Unlocking the iPhone 3GS - Overseas

The iPhone 3GS has the potential to be the traveler's best friend: it has a great camera, now a very good video camera, a good sound recorder, and lots of handy travel apps. And it even has a GPS and a compass!

But travel requires that the iPhone be offline quite a lot more often than when used as a daily device. The reasons are several. Countries don't have data networks, let alone 3G data networks. They may not even have ubiquitous wifi, let alone ubiquitous, free wifi which is the norm in the LA area at least. Even ordinary internet access may be restricted or expensive.

I learned all of these lessons the hard way. Newly arrived in Aukland, New Zealand I had some time to kill before the next leg of my journey and sought out a coffee shop and a quiet corner to take care of some iPhone unlocking. Frankly, I had never considered doing this before my big trip, as I'd been pretty satisfied with the default service of both AT&T and the Apple Store applications. But, I wanted to be able to use my phone as a phone here, so I set about learning about the process.

This took much longer to understand than I expected; it appears that this is still a very fringe activity for a very mainstream device. The best resource for hacking the iPhone 3GS was on iphonehacks.com. This has a lot of detailed instructions and good links (although I may have had to find a different link for the ipsw file IIRC). In addition, one of the steps ended up costing me about NZ$25 in coffee. :) Here are the steps, in brief:
  1. Jailbreak the device. This allows you to install non-Apple approved applications on the phone.
  2. Unlock the device. This allows you to use non-AT&T carriers.
  3. Install the new SIM card.
  4. Enjoy and send metta to the clever programmers who made this possible. And send metta to apple for making a nice device.
redsnow is the name of the program that jailbreaks your device. For most people this is a minor inconvenience. ultrasnow is the name of the unlock program, which itself is an unauthorized application. Cydia is another unauthorized application that is used to install ultrasnow. The wrinkle with the iPhone 3GS is that Apple made some change to OS 3.1 which makes it harder to jailbreak, so you have to downgrade to OS 3.0, then do the jailbreak. An extra step, but no biggie. [If someone had written just that paragraph I would have been saved a lot of furrowed-brow time. I hope someone finds that useful.]

One step seemed simple enough: to restore 3.0, just download a file from Apple. And so I started. When the download just stopped, I was a bit taken aback. But then I realized, ah, they meter the internet here! This file was 300MB and the coffee shop had a 50MB limit on internet usage (using these neat little paper cards with codes you had to type). Problem solved few lattes later (the guy was kind enough to give me two cards per coffee) I had the file. But by then I had to leave, and didn't want to mess something up by rushing.

At my final destination I set about completing the jailbreak. Dutifully following instructions, I did it! Now, time to unlock. Ah, but here is the wrinkle: Cydia requires the internet to download ultrasnow, and there was no wifi here! And of course, no data network. Without data my iPhone had turned into a fancy digital camera, able to sync to my computer only.

I still haven't completed the unlock because of the lack of wifi. Yes, there may be a way to download the package and install it manually. And if worse comes to worst I'll do that.

The moral of the story is: jailbreak and unlock your iPhone before leaving on your trip! Then you can easily pick of a pre-paid SIM card, pop it in and be happy. I'm not sure I would actually do this, but there have been several times a wifi router would have really come in handy for both my iPhone and my computer.

As a postscript I'd say that the iPhone has one standout feature for basic travelling: the video camera. Not only is it very good quality, it is neatly compressed and ready to upload. The videos on my compact are HUGE for their size. The iPhone 3GS is a big let-down, however, when it comes to battery life, and nothing sucks down the iPhone's battery like video. It is best used in short spurts (like flickr's "long photos"). And when you're overseas this actually means you will bring: a charger, a wall adapter, and a cable. I'm super glad I got the battery extender from Mophie before I left. $80 well spent.

The iPhone is also a big let-down for almost every other travel application. The voice recorder is excellent for journaling, but doesn't geocode and clips are hard to share (use Evernote instead). You can read books and watch movies on the thing, but that's not too common for me. There is no really good way for someone to give you their contact details, or to jot down a bunch of tips someone is giving you. It's good for keeping lots of contact information around, but only if the battery didn't die. It is, of course, a very good MP3 player. :)

The underlying reason for this lack, I think, is that most iPhone apps just aren't designed for feature-rich, extended, offline, and unplugged operation. They are designed for commuters who have 3G or Wifi all the time and keep it plugged into the computer they are working on most of the time.

Phones are easy to borrow. Computers are even easy to borrow. If I had the choice between having:
  • handy small atlas, a cheap pad of paper, and a pen
  • iPhone 3GS
And I was on the road, I would choose the former. Now that I think about it, it's pretty easy to borrow a pen, too.


kanna84 said...

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unlock iphone 2g said...

I read everything, but still i’ll ask what i can do with iphone 3G 3.0 (i don’t know the history of this phone) after i restore it and giving me error 1015, then i actived and jailbreak it with 8,