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Chronicles of a broken cell phone

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

For the second summer in a row, something happened to my mobile phone while I was away at camp.

I'm a long-time volunteer in, and former board member for, Mountain T.O.P., a short-term missions program that operates up on the Cumberland Plateau. In 2011, while I was spending a week at a Mountain T.O.P. camp, my smartphone fell out of its holster and into the toilet. Now, a dunking doesn't have to be fatal for a cell phone. If you drop yours into water, immediately take it out, remove the battery, and bury the phone in a bag or bowl of uncooked rice, which helps absorb moisture. Leave the phone there for a day or two.

In this case, however, the phone was getting old and I think the dunking was the last straw. I never got it to work again. I ended up buying a dirt-cheap older-model non-contract phone, a Samsung Tocco Lite, online and bided my time until my contract was up and I could get a new phone.

In January, after scanning the after-Christmas deals, I got it -- a Samsung Focus Flash running Windows Phone 7.5, which I absolutely love.

I went back to Mountain T.O.P. last month, and, once again, had trouble -- but in this case it wasn't my fault and wasn't related to my treatment of the phone. Toward the end of the week, the Focus Flash's loudspeaker stopped working. I could still put the phone to my ear and hear to make and receive phone calls, but I couldn't hear the phone ring, nor did it make the normal noises associated with various apps or functions. I had been using the phone to make videos of my camp week, and when I got home I discovered to my horror that the problem, whatever it was, also affected audio recording. My video clips from the first two-thirds of the week were talkies, but my clips from the last part of the week were silent. That was especially frustrating, because I'd planned to include lots of footage from an activity held on Friday afternoon at which my teenage creative writing students read out loud the story they'd created together.

After getting home from camp, I tried everything, including a "hard reset" of the phone that deleted all of my apps and data. (I knew I could re-download the apps from the Windows Phone Marketplace, and could re-sync the rest of the data with my computer and/or cloud services.) But the hard reset didn't fix the problem. I got online with Samsung tech support.

The frustrating thing about tech support is that they have to start with the assumption that you're an idiot, and spend some time walking you through the very simplest potential causes and remedies. (Is the phone turned on? Is it charged? Is the volume turned up? Have you tried a soft reset?)

Eventually, we walked through everything up to and including a hard reset, and then a different kind of hard reset. The tech support representative acknowledged that something seemed to be broken, opened a repair ticket and e-mailed me a UPS label to ship the phone to Samsung.

By date, the phone is still under warranty, although there are certain types of work that wouldn't be covered if it was discovered that I mistreated the phone. I haven't; I think I learned my lesson there on the last phone.

Luckily, I'd saved the old Tocco Lite. I dug it out and moved my SIM card into it before shipping the Focus Flash off for warranty repair. I'd performed a hard reset on the Tocco Lite after I stopped using it -- because I had thought for a while I might try to sell it, and wanted to clear out all my personal data. The phone had apparently been created for Deutsche Telekom, and after the hard reset all of its menus were in German. With the help of Google Translate on my home computer, I was able to figure out how to set it back to English.

But the Tocco Lite doesn't even receive 3G data, much less 4G. It's a touchscreen phone, but it doesn't have any of the modern smartphone operating systems and is very limited in what it can do. When I was using it last fall, I finally got it to synch up with my e-mail and calendar, and download a couple of very clunky Java apps, but it took a lot of online research just to figure out what I was doing. Now, I'd be starting again from scratch -- and I don't feel like spending a lot of time on a phone which I'll only be using for a couple of weeks until my real phone gets back from Texas. So I'm pretty much using the phone as a phone, along with a few other simple features.

I didn't realize how much I'd come to rely on the smartphone features of my Focus Flash -- e-mail, calendar, web surfing and games to pass the time. On Sunday, I was trying to find my way to a church where I was scheduled to preach, and I wanted to call up the GPS map on my phone. But the Tocco Lite doesn't have GPS. It's pre-loaded with an older version of Google Maps, but the data connection isn't set up properly and even if it were it wouldn't work very well on the molasses-slow Edge data service which the phone supports.

A modern smartphone is like having a computer on your hip. It's amazing how quickly we've come to depend on them for so much.

--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government. He is also the author of the self-published novel "Soapstone." His personal web site is lakeneuron.com.

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Sorry to hear about your phone problems. As a cell phone repair technician I can tell you that the ole bag of rice trick gets way more credit than is due. It is better than nothing but not a cure all and in most cases just means that you will have to get your phone disassembled and properly cleaned so that it will work properly again. In the worse case scenario it can give you a false sense of security because you think that your phone is back to normal although trapped moisture is still undergoing a corrosive process. Eventually it will stop working again and sometimes for good. Think of the bag of rice as a band-aid until you can get to your local cell phone repair store. More information is available on our website gomdwireless.com. I hope this helps a few people to save their phones in the future.

-- Posted by MD Wireless on Wed, Jul 11, 2012, at 10:29 PM

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John I. Carney
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John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette.