(warning: second in a series of obsessively geeky gadget posts. See part 1 here.)
In October of 2005 the Nokia E70 was announced with a set of features I found hard to believe. In addition to the keyboard in a form factor I found much more usable than the usual treo-style brick, the phone has 3G networking AND *wifi*, bluetooth, VOIP, POP and IMAP email, a real web browser (not a WAP browser), a 2MP camera that can record unlimited video (up to the memory limits of the phone), a hot-swappable miniSD card slot, music and video players (MP3, AAC, MPEG-4), and a high-resolution display. Plus a whole bunch of stuff I don’t really care about like blackberry support, push-to-talk, and an entire MS office compatible software suite.
Nokia had announced that the entire E-series of Nokia phones (in addition to the E70 there was also a treo-like E61 and a plain candybar E60) were (eventually) going to be released in the US. Over the months there were rumors on the various gadget blogs — the phones were on track! they were FCC approved! People had pictures! The new software was out for developers! But then the entire series was delayed due to testing and the release date of the phone was now Q2 2006 instead of Q1.
Side note: US cell phone carriers are notoriously slow to bring new phones to the US. We usually get the cool phones six months to a year after anyone else in the world (the treo, oddly, being the exception). The other problem with US cell phone carriers is that they have an annoying habit of getting “custom” versions of the cool phones with the good features removed. Wifi? You don’t need that. You need to be paying your friendly carrier $30 a month for your data service Download your photos to your PC with bluetooth? You’d much rather pay your carrier forty cents a pop to email them to yourself, wouldn’t you?
I don’t much like US cell phone carriers.
So there I was sitting and stewing as the months ticked by lusting madly after the E70 and thinking that if the phone came out in Q2 that if it ever came out in the US (not guaranteed) — and if it had all the features that I wanted (probably not) — it might be 2007 before I even got one. And I had been desperately wanting a new phone for six months already.
I couldn’t wait that long. I just couldn’t stand it. I had to have THAT PHONE. THAT ONE RIGHT THERE. RIGHT NOW. DAMMIT. ARRGGGHH.
Which brings us to the subject of GSM phone networks and unlocking phones. Those of you reading this outside the US probably know all of this already and can skip this section with a resounding scornful DUH.
Here in the US Cingular and T-Mobile use GSM technology for their cell phone networks (Verizon and Sprint use CDMA, a different technology and this information does not apply to them. I do not know about other smaller carriers). With GSM, your phone number and all the information about your account is attached to the SIM card — the little smart card that goes into your phone under the battery — rather than to the phone itself. Theoretically, then, this means that you can take your SIM card out of one GSM phone and put it into another phone and all your account information will go with you.
I say theoretically because the carriers like to keep hold of their own phones. They make deals with the phone manufacturers for phones and they also subsidize the cost of the phones when they give you a cell phone contract. They don’t want you switching phones willy nilly. Switching phones would also enable you to switch carriers, and they really don’t want you to do that. To prevent switching, then, the phones are locked so that they’ll only work with one carrier. Cingular phones will only work with Cingular SIMs, etc.
However, it turns out that many phones can be unlocked fairly easily. With Nokia phones you can find the unlock codes online, or there are services that will send you the codes, for free or for a coule bucks. I’ve heard that T-mobile will do it for their own phones if you’ve been a customer for more than a few months. With some phones you have to connect to the phone with a PC and a data cable and muck with the firmware — there are walk-in services that will do this for you (I found like 20 of them on craigslist for my city alone).
Once you have an unlocked phone, you can use it with any GSM cell provider, in the US or in europe or in asia. You can use a plain monthly ongoing cell account or you can get a prepaid SIM and just use minutes as you need them. Unlocked phones mean freedom. So, like me, if you want a really cool euro phone, you can buy it unlocked and use it on the US GSM cell phone networks with no problem. Do you really like an older model cell phone that’s no longer made anymore? Buy it off ebay, get it unlocked, and use it with your current account. Easy peasy.
There is, however, a catch. GSM in different areas use different wireless spectrum bands, and you need a phone that will support the spectrum used in your area for the phone to work.
US GSM works on the 850 and 1900 bands. In europe and asia GSM is primarily 900 and 1800. When you buy a US GSM phone it’ll often be “triband” 850/1800/1900. European phones are triband 900/1800/1900 — no 850. (GSM World is a really good site for listing which band is used for which provider, all around the world (here’s the list for the US.)
What this means is that if you’re in the US and GSM in your area is 1900, you can buy a europe triband phone and it’ll work. If you live in 850 or if you travel to 850 you’ll have trouble. Your phone won’t work. You either have to buy a phone that explicitly supports 850 (they’re sometimes called quad band) or have a US phone to swap into for travelling. And of course if you’re in the US and you buy a US triband phone there’s no biggie, you’re covered.
The lustable Nokia E70 I wanted so much is a 900/1800/1900 euro/asia phone (nokia is supposedly going to make an “americas” 850/1800/1900 E70-2 model but its not out yet). Both Cingular and T-mobile use the 1900 band in the SF Bay area where I live (I have T-mobile service). I don’t travel much, so I wasn’t too worried about not having access to 850. I figured I could keep my 6600 and switch back if I ever need access to other areas.
More info on cell unlocking and GSM:
GSM Cell Phone Unlocking FAQ (by an unlocking service)
Wired News: Free the Cell Phone! — cell phone companies in the US want to make unlock programs illegal under the DMCA. Fuckers.