This Christmas, thousands of people will wake up to find that Santa has left them a mobile phone. Around 300,000 mobile phones are expected to be bought this Yuletide and not all buyers will be upwardly-mobile people who bark into a handset while sitting in a quiet train carriage.
Until recently, mobile phones were aimed at business users, who could afford the high call charges and handset prices. But in 1992, the two leading mobile network operators, Cellnet and Vodafone, launched "low price" services aimed at ordinary users. The result has been an explosion of sales.
Mobile phones are now sold in many high street stores, but buyers should take care. With no fewer than four network operators (Cellnet, Vodafone, Orange and Mercury one2one), six services, 18 tariffs and around 50 handsets, there is plenty of scope for confusion and making expensive mistakes. In spite of all the hype, mobile phones are not cheap to run, but they are now more affordable.
Analogue services (offered by Vodafone and Cellnet) offer the widest coverage (around 98 per cent of the UK) and have many handsets (prices vary from free to around Pounds 250, with most costing Pounds 80-100). The snag is people can eavesdrop on analogue calls.
Digital systems are less prone to interference and so calls are often clearer. But beware the range of coverage. Cellnet and Vodafone offer a digital service called GSM, which covers the UK and many European countries, as well as Australia and South Africa. Vodafone also offers a digital system for the UK only, called MetroDigital. Mercury one2one and Orange both use a digital system called PCN (Personal Communications Network), but each requires its own handset. Mercury one2one's coverage is limited to the M25 and Birmingham areas, although the company aims to have 96 per cent coverage by the end of the decade. Orange says it will have 70 per cent coverage by the end of this year, and 96 per cent by the end of 1995.
Digital handsets use a plug-in electronic card (called a SIM card), which stores your personal phone number and billing information. The card can be used with other digital handsets that use the same service. When a SIM card is removed from the handset, the phone won't work. Some handsets can transmit and receive text messages, or even send data. Most digital handsets, however, cost around Pounds 200-300 and coverage is patchy.
Today's mobile phones are incredibly small and lightweight, pocket phones. There are many types of handsets, from basic models to those which offer all kinds of bells and whistles. Think carefully about which features you want.
Most services offer optional facilities, such as messaging (which works like an answer phone) or data and fax sending if you think you might be tempted by these, check that your handset can incorporate them.
LCD display panels are very useful. They can tell you about the signal strength or battery life, and display phone numbers, names and text messages.
All handsets will store numbers; even better are phones which also store names. Speed dialling allows you to make calls from memory by pressing a couple of buttons. A scratchpad is useful when you're given a number over the phone. It lets you key in the number and store it in the handset's memory.
Auto-redial is also handy because if the phone network gets busy, your call won't get through (this doesn't work on engaged numbers). Silent ringing means you can receive calls without causing too much disruption.
Security is also important, and most phones have PIN codes and locking codes. Also handy are timer systems which tell you how long your call is.
There are many mobile phone accessories, but the most useful is a spare battery. Most phone batteries should last for around a working day before needing a recharge, but you can get caught out. A spare battery greatly increases your chances of staying in touch.
Running costs can soon overtake the price of the handset. Here are some considerations, and note that most charges do not include any VAT: * Handset. Some are "free" as part of a package; others can cost over Pounds 300.
* Connection charge. All services require a one-off connection charge of around Pounds 30, but see below.
* Monthly subscription. This can vary from Pounds 13 to Pounds 100, and what you get for it varies too. Orange includes free insurance for the first 12 months and a number of "free" calls, depending on the size of the subscription. Usually, the lower the subscription, the higher the cost of calls.
* Calls. Mercury one2one offers free local off-peak calls, while some peak rate calls are 60p per minute. Most services round up calls to the nearest half-minute, although Orange charges by the second. Note that peak rate runs well into the evening and Saturday is considered a working day. Also check how much it costs others to call your mobile.
* Insurance. Around 12,000 mo-bile phones are stolen each month, so insurance is essential. Read the policy carefully.
* Extra services. Optional services such as messaging, often mean more charges.
Buyers are usually required to sign a 12-month contract (but check that it is just for this period), so read the small print and check the following: * Minimum monthly charge (don't forget to add VAT). This is often cheaper if you pay by direct debit. Some companies may let you set a maximum monthly charge for calls.
* Whether you can swap tariffs without penalty useful if you discover you're using your phone more or less than planned.
* What after-service is offered. For example, how soon is a broken handset replaced? While your phone is out of action, you're still paying the service subscription.
* Shop around and look out for packages like free connection or free calls but check that they really are a good deal. Some retailers put the cost of "free" connection on to the handset.
*** Best buy ** Good buy * Worth considering
BT Amber ** Analogue handset Pounds 79.99 BT Mobile Communications 0532 722533 This is a budget-price handset, about the size of a large chocolate bar, and quite weighty. It has an 80-number memory and you can store names up to eight characters, although keying them in is a bit long-winded. The controls are clearly set out and easy to grasp. Two keys are used for controlling volume, and scrolling through the memory. Other features include scratchpad, speed dialling and a time reminder tone. The LCD panel displays number, battery life and signal strength together. A call barring facility lets you lock out international calls or numbers not held in the memory. You can also program it to accept only incoming calls. In comparison with other phones, it feels a bit heavy . Having said that, this is an easy model to use and good value.
Nokia 232 *** Analogue phone Pounds 249 Nokia Mobile Phones 0480 434343 Everyone who saw this phone immediately fell in love with it. It is no bigger than a small calculator and weighs around 200 grams with battery. The 232 has lots of useful features, including a large LCD panel which displays battery life, signal strength and number. At the side are two small buttons which control volume. The keypad buttons are large and well spaced out, and there is a 98-number memory store, which can be accessed by name or phone number. It has a useful redial feature on the last five numbers you've called. There are also plenty of security features, including a PIN number and lock.
The 232 worked well, and calls were loud and clear. This is an excellent phone, but you pay a hefty price premium. Lovely to handle and great to use. I loved it. Pity about the price.
Orbitel 902 ** GSM phone Pounds 117 Orbitel 0256 843468 This is a GSM digital handset, and so should give clearer calls than analogue models. It worked very well, even on a busy street. The problem with digital systems is that if reception is poor, the call cuts out, whereas analogues fade and crackle. The 902 is a fair size but light. Its LCD display is good and the keypad has generously-sized buttons. The memory can hold up to 200 numbers, along with a six to 12-character name. There's a handy timer system which keeps a record of your call charges. You can also receive text messages. The battery ran out fairly quickly, but other than that, the 902 was a good phone to use. (Thanks to Talkland for providing the handset at short notice).
I particularly liked the big LCD screen and messaging. It's not the smallest of phones, but fine for carrying around.
Motorola Flip ** Analogue phone Pounds 79.99 Motorola 0256 817474 Looking more like a prop from Star Trek, the Flip has a folding flap, which doubles as a keypad cover and microphone. The pull-down flap means that you can use the Flip like a conventional handset. It's quite a bulky phone but comfortable to hold. (There is a special edition, which is much smaller and lighter, at Pounds 169.) The Flip's low price means it isn't over-endowed with features. For example, there's only a 20-number memory, and you can't store names as well. Still, there is a scratchpad, silent ringer and lock-out facilities. My main gripe is the tiny LCD panel, which can't display the telephone number, battery condition and signal strength at the same time. If you are looking for a basic model which will let you stay in touch and aren't too worried about size, this could be the answer.
Sony CM-R111 ** Analogue phone Pounds 399 Sony UK 0932 816000 This phone is so small that it can fit into a cigarette packet. The microphone is on a long stalk which flips down when in use. It's a neat idea, but one wonders about its long-term robustness. It works well calls are clear and bright but miniaturisation has its price. The CM-R111 has no LCD panel; instead, small LED lamps tell you the signal strength, battery life and whether a call is being made. The keypad buttons are also tiny and memory is limited to a dozen numbers. Other features include a silent ringer, locking code and volume control. Battery life is excellent, and a standard battery lasts about 14 hours when the CM-R111 is in standby mode.
For portability the CM-R111 is hard to beat. Battery life is superb too. But the lack of an LCD panel and limited features make it an expensive buy.