A few weeks back, I reviewed four smartphones in conjunction with a handful of IT executives. In that review, I briefly touched upon the annoying buzz the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) phones caused when sending or receiving a communication in close proximity to speakers—radio, computer, car, auditorium, whatever.(Specifically, that the BlackBerry Pearl seemed to yield more buzzing than any of the other phones we reviewed.)
Recently, I was reminded of this frustrating phenomenon at MIT’s Sloan CIO Symposium when the overhead Bose speakers in the main auditorium began buzzing like disgruntled honey bees. I looked directly to my right to find the guy next to me tapping away maniacally on his BlackBerry. He didn’t even notice the buzzing, but there were a number of smiling faces across the room that quite obviously did. All day, I couldn’t help but notice how many handhelds were in use around me. BlackBerrys, Treos, iPaqs, T-Mobile Dash phones, various Motorola and LG handsets and plenty of others I didn’t recognize at first glance. And nobody could stop playing with themselves for more than a minute or two, be it during a session or while networking.
Let me start by saying that regardless of the title of this blog post, the buzzing speaker issue is by no means caused only by BlackBerrys. I chose the title based on my own experience with the handhelds and the fact that the Cingular Pearl was the device that caused the most frequent and most pronounced buzz of the four phones I recently reviewed. (That, and because I know many of you are so addicted to your BlackBerrys that you’ll read anything with “the B word” in the title.)
To get to the root of the issue, I spoke with Duncan Bradley, Research In Motion’s (RIM) director of global market intelligence. RIM is the BlackBerry manufacturer. Bradley explained to me that cell phones cause this buzzing interference when near some speakers or other devices that can resonate radio frequencies (RF) because such devices often feature poor quality shielding mechanisms to block radio waves from being received. The devices act as passive antennas, picking up cell phone radio signals, but they don’t have any way to modulate or translate them into anything intelligible, according to Bradley. Speakers or other electronics with higher quality shielding mechanisms yield less buzzing when near phones, he said.
Bradley also informed me that it’s not just GSM phones that cause this buzzing, though I’ve never heard the buzz when using my Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) phone. He said the reason some phones cause more buzzing than others is related to the specific frequencies they emit and at what power levels. (Specific absorption rate [SAR] regulations in the United States limit the amount of power cell phones can emit to roughly two watts, according to Bradley. The SAR is a measure of how much RF energy humans can safely be exposed to.) He also said the amount of buzzing caused by cells when near other electronics has to do with the quality and efficiency of the interface that connects specific phones to cellular networks. In other words, how often and for how long cell towers and cell phones must communicate with each other to maintain a live connection. Bradley called Windows Mobile a “chatty” operating system, meaning that it communicates very often with cell towers and can yield more buzzing; however, when I reviewed the Treo 750 and T-Mobile Dash, which both run Windows Mobile, they each caused less buzzing than the Pearl when close to speakers.
The phenomenon also has to do with atmospheric conditions, according to Bradley. He said that humidity can cause moisture to settle inside phones, which serves to dampened the speakers. This moisture can impede the device’s performance–though its effect will likely be quite minimal–and it also can reduce the amount of buzzing the phone will cause when near other radio frequency devices with weak shielding, Bradley said. Phones can also be affected by environments in which the air is highly charged with electricity, like when a lightning storm is brewing, and more buzzing than usual can occur in these settings.
“The issue is inherent in the nature of the technology. We are never going to eradicate this completely. [And] we don’t really see it as too big an issue,” Bradley said. “It’s a known issue. It’s also a very well understood end user issue. Two or three years ago people didn’t understand what’s going on [when their phones caused speakers or other devices to buzz]. Now they just move their cell phones away.”
RIM may not see the interference as a major problem, but Bradley said it, along with Polycom and others, is working to develop an industry-wide standard for manufacturers of hardware that may be affected by cell communications, like radio or speaker makers. The standard is meant to aid such manufacturers in improving shielding mechanisms within their wares.
So are there ways to reduce the amount of buzzing your phone causes when in close proximity to speakers? Sure, but Bradley doesn’t recommend them since they’ll void your warranty. One way to do so would be to open up the affected hardware and drop globs of glue on the speakers in just the right place. There are also a number of ways to tweak speakers’ internal wiring to decrease interference, Bradley said.
And now, the questions for you. First, do you agree with Bradley that this buzzing is no big deal? One CIO who worked with us on our smartphone review indicated that this speaker interference might keep him from deploying a specific smartphone across his enterprise. Do you feel the same way?
Secondly, if you’ve used more than one phone that caused speakers to buzz, which phones were they and did one of them cause more buzzing than the other? I’m currently using a BlackBerry 8800, and it causes speakers to buzz fairly often, but not as much as the Pearl did.
Finally, do you have any stories to share in which your cell, or somebody else’s phone, caused speakers to buzz in a humorous–or not so humorous–setting? If so, please take a minute to share your story. I’m all ears…