The day my G1 arrived in the mail, I discovered that it was useless without activation and that I needed a data plan to activate it. Now that I’m fulfilling all my mobile networking needs over WiFi and enjoying all the plain-old-phone features, I thought I’d share my experience.
This Should Not Be Possible
The issue is complicated by contradictory myths from a few high-profile sources. Most notably, T-Mobile asserts that the G1 would not be functional without their G1 data plan. According to representatives, even an activated phone would stop working the moment the data service is disabled.
Let’s think about this logically. What if one takes the phone on a plane or into the subway system where radio connectivity is nonexistent or limited? Since smartphones also serve PDA-like functions, it would upset most users if their phones became nonfunctional during their commute. Still, many people believe the implausible claims of the company who’s trying really hard to sell their value-added services.
Next To Useless Without Data
And then there are those who maintain that while the G1 would technically work, nobody would want to use one without a data plan anyway. One camp says that while one could use a G1 on WiFi alone, it would not be possible to use it as a phone (i.e. a voice communication device). The other offers the contradictory claim that while voice communication would be possible, the other features of this network-centric device would be gone. So who is one to believe? Neither group is right, as it turns out. It should be trivial to use the G1 with most voice plans, as is the case with most other mobile phones. And networking features work as well on WiFi as they do on 3G/EDGE. In addition, the G1 is a wonderfully powerful computing platform most of whose features are available offline.
But What About GPS? ShopSavvy? Shazam? Does SMS/MMS Work?
The GPS radio functions just fine without a data plan; the problem is that the built-in Google Maps application relies on a network connection to retrieve map data. While it works on WiFi, it becomes useless when on the road where mapping is most useful. However, there is a superior mapping application called AndNav2 that is able to cache the map data and provide offline functionality. This is the way GPS-mapping should work.
ShopSavvy and Shazam, on the other hand, do not have offline alternatives and therefore do require a constant network connection such as 3G or EDGE when used away from a WiFi access point.
SMS is completely unrelated to the data service, so it should work with a text plan. MMS, on the other hand, is a rich messaging protocol on top of HTTP with notifications sent via SMS. Dave has some tips on getting MMS working on a G1 without a data plan.
Using AIM, MSN, Yahoo!, and Google Talk
Instant messaging is pretty pervasive these days and has become a standard feature on smartphones, including the G1. Would instant messaging work on the G1 without a data plan? Absolutely! Well… with the exception of Google Talk, the built-in messenger works using SMS. Google Talk is special so a data connection is required. For those who do not want to use SMS for instant messaging, there exist applications on the market that allow chatting over a data connection. The data-centric instant messengers work just fine on WiFi, though it may not always be possible to find a WiFi network.
Receiving OTA Updates
The updates come straight from Google’s servers, so having or not having the data plan should have no bearing on update availability. Furthermore, it has been shown that Google is able to restrict updates to specific devices. The update process is roughly as follows:
- Google puts the device IMEI on the whitelist
- the device receives a SMS triggering an update-check
- the update-check returns the URL to the update package
- the device downloads and installs the package
It is possible to perform the update-check without the SMS through the Any Cut shortcut to Device Info; this would only work if the IMEI is on the whitelist, and the device checks by itself often enough. However, given the URL to the update package (or the package itself), it is possible to bypass the IMEI validation and update manually. The manual method can also be performed on the phone itself, without a PC.
No data should be lost during the update, so reactivation is not required.
The Problem With Activation
As I mentioned before, I had to get my phone activated through T-Mobile’s data service before I could even begin to use it. Understandably, a Google-powered handset would need to be synchronized with a Google account. A new (or factory-reset) phone comes with WiFi disabled and 3G/EDGE enabled… and the activation applet does not allow WiFi configuration. So unfortunately, the only choice for activation would be over 3G/EDGE:
- If you could borrow the SIM card of someone with the G1 data plan, you could just take a couple of minutes to activate your device using his/her SIM card and then pop yours in afterwards. Standard data charges apply, but the G1 plan is unlimited anyway. You could also post an ad on craigslist if you’re having trouble locating a SIM card.
- You could order the data plan (this could take a couple of hours, but it was almost instant for me over the phone), perform the activation, and cancel the plan when you’re done (again, it was almost instant). A prorated service charge applies, so it shouldn’t cost too much.
- You could use a prepaid SIM card with the requisite functionality, but I have no personal experience with this method.
But wait! There is alternatively a way to activate over WiFi on a rooted phone (running RC29 or earlier, or a certain modified RC30). JesusFreke over at xda-developers discovered how to use ADB to launch the WiFi configuration tool during activation.
After the initial activation, WiFi could be enabled. It is possible to reactivate (Any Cut to Setup Wizard) or do anything else over WiFi. I have in addition locked my phone into 2G-only mode (Settings > Wireless controls > Mobile networks) and mangled the APN’s (using APNdroid) to conserve power and prevent unauthorized data network usage.
So It Works?
Verily, the G1 makes a great PDA with excellent voice capabilities. It becomes even more useful with an optional data plan. Those who have WiFi access most of the time and do not need networking on the go should be able to do without the data service. Those who indulge in augmented-reality functionality and require mobile networking should find the data service helpful. It is possible to enable the data plan for a short amount of time on a prorated fee, so travelers should have no trouble getting network access when needed. And in the future, it might even be possible to route the data service through WiFi/USB and fully replace conventional networking at home.
- g1withoutdata: Dave, a commenter here, shares his advice on his blog
- xda-developers: these guys have done a lot of work on smartphone software
- androidommunity: many G1 owners gather there to share information
If you have any experience using a G1 without a data plan, we’d love to hear from you.