What Cellphone






Nowadays you can get mobile phones in just about any colour you like, but it wasn't always like that, as What Cellphone's resident art critic Rick Maybury reveals…



Henry Ford's famous quip about painting his cars in any colour the customer wants, as long as it is black, was clearly taken to heart by the mobile phone industry. Mind you black it has its advantages, it wears well, doesn't show up dirt and scratches moreover it looks businesslike. That's all well and good if you want your mobile phone to present a sober-suited image and you like the colour black, but until fairly recently if you fancied something a bit more colourful it was tough titties!


In the early days a few adventurous souls went in for a spot of DIY customisation with a fine paintbrush and a tin of Dulux. Mobile phones owned by painters and decorators often ended up with interesting-looking finishes too, but generally speaking applying paint to a mobile phone -- deliberately or by accident -- is not a good idea. Apart from anything else it clogs up the keypad and gets into the earpiece and microphone holes (where it can do real damage), obscures the display and mucks up the electrical contacts. Removing duff paint-jobs or splashes with turps or thinnners is a good way to kill a mobile phone stone dead! 


Four years ago the first replacement covers began to appear on the accessory market. They are coloured plastic mouldings, identical to the phone manufacturer's original case and the perfect solution for anyone wanting to make a fashion statement, or simply looking for a way to cheer up an old, tatty or damaged handset. The trouble is, mobile phones are fiendishly complicated devices, the case isn't there simply to stop the bits falling out, it is an integral component. Taking one apart is a job for an engineer, with the right tools and nerves of steel; when the case is opened tiny bits fly out all over the place, it helps to know how to put them back together again. Make no mistake, you do need special tools, phone makers deliberately use unusual or exotic screws and fixings to stop owners tinkering with their instruments. Brute force is no good either, if you try to force a phone cover apart you will almost certainly end up breaking it. Then there's the small matter of the warranty. If you so much as slacken off a screw, or break a seal, let alone change the cover -- even if you get an engineer with a string of qualifications to do it for you -- your guarantee goes out of the window.


Nevertheless, for those willing to take the risk, and happy for the shop or dealer to carry out the swap, there's now a very good selection of alternative casings on the market, and several companies reading and willing to prepare a bespoke cover, to your own design. As far as the off-the-shelf covers are concerned, only the most popular makes and models are covered, but the ranges are growing all the time. Most of the one's we've looked at over the past few years have been made to a commendably high standard, using the same or similar materials as the original. We haven't put any of them to the ultimate test -- treading on them or dropping on a concrete floor -- but generally speaking they look as though they should be able to withstand normal wear and tear.



The quality of the finishes varies though, from simple acrylic spray jobs to properly formulated plastic coatings, that won't rub off. If you're shopping around for a new case check the edges and seams with your fingernail. If the paint or coating flakes or chips easily then just think what it's going to look like after spending a couple of hours in a coat pocket, with a bunch of keys and loose change. Cases with hardwearing protective coatings or lacquer get extra brownie points.


Bear in mind also that phones with wacky coloured alternative covers can look decidedly odd when used with a standard black battery pack. A few companies produce matching batteries for their covers but that can be a bit of a gamble. The performance of phone batteries varies enormously and you could end up with a pack, filled with cheapo second grade cells, that only lasts for a fraction of the time of a standard manufacturer's battery.



Cellphone makers have been surprisingly slow to cotton to the fact that not all of their customers want black handsets. One of the first recorded splashes of manufacturer-applied colour -- if you can call it that -- was on an ancient Motorola analogue model called the Personal, launched way back in late 1992. In fact it was creamy beige, but that sort of counts as a colour. It looked great when new… Ericsson showed some early promise in 1994 with the EH97 Hotline, well, it had big orange buttons and snazzy grey pebbledash finish, but it was considered quite racy in its day. Then in early 1995 Peoples Phone got radical with the CRN 7000, which was available in a range of bright colours, including shocking pink and fluorescent green. Since then other manufacturers have dabbled with colour choices, there's even chrome finishes and metallic coatings that change colour in different types of light but the bottom line with all of these phones is that you're stuck with the one style or design. What was needed was some way of varying the appearance of a phone, so that it becomes a flexible fashion accessory, without having to pull it to pieces.


It finally happened last summer when Ericsson got all arty again by becoming the first manufacturer to give their customers a way of changing the appearance of their phones, and it didn't void the guarantee. The keyboard escutcheon on the GA-628 could be swapped for around. It wasn't exactly an earth shattering transformation, and at £15 a throw, a somewhat costly facility, but it was a start and a taste of things to come. We now move swiftly on to the spring of this year and the launch of the Nokia 5110. It is the first phone with a choice of 'Xpress-on' snap-on covers, and what's more, one is supplied (along with a standard black cover), extra ones costs around £10 each. Nokia are also working on a customisation service, whereby they will make one-off covers to order, to the customer's own design. This service was supposed to be up and running by now; we contacted to them shortly before this issue went to press and a spokesperson told us there had been some delays but they were hoping to have some news soon. We'll keep you posted.   



Now back to those replacement cases and a quick round up of some of the ones that have caught our eye recently. 


Apex Direct specialise in Ericsson and Nokia phones, their range includes coloured, clear, tinted and patterned finishes and prices start at just under £30. They can be reached on (0800) 7311514.


Art in Motion produce hand-painted cases to your own design, they say they can tackle any kind of phone and are more than happy to talk to corporate customers. One-off designs cost around £50, plus £15 for a new case, if you want to keep your old one. Art in Motion, telephone 0181-767 7733


Artist X is another company that will turn your phone into a work of art. They've got a long list of corporate and celebrity clients, including Lamborghini and Prince Naseem. You can choose one of their unique designs, or come up with your own ideas, turnaround time is 10-days and bespoke, one-off covers cost from £60 upwards. Artist X, telephone (01727) 823111.   


Cell-Kit supply housings for Ericsson and Nokia phones; in addition to clear and coloured cases they have marble and wood effect finishes. Prices start from £15.00. Cell Kit, telephone (01323) 7312100


D.B. Cellular stock high quality covers for most Ericsson, Motorola and Nokia models, on some handsets there's a choice of 20 different colours. Prices start from as low as a fiver for some older designs; most current models cost between £10 to £15. D.B. Cellular, telephone (0161) 773 0083


Fone Range has a good selection of replacement cases for Ericsson, Motorola and Nokia phones. They're available in colours and wood finishes and price start at £5.00. Fone Range, telephone 0181-838 8888


Kondor has a range of DIY-able slide-on covers for Ericsson and Nokia phones. Finishes include marble, walnut, carbon and blue, and they're all yours for around £5.99. Kondor, telephone (01425) 474444


New Face Art have both off-the-shelf cases and a custom service, for phone owners looking for something really special. They've got some seriously eye-catching designs, including space scenes, skylines and 'Mr Crafty Condom' who will grace the mouthpiece on your mobile for just £40. New Face Art, telephone 0181-205 2200.



ã R. Maybury 1998, 0907



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Copyright (c) 2006 Rick Maybury Ltd.