If you’re like me, you no sooner get the screen protector bubbles worked out of your shiny new smartphone before you’re eyeing the latest and greatest model, and of course the manufacturers and carriers encourage our gadget lust at every opportunity. That’s probably why I’m sitting here with three different smartphone models on my desk, each having at one time replaced another only to find itself being replaced in my frenzy to stay current with the latest tech chic. Each phone has a story to tell, a story that starts with hope and excitement only to lead to frustration, neglect, and eventual abandonment. But thanks to some late night hacking and the great folks at XDA Developers each now beckons for attention once again.
Samsung Omnia 7 – Windows Phone 7
Okay, I’ll admit I didn’t pay for this phone. I tried to buy it; I saw it while in Paris but couldn’t make up my mind before heading back to the USofA only to find that the phone wasn’t offered by any of the US carriers. I was however lucky enough to have a friend who received the phone as a prize and didn’t want it so he gave it to me. Yes, I am that lucky. For those of you not as lucky as I am, I recommend you check out http://www.Expansys.com. They offer the best mobile phones from all markets, many of which are factory unlocked and can be used here.
The phone is a good piece of hardware, but when I received it I found it was running the French version of Windows Phone 7 pre Mango. I needed to unlock the phone and upgrade to an English language version as my French is “not so bon” and I was looking forward to getting Mango installed to see what WP7 v2 (actually 7.5) could do. I did a little bit of searching via my favorite Search engine (although either one will work) and I consistently saw hits for a site called http://forums.xda-developers.com.
At first glance this site looks like a standard forum site with discussions and threads and users with crazy avatars. But buried in these discussion topics are the keys to getting the most from your smart phone. Each discussion area is intended for a specific phone and references the manufacturer’s original name for the device, for example the EVO 4G is actually the HTC Supersonic. Each phone’s discussions area is then further divided into sections like General Q&A, Accessories, Development, and Themes and Apps. The extensive list of devices is no longer restricted to phones, nor is it restricted to Windows Mobile OS as the XDA name would imply. You can find information on Android phones, Windows 8, tablets, and even the Amazon Kindle or Barnes and Noble Nook.
I must warn you that this site is not for the technically timid. On it you’ll find instructions that say things like “If you make a mistake in steps 5-26 you will brick your phone”. “Bricking” your phone, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, means turning your phone into an expensive, non-functioning desktop paperweight. So I was plenty wary about proceeding but after enough frustration I finally thought “Hey, it’s not like I paid for the phone”.
I’m not going to post the instructions on rooting or unlocking here, but you can start by looking at this post (http://forum.xda-developers.com/showthread.php?t=1335452) to get an idea of how easy, or hard, hacking your phone can be. Enter at your own risk, prices may vary, some assembly required.
After several hours of reading and re-reading the instructions, I can proudly say that I have a fully functional Samsung Omnia 7 running the UK English version of Windows Phone 7 Mango. It works flawlessly on the AT&T network and would be my everyday phone if it weren’t for a slight mismatch between my employer’s email system and ActiveSync in Windows Phone 7.
Which then led me to…
HTC Inspire 4G
The HTC Inspire was my first Android phone and I have to say it’s one of the best pieces of hardware I’ve ever owned, and yes I have owned two iPhones. The outside of the phone is alloy which gives it a nice weighty feel in my hand as well as being able to take a bit of a beating and the screen is also quite large. I really enjoyed it at first as I got to know more about the Android OS and the features that HTC has built into it with its SenseUI interface. That is when I could keep it charged, this thing eats through battery power like, well like a Windows device. And so I found myself frustrated with the abysmal battery life but outside my window to return the phone to the carrier by mere days. Once again, XDA Developers came to the rescue.
Rooting and unlocking the phone in Android is actually much simpler than Windows Phone 7, but it’s still by no means a standard user activity. There is as always ample chance that a mistake will turn your phone into a weighty hunk of junk and to perform much of the hacking you will need to download the Android SDK and Eclipse IDE. Interestingly enough, I learned all about how to do that using John Sonmez’s course “Introduction to Android Development” from Pluralsight. Really, they’re not paying me to say that, it’s true.
Unfortunately, to solve my battery life issue I needed more than just the ability to get Superuser rights and use a different SIM card. That is where I found the “Android Revolution HD” custom rom by forum member Mike1986 (http://forum.xda-developers.com/showthread.php?t=964841). A custom ROM is a combination of kernel level tweaks, overclocked CPU settings, updated components and apps all baked into a friendly installable zip file. After installing this ROM and rebooting, I was able to get double the battery life of what I had before and the phone was faster than ever. Rather than trading the phone in, I ended up keeping it for nearly a year which as you can probably guess was a very long time indeed for me. But all good things come to an end and so now I have…
Samsung Galaxy SII SkyRocket
I will admit that it wasn’t really the phone that drove me to buy this model but its support of the newly rolled out AT&T 4G Lte network. Since I often use my phone as a Wifi hotspot supporting my Asus Transformer tablet (which also runs a HD Revolution ROM) I really wanted to get the blazingly fast speed. And so one upgrade credit and several hundred dollars later I had the SkyRocket.
This is also a very nice phone. It’s a bit slimmer than the Inspire and the back is plastic instead of alloy but overall it’s got a very good feel to it and the screen is amazing! Of course with that amazing screen comes utterly mind boggling battery usage. I quite literally could watch the battery meter move and couldn’t get 10 hours of moderate usage in a day without having to recharge. This time of course, I knew exactly where to turn and so I’m now running a custom ROM named QuickWizthat was put together by a 16 year old Android hacker called xboarder56. Interestingly this Android 2.3.5 ROM uses the new keyboard from Android Ice Cream Sandwich.
One of the other nice features of this forum is that you can make requests for apps that exist on the Android Marketplace but for any number of reasons aren’t available to download directly. I had one such occasion when after buying a new GM car with OnStar, I was told that I could download an app that would let me remote start my car or check my gas from my phone. Yes, I’m a nerd and so I had to have it even though it wasn’t available on my HTC Inspire. Fortunately I found the APK file on the forums, and was able to install it very easily. It worked right away and without a hitch although other apps I have tried since do sometimes have issues.
So what’s the moral of this story? Well besides the clearly obvious statement that I have probably voided a few warranties, it’s also that you do not have to accept the frustrations of stock software nor the limitations that the carriers put on your phones. Out there in the night, superhero nerds like Mike1986 and xboarder56 are pushing the boundaries of the smartphone ecosystems to make sure that we get to enjoy our expensive gadgets as long as possible. But then again, that Samsung Galaxy Note I saw at CES looked pretty sweet…