Cellular Wars

Prepare yourself for a long winded, poorly written account of trying to find a 'good' American cellphone...

Prior to Japan, i really didn't care that much about Cell phone technology. In fact, i had been resisting it for some time because i'm stubborn or something. Over the summer, i borrowed a cell phone and used it quite a bit. So much so, that i really couldn't even remember why i was putting off the whole cell phone thing. Who really uses land lines these days anyways?

In Japan, i quickly learned that owning a cell phone is the only way to keep in contact with all your friends. A Cellphone in Japan is like Instant Messager in America. Hmm... the more i think about it, that comparison is pretty solid. I'll write up that discussion some day.

Anyways, i like chatting with my friends no matter where i am with a very portable device, SO now that i'm back in America, i'm looking for a cellphone that can do all the fun things a Japanese Cellphone can do.

My primary wants for a cellphone are: Email, Internet, Compactness, and Japanese Language Support. By Japanese Language Support, i mean the capibilities of reading and writing Japanese text with the phone. Then i could read Japanese RSS feeds, but more importantly, send and receive emails from my pals in Nippon. One of my secondary wants is to have the phone actually work in Japan, as well.
I figured these objectives wouldn't be to difficult to complete. I'm sure some cellphones would have Japanese language support and still look like a phone. This'll be easy... ha ha ha.

Incorrect. I went to Best Buy a few days after i moved to Madison, and jesus... I didn't think the selection would be this bad. Japan has fricken department stores full of hundreds of different cellphones to choose from in 3 or 4 separate colors. Best Buy had 3 to 5 different cellphones for the 3 big providers: Sprint, Cingular and Verizon. There's some culture shock for you. The Best Buy cellular section looked like a rundown bargain basement going out of business sale compared to something you'd see in Japan.

American cellphones look so retro. The design was built around the chip-set and innards, rather than designing a neat a cellphone and then figuring out how to fit everything into it. It's like comparing the DS Fat to the DS Lite. The DS Fat is horribly ugly and HUGE.

Anyways.. everyone seemed to like the Motorola RAZR, so i thought this would work out pretty good for me. After seeing one in front of me, i was pretty turned off. I didn't realize it was that wide, plus the key pad didn't really appeal to me.

No cellphone really jumped out at me at all, so i began attacking the situation from a different view point: "What provider should i go with?" After talking with the Best Buy guy, it seemed that i really had two options to choose from: either Cingular or Verizon. He showed me the phones they had for both providers and none of them had Japanese Language Support. He suggested that i go with Cingular since their network is designed in such a way that it might be possible to use one of their phones in Japan. Well, that sounded like a good path to follow up on. "Where might i find a Cingular merchant, kind sir?" "down the road near Wendy's" "i know where that is!"

The Cingular store wasn't half bad. Minus the selection, it's pretty similar to a Soft Bank, AU, or Docomo store in Japan. Though, Japan cellular phone retailers have a bunch of brochures advertising their fall-line up of phones, and even some brochures for individual phones too. I think that can be boiled into selection.

I'm greeted by a Cingular phone rep. to which i explain my cellular wants and desires. For Japanese Language Support, he said the only phones available with such capabilities were PDA style phones. Phones that are somewhat expensive, somewhat larger than i'd like, and do far more than what i need. Such a thing really didn't appeal to me, especially since all the PDA style phones looked really ugly.. like Calculator ugly. Nothing stood out as totally awesome.. However; he indicated that any language pack could be installed on here since it runs an OS, thus solving my language problem.

So... at this point, it seemed that if i were to accomplish my primary objective of Japanese Language Support, i need a PDA phone which basically runs a tiny version of Windows.

I decided to leave with the expectation of looking on the Cingular website for stuff, and further my investigation of Japanese language oriented phones in America. The next day, i went over to the Verizon store to see if anything stuck out as really neat or amazing. One phone did kind of catch my eye. I think it was this phone. It was really shiny, somewhat compact, and fit into my pocket. Unfortunately, it only had limited web capabilities, and NO Gmail services, aside from having no Japanese Language Support. I put it on the 'think about it' pile in my head as i left the store. All of their PDA phones were just as hideous as Cingular's, so i left the store with the same expectation as before..

I searched around on Google and came across the iPhone, which is quite beautiful. Runs an OS, does a bunch of crazy stuff. It went immediately to the top of my list, since it accomplished everyone of my goals, except connectivity in Japan. (of course, no other cell phone i found thus far had connectivity) Perhaps i'll hop aboard the hype-wagon for this piece of equipment, i thought. I'll be the coolest kid at school, plus be able to chat with my Japanese friends.

Next, I went on Cingular's website, which had the iPhone right out front, and searched for some contact email to inquire about Japanese capabilities and all that jazz. When looking for the email, i found the Cingular Support Forums, which had categories ranging from Customer Support to Phone Details to International Capabilities. I took a look at the International section and found a couple thread of people trying to use their phones in Japan. Hot Dog, this is what i was looking for. The thread indicated that Cingular's 8525 PDA phone was the only Cingular phone that actually worked in Japan.

This is because the 8525 uses Tri-UMTS and Quad-band GSM/GPRS/EDGE frequencies to connect to as many networks around the Globe as possible. America mainly uses GSM, where Japan uses UMTS. Such networks are completely incompatible with each other, therefore you need a phone that can do both if you want to have your phone work in both places.

I must've glossed over this phone before because it really wasn't all that hideous compared to other PDA phones. It stored the keyboard in a sliding manor for compactness and comfortability. The screen was the larger than all the other PDA phones at Cingular and Verizon. It's certainly no iPhone, but, if it works in Japan, then that's something the iPhone can't do. It does pretty much everything else the iPhone does, but doesn't look as cool. Eh... i think i'll stay on the iPhone hype-wagon.

The iPhone is Cingular exclusive (for now), but didn't come out until June. "Maybe i'll just get some crappy phone now, and then switch over to the iPhone upon its release," i thought. Matt and I had a couple of iPhone hype moments over the weekend ^_^. Though, Gage clued me into some other opinions when i mentioned my cellphone plans. "You might want to look into things a little more.. Some cellphone forums have been dissin' the iPhone left and right saying it has the same capabilities of current phones and it is far over priced for what it's worth." hmmm.. i should probably look into the full details if there are indeed current phones with similar technologies.

I continued looking into the 8525, but ran into several dead ends online. I figured that it was time to see this thing in person. After work on Monday, i visited the Cingular store again for the pure purposes of doing such things.

After seeing it in person, it really didn't turn me off as much as the other PDA phones had before. It was actually smaller than i thought it was.. About the same size as my crappy Nokia phone i'm borrowing at the moment, except a little wider. The 8525 is also smaller than the iPhone as well. The screen is larger than all their other PDA phones, not as large as the iPhone screen, though. It can synch up with Outlook on my PC to keep all my contact information current. It has Microsoft Office on the phone, so i could write up a term paper... if i had to? It utilizes WiFi, so when i'm near a wireless network, I can use that to connect to the internet rather than a cellphone tower. You can also write messages using the touch pad rather than the keyboard, and the 8525 will conform to your writing style. I also asked the guy about battery life, and he said that if i charge it every night, it'll work out just fine. Pretty much all this stuff is what the iPhone can do... i think.

I was pretty impressed with the little thing. It's like a little laptop. With a 2 year plan, the phone itself costs $400 and to utilize the Internet and all that jazz it would be $80 a month. $40 for phone, $40 for internet, and then an extra $36 activation fee. Yeesh.. that's a bit expensive, but... i can afford it. The low-end iPhone costs $500 with a 2 year plan, so with the 8525 i'm saving a little bit of money..

I inquired about my cheeky plan of starting a plan with a crappy phone, and getting the iPhone upon its release. "well, if you want to change phones in the middle of your service then you must pay the full cost of the phone w/o rebates or deals or anything. That'll be like $700 or $800, then." Eckk.. Well i don't plan on doing that anymore...

But next i asked the real question.. Can it actually work in Japan?

After consulting his friend, they came back with a 'no'. "o rly? this contradicts previous evidence." We went on over to the computer and researched it a little bit. I showed him the thread i found on the Cingular forums stated that it was possible.. Though, his employee friend stated that he has a customer who actually tried it and did not have success. The technical problem was that even though the 8525 utilizes UMTS, the bandwidth isn't high enough to match the 2100hz UMTS network of Japan.. or something like that. But.. being a nice guy, the clerk replied, "well... lemme look into this a little more. I'll make some calls and send some emails to people and get a definite answer for you." "okey dokey.. that sounds pretty good, mate"


So that is where i stand at this very moment. This 8525 is smaller, does pretty much the same stuff, is cheaper (just a little), is available and might actually work in Japan. The iPhone is prettier, does the same stuff neater, and has larger memory capacities. I think the big thing is that i'm looking for a cellphone now.. not six months from now. I don't really plan on using my phone as an mp3 player, either. (and) i GUESS i could forgo the flashy stuff to have something that looks really buttoned down and business like.

If the 8525 actually does work in Japan, well holy shit... sign me up. If it doesn't work, i think i'll probably still go with it anyways. Even if it doesn't work with the Japanese UMTS network, the Wifi connection should still get me onto the Internet.

I'll probably be back at the Cingular store on Thursday to pick it up unless i come across any major complaints about it.. I'll certainly need to double check the whole Japanese Language Support functionality with Windows Mobile.

sigh... So much work for something that seems so simple.