How to gratify foreign mobile phone lust

How to get the absolutely coolest phone

Whenever I'm fortunate enough to stroll along the streets of a major European city, I size up the old buildings, the narrow alleys and the gorgeous cell phones people are casually holding. The selection of music phones, smart phones and camera phones can sometimes make me envy the European lifestyle.

However, for Americans, there's really no need envy Europeans (or Asians, for that matter) when it comes to mobile devices. While many of the most interesting and advanced smart phones are not sold by U.S. cellular operators, it still is possible for American users to get them without spending a fortune on an overseas shopping adventure.

In particular, AT&T Cingular and T-Mobile base their networks on Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) technology, which is the same technology used by many operators around the world. Subscribers to GSM networks have a small plastic card, called a Subscriber Identity Module (SIM), inside their phones that allows them to switch devices on the fly. A subscriber can remove the SIM card from an old phone and stick it into a new device and continue their existing service as if nothing had changed, including the phone number.

Bottom line: If there's a cool phone being sold in Europe or Asia that you covet, T-Mobile and AT&T subscribers can buy it and use it in the U.S. Unfortunately, other U.S. carriers use Code Division Multiple Access technology, and their subscribers don't have this luxury.

What are you missing?

To show what U.S. users are missing, let's take a fast look at three stylish and popular products that aren't available in America.

The first has a huge, 3-in. touch screen and operates by pushing and dragging symbols on the screen with fingers. No, it's not the Apple iPhone, but the LG KE850 Prada. The device is already available in Europe, features a 2-megapixel camera, video recorder, MP3 music player and FM radio. This isn't an advanced smart phone as much as it is a beautiful fashion item with camera and music phone capabilities.

Music lovers who don't want to carry both an MP3 player and a phone around should check out the Sony Ericsson Walkman W880i music phone. The device comes with a large 240-by-320-resolution screen, 2-megapixel camera and a Memory Stick Micro slot for storing up to 1GB. The orange Walkman button on the side panel takes you directly to the music player independent of what is going on in the phone.

The HTC 3300 is a powerful Windows Mobile Pocket PC device with GSM, General Packet Radio Service and Enhanced Data for GSM Evolution mobile network support and Wi-Fi connectivity. A stylus is used to operate its 2.4-in. touch screen. Without a doubt, the most attractive feature of the HTC 3300 is its built-in Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver. In addition to using the GPS receiver for navigating and included TomTom maps, the GPS can add an exciting dimension to pictures taken with the 2-megapixel camera. ShoZu, a downloadable application, can geotag photos (mark GPS coordinates) and upload the pictures to a global map in Flickr.

To shop for these devices -- or any other fancy, but hard-to-get phones -- visit an online store such as Mobileplanet or ImportGSM. Both shops offer imported GSM phones to users in the U.S. But before you hit that tempting "Order now" button, there are a few things you must think about.

What to watch out for

The most important thing to know about before buying a phone developed for non-U.S. markets is that mobile networks in other continents transmit signals at slightly different radio frequencies. Older GSM phones used to have a radio for only one or two frequency bands, which meant that they could be used only in a limited geographic area.

Fortunately, wireless technology is still shrinking, and more wireless radios and other features can be squeezed into cell phones. A quad-band phone that supports 850 and 1,900 MHz, which are the frequencies used in the U.S., as well as the 900- and 1,800-Mhz frequencies used in other countries, mean your phone can connect virtually anywhere in the world. Make sure that the phone you desire supports the frequencies used by your carrier.

Another issue is that, although the SIM card used in GSM devices allows easy switching of phones, carriers can lock phones for use only with their own SIM cards. This isn't a problem -- if you make sure the phone you are buying is an unlocked phone. Even if the phone is locked, sometimes your carrier will help open a SIM-locked phone. Or, you can pay for an an online service that provides unlock codes. However, this is definitely an area in which you should do some homework before buying.

It is also worth checking what kind of power adapter is included in the package. As international travelers know, electric systems vary in each country, so you could easily wind up buying a phone that doesn't come with an adapter that works in the U.S. However, online stores do sell local adapters.

When you get a new phone, you may have to say goodbye to carrier-specific applications or services that were installed for use with your old phone. A new device ordered from an import store typically doesn't have any carrier-specific applications or settings. So if you absolutely love an application that came with the phone you bought from the carrier, make sure you can acquire the same application for your new phone.

In addition, getting Internet and e-mail access to work on your imported phone may require some tweaking. Most notably, you'll have to ask your carrier if access will be possible on your new device. That requires a call to the carrier or searching both the carrier's and phone manufacturer's support Web pages.

It's one thing to go to work wearing new eyeglasses, but it's a totally different experience to whip out a brand-new, classy smart phone at the water cooler. You are sure to get a lot of requests for demonstrations, so make sure you know its features inside and out before you start showing off.

For more than 20 years, a consulting and marketing career has taken Ari Hakkarainen across the world in high-tech business. In addition to having authored a book about smart phones, he is the mobile expert at Avec Mobile.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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