Mobile Phones

They're everywhere and everyone has them. So unless you want to remain in the dark ages, check out our buyer's guide to Mobile Phones.

Mobile phones have evolved from a device for keeping in touch while out of the office to a must-have tool for running your life. A mobile phone costs anywhere between $100 and $1500, depending on the features and functions of the handset. A standard mobile phone on a GSM plan will give voice calls, voice mail, SMS and a contact list, while a high-end GSM phone with GPRS capability can provide MMS, email, a digital camera, internet and MP3 playback in addition to standard call features.

The digital mobile network is primarily a GSM network (Telstra does have a CDMA network for regional and rural coverage) that supports voice and data transfer at speeds of up to 56Kbps, but typically at 9.6kbps. This is intended as a buying guide for GSM mobile handsets, whether they're part of a contract or bought independently of a network. It doesn't cover smart phones or 3G phones. See separate buying guides for more information on these models.

Choosing a service provider

Choosing a service provider

The choice of service provider will determine network services, coverage, plans, call costs and global roaming agreements among other things. In Australia, there are three GSM phone companies with their own networks - Optus, Telstra and Vodafone. Telstra also has a CDMA network. On top of this, there are a multitude of other companies that act as resellers to the customer. Whether it's a network or reseller, check the network coverage when considering signing up to a plan. For coverage maps, see:
Optus: www2.optus.com.au
Telstra: www.telstra.com.au/mobile/networks/coverage/maps.cfm
Vodafone: www.vodafone.com.au/rep/coverage.jsp?gs=foryou&hd=coverage

Motorola

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Plan vs Prepaid

Plan Vs Prepaid

There are two options for mobile network access - a prepaid account or a monthly plan on a contract. The choice will affect call costs and the availability of some services, such as messaging, Internet access and global roaming. When making the choice, consider how much you intend to use the phone, differences in call charges and credit vs recharge payment.

Prepaid - A prepaid account begins with a starter kit purchased from a retailer, such as a post office or phone shop, and includes a mobile phone number, registration instructions and call credit card. Some packages also include a handset. Calls are paid for with a recharge card that contains a set dollar amount of call credits. Some prepaid accounts also allow phone or Web recharge with a credit card.

Samsung

The advantages of a prepaid account are more control over expenditure, quick registration and set-up, and no exit or termination fee for ending a contract. This is a cheaper option for those who don't make many calls and don't mind the need to top up call credit. Prepaid also allows you to bring your own phone without restrictions. The disadvantages of prepaid, however, include higher call charges, restricted network services, minimum recharge amounts (such as $20 or $50 - the phone is restricted to emergency calls or receiving calls if call credits run out), and call credits may expire after a certain period of time. And there may be a fee to unlock the SIM card to use the phone or number on another network or plan.

Contract - A contract involves signing up for a fixed period of time, (usually between 12 months and 24 months), for a set monthly fee. The plan cost usually includes a value of call charges, but beyond this, call costs are applied to the monthly bill. The advantages of these plans include lower call charges, no call credit restrictions, access to global roaming and full network services and the ability to bundle mobile, home phone and internet plans depending on the service provider.

The disadvantages, however, are being locked into a set plan and network provider, termination fees for breaking a contract and having to estimate the expected usage before singing up and committing to a contract. Plans start at about $10 per month and go beyond $200, with more value in the call credits at the higher end of the scale. All three network providers in Australia also offer capped plans. Rather than pay for each call and SMS the usual way, a capped plan means users only pay a certain amount per month if their usage doesn't exceed a maximum value. Once they spend more than that amount, they are charged the regular per unit rate.

Before signing up for any plan, it's also important to check the fine print for connection fees, exit or termination charges, fees for upgrading or downgrading to another plan and cost of directory and operator-assisted calls. It's also important to know what protection the network offers against costs incurred with lost or stolen phones.

Some of the important questions to ask include:

  • Are there free calls to phones on the same network?
  • Are there "free time" (calls made between certain times and networks that may be free) options?
  • What are the choices of plans?
  • Are there talk and/or text packages?
  • What are the Internet/home phone/mobile phone bundles?
  • What are the global roaming (using your phone overseas) agreements?
  • What are the service and warranty agreements?
  • What are the penalties for breaking a contract?
  • How do I transfer an existing mobile number?
  • What is the coverage area?


BYO Phone? - The next decision is whether or not to bring your own phone or sign up for a contract that includes a phone as part of the package. Many plans include a phone in the package, but phone subsidies, once popular ways to entice users to the market, have all but ended. When choosing a phone and plan, the cost of the handset will be built into the overall cost of the contract or an additional cost that can be paid off in instalments over the life of the contract. If there's a particular handset you're after, or have bought one already, then just compare plans. But make sure to check what, if any, restrictions or limitations the network provider will impose. For example, a BYO phone may not be fully covered for support or some network services.

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Other Considerations

Other Considerations

Changing a plan by either upgrading or downgrading is likely to attract a fee because this is considered to be breaking the contract. Consider the cost of the fee and paying out the existing contract against the cost of continuing with the contract before upgrading or downgrading.

The other issue with changing service providers is mobile number portability. The law guarantees that users can retain a mobile number when moving from one provider to another. So it's possible to change providers to get a better deal and keep the same phone number. However, companies may charge a fee to switch from prepaid to plan, or to terminate an account.

Phones

Phones

Making a decision about a phone isn't an easy choice with the vast array of handsets, features and functions on offer.

GSM - Global System for Mobile Communications is the world's most widely used mobile phone network and in Australia the network covers 95 per cent of the population. There's a plethora of GSM phones on the market from manufacturers including Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Samsung, Motorola LG, BenQ-Siemens, Sagem and Panasonic to name a few. Most new phones are quad-band GSM, which means they operate at 850/900/1800/1900MHz frequency and can therefore be used overseas on networks with frequencies different to Australia.

CDMA - Code Division Multiple Access is an alternative mobile phone network in Australia but it's only operated by Telstra. The CDMA network has more land coverage, particularly in rural and remote regions, but there are fewer call plans and a very limited choice of handsets. Telstra plans to shut off its CDMA network by 2008, replacing it with their new high-speed 3G Next-G network.

Samsung

GPRS - General Packet Radio Service is a wireless communication service for sending data over the GSM network. This is what allows mobile phones to send and receive multimedia messages and email, browse and download files from the Internet. GPRS services have to be activated with the network and are generally charged per kilobyte of data.

PTT - Push to Talk allows a mobile phone to be used like a two-way radio. With the press of a button, rather than dialling a phone number, it's possible to speak to another person or group in a two-way broadcast conversation. The person or group talks back by using the same process with a compatible phone. Nokia and Samsung have released handsets with the PTT capability, but this technology hasn't really taken off.

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Features & Functions

Features & Functions

Understanding the numbers, jargon and acronyms on a mobile phone spec sheet is not always an easy thing to do. But it makes a big difference to how a phone functions and what you can do with it.

Design - Mobile phones typically come in a candy bar, clamshell or slider form factor. The candy bar phones are the most common; they are narrow and long, slip easily into a case and most can be operated with one-hand. However, their size and shape can limit screen and keypad size. The clamshell or flip-phone has the advantage of a small size that opens up to a keypad and screen. Some high-end models even swivel for taking photos at different angles. However, most need to be open to be used and therefore can't easily be slipped into a protective case. The slider phone, where the keypad slips out underneath the screen, offer space for a screen on one side and keypad on the other, while keeping a neat, small shape. Some models even feature a swivel keypad that is used horizontally for two-handed operation.

Colour screen Nokia

Screen - Colour screens are standard in almost all models, but size, resolution and colours vary. A Thin Film Transistor (TFT) screen gives better resolution and brightness because each pixel is lit individually. Resolution ranges between 101x80 pixels and 353x288 pixels with between 4000 and 16 million colours. Screen size varies with the shape and size of the handset. Good screen resolutions also allow images to be displayed as backgrounds or linked to contacts as a graphical identifier to give your phone a personal look.

Memory - Standard internal memory ranges between 10MB and 96MB, unless it's a dedicated gaming or MP3 phone, in which case it may have up to 500MB of internal memory with a separate memory card slot adding an additional 2GB of storage space. (See the buyers guide on memory cards for more on storage.) A model with a card slot is preferable for storing a decent number of MP3 files and digital photos.

Battery - The most common battery type is Li-Ion, short for Lithium-Ion, which has greater energy storage capacity than standard batteries. Models with 700 or 800mAh are common, with a few hitting 1600mAh with the higher number indicating longer battery life. Standby times ranges between 10 days and 14 days, with 11 days about the average. Talk time ranges between two hours and eight hours, but depends on features and use.

Camera - Even the most basic mobiles phone now comes with a digital camera. A 1 megapixel or higher resolution camera is preferable. Many models now have flash, auto-focus, continuous shooting, macro mode and self-timer. Video recording is available on most models as well, although resolutions are usually of low-grade-VGA quality. It is also possible to receive streaming video and to use video conferencing on more advanced phones. These usually come at an extra expense though.

Multimedia & Gaming - Mobile phones that play MP3 music tracks are almost standard nowadays, and give the phone another facet of functionality. Storage capacity is important so consider 64MB the minimum, but look for a model with a memory storage card slot. Models with an FM tuner will provide music without the need to fill the phone with files or worry about storage capacity. Some handsets are designed as dedicated MP3 players and others are designed for gaming. Most handsets come with Java games and as sound and graphics have improved, so too have the games. Phones with internet access can be used to download more games from the Web. A Java-enabled phone usually means it can be used for downloading games and Web browsing.

Connectivity - A mobile phone with USB connectivity can be used to connect to a desktop to synchronise and transfer files using a standard cable that is sometimes included in the sales package. Bluetooth and infrared provide wireless connectivity for synchronising with a PC or transferring files, such as music, video or images, between other mobiles or devices such as PDAs. Bluetooth also allows wireless headphones and headsets to be used for hands-free communication. Some newer music handsets include the A2DP Bluetooth profile that allows the wireless streaming of music to a pair of compatible Bluetooth headphones.

MMS/Email/Internet - A GSM/GPRS phone can be used to send and receive MMS messages, such as photos, music, voice and video files. It's also possible to send MMS files to an email address using GPRS. In phones with a Web browser, it's possible to access the internet and send and receive Web mail through Yahoo! Gmail and Hotmail as well as ISP mail that has a POP3/Web function, such as BigPond, OptusNet, TPG and iPrimus among others. A phone with an inbox can send and receive email directly through accounts with POP3/IMAP support. Most phones also feature Wireless Access Protocol (WAP) browsers that allow users to browse internet sites configured specifically for mobile phones. However, this technology can be painfully slow and not all sites are compatible. Some newer handsets, particularly those at the top end of the price spectrum, support push email; whenever new e-mail arrives it is instantly and actively transferred ("pushed") to the handset.

Extras - Voice-activated dialling can be used to record a word that will activate a call to that number when the word is spoken. Voice recording can also be used to record audio memos and send voice MMS. A speaker phone allows the phone to be used hands-free away from the ear. Mobile phones that play polyphonic and MP3 ringtones have the ability to play more than one note in an audio file at a time and produce a better sound. They're usually downloaded from the Internet for a charge.