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4/1/2003 | 2 MINUTE READ

Reality Check: Not Sold on Cellphones

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These days, mobile telephones can do it all.


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These days, mobile telephones can do it all. In addition to storing telephone numbers and e-mail addresses, they can function as day-planners, video game systems, instant messengers, digital cameras and web browsers. At the same time, mobile phones are becoming smaller and sleeker.

As someone who loves his gadgets, I’m all for versatility. The more goodies that can be crammed into a single gadget translates to fewer gadgets that I have to carry around with me when I travel, and fewer strange looks from the folks staffing the airport metal detectors. This is always a good thing.
But what happens when a gadget’s versatility and appearance compromises its functionality?

According to a recent article in the New York Times, some of the new additions to mobile telephones are having a substantial negative impact on both battery life and reception.

When a mobile phone is loaded with a ton of features, these “extras” can apply a significant drain on the phone’s battery. Depending on how often you charge your telephone, this may not be an issue at all or it may mean not being able to use your phone when you need it most.

The larger issue—especially for those of us who travel frequently—is reception. Since external antennas don’t look all that sleek, the majority of phones currently on the market utilize internal antennas. According to the Times article, “The radio strength of today’s phones with internal antennas is 15% - 20% less powerful than that of phones with external antennas.” A critical factor is that internal antennas may interfere with the phone’s other circuitry.

Though I have to deal with cellphone reception issues on an almost daily basis, last month I got a taste of just how frustrating things can be. On my way to a plant visit in Milwaukee, WI, I realized that my directions to the plant were not altogether accurate. I decided to call my contact in hopes that he could steer me in the right direction.

My first two attempts to contact him were nothing short of useless. My phone’s “reception bar” (the little bar graph on the phone that tells the user just how strong, or weak, the signal is) at the lowest possible level, and I could not even get any kind of a signal. For fifteen minutes, I drove around suburban Milwaukee, closely monitoring my phone’s reception bar in hopes that it might climb a notch or two. A couple of times it did, but on those occasions the reception on the phone was so bad that I could not understand what the person on the other end of the line was saying.

So how did I finally get ahold of my contact? I pulled over to the side of the road and called him from a payphone. So much for the flexibility and value of the mobile phone.

Phone manufacturers have gotten so wrapped up in bells and whistles that they have lost sight of the real purpose of the product. There’s nothing wrong with an “extra” or two, but games and web browsing should not come at the expense of what wireless phones were designed to do in the first place.