The problem with a Sprint phone is that CDMA is as American as Apple Pie. The lack of SIM slot and GSM frequency bands relegates it to CONUS use only. On top of that my choice of providers is exactly one. If I need a cheap SIM card for pay-as-you-go there is no options for me on Sprint with this phone.
With the issue above I went searching for an unlocked cell phone. My requirements were pretty simple:
- Smartphone capabilities (email, calendar, browser, SSH client, etc.)
- World GSM bands supported
- Wifi hotspot capable
- Support SSH tunnels and VPN connections
- Under 300 dollars
To be honest my first choice was to go with a used iPhone 3GS, but the more research I did the worse an idea it seemed. While traveling the last thing I want to do is be part of the cat and mouse game that is Apple vs. Hackers. Unlocking an iPhone of that era is not difficult, but why would I purchase something I knew would require serious hacking to make useful?
Android phones seemed like the next obvious choice, but here is the thing. The phones for that price range are cheap and I don’t feel comfortable carrying them. The Evo I know carry is serving as nothing more than an access point for my laptop and iPad. Reason is that in the year 2011, I still cannot get device encryption on my phone. Carry my personal data on that? HELL NO
Lastly I looked at Blackberry/WebOS/Feature Phones. Each had their own issues with either cost or performance. My choices were beginning to look very limited. It was then my geek mind wandered to a day of yore when I was given a demo unit from Nokia. The N900 was a hackers dream, but didn’t fit into my current needs back then. With Nokia basically abandoning the platform it is for all intensive purposes a sinking ship, but one that the hacker community has blueprints for. One of the benefits of this sinking ship is the phones go for well under 300 dollars on eBay and Amazon. So lets take a look at my requirements diff’d against it:
- Smartphone capabilities (email, calendar, browser, SSH client, etc.) – Very capable device that is receiving updates for updated protocols and standards due to the similarity with various freedesktop.org standards
- World GSM bands supported – Isn’t going to support 3G with AT&T, but for pre-paid SIM stateside your best bet is Tmobile anyways
- Wifi hotspot capable – You can use the pretty GUI from JoikuSpot or drop to a terminal on the phone and setup one the same way you would on a Linux desktop
- Support SSH tunnels and VPN connections – Supports it better than any other platform to date. Full kernel access ensures that the complexities of building TUN/TAP adapters on iOS/Android are not applicable
- Encryption – The encryption at this point is not “Whole Disk,” but it is standards supported. Truecrypt and CryptSetup work great. Since it is just Linux you can symbolic link your way into an encrypted Home Folder.
- Under 300 dollars – Very easy find on Amazon/Ebay/Craigslist
So here I am 2 years after the n900 was released buying one for unlocked usage. My mind is at ease of its continued use due to the awesomeness of the developers and community. With the phone just being Linux underneath it is very easy to keep it living beyond the life of support from Nokia. There are multiple efforts afoot to keep the code-base current such as Maemo Community CSU and Meego ARM n900 Port. I will write up some howto to bring the phone as close to 2011 standards as possible in the coming weeks. Just call me Captain of the Sinking Ship
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- Nick Schmidt lives passionately in the digital world advising and advancing technology everywhere he goes. He has served in the US Air Force, been a self-employed consultant, a senior manager and chief engineer at Boeing, and now co-founding and running Spec Ops Technology. Decorated in his military and professional career you can find his work in the nations networks and across the web.