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Customizing Your Smart Phone – Part 3

This is part 3 of the Customizing Your Smart Phone series (part 1, part 2). This time we will look at the most important part of customizing your phone – installing a new software for the radio in your smart phone. If you look at the specs of any phone, you will see a bunch of frequencies that phone is capable of operating on. The most universal is considered a GSM quad-band that consists of four bands of GSM/GPRS/EDGE frequencies: 850, 900, 1800 and 1900MHz. Whenever you hear a 3G moniker, or lesser known in Northern America UMTS/HSDPA/HSUPA bands they usually refer to 800/850/1900/2100 devices operating in UMTS frequency bands (data interchange bands, as opposed to voice interchange). While these numbers mean little to an unprepared mind, it’s important to understand that a connection possibility and quality of the call directly relate to which bands are supported by device and cellular service provider.

What the radio (and it’s software part) does is basically take care of how well your cell phone radio and your GPS behave when doing directly what they supposed to do. Interesting enough, certain versions of radio software behave better in certain markets, so you might want to go through a little testing. Pack an extra phone (don’t forget to charge it too) in case your updated radio version really suck. I spent about an hour per each version of radio and I only tested last three, so you shouldn’t do any worse than that.

If you have a HardSPL installed, then flashing the radio (i.e. installing a new or updated software package for your radio) should present any surprises. There’s a belief, although with little, if any, backing to it, that between radio updates it is a good idea to flash a stock radio (i.e. one that came from either original equipment manufacturer or cell phone company). I can hardly believe it’s true, but you’re welcome to acquire your own experience. Do your homework and follow the instructions to the letter, as missing the steps that might look small or insignificant may result in bricked phone or a failed flash.

There’s not much to the process of flashing of a new radio except for following the instructions. Make note which exact version did you test and what were the results. Pick a few spots where you know for sure the reception was good, decent and bad and test there thoroughly. Number of bars, no matter how heavily promoted by AT&T’s commercials, doesn’t mean anything – make calls longer then 3 minutes, note the call quality during the call. Take note on a battery drain as different versions of radio may consume power differently and the last version does not necesserily means the best. Remember, that you are testing same hardware in the same locations and the only thing different is your phone radio’s software. Pick the one that works best for you and move on.

Customizing Your Smart Phone – Part 2

We’re back to our Customizing your smartphone series, this is part 2. This chapter will talk about step 1 in customizing your pda phone – the unlocking of your smart phone device.

Basically, there are two kinds of unlocking. One, called hard unlock (also known as HardSPL or Hard Second Program Loader), will give you total control over your phone, you will be able to replace anything and everything in regards to software. The drawback is that it will get obsolete with time, so newer software may not work or give you trouble if you have an outdated unlock. Additionally, your cell phone company will most likely give you a hard time if you bring the device for repair.

What this method does could be compared to updating your computer BIOS or upgrading the transmission in your car. It would still be the same hood and engine, but the driving experience will be different. You will most likely see a different flavor of programs that perform hard unlock depending on your phone’s model. However, the nature of each should be the same – they replace a firmware that is flashed into your phone’s memory to start on phone’s boot (thus the BIOS analogy). Once you replace that part – you’re good to go with updating other parts of you smart phone software.

Another one, called soft unlock (SoftSPL or Software Second Program Loader), is a temporary solution of sort. It is essentially a stand-alone .exe program that will go away once you reset your phone, but it still allows you to update certain parts of your smart phone software. Though not as good as previous and more cumbersome to perform, the soft unlock doesn’t leave its footprint embedded in phone’s persistent memory so you will see less red tape from cell phone provider. Additionally, if you ever need to replace your old HardSPL with an updated one, you can only do it with SoftSPL. So both are needed and both have their uses and disadvantages.

So far, most of the upgrades worth noting required installation of HardSPL, but you might be able to get away with SoftSPL if you try hard enough (and read a lot!). Getting your smart phone device a SIM-unlocked is a part of the deal and just a minor benefit. One of the major issues with SPL provided by your cell phone company is preventing you, the user, from flashing (i.e. writing to the persistent memory of your smart phone) the software you want and preserve the stuff your cell phone company wants you to have. Another – binding you to that specific provider, also known as SIM lock. Both HardSPL and SoftSPL take care of each part of it – either permanently or temporarily.

Customizing Your Smart Phone – Part 1

Customizing your smart phone, when it comes to HTC hardware, requires three major steps. I’ll go over all three briefly, then elaborate more for those who’d like to get on board. Something like a disclaimer – I will deliberately simplify things and try NOT to use special lingo – exactly for the purpose of explaining things as simple as possible. Maybe even simpler.

Now, when talking about customizing your phone, I don’t mean installing some new shiny app or changing couple of colors and fonts here and there. I am talking about installing an improved OS, upgrading software that powers your cell phone radio and GPS, drastically changing the way you use that phone.

In case you already scared – well, to a certain point you should be. It’s a bit convoluted procedure, requiring you if not reading through dozens and dozens of pages of nerd talk at least being able to follow instructions. Outlined in nerd talk. But we’ll get there later.

Since most of the world employs various derivatives of GSM networks (read: phones with SIM cards), that’s what we will be looking at. After all, you would enjoy being able to take your smart phone on your next trip to Europe, wouldn’t you?

Step 1: Unlocking your smart phone. Smart phones are smart, they are a miniature computers with their operating systems and all. So in order for you to be able to install that new operating system you will need to unlock your phone. SIM unlock (as in – being able to use other company’s SIM card in your phone) is a minor benefit of the first step. By unlocking your phone you become the only real owner of your hardware. Unlike the following two steps, this step is required and will only need to be performed once.

Step 2: Upgrading software for the radio in your cell phone. While optional, this is the step that would give you the most benefit. All else aside, this is the real reason anyone would really NEED to upgrade their phone. As an example – my AT&T Tilt, bought just a little over a year ago, shipped with radio software four generations behind current! Of course AT&T, being busy with those iPhones and all, forgot to issue a single update to that software. However, after upgrading a software to the latest available, I was able to almost eliminate dropped calls in quite a few spots and improved overall quality of calls. Less frustration and happier clients are extra.

Step 3: Upgrading OS and software on your phone. As does any computer from any big-name manufacturer, cell phones arrive with loads of bloatware. Stuff you don’t really need or use. However, unlike computers, cell phones are a bit different in nature, and this software is put into permanent memory of the cell phone, so you just can’t uninstall it! So instead of being occupied with something useful, like a modern browser, nice organizer or an elaborate mind-mapping software, the cell phone memory is occupied with useless junk that slows everything down.

That being said, here’s a real tangible business benefit for any business owner – upgrade your smart phone, keep more money in your business, instead of investing them into yet another piece of hardware that “almost does it right, but not really“. Protect the nature. Reuse. Rethink. After all, it’s a smart phone, why not being smart about how to use it?