Want, Want, Want, Hate, Want.

I’m shopping for a cellphone. I run Linux exclusively, which almost certainly means that everything I think I should be able to do easily is a crack-initiated pipe dream, but here’s what I want in or with a phone.

  1. I want to be able to plug the phone into the USB port on my laptop and
    • Manipulate the address book
    • Change my ringtone
    • Send SMS messages
    • SSH out
  2. Charge the battery via USB

With Linux. So probably not, you’d think. Even “runs OK in Wine” is passable, and if I have to buy a USB/SIM-Card reader I will. I’m familiar with the process. Other criteria include:

  • I don’t want a phone that looks like it was designed by the second-stringers from Ninja Science Team Gatchaman. The clamshell form factor is preferred, and I have a certain affection for the appearance of the Ericsson Z200.
  • I don’t need a camera, or a PDA pseudo-phone. Thumb-keyboards are dumb.
  • I don’t care about games, because cellphone games are stupid. If your spirit is not immediately crushed by the realization that you enjoy playing “Snake”, I probably don’t need to talk to you.
  • Buying ringtones is doubly stupid; the idea that I should pay extra to make a device I own play a particular tinny little sounds is idiocy on its face, a way of extracting money from suckers.

Any insight that you would like to provide into the cellphone-buying process is appreciated.


  1. Jamie
    Posted October 20, 2004 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    No Mike, don’t give into the machine! Stay unconnected! Oh well, if you really have to get a cell phone, then AVOID Bell Solo. Check out their website [Flash warning]: http://www.solopixel.com/ I challenge you to find a website as content free as this one.

  2. Posted October 20, 2004 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    So, um, what do you mean by “SSH out” if you don’t want a keyboard?

  3. Mike Hoye
    Posted October 20, 2004 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    Koz: I mean SSH from the laptop, through the phone, to the outside world. Phone-as-modem, basically.

    Jamie: Jesus fuck, my eyes!

  4. Posted October 20, 2004 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    Well, I have been able to do all that (except charging) over RS232 and Infrared to a linux laptop using http://www.gnokii.org and a Nokia 8390 and 7190. I now have a Nokia 5140, which I’m told works, but haven’t done it personally yet.

    IRdA support got me climbing the walls until I read the right FAQ, but that was back in the day of 2.2 kernels. Gnokii seems to have been written by intelligent people.

    Granted, Nokia isn’t huge on the clamshells, but neither am I.

    And I’ve also written a set of tools to admin servers by SMS/WAP, so that some functions can be performed without booting the laptop. Mail me if you want more info.

    But the overriding advice I give to people buying phones is to shop for a plan first. Get an unlocked GSM phone if you can (more expensive, but no software locks) and then just drop in the SIM card of the provider you’ve chosen. Rogers and Fido offer SIM cards for users like that, and Fido is my personal favourite. I know the secret smart-people 800 number, their roaming charges are much smaller, better plans, and unlimited data plans are available.

  5. Posted October 20, 2004 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    Overall) you’re asking for some stuff that is expensive and you probably don’t really need that bad. I’d suggest sticking to 802.11g laptop and a cheap-as-dirt phone.

    1)”Send SMS messages” — if your laptop is already online, then do this using ICQ (or any other IM). Free!

    2) USB port on the phone is not common. Infrared or Bluetooth is the connectivity of choice.

    3) Charging – most chargers are small enough that you can carry it in your laptop bag, so USB-charging is purely a geek-request.

    4) Ringtones really are free for the eye-patched among us. R.

    5) GSM/GPRS-data (e.g. modem-as-phone) is stupid-expsenive. I can’t imagine using phone to browse web or do any kind of online crap.

    6) See if you can find out which companies will allow you to access US short-code dialing. Then use 46645 (GOOGL) for everything. http://www.google.com/sms/

  6. Posted October 20, 2004 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    Oh, I see now. In the U.S. at least, I don’t think any phones work as modems, and if you do buy an actual modem, you need to get the preposterously expensive data plan to go with it.

  7. Posted October 20, 2004 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

    In theory, my Ericsson T39 can be used as a modem (using GSM) but I can’t say that I’ve ever tried it. However, all of the functions of 1. and 2. are theoretically available, and there is Windows based software (so yeah, you’d be looking at Wine) to do all of those things … not sure how well the “use the phone as a modem” thing would work through Wine, although I suppose you could always run the Windows version of PuTTY in your Wine environment.

    So you might want to look into the Sony Ericsson line to see what’s available. Sadly, it’s hard to get one of their phones these days that’s a) got any form of flip, b) not got a camera shoved onto it, c) not charging for ringtones … although you *can* compose your own.

  8. Posted October 20, 2004 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

    Pretty much any Nokia with infrared/Serial will do Hayes-ish AT commands and work as a modem under Linux. Your carrier will charge per minute (GSM CSD, mostly deprecated) or per byte (GPRS – Rogers/Fido). Unlimited GPRS for Fido is $50/mo at “56k” – which is reasonable if you can build a business case and get the employer to cover it. If you don’t want a data plan, all Fido users have data access at $0.03/KibiByte. If you can use ed instead of vi, you’ll save a lot of money.

    If you can get to Toronto, visit the Pacific Mall for unlocked GSM phones too geeky for the mainstream market, but because the provider isn’t subsidizing the phone with your plan, it’ll be more expensive. I got my 5140 in Boston for US$330+3%+GST at the border, it was going for Cdn$600+15% at the Pacific mall. I picked the 5140 because it would survive a drop in to a puddle or bar toilet, the historical cause of death for my phones.

    You can SSH from a Motorola T720i – http://phoenix.inf.upol.cz/~polakr/FAQ.txt – the T720 from Rogers is not supported.

  9. Mike Hoye
    Posted October 21, 2004 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    I am a naif in this field, so tell me – what is this “locked” v. “unlocked” property that cellphones have?

    And, I want you to know that the sentence “If you can use ed instead of vi, you’ll save a lot of money” causes me actual, physical pain.

  10. Posted October 21, 2004 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    So sorry about the ed, but I like ed. Better than vi, actually. My shell scripting prowess ascended a level or two once I learned to use it to automate conf file mangling. Also frightens my newbies, very fun.

    Anyhow. Locking.

    Phone manufacturers make money selling phones, cell companies make money selling time. Cell competition is so tough, that cell companies practically give away the phones to entice you in to their services, typically discounting phones by $200-300.

    Because you can get a JavaCameraVibraDildoPhone from a cell company “for $50,” most people won’t go to the phone manufacturer to buy the phones, and the phone manufacturers are now stuck selling volumes of phones to cell companies.

    So, the design of the phone is to appeal to the cell company, not just the user. The cell company does not want you to get a $300 discount on a phone from them that you’ll go and use on a competitor’s network, so they lock the phone to their own network, so you have to buy a new phone if you want to skip out to the competition.

    Rogers charges a flat $250ish fee to unlock one of their phones. Fido will do it free if you’ve been a customer long enough and you’re moving to the US.

    In an unlocked GSM phone, you just slip a new SIM (Subscriber information module, a smart card containing your phone number and contact list and such) in to the phone and you’re ready to go. I can get off a plane in Australia, grab a local pay-as-you-go SIM, and make local calls without roaming charges. Those with locked phones are fucked. I can jump ship from Fido to Rogers or Voicestream or AT&T. . . just by getting a new chip.

    I can put my chip in my big digital/analog phone when I go out in the Canadian tundra to get great coverage, and slip it in to my sexy digital-only when I’m in the city. I have an Ottawa chip, a Halifax chip, and used to have a Toronto chip, depending on where I happened to be, so that local people could call me locally instead of calling my home city and both of us paying long distance.

    A phone can be locked to a single provider. It can be locked to a single SIM chip. It can be locked so ringtones only come from the provider’s WAP site and not uploaded from a computer. There are all sorts of locks that phone manufacturers built in to phones so as to better woo the volume purchases of the cell companies.

    Generally speaking, an unlocked GSM phone is $200-300 more expensive, but comes with oh-so-much-better karma. And you have a much wider selection, instead of having to buy what the cell company offers. But Fido and Rogers are the only GSM providers in Canada. The others also sell locked phones, but they’re CDMA and don’t have SIM chips, the programming goes in onboard flash/prom and is not user swappable.

    It is possible to buy a subsidized phone from a cell company and get it unlocked by j0nny phr33ker and his m4d soldering sk1llz, but that voids the warranty. Heh. Or some Russian organized crime syndicate would be happy to sell you the seekrit code that unlocks the phone — but three bad attempts will actually self-destruct a locked phone.

    Fun stuff.

  11. Posted October 21, 2004 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    The Pacific Mall is worth the trip, even if you’re not looking for a cell phone.

  12. Mike Hoye
    Posted October 21, 2004 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Rob. Geoff, I know – I was there just last week. It is indeed teh shiny.

  13. Posted October 25, 2004 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    Hrmm… I don’t find the USB charging to be that much of a geek request. I like the fact that I can charge my phone/PDA/iPod/blackberry without lugging multiple transformers. You still have to bring a cable, but that’s not so bad. I’ve noticed that the new trend seems to be to provide a USB charging/synch cable with a power adapter that the USB cable plugs into. It’s nice to only have to bring one wall outlet and maybe a 12v source for everything.

    I cannot recommend Zip Linq cables enough. Cool shit, minimal clutter, and they work.

  14. Mike Hoye
    Posted October 25, 2004 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    Radio Shack sells even-tinier ziplinq-esque cables, and I’m an aficionado of the genre. If you travel with your laptop a lot, they’re must-have clutter minimizers; a zip-up-able laptop mouse is also a must-have, because trackpads and in-keyboard clitmice are pretty irritating.

    At the moment, if I can’t talk somebody from Telus into giving me their in-city all-you-can-talk-to-other-Telus-subscribers deal for Ottawa, I’m going to have to go with Fido.

  15. Karen
    Posted October 28, 2004 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    Okay…this has nothing to do with cell phones…but I just had to mention that I think it’s totally hilarious that there is someone out there other than me who knows who the Science Ninja Team Gatchaman are!! Bird GO! LOL!!!!

  16. Mike Hoye
    Posted October 28, 2004 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

    Hey, I grew up on the Ninja Science Team. It was called G-Force back then, but it was absolutely the litmus of cool when I was a kid.

  17. Karen
    Posted October 28, 2004 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

    Actually, it was always called Gatchaman in Japan…it had several incarnations in North America, all of which were considerably toned down from the original (who’s idea was it to add that stupid 7-Zark-7?!). While living in Taiwan, my brother and I even caught some of the 2nd season, which I’m not sure was ever aired in North America. Pretty violent stuff.