Thursday, April 11, 2013

How Your Carrier Can Make Your Smartphone Dumb & What You Can Do

How Your Carrier Can Make Your Smartphone Dumb & What You Can Do

problems with cell phone companiesLooking for contacts on my wife’s Android phone this morning, I was astonished at how slow the process had become. After eventually creaking through the menu for the details I needed, I switched the device off and back on. A short wait ensued, followed by another. Ceri isn’t a habitual app user, and her phone remains unmodded, so what could have been causing these performance delays. And then it struck me. The problem wasn’t with Android.
With a processor offering over 1 GHz of power, awesome graphics and storage of around 16 GB (more often than not), your smartphone should be capable of so much more. So why isn’t it? Why are your friends with the same device easily able to browse the web or perform very basic tasks in the blink of an eye? The problem, dear reader, is not with your phone. It’s with your carrier.

Why Is Your Carrier Making Your Smartphone Dumb?

One of the main reasons why your extremely expensive portable computer and communications device is under-performing is that your carrier or network has configured it that way. There are usually five ways in which carriers limit your smartphone experience, bloatware, branding, SIM locking, speed throttling and a lack of updates.
Now, you might be one of the millions to put up with this state of affairs, and if that’s the case then fine. But if you spend hundreds of dollars on your smartphone, or are paying out big bucks every month on a contract, then the least that you should expect is to be able to enjoy the full functionality of the device without worrying about performance issues, cost and slow network connections. It would also be nice to be able to use your phone without having the name of your unnecessarily dictatorial carrier emblazoned across it.

Speak to Your Carrier First

There are several ways in which you can work around the problems described above, and we’ll come to them below.
First, though, you should make a brief list of the problems that your phone experiences (and that you’re not happy about) and contact your carrier to see if there is anything that they can do. As surprising as it might seem, they might have changed their policy regarding bloatware or SIM locking, for instance, and be happy to have you visit one of their outlets or send you a replacement phone in order to experience the handset in a far more positive way.
I once received a SIM-unlocked replacement from a local mobile network store, so this is an option that you can look at. The other issues might also be resolved by speaking to your carrier.
If this doesn’t work for you, however, then it is time to consider taking matters into your own hands.

Battling The Bloatware

Typically an Android problem (Apple doesn’t allow bloatware on its devices), bloatware is the addition by the carrier of its own software.
Usually poorly written or not optimised for the device it is installed on, bloatware can drain resources and generally make your smartphone experience totally dumb.
problems with cell phone companies
There are several ways around this, such as installing a new ROM (a version of Android without the bloatware, designed specifically to run on your phone), rooting and uninstalling the culprit apps or disabling the bloat. The first two suggestions are quite extreme, especially if you’re not experienced with such things, so a good way to check whether or not the phone can run more quickly is to disable the pre-installed apps that are slowing you down.
This can be done in Android Jelly Bean by opening Settings > Device > Apps and using theForce Stop option. After the app has stopped, check your phone’s performance for any improvement. If this doesn’t have any effect, you can use the Disable option (in some rare occasions, the Uninstall button appears to remove some bloatware, although this is usually prevented). If neither option is available, then you should consider rooting as your solution.
Remember that as well as taking up much needed resources, bloatware offers an additional attach vector for malware. You probably don’t need the bloatware provided by your carrier, and if you do you will be able to find a much better alternative.

Baffling Branding

The chances are that you know that you’re paying AT&T, Verizon or EE $50 a month for the pleasure of using a phone on their network, so it’s pretty rum of them to brand your phone in order to remind you.
Smartphone branding comes in different forms: you might have a badge for your network carrier displayed on the device or be greeted with an AT&T splash screen and a pre-selected background image once the smartphone boots.
smartphone carriers
On an iPhone you can remove the name of your carrier using a tool such as CarrierEditor (Mac) or CustomCarrierLogo. These are desktop apps that make it easy to edit branding names and images without jailbreaking your iPhone.
For Android users, either installing a stock or custom ROM or manually editing some XML data will enable the removal of the carrier name (as this XDA-Developers thread explains), while splash screen branding is usually only possible by rooting the device and then browsing for and removing the image file. Of course, you won’t know what this is called, so it might involve some trial and error. Note that flashing a custom ROM might not necessarily remove branding graphics.

Dealing With Slow Connections

Another way in which carriers limit your ability to get the full use from your smartphone is by restricting the amount of data that you can use, or the speed of the mobile Internet connection.
smartphone carriers
Probably the easiest way of overcoming this problem is to rely on wireless data, perhaps a free account with a local coffee shop or shopping mall, or by using your own home Wi-Fi.
You should also check the settings of your phone to confirm that it is configured to connect to the fastest available network. Some 3G and 4G phones ship with this feature disabled, resulting in 2G speeds.
If speed problems cannot be resolved by reconfiguring your smartphone, it might be time to consider using a different SIM card.

Why Is My Phone SIM Locked?

The chances are that if you have purchased your smartphone through a carrier on a contract, the SIM card will be locked to that phone. This means that if you wish to use another SIM card, you can’t.
smartphone carriers
Carrier’s lock phones to their own SIM cards for various reasons. Many of these they benefit from, such as calls from overseas while you travel.
If you’re canny enough to discover that a different SIM card can offer better connectivity, then you will probably want to change your SIM card. What will probably happen upon doing this is that you will receive a message such as “SIM not recognised”, indicating that the phone is locked to your carrier.
There are a couple of ways around this. The first is to call your carrier and ask them to unlock it. This might be done for a fee or for free, depending on how long you have had the device (six months is the usual paid-to-free cut-off point.)
Meanwhile, you might also consider taking advantage of one of the many unlock services that can be found on the web or via eBay. This requires that you share your IMEI number with a strange, and is therefore something that you should consider carefully beforehand, as this information can be used to clone your phone (with expensive consequences…).
(Note also that differences in SIM card size can limit your ability to swap cards between phones. Be aware that a SIM card can be trimmed down to Micro SIM proportions.)

Hey, Carrier, Where’s My Update?

One final way in which carriers limit your phone’s capabilities is by being horrifically slow to issue updates.
The situation isn’t so bad for iPhone, but for Android and Windows Phone, update dissemination is one of modern technology’s greatest failings. Various reasons exist for these issues, such as an inability to handle demand and the need to install yet more bloatware on the update before it is issued.
problems with cell phone companies
For these reasons alone, Android users should be considering installing a stock or custom ROM of the update. Windows Phone users should look for a way to speed up/force the update on their devices, while iPhone owners should be able to grab their updates – and the addition of new features that make a smartphone even smarter – by launching iTunes.

Conclusion – Don’t Let The Carrier Dumb You Down

Smartphones are about functionality, about tools and features that can enhance your life. By restricting your ability to use your phone effectively, carriers are preventing you from making the most of your phone.
Bloatware is probably the greatest offender (although SIM locking comes close, in my opinion), but given that a user has launched a civil action against Microsoft for loading bloatware on its Surface tablet (see TechDirt for more), perhaps the tide is finally beginning to turn.

Christian Cawley

Christian Cawley is a freelance writer from the United Kingdom with seven years' experience in technical support across a range of device platforms and operating systems. Follow his updates on Twitter: @thegadgetmonkey