Sunday, November 02, 2008

G1: The Saga Continues

When I arrived in London with my brand new G1 phone, bought the day before, I got an unpleasant surprise; it would not connect to any network. On further investigation, I discovered the problem. The salesperson at the T-1 store in San Jose had signed me up for a "Flexpay" account, and such an account does not permit roaming outside of North America. Presumably the salesperson did not know that—at least, I had repeatedly mentioned that I was flying off to London that afternoon with my new phone, and nobody warned me that it wouldn't work there. I ended up buying a prepaid phone in London, so that anyone who really had to reach me could--and emailing everyone who might have to reach me with the new number. Since the G1 isn't yet usable as a word processor without an internet connection, I gave all my talks off outlines read from my old Nokia 9300.

Which is why I was wandering around Europe with pockets bulging with three different cell phones.

I got home yesterday, went into the T-mobile store today, and confirmed the information I had gotten over the phone. Apparently, when I bought the phone and signed up for an account, their credit check found that I had an inadequate record of credit—not surprising, since I almost never borrow money, and if you do not borrow you have no record of borrowing and repaying. Without an adequate credit record, the only account they could sell me was Flexpay; presumably they are worried that someone with bad credit might run up large roaming charges and then never pay them off. I offered to provide other evidence of credit worthiness, such as the phone number of my broker at Merrill Lynch, but it became reasonably clear that T-mobile simply had no other way they were set up to use for verifying credit.

That was not the only problem. The G1 needs a data connection both for internet activity and for its GPS, which downloads maps from the net. I had been looking forward to roaming London with a GPS in my pocket. As I described in an earlier post, that was not a practical option. Roaming data costs $15/megabyte and the phone is locked, locked even against T-mobile U.K., so I cannot put in a U.K. sim card for unlimited data at a much more reasonable price. When I bought the phone I was told that I could have it unlocked by T-mobile in three months, but the person I spoke to today seemed uncertain whether they would actually be able to do so.

Another and unrelated problem that arose had to do with battery life. The G1 specs claim a standby time of 130 hours. When I tried, for my own curiosity, timing the battery life in London—WiFi, Bluetooth, and 3G all turned off, and no actual use of the phone since I had no network to connect to--the results were disturbing. The phone went from fully charged to 15% and asking to be plugged in in about twelve hours.

Some web browsing turned up other people with similar problems, and a suggestion--run the phone down to zero, then fully charge it. My guess is that this does not improve the actual charging of the battery, just calibrates the phone to more accurately measure remaining battery life. Whether or not that is correct, at this point the phone appears to have a standby life of about two days. That is less than half what it is supposed to have, but at least minimally adequate for my purposes.

My other problems seem to be gradually solving themselves as more software appears. There is now a text reader (aReader), although it only handles text and seems somewhat buggy. There is a file browser (Android File Manager), although a rather limited one. The HTML browser still cannot, so far as I can tell, either save to the memory card or load off the memory card, and the only word processor is Google Docs,which still requires an internet connection, although that is supposed to change soon.

And there is a new update of the system software that has not yet appeared on my phone, but should do so soon. With luck it will improve battery life and fix a few other problems. Irritated though I am at T-mobile's refusal to let me use my phone in Europe, on the whole I'm glad I bought it.

But things would have been easier if I had waited until I got back.


Anonymous said...

If the phone isn't connected to a network, it uses more batter power as it is continually searching for a network. That's been my experience while camping, anyway.

Anonymous said...

I find it very strange that a middle class adult could have no credit history! You have no mortgage, credit card, car loan, etc? I wouldn't have imagined such a thing is possible!

Roland Dobbins said...

Why buy some cheap knockoff phone, when all you had to do was buy a local UK prepaid SIM card with data access and pop it into your G1?

Uncharacteristically poor reseearch, not understanding the way that unlocked GSM phones work worlwide. If you'd done a bit of reading prior to the trip, things would've been a lot easier (you don't want to roam internationally, as it would cost huge $$$).

Patri Friedman said...

the batterylife on mine is miserable, with wifi& gps off. i ordered an extra battery which is 1500 mah vs 1150 standard.

130 hours standby? 20, maybe.

Joe said...

inadequate record of credit, perhaps? :)

Myslivec in San Diego said...

To Roland Dobbins.

It seems that it's you with the poor research. The locked phone does not work with other SIM cards, wherever they come from. What one could do is just the opposite - buy an unlocked phone (most prepaid phones are, as far as I know) and plug in old SIM card. No need to email phone numbers then.

David Friedman said...

Re lack of credit history:

I have no mortgage--we own our house free and clear. I have had mortgages, but quite a long time ago.

I use debit cards, not credit cards.

I never borrowed money to buy a car.

I don't know if they see me as having literally no credit history, or just not enough for their purposes.

David Friedman said...

Roland asks why I didn't buy a local UK prepaid SIM card with data access and pop it into my G1. Because, as I think I already explained, the G1 is locked to the US T-mobile network, and so far nobody seems to be able to unlock it.

As it happened, my old phone was locked to AT&T. I could have had that one unlocked, and perhaps should--but that would have cost more than the cost of the phone I got (net of the prepaid time). And I didn't have a lot of free time in London to shop around.

I did do research prior to the trip--I already knew that data roaming was too expensive and had already talked with T-mobile U.K. and determined that they couldn't put a working SIM in a T-mobile U.S. G1.

Myslivec's suggestion, however, did not occur to me. I would have been paying roving rates, but for the small number of calls I made that would have been outweighed by the advantage of my own number.

David Friedman said...


Myslivec's solution wouldn't have worked. As I explained in my post, T-mobile wouldn't let me use the account that my SIM was on outside of North America.

montestruc said...

Sounds like an iphone is a lot less hassle, but the keyboard sucks.

On my business trips overseas to China and the middle-east I have been taking my iphone, and a laptop. The iphone works just fine.

Like you I avoid using credit, but I have credit cards, and use them, but pay the balance each month. That way banks keep begging me to get a new one.

But since I do engineering work that requires a moderately heavy horsepower computer, I am not in a position to do what you are trying and go cell phone only.

I think you would be better off with that micro we discussed before.

Jonathan said...

I don't find it strange that you have little credit history. Why borrow if you don't need to?

I have a mortgage because I don't have enough money to buy a house just like that; but I've never used a credit card to borrow money, and never borrowed money to buy a car.

coba said...

I think that what is going on here is that they probably simply did not find your entry in the credit record database. You don't need a very good credit record for a cell phone; you just need to show you do not have a very bad credit record. If they cannot find any record for you whatsoever, they are going to suspect that you have a bad credit record to hide.

Take me. I do not have much of a credit record. I had a credit card, years ago, from my college credit union, and that's all. When I tried to get a cell phone from T-mobile, they said I had no credit; but I convinced them to feed a variety of old addresses and phone numbers into their computer system, and out popped the record of my having incurred a few hundred dollars of debt, paid off within the month, as an undergraduate. Which was enough to qualify me for up to three cell phone subscriptions.

Justin said...


You are not alone in your roaming frustration.

I recently returned from a three week trip to India. I have a Blackberry Curve from Tmobile (and have had it for nearly a year), so I was able to unlock it prior to leaving the States -- exactly as Tmobile promised you. I called; they sent me the unlock codes within 24 hours. It was a hassle-free process.

In India, aided by family members and local friends who could speak the language (AND provide a local ID to set up the account), I ended up trying two different providers (actually using sim cards for both) before successfully getting data to work - and it took about three days to get to that success point. Prepaid data apparently isn't an option in India (even at one third provider, who had announced on the 'net to the contrary) -- I don't know if prepaid data is available in the U.K. I ultimately had to commit to a six month barebones voice plan and then add data to it for the time I was there (Being sure to cancel data before leaving).

Even after succeeding, I ended up roaming within India (no one informed me this would occur mind you) after leaving the state of Gujarat (Northwest) for the state of Karnataka (South), and managed to ramp up exorbitant data roaming charges in only about three days before I hit some predetermined credit limit (about $60 of excess charges) and the phone just stopped working. Of course, I couldn't figure that out or fix the problem until I got *back* to Gujarat. And even then, no one could explain to me or show me billing details to explain how I accrued such huge roaming charges (the equivalent of uploading/downloading a half gigabyte of data in three days on a blackberry using EDGE - basically an impossibility). I finally just paid them off about a week after the phone stopped working (and I was back in Gujarat), hoping for the best as I simply had to have the data.

Overall, this experience was a pretty huge bust even as it partially succeeded in at least getting my blackberry to work for maybe ten days total (and only cost me maybe $150 versus probably $1000 had I roamed internationally directly through Tmobile).

Finally, I additionally was able to use a USB modem via a third provider to get EDGE/CDMA/GPRS connectivity on my Asus EEE. This served as a nice back-up to the blackberry even as it tied me to a, admittedly very portable, laptop.

I relay my experience because I think it illustrates a few things for would-be travelers:

- taking an unlocked phone to a foreign country in hopes of getting a sim card/short-term plan with non-standard add-ons is difficult even having done research in advance of the trip.

- employees at cell phone providers globally know very little about the products they sell/service. You experienced that with the flexpay debacle. Expect to ask the same question in five different ways before the service representative "gets it". Additionally, you almost have to already know the answer before talking to someone in person who can set you up -- as they likely don't already know the answer and you'll have to insist that what you want is something they can provide.

- a stopgap solution may be go the USB modem route. Pros: your laptop doesn't require unlocking. The equipment is local, so its more likely to work/the local cell provider employees are more likely to know about the product. Cons: it takes a sufficiently portable laptop and still hamstrings the user with slow connectivity.

- providers likely bank on most travelers who would need connectivity abroad being businessmen who will just charge the expense to their company

- there is a huge opportunity here for someone (Google?) to step in as middleman and negotiate rates for customers with unlocked phones who travel abroad.

- for most, at this time, the hassle of getting set up abroad with the local provider to avoid roaming charges simply isn't worth the frustration (or money, even as the money is exorbitant).

Final note: when I did have full data connectivity on my blackberry, it was wonderful. Nothing like being able to email employees, check my location via Google maps (triangulation, not GPS), instant message globally, relay live cameraphone photos of elephants or monkeys or ping questions to family back home, accompanied by live photos (Such as, "Hey do you like this item I was thinking about buying for you?").

P.S. Enjoyed "Future Imperfect" on the trip.