Communication & Wireless Computing Devices: GPS, PDA, Cellular & Satellite

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  • 1:57 Mobile Phones
  • 4:19 Tablet Computer
  • 5:43 PDAs
  • 7:19 Satellite Phones
  • 8:36 GPS
  • 10:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Paul Zandbergen

Paul is a GIS professor at Vancouver Island U, has a PhD from U of British Columbia, and has taught stats and programming for 15 years.

A large number of different devices use wireless communications networks. Learn about the different types of devices and which communication signals they use.

Wireless Communication

A wireless network refers to any type of network that establishes connections without cables. Wireless connections have many advantages, starting with the fact that you don't need to buy and install cables. If you've ever tried to get your cable TV connection from one room to another, you know how much effort this can take. Now consider having to do this for an entire building that was constructed before computer networks even existed.

Wireless communications use electromagnetic (EM) waves that travel through the air. The simplest example of this would be an old-fashioned radio. Driving in your car, you can turn on the radio, tune in to your favorite station and listen to some tunes. You are receiving radio waves, which is one type of electromagnetic waves.

Electromagnetic waves are analog, while the information in a computer system is digital. Wireless networks, therefore, need adapters and routers to translate between analog waves and digital signals.

Wireless communication systems can be broken down into three broad categories:

  • Short-range wireless communication uses signals that travel very short distances, from a few centimeters to several meters. Examples include Bluetooth, infrared and Zigbee.
  • Medium-range wireless communication uses signals that travel up to 100 meters or so. The most widely used type is Wireless Fidelity, or Wi-Fi.
  • Wide area wireless communication uses signals that travel quite far, from several kilometers to several thousand kilometers. Examples include cellular and satellite communications.

There are many different devices that use one or more of these wireless communication systems.

Mobile Phones

As of 2013, a total of six billion people have access to a mobile phone - that is more than have access to clean drinking water. Mobile phones have become the most widely used wireless communication device.

A mobile phone is an electronic device to make and receive phone calls over a radio link while moving through an area. The primary wireless connection for a mobile phone is the cellular network that uses cell towers for the transmission between mobile phones and the network. A mobile phone is also referred to as a cellular phone, or simply cell phone.

The earliest commercial mobile phones date back to the 1980s, but it was not until the 1990s that they became widely used. Modern mobile phones are not only used to make telephone calls but also provide text messaging, e-mail, Internet access as well as integration with other devices. They can also be used to take pictures, watch movies and play games. Mobile phones with these capabilities are referred to as 'smartphones.'

Smartphones are essentially mobile computers: they provide file storage, have a number of input and output options, make use of an operating system and allow you to run applications. Relative to regular desktop and laptop computers, however, they are much smaller, often lack a physical keyboard and rely on touch screen technology for user input instead of a keyboard and mouse. The operating system and software applications are also designed specifically for a smaller screen and touch screen input.

Most smartphones can also use the other wireless communication systems, such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. This has made them even more versatile. For example, you can make hands-free calls in your car using a Bluetooth connection, or you can connect to the Internet using Wi-Fi to make video calls.

Mobile phone technology has developed very quickly, and the modern day smartphone is arguably one of the most sophisticated consumer electronic devices. The mobile phone industry includes many different manufacturers and service providers. If you have been shopping for a new phone recently, you will have noticed how many different phones and service plans are out there.

Tablet Computers

A tablet computer, or simply a tablet, is a mobile computer where all components are integrated into a single unit. Tablets rely on touch screen technology as the primary input method instead of a mouse. Many tablets have the same look and feel as smartphones, but the screen is bigger, and they are not used to make phone calls.

Tablets started becoming popular in 2010. Many people now use tablets for tasks they used to do on desktop or laptop computers, such as reading information on the Internet, using e-mail, downloading videos and listening to music. New uses have also emerged, such as reading digital books and magazines and replacing activities that used to be done on paper. Tablets, whose primary purpose is to be able to read electronic documents, such as books, are referred to as 'e-readers.'

The boundaries between smartphones and tablets have started to blur somewhat because they have many of the same features and often use the exact same technology.


A personal digital assistant, or PDA, is a mobile device that is dedicated to managing personal information. This includes a calendar and meeting schedule, an address book with contacts, a to-do list, e-mail and other tasks. PDAs were introduced in the late 1980s and became popular in the 1990s. The emergence of smartphones in the 2000s made PDAs largely obsolete. However, much of the technology that went into developing PDAs is reflected in today's smartphone, such as touch screen technology and synchronization with other devices.

Today, PDAs are mostly used for very specific applications. For example, many outdoor jobs require extremely ruggedized mobile devices that can withstand the elements. Instead of using a fairly breakable smartphone, a device with fewer functions but heavy protection is likely to be more effective.

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