You know you have a smart phone when it comes with a manual that describes how to use it, and you actually have to read that manual. Even rather inexpensive phones these days come with a raft of features that are meant to make them easier to use and more enjoyable.
You can buy a very substantial cell phone for $80 or more, and often these phones are given away “free” as part of a service contract. Of course there are no free lunches—the phone’s real price is rolled into the service plan you just purchased, and if you should try to get out of your service contract you will learn what the phone really costs!
But it’s nice to think of your cellular phone network provider as some benevolent aunt instead of the malevolent Ma Bell depicted in the movie The President’s Analyst from days gone by.
Even inexpensive cell phones come with numerous features these days to make them both easier to use and more powerful. It’s impossible in a article this size to go over every feature that cell phones offer, but this article covers the most useful features that you might want to consider when you purchase a phone.
Let’s also cover a few of the features that are the most fun. Two essential features top our list when considering any phone for purchase. The first is the connection quality and the second is reliability.
Connection quality is the more easily assessed of the two. You can listen to the phone at the sales location; in practice the phone should sound at least that good when you are in range of a cell. Given a choice, choose a phone that offers multiple bands and modes.
Reliability is harder to assess, although you can ask which phones are returned less often. Every so often a rating service like Consumer Reports will rate cell phone models, which is useful—but not as useful as you might think.
The problem is that cell phone technology is advancing fast and models are often obsolete in less than a two-year period. The build quality of the phone and its case are sometimes a guide to reliability.
Many people find size an important feature, and certainly the size of the display and keypad is also important. You can get a tiny phone, but you will have to compromise on the size of your display and keypad if you do.
We recommend that you buy a clamshell design cell phone because it maximizes the size of the display and keypad, minimizes the size of the phone, and offers some additional protection to the display.
Even long-time clam holdout Nokia is now making clamshell-type cell phones. In the next section we describe smart phones in more detail, but you don’t need to buy a smart phone to get a number of very useful features. Among the ones we particularly like are the following:
- Phone directory.
- Speed dial or one-button dialing.
- Last number redial and automatic redial (also called demon dialing).
- Recent calls.
- Volume control.
- Speaker phone.
- Mute and hold.
- Ringer control and a vibration setting.
You’ll find those features on nearly any cell phone that you purchase these days. Depending on your service provider you may also find that they offer services similar to the ones that you can get for your home phone, including:
- Caller ID.
- Message forwarding.
- An answering service.
We find an answering service to be particularly valuable for a cell phone because it is backup when you are in a no-service area or when you are on the phone and can’t get to the second call. The list doesn’t really end there.
Even in lower-end cell phones these days you can find calendars, games, and downloadable customized sounds. Move up in price and you can add voice activation, text messaging (also called SMS or Small Message Service), and Internet access.
Text messaging, or TXT messaging as it is often called, is a method of sending small text messages from one phone to another. TXT messaging is a cross between a truncated form of e-mail and instant messaging.
You may also find this service referred to as SMS or the Short Message Service. There are normally restrictions on the number of characters you can send (typically around 200 characters or less), and both parties have to have phones that are both TXT-message capable and also subscribe to the service.
Messages can be received on your phone display when you are talking (for some carriers) and are stored in the system for several days if you are not connected to your service. Some services not only offer TXT services, but have fully implemented Instant Messaging Services as well.
Often the IM service is part of your TXT service and the utility for sending to an MSN or AIM address is included on the phone or a free download. With the newer phones that contain cameras, you may be able to send picture or video messages from your phone.
This feature has gotten a lot of press recently because there are simply places that you shouldn’t send pictures from—doing so is very naughty. So you may find that picture phone use (as well as cell phone use) is banned in a number of places.
If you subscribe to the picture/video messaging service you can send pictures and video messages to other subscribers on your network. Even if your recipient doesn’t have this service, she will still receive the picture and will be able to display it if she has the right utility on her phone.
Everyone’s favorite feature on cell phones are ring tones. The number of Web pages and Web sites devoted to ring tones is truly amazing. Take for example the site Ringophone.com. This site lets you download literally hundreds of ring tones, anything from classical music clips to TV show themes, to you name it.
You can purchase a ring tone for 59 cents and install it on your phone. Ringophone.com is not unique; you can find similar sites at Ringtone.net, Myringtones.net, Ringtoneparty.com, and others.
Not all cell phones or cellular networks support ring tones, and for those that do, the installation is a little different in every case, but here’s the procedure for how it works in general:
- Go to the site with the ring tone.
- Purchase or download the ring tone(s) of interest.
- Specify the cell phone number you wish to send the ring tone to.
- When you complete Steps 1–3, the system will call you with a data call in a short time, and you will see something like “Ringing tone received” (for Nokia phones, for example).
- Press Options, then Playback, and OK to hear the ring tone.
- After you listen to the ring tone, press the Back button, and then scroll to “Save Tone” and press OK.
As a general rule, ring tones are either transferred using SMS or by an application that is included with the phone. Undoubtedly your manufacturer includes this information on its Web site for your particular phone. About.com has a ring tone compatibility utility that you can search as well as a FAQ on the subject.
Even if your model isn’t compatible with the ring tones you want to download, you’ll find a number of ring tone conversion utilities on download sites, as well as ring tone composing software. We don’t understand what all the fuss is over ring tones, but we must admit that we are a long way past our teenage years.
Cell Phone Games
Before we leave the subject of time-consuming and fun things you can do with your cell phone, we would be remiss not to mention cell phone games. Games have been a fixture on cell phones for quite some time, and they remain one of the most popular features that people look for when they purchase a phone.
If you have a smart phone based on Windows CE or the Palm, then adding a game to your phone is the same as adding any other application to that phone.
However, phones without PDA operating systems can also have games, and they use a different method to get and play those games. Cingular, for example, lets you download a game like this:
- Access the Internet on your phone.
- Select the Games command.
- Choose the game you want.
- Hang up.
- Cingular calls you back and the game is downloaded to your cell phone.
Or you can follow these steps:
- Go to Cingular on the Internet from a computer and select the game to download.
- Cingular calls you back and the game is downloaded to your cell phone.
Games cost $2.95 at Cingular and after you download them they are yours to keep. Keep in mind that different cellular networks offer different game installation procedures, costs, and availability based on the specific model phone you have.
You may find that your phone actually comes with games on it already. That was the case with many Nokia phones in the 1990s that came with a game called Snake. Newer cell phones, many of which are sold to be “Internet-ready,” are implementing a mobile version of Java into their phones.
The market for cell phone games could be significant, at least based on the experience that NTT in Japan has had with its i-Mode phones over the 3G DoCoMo network. The most popular cell phone games are what are called SMS games.
That may change over the next couple of years as Java games replace this older format, but at the moment it appears that SMS game download and usage is increasing in the marketplace. SMS games are text games, offering word puzzles, quizzes, trivia, and other SMS answerable questions.
Depending on your phone’s OS, different sets of games are available. The Symbian OS requires large game files, so you find this OS on larger smart phones like the Nokia 9210. As with Palm and WinCE, you download those games to a PC and transfer the games to your phone.
Nokia also has a mobile game cell phone platform that is being very carefully watched in the cellular phone industry. The Nokia N-Gage series is meant to provide a sophisticated game platform akin to the Game Boy Advance, but with the phone integrated into it.
Like the GBA, the N-Gage uses special game cards that you insert in the phone to play. The graphics and sound of the N-Gage are a significant step up from the current crop of cell phones. N-Gage is really a game console with a phone built into it, the very essence of the concept of digital convergence.
Of the phones that are Java-enabled, and there are many, the games tend to be large files that you download using your microbrowser.