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Adventures in Cell Phone Modding

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When m’lady’s ancient LG cell phone began to disintegrate into a cloud of static, garbled speech and dropped calls, it became clear that it was irrevocably destined for the electronic recyclers. Living in the hinterlands, we decided that her next phone should be one with unimpeachable radio reception, such that it would be able to hang onto the oftentimes ephemeral signals out here.

As noted in the Storm Gods review of the motoKRZR K1 phone, our experience has been that Motorola’s high-end phones can carry on a clear conversation when all around them are hissing, spitting and flashing “no service” upon their displays. That m’lady fancied a slider phone complicated the matter somewhat, in that none of the Canadian carriers offered a suitable device.

…and such began the adventure.

The motoKRZR exists in a slider version, called the motoRIZR – you have to say the name aloud a few times to appreciate why some marketing guy thought it was a clever thing to call the phone. A few minutes with Google turned up a wealth of suppliers of unlocked GSM motoRIZR phones at about a hundred dollars each. If some of the foregoing sounds a bit like two Martians discussing which planet to invade next Tuesday, you might want to have a look at our article Cap’n Goodheart’s Traveling Cell-Phone Extravaganza – no foolin’ – which touches lightly upon the subject of cell phone technologies and how seldom it is that they play nicely together.

Overstock.com, they of ubiquitous television advertising and cheap shipping, sold us an unlocked motoRIZR for $95.99, plus a dollar to deliver the beast.

There are three large cell phone carriers in Canada as of this writing – happily, with several smaller ones now nipping at their heels in the way that dinosaurs were wont to nip at the heels of cave men in really low-budget movies half a century ago. Of them, Rogers manages a GSM cell phone network, which was compatible with m’lady’s GSM motoRIZR. Bell and Telus, the other two players in this comedy, had long before sprung for CDMA networks, which were not.

Cap’n Goodheart, several paragraphs back, will explain this in greater detail, should you find yourself to be curious or in need of sleep.

Some months prior to the onset of the adventure, Bell and Telus had come to despair of their choice of network technologies, in that it precluded them from selling the insanely popular, insanely expensive and insanely profitable Apple iPhone. Rumor has it that they spent over a billion dollars to add 3G technology to their networks, such that they too might avail themselves of this breathtaking cash cow. 3G technology is a later generation of GSM.

So it was that we took the motoRIZR to our existing carrier, to have m’lady’s dying LG phone’s stout heart transplanted to the motoRIZR… or at least, to switch the handset on the account. The woman behind the counter scanned the phone, decided it wasn’t supported and wished us well. She implied that her employer’s acquisition of 3G technology was only put in place for smart-phone users, and that plebes with phones not requiring extensive data plans were welcome to look elsewhere.

Undaunted, we took the phone across town to Rogers.

Introductory Lock Picking for Rhinoceroses

To digress for a moment, it’s important to keep in mind that unlocked GSM phones are a somewhat funky industry. Most cell phones are manufactured at the behest of specific carriers, which is why they almost always appear with the regalia of AT&T, Cingular, Rogers, Orange or another major carrier silk-screened upon them. In the case of our motoRIZR, it had begun its life destined for a subscriber of T-Mobile in the United States.

They’re unlocked by third parties when they’re sold by retailers like Overstock.com.

While unlocking a GSM phone makes it suitable for use on any GSM network, doing so doesn’t address any network-specific changes which might have been wrought by the phone’s manufacturer as requested by its original customers. The most common of these changes is the propensity of some unlocked phones to send secret text messages back to their parent networks.

Our motoRIZR, for example, sent a secret text message to *453 whenever it acquired its network, which is to say, every time it was switched on.

In most cases, this isn’t much of an issue. If one were to use an unlocked motoRIZR on a network other than T-Mobile, the mystery message would presumably be ignored. In some cases, such messages can generate an error response if the network in question doesn’t know what to make of them and it complains to its originator.

In the case of most Canadian and some US cell phone networks, the spurious use of texting by an unlocked phone can be a problem, in that the carriers in question are disposed to charge for text messages.

Aware of the likelihood of the motoRIZR frightening the horses behind our back, we confirmed that text messaging could be disabled for a Rogers Pay As You Go cell phone account before we allowed any of our credit cards to see daylight. The woman at the Rogers store promised that it would be, and she charged us $40.00 for a new SIM card plus $10.00 for an initial top-up… plus sales tax.

It was only when the balance on the phone dropped precariously close to zero a few days later, having handled exactly two calls, that we began to suspect that something may have been amiss. Checking the on-line account activity statement for m’lady’s phone, we discovered that it had been diminishing by 25 cents every time the phone had been switched on.

The secret text messages were generating charges, which is to say that texting hadn’t been disabled as we’d been promised.

Rogers’ customer service – preceded by about ten minutes of talking to a computer and listening to advertising on hold – refunded the text charges, but said that contrary to what we’d been told in the Rogers store, texting couldn’t be disabled. The next time the phone was powered up, the meter would be running. A later e-mail message said “We apologize for any miscommunication on the part of our in store service representative. After reviewing your account we can confirm that no blocks were added to your line as this is not an option for Pay As You Go customers. This service is not able to be blocked on Pay As You Go.” They also said “We will, as an added troubleshooting step, submit a Trouble Ticket on this issue… please note that it may take up to 30 days to be resolved if a correction is possible.”

Amidst a squadron of flying pigs, the adventure took wing.

Quest for Fliers

We contacted Overstock.com to see if they had a resolution for the problem with the phone. In fairness, it had been unlocked correctly, and its secret text messages would have been unnoticeable by anyone with a less rapacious cell phone network – unless one was being charged for text messages, they’d be hard to spot. The big O was back to us in a few hours. They couldn’t address the problem with the phone, but they were willing to refund what we’d paid for it.

Enamored of her new phone, m’lady wasn’t wholly in favor of this option.

We next tried Motorola. You can’t actually contact technical support at Motorola – or at least, we never found a way to do so. There’s a user support forum at its web page, wherein one can post a question and pray for guidance. Nothing useful came of this.

Quite by accident, we happened upon a strange little underground community of phone modders – people who presumably ensconce themselves in various spare bedrooms and attic lofts and meddle with the workings of cell phones. An expression of their craft is to be found at ModMyMoto.com – at least in so far as it pertains to Motorola devices. They too had a user support forum, but it was alive with postings and people to answer them.

The problem could be resolved, said a user who identified himself as Thelaxplaya7, by flashing the phone with a new MP. In human-speak, this means uploading new firmware to it. Thelaxplaya7 pointed us to a guide for the procedure, suitable firmware and a shareware application to back up the phone’s existing brain and then re-educate the beast.

Admittedly, it took several attempts to arrive at a wholly acceptable second incarnation of the motoRIZR. The first firmware package we tried worked, but it displayed all the phone’s screens in the Comic Sans font, with an unfortunate choice of color schemes and graphics. The second one insisted that the Phone Book function operate in long character Chinese. It proved possible to combine the desirable elements from several firmware packages to arrive at a motoRIZR fit for earthlings.

The new firmware did not include the function that called home to T-Mobile, and m’lady’s new phone was at last ready for polite company. The total cost for the entire adventure was $9.99 sent through PayPal to the developer of Flash & Backup, the shareware that managed flashing the phone. This expense was entirely optional, but being shareware developers ourselves at times, we wouldn’t have been able to manifest a sufficient level of hypocrisy to have used Flash & Backup without paying for it.

It seems salient to observe that we enjoyed vastly better user support with Thelaxplaya7 and the other regulars at ModMyMoto.com than we did with any of the cellular carriers we dealt with, despite the latter having inhaled substantial amounts of our cash, with the prospect of inhaling still more of it on an ongoing basis.

In the aftermath of the adventure, we discovered that Rogers has a less expensive discount imprint called Fido – originally an independent carrier that Rogers ingested several years back. Their Pay As You Go rates are ten cents per minute lower than Rogers, despite their apparently using the same network. They also charge ten dollars for a SIM card, rather than 40.

It must be said that in use, Rogers’ network is solid, extensive and as reliable as their advertising would lead one to believe. While Canadian cell phone charges in general are among the highest on Earth, Rogers’ aren’t hugely more exorbitant than those of their competitors – their Fido service does seem to be a better deal. Their customer service was somewhat inefficacious for us.

M’lady is of the opinion that the motoRIZR, on the other hand, is truly awesome.