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T-Mobile Signal Strength and Bad SIMs

June 2nd, 2010 1 comment
This entry is part 11 of 11 in the series Dash 3G

Over the holiday weekend my Dash 3G simply stopped connecting to the network. No data, no phone, no bars, no nothing. Don’t know exactly when it happened, but when I picked up my phone to go to work on Tuesday morning, I had nada for signal strength. And no matter how I tried to reboot, pull the battery, pull and reinstall the SIM, nothing helped. I began to suspect there was a widespread outage in the Northeast, but nope … it was just me.

I called T-Mobile to check and the phone tech was helpful. I was pleasantly surprised at their ability to troubleshoot a Windows Mobile phone. We tried to reset the network settings, but nothing helped. The phone tech was the one who suggested that perhaps the SIM had failed. This had never happened to me before – a bad SIM? A SIM failing for no apparent reason? I mean, it’s not like I remove it from my phone. I hadn’t opened the back in months – how the hell could it just fail?

I didn’t believe it. I searched the web and one of the first hits to come up was a thread on XDA-Developers by a couple of people running the same 3VOlution modified ROM that I am … uh-oh. Maybe a ROM problem? But the ROM shouldn’t affect the radio I reasoned – those are separate programs. But you never know … So like an idiot I hard-reset my phone and wiped everything to go back to a fresh ROM installation. It didn’t help.

When my wife returned home that night I finally got to test the SIM theory. Sure enough, my SIM was bad. If I swapped my wife’s SIM for mine (she has a Dash 3G also) she had no bars and my phone was fine. So I put them back and resigned myself to getting a new SIM first thing this morning.

When I got off the train I dropped into the T-Mobile store on Lincoln Street on Boston (near South Station). I walked in and someone asked if they could help. I told them I needed a new SIM. He asked if I was sure, I said yes, and he asked for my phone number and ID. Then he took one out from behind the counter, put the number into the computer, and told me I was good to go. Total time took less than 2 minutes from when I walked in the door. And there was no charge. I plugged it in while in the store and sure enough, my signal came right back.

After spending a couple of hours rebuilding my phone (because I had reset it like an idiot) I did notice one improvement. It seems that I now get a better signal in many places than I did. I’m not saying that I get a dramatic improvement in strength, just that I am able to hold a 3G signal in places where I used to drop to EDGE speeds. On my train ride home (thered to my MacBook where I am writing this) I’d say I’m seeing a 30% improvement. I drop out of 3G coverage less than I did. Who knew that the SIM itself could have such an effect on signal.

Anyway, T-Mobile Customer Service was very good to me again, reminding me why I stay with them as a carrier. And I’m glad my Dash is working again, even if I did have dreams of getting a new My Touch or HD2 if it was my phone that was dead. But I’m happy I saved the money.

Thanks T-Mobile.

The T-Mobile Dash 3G Summary Post

January 7th, 2010 No comments
This entry is part 10 of 11 in the series Dash 3G

Over the last nine or ten months I have tweaked, upgraded, and generally overhauled my T-Mobile Dash 3G smartphone. I’ve learned quite a bit along the way. And after my most recent upgrades I think I finally have a really solid phone that I love. So if you’ve recently picked up a Dash, or are thinking about it, here’s all the information I have in one place.

The Basics

To turn your new phone into a lean, mean, communications machine, I recommend ditching the Windows Mobile 6.1 that comes on the phone and upgrade to Windows Mobile 6.5. Since neither T-Mobile or HTC has released an official 6.5 upgrade yet, you’re best bet is a custom “cooked” ROM. I use the latest version of ookba’s “3Volution” ROM. In the interest of full disclosure, modifying your phone with custom software will invalidate any warranty on the device, and most probably violates several copyrights. However, in defense of this practice, it has been well established that Microsoft is aware of, and its employees contributors to, the XDA-Developers community among others. And with all the resources at its disposal, Microsoft has not attempted to shut down the practice. So if you choose to do this, do so with an understanding of what you’re doing. (See sidebar for more info.)

How Can I Do This

As I mentioned, upgrading the software on this phone likely violates several copyrights. So how can I do it with a clear conscience?

By my reckoning, there are three parties to be concerned about: the manufacturer (HTC), the distributor (T-Mobile), and the OS Provider (Microsoft).

My feeling is that the manufacturer, HTC, doesn’t care about software upgrades. Like any computer provider (Dell, HP) they provide an initial OS, but have no vested interest in what I eventually run on their hardware. Just as I can install Linux on my Dell, I figure I can install a different OS without HTC being concerned.

As for T-Mobile, they too provide a modified OS, which incorporates their proprietary features. But, again, as long as I don’t run anything on their network that violates their terms of service, I don’t think they care whether I run WinMo 6.1 or 6.5.

That leaves Microsoft. And there is an issue here. Just because I have a valid WinMo 6.1 license, doesn’t mean I should also have a 6.5 license. So, ordinarily, upgrading with a cooked ROM would be something I’d avoid. However, in this case, Microsoft has indicated on their website that they will be offering a 6.1 to 6.5 upgrade for the Dash 3G (see http://www.microsoft.com/windowsmobile/en-us/meet/wm65-upgrade.mspx#phoneList). So I feel somewhat justified in turning my 6.1 license into a 6.5 license. Since they say that their partners (HTC and the various carriers) will be releasing the upgrade, I figure that as far as they are concerned, getting it from ookba is just as good as Verizon, Sprint, or T-Mobile.

So that’s why my conscience is clear.

To install it, follow these steps:

  1. Install a \”hard SPL\” security fix, which allows non-official ROMs to be installed.
  2. Install the latest version of ookba\’s ROM.

I’ve written a little about the upgraded ROM here and here.

Upgrade the Radio

Although I’m not sure upgrading the radio made a really dramatic improvement, it does seem to have helped a little. It certainly hasn’t hurt.

Install Some Useful Applications

I’ve made a couple of lists of useful software that I’ve installed. The main list is here and the second list is here.

Learn

There are many resources on the web for Dash 3G owners. Here are some good ones:

Another Dash 3G Update – Upgrading the Radio

January 7th, 2010 1 comment
This entry is part 9 of 11 in the series Dash 3G

The other day I flashed my phone to the latest version of the 3Volution ROM which Ookba had released on XDA-Developers. It’s been three days now and I’m very happy with it. It’s stable and fast and, so far, everything woks as expected. Even the Skyfire ALT key bug has been fixed.

There was really only one last thing to tackle on this device: the cellular radio itself. In a cellphone, there are really two sets of code that make things work, The Phone’s Operating System (OS) and the radio software. The OS controls all of the functions that you can see, while the radio software controls the way the phone communicates with the network. The OS and the radio can be installed separately.

Users on various message boards have reported that their phones seem to drop their 3G data connection back to EDGE speeds whenever they end a phone call. And a few people have complained that their ability to capture a 3G signal in the first place is suspect. Some people hope that an upgraded radio software package from the manufacturer will address some of these issues. In fact, it probably won’t, since connection speed decisions are made by the network and not the phone, but at any rate I figure that if HTC released a newer version of the radio software, there must be some improvement in it….

My Dash 3G originally shipped with radio version 3.44.25.30 (check yours by going to START/SETTINGS/ABOUT). The manufacturer (HTC) released a Windows Mobile 6.5 upgrade separately from the T-Mobile upgrade, and the HTC version had some updated radio code in it. Ookba managed to extract this package and build it into a stand-alone update, with version 3.47.25.29 in it. And that’s what I installed.

The Verdict

Well … the flash worked perfectly and everything installed in about a minute of work. Did it change the way my phone behaves? Not that much that I can see. It certainly doesn’t seem to have hurt anything, but there is no dramatic improvement either. I think that I am able to get better signal on my normal commute, but this could also very well be the result of T-Mobile’s ongoing network upgrades too. I don’t get any faster speeds when my laptop is tethered. I’m not sure yet whether actual phone performance is enhanced (I haven’t made enough calls).

So my recommendation is this: if you are comfortable flashing your phone, go for it. You might see some marginal improvements. But if flashing makes you nervous, then there’s no reason to suffer through this – the improvements aren’t dramatic.

Updated List of My Windows Mobile Software

October 1st, 2009 No comments
This entry is part 8 of 11 in the series Dash 3G

Here’s a quick list of the software I’m running since upgrading to ookba’s ROM. Links are provided where possible:

  1. Opera Mini (included with 3volution ROM)
  2. Skyfire (included with 3volution ROM)
  3. Bing Search for Mobile
  4. Facebook App (from Microsoft)
  5. Garmin Mobile XT (modified to run from my own SD card, see this post)
  6. Google Maps
  7. GPS Test
  8. GPSed
  9. GV Dialer
  10. Midomi
  11. Nimbuzz
  12. OggSync
  13. Pandora (I got the CAB from xda-developers, but official page is here),
  14. PocketTwit
  15. Ilium Screen Capture
  16. Skype
  17. TCPMP (part of the 3volutioin ROM)

Dash 3G GPS Help?

September 23rd, 2009 No comments
This entry is part 7 of 11 in the series Dash 3G
GPS Satellite

GPS Satellite

After more than a month of struggling with the slow GPS lock on the Dash 3G I may have found something that speeds up the lock times a little. Using a freeware program called GPS Test (freeware from a British company called Chartcross), the onboard GPS seems to use a much more efficient search algorithm and finds a lock faster. Still not as fast as my OnCourse bluetooth GPS, but in a few tests much faster than the built-in GPS by itself.

I’ve found that starting GPS Test and letting it find the satellites, and then switching to Google Maps or another application works fairly well. I’ll keep trying this and we’ll see if it really makes the system more usable.

Categories: Technology Tags: ,

I’ve Officially Given Up on the Dash 3G GPS

August 24th, 2009 2 comments
This entry is part 6 of 11 in the series Dash 3G

The other day I wanted to track my progress on a walk across Boston. I started near Government Center and walked 2.5 miles down Boylston Street past Fenway Park to the Green Line stop at Fenway. Never mind that it took 9 minutes to get an initial GPS lock, but even on an open street the phone lost GPS signal 9 times in 2.5 miles. It would drop to 0 satellites on the display and take anywhere from 30 seconds  to 5 minutes to get a fix back.

That’s just horrible.

The ext day I broke out my OnCourse Bluetooth GPS. It typically gets a fix in less than 15 seconds and never loses a signal. So I’ve gone back to carrying an extra GPS receiver because the built-in one is simply garbage.

Categories: Technology Tags: , ,

T-Mobile Dash 3G – Ongoing Update #1

August 8th, 2009 4 comments
This entry is part 5 of 11 in the series Dash 3G
Time Owned 4 Weeks
Software Installed
  • Google Maps
  • Bing
  • GPSed
  • Garmin Mobile XT
  • Facebook

It’s been 1 month (as of tomorrow anyway) since I’ve owned my new T-Mobile Dash 3G. I figure that’s enough time to start to understand some of the ins and outs of the phone and give a decent summary of my thoughts so far.

Hardware

Hardware Summary
Parameter Rating
Look & feel [superemotions file=”icon_biggrin.gif” title=”Big Grin”]
Speed [superemotions file=”icon_biggrin.gif” title=”Big Grin”]
Memory [superemotions file=”icon_biggrin.gif” title=”Big Grin”]
Screen [superemotions file=”icon_neutral.gif” title=”Neutral”]
Call quality [superemotions file=”icon_biggrin.gif” title=”Big Grin”]
Battery [superemotions file=”icon_biggrin.gif” title=”Big Grin”]
GPS [superemotions file=”icon_question.gif” title=”Question Mark”]
Camera [superemotions file=”icon_biggrin.gif” title=”Big Grin”]

Overall, I’m impressed with the size, shape, and feel of the device. The keyboard is more compact than a blackberry or my previous T-Mobile Wing, but it didn’t take too long to get used to it. The phone feels solid — not plasticy. the keys press nicely, and for the most part the trackball rolls smoothly. I say for the most part because I did go through a period where it seemed like the trackball had some dirt in it and it would jam in the vertical axis. But that issue resolved itself after a couple of days and hasn’t come back since.

The processor is speedy and the data radio seems solid. I tether this phone all the time and run multiple applications while doing it and nothing seems to slow it down. I currently have my laptop tethered to the phone with GPSed, Google Maps, and Facebook running and I just sent and received a message like nothing is running at all. There is also plenty of memory, both program and storage. This is the first Windows device of this type that I actually believe could be run decently just with the built-in memory.

The screen is OK for what it is. And what it is a QVGA display. This is clearly designed to be functional rather than the selling point of the phone. It’s bright, and the color reproduction is good. But it’s small. There’s just no way around it — it’s 320×240. This is an iPod display, not an iPhone display. If there was anything I would improve about the hardware, it would be the screen.

As a phone, it works great. Call quality is clear, the speaker is loud and clear — the speakerphone works well. No complaints at all on the phone.

Battery life is pretty good — I’ve never been one to push the limits of a cellphone battery though. I usually charge each night and then plug in again at my desk at work. But on the few occasions where I’ve had to go a whole day without plugging in, the Dash 3G hasn’t run down below 55%, even with moderate use.

The GPS has me concerned though. Most of the time, and with most programs, I have a terrible time getting an initial satellite lock. Inside a vehicle it can take 10 minutes to lock, if you can get one at all. Under an open sky, it can take 2 to 3 minutes. But other times it gets a lock in 30 seconds. I’ve tried to be consistent in my use to narrow down what helps and what doesn’t, but I can’t seem to get any consistency out of it. This is an area I will continue to experiment with.

One thing that I find annoying, but may be a little too sensitive about, is the position of  the volume rocker versus the USB port cover. They are exactly opposite each other on the side of the screen and I can’t seem to do anything with the USB port without changing the volume. While this isn’t a big problem by any means, it is annoying.

The camera is decent for a 2 megapixel camera. It does an OK job taking pictures in decent light, but doesn’t stretch well when the conditions get tough. Cameras on most BlackBerries are definitely better. The camera controls are definitely lacking — the settings are few and difficult to find. The menus aren’t really easy to navigate and changing settings quickly just isn’t possible. But once set to some middle of the road settings, snapshots will turn out looking decent.

OS/ROM

Windows Mobile 6.1 is a decent operating system and T-Mobile’s implementation of it is solid. The phone isn’t loaded with too much crapware (aside from the obligatory Handango-in-hand app and T-Mobile’s TeleNav navigation app) and the apps that T-Mobile does provide are useful (like the account status app). Windows Mobile does certain things very well — it integrates with Exchange servers easily, it tethers to Windows computers easily, and has a decent implementation of Pocket Outlook for mobile e-mail. What it doesn’t do is look particularly good. The new sliding panel home screen helps, but there aren’t a lot of programs that integrate well with the sliding panels yet. So, it is what it is — a regular Windows Mobile implementation without a lot of bells and whistles.

Categories: Technology Tags: ,

T-Mobile Dash 3G — Another Short GPS Update

August 5th, 2009 4 comments
This entry is part 4 of 11 in the series Dash 3G

I’ve mentioned the poor lock time of the Dash 3G GPS previously (see this and this). Here are some real-world times.

Yesterday, I was sitting in a window seat of my train home. I opened Google Maps and let the GPS search. The phone was right next to the glass. GPS lock time: NEVER. No satellite lock was achieved in 10 minutes of trying. (Google Maps appears to have a 5 minute timeout if no GPS signal is obtained. I waited two full timeout cycles before giving up.)

So, when I got to my train station, I stood in the middle of an empty parking lot. No trees or anything for 100+ yards in any direction and no tall buildings at all. Time to find a GPS lock: 3 minutes 50 seconds. To put it simply, that is pathetic. I might as well bring my topo map and compass.

I certainly hope that HTC or someone at XDA-Developers can help sort this out because a GPS with performance that poor borders on useless.

Categories: Technology Tags: , , ,

Dash 3G Camera – Not Bad At All

July 31st, 2009 No comments
This entry is part 3 of 11 in the series Dash 3G
Storm Brewin' in Boston

Storm Brewin' in Boston

I never intended this blog to be a photo blog … but since I’m writing about my new phone lately, I thought I’d show off the camera built into the T-Mobile Dash 3G. I took this while walking to the train station after work in Boston today. This is overlooking Boston Common from near the corner of Tremont Street and Hamilton Place (near the Orpheum Theater). This was really tough light … that cloud opened up on me about 3 minutes later.

Categories: Technology Tags: ,

T-Mobile Dash 3G: Closer Look at the GPS

July 26th, 2009 No comments
This entry is part 2 of 11 in the series Dash 3G

In my initial review of the T-Mobile Dash 3G, I made some comments about the GPS functionality. Specifically, I complained about HTCs power management and the sensitivity of the receiver. I wanted to take a closer look at the GPS after a few weeks of use.

Power Management

I still think HTC’s power management scheme is a problem. Essentially, when the phone puts the screen to sleep it shuts down all other functions except the basic processor and the cellular data service. This includes the GPS and Wi-Fi. The problem is the conflict this causes with modern location-based services like Google Latitude. What this effectively means is that you can’t use Latitude or track your movement with something like GPSed unless you set the power so that the screen doesn’t power down during use. What really annoys me is that many GPS applications have a setting that is supposed to prevent the screen from turning off, but many don’t seem to work on this phone. What’s even worse, is that locking the screen overrides the power settings! So even if you set the screen to not turn off, if you lock it, it will turn off anyway! That’s simply wrong. Try carrying the phone in a pocket with Latitude enabled and without locking it. Just see who you ass-dial when you sit down.

Multi-Program Use of the GPS Works

On a positive note, a common criticism of HTC and other GPS implementations is that most programs access the GPS output directly. Which means only one program can access the GPS at a time. So it’s not possible to use a navigation program at the same time as a tracking program. There are several ways that people have overcome this, including a popular software program called GPSGate, which acts like a GPS data server that several programs can access at once.

It appears that this implementation has solved the problem without the need for 3rd party software. Today I was able to simultaneously use my Garmin navigation program at the same time as GPSed to record my route. Both programs worked flawlessly. This is a huge convenience and helps offset the power management issues in my mind. I don’t know that it totally offsets the power issue, but it helps. No special configuration was required to make this work — the GPS receiver appears on COM 4 in this implementation. Just set your program to find that port and everything should work fine.

Sensitivity and Lock Time

[Update – 7/31/09 — Because I always reserve the right to be wrong — there is a quick note posted by an xda-developers member on his blog about a better experience with the GPS lock time than I report (see http://bupahs.blogspot.com/2009/07/htc-dash-3g.html). As with all things on the internet, I encourage you to evaluate the different experiences and draw your own conclusions. Hell, maybe even go to a T-Mobile store and ask them to fire one up for you and see how the GPS works for yourself.]

This is another issue I’m having. When the GPS is first enabled it needs a perfect view of the sky in order to obtain a satellite lock. If you don’t have a clear view, expect minutes before the GPS locks, And this isn’t affected by whether or not the HTC Quick GPS program is used. In addition, the GPS receiver seems to lose signal more than any other I’ve used before. I even lost signal in a completely open part of the Mass Pike (I-90) around Newton and it took 2 minutes to get it back.

Conclusion

On balance, the GPS seems OK, as long as you can get a signal. Of all the issues, I think the lock time and signal capture are the ones that concern me the most. I can find a way to carry the phone so that I don’t need to lock the screen. But the GPS doesn’t do any good unless it works when you need directions. And a GPS that can’t get a signal might as well be a brick.

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