S105: Unlocked!

One of the longest on going issues that people seem to e-mail me about is my experiences with the Samsung S105. Samsung, like most cellular handset manufacturers, offer most of their individual phone models in a number of different “flavors” – flavours, actually since the European arena is far more advanced in mobile services than we are – so they can offer their products to as many people as possible. Wait, wait, before I get into this, let me give you a crash course in cellular technology, as of this moment, world-wide.

In the US, we have about a dozen or more cellular carriers – carriers being people that offer cellular airtime and services. Each of these carriers in the US offer different types of networks that allow people like you and me make our phone calls. Simply put, the phones that are made to work on a certain network will not work on other types of networks – in most cases, anyway… in the next two or three months you’ll see phones that are capable of spanning different network technologies, but we’ll ignore that for right now. So for example, my S105 is a GSM/1900 band phone. That means it will operate on the T-Mobile or the AT&T Wireless network. It will not work on Verizon (they use CDMA) or Cingular (they use a combination of TDMA and GSM/850). Nor will it work on Nextel‘s network (iDEN) or Sprint (CDMA). Think back to the days of BetaMax and VHS; you need the right side peg to fit the right size hole, if you want everything to work.

Having said the above, when you look globally, things are a little bit simpler. All over the world you will find CDMA networks and GSM900/1800 networks. Our phones from the states may work on these other networks but usually won’t; even though the letters are the same, CDMA and GSM overseas do not operate at the same frequencies that our networks do. To use your US phone over there, you need to have a “world phone” that can change frequencies (or bands as it’s also called.)

Now that we’re all on the same page – a well scribbled, torn and tattered page – you can see the challenge that faces most handset makers. We, the mass populous, don’t really care about the networks or the bands – we buy a phone from Verizon, it works on Verizon, and we usually keep it until our minimum contract is up and we look for another nearly free phone to buy from another carrier, to start the cycle all over again. The carriers don’t much care either; they have as selective list of the phones that they want to offer and they sell them. It’s the handset manufacturers that have the hardest time, trying to keep up with the technologies and offer products that end users and carriers will want. They usually design one basic model and then have a number of versions for all of the different markets they want to push it into; it just makes better business sense.

For example, consider my S105. It’s a world phone that runs on GSM/1900 here in the states; it’s got options to run overseas on the GSM/900 and GSM/1800 networks. The S105 is made exclusively for T-Mobile; no other carrier in the world offers this exact phone, but they do have other phones that are extremely similar. There’s two other “sister” models to the S105, the S100 for Europe and the S108 for Asia. All three phones are mostly identical in features – they might have different software installed, since there are language support issues in the other nations – and all three phones can run in all three GSM modes. The subtle difference is that the S108 supports the Asian languages and is unlocked – the S100 supports European languages and is unlocked. The S105 supports European languages and is locked. So in all cases, there’s just minor differences in the software on the phone itself that makes the hardware act differently; we’ll get into this locked issue in a few lines. The S105 also has some close cousins for the other networks; I believe it’s the A300 model that the CDMA networks carry, that mirrors the S105 phone. One of the Sprint and Verizon models looks and acts like my S105 anyway; Samsung made some minor modifications to run on the CDMA network and reused the design; this is a great thing because people can get used to a design and stick with it if they change carriers! A great example of this is the Motorola T720 – it’s available in the same design for CDMA and GSM on Verizon (with BREW), AT&T (with J2ME), and T-Mobile (with J2ME). I also believe that Orange in Europe and Hong Kong have started to promote it heavily. The same looking and acting phone is everywhere in the world.

Anyway, the whole point to this was the newest findings on the S105, which is a locked phone. The S100 and the S108 don’t have this problem, but US based carriers are pretty idiotic at times. The S105 is a GSM phone. That means that there’s a little SIM chip that gets put into the phone when you buy it. The SIM chip has your phone number, your contacts and some other information about you; when you put that SIM into another phone, your phone number and contacts goes with you! This makes it easy to switch phones or stay with an existing carrier and upgrade. This technology is years old but Nextel, AT&T, and Cingular are just starting to use it – T-Mobile has used it for years. The irony of it all is that the carriers do a number of things to prevent us from doing this swapping! If you buy a T-Mobile supplied phone, and try to put an AT&T SIM into it, the phone will tell you “Wrong SIM” or something to let you know that the phone won’t use a non-T-Mobile SIM. AT&T and Cingular do the same thing; Nextel, being on another network, doesn’t have to worry about this. So when these carriers order new phones from Samsung, they tell them to “lock” out all the other SIM’s from being used; this is why the S105 is the S105… it would be an S100 otherwise, but T-Mobile had them lock it up.

Because a number of these phones work overseas, and it’s cheaper to get a pre-paid SIM account in the country you’re traveling to, T-Mobile does help you in ways that Cingular and AT&T do not. I unlocked my S105 a month ago and that is find for phone calls, but the WAP browser and J2ME MIDLets still wouldn’t work – even though you could put in a SIM and use another carrier’s GSM network, the Internet related features were still hard coded to point to T-Mobile. Since I wouldn’t be using the T-Mobile network, I wouldn’t be able to use the wireless Internet features. That is until now.

Over at HowardForums, a rather tenacious engineer “read” the phones software in a hex editor and discovered a “hidden” menu. If you take your S105 and type in *#VSWAP# you will see the wireless Internet profiles that the phone is using. From this menu you can select between GPRS (the data network) or GSM (the voice network) for getting out to the ‘net – you can even set up connections to different carriers, if you’re using another SIM. This essentially unlocks the S105 and frees you to use other carriers, if you choose to.

Of course for me this is completely anti-climatic; at my house I have access to T-Mobile, Cingular and AT&T’s GSM networks, but my T-Mobile account has been fine for months now. I was mostly looking for this when T-Mobile wouldn’t let me download MIDLets and I needed to – since that’s been working lately, I’ve got no reasons to muck around with the settings…

But I still thought I’d share the new information to all that might!

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