Smartphone manufacturers have made undeniably dazzling strides in display, speed, complexity and design, but it seems things are far less super when it comes to that all-important feature – making calls.
My smartphone is a technological marvel. The camera is brilliant, access to the internet immediate and its speed and complexity sometimes takes the breath away. Except when it comes to making phone calls where the quality is often poor, that is when it doesn’t suddenly cut-off.
Of course, for young-uns making an actual phone call probably seems so passé. 2017 saw, for the first time, a decline in the number of calls made on mobile phones, this despite the fact that 78% of all UK adults own a smartphone and three-quarters of the population still regard making calls a vital function of their phone.
The growth of the use of services such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger mean we are still communicating, it’s just we don’t make the calls anymore.
But this shift away from actual talking doesn’t get away from the fact that the phone function on my smartphone is poor. And it’s not just me and my ageing ears, the boffins agree.
Broadcom, an American semiconductor company performed laboratory tests recently that found users consistently rated voice quality lower on a smartphone than for landline. This, even in the best of conditions of a quiet environment and a strong signal.
Add background noise, such as wind or street traffic or a weaker signal then the tests showed a dramatic dip in quality.
Likewise, the boffins at Nokia found that when they compressed voice data to 5.15 kilobits per second, which smartphones do automatically when a tower connection is weak user rating fell from good to fair.
And when the Nokia engineers decoded and recompressed the data, which occurs when a call travels through the network to another phone, the ratings dropped lower still.
Part of the problem is the network structure which consists of a patchwork of diverse systems. And each exchange point is an opportunity for degradation or delays on voice quality.
Then there is the smartphone’s microphone. The quality is to say the least poor. That’s why many high-end phones can now have up to three microphones. One will be close to the mouth while another set further away and this enables the smartphone to compare the different incoming signals to better filter out background noise.
But it has been found that noise-cancellation algorithms are not a sure-fire fix. Primarily because the algorithms can take a few seconds to recognise noises. They are good at blocking out regular background noise but do a poor job of eliminating any sudden sounds. And they find it difficult to block voice echo because the need to preserve speech.
So, yes our phones are a technological marvel but sometimes it seems the likes of Google, Samsung and Apple put the phone call function as an afterthought and while we are using our smartphones to communicate differently, its still, in the end, a phone.
Image: Chris Favero