Help-Key: How To Use a $6 USB Cable and Free Software to Smarten Up Your Non-Smartphone

screen-phonebooktab1.pngWe’re not sure why more cellphones don’t ship with USB cables, but it’s a fact that most don’t. We hate the idea that you’ve got all this data on your phone and no way to add more or back it up short of expensive over-the-air messaging. Some providers allow you to back-up your phonebook for free onto their website, but if you cancel your account, it’s gone forever. But you like to do things yourself, and that’s why we’re here.

Not every phone can be backed up in this manual manner, which does suck. That being said, this guide will work with most CDMA or GSM phones that don’t have their own software. Smartphones like Treos or Motorola Qs generally come with their own cables and software, making this overkill. Most $29-with-contract phones, though, will benefit from this how-to.

It’s actually quite a bit easier to set up and sync your phone than most people realize, on both a Windows machine or a Mac. Even Linux can get in on the action. All you need to get started is the proper USB cable. You can buy them at some Best Buys or Radio Shacks, but the best deals are on eBay, no doubt. Retail you’re looking at between $20 and $40 for one, but on eBay you can find them for about $6, shipped. Sometimes even less.

The cables sometimes come with some crappy drivers or third-party address book managers. You won’t be needing them. Most phones have drivers available from the manufacturer’s website, and they’re almost always more up-to-date than the ones on that CD, so make it a coaster.

Once the drivers are installed, your computer can recognize the phone when it’s plugged in via the cable. This is the first step. Now that the hardware can play nice together, it’s time to let the software do the work, and that software is BitPim.

BitPim is an open-source cellphone management application, and it’s available for Windows, Mac or Linux operating systems, and works about the same on all three. It’s made to be a simple-yet-powerful do-all, and it hits that goal admirably.

The phonebook module is awesome, you can use it to clone your phonebook, make changes, add or remove entries, and on some phones even create groups. What’s great is that the backups aren’t in some obscure format, but in CSV, meaning it’s easy to back-up from one phone and restore to another to move your numbers to your new cell with ease. We like easy.

When you first launch BitPim, it scans your USB ports for phones. If your drivers are installed correctly, it will auto-detect the model of phone you have, and then auto-configure itself to manipulate its data. Once you’re there, click the phone-import button. This backs up all the phone data to a local copy. This is what you’ll be editing, so if you mess up, your phone info is still safe.

When you’ve got the changes made that you want, you hit the phone-export button. This writes the changes to the phonebook. It’s pretty fast, and almost all phones support this feature.

howto-importcalendar1.jpgThis isn’t the only thing BitPim and your USB cable can do to your phone. You can actually go in and back-up your SMS text messages, if you’d like. Or you can manual add or delete events on your calender. Some phones will even let you sync with iCal, Entourage or Outlook, which is really handy for those who want to keep their up-to-date schedule close at hand but don’t want to pay for the data plans most providers screw us with.

You can even sync up your Outlook tasks and notes on most phones, if your phone has a notes application. It’s a manual sync, meaning you’ve got to drag-n-drop, but it’s better than hand-entering driving directions on T9.

screen-ringerstab.pngA neat area is the Media directory, where you can manually grab photos and videos you’ve taken and save them to your computer, or email them out, or even upload them to YouTube or Flickr. More importantly, you can add media. Have a favorite desktop you’d like for your phone? Just drag it in and export it, you’re set. You’ll want to check and see what formats your phone supports, as the image libraries on some phones are limited to certain formats of JPEG.

Besides images, you can use this part of BitPim to add ringtones. Find out what kind your phone supports, and you’re set. You can download them from lots of sites on the Internet, just do a search for MIDI ringtones and you’ll find lots of free sites. If your phone supports MP3 ringtones, you can just copy those right over, and you’re tones are set. Beware that some phones have a 1MB ringtone limit. If your tone’s not working, try trimming it down.

If your phone’s a music phone, as most are these days, you can use the Playlist feature to organize your music, in a very iTunes-esque way. BitPim won’t allow your phone to sync with iTunes, sadly, but it’s better than nothing. It’s another manual drag-n-drop operation, but it makes music phones actually usable.

If your phone supports games, which most do, you can download some freeware Java-based entertainment and load it up as well. Why pay $4.99 for Doom when you can load it yourself for free?

There’s quite a bit more the program and your cable can do to your phone, but much of it’s not good. You’ll want to stay away from the Filesystem menus unless you’re brave or know just what you’re doing. Changing even one letter in a file or folder name can brick your phone, and that’s not good. All of the stuff down there is accomplished in the top menus we just discussed, so there’s no real reason to muck-a-muck with it.

Like any kind of data manipulation, it pays to work smart. The first thing you should do when you’ve got your phone recognized is make a back-up of everything, which the program lets you do. This way, even if you screw up totally, you can get it back to the way it was.

Play around use this all to make your phone truly your phone. Did we mention that BitPim is free and full-featured? Not only that, the developers don’t want donations. You can help, though, by letting them borrow your old cellphone for testing. They promise to be nice with it, and it’s a way that even non-techies can contribute to the open-source world. You’ll feel warm and funny throughout the week after helping.