Setting Up an Unlocked Phone

For client jobs, we soemtimes buy new phones to help with software testing. Usually, we’ll buy a phone directly from one of the U.S. carriers (AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, or Verizon). But sometimes we need to order an unlocked phone over the internet because the phone isn’t sold by any of the U.S. carriers. (What is an unlocked phone?) A good example why we would need to is pretty much any smartphone that’s popular in Europe, such as the Nokia E65 or N95 (S60 based); or Sony-Ericsson W960i, P1i, or Motorola MOTORIZR Z8 (which are UIQ3 based). Maybe someday American carriers will start selling cool European smartphones here, as well…

When you purchase an unlocked phone, it means that it hasn’t been specially set up to run on any particular carrier’s network. So there are a number of things you need to do with it before you can really use it — whether personally or for testing like we do.

So if you've taken advantage of the growing market for unlocked phones, here’s a helpful checklist of things you should do to prepare your new unlocked cell phone.

Core Adjustments

  • Firmware Update: Before doing anything else, check to see if a newer version of the firmware is available. Phones are often released to the market before they’re quite ready, to be honest. If you bought the phone at a store or kiosk, see if they’ll do it for you (free or for a modest fee). Some manufacturers offer free software for your computer so you can update the firmware from the comfort of your home or office. (Nokia and Sony-Ericsson make it particularly easy to update the firmware!)
  • Language: Often, turning the phone on for the first time shows you a language selection option. So choose wisely here! You can change it later if you need to in the device settings.
  • Update the time and date. This will be in the phone’s Settings. Make sure you put your time and date display formats into your preferred style (e.g., 24 hour military time or 12 hour time; MM/DD/YYYY or DD/MM/YYYY).
    • Little known fact: Most downloaded software requires the accurate date and time to install or work properly.
  • Update the time zone. Also in the phone’s settings. Tip: Updating the time zone often also updates your number formats, like currency mark, decimal and thousands separators, etc. After updating the time zone, check these, just in case they need adjustment too.
  • Adjust the Backlight: I like to make the backlight as bright as possible, and to make the backlight timeout as long as possible. Note that your battery drain rate will take a huge hit by adjusting these settings!
  • Flight Mode: For UIQ devices, I go into the Flight Mode setting and turn off the “prompt me at startup for flight mode”. How annoying…
  • Idle Screen Shortcuts: For some phones, like S60 and UIQ, you can customize which programs have short cuts on the Idle Screen (a.k.a., “the screen that you first see when turning on the phone”). I like to make sure that the Contacts and Web are easy to get to. Other favorite shortcuts are the Messaging application, alarm clock, Music and Video players, and notepad.

Internet Access

If your mobile subscription has a data plan, then you’ll want to make sure that the data settings are set up properly. Skip this section if you don’t have a data plan.

  • Internet Access Points (APN): When you buy a phone direct from a carrier, it will already be programmed with APNs for that carrier. But if you buy it unlocked, you’ll need to set those up yourself. The ease of doing this varies greatly by the type of phone you have. Note that if you need to manually enter settings, they can be case-sensitive. And triple check your spelling!
    • Nokia S60 and S40 phones: Go to the web site, choose your region, then choose Get Support and Software, then Setup, then Get Settings. Choose the Standard Settings option to start. (Shortcut for users in the U.S.)
    • Sony-Ericsson Java Phones and UIQ Phones: Go to the Sony-Ericsson web site, choose your region, then Support, then Mobile Internet (WAP). (Shortcut for users in the U.S.)
    • Motorola Phones: You have to enter the settings manually. After registering at Motorola’s web site, you are supposed to be able to get more information (but I’m not sure where on the site exactly…).
      • Tip: If you own one of Motorola’s UIQ3 devices, like the MOTORIZER Z8 or Z10, then you’re lucky! Go to the Sony-Ericsson web site and pretend that your device is a P1i. Enter all of the other information, like your telephone number, accurately. Your phone will know how to use the special settings it receives.
    • Palm Treo: You have to enter the settings manually. Here’s a good guide for Palm Treo owners.
    • BlackBerry Phones: Things are complicated for you. The easiest thing (though annoying) is to call your carrier, tell them that you just bought a new unlocked phone, and ask them to send you the “service books” for Internet service. RIM has some info on their web site.
    • Any Other Phone: You need to enter it manually. Ross Barkman has a good guide to data settings on phones. If you live in the United Kingdom, there’s also a good UK-specific guide for data settings.
  • Web Test: After setting up the APN on your new phone, you’ll want to test it and make sure it works. I like to go to a well known web site. Probably the best idea is to go to because they know how to detect your device and show you a version of the web page that has been properly formatted for your device. If the web page doesn’t display correctly, double check the settings.


Now, we need to add our contacts. This is a tedious process at best, impossible at worst. Literally! Your new phone should have come with PC connect software on a CD in the packaging. Hopefully, your old phone had come with PC connect software and you were already syncing your contacts to your PC from time to time. If so, do one more sync before setting the old phone aside. If not, then what options do you have if the manufacturer doesn’t offer sync software?

  • Transfer at the Phone Kiosk: Stop by a store or kiosk for your carrier and see if they’ll be able to transfer your contacts over for you. If you’re lucky, they’ll say yes. If you’re even luckier, they’ll do it for free.
  • SyncML: Check to see if your phone supports SyncML, a technology that can sync several kinds of data (including calendar and SMS) to phones. If you own one of the mass market Java phones, it probably doesn’t. You might be able to download software onto your old phone and transfer all of your contacts to your desktop or a web service. Then you can transfer them to your new phone if it supports SyncML.
    • Zyb: I use a fantastic free web-based service called to sync all of my contacts between different phones. They support a large number of phones and have some other cool services.
    • Goosync: If you rely on Google's Gmail and Calendar products, then you might want to give Goosync a try. They offer both free and paid services.

Install Your Favorite Mobile Software

I like to install a few favorite applications on a new phone. Perhaps you have some old favorites, too, such as games, productivity software, RSS feed readers, or what not. There are a ton of cool applications out there now for nearly any phone. Here are three of my favorites.

  • Google Maps: I live in New England — the land of the drunken cow path turned paved road. Google released a version recently which can pinpoint your location to the nearest cell tower with no GPS necessary. (Supported for most phones.) If you have a smartphone (like Nokia S60 devices), then you can connect your phone via Bluetooth to a GPS receiver to see where you really are.
  • Gmail: I like keeping in touch with my Gmail on the go. Their basic Java software is pretty good.

The Fun Factor

Now that all of the important stuff is out of the way, it’s time for a bit of fun. Well, if we’re really going to use the phone purely for testing software, I don’t bother with this part. But if I intend to borrow the phone on weekends, then I like to add a bit of fun to it.

  • First, I like to add some music, videos, and favorite pictures. Almost every phone ships with a music player and photo gallery nowadays. Plus most can play videos.
    • Music Tip: Change the settings on your iTunes or Windows Media Player to rip CDs using MP3, at reasonably good quality (128 kb), and with no DRM protection. Any phone with a music player will at least know how to play MP3s! If you have a smartphone, then you might set iTunes or Windows Media Player to rip into the MPEG4 (.mp4) format instead.
    • Picture Tip: You know how so many digital cameras nowadays snap pics at like 5 megapixels? Yeah — too big for a phone! (And too big for emailing to your family and friends, too!!) So make copies of your favorite pictures, then resize them to a more reasonable size. Set them to a DPI (dots per inch) Resolution of 96, and make sure that the longer of the width or height is no more than about 500 pixels (or 800 pixels for iPhone/iPod Touch users).
    • Video Tip: Video is tough because phone support varies so much. If you have a smartphone, then you’re probably fine, but most Java phones don’t play video so well. I purchased DVD Catalyst to convert my DVDs to file sizes and formats that work well on mobile phones. What’s cool is that the program has a lot of presets for particular devices. One of these days I’ll publish more info on that process…
  • Ringtone: Why pay for a ringtone when it’s so easy to copy a song from your music collection to the phone and set that as the ringtone? Well, I take that back. Many Java phones (like the LG Chocolate and Venus) don’t allow you to set your own tunes as the ringtone. Not cool! This is another reason why I have a bias for smartphones. Nokias and Sony-Ericssons let you easily set any of your songs as the ringtone. That’s cool!
  • Themes: I also like to add a theme or two, if any catch my eye. However, I don’t like paying for themes unless they’re really good. There are a lot of creative people who make decent themes casually and share them for free, so definitely look around.
    • UIQ3 Devices: The UIQ company has commissioned a bunch of really cool themes, which they offer for free on their web site.
    • Nokia S60 Devices: There’s no one really good place to go for S60 themes. Some web sites charge for themes which you can get for free elsewhere. Plus they often inundate you with too much advertising or other nonsense.
    • Free Nokia themes for E61/E62
    • Symbian Themes: This site seems to offer a good selection of free themes without too much annoyance.
  • Wallpaper: And don’t forget to set the wallpaper on the Idle Screen with a picture of your adorable kids/pet/spouse/etc.!