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Cell Phone Basics
This Mobilook guide provides an overview of cellular phones and their usage. It describes types of handsets and features. Finally, it briefly discusses calling plans and related issues.
A cellular phone is a portable telephone that does not use a wired connection. It connects to a wireless carrier network using radio waves.
A cellular phone network uses a number of short-range radio transmitter-receivers to communicate simultaneously with many cellphones over a large area.
The wireless network is connected to the public telephone system, another wireless carrier network or the Internet for completing calls to another phone or to a computer.
To use a cell phone, you need to buy a handset (or mobile communications device) and sign up with a wireless service provider for a calling plan.
Handsets are sold at retail outlets, electronics stores, wireless service dealers and Web-based retailers. Handsets come in a wide variety of styles, sizes, screens, keypads, software and capabilities.
Most cell phones have a color screen for easier navigation and use. Most cell phones can exchange text messages with other mobile devices or e-mail addresses. More advanced phones play games, take digital photographs, access the Internet, have personal digital assistant (PDA) functions, and play music.
Mobile phones can be personalized for your use and style. You can add ringtones and images for specific inbound callers, clip on a colorful cover, add favorite wallpaper images, and change screen-saver images and menu icons. You can add headsets, extended batteries and other accessories to make your phone work better for you.
Wireless service providers (also known as a wireless carrier or mobile phone operator) offer monthly (post-paid) and pre-paid calling plans with various features. The handset manufacturers and wireless carriers work together to provide retail mobile phone service.
Each country has one or more wireless network carriers that provide national coverage. Each country may have one or more regional or local carriers or service providers.
Most phones are locked to their service provider. This means that if you are unhappy with your current service provider and want to switch to another service provider then you will need to purchase a new phone. Some phones can be unlocked to work with other carriers.
The main complaints with cellphones are poor call quality (poor or no reception or dropped calls) and billing errors. Many of these problems stem from the uncertain nature of wireless radio communications and from a misunderstanding of the calling plan.
Wireless network carriers use a system of areas or "cells" served by radio communications for handling the connections of all the phone calls of their customers. The radio cells range in size from 50 yards (50 meters) in busy downtown corridors to twelve miles (20 kilometers) in rural areas.
As the mobile phone moves, the call is dropped by the cell being exited and simultaneously picked up by the cell being entered. This switching takes place automatically and is transparent to the user.
Radio signals can be blocked or impaired by trees, buildings, clouds, hills and valleys, so the carrier's base stations (antennas) may have to be located closer together.
If the radio cell serving an area is operating at capacity, a phone call cannot be started or received by that phone. If a mobile phone enters such a cell during a call, the call will be dropped. For more information, see our About Wireless Carrier Networks.
The most popular uses and applications for mobile phones are:
Mobile employees can really increase business productivity. Using a mobile phone for business use is similar to using a phone for personal use. The applications are mostly the same, except that it is usually cheaper to subscribe to a business calling plan from a service provider. Business plans offer wider coverage, more unlimited minutes, fewer additional charges and more detailed billing reports.
For the Mobile Professional
Many business-people need to access their work at home, in the office and on the road around the country or internationally. Business calling plans have mobile messaging services for connecting mobile e-mail to your personal, ISP-based or corporate e-mail accounts. Popular mobile messaging cellphone devices are RIM BlackBerry, PalmOne Treo and Hewlett-Packard iPAQ Pocket PC.
Mobile Business Applications
Popular mobile business applications are:
Monthly plans for small business offer wider coverage, pooled minutes, messaging and features in affordable packages, such as:
Monthly plans for enterprises offer features similar to those of small business plans, except with more members, higher discounts, higher limits and more detailed billing.
Mobile messaging services are available that integrate with existing corporate information systems. For example, RIM's Blackberry Enterprise Server software works with existing enterprise systems to enable secure, push-based, wireless access to e-mail and other corporate data. Handset password protection and keyboard lock features increase the security of the mobile device.
Tips for Mobile Business Users
Organizations that provide mobile devices and services for their employees must manage the costs, security and employee behavior of those services.
Know your calling plan – Explain your wireless service provider's calling plan to all your employees. Make sure they understand the mobile usage activities that save money and those that waste money. Have a written policy for employee mobile phone use.
Work, not play – Giving employees a fancy cellphone to let them play games during breaks or off times is okay, but make sure they are not wasting their time and company money.
Phone etiquette – Educate employees about mobile phone etiquette for business use. Customers and fellow employees will appreciate the effort.
Security & legal – Explain security and legal implications of unacceptable mobile phone use, such as the liability of possessing illegal digital content and the risk of lost or stolen corporate data.
Blackberry PIN-to-PIN messaging – allows users to bypass conventional e-mail and send messages directly to a personal identification number. PIN-messaging is private because if a message is deleted before the Blackberry is put back in its cradle, it will not be downloaded to the computer server. The lack of a message record might be against company policy or accountability laws.
Problems & support – Explain common field and service problems that arise with mobile phones and how to solve them. Provide a centralized support phone number or e-mail address to employees for questions and help. Track problems and reduce common ones.
There are five types of mobile phone handsets and devices. The lines between the types are blurring as each one adopts certain features of the others:
Standard cellular phone – Also called a cellphone, mobile phone or wireless phone. Provides basic mobile phone features. Some models provide advanced features such as ringtones, camera and push-to-talk.
Smart phone – Smart phones are cell phones with advanced digital media features such as e-mail, messaging, web browsing, audio, video, personal information management and text/data entry. Most smart phones, such as the Apple iPhone, have a touch-screen display. The leading smartphone operating systems are Google Android, Apple iOS, RIM (BlackBerry OS), Symbian (Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Motorola, Panasonic, Samsung), and Microsoft Windows Mobile.
PDA phone – PDA phones are wireless Personal Digital Assistant devices that have evolved into providing cellphone-like features. Major manufacturers are PalmOne, Hewlett-Packard and Dell. Popular operating systems are Palm OS and Microsoft Mobile Pocket PC.
BlackBerry – Made by Research In Motion Inc. is a portable device for e-mail and phone. It has a small easy-to-use keyboard for simple e-mail, massaging , attachment viewing, WML/HTML browsing and voice calling. Service is provided by partner wireless carriers around the world.
Satellite phone – Use a system of earth-orbiting satellites to connect a mobile phone to the public telephone networks. Major handset manufacturers are . Major service providers are . The main advantage of satellite phone service is total worldwide coverage. Disadvantages are audio delay, signal interference and high costs.
Mobile phones offer a wide range of features and functions as their design converges with other electronic devices such as camera, audio/video player and PDA.
This section lists the common features of mobile phones and describes their parameters and options.
Wireless carriers that provide cellular phone service use specific technologies for their wireless networks. Mobile phone handsets are designed to work on specific wireless networks.
You might not have any knowledge or preference for a particular network. But your handset, service provider or calling needs could favor one network over another. For example, complete global roaming requires quad-band GSM capability. Just understand enough to buy the right phone for your needs.
Here is a brief description of the most common cellular network technologies. See Wireless Networks section below for more information.
Form, Size & Weight
The physical form (style, size and shape) and ergonomics of a mobile handset affect how you hold, operate, listen and speak on the phone. There are four styles of handset designs:
Summary of mobile phone physical forms:
The weight of the handset is important because you will be carrying the phone most of the time. Newer and more expensive models tend to be lighter. PDA-like features, such as large screens and keyboards, add weight.
The size of the handset should be compact to be convenient to carry and hold. But not too small so that it is awkward to use (hold and speak) or easy to drop or lose.
The handset antenna can be external or internal. An external antenna forms part of the device's shape. They can be short or long, fixed or retractable, and solid or flimsy. The antenna receives and transmits the radio signals and affects the range and clarity of call reception.
Silver is the most popular color of handset body. Black and other colors are available on some models. Light colors show dirt, scuff marks and fingerprints more easily. The exterior color of the phone can also be changed with a face-plate, case or cover.
The screen displays information about the phone and call, such as names, numbers, caller ID, messages and music player. It also displays graphics and images, such as photos and videos. The larger the screen, the more information that can be displayed at once. Fewer lines displayed means more scrolling. Screen size varies from three text-only lines to 240 by 320 pixels (for graphics or about nine text lines).
Some flip-phone handsets have a smaller external display screen that shows caller ID and other information and can be seen when the phone is closed.
A pixel is a picture element, the individual dots of the display screen. Total screen size is the multiple of the pixel height and width. Example: a 240 by 320 pixel screen has 77-thousand pixels. The more pixels, the finer the resolution of the display. Screens can be black-and-white or color. Color screens display between 256 colors and 262-thousand (256k) colors. More colors render images, especially photographs, more realistically.
PDA phones have the largest screens to display the most information. Some screens can adjust the font size to display more information. Larger screens and color screens consume more power.
A large but low-resolution screen is difficult to read because text and images appear "jagged." It is better to get a display screen with more "dots per inch" (more pixels in the screen height and width).
Series 60 (a smart phone platform from Nokia and available from other manufacturers) handsets support a 176 by 208 pixel color screen. Series 80 supports a 640 by 200 pixel screen
Display brightness and contrast affect quality of view. Higher brightness and contrast are easier to see, especially in bright light. Adjust and test the display controls over their full range under a variety of light conditions. Good viewing under sunlight can be difficult.
An Organic Electro-Luminescent (OEL) screen is brighter and consumes less power than a standard LCD display.
The best quality screen is TFT (Thin Film Transistor), also known as Active Matrix LCD. TFT displays have a high contrast ratio (1:150) and fast refresh speed. They are more expensive, but they are brighter, have better color, less ghosting and are easier to view from side angles than other types.
Touch-screen designs enable the user to control the device by touching and draging icons and areas on the display screen.
Controls and Navigation
There are four common types of controls, or input devices, used to operate a cellphone handset. Simple controls are good for basic phone functions. More advanced controls are better for more advanced features. But controls or screen navigation that is complicated or not intuitive can be frustrating to use.
The ergonomics of the keypad are important. Basic operations, such as dialing and voice-mail, should be easy and intuitive to do, without consulting the manual. Buttons should be easy to press and respond clearly. Navigating the menu should be easy, without too many steps or getting lost.
Keypad – Basic handset keypads have twelve telephone number keys plus four keys for sending and receiving calls. More advanced keypads have more keys for specific functions such as managing lists and messages or browsing the web.
Basic keypads are good for basic phone functions, but awkward for advanced functions such as text input.
Four-way button – A four-way (directional) button is a large key on the keypad that scrolls the cursor on the screen in one of four directions, plus push down to "enter" (select item). It is used to navigate through menu items or list items.
Four-way buttons are the most common type of handset control. They are a simple and easy to use control for controlling most handsets.
Joystick – A joystick is a short button that sticks out of the keypad. They operate similar to the four-way button except that diagonal cursor movement is often easier. Hence, they are better for graphical activities such as playing games or surfing the web.
Joysticks control the cursor in four directions. Some models have a fifth direction: Press down to select the item or open a menu.
Trackwheel – Also known as a thumb-wheel or scroll-wheel. They are mounted on the side edge of the body. The thumb or forefinger is used to scroll through the menus.
Qwerty Keyboard – A Qwerty keyboard is a full typewriter keyboard. They make the handset much larger, depending on key spacing. Some models have a pullout (I-Mate PDA2) keyboard or flip-open (Nokia 6820) keyboard.
A Qwerty keyboard is good for frequent writing of e-mails, messages and notes. But if the buttons are too close together, any intensive typing can be frustrating.
Touch Screens – Touch-sensitive screens use a pen or stylus to control the cursor on the screen. They have evolved from personal digital assistant (PDA) devices. Some models have very few physical keys.
Touch-sensitive screens are good for medium-duty data entry. Their character-recognition software is awkward for some. A graphical on-screen keyboard is handy for odd characters, but can be slow (single hunt-and-peck) for extended writing. High-resolution screens consume more battery power.
Some handsets have a predictive text feature that anticipates and completes the word after writing a few letters. This can speed typing if it matches your content. But it can be frustrating if you use a lot of nonstandard words, such as business or messaging acronyms.
Interactivity & Performance
A simple and intuitive user interface makes a handset easier and friendlier to use. A complicated interface, especially for frequently used functions, can be very frustrating to use. The following functions are part of the phone's interactive design:
The activity and performance of some features depend on the hardware design:
Battery life determines how much time the phone will stay powered before needing a recharge. The length of time a charge will last depends on how much you use your phone, the features you use and the strength of the wireless signal.
The "talk time" is the time you spent talking on a call. It consumes the most power. Weak signal strength from the carrier during a call consumes more power. Most phones have between two and ten hours of talk time.
The "standby time" is the time when the phone is turned on but not in use on a call. Most phones have between five and 15 days of standby time.
Most handsets use rechargeable batteries. There are four types of rechargeable batteries available. The type suitable for your handset depends on your handset design, phone usage and budget.
The handset is recharged when placed in the base unit or connected to a battery charger. Recharging the battery takes one hour or more. In-car chargers are available. High-capacity batteries provide longer battery life but cost more.
Some handsets have a rechargeable battery that is removable, which allows another charged battery pack to be swapped in so you can continue using the phone without waiting for a recharge.
At ambient temperatures above or below 20-25C (68-77F), the capacity and charging of most batteries are reduced depending on its type and quality.
For more details on batteries, see our Guide to Mobile Phone Accessories: Batteries.
Camera and Video
Many cellphones now have a built-in digital camera for taking still photographs. Some models can capture video images.
The images can be sent to another handset via picture message or transferred to a computer by cable or infrared port.
Still camera – A camera with more pixels (picture elements) produces a higher resolution image. Higher image resolution produces clearer photos and allows more detailed cropping and editing of the photo.
Digital zoom makes the subject appear closer and larger. Zoom can also be used to show more details on a subject area.
A camera flash illuminates the subject in low light conditions. A flash can fill in shadows, such as around the eyes. Using the flash consumes a lot of battery power.
The maximum number of photos that a camera can store depends on the resolution of the images and the memory capacity of the handset. Most models can add additional memory with a memory card. Some cameras have a night mode or self-timer.
Video camera – A video camera captures a series of still images (frames). A higher frame rate produces smoother scene/subject movement during playback.
Maximum length of recording time depends on the frame rate, image resolution and memory capacity of the handset.
Personalizing Your Phone
Many cellphones can be personalized to match or express your individual style. The most popular ways to personalize a phone are:
Accessories can add to the functionality or convenience of your phone. Accessories are sold under the manufacturer's brand (original equipment) or by an after-market product supplier.
Hardware (Internal) Operation
Some phone features depend on the internal hardware and operation of your handset:
Mobile Internet Access
Accessing the Internet from a mobile phone is still clunky and slow compared to using a computer, mostly due to large Web page sizes, slow speeds and small handset screens.
Some web sites, such as Yahoo, AOL (American Online), Google and CNN, have text-only versions for use with wireless Web (WAP) browsers.
To access the Internet, a mobile phone needs a data service and Web browser:
Connectivity is hardware or software for connecting your phone to accessories, peripherals, another mobile device or a computer. It gives your mobile phone more access and flexibility.
Network mode refers to the type of radio wave used for telecommunications and how it is electronically "engineered" to provide specific performance.
There are two types of radio signals used for commercial wireless telecommunications (cellular phones): digital and analog networks.
Analog networks are older but still have the most coverage, especially in rural areas. The most common analog network is called AMPS.
Digital networks are faster, have more features, are more secure and are more energy-efficient. The leading digital network standards are CDMA, TDMA and GSM.
Dual-mode and tri-mode phones use both the digital (multiple frequencies) and analog networks as available.
GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) is a packet-linked technology overlaid on a GSM network that enables high-speed wireless Internet and other data communications.
Wireless networks operate at specific radio signal frequencies, such as GSM at 850, 900, 1,800 and 1,900 MHz.
Dual-, tri- and quad-band phones operate on the frequency of the signal where they are located depending on the country and carrier.
Handsets are designed to work with one or more network modes and frequencies. They cannot access incompatible networks.
Basic Network Standards
The acronyms in wireless telecommunication can be overwhelming. Just understand enough to buy the right phone for your needs or service provider. Here are the three most important wireless standards:
For a more detailed explanation of wireless networks, see our guide About Wireless Carrier Networks.
A wireless service provider is a company that owns (wireless network carrier) or resells access to a wireless network. This access allows a subscriber to connect their mobile handset to the public telephone network, another wireless network or the Internet. Wireless service providers bundle and sell their network access features as a service called a "calling plan."
Below is an overview of calling plans. For more information, see our Guide to Mobile Phone Calling Plans.
Monthly or Prepaid Plans
The two types of calling plans offered by carriers are contracts and prepaid.
The area of service coverage is defined by the system of radio communications antennas owned or used by the wireless service provider. Check coverage to avoid having a weak or dead spot in a location that is important to you.
The plan area is the primary or only area where your calling plan works. City, regional and national calling plans are available. Minutes used for originating calls within the area apply to your monthly limit. Making a call outside the area, if possible, costs extra.
Originating or receiving a call on another carrier's network is called roaming. Extra charges may apply such as roaming fees and long distance tolls. International roaming plans are available, but you have to have a phone that operates on the other network.
Minutes per Month
Most plans include a fixed number of minutes a month, usually applied to incoming local and long-distance minutes. Minutes over the limit cost extra. The minutes may or may not apply during peak, off-peak, evening or weekend hours.
A family plan lets up to four people (mobile phones) share a monthly pool of minutes for an additional monthly charge.
Rate per Minute
Per-minute charges can be applied to incoming, outgoing, local and long distance calls. The rates can also vary depending on the day of week and time of day.
Airtime and long-distance tolls can be charged by the minute or by the second. Per-second billing is less expensive because you pay only for the exact length of your conversation.
E-mails, Messaging and Data
E-mails are usually charged a fee per month for a fixed number of messages, plus a per-Mbyte fee for additional messages sent or received.
Text messaging is usually charged a fee per month for a fixed number of messages, plus a per-message fee for additional messages sent.
Data services are charged a fee per megabyte of files uploaded or downloaded. This fee may be applied to some or all of e-mails, text/multimedia messages, ringtones and images. The per-megabyte fees may be applied in addition to per-message fees.
If unlimited messages are offered, additional fees may be applied for premium messages such as roaming, international, MSN Alerts, contests, promotions, etc.
Additional Features and Services
Additional features and services may be available such as:
Other Fees and Charges
Other charges may apply to your account. Ask the service provider before you buy their calling plan.
Commercial promotions are used to entice consumers to buy a calling plan. Compare the total cost of using the plan including any upfront or short-term discounts.
For marketing reasons, most cellphones work only on one carrier's network. Some phones, such as an unlocked GSM phone, can be made to operate on another carrier's network.
GSM phones use a SIM (Subscriber Information Module) card for locking. A SIM card holds a GSM phone subscriber's mobile phone number and settings necessary for the handset to function. Some GSM phones are sold in "unlocked" condition. The SIM is programmed by the new wireless service provider for use on their network. Check that all of the service features you are paying for are available when the unlocked phone is programmed for you.
Other types of phones (TDMA, CDMA) use a Service Provider Lock. Service unlocking codes are unique to every phone handset and are related to its serial number.
Be careful about pirated or counterfeit SIM cards and lock reprogramming in this somewhat "gray" area of cellphones.
Wireless Number Portability
Wireless (or mobile) number portability allows subscribers of a wireless service to keep their mobile phone number when switching service providers. Wireless number portability is available in the US, Europe and parts of Asia.
The phone handsets are not portable. If you switch wireless carriers, you will likely have to buy a new phone.
Problems and Customer Service
When a problem happens with your cellphone service, you want to get it resolved quickly and simply. Is customer service for billing and technical problems available 24 hours a day or seven days a week? How long will you wait on hold to speak with a person?
Check with friends about their experiences with the service or with your local Better Business Bureau about complaints.
In addition to the initial purchase price (less any discounts and rebates) and standard phone system charges, the following five usage factors affect the amount charged to your mobile phone monthly invoice:
Talk time – How much time you talk on your phone, including incoming and outgoing calls? If you pay by the minute, the more you talk the more it will cost you. You will pay more if you exceed the fixed-price call minute limits of your calling plan.
Time of day of call – What time of day you talk most often on your phone? Is it during peak or off-peak times (as defined by your service provider)? You get less discount or pay more for calls made during peak times.
Where you are when you call – Calling from outside your carrier's coverage area can incur expensive per-minute roaming charges. Calling from outside your plan's unlimited calling area can incur airtime charges.
Long distance calls – Over how long a distance do you talk? Longer distances and calls to other area codes or countries have higher per-minute rates. You pay long-distance charges for outgoing calls and likely for incoming calls. You can avoid long-distance charges by using local roaming dial-in numbers, if available from your service provider.
Data transfers – Over certain limits, you pay per megabyte and per minute to download e-mails, messages, ringtones, images, etc. This includes receiving spam (unwanted junk messages) on your phone.
To calculate the total cost of a cellphone calling plan over the term of a service contract, see our Cellphone Calling Plan Cost Worksheet (PDF file for printing).
To calculate the total monthly usage and charges on your landline (fixed wire), long distance and cellular (mobile wireless) phone services, see our Phone Usage and Cost Worksheet (PDF file for printing).
To reduce your monthly cellphone bill, see our 5 Ways to Reduce Your Mobile Phone Bill.
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