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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.

  1. Overview
  2. How a Cellular Phone Works
  3. Main Uses for Mobile Phones
  4. Business Uses for Mobile Phones
  5. Types of Mobile Phone Handsets
  6. Handset Features
  7. Wireless Networks
  8. Calling Plans
  9. Five Factors That Affect Your Cellphone Bill

1. Overview

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.

2. How a Cellular Phone Works

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.

3. Main Uses for Mobile Phones

The most popular uses and applications for mobile phones are:

  • Voice calling – Talking on the telephone.
  • Voice mail – Callers can leave a message if your phone is busy or turned off.
  • E-mail – Send and receive e-mails with other e-mail addresses.
  • Messaging – Send and receive text, picture and instant (chat) messages with other mobile phone users and e-mail addresses. See Text Messaging Acronyms and Abbreviations.
  • Mobile content – Get news, weather, sports, financial and other information from mobile service providers or from Internet Web sites.
  • Gaming – Play games that are downloaded to your handset or played online on the Internet.
  • Personalize your phone – to your own style by adding custom ringtones, ringback tones, face-plates, themes, background images, icons, voice greetings and screen-savers.
  • Play music – using an audio (MP3) player to play downloaded tracks or listen to radio.
  • Take photos or videos – with a built-in camera. Then send the image files to others.
  • Download and view images – with a photo (JPEG) viewer or video (MPEG) player.
  • Organize personal information – using a calendar, clock, alarm, address book, task manager or memo pad.
  • Shop – Make retail purchases from Web-based stores (e-commerce).
  • Bank – Manage your money using an e-wallet.
  • Location-based services – Maps & directions. Retail store directory. Track persons, cars, pets, etc.

4. Business Uses for Mobile Phones

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:

  • E-mail – Write, send and receive e-mail using a mobile device.
  • Messaging – Write, send and receive short text/picture messages.
  • Remote data – Access office and corporate information and systems while away from the office.
  • Customer relationship management (CRM) – Help mobile employees manage customers and sales with marketing, sales and support functions.
  • Field service – Help mobile employees with operations and production while in the field.
  • Supply chain management (SCM) – Assist in the procurement, logistics and fulfillment of materials and supplies between suppliers and manufacturers.
  • Enterprise resource planning (ERP) – Integrate manufacturing, distribution and financial business information, functions and resources.
  • Security – Protect sensitive corporate information from undesirable outside access.
  • Virtual private network (VPN) – Enable mobile employees to access corporate e-mail and information through a secure connection.
  • Global positioning system (GPS) – For locating, tracking and routing vehicles, packages and people.

Small Business

Monthly plans for small business offer wider coverage, pooled minutes, messaging and features in affordable packages, such as:

  • National anytime minutes.
  • Mobile-to-mobile calling, maybe unlimited.
  • No domestic roaming.
  • Reduced or no long distance charges.
  • Reduced roaming charges.
  • No charge for first minute of incoming calls.
  • Multiple lines per account.
  • Aggregated and account billing reports.
  • Unlimited weekend calling.
  • Limited or unlimited text messages.
  • Caller ID.
  • Voice Mail. Group voice mail. Call return immediate response.
  • Conference calling.
  • Call waiting.
  • Call forwarding. Busy/no answer transfer.

Enterprise

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.

5. Types of Mobile Phone Handsets

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.

6. Handset Features

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 Network

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.

  • AMPS – Analog cellular telephone system. Older technology, but most coverage in the U.S. and many countries. (Advanced Mobile Phone Service).
  • CDMA – Digital telephone system used mainly by US cellular networks. (Code Division Multiple Access).
  • GSM – Digital cellular telephone system. Most-used system worldwide. (Global System for Mobile Communications).
  • GPRS – GSM-based network for wireless data communications. (General Packet Radio Service).
  • TDMA – Digital cellular telephone system. (Time Division Multiple Access).
  • 3G –The "third generation" of wireless telecommunications network technology. Provides high speed IP data networks and mobile broadband.
  • 4G – The "fourth generation" of wireless telecommunications network technology. All-IP broadband network treats voice calls and data transmission the same.

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:

  • Monoblock phone – Also called block, bar or candy-bar phones. Have a one-piece body. They are simple to operate with one hand. They have less total area for keypad and screen. Some models have a keypad that slides out of the body.
  • Flip phone – Variation known as clamshell. Have a hinged cover that opens up into a keypad and screen. Some have an external LCD display. They are compact when folded but have large screens and keypads.
  • PDA phone – Personal digital assistant devices that evolved to provide cellphone functions.
  • Sideways phone – Opens up like two wings. Hold sideways and operate keys with both hands. Good for gaming.
  • Slide phone – A variation of the monoblock form. Two-piece body slides out for larger size.

Summary of mobile phone physical forms:

Physical Form Strengths Weaknesses Example
Monoblock Easy to hold and use. Some models are compact. Screen scratches easily. Limited screen and keypad area. Accidental keypress.

Motorola V2282
SE P900

Flip (Clamshell) Compact size. Better voice qualify. Cover protects screen and keys. Good for carrying on waist. Flip cover may break if handled roughly. Cannot see Caller ID if no external screen. Samsung t719 Motorola RAZR
PDA All PDA functions. Full Qwerty keyboard. Larger, heavier. Consumes more power. Treo 600
Blackberry Pearl 8100
Sideways Good layout for gaming. Awkward cellphone features. Danger Sidekick
Slide Compact when closed opens to two keypads. Heavier. Some awkward keypad layouts. LG 535
Touch Screen Versatile LCD display of touch-sensitive controls and content. Some software is poorly designed and difficult to use. Low battery life. Apple iPhone
LG Vu
HTC Touch Pro2

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.

Display Screen

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:

  • Menu layout and navigation – The menu system should be intuitive to understand and easy to use. Is it easy to select frequently used actions? Are there short-cut commands for frequently used commands? Is it easy to go "back" to the previous screen?
  • Voice mail – When someone phones you, your phone might be turned off or you might be on a call. Use voice mail so you don't miss any calls. Retrieving voice mails should be easy, with the push of one or two buttons.
  • Call-management features – Help you manage the voice communications features of the phone. The most popular call -management features are standard phone service features, such as Caller ID, call waiting, message waiting, three-way calling and incoming/outgoing call restriction. These features depend on the services provided by your carrier.
  • Call notification – The handset can notify you of an incoming call by audio tone (ring), vibration, on-screen or flashing LED alert.
  • Phone book – The number of names that can be stored. 100 names is minimum. Some can store over 2,000. Many models store several phone numbers and text entries per contact. Some can attach a photo to a contact so you can see who is calling.
  • Speed dial – For dialing most frequent names. How many names on speed list?
  • Voice-activated commands – Speak simple commands into the phone. Convenient for hands-free calling.
  • Voice memo – Convenient for recording quick notes to yourself. How many seconds of voice recording can be stored?
  • Game software – To play games on a mobile phone, the handset needs to have game-playing software, such as Java (J2ME), BREW, Morphun or others. It must be able to download games as a message. Storing and playing more games requires more memory.
  • Lock keypad – To prevent unauthorized use of your phone. To secure data contents if your phone is lost or stolen.
  • Change settings – Is it easy to set and save the settings for the device? Are customization options easy to make and save?
  • Computer synchronization – Some handset's can synchronize their address book, calendar, memos and other information with those on your computer.
  • Update or upgrade – Are the software, firmware and features easy to update or upgrade?

The activity and performance of some features depend on the hardware design:

  • Microphone – How sensitive is the built-in microphone? Can people hear you when you are talking in a noisy room?
  • Ear speaker – Can you hear the caller under normal or noisy conditions?
  • Volume control – Is it easy to turn up the speaker volume to hear a weak voice or in a noisy room? A hardware control, such as a button or wheel, is easier to use than a software control.
  • Speakerphone – Convenient for hands-free calling. Let your friends around you in on a call.
  • External antenna – The antenna affects call reception. External antennas can be fixed or retractable. Plug-in antennas are available for car-mounting or semi-permanent sites.
  • Call reception – Reception is the sound quality of the signal coming through to your phone. How well can you hear them? It is also the quality of the signal transmitted to and received by the person on the other end of the call. Reception depends on many factors such as handset electronics, antenna, your location, carrier network design, and the weather.

Batteries

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:

  • Ringtones – The ring tone (ringer) you hear when someone dials your phone number. Ringtones can be music, tones, voices or any audio file, depending on your phone's features. Different tones can programmed to ring for different caller numbers.
  • Images – Replace the images for background (wallpaper), screen saver, theme (colors, skins) or menu icons on your phone with other images. Depends on phone features.
  • Face-plates, covers & cases – Add-on accessory face-plates change the outward appearance of the handset. Many styles, colors and patterns are available.
  • Language – Change your phone's menu to display your native or preferred language. Displays incoming messages in the character set of the selected language. Depends on phone features.

Accessories

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.

  • Batteries – Battery capacity determines the amount of talk time and standby time a handset has before needing a recharge.
  • Battery chargers – Recharge the batteries to full capacity. Use the proper charger for your batteries. Follow proper charging procedures for better charging and longer battery life.
  • Headset – Increase your comfort level when driving or talking for long periods. Many rigid and cable styles are available.
  • Cases & holders – Plastic or leather cases protect your phone and can enhance your phone's appearance.
  • Belt clips & holsters – Convenient for frequent phone use or for specific clothing.
  • Face-plates (covers) – Add-on accessory face-plates change the outward appearance of the handset. Many styles, colors and patterns are available.
  • Auto accessories – Accessories for an automobile help you operate and use your mobile phone from a vehicle. Hands-free accessories let you use your phone without using your hands, allowing you to operate your vehicle safely. Most popular auto accessories are: car power adapters and chargers, mounts & cradles, car antennas, signal amplifiers, and hands-free car kits.
  • Data cables – Transfer data between devices using a hardwire connection.
  • Antennas – A better antenna increases the strength of the radio signal received from and transmitted to the carrier's radio antenna. This can improve reception, reduce dropped calls and increase cell phone range.
  • Keyboards – An add-on keyboard can make data input easier.
  • Memory cards – A removable memory card to increase storage capacity for programs and data.

Hardware (Internal) Operation

Some phone features depend on the internal hardware and operation of your handset:

  • Operating system – All mobile phones have an operating system that controls its hardware and software operations. It is the equivalent of the operating system software of a personal computer. The type or version of operating system determines the features that your handset supports. Most phones store their operating system in firmware.
  • Firmware – is software in semi-permanent solid-state memory that controls the operations of the mobile phone. Flash upgrade of firmware allows new software features or functions to be added or upgraded. Newer "over-the-air" (OTA) mobile phone firmware updating enables mobile device manufacturers and carriers to remotely update the mobile phone firmware.
  • Memory – Mobile phones use internal memory to store programs and data, including messages, pictures and ringtones. The more memory in your handset, the more data it can store. The basic memory of most cellphones is not expandable. But additional memory can be added with a memory card accessory.
  • SIM card – A Subscriber Information Module card holds a GSM phone subscriber's mobile phone number, personal security key, phone settings and other data necessary for the handset to function. It is the subscriber's authorization to use the network. The card can be switched from one phone to another, making the new phone receive all calls to the subscriber's number. Some carriers "lock" the handset's SIM to their network. Many GSM phones are sold "unlocked." Prepaid SIM cards are also available.
  • Antenna – The antenna affects call reception. Internal antennas are not usually replaced or upgraded. Plug-in antennas are available for car-mounting or semi-permanent sites.

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:

  • GPRS – General Packet Radio Service. A service overlaid on a GSM network that provides moderate-speed wireless data communications such as Internet access, E-mail and file-transfer. To use GPRS, you need a phone that supports it, a calling plan that supports GPRS, and the proper handset settings.
  • HSCSD – High Speed Circuit Switched Data is a protocol that provides faster data services over GSM networks for Internet, e-mail, and file transfer. HSCSD has a more stable connection than GPRS.
  • Wireless Web browser – A wireless Web browser is software on a mobile phone which allows you to "surf" Web sites which have been specially designed for wireless access. A wireless Web browser is a text-based, menu-driven application.
  • WAP – Wireless Access Protocol is a set of rules designed to make Internet graphic-rich content suitable for a wireless device. WAP browser software resides on your phone. Later versions of WAP (2.0) support more browser features. WAP is needed to download some ringtones and images.
  • Non-WAP Web browsers – There are many non-WAP Web browsers, such as Openwave Mobile Browser, Bitstream ThunderHawk or Palm Web Pro, that can read regular (HTML) Web pages. But reading regular Web pages on a wireless connection can be slow, unless the pages are small and have no images.

Connectivity

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.

  • Bluetooth – A wireless technology that connects a handset to another device, such as a headset, printer or computer. Range up to 33 feet (10 meters), but is affected by building. Other 2.4 GHz devices, such as cordless phones, may cause interference.
  • Data cables – Data cables make a hardwire connection between your phone and a computer. They are used for transferring data between devices, such as loading software onto your handset or backing up your address book onto your computer. The cables plug into a USB (Universal Serial Bus) port or RS-232 serial port on your computer.
  • Infrared (IR) port – A wireless data communications connection between two devices that uses an infrared signal. The two devices must have line-of-sight position.
  • Memory cards – A memory card is a small electronic flash-memory storage device used to supplement the storage capacity of a device such as a mobile phone. They can hold data such as games, video, pictures, audio, and text files. Popular memory card formats are SanDisk CompactFlash, Sony Memory Stick and SanDisk-Siemens MultiMediaCard. Capacities range from 16MB to 2 GB.
  • Wi-Fi – Wireless Fidelity is technology for providing a wireless local area network that allows compatible devices to access data on the network or other networks such as the Internet. Wi-Fi often works where it is difficult to receive strong cellular signals. Several Wi-Fi standards exist, for example, 802.11b wireless LAN. Check with your carrier, Wi-Fi service providers and premise managers (airports, offices, campuses, commercial areas, etc.) about Wi-Fi availability (hot spots) and rate plans. Or try a Wi-Fi hot spot locator service such as JiWire.
  • GPS modules – Use the Global Positioning System of satellites to determine the location (and elevation) of the handset anywhere in the world. Requires GPs hardware, software and services.

7. Wireless Networks

Network Mode

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.

Frequency Band

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:

  • AMPS means analog network. It is an older system, but still has the most coverage in the US and many countries.
  • Anything with a "D" means digital network or enhanced service (CDMA, TDMA, IDEN, EDGE). Digital networks have a clearer signal and faster data transfer than AMPS.
  • GSM is the most widespread digital network standard in the world and provides fast and enhanced services.

For a more detailed explanation of wireless networks, see our guide About Wireless Carrier Networks.

8. Calling Plans

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.

  • Contract plans – have a monthly rate (plus other charges) and a term of two to three years. The advantage is that you get lower rates. The disadvantage is that you are locked into that carrier and plan for the term unless you pay an early cancellation fee (up to US$200).
  • Prepaid plans – require payment for air-time before you use the phone. Good if your monthly usage varies a lot or you need a short-term. Prepaid rates are more expensive, but you are free to cancel at any time without penalty.

Coverage

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.

Plan Area

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.

Roaming

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:

  • Unlimited local calls, usually within a city zone.
  • Free home calling. Unlimited calls between your home phone line and mobile handset. Long distance and roaming charges apply.
  • Reduced rates on long-distance minutes.
  • Reduced rates on text, e-mail and instant messages.
  • Reduced rates on mobile Internet downloads.
  • Rewards program usage points that can be redeemed for products or services.
  • Referral program rebates.
  • Telephone directory listing.
  • Extended warranties and insurance, if your phone is lost, stolen, or damaged.

Other Fees and Charges

Other charges may apply to your account. Ask the service provider before you buy their calling plan.

  • One-time activation fee.
  • Monthly system, network or access charge.
  • Connection charge per call.
  • Directory assistance 411 charge per call.
  • Monthly Emergency 911 charge.
  • Extra local call charges per minute.
  • Long distance charges per minute.
  • Number portability surcharge (about US$0.40/month in the US).

Popular Promotions

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.

  • Free phone – Usually available with a contract. The phone is not really "free." The provider makes their profit and pays for the phone from your monthly fees paid over the life of the contract.
  • Reduced monthly fee for two months – Check that the "regular" monthly fee is not too high compared to a service that does not offer an initial rate reduction.
  • Unlimited local calls between carrier subscribers.
  • Unlimited local calls during specific hours, such as from 5 to 7 p.m. on weekdays.
  • Unlimited incoming local calls.
  • Online specials for ordering services on the provider's website

Cellphone Locks

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.

9. Five Factors that Affect Your Cellphone Bill

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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