What's Inside a Cellphone

A summary or tutorial about the basics of cell phone electronics and what is contained within a mobile phone.

Cellular / Mobile Telecommunications Basics Includes:
What is cellular communications     Concept of cellular system     Radio access network, RAN     Basestation Technology     Base station antenna technology     Multiple access techniques     Duplex techniques     What's inside a cellphone     SIM cards     Handover     Backhaul    

The mobile phone or cell phone as it is often called is equally important to the network in the operation of the complete cellular telecommunications network. Despite the huge numbers that are made, they still cost a significant amount to manufacture, discounts being offered to users as incentives to use a particular network.

Their cost is a reflection of the complexity of the mobile phone electronics. They comprise several different areas of electronics, from radio frequency (RF) to signal processing, and general processing.

The design of a cell phone is particularly challenging. They need to offer high levels of performance, while being able to fit into a very small space, and in addition tot his the electronics circuitry needs to consume very little power so that the life between charges can be maintained.

Mobile phone contents

Mobile phones contain a large amount of circuitry, each of which is carefully designed to optimise its performance. The cell phone comprises analogue electronics as well as digital circuits ranging from processors to display and keypad electronics. A mobile phone typically consists of a single board, but within this there are a number of distinct functional areas, but designed to integrate to become a complete mobile phone:

  • Radio frequency - receiver and transmitter
  • Digital signal processing
  • Analogue / digital conversion
  • Control processor
  • SIM or USIM card
  • Power control and battery

Radio frequency elements

The radio frequency section of the mobile phone is one of the crucial areas of the cell phone design. This area of the mobile phone contains all the transmitter and receiver circuits. Normally direct conversion techniques are generally used in the design for the mobile phone receiver.

The signal output from the receiver is applied to what is termed an IQ demodulator. Here the data in the form of "In-phase" and "Quadrature" components is applied to the IQ demodulator and the raw data extracted for further processing by the phone.

On the transmit side one of the key elements of the circuit design is to keep the battery consumption to a minimum. For GSM this is not too much of a problem. The modulation used is Gaussian Minimum Shift Keying.

This form of signal does not incorporate amplitude variations and accordingly it does not need linear amplifiers. This is a distinct advantage because non linear RF amplifiers are more efficient than linear RF amplifiers.

Unfortunately EDGE uses eight point phase shift keying (8PSK) and this requires a linear RF amplifier. As linear amplifiers consume considerably more current this is a distinct disadvantage.

To overcome this problem the design for the mobile phone is organised so that phase information is added to the signal at an early stage of the transmitter chain, and the amplitude information is added at the final amplifier.

Analogue to Digital Conversion

Another crucial area of any mobile phone design is the circuitry that converts the signals between analogue and digital formats that are used in different areas. The radio frequency sections of the design use analogue techniques, whereas the processing is all digital.

The digital / analogue conversion circuitry enables the voice to be converted either from analogue or to digital a digital format for the send path, but also between digital and analogue for the receive path.

It also provides functions such as providing analogue voltages to steer the VCO in the synthesizer as well as monitoring of the battery voltage, especially during charging.

It also provides the conversion for the audio signals to and from the microphone and earpiece so that they can interface with the digital signal processing functions.

Another function that may sometimes be included in this area of the mobile phone design or within the DSP is that of the voice codecs. As the voice data needs to be compressed to enable it to be contained within the maximum allowable data rate, the signal needs to be digitally compressed.

This is undertaken using what is termed a codec.

There are a number of codec schemes that can be used, all of which are generally supported by the base stations. The first one to be used in GSM was known as LPC-RPE (Linear Prediction Coding - Regular Pulse Excitation).

However another scheme known as AMR (Adaptive Multi-Rate) is now widely used as it enables the data rate to be further reduced when conditions permit without impairing the speech quality too much. By reducing the speech data rate, further capacity is freed up on the network.

Digital Signal Processing

The DSP components of the mobile phone design undertake all the signal processing. Processes such as the radio frequency filtering and signal conditioning at the lower frequencies are undertaken by this circuitry. In addition to this, equalisation and correction for multipath effects is undertaken in this area of the design.

Although these processors are traditionally current hungry, the current processors enable the signal processing to be undertaken in a far more power effective manner than if analogue circuits are used.

Control processor

The control processor is at the heart of the design of the phone. It controls all the processes occurring in the phone from the MMI (Man machine interface) which monitors the keypad presses and arranging for the information to be displayed on the screen.

It also looks after all the other elements of the MMI including all the menus that can be found on the phone.

Another function of the control processor is to manage the interface with the mobile network base station. The software required for this is known as the protocol stack and it enables the phone to register, make and receive calls, terminate them and also handle the handovers that are needed when the phone moves from one cell to the next.

Additionally the software formats the data to be transmitted into the correct format with error correction codes included. Accordingly the load on this processor can be quite high, especially when there are interactions with the network.

The protocols used to interact with the network are becoming increasingly complicated with the progression from 2G to 3G.

Along with the increasing number of handset applications the load on the processor is increasing. To combat this, the design for this area of the phone circuitry often uses ARM processors. This enables high levels of processing to be achieved for relatively low levels of current drain.

A further application handled by this area of the design of the mobile phone is the monitoring the state pf the battery and control of the charging. In view of the sophisticated monitoring and control required to ensure that the battery is properly charged and the user can be informed about the level of charge left, this is an important area of the design.


Battery design and technology has moved on considerably in the last few years. This has enabled mobile phones to operate for much longer.

Initially nickel cadmium cells were used, but these migrated to nickel-metal-hydride cells and then to lithium ion cells. With phones becoming smaller and requiring to operate for longer from a single charge, the capacity of the battery is very important, and all the time the performance of these cells is being improved.

Although mobile phones are one of the most commonplace pieces of electronics equipment these days, they are nevertheless complicated inside. An understanding of the mobile phone basics can often be useful when looking at the way a cellular network and cellular technology in general works.

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