Motorola iDen m470
Circa 1985: This modern-day Motorola iDen m470 phone is made for office use and can also be installed in a car.
By Columnist
updated 7/1/2005 11:26:05 AM ET 2005-07-01T15:26:05

It’s not all that long ago that making a phone call in a moving car was a very big deal.  I knew one contemporary that had a mobile phone (that’s what they were called back then) in his Volvo.  You picked up the receiver, pressed a button, and waited until a mobile operator came on the line to dial the number for you.  I could only imagine what each mobile call cost.  I was way too intimidated to ask.

Fast forward a few years.  Mobile phones were replaced by cellular phones.  These were phones were permanently installed in your car.  The handset was placed somewhere near the driver.  The working parts of the phone were usually placed in the trunk.  And don’t forget the antenna.  That was usually attached to the back window.  Even if you couldn‘t take it home with you, al least those phones allowed you to dial your own number.

Almost no one still has one installed in their car, but nearly everyone I know has been known to use their cellular in a car.  (Interestingly, even though Motorola still makes car phones for use on their iDen networks, finding one on the Nextel Web site can take forever.)  Those phones transmitted 3 watts of signal.  With a good antenna installed, mobile car phones were good at making and receiving calls.

Fast forward to modern day cellular phones.  They’re small, efficient and very portable.  They have all sorts of doodads, functions and features that couldn’t even be imagined a generation ago.

The problem is they’re also underpowered and not very efficient for automotive use.  Little cellular handsets are limited in their output to less than one watt.  The signal-output numbers are actually 600 milliwatts for older analog phones down to as little as 125 milliwatts for newer digital handsets.  That’s because no one in their right mind would want to hold 3 watts of broadcast power next to their head for any period of time.

Add to that a built-in phone antenna.  Whether it can be extended or is totally built inside the handset — you’re using it inside a moving car.  Now you can stop wondering why cell phone reception is so terrible when you’re driving.  Dropped calls begin to make sense.

What can you do?  Rather than going back to using a built-in mobile phone, plan on getting the most from your modern call portable handset.  That means installing a car cradle.

Samsung SCH-a650 in cradle
Samsung SCH-a650 phone in a car cradle.
Cradles, mounts and car kits as they’re sometimes called, provide you with a holder for your phone, a speakerphone that allows you to talk and drive without holding something up to your ear, an always-connected power source/battery charger and a way to attach an antenna on the car’s exterior.  

You need to install the cradle that’s made for your phone.  Expect a cradle/car kit to run somewhere in the $100-$250 range — plus installation.  It’s not a job I’d want to do myself. 

The biggest advantage of using a phone cradle is the safety factor.  A number of states will give you a ticket if they catch you using a cell phone held next to your ear.  And the list of states requiring hands-free phones is growing.  If your state isn’t cracking down yet — they probably will be very soon.

Jabra BT 500
Jabra's new BT 500 Bluetooth headset allows 8 hours of talktime per battery charge.
If you must use your cell phone without a cradle – make sure it has a built-in speakerphone or get yourself a headset to use.  Many phone manufacturers are building speakerphones into handsets.  Nearly all handsets have a way to plug in a headset and many new phones come Bluetooth wireless built-in – so that you can talk on your phone with no wires attached.

And don’t forget the phone itself.  Forget about looking up a Web site, answering e-mail or text messaging.  There’s no good way to do any of that while you’re driving.  Get yourself a phone that’s easy to use when you want to make and receive phone calls.  Forget about smart phones.  What you need is a stupid phone.  Thousands of extra frills and features aren’t really necessary

Finally, if your primary goal is using your phone when you drive think about getting yourself a one-piece phone.  It’s got to be a lot safer to answer a one-piece handset than any clamshell design that makes you concentrate to open instead of watching the road ahead. 

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