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Mobile phone guide

Confused by the latest phone jargon? Read our easy guide to the latest mobile phone technical terms and hot new features.

Need-to-know facts about mobile phones

Read this guide for essential information about mobile phones and how to get the best out of yours. For more information about the terms we use, click on the highlighted words or see our mobile phone glossary.

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What's the best way to pay for my mobile phone?

With your mobile phone, you can either sign up to a pay monthly contract or pay as you go. Both options have their pros and cons.

Pay monthly contract

  • One mobile phone bill, once a month.
  • You will be tied into a contract for 12, 18 or 24 months.
  • A call and text allowance per month is usually included in your monthly tariff, making it the best value option if you use your mobile phone a lot.
  • You can usually swap your price plan if your mobile phone usage changes.
  • Mobile phone calls are generally cheaper than with the pay as you go option.
  • Contracts will usually include a free or heavily subsidised mobile phone handset.

Pay as you go

  • No credit checks.
  • No minimum mobile phone contract period.
  • Payment is made with a top-up credit voucher or with a credit or debit card registered to your mobile phone number.
  • There is usually a limited choice of services, and handsets are generally more expensive than those included with mobile phone contracts.
  • It's easy to control the amount you spend on your mobile phone, but there's no itemised bill.
  • Mobile phone call charges tend to be higher than with a pay monthly contract.

What is a mobile phone tariff?

A mobile phone tariff is is the package you receive for the money you pay either on a monthly contract or on a pay-as-you go basis. Usually a tariff will include a certain number of call minutes and texts and will also set out rates for anything not included in your monthly allowance.

Always read the small print as different mobile phone networks have different inclusion and exclusion clauses for allowances, so make sure you know exactly what's included in your plan. Companies may charge you extra if you use voicemail or receive itemised bills and 'peak periods' may vary from network to network.

So-called freephone numbers (e.g. 0800 numbers) are often chargeable at a standard national rate when you call from a mobile phone and numbers beginning 09 are always premium rate services.

What are my choices of mobile phone handset?

Mobile phones come in many shapes and sizes with varying amounts of special features, including cameras, video recorders, music players and radio, web browsers, 3G and Bluetooth. Go for a mobile phone model you like and can use easily. Here are the main options:

  • Clamshells, flip or fold mobile phones: a compact mobile phone that fits into a small pocket or handbag. The screen and keypad are protected when the mobile phone is closed. To use it, just flip it open.
  • Classic or candybar mobile phones: No hinges or sliding parts, this rectangular mobile phone has the screen and buttons exposed so you need to lock the screen when you're not using it.
  • Twist mobile phones: Simply swivel the cover round to reveal the keypad.
  • Smart phones: Loaded with the latest technology and advanced PDA type functions, you get a large but powerful mobile phone that's also compatible with your PC. Consequently, it's more expensive and costs a lot to replace.
  • Slider mobile phones: This mobile phone is compact when closed, but slide up the cover and you have a larger screen and keypad, making it easier to use than some of the tiny candybar models.

How does mobile phone messaging work?

If you're not in a position to talk on your mobile phone, messaging is a simple and discreet alternative - and there are several ways to do it.

  • Instant Messaging (IM): Real-time conversation with one or more of your contacts. IM allows you to see who's available to chat - and who's unavailable, as in if they're busy or offline. Most mobile phone operators offer instant messaging software that can be used at very low cost over 3G enabled networks. You can also download IM clients from the application stores on all major mobile platforms.
  • SMS (short messaging service): The standard text message service. If your mobile phone is switched off or out of range, messages are stored in your message inbox.
  • MMS (multimedia messaging service): Allows you to send sound, images and video, as well as text. It's also possible to send MMS messages from a mobile phone to an email address. Unlike SMS, there are no size limits, but large messages require a 3G network to transmit.
  • Email: If you're on a 3G mobile phone network you can send and receive emails.

What sort of games can I play on my mobile phone?

Most mobile phones now come with a number of standard or "preinstalled" games, from classics such as Sudoku to advanced 3D titles. 3G technology, with its remote web access capability, allows you to download hundreds of games from the internet at the press of a button. You can also play online with friends and other players around the world.

How do I listen to music on my mobile phone?

Mobile phones with built-in MP3 players allow you to download music and ringtones from the internet to listen to on your phone. You can also transfer songs stored on your PC to your phone.

Most MP3-enabled mobile phones have a reasonable amount of built-in memory, and using an external mobile phone memory card will give you even more room to save your favourite tracks. Memory cards can be slotted into your PC to upload and download tracks.

Many mobile phones also come with built-in FM radio. The phone scans the airwaves for the strongest signal, mostly using headphones that are supplied with the handset. Newer mobile phones also feature the Radio Data System (RDS), which displays the name of the station you're listening to.

What do I need to know about camera phones?

Mobile phones are becoming more like digital cameras with flash, autofocus, digital and optical zooms, timers and many more advanced options. Many new mobile phones also come with removable memory that lets you store hundreds of photos and video clips and some come with special software so you can easily download your photos to your computer.

Picture resolution is improving all the time, with eight-megapixel camera phones commonplace with top end of the mobile phones offering image quality which rivals a digital camera. Some mobile phones come with VGA front-facing cameras, allowing you to make video calls too.

How do I send and store pictures on my mobile phone?

There are a number of different ways to save and share pictures from your mobile phone. Here are the main options:

  • External memory cards can be slotted into compatible computers so you can download photos from your mobile phone to your PC. They provide extra storage space in addition to your mobile phone's built-in memory.
  • MMS allows you to send photos and short video clips from your mobile phone, although large messages require a 3G network.
  • Bluetooth. If you have Bluetooth on your mobile phone and are within range of another Bluetooth device (usually about 10 metres) you can switch it on and send pictures, videos and other important information to other mobile phones for free.
  • 3G. Many mobile phone networks offer a web-based storage facility that lets you upload your pictures and data from your phone and manage them online, mostly for free.
  • 'Moblogging' (mobile blogging) involves posting images and text into an online blog using your mobile phone rather than a computer.
  • Software. Some mobile phones come with special software allowing you to download photos and videos quickly and easily. You'll need to install the software onto your PC first.

Can I use my mobile phone to make videos?

Most camera phones also have built-in video recording capabilities, allowing you to record video clips. The length of clip you can record varies according to how much memory you have left and what setting you are you using - the higher the resolution (image quality), the more memory it will use.

Newer mobile phones support video calling, which allows you to have face to face conversations with your family and friends rather than just hearing their voice.

What is 3G?

3G, the 'Third Generation' of mobile phones, is technology that allows you to experience:

  • video conferencing
  • live video and audio streaming
  • downloadable video of entertainment, news, current affairs and sport content
  • video messaging
  • global positioning (sat nav) systems

It also allows you to keep up with your emails, shop, download music and videos, play games online and chat in real time on your mobile phone.

What is mobile TV?

It's now possible for TV broadcasts to be streamed live to your mobile phone. Thanks to advances in mobile phone technology, accompanied by handsets with large screens and stereo sound, mobile TV is becoming increasingly accessible. It means you can watch live sport, breaking news, music videos or your favourite soap, as well as choose from a wide variety of entertainment channels and a large selection of movies.

Mobile TV relies on 3G technology or DVB-H (Digital Video Broadcasting-Handheld). DVB-H has been selected by the EU as the mobile TV standard and offers a smoother, clearer picture than 3G streaming. Prices vary across the networks, but for a package that gives you unlimited viewing of over 20 channels, you can expect to pay around £10 a month.

What sort of mobile phone accessories can I buy?

If you want to customise your mobile phone handset, there are a number of different ways you can do it.

  • Cases and faceplates: Swap covers, add belt clips and leather cases to protect your mobile phone from scratches.
  • Wallpapers and themes: Add the picture of your choice to your mobile phone screen, either as a background image or a screensaver. Themes allow you to even change the look of the icons, fonts and other items on the user interface.
  • Go hands free: Headsets come with a microphone that rests close to your mouth or an earbud-style unit that places the microphone either on the cord or above the earpiece itself. A variety of wireless Bluetooth headsets are also available for your mobile phone.
  • Mobile car kit options include personal hands free kits, plug-in sets that connect via a cigarette lighter, and fully installed kits that must be installed by an engineer as they are wired into your car. In this instance, your mobile phone is charged on the move and normally connected to your stereo speakers.
  • Ringtones: From chart toppers to TV themes, download a monophonic or high-quality polyphonic ringtone for free or a small charge - usually for £1. You can also assign specific rings to different contacts so you know who's calling without checking your mobile phone.

Is mobile phone insurance worth getting?

It could be, as thousands of mobile phones are lost or stolen every year. However, before you buy mobile phone insurance, check the policy to see exactly what you are covered for, what the excess is and whether you are covered away from home.

You also need to look at whether the replacement phone you will get if yours is lost, stolen or damaged will be brand new or refurbished. If you get mobile phone insurance from your network operator you should get a new phone within 24 hours of yours being lost, damaged or stolen, but there are alternatives offering more comprehensive cover than those provided by operators.

It's worth bearing in mind that without insurance you will need to pay the full cost of a replacement if something happens to your mobile phone.

How can I get cheap international calls from my mobile phone?

Making calls and sending messages from mobile phones while abroad, or calling someone abroad on a UK mobile, can be very expensive. Before you call abroad, check the call rates to avoid getting any nasty surprises.

If you want to use your mobile phone abroad, you need to check what your mobile operator charges for international roaming, and if you're not happy see what alternatives your network offers.

All UK mobile phone operators offer a range of tariffs, particularly around holiday times when special offers are often available. If this still isn't suitable, look into switching operator. If you travel frequently, consider switching from pay as you go to a monthly contract. This may offer cheaper roaming rates.

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'Third generation' mobile phone technology gives mobile phone users faster access to the internet. It makes it easy to enjoy many high-quality interactive experiences, including live streaming video, multiplayer gaming and online, and real-time instant messaging.

Technology designed specifically for short-range wireless communications over 10 metres or less.

Instant Messaging (IM)
A form of real-time communication which allows you to chat with other mobile phone users using text, pictures, as well as audio and video clips. Whatever you type is seen by the recipient as soon as you send it.

A programming language used to create mobile games as well as websites that is known for its versatility across a wide range of mobile devices.

Optical zoom
Mobile phones featuring optical zoom produce photos of very high quality. Optical zoom uses lenses to enlarge as you zoom in the same way a traditional camera does. This means that the image is a true image as opposed to a stretched image.

Pay as you go (pre-pay plans)
A way to pay for your mobile phone without getting tied into a contract. You buy the mobile phone handset up front and pay for calls, texts and internet in advance with a top-up credit voucher or credit or debit card.

A very popular music file format.

Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS)
A way of sending text, sound and images from one mobile phone to another without a limit on file size, although large files require a 3G network.

Short Messaging Service (SMS)
The standard text message service, SMS allows mobile phone users to send and receive short messages of up to 160 characters.

Video calling
This allows you to see as well as speak to your friends and family.

VGA resolution
VGA resolution is an analogue graphics display system used by some camera phones. Because it's inferior to digital, the picture quality isn't as good.