Tuesday, June 17, 2008
A few months back, there was a flurry of interest in a widely circulated e-mail that suggested a half-dozen unusual tricks for cell phones, offering, for example, a universal emergency phone number (non-working, as it turned out) and an utterly bogus technique for unlocking your car door by having someone phone you the unlock code from a spare remote keyless entry unit. (Silly, you can't send a radio code over a voice line).
Still, there are some genuine tricks with cell phones, which for some reason continue to be among the best-kept secrets in technology.
— You can buy a bigger battery and talk two or three times as long without recharging. In terms of longevity, phone batteries are rated in millamp hours (mAh or mh), the typical battery being around 500 mAh. However, most manufacturers offer more powerful replacements, and you can also by non-OEM batteries from Internet outfits like factory directcellular.com For example, a 1400 mAh battery for a Motorola Razr costs a mere $27 if you shop around on the Interet, almost tripling the life of the original unit. With my original battery plus a new oversized one, I can get almost a week of talk time between charges.
About the only downside is that oversized batteries ugly up sleek phones. Most are thicker than normal and require a replacement battery cover that bulges out from the back of your phone. Still, do you want a live phone or a dead fashion statement?
— You can back up your phone numbers and texting addresses to the Internet or to your PC. And you can enter new numbers from a real keyboard.
I'm still surprised at how many people don't understand how and why this all works, and think they need some fancy PDA and data plan. Even cheap phones can store hundreds of phone numbers. Most folks never use this capacity because 1) it is a pain in the neck to enter data and 2) it is a pain in the neck to lose all your work if you change phones.
I pay Verizon $3 a month to back up my phone data every day to its Web site. I can log into my account there and edit the contents of my phone, add new numbers, then download the data to the phone. If I switch to a new phone within Verizon, I can clone my numbers to it. I also have a copy of Susteen's Data Pilot software and cables ($70 to $80), which lets me plug the phone into my PC and edit and download phone numbers, calendar info, ring tones and other goodies directly to any other phone, including my wife's or, and if I switch providers, to any new phone I get.
— You can switch phones online. It wasn't too long ago that you had to pay a hefty fee and talk to service personnel to disable a damaged phone and install a new one, the presumption being that in all but the rarest cases, you'd be buying a phone from the same company that sells the service. Providers have bowed to reality and allow you to install compatible equipment you bought elsewhere. Register for your provider's Web site. After that, you just punch in the unique alphanumeric code of the new phone (generally found under the battery), and it switches your number over. You may have to download some program updates, but that's about it. So it is quite feasible to own a backup phone, quickly activate it when the old one fails and download your old phone directory in minutes.
Where to get a backup phone? Next time you upgrade, keep your old phone; it will work just fine in a pinch. You can also find replacements online. Discontinued models can be quite cheap _ I just picked up a brand new but identical replacement for my ancient Motorola from Verizon for $50.
— You can use your cell phone as a broadband modem for connecting your laptop or desktop machine to the Internet. As with switching phones, this is getting easier. It used to be expensive, since providers wanted to sell dedicated data plans for $50 or more a month — in addition to your regular phone bill. You can get this today for as little as $15 per month, though it could be bundled with other services you may not need, and you'll face restriction on volume. Or you may be able to connect for just the cost of the call.
There are a lot of variations here, so you'll need to do some research to find the best method and deal. For example, some phones will connect wirelessly to a PC via Bluetooth; others will require a data cable like the one you use to download phone numbers. Service can be as slow as an old phone modem (14.4 kilobits per second, sometimes free) or broadbands speeds of up to 1.4 megabits. And some don't work at all. If your cell company doesn't officially support your brand of phone for data services, you can sometimes find workarounds on the Internet. The best, most up-to-date source for this is Howardforums.com.
— Finally, an obvious one that I've been using for years: Any cell phone will throw a little bit of light. But set your wallpaper background to plain white, and you have a nice little long-life flashlight that's always with you.
(Lou Dolinar writes a technology column for Newsday and hosts Lou's Day, "designed to help normal people unsnarl their computers," at www.dolinar.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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