What…? Hello…?

April 28, 2007

An ad for the Samsung Helio cell phone, prominently displayed across the street from the Whole Foods second story cafeteria windows, on Houston Street, says, “Don’t Call It a Phone.” I find myself thinking: I won’t.

Presumably Samsung is referring to the multitude of non-calling related features that make the Helio device so much more than a phone. Nokia similarly wants consumers these days to think of its phones as “multimedia computers.” Indeed, the cell phone has truly become the Swiss Army knife of the 21st century. Packed with a surprising array of capabilities (screw driver, saw, scissors, shoulder launchable surface to air missile), but somehow not so great at any of these functions.

Meanwhile, as far as I can tell, there have been no advancements in the call quality of cell phones in the last ten years and no one seems to care. (I recently discovered that my Ericsson T28z, from 1999, has better call quality than Nokia’s flagship $750 N95 slider cell phone, with the latest in Symbian OS, wifi, and a 5-megapixel autofocus camera.)

The willingness of people to tolerate and, even more, their tendency not to notice poor call quality is especially strange in a place like New York, where we all limit our time at home due to the tiny size of our apartments. A friend of mine here likes to say, “the city is your living room.” No doubt. And many of us, from the early 20th century until the 1990s, when cell phones began to be widely adopted, have become accustomed to having phone conversations in our living rooms.

Yet, by any measure I can think of (call clarity, call volume, sensitivity of the microphone), the venerable old analog land line far exceeds the cell phone in its ability to reproduce the speaking human voice in a pleasant and comprehensible manner. Indeed, not only is the call quality on cell phones worse than land lines, and stagnating, but cell phones have introduced new problems (dropped calls, over amplifying background noise, brain tumors).

Why do we accept this? All the while demanding ever more versatile teeny tiny web browsers and well animated golf games. Could it be that we never really wanted to talk to each other anyway?

I once wrote to the editors of GSMArena, one of the more serious web sites for the cell phone geekerati, asking them to pay more attention in their phone reviews to call quality. Most reviews on their site and others (see also, for example, MobileBurn.com) contain perhaps one or two sentences, often none at all, about call quality. This in reviews that can go on for twelve pages. A kindly editor at GSMArena wrote back to me, saying that there are so many features in current cell phones they cannot always cover everything.

Let’s think about this for a minute. On a device which is nominally a “phone” (though Samsung and Nokia seem a little anxious about whether the word actually applies), the functionality of the so-called “phone,” as a phone, is not always a relevant “feature.”

I will now engage in my inaugural use of a currently popular phrase: WTF?

In my personal struggle to find a phone which works okay in the noisy city, I have actually found a great deal of variation from model to model and manufacturer to manufacturer and so I consider the “phone” feature of the phone worthy of review.

Phones tend to have two significant problems. First, although they can blast out megaphone style in speakerphone mode, they very often do not have enough volume in the earpiece to be heard while walking down the street or in other noisy places. Second, cell phones these days tend to assume fairly small sizes, frequently placing the microphone a couple inches away from the mouth. This means that the microphone has to be more sensitive to pick up what you’re saying, which in turn means that it amplifies all background noise just as loud as your voice, and in yet another turn can tend to drive someone like, say, your mother crazy, who then drives you crazy, asking you over and over to repeat every word you say.

The solution? Not easy. There seems to be no consistency amongst phones for call quality, regardless of price, and not enough consistency with a given manufacturer to count on any particular phone they release working at least decently.

I do have a working hypothesis that flip phones are better for the microphone/background noise issue, because they place the microphone closer to the mouth. Steve, at Steve’s Southern Ontario Cell Phone Page, confirms this, in over a decade of reviews that actually focus on what he calls the “core functionality” of a phone (like, you know, how it works as a phone). But don’t jump to conclusions. Any particular model may well be terrible. For example, the classy Nokia 6133 and 6126 flip phones are utter crap, because the microphone is located, strangely, under the hinge. It must be a whimsical lot of engineers there in Finland, they’ll put a microphone just about anywhere.

I have also found that Nokias in general tend to be the worst phones for picking up every bit of background noise and making it as clear and loud as a bell (I tested a bunch of Nokia phones at their flagship store on 57th Street and have owned a couple). The aforementioned Steve confirms my observation about Nokia. Apparently Sony-Ericssons have the best noise canceling technology and some Motorolas are good.

But really, even when you try, it’s hard to find a cell phone that gets every element of call quality right. So in the end, I guess I have to agree with Samsung and Nokia. I won’t call it a phone.