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Nextel's i325 Mobile Phone

If you are one of those folks who has to replace a cell phone every few months because you break it, you need to read this. Nextel and Motorola have produced a cellular phone that is to handheld phones what ruggedized laptops are to portable computers. It’s not pretty, it’s not stylish, but it includes the features that public safety folks will find most valuable—and it’s not horribly expensive.

A survey by electronics manufacturer Siemens, released in late 2004, listed the most common causes of cell phone breakage. Water damage, dropping and breaking the phone, and having it destroyed by a child or a pet were high on the list. One exception was the second most common cause after “dropped the mobile on the ground,” and that was “squeezed the cell phone in tight jeans or pockets.”

Maybe Americans aren’t the only people with obesity issues. Water damage stemmed from several sources, such as using the handset in the rain, dropping it in the toilet, getting too much sweat on it during a workout, or dropping it in the snow. Throwing it onto the ground in anger was right up there, too.

The Nextel Motorola i325 resembles the cellular phone from about two generations ago. It spurns the popular flip-phone form factor in favor of a “candy bar” shape. The phone is larger than a Snickers, though, measuring at 5.1x2.4x1.4 inches while weighing 7.02 ounces. It is even less chic because of its “rubber ducky” antenna that screws into a watertight socket and extends above the top of the phone another 3.75 inches. The antenna is flexible, but not collapsible.

The Nextel Motorola i325 has a small (96x64 pixel) color LCD display and the usual assortment of phone pad keys and buttons. It meets military specifications for dust, shock, vibration, high and low temperatures, pressure, solar radiation, humidity, salt fog, and water resistance. This phone will keep working after the other ones are electronic confetti.

If you are not in an area covered by the Nextel network, then this phone is not going to be of great use to you, as it is configured for the iDEN 800 network which is pretty much the realm of Nextel. Nextel is being acquired by Sprint, but by the time the networks are effectively combined, you’ll need another phone anyway.

Unlike most other cellular phones, the i325 isn’t entirely useless when you roam off of the network, as it includes the Direct Talk™ feature. Direct Talk makes two or more Nextel phones work like handheld radios, communicating with one another directly, rather than through an intermediate network.

There are 10 channels and 15 codes available under the Direct Talk feature, making for what amounts to one-hundred fifty independent talk groups. When a phone set to Direct Talk is keyed, only another phone that is both set to Direct Talk and on the same channel and code will receive the message.

The range of the Direct Talk transmitter is represented as “up to two miles,” but I found that to be a bit optimistic. In a test on flat terrain populated with one-and two-story wood frame buildings (the housing subdivision where I live), I could get about 1/2 mile away before the phone reported “user not available” (the “user” being the neighbor kid that I had conscripted to help me).

Up until that point, voice transmissions were crystal clear. It appears that the i325 looks for a valid receiver before it transmits a voice message, as in my case, it was an all-or-nothing reception situation. I could receive and transmit without difficulty in one location, then move 10 feet farther away and get the “user not available” message.

Obviously, you might have better luck in a clear, open area where there is line of sight between the two phones. Still, this could be a very useful feature for surveillance and other assignments where range is not as much of an issue.

The feature that seems to inspire loyalty among Nextel users more than any other is Direct Connect®. Direct Connect also works like a handheld radio, where one user pushes a button on the side of the phone to talk, and is heard by one or more other users. The compelling part of this is that the other users can be next door or on the other side of the continent, and it doesn’t matter as long as everyone is somewhere on the Nextel network grid.

I tried this scenario out with two users that were 1,000 and 2,500 miles away respectively from where I was sitting, and both came through as clearly as if they were in the next room. Each Nextel phone has at least two numbers: a standard 10-digit phone number (actually, the i325 can have two of these) and a Direct Connect number, in the format 123*45678*9.

Direct Connect numbers can be stored in the phone’s contacts list (with a 600 name capacity) in the same way as conventional phone numbers. Select or dial a Direct Connect number, then push the side button and you’re talking. You can also create talk groups with up to 25 members each, where every member of the talk group will hear transmissions from all the others.

This ability to create as many talk groups as might be necessary gives public safety users tremendous flexibility in communications, especially if they normally have a limited number of radio channels. If a user is not in Direct Connect mode when you attempt to reach him, the phone will display a call alert that has to be either responded to or deleted.

There is also a GPS module built into the i325. Bringing up the installed GPS application will cause the phone to scan for overhead satellites (like most GPS devices, these work best when they have an unobstructed view of the sky). Then, once it has obtained a fix, it will display the latitude and longitude of its location. The application will also display an electronic compass and a speed indicator, both of which only work well when the phone is moving.

The phone has the capacity to broadcast its position to properly equipped 911 call centers, but in the absence of this, the user will have to read his position off the display to whoever he happens to be talking to. It would be a worthwhile enhancement to enable transmission of this data to another Nextel user, making the phone into a makeshift tracking device.

An add-on service called TeleNav will provide turn-by-turn directions from one place to another on the display, and the phone’s GPS module will also output the location signal to a computer mapping program like those available from Delorme and RandMcNally.

There is a rudimentary web browser built into the i325, but the display is so small that viewing most web pages is a frustrating experience. The phone will also receive and send text messages. Creating text messages is done from the phone’s keypad, using a predictive text input system called T9.

The idea is that you type your message by pressing the “2” key once for “A,” twice for “B” and three times for “C” (and so on with the other keys), and the T9 system tries to guess which word you are trying to complete. In practice, this didn’t work too well for me in anything except the Contacts screen, where it was possible to change the T9 settings.

In other text entry screens, the text entry mode menu was not accessible, and the software kept trying to complete words that I did not want completed. There is also a problem in sending e-mail messages to addresses that are too long for the phone’s address blank, as it will refuse to accept characters after its address blank is filled.

The phone includes a voice recorder that can be used to dictate directly into the handset or to record phone calls. The recording capacity is dependent on how much other data (such as phone numbers and names contacts) is stored in the phone’s memory. Playback quality was excellent.

There is also a “Voice Name” feature that allows you to assign a spoken phrase to any number (regular or direct connect) in the stored contacts directory. It takes four key-presses to get to the menu that allows you to speak the name that you want, so some people might just want to use the speed dial feature (you can assign a phone number to each of nine keypad buttons) instead.

One feature that police users will find handy is the “Profiles” settings. Under profiles, users can set the phone alerts (such as beep, ring, vibrate, and keypad lighting up) to whatever combination they like. One preset profile is “Surveillance,” which deactivates the screen and keypad backlights, speaker audio, ring-tones, and vibration alerts. It is intended to be used with an earbud or headset.

By using the i325’s features creatively, law enforcement agencies can improve their internal communications and officer safety. Many officers carry personal cell phones when on duty, and have a second cell phone for work. By using the two lines available on the i325, officers can have both phones consolidated into a single device.

Further, an officer carrying an i325 while off duty could always be in touch with their communications center or other officers in an emergency. If the officer was in an unfamiliar area, he could send his GPS coordinates to a call center and get help on the way. Officers on special assignments can use Direct Connect or Direct Talk to remain in contact with one another and still keep a low profile, as hardly anyone pays attention to someone talking on a cell phone.

And, of course, while other cell phones are likely to be ruined by being dropped on the ground, into a toilet, or left on the roof of a patrol car, these will hold up under the kind of punishment that cops render unto their equipment.

Published in Law and Order, Aug 2005

Rating : Not Yet Rated

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