Category Archives: iPhone

Unlocking the iPhone 3G: is it worth it?

Unlock Me.  I dare you.
Unlock Me. I dare you.

I was going to write an article detailing how to unlock your iPhone 3G, but the process is commonplace now… videos on YouTube and blog instructions abound. I don’t have the guts to try it on my phone — I just don’t have time. Furthermore, I have seen the quirky behavior of my friends’ phones after unlocking them, and well… I’d rather not deal with that stuff. Some of the bad behavior that I’m aware of directly from friends includes the following:

Potential Problems with Unlocked iPhones

  • Phone does not ring unless it is active (i.e. you’re in an application or viewing apps on its “Desktop”). This is REALLY annoying if you’re hypothetically being held against your will in a foreign country and REALLY need to call your friend’s iPhone so she can translate for you.
  • Random loss or corruption of contact data (e.g. all names disappear from address book or showing only numbers)
  • No access to the 3G network (which can effectively kill some of the more useful apps like Google Maps, any Location Services, Safari, etc.)
  • Bricked phones with an Incorrect SIM message stuck on the screen

After some quick searches, I found horror stories of people who actually had to buy new phones after unsuccessfully attempting to unlock their phones. Ouch!

There are commercial software packages available for the task that theoretically are more reliable. At least you’d have someone to call for help after Apple gives you the finger (I mean “the finger” as in the rigid digit pointing towards the notice in the store that says “Don’t hack the phone”).

Commercial Software for Unlocking iPhones

Ultimately, I thought it would be more interesting to put the question to the readers: do you think it’s worth it to unlock your iPhone? What are the benefits? The savings? What things can’t you do with an unlocked phone? Did anything break? What are your stories?

We want to hear from you.

Getting Ripped DVDs to Your iPhone or iPod

You’ve got movies, and you want to watch them… you just want to watch them on your iPhone or on your iPod. Well, that shouldn’t be a problem… you simply go to Google, search for some kind of tutorial for ripping the DVDs, and then you’ll be on your way… but you didn’t anticipate the stench-filled sewers you would have to crawl through to attain your goal. You didn’t think you’d have to stoop this low to complete your journey. No, I’m not talking about digital rights management… I’m talking about the fact that someone made a tutorial that showed how to rip a DVD… using the putrid footage of Quentin Tarentino’s Kill Bill.

Comment by Brian: Yes, that is our very own author Everett playing the role of Quentin Tarentino just for this post. Wow.

Some friends of mine have tried to convince me that Kill Bill wasn’t that bad, but *obviously* their minds have been corroded by Hollywood mediocrity. You can watch the original South Park episode I spoofed above, but I’m warning you: Matt and Trey made a horrible omission when they only took down M. Night Shyamalan and Michael Bay and neglected to reign in the sadistic wanker Tarentino. (Thanks to Nick Broomfield and JG Ballard for including Kill Bill in their lists of the worst movies of all time.)

Required Software (and Hardware)

Okay, on to the main event. There are several ways to skin this cat, and there are a lot of how-tos out there, but I wanted to at least mention some of the pitfalls you might encounter for our take on this topic. The instructions here are valid for Mac and Windows computers, but I’ve got more details about the Mac side of things.

You need to 1) crack the copy protection (i.e. rip the DVD), then you need to 2) transcode it into a format that your iPhone or iPod can read. The latter task is the one that is more problematic — the success rate of the transcoding software varies greatly in my experience, so you may have to try out a few methods to get this to work.

  • Handbrake — this is a multi-threaded video transcoder that you can use to encode (not rip) DVDs on your Mac, Windows, or Linux machine. Just keep in mind that it does not strip copy protection, so you’ll have to use some other software for that task when necessary (e.g. Fairmount or Mac the Ripper).
  • iPhone or iPod — uh, you’re clear on the concept of this article, right? You can stop reading the serious stuff and go watch that South Park episode if you don’t actually have a device to transfer the file to.

Ripping DVDs to iTunes: The Simple Process using Handbrake

Handbrake essentially converts the format of the DVD into something that iTunes (and your iPhone) can read. Handbrake doesn’t circumvent any copy protection though! It’s not a ripper!

  1. Put a DVD into your computer. If the DVD player launches, quit it.
  2. Launch the Handbrake application. Be sure that you’ve installed it in the Applications directory… Handbrake can get squirrely if you install it elsewhere.
  3. Open the DVD. From within Handbrake, select the entire DVD (not just the VIDEO_TS or the AUDIO_TS folders… select the entire volume).
  4. Select a File Destination. Where do you want to save the resulting file? It can be large, so choose a drive that has adequate space.
  5. Choose the correct output Preset. If you don’t see the presets drawer, you can hide/show it from the “Window” menu (or press Apple-T). Notice that there are only 3 relevant presets: iPhone / iPod Touch, iPod High-Rez, iPod Low-Rez. Consider your hardware, and choose.
  6. Click Start. Encoding can take a while… if it doesn’t, you may have a problem. If Handbrake says it’s finished after about 2 seconds, then you have to move onto a more complicated solution. Skip ahead to the next section.
  7. Add the File to iTunes. After you’ve got a playable file, add it to iTunes in your normal way… double-click it or drag the file onto the iTunes icon.
  8. Sync your iPhone or iPod. Depending on your settings, your device may sync everything in your library, or you may have to manually sync the playlist containing the movie. As long as you’ve encoded the DVD on your hard disk in an encoding iTunes can read, then you should be able to transfer it to your iPhone or iPod.

Ripping DVDs to iTunes: Circumventing Copy Protection

* My reading of US Copyright law is that you are permitted to make a backup copy of your DVDs… but I’m not a lawyer.
Sometimes Handbrake gets sassy and you get a flippant message saying Put down that cocktail… Your Handbrake encode is done! It should take a few minutes to encode a DVD… something didn’t work if it’s magically “done” in about 2 seconds. Another possibility is that Handbrake just crashes repeatedly. Either way, it’s not fun. (I only had this problem while attempting the encode on OS 10.4). Check out this related article:

FAQ: My DVD won’t Rip

Well… the problem may be that many DVDs have copy protection that Handbrake does not circumvent. It’s not a ripper, remember? It’s an encoder only.

Before you give up on Handbrake, try the process on a Mac running OS 10.5. My strong suspicion is that something in the PPC/older version of Handbrake was causing problems.

If Handbrake is having trouble because of the copy protection, you need to first strip the DVD (or the disk image) of its copy protection. You can do this using several programs such as Mac the Ripper — there are some instructions here, but the solution described there is no longer free. Below is a brief description of how to use Fairmount on OS X — this will strip the copy protection, but you’ll still need something like Handbrake to handle the transcoding. Windows has lots of ways to strip the copy protection as well, such as DVD43.

  1. Use Fairmount (or similar) to decrypt the DVD. This can happen pretty fast… it doesn’t actually import anything, it just decodes it. You’ll see that the DVD icon changes to a standard disk image icon.
  2. Copy the VIDEO_TS files to your hard drive. Now you only need to encode the video files into a format that iTunes (and your iPhone) can read — Handbrake is designed for this transcoding operation (I hope it’s not giving you grief). Instead of transcoding the DVD, you’ll transcode the VIDEO_TS folder that’s now on your hard drive.

The REALLY Simple Process: Buying and Renting DVDs from iTunes

This probably wasn’t why you came to this article, but consider this option: Go to the iTunes Store and just buy the stupid DVD. I know it sucks to pay for it twice, but you can spend a lot of time trying to make this work and at some point, it’s just not worth your time. Downloading is perfectly Ok. You’re not accepting defeat, you’re merely choosing your battles wisely. You can even rent movies on iTunes now. Nice.

Commercial Alternatives

If you are interested, there are other software packages that are perhaps less prone to error than Handbrake, you just have to pay for them. Here’s a list of some commercial alternatives.

Windows users, be sure to also see Brian’s guide to ripping DVDs using FormatFactory for Free.

Traveling Internationally with your iPhone

I’m planning on doing some international travel soon, and I’ve been wondering whether or not I should take my iPhone with me. I had a lot of questions about how international travel works with my trusty phone, and ultimately, in my case, I concluded it was just too expensive to travel with my iPhone. Read on to learn what I found out.

Traveling the World with your iPhone
Traveling the World with your iPhone

Does calling US numbers while abroad incur international roaming fees?

YES. And it ain’t cheap. You’re looking at fees around $2 per minute in most countries. You can check AT&T’s site and use their widget to see how much a particular country will cost. Just in case you’re bad at math, let me give you this reality check:HOLY !@#$%^ THAT’S EXPENSIVE!!! $2/minute is $120/hour! Unless you’re a lawyer or surgeon, you’ll go out of business calling your clients while overseas!

How much does it cost to use your iPhone internationally?
How much does it cost to use your iPhone internationally?

Does calling local numbers in that foreign country incur international roaming fees?

YES. ANY calls you make in a foreign country are subject to international roaming charges. Gulp!

The rates change periodically, but here’s an idea of what you might be spending:

Country Cost per Min. Cost per Min.
using AT&T World Traveler
($5.99 / month)
Thailand $1.99 $1.29
Japan $2.29 $1.69
Germany $1.29 $0.99

* Source of data: prices change.

How much does it cost to access Data with my iPhone?

About $20 per MB. If you recall from earlier articles, the iPhone has a lot of extra features that will drain your battery, but while traveling they could drain your wallet too! If you are paying international rates for data usage, YOU WILL PAY THROUGH THE NOSE!!!.

International Data Plans

20MB $24.99
50MB $59.99
100MB $119.99
200MB $199.99

You may wonder “how much data do I use?” You can see for yourself: on your iPhone, go to Settings → General → Usage. You’ll want to reset the statistics and monitor your usage for a week or so, but you may be surprised by how much data you use. I was using about 40MB in a couple weeks… if I had been traveling internationally, this would have cost me $20 per MB, or $800. Holy flaming monkey balls!

Data Usage on iPhone: You may be using more than you think
Data Usage on iPhone: You may be using more than you think

How will my Calls be Handled while I’m Traveling?

Normally. If you take your phone with you, it’ll ring like normal (but you’ll pay for answering it). If you turn it off and leave it at home, calls will go directly to voicemail.

My strong suggestion is to turn the phone off and leave it at home — it’s safer there anyway.

How can I check my iPhone’s Voicemail while Traveling?

To check your voicemail, simply call your phone, then interrupt the greeting by pressing * — the default password is your 7 digit mobile number (i.e. your number without area code), and you should set up a unique passcode for it as soon as possible. Call AT&T to have the password reset: 1-800-331-0500.

Alternatively, you can forward incoming phone calls to another phone number, e.g. to a friend or relative or to an answering service (you can’t forward calls to toll-free numbers, suspended numbers, or to international numbers). You set up forwarding by calling AT&T at 1-800-331-0500; they set up forwarding for you IMMEDIATELY; there’s no way to schedule forwarding to begin next week, for example, and the only way to stop forwarding is to call AT&T again. There is no fee for this service.

How are my Texts handled if my Phone is Off?

Normally (probably). Normally, the texts just queue up, and when you turn your phone back on, they all come streaming in, BUT THIS IS NOT GUARANTEED, and it’s even “less guaranteed” if your phone is inactive for long periods of time. In fact, texts in general are not guaranteed. Just like email, texting is an unverifiable protocol. Don’t bank on it. There is no external way to access your text messages; you must access them using your phone, so I hope you’re not expecting any important texts.

Can I get a new SIM card once I’m in a foreign country?

NO, not with an iPhone. On most phones, you can request from AT&T the “subsidy unlock code”; it releases the phone and enables it to be used in another network by another carrier with a new SIM (it unlocks the phone). For most phones, you can request this code in the United States BEFORE YOU TRAVEL. But you can’t get this code for iPhones! That’s the whole weird restriction that iPhones must be on the AT&T network, remember? The only reason you’d want to unlock a phone is if you needed to take THAT particular phone with you. For most of us travelers, we just need ANY phone, so doing this is rare.

If you decide to unlock your phone for international use, you are essentially flying off of AT&T’s radar because you start dealing with another carrier. And, to complicate matters, iPhones don’t like to be unlocked… you have to crack the phone, which is just one more complication that you’d have to deal with while traveling. Keep in mind that unlocked iPhones have quirky and unreliable behavior (e.g. they don’t always ring, the contacts disappear, etc.).

Can I take my SIM card with me and use a different phone?

YES, but this is a bad idea.. You get the worst of both worlds: you leave your nice iPhone at home, but you still pay those high roaming prices. The only valid reason I can think of for doing this is if you MUST have your phone number working at all times for a VERY important call (or maybe your company is paying your phone bill).

If you’ve got another travel-ready phone, or you can buy a cheap phone from AT&T for $39.99 (e.g. Nokia 2600) that will work in most countries (but again, if you are doing this all through the “proper channels”, you’ll still be paying the hefty international roaming charges). Check to see if your phone will work in the countries you’ll be traveling to. AT&T has a handy widget to help you. head over AT&T’s site, and under the “Getting Started” section, click on the “wireless device link” and build an itinerary of countries you’ll be visiting, then choose a phone, and you’ll get a list of whether or not it’ll work in those countries. Or call 1-800-331-0500 and ask for assistance.

Will my Phone work in that Country?  Check AT&T's handy widget.
Will my Phone work in that Country? Check AT&T's handy widget.


Leave your phone at home! Unless you’re in some really special circumstances, it’s not worth the money or risk to travel with your iPhone.

Buy a calling card once you are abroad. It’s cheap to use them to call the US… perhaps 5 or 10 cents per minute for some countries. They’re cheap!

If you NEED a phone, buy a cheap phone once you’re in the destination country. Realize that it may only work in that one country, and as soon as you cross a border, it may break or incur roaming charges. Alternatively, check AT&T’s site and find a phone that will work in the countries where you are traveling (or call 1-800-331-0500 to ask for assistance), then buy a cheap used phone before you leave the US (e.g. Craigslist) that will work in those countries and get a SIM and a calling plan once you get there. You can then use a calling card to call back to the United States.

Make sure you can check your voicemail on your iPhone using another phone! Don’t wait until you’re thousands of miles away to discover there’s a problem with accessing your voicemail remotely.

Talk with AT&T to turn off additional features of your account. Why pay for unlimited texting if you won’t be using your phone? Turn off additional “plan-perks” before you go and save some money if you can. This may only be possible if you’re traveling for a long time and/or your trip coincides nicely with your billing cycles.

Tips for Stubborn People who Must Travel with their iPhone

Get the AT&T World Traveler option. With the astronomical rates for international roaming, it’ll pay for itself with a single call.

Get an international data usage plan! Otherwise, you’ll pay about $20 per megabyte, and remember: your iPhone likes to check weather reports in Cuba and gather Tokyo stock quotes behind your back, so this gets expensive quickly.

Turn off all unnecessary services: Data Roaming “OFF”, 3G Off, Fetch New Data: Off.

Watch your Phone! Cell phones make great targets for thieves, and they are difficult to insure! Be sure to read our article about what to do if your iPhone is lost or stolen.

Safe travels!

Changing your iPhone’s Battery and 10 tips for Longer Battery Life


I mentioned in a previous post that the iPhone’s battery needs more attention than simpler phones. And you can’t change the battery yourself! That thing is soldered into place… so unless you are REALLY good with a soldering iron or if you don’t care much about the very real possibility of frying your phone, then changing the batter requires a trip to the Apple store.

Changing your iPhone Battery

Take the phone to an Apple store. The charge for replacing the battery is $79 plus shipping and handling, and just like a laptop repair, it usually takes 3 days. The store can loan you a phone for a fee.

I DO NOT RECOMMEND TRYING TO REPLACE THE BATTERY YOURSELF. If you were looking for a DIY article, then let me try to talk some sense into you. This is a DELICATE device. It was not soldered by a human… it was soldered together with very precise robotic machinery. Don’t kid yourself… you are much more likely to kill your phone than you are to successfully replace the battery.

If you are concerned about battery life, there are a couple products available that can extend or augment battery life, e.g. Backup iPhone Battery, Juice Pack, or check out the recommendations below.

10 Tips for Extending your iPhone’s Battery Life

  1. Lock It — Just turn off the display.
  2. Turn Off Bluetooth — If you don’t have any Bluetooth devices (or if you aren’t using any), disable this in the Settings.
  3. Disable Wi-Fi — This isn’t as much of an energy saver as Airplane Mode, but if you don’t need to join any networks (e.g. if there aren’t any or if you’re happy using the 3G network), then just turn off the Wi-Fi searching under Settings –> Wi-Fi
  4. Turn on Airplane Mode — yes, you can do this on the ground, and it basically makes your iPhone into an iPod… you can’t use the internet or BlueTooth and you can’t make or receive calls. But it really extends the battery life.
  5. Turn off Location Services — Settings –> General. Some applications (like Locly) use your phone’s current location to do stuff, but your battery pays the price when you’re phone is repeatedly asking the world “Where am I?”
  6. Turn Off 3G — If you’re traveling where you’re only ever seeing the Edge network (the tiny E in your status bar), then you can probably loose the 3G functionality. Go to Settings –> General –> Network
  7. Turn off Sound Check and EQ— sound enhancement requires more processing and often more amplification. I also recommend using small earphones (e.g. the white earbuds) because they require less power than a big set of headphones. Yes, louder volume drains the batter faster, so keep the volume down. Settings –> iPod
  8. Fetch Mail Less Often — Settings –> Fetch New Data. Try checking email manually (i.e. when you launch the application).
  9. Store it at Room Temperature — don’t subject your phone (and its battery) to extreme temperatures. The basic rule of thumb is that it’ll be comfortable where you are comfortable, so don’t leave it in a hot car or in a freezer. Extremes will shorten the battery life.
  10. Plug it In — Yes, the iPhone works perfectly when it’s plugged in. It’s good to take it out and use it now and then to make sure the battery gets its exercise, though.

What do I do if my iPhone is Lost or Stolen?

Holy flaming monkey balls! I lost my iPhone! What do I do?

  1. Call AT&T Wireless at 800-331-0500 and use their menu to report a lost or stolen phone.
    This does not protect your data in any way, it only shuts down the ability of your phone to make or receive phone calls. (Your monthly bills will CONTINUE… haha.)
  2. File a police report.
  3. Try not to kick yourself for not following the rest of the instructions in this article…

That SUCKS. What Else Can I Do?

To bring back that lovely word we learned in 8th grade sex-ed: PREVENTION!

Even if you don’t like it…. it’s time to change the security settings on your phone.

  1. Enable Auto-Lock : Settings -> General –> Auto-Lock (must be ON, e.g. 3 minutes)
  2. Enable the Passcode Lock : Settings -> General –> Passcode Lock
    Turn Passcode ON (enter a 4 digit passcode twice)

  3. Require Passcode : set a time interval, e.g. “Immediately”, or “After 15 min.”
  4. Enable the Self Destruct : Erase Data –> ON (Erase all data on this iPhone after 10 failed passcode attempts)
    * Gulp… this one isn’t for the weak of heart. Ideally, all the data on your iPhone is only a copy, right? You’ve synced recently, RIGHT!? Well… there is the possibility that you’ll lose unique data if these feature ever kicks in. There’s also the possibility that some a-hole trickster buddy of yours will finger-mash your phone repeatedly in order to delete everything. No matter if your data is in the hands of nefarious users or deleted by rowdy friends, either way, this is a serious feature.
Passcode Lock Screen on the iPhone
Passcode Lock Screen on the iPhone

And for more privacy….

Turn OFF SMS Preview : Settings -> General –> Passcode Lock –> Turn OFF SMS Preview

* The preview is what displays on your phone when a text message comes in… by default the ENTIRE text and the sender’s name shows up on your screen without you having to unlock the phone. This could be embarrassing if the text is personal (e.g. if you are sleeping with your boss’s wife, and you get a bunch of XXO’s coming in during an important meeting). If you have the SMS Preview disabled, you’ll only see “New Text Message”.

And for the Good Samaritans…

There is a web site dedicated to lost and found iPhones:

You can register your serial number on your phone and put a message on your wallpaper where the person who finds your phone can go and contact you to get it properly returned. I encourage everyone to do this. There are a lot of good people out there, and hey, doing this simple step allows those people to be good. If all they got is a random phone that self-destructed its data, then they might just decide to keep it, but if they can look up your name and address, they might try to give it back to you. Think positively.

Taking Screen shots on an iPhone 3G

You can take screenshots of your iPhone by pressing and holding both buttons for about a second.
You can take screenshots of your iPhone by pressing and holding both buttons for about a second.

This is an (un)documented built-in feature on the iPhone 3G (i.e. phones with OS 2.0 or greater). Just prep your phone screen however you want it, then press the round application button and the power/sleep button at the top simultaneously (read: your phone’s only got 2 buttons, press them both). Hold the buttons for about a second, and if your sound is on, then you should get the obligatory shutter sound.

It’s a handy way to take screenshots!

Then the next question… how do get those pictures OFF my phone? Two easy ways: sync your phone (all the screenshots show up in your Photos application, just like anything you take using your camera). Or, view the photo in the Photos app, then email the photo to yourself. But this is a bummer because sometimes I’ve been unable to email the photo (Yahoo and a personal account).

You CAN sync up to any computer… if you plug your phone into any Mac computer, for example, iPhoto should be able to grab photos off your iPhone camera, but you can’t preview the PNG screenshots.

Don't be afraid! iPhoto can't preview PNG files, but you can use Preview to convert them to JPGs
Don't be afraid! iPhoto can't preview PNG files, but you can use Preview to convert them to JPGs

Don’t be afraid if you can’t see your screenshot! iPhoto can’t preview the PNG files, but you can drag them to the desktop and open them using Preview (or similar) to convert the file format.

5 Shortcomings of the iPhone 3G


Well, since I’m on the topic this week, I thought I’d mention my main grievances with my iPhone 3G.

1. Short battery life. My Motorola Razor could last a couple days without charging… perfect if I ended up crashing at a friend’s house or forgot my charger while traveling. But the iPhone pretty much needs juice every night. Moreover is that it seems inconsistent with its consumption rate. I don’t really understand how and when it’s doing stuff on the sly… like I THINK I turn it off, but it might secretly be gathering whether reports from Cuba or calculating the Shopping Days Until Christmas. (see my earlier rant).

2. Text messages don’t display dates and times on each message. I’m pretty forgetful, so sometimes I want to look back and find out when I texted someone… e.g. “Where were you on the night of the 22nd?” “Uh… I was at home.” “WHEN were you home?” “Oh, I texted my friend at… uh… oh crap…” I can just see someone going to jail for this somehow.

3. Keyboard is Vertical only. The Texting and Mailing apps don’t let you rotate the screen so you can have a WIDE keyboard… they’re stuck upright and cramped.

4. Can’t copy and paste text. Like say I’m surfing the web (cool)… then I want to send that link to a friend… uh… simple, yet impossible.

5. You can’t download stuff from web sites and save them to a file system. Yar. Even if you download them on your computer, it’s a tangled web of work-arounds to get files onto your phone. I’m stuck even trying to get my photo libraries on my phone… I know it’s possible, but I was stumped for about 5 minutes, then moved on to other more important things… like being a consumer whore (har har).