Cell Phone Voice Quality Assessed

Consumer Reports, in its January issue, rates dozens of cell phones. Michael Gikas, senior electronics editor at Consumer Reports, discusses how the phones performed when it comes to voice quality.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The cell phone has changed dramatically. Nowadays it's not so much a phone, as a way of life. You can use it to surf the Web, check email, stream audio, video, take photos, use GPS. Those functions represent huge technological advances. But when Consumer Reports rated the best and worst of cell phones for its January 2010 issue, we noticed that for one category, not one of the phones achieved an excellent or even a very good. The category - voice quality - which raises the question, why are such remarkable little devices so bad at being the basic thing that cell phones are - phones?

Well, joining us is Michael Gikas, who is senior electronics editor at Consumer Reports. And, Michael Gikas, tell us about your findings.

Mr. MICHAEL GIKAS (Senior Electronics Editor, Consumer Reports): Right. You said it yourself, cell phones have come a long way in the last few years. They've added so many wonderful features: Web browsing, text messaging, social networking applications. They're mini computers. But one area where they haven't improved one bit is in voice quality.

SIEGEL: Why is that? If you can listen to music on your cell phone, if you can record voice messages on your cell phone, that all seem to have higher fidelity, why can't you hear someone decently when they call you?

Mr. GIKAS: Apparently it's not high on the priority list of the carriers or the phone makers. Voice quality for them, if you can hear the other person at the other end, that's a success. So they end up with adequate service.

SIEGEL: You have actually tested all the different cell phones in this category. Are there some that are remarkably better or remarkably worse than the others?

Mr. GIKAS: Well, generally speaking, phones that use CDMA technology - that's the phones that use a Verizon, Sprint network - tend to sound a little better than phones that are on AT&T's and T-Mobile's network. But that's not the whole story. There are lots of factors in here. It's not just the network. It could be the shape of the phone. For example, in the past we've tested folding phones, flip phones, ones you open, and they seem to do a little better than the rectangular phones that you see now with touch screens. And the theory there is that the microphone and speaker are much closer to your mouth and ear.

SIEGEL: So, with the understanding that the best you get for listening quality on a cell phone is good...

Mr. GIKAS: Right.

SIEGEL: ...not very good or excellent, what are some good cell phones for voice quality?

Mr. GIKAS: For AT&T we recommend, it's being around a while, the Moto Tundra, $180. These phones had very good - were very good for - very good voice quality for talking and good for listening, which is as about as good as you can get. From Sprint, the Instinct HD. It's $250. It's a little pricey, but there's also the Samsung Exclaim. For Verizon we have the Samsung Alias 2 for $50 and the LG VX8360, that's a regular phone, a regular flip phone for only $40. Again, very good voice quality for talking, good for listening.

SIEGEL: But the best of all of those models you've recommended, nobody did better than good for listening.

Mr. GIKAS: Nobody.

SIEGEL: Nobody.

Mr. GIKAS: That's correct. And they're really steering voice callers to prepaid plans. That's where the simpler flip phones are and that's where the more affordable plans are. It seems that the carriers are clearly focused on going for the feature phones because that's where the money is. I mean, if you want anything to do with the Web, that's another $30 a month guaranteed. Keyboard, probably you want to do text messaging, another $20 a month for unlimited messaging.

They don't get anything for voice quality. So, as long as people aren't complaining, you know, as long as people can - all right, it works. And you're seeing some plans now that are text-only.

SIEGEL: Well, Michael Gikas, senior electronics editor at Consumer Reports, thanks for talking with us about your ratings of cell phones and particularly when it comes to voice quality.

Mr. GIKAS: Thank you, Robert.

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