I want to break free.
June 28, 2009 2:49 PM   Subscribe

I need advice on unlocking my first-generation iPhone and getting a cheap T-Mobile plan.

I'm hoping to lower my costs. Although I love the device itself, I think $75 a month is way too much to be paying for service, especially since I talk about an hour a month on the phone.

However, I'd like to have some details about this process. Specifically, I'm wondering:

0. If you've done this successfully, which process did you follow and which tool did you use, redsn0w or pwnage?
1. Is data service noticeably worse on T-Mobile than it is on EDGE? Does Google Maps work OK?
2. Does cell phone tower triangulation still work? Are any other apps affected?
3. Do you have to tell T-Mobile that you're using some other kind of phone with their service?
4. Which T-Mobile plan do you recommend?

Any other tips and advice would be welcome as well.
posted by ignignokt to Technology (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Oh, also, I'm assuming T-Mobile is the only provider for which I can unlock. If I'm wrong, let me know of other providers.
posted by ignignokt at 2:54 PM on June 28, 2009

T-Mobile would be the best folks to call about this, as they do support using an unlocked iPhone on their network.
posted by bigmusic at 3:11 PM on June 28, 2009

One thing you lose for sure is visual voicemail.

Part of that high monthly cost you're suffering is paying for the $500 they loan people when they get an $800 phone for $300. If you've got a first-gen iPhone by now you're surely past the 18 month point where you can get another phone for cheap. Keeping an old phone but paying full-price for subsidies is ripping yourself off twice.

One other way to try to save money is to see if you qualify for their FAN discounts. Just stick email addresses in for companies, schools, institutions you're involved with, or even family members and you might find out you qualify for a percent discount on the monthly service. I found out my university offers me 15% off per month and a hospital my mother works for gets me 24% off.
posted by floam at 3:36 PM on June 28, 2009

Part of that high monthly cost you're suffering is paying for the $500 they loan people when they get an $800 phone for $300.

Given that a 16GB iPod Touch runs $300 and a 16GB iPhone 3G is $200, the true subsidy can be estimated at around $150 +/- $50.
posted by @troy at 3:58 PM on June 28, 2009

0. Redsn0w wasn't around when I first unlocked my phone (first-gen iPhone). At that time I used QuickPwn. But also at that time I was using a PC, now I use a Mac. Going to re-do the process to upgrade to the 3.0 software, and I'll be using Pwnage Tool. (I may have this wrong but my understanding is Pwnage Tool is for Mac users, Redsn0w is for PC users. I use instructions from modmyi.com at any rate.)

1. T-Mobile uses Edge for data network. Google Maps works - slower than one might like, but it works. The only time I have trouble is if I'm in a moving vehicle. If I'm looking something up while standing still it's fine.

2. You mean triangulation as in having the phone find you on a map? It works, though it doesn't pinpoint you. It zooms down to a radius of a few city blocks.

As far as I can tell the only thing ATT users have that I don't is visual voicemail. And I don't get enough voicemail messages to where that ever bothers me at all.

3. I have not told T-Mobile what phone I'm using. You don't have to. (well - amendment to that - at the time I got the iPhone I'd already been a T-Mobile user for a year and a half or so. So I changed my phone and just didn't tell them. If you're coming to T-Mobile as a new user, I dunno how that would work if you're not getting a phone from them also. I don't think it would be a problem at all though.) Friends who are fairly knowledgeable about these things tell me that T-Mobile can probably tell exactly what you're using though some sort of data that gets sent back to them. The only time it's barely come up is when I log into the T-Mobile website, they tailor some of the support info on the site to your phone so they ask you to "select your phone from a list" - and of course the iPhone is not on the list. Has never caused a problem. I've heard a few people online say they've called T-Mobile support for some reason and told them they have an iPhone, and apparently T-Mobile is completely fine with that.

4. Plans - I'm not sure what they're offering now. I initially signed up with them with a Moto Razr phone, with a $40/month plan of 600 weekday minutes and unlimited weekends, plus another $10/month for some text messages and what they used to call "T-zones" which I don't think they offer anymore. It was supposed to be a limited internet/data plan for only about $5/month, but honestly - it's been working just fine on my iPhone. Which is precisely why I'm still using an older unlocked iPhone instead of going for one of the new ones with ATT - I'm getting all the apps, the data/internet use, etc., for about half the price most ATT iPhone users are paying. I simply cannot afford the ATT plans. Even as it is, I'm paying for more than I actually use the phone - I'm not someone who spends all day calling and texting. Paying more just makes no sense for me.

I'd say go for it. The unlocking/upgrading process can be kind of a pain, but if you're fairly comfortable with technical computer stuff and you go slowly, it's not really that hard. Just read the whole process through before you start so you'll know what you're doing.
posted by dnash at 5:26 PM on June 28, 2009

Thanks, dnash! That's pretty much what I wanted to know. About the voicemail - is there any alternative way to receive notification that you have a voicemail? If not, it's not a big deal to me.

And about the plans - does that $5 internet/data plan have a name? I'm having trouble finding it on the T-Mobile site, and I'd like to know how much bandwidth per month you can get.
posted by ignignokt at 6:03 PM on June 28, 2009

You still get notification that you have voicemail, just not a count of how many.
posted by Zozo at 7:16 PM on June 28, 2009

From what I've read - and this may be incorrect, but I'm pretty sure it's right - T-Mobile still offers internet through "T-Zones" for like $6/month. Alternately, you can pay $20/month for unlimited data, which is what I do, but I've been called a sucker more than once because apparently T-zones does the same thing for $6 that the data plan does for $20. Somthing to look into.
posted by buzzkillington at 7:32 PM on June 28, 2009

Do it and don't look back. I've had my first generation iPhone since they came out, and you could take them home and activate (or NOT activate) with AT&T on your own.

Everything everyone's said is correct: All you don't get is the visual voicemail. Your voicemail works the way it would with any other phone -- you have an indicator (a red dot without a number in it, as opposed to a number telling you how many messages there are). Apple built the iPhone OS with a "fallback" for those networks that don't have visual voicemail.

T-Mobile is totally happy to have you as an iPhone user, so you don't have to lie about it or feel nervous about telling them. They actually have an "unsupported phones department" within their higher-level tech support. They get all those awards for customer service for a reason.

Plus, as far as we know so far, they weren't part of the NSA's warrantless wiretapping. (That alone was my sole reason for the big "fuck you" to AT&T.)
posted by CommonSense at 8:05 PM on June 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Re: Voicemail. Pretty much what Zozo said. If you miss a call, the next time you "awaken" the iPhone you'll see a little message "one missed call" (also shows phone number or name of caller if they're in your contacts). It will also say if there's a voicemail. And when you go into the phone functions, there's a little red dot that appears on the "call voicemail" button if there's one or more new voicemails waiting.

apparently T-zones does the same thing for $6 that the data plan does for $20. Somthing to look into.

Yeah, it's odd. T-zones (that's what I have) is supposed to have some ports blocked or something to prevent certain things, but I really haven't encountered much of that at all. I mean - I don't try to watch YouTube videos on the phone if I'm out somewhere and only have the Edge network, I only watch those when I'm somewhere with WiFi. Same with downloading from the App Store - I only do it when I have WiFi connection, just because of the speed needed for those sorts of downloads. I haven't run into anything that seems to be blocked because I only have T-zones. There's a setting for "cellular data network" on the iPhone that I think needs to be tweaked - you have to have the right network server address listed - but after putting that in, I've not had any data issues.

(The main thing I use the data network for is tracking public transit buses here in Chicago, using the "Buster" app. That works just great.)
posted by dnash at 9:25 PM on June 28, 2009

I don't see anything about T-Zones on the site, but I'm definitely going to call them about it.
posted by ignignokt at 7:23 AM on June 29, 2009

OK, T-Mobile said they no longer offer T-Zones, which is a bummer.

So, I'm looking at the cheapest voice plan + 300 text messages + data, which would be $30 + $5 + $10 = $45. Over $50 with taxes, probably. Still that's $25 cheaper than AT&T.

I'm looking into whether or not the iPhone will work on the prepaid T-Mobile Sidekick plan, which is a $1/day for unlimited data and text, but $0.15/min. for voice. For me, I imagine that would end up being about $40/month. The T-Mobile rep said that the Sidekick plan gives you access to an Edge network, but that only Sidekicks will work. Some badly spelling people on the internet say otherwise. I'm going to look more closely at it.

If anyone here's had experience with that plan, please chime in!
posted by ignignokt at 10:21 AM on June 29, 2009

Given that a 16GB iPod Touch runs $300 and a 16GB iPhone 3G is $200, the true subsidy can be estimated at around $150 +/- $50.

How are you determining how much more an iPhone is worth than an iPod Touch?
posted by floam at 5:25 PM on June 29, 2009

The Sidekick plan, as I understand it, does NOT work on unlocked iPhones. This is only anecdotal, though, but I base it on my experience when I tried popping the SIM from my father's T-Mobile Sidekick (which had a proper Sidekick data plan) into my iPhone. Phone worked, of course, but data didn't go anywhere. The Sidekick has all kinds of weird device-specific stuff going on, hence it having its own data plan.

What you'll need is the $20 unlimited data plan. This is device-agnostic (except, I suppose, for the Sidekick) and works just fine on the iPhone. If you have a 3G or 3Gs, I imagine it should work fine with data tethering, too. (There are hacks for switching on tethering all around the Internet.) No tethering on the first-generation, sadly, even with the hack.

Oh, also, I have MMS on my iPhone (albeit with a hack). Even the legit AT&T users don't have that, hack or no hack. I rather like that. ;-)
posted by CommonSense at 6:23 PM on June 30, 2009

Yeah, most sources seem to say that the Sidekick plan just won't work.

I ended up going with the $10 "Unlimited Web for Phones" service.

I have a first-gen, so no tethering, but I look forward to MMS!
posted by ignignokt at 6:45 PM on June 30, 2009

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