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How Cell Phones Work

By: Marshall Brain, Jeff Tyson & Julia Layton

Inside a Digital Cell Phone

On a "complexity per cubic inch" scale, cell phones are some of the most intricate devices people use on a daily basis. Modern digital cell phones can process millions of calculations per second in order to compress and decompress the voice stream.

If you take a basic digital cell phone apart, you find that it contains just a few individual parts:

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Inside a digital cell phone, youll find a circuit board, battery, speaker and more. Look inside a digital cell phone with photos and explanations of each part.
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The circuit board is the heart of the system. The analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog conversion chips translate the outgoing audio signal from analog to digital and the incoming signal from digital back to analog. You can learn more about A-to-D and D-to-A conversion and its importance to digital audio in How Compact Discs Work. The digital signal processor (DSP) is a highly customized processor designed to perform signal-manipulation calculations at high speed.

The microprocessor handles all of the housekeeping chores for the keyboard and display, deals with command and control signaling with the base station and also coordinates the rest of the functions on the board.

The ROM and flash memory chips provide storage for the phone's operating system and customizable features, such as the phone directory. The radio frequency (RF) and power section handles power management and recharging, and also deals with the hundreds of FM channels. Finally, the RF amplifiers handle signals traveling to and from the antenna.

The display has grown considerably in size as the number of features in cell phones has increased. Most current phones offer built-in phone directories, calculators, games, calendars, notes, Web browsers, and cameras, as well as countless other applications, or apps, to serve practically any need or want.

The SIM card on the circuit board
The SIM card on the circuit board
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Some phones store certain information, such as the SID and MIN codes, in internal Flash memory, while others use external cards that are similar to SmartMedia cards.

Cell phones have such tiny speakers and microphones that it is incredible how well most of them reproduce sound. As you can see in the picture above, the speaker is about the size of a dime and the microphone is no larger than the watch battery beside it. Speaking of the watch battery, this is used by the cell phone's internal clock chip.

What is amazing is that all of that functionality -- which only 30 years ago would have filled an entire floor of an office building -- now fits into a package that sits comfortably in the palm of your hand!

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