First, a warning for those that are only interested in my travel blog posts - you may want to skip this one, it's a bit more geek-oriented than usual. For the rest of you (yes, both of you), read on!
So, despite help from around the world (cheers Oscar), nothing I tried was able to resurrect my dead iPhone 4. After quite a bit of online research (travelling around China affords me fair bit of free time) I convinced myself that the time was right to go Android. Android 4 is not quite iOS-polished yet, but it’s getting there and being a heavy user of Google products, the close OS-integration definitely appealed. A micro-SIM in my pocket meant that the list of compatible handsets was relatively short but on that list was the Samsung Galaxy S3. Having read the mostly rave reviews, what better Android handset to help sever the cords from Mother Apple?
What could possibly go wrong? Well, a few things.
I found a shop in Guilin that looked legit and was offering the S3 at a good price. Being naturally cautious, I made sure that my Vodafone SIM worked and had a brief look at the OS to make sure it was the latest version. Happy as Larry, I paid up and made off with my new toy, even stopping to buy a cheap cover for it (including haggling 50p off the price – a bit pointless considering what I’d just paid for the phone but it’s the principle dammit!).
Back at the hostel, I got the phone hooked up to the internet, started setting it up and immediately noticed a few anomalies. First: no Google Play store. Without that, how was I going to install the apps I need? Or any apps? A bit of investigation online told me that to get the Play store, I would need to root the phone – something I was very reluctant to do with a brand new handset, since it voids any warranty. I also discovered that the particular model I’d just been sold was China-specific (the i9308 instead of the i9300) – something that both the shop and the Wikipedia article on the Galaxy S3 failed to mention. This would have meant that the mobile would not work properly outside of China. Not ideal.
OK, I could go back to the store and get the correct model, but the inability to install apps was more worrying. More digging showed that a pile of other Android settings were either short on options or missing altogether.
Back to the shop.
Luckily, the nice girl who originally sold me the phone was still there. With a bit of pointing and showing, I managed to explain about the handset compatibility problem. She duly appeared with the right model, but before I left this time, I asked her to show me how to install apps.
Although she couldn’t get the Google Play store, she did get a Chinese version installed by sending the APK over via Bluetooth. A bit of a techie-hack, but it worked. I asked her to install an app to prove that it worked – the Gmail app. She managed to get it to install, but it wouldn’t run – something I suspected might happen according to one of the forums I’d read: a language-pack incompatibility apparently.
Fast suspecting that her commission was about to evaporate, she tried gamely to get it to work by installing APK’s direct from a PC. A bit of a dirtier hack and not something I fancied having to do myself. After 20 minutes without success, I finally called a halt to proceedings and demanded a refund (mysteriously, her previously good English dried up at that point and she couldn’t understand the word ‘refund’). Luckily for me the shop owner seemed to accept that a smartphone that can’t install apps is not much use and gave me my money back.
So what to make of all this? Firstly, why, if I’m buying an unlocked, SIM free handset, is Android hobbled so it only works in the country of purchase? Why can’t I just change the language to English (UK) and get on with it? Why? WHY?
I thought the whole point of Android was openness. Does iOS, with all its restrictions, stop you doing this with an unlocked phone? Not as far as I can tell.
I actually wrote a letter to the head of Samsung UK explaining all this and asking for help (no reply so far). I also pointed out that the combination of Android 4 and the Galaxy S3 had finally persuaded a 4+ year iPhone user to make the switch. I mean, I'd actually handed over my cash and walked out the store!
Now things aren't so clear cut. The issues above effectively mean that I can’t get a new phone until I get back to the UK in November – the Vietnamese or Thai versions may not have the same problems but why would I take the risk? By then the new iPhone will be out and that with all the collateral I’ve got in the App Store means I may no longer be so keen to move.
They almost had me…