I bought a new mobile phone, a Sony Ericsson T610, earlier this week. My previous phone was a Siemens S35i, quite a capable handset, although mine had developed an intermittent fault that would cause it to cease communicating with the SIM card about once a day. That, and the fact that it had no support for newer technologies like GPRS and Bluetooth, prompted me to go for a new one.
There is actually an improved version of the T610, the T630, due out in the near future. It seems that the main improvement is a better screen. However, as it is likely to be more expensive, and I didn’t want to wait anyway, I went for the T610. Instant gratification wins every time.
In Belgium, it’s illegal to SIM-lock phones, so I wasn’t worried about where I bought it. In the end, I bought a Mobistar handset. Unfortunately, Sony Ericsson pimp themselves out and burn special firmware for each operator, so mine has a green Mobistar logo as the first entry in the menu, despite the fact that the manuals and packaging are completely generic. It’s only an aesthetic disadvantage—the functionality is not restricted, or wasn’t as soon as I had deleted the preprogrammed Mobistar profiles and replaced them with settings for Proximus (my operator).
It would have cost me more to get an OEM phone without any customisation, so I shouldn’t complain. And yet—why do companies do this? Bulletin boards across the internet are full of people complaining about their operators’ customisations of their phones and reflashing their firmware to get rid of it, despite the risk of ending up with an expensive paperweight. It seems obvious that few customers actually want it. Given how attached people are to their mobile phones, I suppose it’s the psychological equivalent of waking up after a night out and discovering “I am Enron’s bitch” tattooed across your chest.
Another “feature” of Mobistar’s customisation was the addition of a Mobistar theme to the phone’s collection of themes. I soon grew tired of seeing some girl’s armpit (below) as my screen wallpaper, and replaced it with something more attractive.
There are enough T610 reviews around, so I’ll just summarise the good and bad points briefly.
- Small, light, no external antenna to cause accidental testicular damage when sitting down with it in a pocket.
- High resolution colour screen.
- cHTML support (the i-Mode standard, a subset of HTML and easy to develop for).
- Synchronises with the Mac OS X address book and calendar.
- Bluetooth, infra-red
- Screen is almost invisible without backlight.
- Synchronisation doesn’t handle non-human entries (those without a first name) well.
- The Java games run about as well as you’d expect from something running on a virtual machine on a low-power microprocessor. They are almost totally unplayable.
- Camera’s image quality is very poor, although that’s standard for camera phones.
Anyway, it does exactly what I want. I had a camera phone when I was in Japan, and used the camera facility about four times, so I wasn’t bothered about that.
One thing I really wanted was Bluetooth. Although I used to be able to connect my old phone and PC laptop together via infra-red to do email when I was travelling, my iBook has no such facility. However, with Bluetooth, the same thing is possible, with the advantage that you don’t have to balance the phone in the line of sight of the infra-red transceiver. In fact, you don’t even have to get the phone out of your pocket, which makes it harder for some random scrote to purloin it.
In order to get Bluetooth on my iBook, I needed an adapter, so I grabbed the D-Link DBT-120 from Fnac. It is the size of a USB plug, and smaller than my thumb. I had to laugh at the absurdity when I opened the huge box to see the tiny adapter nestled in an expanse of cardboard:
It works well. Really well. Mac OS X does a lot of things very well, and plug-and-play is one of them. Ignoring the driver disc supplied, I just plugged it in, and Bluetooth was enabled and working. And unlike on Windows, I don’t have to reinstall the driver every time I plug it into a different USB socket.
With computer and phone talking together, I can send SMS messages using a real keyboard! I can automatically synchronise a subset of my address book with the phone, although I had to modify some entries to get them to display properly on the phone. Putting all the company names for my business entries into the First Name field sorted it out. The calendar is synchronised too, although I can’t imagine that I’ll ever use it for anything more than correlating days and dates: anything more is too much hassle. A small screen and a limited number of buttons isn’t enough to do any serious work.
With Bluetooth, I can browse files on my phone. It gives me three directories, containing pictures, sounds and themes. I can upload and download files, including the preinstalled ones, just by dragging and dropping. That also includes photos that I’ve taken with the camera. Incidentally, that was how I was able to extract the wallpaper image you see above. The ring tones are straightforward polyphonic midi files. I downloaded some cheesy J-pop sounds and installed them, thinking, this is really the killer app for Bluetooth!
I was wrong, though. Romeo is the killer app. It turns your phone into an expensive remote control for your computer. I really like the iTunes scripts that pause the music when I leave the room and resume it when I return. It’s like the poor man’s version of Bill Gates’ house.
The other thing to try was GPRS. I’ll just give a quick explanation. Normal GSM telephony is circuit-switched, meaning that you need to make a dedicated connection in order to transfer data, and that you are charged by the second for doing so. GPRS, on the other hand, piggy-backs onto GSM and allows for packet-switched data transfer. This allows data to be transferred without setting up a circuit. GPRS charging is based on the quantity of data transferred rather than the time taken to transfer it.
In reality, GPRS is yet another occasion for phone companies to charge ludicrous sums of money. My operator charges €0.50 per 100 kB. Does that sound reasonable to you?
In order to start haemorrhaging money to Proximus, I first had to have GPRS enabled on my phone. Despite the fact that it’s free to enable it, and having it is going to result in increased income, they force us to phone up and request it first. I’ll be generous and assume that there’s some technical reason that stops them from simply enabling on every account. I duly called them yesterday, and the operator told me that he would arrange for GPRS to be added to my account and that it would be working in two hours.
However, no matter what I tried, GPRS didn’t work. My phone displayed “GPRS unregistered” in the status menu, which didn’t seem like a good sign. I spent a long time trying to find out why it didn’t work, thinking, if I can’t do this—and I’m pretty technically literate—how on earth could the man in the street do it? In the end, I admitted defeat, and called back again this morning to ask why it wasn’t working. I soon found out: they hadn’t enabled it. This time, they actually followed through on it, and a couple of hours later, I was able to experience the unalloyed joy that is the GPRS experience.
OK—I’m being sarcastic. It ain’t all that great. You can browse something that looks like the internet from 1996 on the phone, but you’d have to be desperate for information to try it. It’s slow and frustrating on a small screen. I was able to connect my iBook to the internet via the phone, and it worked moderately well. The connection speed is not very high—apart from anything else, Bluetooth itself has a low maximum speed on the order of magnitude of an analogue modem—but it’s tolerable. The latency is very high, however, as I discovered when I tried to run a remote shell using ssh.
Despite the drawbacks, I’m glad to have the GPRS facility. Next time that I’m stuck away from home, be it in a hotel room or wherever, I can send a few emails and maybe even use a bit of online chat. I’m not going to make a habit of using it, though.