it could save your phone from a nasty accident and it improves reception, the simplest ideas are often the cleverest... The thinking behind Croc is that a lot of people leave their mobile phones on the dashboard shelf of their cars when driving, bad idea! The phone can slide about, damaging itself, and anything else that gets in its way.

 

Croc stops all that, it has an adhesive backing and sticks firmly to the dashboard. (The specially formulated glue doesn’t leave a sticky residue when it’s removed).  Simply slide the phone into the cut out ‘teeth’ and there it stays, until you need it. Keeping the phone still should also help to maintain better radio contact, so you’re less likely to miss an incoming call. There’s a couple of little extras; the hole that makes the ‘eye’ of the Croc is a pen holder, and you probably can’t see it in the photograph, but there’s a slit along the top edge, for holding toll and car park entry cards.  As it stands the Croc can hold around 95% of current phones, but if it’s a tight fit a row of teeth can be removed. They’re pre-cut, and easy to extract.

 

It raises a couple of questions, including the advisability of exposing a phone to direct sunlight and the gaze of snatch-thieves waiting at traffic lights, but it’s the price that’s going to raise the most eyebrows. The trouble is everyone has a fair idea of how much a small piece of foam rubber costs, and the amount of work involved cutting out a tooth-shaped slot. Four pounds seems like rather a lot for what it is, but we’ve have to say that it is a very good idea, and if you can’t be bothered to have a go at making one for yourself, then it’s probably not a bad deal.

 

THE FACTS

Typical Price            £3.99

Features            foam gripper for a mobile phone, pen and card

To fit                 most makes and models

Contact Croc Ltd., telephone 0181-361 2666

 

WHAT CELLPHONE VERDICT            85%

 

NOKIA BBT-1L SOLAR CELL BATTERY, £90

The idea of a mobile phone battery with a built-in solar panel charger seems so simple and so obvious that the first question has to be, why hasn’t someone tried it before? They probably have, but it wouldn’t be a practical proposition on most current digital and analogue phones, which make quite a heavy demands on their rechargeable battery packs. It took a phone like the Nokia 1610 to make it technically viable. This model is very energy efficient, the standby time on the supplied battery pack is around 110 hours, or four and a half days!

 

The BBT-1L solar battery pack contains high capacity lithium-ion cells rated at 400mAh, which is a little less than the standard nickel metal-hydride pack. Without any assistance from the sun it gives between 40 to 80 hours standby, or 2 to 3 hours talk-time; charging time on the standard charger is 2 hours. It’s exactly the same size as the supplied battery supplied and just a little lighter, in fact the only visible difference is the grid-like structure of the solar panel on the back.

 

So does it mean you can throw away your mains battery charger? Probably not, unless you’re planning to retire to a sunnier clime. Our tests suggest that a full charge, in direct sunlight, takes in excess of six hours. Incidentally, artificial light is no good, it needs the real thing, and plenty of it. An hour or two in the sun is enough to keep the battery topped-up, and depending on the pattern of use and weather, it could mean reducing the need for a mains charge by 50% or more. In other words, if you find you have to charge your 1610 battery every day, you might find it needs charging every other day with a solar battery, if you can find a sunny spot to leave it in.   

 

Okay, so it’s not a complete solution to the power problem, but  must be good for the planet? That’s depends if take into account the amount of energy that went into its manufacture, and the likely impact it will have on the environment when it is eventually disposed of. In that case the BBT-1L will almost certainly consume more energy than it saves throughout it’s life, but that should still be a lot less than a normal battery, so it has some green credentials.

 

We can foresee plenty of circumstances where it’s worth having. If you take your mobile phone on holiday, for example. You might be able to get away with leaving the charger at home, if you’re likely to be spending a lot of time in the sun. It would be ideal for camping and walking holidays too, when you may not be able to get to a mains supply for days on end. It’s dearer than a standard battery but not outrageous for a lithium-ion pack, so on balance, if you’ve got a Nokia 1610 we reckon it’s well worth considering.

 

THE FACTS

Typical Price            £90

Features            400mAh Lithium-ion battery with solar cell charger

To fit                 Nokia 1610/1611/1620/1630 and clones

Contact Nokia Mobile Phones, telephone (01480) 434343

 

WHAT CELLPHONE VERDICT            80%

 

HAMA SIMPLE HANDS-FREE KIT

Strange but true... German cellphone users prefer musical ringing tones on their mobile phones, whereas we seem to stick to the conventional pulsed warble. If you go to Germany you will see a lot of people wearing a single earphone with a dangly thing just below their chin, and they’re not all listening to monophonic Walkmans. The Germans have gone in for hands-free phone kits in a big way. They don’t seem to have caught on so quickly over here, it may be something to do with the notion of being seen in public, apparently talking to yourself, that puts a lot of people off. They have been quite expensive up to now, and not that widely distributed, so maybe this new range from Hama might start to make a difference.

 

They’re ‘simple’ kits,  that include just the adaptor module that plugs into the phone’s accessory socket, and the earphone with the in-line microphone. You could use one a car, but to bring it up to basic hands-free spec you would also need a cradle or holder, and a car-cord, to power the phone and charge the battery.

 

The two models we’ve been looking at are for the Ericsson 388 and family, and Nokia 1610. The earphone and mike are the same in both cases, the modules both fit into the base of the phone; the Nokia unit has a second socket for an external power supply, the Ericsson version has a RJ-11 (American type) phone connector socket for the same purpose. Fitting in both case take just a few seconds, the Ericsson unit is kept in place by a couple of grippers, the Nokia module is a friction fit, and will come unplugged if knocked.

 

The modules add a centimetre or so to the depth of the phone, so they may not fit your carry-case any longer. The in-ear phones area conventional design, they come with a foam protector, so they’re not too uncomfortable. A couple of centimetres downstream of the mike there’s a tie clip, to stop the lead flapping around. The lead is long enough for the phone to be left in an inside or outside jacket pocket, though check to see if your model routes the ringer through to the earphone. If not then it would be wise to keep the phone some place it can be easily heard.

 

We tried both kits on their respective phones. Earphone volume on the Nokia version wasn’t very loud, making it difficult to hear the caller against a background hubbub. Volume levels on the Ericsson were okay. Speech quality at the other end was fine on both models, microphone sensitivity is sufficient to pick up the user’s voice, but  largely ignore most other nearby noises. Build quality is good, they’re easy to fit and use. The price, whilst not exactly a bargain, is heading in the right direction. Worth considering if you do a lot of walking and talking.

 

THE FACTS

Typical Price            £40

Features            simple hands-free kit

To fit                 most popular makes and models

Contact Hama UK, telephone (01256) 708110

 

WHAT CELLPHONE VERDICT            78%

 

PLANTRONICS CLA132-EN CELLULAR HEADSET  £80

The second hands-free kit this month is intended for in-car use and comes supplied with a power cord. The cord is a conventional enough design, not dissimilar to ones we’ve reviewed from a couple of other well known accessory companies, who obviously source from the same factory. The headset is unusual though. It is designed to fit either ear, the earpiece and hinged microphone boom can be detached from the rubber ear-hook. This can be bent to shape, to fit the wearer’s ear, so in theory it should be very comfortable. Actually it’s not too bad and it feels reasonably secure; these things are either too tight, or so loose that they fall off. It’s possible to achieve a satisfactory compromise with this one, though our guinea pigs found it involved considerable trial and error, to get it right.

 

Despite the fact that the microphone boom ends up around halfway down the wearer’s cheek, speech quality at the other end is reported to be quite good. Keeping the mike out of the way of the mouth also helps avoid embarrassing heavy-breathing sound effects. The earphone is typical of the type; it wasn’t especially loud on our Nokia test phone, and rather tinny, but that suits speech quite well. As we said earlier the car cord is an old friend, it’s a straightforward design with a delta-V control circuit; voltage and current checks were satisfactory.

 

As with so many cellphone accessories the price is contentious. You can pick up a car cord for around £10, but let’s be charitable and say this one is a really top-notch model that could sell for £30. With the best will in the world the headset is not worth £50, or anything like it, even taking into account the various margins, mark-ups and marketing factors. It does the job, and does it adequately well, but we have to say that at £80 or thereabouts it is somewhat overpriced

 

THE FACTS

Typical Price            £80

Features            combined headset and car power-cord

To fit                 most popular Ericsson, Motorola and Nokia models

Contact            Plantronics Ltd., (01793) 842200

WHAT CELLPHONE VERDICT            70%

 

 

HEAD

PHONEY OF THE MONTH

 

MATTEL SKIPPER PHONE FUN

 

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Barbie’s perky teenage sister likes to keep in touch, she has no less than three phones. The two smaller one are rather boring cordless models, but it’s the very pink MicroTAC lookalike that caught our eye. It has some really useful features, that Motorola and co would do well to consider. The flip opens up to reveal a small notepad. It’s handy for taking messages from Barbie’s boyfriend Ken, using the aerial, which doubles up as a pencil. The keypad is hinged; behind it there’s a compartment for a tiny address book A rotating message display below the heart-shaped earpiece has announcements in six languages, so it’s educational too...

 

THE FACTS

Typical Price                 £9.99 (with Skipper doll)

Features                       Skipper doll with hairbrush, pink phone has built-in notepad, address book and message display, pencil antenna and it comes with a pair of miniature cordless phones

Looks like                     Micro TAC-ish

Power source                a little girl’s imagination, ahhh.....           

Contact             toy shops everywhere       

 

WHAT CELLPHONE VERDICT            70%

MIGHTYMINI MAG-MOUNT, £20

Cellphone antennas are probably one of the least exciting accessories to look at -- ‘seen one, and you’ve seen ‘em all’ -- but they can have the biggest impact on the range, quality and reliability of contact.  Antenna design is something of a black art, with no end of extraordinary claims being made for some products, but the reality is that many mobile antennas are only marginally more efficient than the bendy wires and rubber prongs fitted to most handsets. Fixed body-mount aerials work best of all but many vehicle-owners are reluctant to drill holes in their shiny cars, which means most people end up using glass-mount twigs. There is another option, and that’s a mag-mount antenna. Unlike glass-mounts, which depend on a ‘lossy’ capacitive coupling between the radiating element  -- through the window glass -- and the handset, mag-mount and body-mount antennas are in direct electrical contact with the phone or the cradle. However, mag-mounts have one more very important advantage, they’re normally located high up on the vehicle roof, in the middle of a large expanse of metal. That provides a very effective ground-plane, which improves the shape and consistency of the radiating pattern. It  gives all-round coverage, and eliminates the blind spots suffered by most glass and body-mount installations.

 

That brings us to the Mightymini Magmount, made by US-based Antenna Company, and marketed in this country by Andrew. The design looks fairly conventional but it incorporates a number of neat touches. For example, the base of the magnet is covered in a non-slip vinyl material, that should minimise the possibility of damaging the paintwork. It comes with 3 metres of thin coaxial cable, pre-terminated in a mini UHF connector. The antenna is a 3dB gain type with an open coil radiator. Gain in this context refers to the shape of the radiating pattern; if you could see it, it would resemble a doughnut, concentrating the RF energy outwards, parallel to the ground. In other words, less of the signal is wasted, radiating uselessly upwards, into space. The 30cm whip is made from a springy steel wire, topped with a little ball; it’s mostly decorative, though you would be surprised how many people manage to poke themselves in the eye on car aerials...

 

Installation couldn’t be much simpler The usual technique is to pass the cable through an open window, or better still, between a door and the vehicle body. It’s important to choose the location carefully, to prevent the cable being crushed. Find a spot -- usually near the top of the door,  where the gap is wide enough for the cable, and the rubber door seal is thick enough to cushion the impact. Once inside the car the cable can be routed behind trim and the dashbaord, to the cradle; 3-metres should be long enough for most vehicles. The magnet is quite powerful and once in place, takes quite an effort to dislodge it. The unusually comprehensive instructions recommend moving it from time to time, to prevent damage or discolouration to the paint finish.

 

We compared the Mightymini with a typical glass-mount antenna and were suitably impressed with the results. The signal strength meter on a Motorola GSM phone showed an immediate increase, from three blocks to five at one location, and clear contact was maintained in an area where the line is prone to drop. Some mobile phone users have expressed concerns about the security, or rather the lack of it with mag-mount antennas. Mightymini is no different to most other types of mag-mount in that respect, and a determined vandal would have no trouble removing it, though it has to be said that most mobile antennas can be unscrewed without too much difficulty. In fact it may be that it’s slightly less vulnerable, in the middle of the roof. The standard of construction is very high and our initial impression is that it is well weatherproofed, though we reserve final judgement until it has made it through British Winter.

 

If you’re out and about on the road a lot and have been experiencing problems with dropped calls, particularly in rural areas, then Mightymini might just make the difference. It could be the best £20 you spend on your mobile phone.

 

THE FACTS

Typical Price            £20

Features            mag-mount antenna for ETACS and GSM cellphones, 3dB gain, 300mm radiator, 3 metre pre-terminated cable

To fit                 car kits with antenna connection

Contact Andrew, telephone (01734) 776886

 

WHAT CELLPHONE VERDICT            85%

 

PHONEY EXTRA....

 

TALKING EXECUTIVE PHONE, £1.99

Ericsson will be pleased to know they’ve arrived at last! One indicator of a mobile phone’s success is how long it take the phoney cloners to copy it.  This one is unmistakably based on the chubby little Ericssons, the attention to detail is most impressive, though we’re not sure how often most users are likely to see ‘Kwong Fei’ in the caller display. Nevertheless, it has an interesting repertoire of bleeps, tones, tunes and the inevitable nasal voice saying ‘operator, may I help you’. At a distance it’s good enough to fool most people. So, next time your down the pub, with someone who has an Ericsson phone, wait for them to go up to the bar, when they return watch their reaction when you drop the phoney on the floor, or into a pint of bitter. Hours of fun...

 

THE FACTS

Typical Price            £1.99

Features            melody, bleeps and voice messages

Looks like             Ericsson 337               

Get it from            your local market or novelty shop

 

WHAT CELLPHONE VERDICT            50%

 

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Ó R. Maybury 1997 2105

 


 

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