cool phones that don't work here
July 18, 2006 10:22 AM   Subscribe

My wife and I are hosting some Korean exchange / homestay students while they study English here. One of the students has a really amazing cell phone - well actually all their phones are pretty slick. Super high res screens, high resolution cameras, slide out keyboards, better battery life, color phasing led-backlit keys, etc. I realize these don't work here because of "something to do with networks," but can anyone tell me WHY? and can these devices be altered to work here? And besides things like Treos and sidekicks and stuff like that, are there cool and relatively inexpensive phones available here? Is there a all-mobile-device weblog like Gizmodo or something that lists them?
posted by luriete to Technology (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I'll leave your first questions to more tech-savvy respondents, but in response to your last one, you might enjoy reading Phonescoop, Mobiledia or Engadget Mobile.

Also: if the phones don't work here, why do the students bother to bring them?
posted by box at 10:39 AM on July 18, 2006

I don't know about these phones specifically, but I do know that the Japanese have tons of great electronics that never make it over here. A lot of it is delicate and fiddly (in addition to being really cool) and I suspect the manufacturers are worried that they'll get too many complaints, broken units, and returns if they make the bespoke stuff available to us ham-fisted Americans.
posted by spacewrench at 10:43 AM on July 18, 2006

Response by poster: They do work here, but only to receive calls from Korea. They can't use them locally, apparently - it's weird. They all bought cheapo $20 verizon phones for local use. They also use them to take pictures.
posted by luriete at 10:46 AM on July 18, 2006

it's pretty likely that the phones use GSM technology. (you can look it up by getting the make and model and googling, or hitting Phone Scoop or whatever.) if they support the right GSM bands, and they're not locked to their Korean provider, you may be able to get service for them in the US. the phone needs to support GSM 850 (850MHz) for Cingular/AT&T or GSM 1900 for T-Mobile. (Sprint/Nextel and Verizon use CDMA, which is incompatible with GSM phones.) if the phone doesn't support those bands (there's also GSM 900 and 1800) then it won't work here.

assuming the phone supports either 850 or 1900, you'd just need to go to either Cingular or T-Mobile and get service set up. they give you a SIM card and you put it in the phone and you're ready to go. you could do the to-go thing too, I think. you might also want to check if the phone supports roaming; if it does, and it's turned on, the phone may be able to hop on either Cingular or T-Mo's network and dial normally. they'll still be reachable at their Korean number and there'll be a surcharge for international roaming (so it may be cheaper to just get Cingular or T-Mo).

Asian markets generally always get cool stuff, cell-phone wise, way before we do. check Phonescoop, or (and the forums there, lotsa information in them) to see what everyone else gets. you can usually find the phones for sale in the US - I usually go to eXpansys to price them - but be warned that since you're typically not buying a service contract with the phone, you're going to end up paying retail, and the phone company won't help you if you have a problem with the phone. also, for the most part, everyone else uses GSM so if you've got your heart set on using Verizon or Sprint Nextel (or if you already have service through them) you're outta luck - Cingular and T-Mo are the two big GSM providers in the US.
posted by mrg at 10:48 AM on July 18, 2006

There are also a lot of FTC regulations that are onerus on the manufacturer. There are also a few cool phones in europe that never make it over here. We're in a technological wasteland as far as telecommunications go.
posted by blue_beetle at 10:51 AM on July 18, 2006

the cell phones work on different bands than american ones - i had a wonderful time in beijing trying to explain to people in stores how i wanted one of their fancypants phones that worked on 850 and 1900 instead of just 900. this page is not very correct, but it does a decent job at showing how different countries use different parts of the spectrum.

it's specifically an at-manufacture thing, as far as i know - you can't hack your phone to work on a different frequency. some phones are tri- or quad-band, though, so they'll work both here and abroad, but those aren't the really neat ones.
posted by soma lkzx at 10:51 AM on July 18, 2006

There's a decent chance of getting their phones to work (or acquiring one yourself and making it wokr). You need two things: A phone complatible with cellular networks in your area, and some luck with a mobile carrier (or a friend who works for one).

Start off by identifying the phone you want (the model number is a good place to start). Look it up online. Find out what networks it supports. There may be multiple versions of the phone for different networks.

Make sure that the phone supports networks in your area (GSM and CDMA are pretty sure bets in the US). Now, ask a techie friend of yours if it will work. (There are multiple versions of these "networks", and a phone compatible with some, may not be complatible with the type in your area.)

Now you'll likely have to "unlock" your phone. Manufacturers and carriers frequently "lock" phones, in order to force them to work *only* on their preferred networks. Unlocking will allow it to work on compatible, but differnt networks. For instance, if I have a Tmobile phone (GSM), I can unlock it, and then use it on the Cingular (GSM) network, if I have a Cingular account and SIM card.

Now, you have to "activate" your phone. If you lucked out and wound up with GSM, this is easy. Just pop your SIM card into the phone and you're done. If the phone is designed for CDMA or TDMA networks, and you've verified (through the internets or a trustworthy techie friend) that it's compatible with the CDMA or TDMA networks in your area, call (don't visit, unless you have a friend there) your cell company and try to get them to activcate it. Usually, companies will refuse to acitvate phones that they don't sell (at first). However, if you press them a bit, speak courteously and flex the truth a bit, sometimes they'll cooperate. Usually, a story that involves only using this phone in the US briefly, before traveling internationally (but still paying your bill) helps.
posted by terpia at 10:52 AM on July 18, 2006

That Engadget Mobile site has a MetaFilter shoutout.
posted by mattbucher at 11:41 AM on July 18, 2006

America uses CDMA, the rest of the world uses GSM. Therefore the phone companies make much cooler GSM phones.

They haven't bought GSM cards for the US, but if they did and their phones were unlocked, you could probably use their cooler phones.
posted by k8t at 11:48 AM on July 18, 2006

The more I use the crappy clamshell phone I got from Verizon the more I miss the E375 I was using in China...
posted by BobbyDigital at 12:14 PM on July 18, 2006

America uses CDMA, the rest of the world uses GSM

That's not true at all, as has already been mentioned. AT&T/Cingular and T-Mobile both provide GSM service in the USA, along with a number of smaller operators. Here's a list.
posted by xil at 12:20 PM on July 18, 2006

Korean Phones are next-Gen CDMA.

Actually Japan and Korea are the only two places in the world I've been where my American Tri-Band GSM phone/ Blackberry didn't work.

When the US upgraded its network it mostly switched to GSM. I think Sprint is the only major service left that is CDMA. And parts of Verizon.

That's why Sprint has some of the relatively cooler LG and Samsung handset.
posted by JPD at 1:29 PM on July 18, 2006

Depending on the carrier, Korean CDMA phones work either on the 800 MHz frequency or the 1700 MHz frequency, although 2100 MHz W-CDMA phones are becoming more prevalent in Korea. So it might be possible for a Korean CDMA phone using the 800 MHz frequency to be used in the U.S. on Verizon Wireless.
posted by gyc at 1:55 PM on July 18, 2006

terpia is correct carriers can and will lock down specific phones for their network. I knew someone who worked for Telecom New Zealand (CDMA network), he once bought a phone that only worked with a competing network (Vodafone - GSM). He was able to allow grant his phone access to the Telecom network, thus keep his original number.
Or at least that's what he told us he had done
posted by X-00 at 3:46 PM on July 18, 2006

I live in Seoul and am always super bummed that I can't just get roaming on my super hi tech camcorder/mp3/fmradio/dictionary/subwaymap/housekeeping/handjob-phone when I travel to the US.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 8:16 PM on July 18, 2006 [1 favorite]

Actually, there are several operators offering Korean phones modified to work in the US, and targeted at different segments of American youth. In particular, check out Helio, which has two (rather expensive, but cool-looking) phones along with a bunch of plans. The phenomenon was covered in a good Wired article earlier this year.
posted by gentle at 9:35 PM on July 18, 2006

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