Pondering smartphones III

January 27, 2011

in Geek stuff, Internet matters

I realize that one of the bigger sustainability problems of our age is all the waste generated by planned obselescence and the need to have the next big thing every couple of years. At the same time, it seems plausible that for whatever my trade is, a functional smartphone is increasingly a necessary tool.

As such, the increasing number of bugs and problems with my Nokia E71 (purchased in summer 2009) are driving me to think about new options. The phone no longer receives text messages while on, but rather in one big clump when rebooted. The battery now cannot even handle an evening out, even when it has been charging all day at work, and yet replacing it would cost a fair bit of what a new phone would. The web browsers (both Nokia’s and Opera Mobile) are inadequate for many everyday tasks. The machine won’t stay connected to my email server, even when it has constant access to the cell network, and it doesn’t tell you when the connection goes down. Also, it has been abruptly and randomly crashing.

The smartphone market changes fast. When I looked at it previously (once and again), I concluded that a Nokia phone aimed at the business market was the best match for my needs. Foremost among those are a good keyboard and integration with Google. It’s great that the Nokia seamlessly syncs up my contacts and calendar with GMail and Google Calendar, though it seems ironic that it uses Microsoft’s ‘Mail for Exchange’ app to do so. Other important features are decent battery life, GPS, access to useful apps like Google Maps, and good build quality. I don’t care at all about media player or camera capabilities, as I have better machines to do those things and I don’t have a problem carrying them with me.

What would people recommend? One of the BlackBerries? An Android phone? Much as I appreciate the familiar layout of Nokia’s operating systems, I don’t think I will be giving them another go. This will probably be my first ever cell phone not made by the Finnish giant.

I won’t be getting it very soon, however. Things are still a bit up in the air with the job search, and some of the lower-paying opportunities might not be smartphone compatible. Once I have some certainty, however, I will be back on the pocket computer market.

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{ 45 comments… read them below or add one }

oleh January 27, 2011 at 8:28 am

Fun photo. Can you provide more detail as to where in Toronto you took it.

Astley Henry January 27, 2011 at 12:42 pm

Blackberry Bold 9700 series. Stay away from the touch screens. Very reliable with a decent number of free apps for weather, blogging, tweeting, facebooking. Also mac integration through a desktop manager and Blackberry messaging to anyone else with a Blackberry.

Sorry to sound like a RIM spokesman.

Matt January 27, 2011 at 12:56 pm

The iPhone has matured a lot since the first discussion and is a good phone for the things you need, with the exception of the keyboard. If you need a physical keyboard I’d definitely recommend an Android, and specifically a HTC Desire Z (aka T-Mobile G2 depending on which provider it’s for).

I personally think the BB is lacking in implementation. I haven’t tried the “Torch” 9800, though, which combines a touchscreen with a physical keyboard; from what I’ve read sales have been lackluster due to people not liking it.

Milan January 27, 2011 at 5:08 pm

Fun photo. Can you provide more detail as to where in Toronto you took it.

I took it in an alley in Chinatown.

Matt January 27, 2011 at 6:38 pm

I’m loathe to post a link that won’t last very long, but I noticed this (A $400 Desire Z) in your area:

http://ottawa.kijiji.ca/c-buy-and-sell-phones-PDAs-ipods-Brand-New-HTC-Desire-Z-W0QQAdIdZ256819618

The phone would be locked to Bell, but can be unlocked for free fairly easily using tools found on XDA online. This would allow you to use it with Rogers/Telus/Fido, but not Wind or Mobilicity.

Milan January 27, 2011 at 6:39 pm

Thanks for the link, but I won’t be buying anything until I have sorted out where I will be working after June.

Milan January 29, 2011 at 5:09 pm

People tell me that they disliked the iPhone keyboard initially but rapidly got used to it.

Maybe I should just wait and get an iPhone 5, once they come out…

Matt January 29, 2011 at 8:00 pm

One thing worth considering is that if you think open source software projects should be rewarded, that’s a big point in favour of Android.

Also, along similar lines, whereas with an iPhone if you want to install non-Apple endorsed software you have to jailbreak the thing, with Android all you do is go to Settings -> Applications and then check Unknown sources which will allow you to install anything you like.

Milan January 29, 2011 at 9:36 pm

That’s true. It would be nice to have a phone that I actually own

Milan January 29, 2011 at 9:41 pm

Also, it occurred to me tonight that I have now owned a smartphone, but never a car (or even really expensive bike). My instinct is to assume that owning a car must be enormously more expensive. Now that I think of it, though, it seems not impossible that owning the phone could be more expensive, all in.

With the phone, you have your monthly bills plus the cost of the handset (if you want an unlocked phone, and aren’t content to unlock a phone company phone illegally). My monthly bills are around $100, and I bought a phone for $400+ less than two years ago.

With the car, you have lease payments, gas, parking, maintenance, tax, and insurance. If you didn’t drive all that much and parked somewhere cheap, it seems possible that you could spend less than $115 or so per month. Am I totally wrong about that?

Matt January 30, 2011 at 2:13 am

I’ve had a car since I was 18; it’s not that expensive. A phone is less, but maybe only a third of what it costs me to own my car. Considering how much machinery a car really is, I’d say the cost of a cell phone is pretty significant.

Matt January 30, 2011 at 2:17 am

unlock a phone company phone illegally

Unlocking a phone is not illegal, not matter how you do it (including jailbreaking in order to run the unlock) even if the manufacturer/service provider does their best to prevent you from doing so.

Milan January 30, 2011 at 2:55 am

It’s a breach of your contract with the phone company, isn’t it? It isn’t a criminal offense in Canada, though.

Matt January 30, 2011 at 12:47 pm

Not that I’m aware of. Even if the phone is subsidized it is still your phone. You can even sell it if you want.

The provider I’m with even provides unlock codes for the phones you buy from them after three months.

Tristan January 30, 2011 at 5:20 pm

It’s sometimes possible, with a bit of effort, to get a reasonably reliable and safe commuter car for 1000$. If you spent 1000$ a year on insurance, 300$ a year on repairs and maintenance, and 10$ per week on fuel (i.e. about 100km/week) – that works out to 6460 over 3 years, or 180$ a month. If you were to own the car for six years, the cost goes down to 165 a month, but the maintenance budget becomes less realistic. Of course, you could sell the car after 3 or 6 years, and you might be able to get 300-600$ for it.

If you want to buy or lease a new car, the costs will be much higher. Moreover, if you are not mechanically inclined, if you are not extremely lucky you are likely to have the car develop a mechanical problem worth more to fix than it would cost to purchase another cheap car.

I think buying a car, if you don’t absolutely need one, is rarely a financially sound investment. Car-sharing programs or renting a car the odd week-end makes much more sense.

Tristan January 30, 2011 at 5:22 pm

Incidentally, comparing the cost of car-sharing programs to smart phones seems an interesting way to articulate our relative valuations of mobility of movement versus mobile access to information.

Milan February 24, 2011 at 7:37 pm

My Nokia E71 has definitely reached the point where I am thinking seriously of taking it behind the barn and putting it out of its misery. The phone hasn’t lasted all that long, really. I got it on July 23, 2009, which was just 1 year and 7 months ago.

While not too old, the phone is desperately buggy. In addition to the old bugs (disconnecting randomly from the email server, contact list issues, etc), it now no longer displays the names of people who sent text messages, just their phone numbers. The audio quality of phone calls has dropped noticeably, and I can only receive text messages at all now by turning off my phone and turning it back on again.

At the same time, I am not sure what the future holds in terms of work. It does seem a safe bet, however, that regardless of what I end up doing, I am going to want a smartphone. At the moment, I am leaning toward the iPhone 4. I know it isn’t open source and it has an on-screen keyboard, but the iPhone users I know seem to be happier with their smartphones than anybody else, and I know the web browser is quite decent.

One thing I am not sure about is whether to buy the phone unlocked or not. Along with tax and two years of Applecare, the phone would be $859.22. If I got a three year contract from Fido, the phone would be $159 plus $79 for Applecare, plus tax. As such, if I got the contract and saw it through to the end, I would save $591. That is probably enough of a savings to be worth the risk of wanting to switch phone companies, get rid of my iPhone altogether, or move outside of Canada…

Maybe I should wait to hear back on the Washington, D.C. think tank job first…

Matt February 24, 2011 at 8:06 pm

Apple does have the advantage of great warranty service, and the iPhone 4 is a very nice performer.

Having said that, I cringe to think of signing a contract and tying yourself to a Rogers company when there are two good options for cheap competition, which are both no contract.

Let’s look at Fido’s offerings:
$80/mo for
500 mins airtime
1 GB data
Unlimited text
Add $7/mo to include caller ID for a total of $98.31/mo after tax.

Price after 3 years (plan only, not including handset): $3539.16

Mobilicity:
$40/mo
Unlimited talk (Canada & US), Unlimited Data, Unlimited Text, Caller ID
$45.20/mo after tax
Price after 3 years (plan only, not including handset): $1627.20

Savings: $1911.96 over 3 years.

Milan February 24, 2011 at 8:07 pm

Does Mobilicity work with the iPhone?

Milan February 24, 2011 at 8:09 pm

Also, what do you think of this:

“Clement also spoke about the cellphone market, expressing confidence that the government will win its appeal of a court decision that will lock Wind Mobile out of the Canadian mobile market because of foreign ownership laws.”

Milan February 24, 2011 at 8:11 pm

Also, what does Mobilicity do for roaming? I can use my Fido phone in Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, and all the spaces in between without paying roaming charges.

Matt February 25, 2011 at 2:48 am

Mobilicity and Wind are two separate companies with two completely independent (but compatible) networks. Wind has some ownership issues currently being scrutinized, but Mobilicity has none so that quote from Clement doesn’t pertain to them.

As both Mobilicity and Wind use the AWS band, the iphone will not work. If Apple releases a Tmobile compatible iphone this spring, it will also by default be compatible with the new players.

Finally, both new entrants cover the major English speaking Canadian cities with their own networks and allow pay per use roaming on the Rogers networks outside of these cities

Milan February 25, 2011 at 8:12 am

Thanks for the information. I will hold off until at least my next pay day to make a decision.

Milan February 25, 2011 at 9:57 am

I discovered a couple of annoying things at the Apple store.

First, the iPhone will not sync with my Google contacts in both directions. One great thing about my Nokia is that whenever I change something about a contact on my phone or computer, it gets updated everywhere.

Second, they can only transfer me to an iPhone if I bring a driver’s license or passport showing my current address. I have never had a driver’s license, and getting a new passport so I can change phones seems crazy.

Matt February 25, 2011 at 1:08 pm

I should add that Rogers/Fido (the networks are one and the same) is much more mature than Wind or Mobilicity. There will be areas particularly underground, where there is a Rogers signal but not a Mobilicity one, for instance.

I believe some Mobilicity dealers have loaner phones to allow you to evaluate the network before you sign up.

You have to weigh the benefits (cost and unlimited plans) and pitfalls (coverage) and see what’s important to you. Personally, I like the piece of mind of unlimited packages as well as the low cost and thus am willing to put up with the inferior coverage. The fact that I can roam in areas where they don’t have official coverage seals the deal for me.

Be aware, though, Wind and Mobilicity have blocked roaming in the cities where they supposedly do have coverage whether or not you have reception. For instance if you are in Toronto and you find there’s no reception on the subway, you can’t roam onto rogers. If you are in Kingston where they don’t advertise coverage, you can.

Milan February 26, 2011 at 4:26 pm

I got the iPhone. It actually syncs beautifully with Google mail, calendar, and contacts with no extra software. I am already getting used to the keyboard.

Matt February 26, 2011 at 5:02 pm

Are you going to jailbreak it?

Milan February 26, 2011 at 6:31 pm

Doesn’t Apple periodically break jailbroken phones?

Also, I wonder what I should do with my E71. It’s super buggy, but someone might still want it.

Matt February 27, 2011 at 2:32 am

Apple has never disabled a jailbroken phone. Software updates simply unjailbreak them. It would be of questionable legality for them to vengefully disable someone’s property.

Milan February 27, 2011 at 2:53 am

I thought they sometimes got bricked ‘accidentally’. Perhaps the jailbreaking process does introduce a flaw that causes OS upgrades to break, or maybe they maintain that risk as a deterrent to jailbreaking.

. February 27, 2011 at 2:54 am

iOS jailbreaking is a process that allows devices running Apple’s iOS (also known as iPhone OS prior to iOS 4.0) operating system (such as the iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch, and recently Apple TV) to gain full access (root access) to unlock all features of the said operating system, thereby removing limitations imposed by Apple. Once jailbroken, iOS users are able to download additional applications, extensions and themes that are unavailable through the official Apple App Store, via installers such as Cydia, one of a number of current means for older iPhones. A jailbroken iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch running iOS can still use the App Store and iTunes and other normal functions, such as making telephone calls. Jailbreaking is similar to rooting an Android device.

. February 27, 2011 at 2:56 am

Pros and cons of jailbreaking or rooting your smartphone

If jailbreaking/rooting might compromise the phone’s security and void the warranty, why are some smartphone owners doing it? Deb Shinder outlines the benefits and more of the drawbacks of jailbreaking and rooting.

. February 27, 2011 at 2:57 am

“Some apps are “crippled” by the carrier to work only when the phone is on a Wi-Fi network. For example, the iPhone only allows you to use Skype with Wi-Fi. 3G Unrestrictor is an unofficial app (available through Cydia) that allows you to use Skype and other similarly restricted apps when connected to the 3G network. FaceBreak is a jailbreak app that lets you use FaceTime on the iPhone 4 over the 3G network.”

. February 27, 2011 at 2:58 am

The primary reason for my friends’ cautious approach was the fear that they would “mess up” their phones and turn the devices into $400 bricks. And it’s true that if you do it incorrectly, you could end up with a useless device, especially when installing a custom ROM. However, you can restore the phone to the factory settings if you mess up. Note: This will wipe out your data and any apps you’ve installed. Always back up your personal data whether or not you jailbreak/root your phone.

Perhaps a more important concern is that jailbreaking/rooting can compromise the security and/or reliability of your smartphone. Remember, these phones are actually full-fledged computers, albeit small ones. The devices are vulnerable to malware and attacks just like laptop and desktop systems. An advantage of getting apps from Apple’s App Store is that the apps have been tested thoroughly. This applies, to a lesser extent, to the Android Marketplace.

Unofficial apps can contain malicious code, or they may just be poorly written and cause your phone’s OS to crash. When applications have root access, they can do a great deal of harm to your phone’s software.

In addition, jailbreaking or rooting your phone may void the warranty. Read your contract to find out.

Finally, some of the custom ROMs work the phone’s memory and processor harder, and this may result in decreased battery life.

Milan February 27, 2011 at 3:04 am

What do you think of Password Managers like Keeper and 1Password?

Are they more or less secure than writing your passwords down in your wallet? Password managers could let you change them more often, and there is no piece of paper for someone to find. At the same time, password managers that sync between devices have a database somewhere that is exposed to attack via the web.

Maybe two non-networked password managers, one on your home machine and one on your phone, is the best strategy.

Or perhaps just one, non-networked, on your phone (which you always have with you anyhow for reference).

. February 27, 2011 at 2:12 pm

Security Considerations in 1Password

Secure Passwords Keep You Safer

AccessData sells another program, Forensic Toolkit, that, among other things, scans a hard drive for every printable character string. It looks in documents, in the Registry, in e-mail, in swap files, in deleted space on the hard drive … everywhere. And it creates a dictionary from that, and feeds it into PRTK.

And PRTK breaks more than 50 percent of passwords from this dictionary alone.

What’s happening is that the Windows operating system’s memory management leaves data all over the place in the normal course of operations. You’ll type your password into a program, and it gets stored in memory somewhere. Windows swaps the page out to disk, and it becomes the tail end of some file. It gets moved to some far out portion of your hard drive, and there it’ll sit forever. Linux and Mac OS aren’t any better in this regard.

I should point out that none of this has anything to do with the encryption algorithm or the key length. A weak 40-bit algorithm doesn’t make this attack easier, and a strong 256-bit algorithm doesn’t make it harder. These attacks simulate the process of the user entering the password into the computer, so the size of the resultant key is never an issue.

For years, I have said that the easiest way to break a cryptographic product is almost never by breaking the algorithm, that almost invariably there is a programming error that allows you to bypass the mathematics and break the product. A similar thing is going on here. The easiest way to guess a password isn’t to guess it at all, but to exploit the inherent insecurity in the underlying operating system.

Milan March 9, 2011 at 6:59 pm

I have an idea for an iPhone feature. It’s probably a good idea to have a lock code on your phone, but it is annoying to put one in whenever you want to check it.

Apple could set it up so that your photo automatically locked after X minutes, except if you are on a WiFi network that you designate your ‘home’ network. That way, it wouldn’t autolock in a place where it is relatively unlikely to be stolen.

Matt March 9, 2011 at 7:32 pm

How about an RFID implant under your skin that unlocks the phone when it’s near your body? When/if you sell the phone you de-register the serial number of your implant.

This would be useful for multiple devices. You could drive your car without keys, open your front door, load money into a transit account.

Milan March 9, 2011 at 7:53 pm

Just hope it doesn’t cause some weird immune response. I would be pretty nervous about implanting myself with something electronic.

Milan March 9, 2011 at 7:54 pm

You would also be exposed to the vulnerabilities of today’s RFID tags. They will probably develop better ones soon.

Milan March 10, 2011 at 12:14 am

It would be convenient to have no keys of passes to forget, though!

. April 23, 2011 at 6:04 pm

Still, it is too early to count Nokia out. Some 90% of mobiles sold in Africa are basic models in which Nokia still dominates. The $30 Nokia 1100 handset remains the Kalashnikov of communication for the poor: 50m of them are in use in Africa. A souped-up version of the 1100, expected soon, will need to offer a better screen, internet connectivity and ideally some access to social-networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, all without sacrificing durability and price. If Nokia can achieve this, it could regain its edge.

. June 17, 2011 at 9:50 pm

Toxic Plankton feeds on Android Market for two months
Google never said it wouldn’t

The security of Google Android has once again been called into question after an academic researcher discovered 12 malicious apps hosted in the operating system’s official applications market, some that had been hosted there for months and racked up hundreds of thousands of downloads.

Ten of the apps reported last week by North Carolina State University professor Xuxian Jiang contained highly stealthy code that collected users’ browsing history, bookmarks, and device information and sent them to servers under the control of the attackers. The professor said they also contained a backdoor largely made possible by a weakness documented at a security conference 12 months ago that allows Android apps to be surreptitiously updated.

. April 8, 2012 at 12:22 pm

Google Earns $2 Per Handset; Apple, $575

While Apple generates more than $575 in profit for every iOS device, and according to estimates in 2007 Apple earned more than $800 on every iPhone sold through ATT, Horace Dediu reports that Android generated less than $550m in revenues for Google between 2008 and the end of 2011, earning only $1.70 per year, per Android device — explaining how Apple is sucking up two thirds of the profit in the mobile phone business. Dediu’s starting point is a settlement offer Google made to Oracle of $2.8 million and 0.515% of Android revenues on an ongoing basis. His assumption is that those numbers represent Google’s revenue from Android to date. ‘If this is the case,’ writes Dediu, ‘We have a significant breakthrough in understanding the economics of Android and the overall mobile platform strategy of Google.’ Of course profitability is not the only reason Google is in the mobile phone business. ‘P&L considerations were not the only (or even at all) factors in investment for Google, Having a hedge against hegemony of potential rivals, having a means to learn and develop new business and having a role in defining the post-PC computing paradigm are all probably bigger considerations than profitability,’ writes Dediu. ‘My take is that [Android] is not a bad business. But it’s also not a great one.

Milan December 18, 2014 at 1:51 pm

My iPhone 4 (model A1332) from February 2011 now only gets about three or four hours of usage before it needs to be charged – and less if I am out in the cold.

Amazon has a case / extra battery for this model, available for $80 plus tax. Since nothing else is really wrong with the phone, it seems like a reasonably good idea to get one. On the other hand, the phone may fail altogether soon, in which case it would be smarter to set aside the money for an eventual replacement.

I am wary of getting locked into another contract, however.

In any event, I have money for neither a battery pack or a new phone right now. While it’s occasionally problematic to lose communication ability after a few hours out and about, it’s not a critical problem right now.

Having the iPhone functioning tolerably for 3 years, 9 months, and 22 days (1391 days) is pretty good – though there was a span in which both the top and home buttons were sticky and barely worked.

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