Friday, December 24, 2010

Points to consider when purchasing an Android phone in Japan

I found via cyanogen's blog a recent blog post from Nick Kralevich, an engineer on the Android security team. Nick was defending the Nexus S from an engadget post that was freaking out (!!!111oneoneone) about the fact that the Nexus S was rooted on the same day as launch.
The Nexus S, like the Nexus One before it, is designed to allow enthusiasts to install custom operating systems. Allowing your own boot image on a pure Nexus S is as simple as running fastboot oem unlock. It should be no surprise that modifying the operating system can give you root access to your phone. Hopefully that’s just the beginning of the changes you might make.
This, along with recent developments regarding updates to and abandonments of handsets, has got me thinking on what are the most important aspects to consider prior to purchasing. The standard pre-purchase ritual involves the comparison of many specs, features, and numbers. This has been correctly pointed out to border on bullsh!t..

Given two handsets of roughly the same generation, by far the most important consideration is access to forthcoming system updates, whether it be through an OTA update from the carrier or through rooting and installing custom ROMs on your own. Apple doesn't have this issue because they control everything and cut the carriers out of the update loop. Google on the other hand has makers and carriers to consider. Until there is an Android user's bill of rights, there are absolutely no guarantees that carriers will continue to support handsets, even only 6 months to a year after release on their network, and even if google and the maker work together to create a firmware update for that exact handset.

So what are we to do? Here are my thoughts. Let me know yours.

Purchase Google branded Nexus phones

I've linked previously to a list of reasons not to purchase the Nexus S, and I tend to agree, especially given the lack of a micro SD slot and the lack of a dual core CPU. However, I disagree with the reasoning that it is essentially a Galaxy S. Yes, this is true, but it is a Galaxy S that will never be at the whim of a carrier with respect to updates. It is a Galaxy S that essentially ships with not only an engineering bootloader but also Google's blessing to use it in order to gain root privilege.

As long as the Nexus phones are physically capable of running the most recent version of Android, they will receive updates directly from Google. When they are no longer able, someone will compile a version optimized for it.

Now we just need to wait a few more months until Docomo allows us to use it. To use it now, other options include B-Mobile and Softbank. It may be difficult to purchase from Best Buy because they have blocked all japanese IP Addresses.

Purchase handsets that are proven rootable

(This comes with the caveat that you are purposely purchasing a phone with a known security flaw. The caveat comes with the caveat that there is no such thing as a phone without a known security flaw.)

HTC handsets in particular are always a good bet since there is a huge community at xda-developers focused on HTC handsets, but Japanese makers such as Sharp and Toshiba should be avoided until we know more about their offerings. The first Sharp handset, the IS01/Lynx SH-10B has a protected system partition and cannot be updated (so far) except officially. Officially, no updates are coming. The Sharp IS03 could easily have the same restrictions. To make matters worse, relatively few people with the skills and knowledge to defeat the protections are using the handsets because they are (so far) only available in Japan.

Demand information on update plans

We know this won't get anywhere because the shop staff know nothing. But the more people that are asking the better. We need to point out that access to updates is more important than megapixels or waterproofing. The best way to get concrete update plans is to wait to purchase until after the next version is announced.

We also don't know which carriers are going to be the best about updating. So far AU is 0 for 1 with IS01. Docomo is fairing a bit better, though they appear poised to abandon the ht-03a after just over a year. (Regarding the ht-03a, I think there are very few people who actually bought one. European carriers are still announcing updates, so it is possible that Docomo plans to update it.  期待しない方がいいけど。) Softbank may have the best update record - at least they have been advertising offering higher versions than Docomo.

Known rootable Android handsets available from Japanese carriers (12/24/2010)

Purchasing any other handset than these listed below could leave you without system updates.
  • Dell Streak (Softbank 001DL) [Not yet available]*
  • HTC Desire (Softbank X06TH II and X06TH)
  • HTC Desire HD (Softbank 001HT)
  • HTC Magic (Docomo ht-03a) [no longer available]
  • Samsung Galaxy S (Docomo SC-02B)
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab (Docomo SC-01C)
  • SE Xperia X10 (Docomo SO-01B)
*Overseas versions are rootable but unconfirmed if the same revision will be available in Japan.


  1. Any idea why Yodobashi is offering X06HTII at JPY 9800?
    Seems like a steal against Desire HD with price tag of JPY 83000 given that the hardware specs in not all that much different other than screen.

    Had to argue with Softbank staff for more than an hour but still could not persuade them to give me the deal as an existing Contract Henko. Unfortunately do not want to change my number so cannot go for a new contract!

    From the list above, X06HTII seems like a good deal at the current price (even after contract breaking penalty)

  2. I haven't looked at the price lately, but that cheap "sticker price" could be subsidized, so in addition to the cancellation fee, you could owe the rest of the full price of the phone. Best to confirm that before buying.

  3. While I fully agree to your overall idea that you need to look out to pick up devices which potentially can be fixed with outside help, I'd say the market structure is a bit different.

    You have up to 3 players:
    1) Google
    2) Handset producers
    3) Telcos

    If you buy a free, unbranded device then 3) can't interfere. I think getting unbranded devices is something more European and not something you can easily do in Japan or US though? But until telcos give their additional improval (need time to remove features and install bloatware after all!) can be substantial.
    If you buy a Google Nexus phone then 2) can't interfere. However if you purchase a branded Nexus phone (e.g. Nexus One from Vodafone) that will (at least) delay updates.
    So the 'perfect' phone for official updates is an unbranded Nexus phone. But then you get to the other point which you didn't mention: price. In one way or another you can often get deals for branded phones.

  4. Edit: But the time it takes until telcos give their additional approval (need time to remove features and install bloatware after all!) can be substantial.

  5. They're trying to dump their existing stock of Desires. Same thing happens to all handsets as they reach middle-age or end-of-life. "Early-adopters" will pay dearly for their shiny new phones.

    Honestly though, the difference between what I paid over time for my iPhone 3G and now for my Desire HD is almost a wash.

  6. My only rule about handsets now is that it be a foreign brand that has a direct analog model elsewhere. Rootability goes without saying!

    I think it's impractical for the Japanese market to incorporate an aggressive Android OS upgrade program. Their impeccable service and support structure is very narrow. And the device turnover too fast. I think it better to just shrug and budget for a new phone every two years. Fortunately we have Android ROMs to fill in the gaps!

    I have to hand it to Softbank, their network sucks, but their marketing has a handset to satisfy anyone. DoCoMo is a close second. But Au continues to fail, exacerbating the walled-garden syndrome by handicapping Android with UI overlays that mimic iPhone - bah! Good luck with that Au.

  7. Haha I do feel kind of silly for buying the IS03 now. Aside from the battery and the fact that it can't be rooted, I like the phone.

    My skills are definitely nowhere near what it would take to even attempt to root this phone. Yea, I've been poking around with different methods, but they all obviously fail. I can't even access the phone's recovery mode physically! If I do it through software (adb command) then I can get recovery mode, but I can't get any menus to show up.

    So yea, very daunting task to get anywhere with this phone in this regard. Here's to hoping some very smart people get on it. God knows I'm not smart enough despite my attempts.

  8. A note about the Dell Streak, it is possible that the fastboot ROM is a different version that is unfriendly to custom ROMs, this is the case with white Dell Streaks bought from Best Buy.

    Even so, they can still be rooted and fixed, they just might require the QDLTool and a bit more work on the user's side.

    But with that in mind, the Streak is actually really well designed when it comes to custom roms, its essentially un-brickable and as long as you have patience, can recover from even the worst reboot cycles.

  9. Hacking your device leaves you also with uncertain updates and stabilitiy issues due to proprietary drivers. The only real solution to all this is to get an unbranded Nexus or Nexus S. This is quite expensive, and in Japan also a little bit difficult.

    I like the platform, but this hassle is kinda make me consider going for a blackberry or the iphone next time.

  10. i have the docomo galaxy s and i have it rooted. there aren't any custom roms for the galaxy s yet guess we'll have to wait and see if there will be one for gingerbread.

  11. Interesting. So they have two different bootloaders, one that drops into fastboot USB and accepts commands and one that doesn't? What are the routes for buying a streak? Directly from Dell, in addition to from best buy? Or thought the carriers? Where did you get yours?

  12. People can successfully unroot and restore to get the OTA updates, though of course it is a pain. You are correct about proprietary drivers. CM 6.0 used reverse engineered drivers, while 6.1 uses the real drivers. The difference is night and day.

    But the community is so large now, that even if you are rooted and not able to get OTA updates, within days of being pushed, a flashable ROM will be available.

    When the govt gets involved, things can get messy, complicated, and expensive, but carriers should be required to pass on all updates available from the maker during the 2-year contract period.

  13. Well there's at least two different bootloaders, the one for Best Buy streaks, and what everybody else has. Perhaps there will be a third type with the Japanese release. But they can be swapped out if they don't play well with custom ROMs.

    I bought mine from a reseller, who got theirs from the UK direct from the Dell website back when ATT had all other Streaks locked down under their exclusive contract. Since that has ended you can buy them from the US website (in fact, their price just got slashed to $400 sim-free, damn good deal if you ask me), Best Buy, and some carriers sell them directly depending on where you are (ATT US I believe doesn't).

    I don't really think there is any reason why somebody would want to buy a Streak from Softbank directly to be honest, especially since the yen is still rather strong against the dollar. I haven't seen the price on the Japanese Streak, but I would be surprised if it is competitive with $400, even with subsidy.

  14. I don't have a Galaxy S, but I see at least a handfull on XDA...?

  15. Thanks for the info. Hopefully we get a friendly bootloader. The reason to buy from SB would be if you don't have the money to buy it up front but have to pay monthly, in which case you shouldn't be buying a phone that expensive in the first place...

  16. I very much agree with the basic premise of your post as the most fundamental part of owning, playing with and modifying a smartphone (or any other gadget, for that matter) is having the ability to progress with the technology. If the phone company and, to be honest, google doesn't make it so the phone naturally progresses, you have to take matters into your own hands. I also agree with you that it will help if people continue to say things like this at docomo shops: "so when will the 2.3 update be available for the galaxy s" and "yeah, i got sick of wanting for you guys to update m ht-03a so i did it myself" (then show them multiple touch - this totally freaked out a 20ish aged docomo rep at my local shop).
    With the points you make here in mind, I'm going to stick it out for the following in 2011:
    1. Dual Core CPU
    2. Android 3.0 (it's next...right?!?!?)
    For those who can't wait, and are sticking with docomo, I'd say the only option is the Galaxy S. I played with all four today (Sharp, Toshiba, Samsung and Sony) for a quite awhile: the Galaxy S is far better than the other three. Easily so.

  17. You should definitely show them what you've done! The reaction you'll get could be a lot of fun. I was sure to mention the reason I manually updated it: "Because docomo NEVER did!"

  18. Went to the softbank store today, noticed two things:
    First, ALL the phones on display were smartphones. Compare that with what I usually see, where there's a small space and the rest are displaying galapagos featurephones.
    Second, I really need to clean my Streak. The one on display seemed so much nicer than mine :)

    Anyway, I found the price for the Streak, but I don't really understand what line means what. Took a picture:

    So if I were to guess, the thing costs 93,000 yen by its self, but with subsidy its reduced to 40,000 yen?

  19. That photo is absolutely classic:

    It's too fuzzy to read what the green portion says, but the red is for パケット放題MAX for スマートフォン (Packet-houdai max for smartphone). Going with the red, top line is the monthly SUBSIDIZED cost of the handset at 1,680 yen. second line is that 24 times plus down payment, which means 0 yen down payment. So subsidized it costs 40,320 over a 24 month period. You walk out with the phone, no cash out of pocket with an extra 1,680 added to your bill each month for 24 months.

    next line is the monthly discount which is 2,200 which works out to a 52,800 discount over the 24 month contract. This is subtracted from the full price of the phone (93,120) to arrive at the subsidized price of 40,320.

    So a phone that costs $400 in the US unsubsidized costs $1000 in Japan unsubsidized.

    And no, they couldn't have made that more complicated if they tried. Wait, they did try to make it complicated.

  20. I see that has himself a Nexus S and he's using it on Docomo. . So very tempting seeing as how Docomo aren't going to release any LTE handsets until this time next year.

  21. Sorry if this isn't the best way to send you a message but I've found your blog extremely helpful since I've moved to Japan. I have a Tmobile G1 but I've been living in an area with only Foma-plus coverage. I have a B-mobile sim card that has been working great whenever I am in the Tokyo area - but I haven't been able to get it to work when I am in Foma-plus. I am currently using a 1.5 build ( ).

    I guess I have a couple of questions for you. Do you know if your ht-03a works with Foma-plus? Do you know if B-mobile works with Foma-plus? Is there any way that I can get my G1 to work on Foma-plus?? If the ht-03a is Foma-plus compatible then it seems like it should be possible to get the G1 working.

    Thanks for all your work. This blog really is a great resource and a wonderful read.

  22. Welcome to Japan.

    I am sorry to say that your G1 will not work with FOMA plus because it doesn't support 800 MHz (FOMA plus frequency). None of us here are aware of any other country that uses 800 MHz, so if you rely on FOMA plus, you must use Docomo branded handsets. The G1 only has 1700 and 2100 MHz (I think). Docomo uses primarily 2100 but 800 for FOMA plus, so your phone works outside of the Mountainous areas with no 2100 penetration.

    Maybe someone here is soon to get a new phone and sell off their ht-03a????

    B-Mobile supports FOMA plus.

    As far as I can tell, so does the ht-03a. It is essentially a T-Mobile MT3G but with a different radio. HTC puts different radios in their hardware depending on region and carrier. So a T-Mobile "HTC Magic" has a radio that supports 1700 and 2100. A Canada Rogers "HTC Magic" has a radio that supports 850 and 1900 MHz, which is the same frequencies AT&T uses. You can't take one and use it on the other's network. The Rogers Magic won't work at all in Japan. As you discovered, the T-Mobile one would work in Japan as long as you have 2100 MHz coverage.

  23. That's for the link. I'll give it and the his first post and read and summarize for a post here later on. Can you point me towards a link with a timeline for LTE handsets?

    I'm not sure how he would be using it on Docomo, though. I see Docomo listed in the screenshots as the network and carrier. How does b-mobile display? Maybe he disabled data and is using it for voice only with wifi (like someone here did recently with a Desire HD).

  24. Sure, here's a link about the announcement following the big switch on on Christmas Eve.

    He seems to be using the browser, maps, and a twitter client, judging from the screenshots. Maybe I'll ask him about it.

  25. 来年の冬モデルくらいから(LTE対応の)スマートフォンを投入したいと考えている = Planing to releae an LTE compatible smartphone with next winter's models.

    I was hoping for something sooner. You're right, time to think about interim plans. In half of that time, Docomo says they'll be allowing any phone on the network as long as it displays the MIC certification mark. I'm fine for the year I think with my current phone, though.

  26. Thanks for the welcome! I've been loving it here so far :)

    Ah, now I think I understand a bit more what has been confusing me about my G1. I saw that it had GSM 850 support and I saw that UMTS 850 was a superset of UMTS 800 and I just reallllllllly hoped there was some software hack to get a UMTS 850 phone to work with FOMA plus. Now I realize that the G1 does not have UMTS 850 support haha.

    I have read suggestions that the iPhone 4 supports UMTS 800 - do you know if anyone has tried an iPhone 4 on FOMA plus?

  27. The iPhone is also a no-go for you. Though the iPhone simplifies things by using the same radio for all models, it still doesn't support wcdma 800 MHz

    iPhone: UMTS/HSDPA/HSUPA 850, 900, 1900, 2100 MHz
    GSM/EDGE: 850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz

    Having support for 850 and 900 won't help either. They are not the same and not compatible. In Japan with the iPhone, you can only use 2100 MHz, just as with your G1.

  28. Supposedly the Iphone 4 contains a penta-band 3G radio. According to (in the connectivity section which cites the FCC disclosure docs report at ), the radio specifically in the iPhone 4 should support UMTS band VI. My understanding is that should be wcdma 800 MHz.

    It is definitely a bit odd that Apple doesn't seem to be advertising the support and thus makes me think it could be an unfounded rumor. But I figured I would explore the option by asking if anyone had proof that it would or would not function on FOMA plus :)

  29. なるほど。I'll be damned and stand corrected. I haven't paid any attention to what Apple is doing with the iPhone so I missed the news surround the FCC report. The J-interwebs also report unlocked versions do work in the FOMA plus area. The information has also been added to the FOMA plus area wikipedia page since the last time I checked.

    This had been hashed out previously, with everyone coming to the conclusion that it didn't support FOMA plus based on what Apple published. That's what we get for believing what apple says ;-)

    Hopefully other manufactures follow suite with support 5 bands.

  30. i've been trolling xda for days on how to get a custom rom on my docomo branded galaxy s and it seems like they don't have any information on anyone even attempting to flash a custom rom to a docomo galaxy s. i can't even get clockwork mod recovery to boot. i can't read japanese so xda is the only place i could even try to get help. lol

  31. from my experience reading through xda and rooting my galaxy s, you must install kies in order to install the galaxy s drivers onto your computer in order to root. i'm not sure if it's pc only, but that's what i've been lead to believe. thank you SO much for the link to mugi-chan's archives. i'll proceed with caution and with lots of google translate. i'll be sure to check in with my findings in case other galaxy s users are here experiencing the same issues. thanks again!

  32. Good luck. Be extra careful. online translation won't be the best because think about how this sentence would come out in Japanese "flash a new recovery". Some what you get from his site in English is likely to be hardly understandable at all - much worse than how online translation usually works, which isn't very well.

  33. yeah i'm just going to use his steps as a general guideline. i'm going to be trolling the xda forums for more information. apparently the reason why clockwork recovery won't flash is because the sgs is running 3e recovery which doesn't allow unverified to run. i need to install a different kernel which allows the sgs to run 2e recovery.

  34. What's this about not working in Japan...? It works on every browser I use. I have to use it on a monthly basis, so I can pay off my mom's credit card.

    Hell, here's a direct link to the Nexus S page.

  35. It wasn't working for me on any browser I tried when I wrote this. It started working after a redesign wrt to non US IPs. If you clear your cookies and hit the site, you'll get a welcome international customers page. I think it was 403 for just under a month, maybe you didn't hit the site then, or maybe people with cookies from logging in weren't forbidden access.

    Or maybe something really weird happened. Working now, so...