Smart Phone choices

Many may ask what has a smart phone to do with Amateur radio, well especially in connection with a SOTA activation, one relies on a phone to be able to self-spot and to be able to see which other activators are out with the chance of a summit to summit (S2S) contact.

Here are my guidelines, that I put together for another amateur and thought they may be useful to others (this is the status as at September 2017 and will no doubt quickly change as technology advances):

Networks and packages

Firstly, you need to chose a network provider who gives good coverage in the area or areas that you wish to use the phone. There’s no point going to a company because it is the cheapest and then find that they only provide a cell network in the middle of large cities! It IS however worth looking at small companies that on-sell the major networks as you get to use the good network at a lower cost than if you had a pre-paid card directly with them.

There are monthly contracts, some of which include phones my preference however is to buy a phone outright from the usaul online suppliers and then get a PAYG (or pre-paid – same thing) SIM card.

As we need Internet data you must – CHECK THE DETAILS! Some pre-paid card deals have some data included in your credit, most need you to go and buy a “data pack” from your telephone credit – this is OK AS LONG AS the data credit is not only for a set time – this can be a day, a week or a month. If you buy say 500MB and you haven’t used it up by the end of the period, you LOSE IT!

I have a phone with two SIM cards in it and I have two different approaches with my two networks;
With Vodafone Germany- I bought a 250MB data package and then whenever I add telephone credit to the card, I get the option of some free calls, free SMS or free data – I chose data as at the end of each month they transfer whatever data allowance I have over into the next month (note not all packages do this – READ THE SMALL PRINT).
With T-Mobile Germany (Deutsche Telekom), I don’t use their network for data very often and so what happens is that if I switch data to that SIM for an Internet connection I get an SMS from them saying that they have allocated 100MB of data allowance to me for the cost of 1 EURO but this is only available that day – which in most cases is all I need. Any data allowance remaining of the 100MB doesn’t get transferred to the next day, it is lost.

f you buy a smartphone with just one SIM card slot, you’ll need to buy whichever network provider gives the best coverage in your area or the area where you’ll need to use the phone the most. This could mean you have a limited choice on PAYG phone or phone and data packages.

If you have the option, go with a phone (+SMS) PAYG card and add a data packet to it – that way you can buy a new data packet when you use up the first one. If you go with a combined phone and data PAYG option, you’ll most likely have to buy more data capacity when you don’t need it.

Again read and compare the options before going into the shop or ordering online (often ordering online is cheaper).

When looking at a phone to buy, the following options will affect the price:

1. Operating system – Apple iPhones will be the most expensive and given that most Ham Radio apps are for Android I wouldn’t buy one.
Operating system version – older is cheaper – although most apps will run on Android 5 – I’d look to buy the latest version of Android, which I think is 8 at the moment.

2. Processor speed and cores – same applies here as on a PC, the faster the processor or the more cores a processor has, the faster and more expensive the phone will be. All current phones irrespective of what processor they have should be fine for what you want – so don’t worry about this point.

3. Screen resolution and size – again like PCs the better the resolution, and the larger the screen, the more the phone will cost. I wouldn’t worry about the resolution but a 4.5 or 5″ (or larger) display is nice to have to be able to read text. Also consider an anti-glare protective plastic screen protector as you will probably want to read this in bright sunlight at some point.

4. Memory – both RAM and disk storage. This is IMPORTANT – although most phones can take an additional Micro-SD (aka TF) card of up to 32GB, several apps will not run correctly from this extended disk storage. Some phones have only 4 or 8GB of internal disk storage and these can fill up quickly as the operating system and all of its files sit on the internal storage, 16GB internal storage is a minimum, some phones come with 32GB. RAM is less important and most phones come with 1GB or 2GB of RAM – go with the 2GB option if it doesn’t cost too much more.

5. Communications capabilities:
All smart phones have WiFi built in – most will have 802.11-N some of the newer ones AC – all will “fall-back” to older standards (slower speeds, but still fast enough) – unless your Home router has 802.11-AC capabilities, don’t worry about which version of WiFi phone has – it’ll be fine.
Cell data connection. All smartphones are capable of 3G connectivity (as long as the network signal is strong enough). Some phones have 4G (aka LTE) and cost more because of this – if you are near to a 4G cell site, you will see the difference with 4G over 3G. 3G is OK for everything but 4G if it doesn’t cost too much more is worth having, as long as you use your phone near to the cell towers so that you can get 4G.

SIMs – There are phones that take 1 SIM or 2 SIMs –  I prefer the ones with two SIM slots but that depends on which networks service your area. If there’s only one network, then you will be fine with a phone with just one SIM card slot. The difference in price is usually only a few pounds between a dual-SIM phone and a single SIM one. SIM Cards are normally provided as full size cards but are a “push-out” format where the full size card becomes a mini or micro SIM card. Some phones use the full size, some the micro, some one of each. Very few use the mini-SIM card and most newer phones are using the micro-SIM card to save internal space.

6. GPS and navigation software – Some very cheap smartphones do not receive the satellite GPS signals and rely on the cell station and WiFi data to indicate your location. The majority of smart phones do however have a proper GPS receiver in them.
Navigation software. If you use the Google Maps navigation software, as well as the GPS signal, it also needs a data connection – either WiFi or 3G or 4G when traveling – this will use your data volume up. HOWEVER there are Android apps (programs) that download the required maps to your phone and hence only need a GPS connection, no data connection. These update their maps to the latest version when you are at home connected to your WiFi Router. There are free versions and paid versions of these programs. The paid ones have more features, no annoying adverts and the map updates. Often there is a free version and a paid version of a “navi” app, so you can install the free version and then if you like it pay 5 or 10 pounds to upgrade to the full version.

7. Protection – physical – The latest smart phones can be very thin and easy to drop, so I would recommend you get a case of some kind for the phone case to protect it. I would always add a screen protector (ideally anti-glare as mentioned above).
Protection – anti virus – there are some (free) anti-virus programs for smart phones (and some to buy). In general though, as long as you don’t go loading a lot of unknown apps, not from the official store, you probably don’t need anti-virus for your phone.

8. Compass – only some of the Smartphones have the compass chip in them, if this is something you want, make sure it’s in the specs. Some use the GPS for a pseudo-compass.

9. Bluetooth – all smartphones have bluetooth, for use with headsets or to connect to car radio systems for hands free operation within the car. If you intend to use either of these features, make sure the latest version of Bluetooth is supported. If you want to stream music from your phone to speakers or the TV (if they are so equipped) then again, make sure you chose a phone with the latest Bluetooth supported and these features are listed.

10. Charging – Some expensive smartphones can be charged from a charging pad most charge via the micro-USB port. Stay away from Smartphones with the charging pad option, they create horrible RFI!

11. Camera – all smartphones have two cameras built in. one facing you for Skype and the like and one on the back for taking photos and videos. The more megapixels the camera has, the more expensive the phone will be normally. For the facing camera 2MP is normally good enough but 5MP seems to be common. For the rear camera 8MP or better should be what you are looking for (IMHO). Of course photos from a phone are never going to be as good as from a camera with a proper lens, however the best camera in the world is the one that you have with you when you want to take the shot or video.

I hope this advice is of help to those looking to buy a Smart Phone. As a guide, currently models with all the options above cost between 80 and 110 Euros on eBay.