Sunday, 7 October 2012

The Amazing Race 21, Episode 2

Shanghai (China) - Surabaya (Indonesia)

Smartphones for international travel: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

2022 update: Part 1 | Part 2

Choosing and buying a smartphone for international travel

[Left: Nokia C7 (T-Mobile USA “Astound”). Right: Nokia 5230 (T-Mobile USA “Nuron”). Putting your own photo on your home screen, as I’ve done on the Nuron at right above, may seem like narcissism. But it makes it much more likely that your phone will be quickly returned to you if you forget it.]

Last week I wrote about the general issues that influence the choice of a smartphone for international travel. Unfortunately, that probably left many of you even more confused than before. This week, I’ll try to answer the most frequently asked questions on this topic:

“If I’m not going to take my current cellphone with me — because it won’t work abroad or it’s too expensive to risk having lost or stolen — what’s the best smartphone to buy for world travel? Why? And where’s the best place to find one?”

Since readers often ask, here’s what works for me. If something different works better for you, please say what, and why, in the comments.

Offline maps: The killer app for travellers

As I explained last week, GSM voice cellphone and low-speed (GSM/GPRS/2G) cellular data service is available almost everywhere in the inhabited world, but high-speed (3G/4G) cellular data and Internet connectivity can’t be relied on for reasons of both availability and pricing.

With maps the killer smartphone app for travellers, this makes the availability of offline map apps that store the geographic data on the device, don’t depend on “the cloud”, and can be used even where there’s no (or little) connectivity, the key distinguishing feature between quad-band GSM devices.

That narrows the choices greatly: Nokia dominates offline mapping for smartphones and mobile devices at least as much as Google (now being challenged by Apple) dominates online map services and apps. You can buy downloadable offline maps for small areas, but there’s nothing comparable to the street-level global map database you can download to an 8GB memory card and use for free, offline, with the built-in Nokia Maps app on every Nokia smartphone. Nokia continues to invest in offline maps as a key differentiator for its products, and neither Google nor Apple nor any other commercial vender — only the wiki-style Open Street map project which I’ll compare in part 3 of this series — is really trying to compete with Nokia in offline mapping for mobile devices.

Symbian: The best-value smartphone OS for travellers

What’s available in smartphones for travellers that include Nokia’s offline map app?

You can access the online version of Nokia Maps in a Web browser from an Apple, Android, or Blackberry OS device (or any other device), but the offline Nokia Maps app is only available for Windows Phone or Symbian OS devices.

Last year, Microsoft paid Nokia an undisclosed amount to dump the Symbian OS for Windows Phone on future Nokia devices. As of now, however, the first Nokia Windows phones are just coming to market, and are largely limited to the latest and greatest models intended to compete with, and priced comparably to, iPhones and high-end Android devices.

So if you want an affordable phone for international travel with Nokia’s offline maps, you need to look on the secondary market for slightly older, heavily discounted, Symbian OS devices.

“Symbian? What’s that?” Or, from those of you better informed, “Isn’t Symbian dead?” — to which my reply is, “Symbian is dead (or perhaps dying, although it may yet be revived)! Long live Symbian!”

Sales of new Symbian devices have plummeted since Nokia announced its plans to stop developing new Symbian devices beyond those already in the pipeline. But Symbian is the operating system for most of the smartphones that have ever been sold — hundreds of millions of them — and for more of those currently in use around the world than any other OS including iOS or Android. Those figures are obscured by US media emphasis on US rather than worldwide markets (especially the large “emerging” markets for entry-level smartphones including the BRIC countries: Brazil, Russia, India and China), and by “market share” figures that focus on sales of new devices and not on the huge secondary markets for “recycled” devices and the numbers of older devices that remain in use.

Symbian is as different from Android or iOS as those two are from each other. If you’re used to a different operating system, it will take some getting used to. Each has its own pros and cons, as Phil Keoghan is fond of saying on “The Amazing Race”, and its own user interface conventions. I can’t predict which you’ll prefer. I’ve been using Psion devices, running the EPOC OS from which Symbian is derived, for many years, so for me it wasn’t hard to figure out where the things I wanted were hiding in the taxonomy of menus, settings, and apps on my first Symbian phone.

Don’t think of Symbian as the “low-priced spread” of smartphone operating systems. Fifteen years ago, Psion EPOC mobile devices inspired the sorts of accolades and willingness to pay a premium price for engineering, build quality, and elegant, intuitive app and user interface design that would later go to Apple iOS devices. EPOC powered the first successful pocket computers and the first netbook (a decade ahead of its time), and was the first OS for handheld devices to inspire a substantial community of third-party app developers (again, more than a decade before the Apple app store).

Symbian’s big advantage is that it’s a mature operating system. Most of the bugs and early design mistakes have been worked out of the operating system and the core apps. If you’re using to paying to participate in Microsoft releases that are really beta tests, and have never used a mature operating system and application software, you’re in for a treat!

Like Android, Symbian has been used as the OS on smartphones from a variety of manufacturers, and allows you to install third-party apps (not just apps from the Nokia Store) without the need to hack or “jailbreak” your device. Just make sure that the app you want works with the Symbian version on your device.

(You might — or might not — be able to install Nokia’s offline map app on a non-Nokia Symbian phone. But non-Nokia Symbian phones are relatively uncommon, and not especially cheap, so there’ no reason not to start with a Nokia Symbian phone with the offline map app pre-installed.)

Symbian’s maturity, and the perception that it’s reaching the end of its life, have led to used Symbian devices — even those in perfect working condition — being dramatically underpriced relative to Android, much less iOS, devices with comparable functionality.

Symbian’s big disadvantage is also that it’s a mature operating system. App developers would rather invest their time in other OSs that seem likely to be around for longer. Few apps are being developed for Symbian, with the exception of some new mobile Java apps that run on Symbian as well as on other mobile OSs. If there isn’t already a Symbian app available for some task you want to perform on your device, there probably never will be such a Symbian app.

Where to buy an inexpensive, unlocked Nokia Symbian GSM smartphone:

If Symbian phones are being phased out, and the only new ones are at the high end, where do you find an inexpensive, unlocked Nokia Symbian GSM smartphone to take with you on your trip abroad?

Look for a second-hand phone, either from a private seller in the USA or from a “refurbisher” (most of whom are in China and ship from Hong Kong, although some have distributors in the USA for faster fulfillment).

As I mentioned last week, the main GSM carriers in the USA are AT&T and T-Mobile USA. Because T-Mobile doesn’t have as good coverage as a AT&T, especially in rural areas, and because AT&T got an early exclusive deal with Apple to offer the iPhone, T-Mobile USA has to offer more favorable terms and service plans in order to attract customers.

T-Mobile USA allows you to add data service to any voice plan for $10 a month, and doesn’t require a more expensive “smartphone” service plan. You can use your mobile data allocation however you like — T-Mobile doesn’t try to stop you or charge you extra to “tether” your laptop to your phone to connect to the Internet, or to use your phone as a mobile hotspot.

Most importantly for the availability of second-hand unlocked GSM phones, T-Mobile USA will unlock any phone originally sold by them — even one you purchase second-hand, as long as it hasn’t been reported to T-Mobile and blacklisted as stolen — once you’ve been using it on any T-Mobile service plan for as little as a week. Getting your phone unlocked doesn’t get you out of your contract with T-Mobile, but it does let you use the unlocked device with a non-T-Mobile SIM card while you are abroad — or sell it unlocked once you are out of contract or if you’ve replaced it with a different phone.

AT&T, which is especially reluctant to unlock iPhones that it has subsidized, has much less friendly phone and device unlocking policies. As a result, most of the unlocked late-model GSM phones offered second-hand for private sale in the USA were originally sold by T-Mobile.

You can find second-hand cellphones on eBay, Craigslist, garage sales, etc. Not all sellers know if the phone they are selling has been unlocked. Caveat emptor. If you have T-Mobile USA service yourself, and are buying a T-Mobile branded phone, it doesn’t matter if it’s unlocked: You can put your T-Mobile SIM in it, use it on your existing T-Mobile phone number for a week or two, and then get T-Mobile to unlock it for you.

The other sources of inexpensive unlocked phones are “refurbishers”. Unwanted phones that are traded in, discarded, or donated for “recycling” are collected by the container-full and shipped to China, where they are tested for basic functionality, minimally repaired if necessary, and then resold. Most often, newish refurbished phones from the USA and other wealthy countries are shipped off to poorer countries, again by the container load. But some refurbishers have decided that they can make slightly more money by selling refurbished phones back into the USA. They offer them through their own Web sites or on eBay, and drop ship them directly to customers around the world by air mail from Hong Kong. You can find dozens of eBay power sellers of refurbished cellphones who specify shipping from Hong Kong.

Airmail from Hong Kong typically takes about a week to the West Coast, twice that to the East Coast, although you should allow up to a month for the occasional delay in fulfillment, longer around the Chinese New Year holiday. If you need a second-hand smartphone in a hurry, you can find sellers (mostly re-importers of phones refurbished in China and shipped back in bulk) who warehouse used phones in the USA for more rapid fulfillment, for a slightly higher price.

The cosmetic condition of “refurbished” phones can vary considerably, from near-new dealer overstock or open-box customer returns to phones that have been used hard for several years. The refurbishment is typically cursory (a few basic tests to see that the phone is working, and a new battery and accessories if necessary), and the seller warranty minimal or nonexistent. The most you can hope for is a seller who will let you return the phone if the condition doesn’t match the description, so you’re only out the cost of return shipping.

But the price is right, and a phone you buy new probably won’t look new for long anyway. I’ve bought half a dozen refurbished cellphones from Hong Kong over the last decade, and all but one (which seemed OK on arrival but died almost immediately after the end of the return period) have arrived in as good functional condition as I expected from the sellers’ descriptions, and have lasted well. Even taking the money I lost on one dud into account, the overall value has far exceeded what I would have gotten if I’d bought new unlocked cellphones.

Some of the best-value smartphone models to look for:

All this could change overnight, but in my recent research the best bargains I could find on Nokia Symbian smartphones at different price and performance points were the Nokia 5230 (T-Mobile USA calls its version the “Nuron” model) and the Nokia C7 (T-Mobile “Astound”).

Both are quad-band GSM touchscreen smartphones that support 3G or 4G high-speed data (where service is available on the right bands), with fallback to 2G data. Both include the Nokia map app, a Web browser, and an e-mail client, among other pre-installed apps.

At the moment, you can get a used, unlocked Nokia 5230 (T-Mobile “Nuron”) for US$50-75 on eBay, depending on how patient you are in waiting for and bidding on lower-priced offerings.

By smartphone standards, the Nokia 5230 is basic. It’s narrower and a bit thicker than most smartphones, so it actually looks more like an ordinary “candy-bar” phone than a typical smartphone. That also makes it less conspicuous as a theft magnet, and means that you can wrap your hand around it to hold it more securely.

You can’t expect a $50 phone to match an iPhone or high-end Android device, or a dedicated handheld GPS. The touchscreen on the Nokia 5230 is relatively small, dim (almost unreadable in full sunlight unless you shade it with your body) and unresponsive (you may find it easier to use a stylus rather than your fingers on the on-screen keyboard when you are entering text). The screen is plastic and can get scratched, so you may want to spend an extra dollar or two on a stick-on screen protector (you can order them online, cut to fit the specific model). The processor is slow (Web browsing is frustrating, limited by the processor rather than the connection speed), it doesn’t have Wi-Fi, and it supports only a few 3G and 4G data bands so you may be limited to 2G data speeds even in some places where high-speed 3G or 4G data service is available on other bands. The camera has no flash.

But that’s missing the point. As a $50 handheld device that can locate you on a built-in street-level map, anywhere in the world, regardless of whether it’s connected to any network, and that you can also use to make voice phone calls and send and receive text messages anywhere there’s cellular service (except Japan and Korea), it offers outstanding value.

By way of comparison, the cheapest commonly-available unlocked quad band GSM cellphone — not a smartphone — is a first-generation Motorola RAZR V3, which goes for about $25 second-hand, unlocked, in good condition. That’s a good deal, especially if you don’t travel abroad often and don’t want or need a smartphone abroad. But unless you’re really strapped for money, will be using it very briefly, or know that you’re the sort of person who is always losing your cellphone, the Nokia 5230 is well worth the difference in price for the digital maps and much easier text messaging, even if you don’t use any of its other smartphone features.

If you want and can afford a better smartphone and are willing to risk carrying a more expensive device, you can get a used, unlocked Nokia C7 (T-Mobile “Astound”) for US$100-150.

For the extra $50-75, as compared to the Nokia 5230, the Nokia C7 is thinner but wider, with a sturdier metal rather than plastic body and a much larger, much brighter (legible in full sun), much more responsive “gorilla glass” touchscreen. The processor is faster, making the Web browser much more useful. It has Wi-Fi (yes, there’s a Skype client for Symbian) and a “pentaband” UMTS/HSPDA radio so it will work for voice calls and data in Japan and South Korea, and for high-speed data almost anywhere there’s 3G or 4G coverage. You’d be hard-pressed to match those specs in any other smartphone product line, or with any new unlocked GSM device, for less than two or three times the price. The main camera on the Nokia C7 is much better than the one on the Nokia 5230, and has a flash, and there’s a second front-facing webcam on the C7 for video Skype and similar apps.

Recommended accessories:

Online retailers, especially those like who ship directly from Shenzhen or Hong Kong, offer aftermarket accessories for almost every model of cellphone or smartphone for much less than the price of name-brand spare parts. Quality varies. Read the reviews for specific items before you buy.

Get a full set of accessories for any electronic device, including a spare battery and an out-of-the-device battery charger, before you leave on a trip around the world. Duties on imported electronics can make seemingly minor accessories, spare batteries, etc. many times more expensive in some other countries than in the USA. Most small items purchased from abroad aren’t subject to US import duty, but many of the same items can be heavily dutied if you have them shipped to you in other countries.

Some versions of the Nokia 5230 come with a back cover that holds a stylus. If yours doesn’t come with one, you’ll probably want one — it’s a snap-off, snap-on replacement for the plain back cover without a stylus. For a Nokia 5230, you’ll want a micro-SD memory card (at least 8GB; 16GB will give you extra room for photos and other apps) to be able to store the offline map database, and a USB to micro-USB data and charging cable so you can (1) charge your phone from any USB port, (2) download maps, apps, etc. via a cable connection to a PC without racking up data charges, and (3) tether your smartphone to a laptop or netbook so you can use your phone to connect your computer to the Internet when you need to get online and there’s no other connectivity available. The soft plastic Nokia 5230 resistive touchscreen can get scratched, so you might want to get a few stick-on screen protectors (they actually last quite well, once you get them on smoothly) and/or some sort of protective case.

The Nokia C7 has just enough internal memory to fit the complete worldwide Nokia Maps database, but you’ll probably want to add a micro-SD memory card for photos and other apps and data. Since the C7 has Wi-Fi, a USB cable is less essential, but it’s so small and cheap that I’d get one anyway so that you have it in case you want it.

Recommended Symbian apps for your travel smartphone:

You can upgrade the firmware on your Nokia Symbian device to the latest version, and download Symbian apps, directly from your device over the air, or via a Windows PC with a USB cable connection to your device and the Nokia Suite PC application. The Nokia 5230 runs Symbian S60v5. The Nokia C7 can be upgraded to Symbian S^3 “Anna” or “Belle” depending on the device version. (No, these Symbian software version names don’t make any more sense than the names of Windows versions.)

In addition to to the Nokia app store, AllAboutSymbian is one of many places to look for news and reviews of Symbian apps.

Different people, obviously, will be interested in apps for different uses. But some of the more generally useful Symbian apps for international travellers might not be obvious.

Viewranger is a navigation app (originally for Symbian but now also available for iOS and Android) that provides a much better interface than a mobile Web browser to OpenStreetMap and OpenCycleMap. In the Nokia Store, it looks like the free Symbian version is only a limited trial, but that’s misleading. You can use it for free, forever, as long as you limit yourself to OpenStreetMap and OpenCycleMap. The only charges are if you want to download “premium” maps like their digital versions of Ordnance Survey topographic quads (the UK counterpart of USGS topos).

There isn’t (yet) an “OpenTransitMap”, and it varies from place to place whether OpenStreetMap or OpenCycleMap are more useful for pedestrians and transit users.

I find the Viewranger user interface non-intuitive, but it has some very useful features. If you sign up for a free account on the Viewranger Web site, you can upload, download, and share route and location data via Viewranger’s servers in the UK. If you are travelling with a companion who is using the same app (or with a group, all of whom are), you can enable a “Buddy Beacon” feature that periodically sends your location, via Viewranger’s servers, to everyone else to whom you’ve given your password, so your locations show up on each other’s maps. It’s not completely reliable or secure, but it could be helpful if you get separated.

[On Android smartphones, my friend and fellow international traveller John Gilmore recommends the OsmAnd app as the best of the available interfaces to OpenStreetMap data that allow you to download maps a country at a time for offline use.]

Opera Software produces the two best mobile Web browsers, Opera Mobile and Opera Mini, both of which are available for Symbian (as well as iOS, Android, etc.) and either of which is substantially better than the pre-installed Nokia Web app. You might want to install both for different uses.

Like most other “normal” browsers, Opera Mobile downloads the entire Web page to your device, then renders the page as best it can on the small screen of your device. The processing is all carried out on the device, and much more data needs to be transmitted than can actually be displayed. (Although that’s equally true of almost every other mobile Web browser.)

The Opera Mini browser proxies your browsing through Opera’s servers. When you browse with Opera Mini, Opera retrieves the Web page you want to its servers, renders it (using fast processors on the server) to fit on your device’s screen, and then sends only the small-screen image to your device. The result is dramatically faster page loading and dramatically lower data usage, especially with slow connections and/or devices with limited processing power, at the expense of Opera Software having a record of all of your browsing with Opera Mini.

For what it’s worth, Viewranger, Opera, Nokia, and T-Mobile USA (a division of Deutsche Telekom) are all European companies prohibited by European privacy laws from monetizing or using what they know about you in many of the ways that US companies like Google, Apple, Verizon, Sprint, and AT&T can and do under US privacy law (or the lack thereof). But data held by any of these companies is potentially within reach of one or another government.

Next week: In the third and final installment of this series, I’ll look at real-world examples of how the major mapping apps compare in some of the places visited by “The Amazing Race”.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 7 October 2012, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

I've enjoy using MapsWithMe (, a free app for iPhone/iPad, Android and Kindle Fire. Countries and regions can be downloaded for offline usage.

When traveling in a country for a week or more, I try to get a local SIM card, preferably ahead of time so I know the phone number I will receive. In China I used, who sent a SIM card to be before my trip. Having online maps with the 'find me now!' button was invaluable.

Posted by: John R, 24 October 2012, 03:16 ( 3:16 AM)

I am surprised that you ignored, for the most part, the Blackberry. The benefit of the BB is that BB Maps (which comes loaded on every BB, just is sometimes hidden but can be reaccessed with a quick download from BB's site OTA) can cache maps via wi-fi, and the user can specify an unlimited amount of data storage. Thus, there is no need for a data connection for navigation. Further, you can save way points and use them on the go, more like a traditional old style hand held GPS.

Whereas, to the best of my knowledge, GoogleMaps requires an active data connection when operating. On BB and Android, this means a cellular data connection as you discussed for an insane amount of money, not just a wi-fi connection, though neither helps when you are on the streets. I believe the iPhone is the same way.

Posted by: stephen, 25 October 2012, 21:03 ( 9:03 PM)

Aside from the cost of an unlocked Blackberry:

(1) Many Blackberry services depend on having an active paid subscription to the Blackberry service. Nokia's map app and unlimited map downloads, on the other hand, are free to all owners of Nokia devices, with no need for any subscription.

(2) Blackberry targets wealthier customers as a premium service, and only maps the parts of the world that it sees as profitable markets. So while it maps most of the global North, it omits much of the global South including all of India and China and other major portions of Asia, Africa, and Latin America:

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 31 October 2012, 08:57 ( 8:57 AM)

Hi Edward:
Very useful information - especially about the Nokia phones and maps.
What about using a translation app such as Itranslate in Mexico? Can it be used cheaply and if so which phone would you recommend.
Thank you,

Posted by: Patrick, 31 October 2012, 11:15 (11:15 AM)

I don't recommend an iPhone, for the reasons given in this and the preceding article.

As I mentioned, most voice translation apps including iTranslate only work online, with a fast real-time mobile Internet connection. That may not be available, and is likely to be prohibitively expensive.

If a translation app doesn't advertise prominently that it works offline (or which features work offline), it probably only works online.

I've seen some mentions of offline translation apps. I'd welcome feedback from anyone who has used them as to which ones worked or didn't, on which operating system(s), for what types of use.

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 31 October 2012, 11:54 (11:54 AM)

Very useful article - many thanks.

I picked up a mint condition unlocked Nokia 5230 with car charger and windscreen mount on eBay here in the UK for £50 ($80), added a 16GB microSD card, and after some wrestling, managed to get all the downloadable Ovi maps on to it. I've very successfully used it to drive across South Africa and around the Bay Area, and it also works well near home here in the UK. I've found the map accuracy very good, and the voice directions better than my TomTom car GPS.

Downloading maps onto the 'phone using a Macintosh computer is possible, but you need to be a detective to find the two applications you need:

1. Nokia Maploader 1.1. I think there may be a 1.2 version, but I couldn't find it. Get 1.1 from this external site:

If it arrives as a a ZIP archive of exactly 2,844,804 bytes, it's the same one I used.

2. Nokia Multimedia Transfer. I'm using version 1.4.3, but anyone using a (very old_ PowerPC Mac may need 1.4.2. Get 1.4.3 here:

Run them both, plug in the 'phone using a USB cable, and voila, all Ovi maps are indeed available for free download. I installed all the available maps for all countries, about 8GB worth. It took a day on my reasonably-fast internet connection, but of course only needs doing once.

By the way, many thanks for your support for NO2ID. We're really pleased we defeated the ID card scheme here in the UK.

Posted by: Andrew Watson, 19 January 2013, 07:56 ( 7:56 AM)

If you are thinking of getting a Nokia Symbian phone to use as (among other things) an offline GPS and navigation device, *don't wait*.

Now that Nokia has sold out to Microsoft, the company has begun discontinuing downloads for some of the built-in apps its own "legacy" Symbian phones.

As of now, all the Nokia/Ovi maps are still available for download in the right format for use with Nokia Symbian phones, but there's no telling how long that will last.

Get a suitable phone, download the worldwide map database, and back it up in case your phone is lost, stolen, or broken, or the map data gets corrupted.

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 23 February 2014, 11:13 (11:13 AM)

Update T-Mobile USA international roaming prices (1 June 2014):

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 26 May 2015, 08:21 ( 8:21 AM)
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