Hands-free Headache

Safety: Cell phones and driving don't always mix, but universal car kits meant to hold the phone and amplify calls don't always work.

January 09, 2003|By Kevin Washington | Kevin Washington,SUN STAFF

Chatting on a cellular telephone while driving a car has become a habit - or even a necessity - for many of us.

Unfortunately, studies show that driving in heavy traffic with a phone clamped to your ear can be downright dangerous. As a result, New York has banned the use of handheld cell phones by drivers on the move, and 11 other states have restricted the practice.

This has turned the yakking public's attention to kits that supposedly turn the cell phone into a hands-free device without special wiring or installation in the car.

Some are designed for specific phones: Radio Shack, for example, carries several designed for Motorola and Nokia equipment.

But others, ("as seen on TV") are designed to be used with any cell phone. Ranging from $10 to $90, they amplify the sound coming through the cellular telephone's earpiece so that you can talk without holding the telephone to an ear.

This amounts to hands-free chatting only, because these kits don't handle dialing or other functions that require the fingers. Still, they claim to eliminate the use of the hands during most of the call, which is better than nothing.

We took a look at three inexpensive, "universal" hands-free kits and, unfortunately, found them almost universally deficient.

The biggest problem occurred in trying to get the devices to perform their main function - amplifying sound from the cell phone's speaker. Despite their claims of universality, their mechanisms for holding a microphone up to the phones' speakers failed to work with either a Nokia 5160i or a Sanyo 5300, the two cellular phones I used for the tests.

The Premium Universal Hands-Free Car Kit failed to hook properly to either handset. A Velcro-backed strap is supposed to clamp a small microphone in place to capture sound from the cell phone speaker, but it was obviously designed for a boxy handset, rather than the rounded surfaces on my phones.

The kit's speaker plugs into the cigarette lighter on the dashboard, but the package doesn't include a holder for your telephone, so you'll have to buy one separately.

The Car Call Hands Free Car Adapter ($20) by Car Radio Systems was the least bulky of the group because it doesn't have its own speaker. Instead, it uses one of eight frequencies on your car's FM radio to pipe conversations through your car's sound system.

The device itself is nothing more than a small box with a spring-loaded clip that sits over the cell phone's earpiece. An on-off button is in the middle of the device's face.

Here, too, the adapter didn't perform an adequate job of holding a microphone over the speaker. In fact, the spring-loaded clip easily slipped off both phones, launching my Nokia across the passenger seat and launching itself away from the Sanyo into the back seat.

Thanks to the clip problems, I couldn't perform any endurance tests. But according to the manufacturer, the device, which uses a watch battery, will work up to 3 meters (almost 10 feet) from the radio and has a talking time of 10 hours before the battery needs to be replaced.

Although the clip couldn't hold the device, for the few seconds that I held the microphone over the phone speaker it clearly picked up a conversation and transmitted it solidly through the car speakers.

The performer of this group was the Tecno Defender ($10), which I bought from CompUSA. The Defender had the greatest promise because it was packaged with its own phone cradle.

The cradle has a stationary bracket on the left side and movable bracket on the right that can be ratcheted against the phone for a snug fit.

The Defender works on the same principle as Premium's Universal Hands Free Car Kit, with an external speaker powered by the car's cigarette lighter.

A second speaker, with 3 1/2 feet of cable, can be stretched across the dashboard to a place in front of the driver. It's supposed to attach to the dash with an adhesive-backed Velcro mounting strip.

Unfortunately, you need a very smooth dashboard to use the adhesive. My plastic dashboard has a simulated grain that kept the adhesive from sticking, and the speaker slid off the dashboard after 35 seconds in place.

The Defender lost points in other areas, too. Once again, the clip failed to hold the device's microphone over the speaker on my cell phone's earpiece. It kept slipping out of place while I chatted, thanks to the road bounce in my little Toyota Corolla.

When I pulled over and tried to remove the device from my cigarette lighter, it became stuck in the socket and pulled the entire lighter assembly out of the dash.

Luckily, I'd saved the Defender until last, because until I get the lighter repaired, I'm out of the hands-free car kit business.

Finally, just so I'd be able to offer some hope, I tested headset-microphones made specifically for each of my cellular phones. Both worked perfectly in hands-free operation - and they'll do just fine as long as you're willing to plug something into your ear while you're driving.

One last piece of advice: If you're shopping for a phone and plan to use it in your car, look for one that has voice-activated or one-touch dialing - combined with a headset, that will get you pretty close to a hands-free experience.

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