Walt Mossberg

A Guide to Cellphone Technobabble

Every year, cellphone technology becomes more and more a part of daily life. But, every year, the cellphone industry generates more and more obscure jargon that makes it harder to decide what to buy.

So, this week, my assistant Katie Boehret and I have put together a basic glossary of wireless jargon, for mere mortals who speak only English.

We’ll start with a few basic terms:

Flip vs. Candy Bar: Almost all cellphones fall into one of these two categories, which relate to the cellphone’s shape. Flip phones, also known as clamshell phones, open and close on a hinge, protecting the phone’s numeric keypad from accidental dialing. Candy-bar phones are rectangular in shape and operate without having to flip open. Electronic key locks prevent accidental dialing on a candy-bar phone’s always-exposed number pad.

Smart Phones: This term varies from company to company, but it generally describes a phone that has sophisticated email and Web-browsing capabilities and very strong organizer functions, like those of a PDA, in addition to the normal voice calling features. The best example of a smart phone is the Palm Treo, which is essentially a little computer, with a full keyboard and the ability to handle email, Web browsing, instant messaging, calendar and contacts, and synchronization with a PC.

Video Phones: Major cellphone carriers are hustling to get video services up and running on their networks, and the carriers each use different names for this service. But this capability to watch snippets of preselected, prerecorded television on your cellphone’s screen costs extra and currently too often consists of stuttering, shaky footage that takes too long to load, making it more trouble than it’s worth. Prime examples of such services are Mobi-TV and Verizon’s V Cast.

Music Phones: Many cellphones can play music, but so-called music phones are designed to work like an iPod, allowing you to store and play back large numbers of real songs — not just ringtones — through music-player software. Most such phones are clumsy and limited, but they will likely improve, because several of the wireless carriers hope to start competing with Apple to sell downloaded songs. Top examples today are the Motorola ROKR, which uses Apple software, and the Sony-Ericsson Walkman phone.

Ringback vs. Ringtone: Ringtones, or songs that play out loud when your phone rings, have become so common that no one seems to notice when a pop or rock tune suddenly sounds from someone’s pocket in the elevator.

Ringbacks, however, aren’t yet as common. If you buy a ringback song to use on your cellphone (each costs a couple bucks and may require a small monthly fee), people calling you hear that song instead of the plain ringing tone most of us expect. These new tunes add some variety, but might confuse people not in the know, causing unwanted hang-ups. Be sure to tell your friends or family if you get a ringback, or assign the ringback only to certain callers’ numbers.

World Phone: These are models that work both in foreign countries — including Europe and, in some cases, Asia — and the U.S.

SMS, MMS: Short Messaging Services, popularly referred to as “text messaging,” offer a way to send text-only notes from one phone to the next. These data messages can cost extra if not incorporated in your cellphone plan, and they are usually limited to 160 characters.

Multimedia Messaging Services use short messages that include types of media other than text — such as photos, videos and audio clips. As more cellphones are being sold with digital still and video cameras, MMS is becoming more popular, but it’s still difficult to use in the U.S., especially between phones of different carrier networks.

* * *

Now, for the harder stuff, the technobabble terminology cellphone marketers use to describe their technologies. Here are some brief, general definitions.

3G: This term stands for “third generation,” and represents the fastest data-processing digital phones available, supposedly akin to having a broadband Internet connection on your cellphone. This term may have a precise engineering definition, but it has been distorted by so many marketing departments that it means wildly different things on different networks and in different countries. Generally, companies now label their fastest networks and phones “3G,” but the term is of little help to consumers.

GSM: GSM, or global system for mobile communications, is the digital technology used by every wireless carrier in Europe and in many other areas outside the U.S. In the U.S., major wireless carriers confusingly run on two incompatible wireless technologies instead of one. Only two of the four major American carriers use GSM: Cingular and T-Mobile. And their version of GSM is slightly different from the one used in Europe, so even if you have a GSM phone in the U.S., it may not work in Europe.

One distinguishing characteristic of GSM phones is the SIM card, a sliver of plastic with a chip inside that slips into the back of the phone and stores account information and contacts. This saves GSM users time when they buy new phones; the SIM card can simply be removed, and its contents come with it onto the new device.

CDMA: Stands for code division multiple access. CDMA is the main competitor to GSM. It is most heavily used in the U.S., where it drives the networks of two of the big four carriers: Verizon Wireless and Sprint. CDMA is also used in a few other countries, notably South Korea and, to some extent, Japan. But, as with GSM, implementations of CDMA in different companies differ and aren’t always compatible. Unlike GSM phones, CDMA phones don’t use removable data cards to store account information.

* * *

Both GSM and CDMA are evolving. Each is now available in new variations, identified by confusing new acronyms, that increase their speeds for data functions such as email and Web browsing, and for downloading or streaming music and video. These new, faster variations do little or nothing for regular voice phone calls. Right now, the CDMA carriers are ahead in the U.S., with the fastest data technology, called EV-DO. But the GSM carriers hope to catch up and take the lead with an emerging system called HSDPA. Here are some of the terms used for these high-speed networks.

GPRS: This is a version of GSM that offers slightly faster data speeds for email and Web browsing, around the speed of a dial-up home modem, or 50 kilobits per second.

EDGE: Another improvement in data speeds for GSM networks and phones. It typically runs at about 100 kilobits per second, which is about twice as fast as a dial-up home modem.

HSDPA: This technology — whose full name is “high speed downlink packet access” — is the next big jump in data speeds for GSM networks and phones. It is being rolled out in a few countries and is being tested in the U.S. It is the first GSM variation that will offer true broadband speeds, expected to reach several megabits per second in real daily use.

1xRTT: This technology is a slightly speedier form of CDMA, measuring a little faster than dial-up speeds on a home computer. At around 70 kilobits per second, it is a little faster than GPRS, but a little slower than EDGE.

EV-DO: This is the fastest cellphone data technology available in the U.S., and is available only on CDMA networks from Verizon Wireless and Sprint. At typical speeds of 500-700 kilobits per second, it is the first true broadband wireless network in the U.S. that has been widely deployed, about as fast as most wired DSL connections in homes.

EV-DO, which stands for “evolution — data only,” is up to 10 times as fast as 1xRTT and offers about triple the typical speeds of the fastest widely deployed networks in Europe. EV-DO is especially popular with “road warriors,” because they can use an EV-DO card on their laptops and get broadband speed even when they are nowhere near a Wi-Fi “hot spot.” Verizon’s EV-DO network is now in about 65 cities and scores of airports. Sprint’s is just getting started.

With reporting by Katherine Boehret


You’ve Come a Long Way, Silicon Valley

December 17, 2013 at 3:47 pm PT

Oh, the Places Your Phone Will Find

December 03, 2013 at 3:14 pm PT

Xbox One: Digital Home Base for the Living Room

November 26, 2013 at 3:25 pm PT

An iPad That’s Mini in Screen Size Only

November 19, 2013 at 3:06 pm PT

Latest Video

View all videos »

Search »

Walt Mossberg’s Product Guides

Desktop PC’s and Laptops

The Laptops to Buy


Digital Cameras

Digital Cameras Improve Zooms, HD Function