Switching to eMobile for handheld broadband in the ‘burbs

UPDATE: I ditched eMobile after about a year; this post explains why.

So I switched my mobile phone service to eMobile. This was really part of a much bigger jump over the weekend: I moved from a tiny furnished apartment in central Tokyo to a larger and very Japanese-style apartment on the edge of the metropolis. So far, I can’t say it’s been a bad change. There’s plenty of sunlight out the window, a proper bathroom (unit baths suck!) and enough room to accommodate my [laughable] writing, studying and musical efforts.

One problem I had to solve was staying connected to the outside world. All I wanted was an internet connection: I don’t need a home phone (Skype has me covered there) and I don’t need TV. My building isn’t wired for DSL, so the cheapness of broadband would be outweighed by the cost and hassle of installation.

After some head-scratching, I recalled that eMobile’s basic data plan offers unlimited use of mobile broadband at slow DSL speeds for about 5,000 yen a month. Then I realized that I could get one of their phones and plug it into my laptop’s USB port for unlimited internet access at slower-than-DSL speeds for about 7,500 yen a month, about the same as my average DoCoMo bill (basic plan plus “pake-hodai” and a couple of network services). So I went with eMobile’s basic “smart phone,” the S11HT “eMonster.” I bought it on Friday and have been using it constantly since then.

I am quite pleased so far. I wanted to get a phone with a keyboard for a while. I eyed Softbank’s offerings with interest last year, but was put off by advice from several people that the software sucked (I even heard this from a Softbank sales lady in Roppongi). A friend of mine then bought Softbank’s “Internet Machine,” which is packed with features (including television and GSM roaming) but costs more than my laptop did and, like most Japanese phones, has a unique operating system. Overall, the eMonster does a good job of balancing the sort of things that a fast-paced international digital individual (like yours truly) really needs in life.

The upsides:

  • Internet is very fast, both on the handset and on a connected PC. I’m not sure whether I’m actually getting the full 3.7 mbps on this thing, but it sure feels responsive; faster, at least, than the heavily firewalled LAN connection at work.
  • Can access any email account with a POP or IMAP server. I now get my Gmail messages straight to my phone. There is also third-party software which allows syncing with Google Calendar (which I also sync to my Outlook calendar at work) and Remember the Milk, meaning that I can have the same calendar and task list on my home computer, work computer and phone. Awesome.
  • There are multiple input methods. In addition to the slide-out keyboard, there is a Palm Pilot/Pocket PC-style touchscreen with stylus (which you can use to handwrite characters or tap an on-screen keyboard), a Blackberry-style clicking scroll wheel in the corner, and a directional pad at the base of the phone. Although this encourages a lot of fiddling to find the easiest way to accomplish any given task, it also makes it easy to find a control method that “feels right.”
  • Media integration is quite straightforward; just drag and drop folders of mp3s from the hard drive to the device, then Windows Media will pick up the files on a simple directory scan and catalog them appropriately.
  • There is a lot of third party software available for Windows Mobile, like Pocket Dictionary and Pocket Mille Bornes (I hadn’t played that game since I was eleven, and I had forgotten how good it is). No more paying monthly fees or signing up to newsletters just to play downloaded games (as DoCoMo generally requires).
  • I can run Skype on my phone to call people overseas for next to nothing, although so far I can’t get it to work through the phone’s earpiece–only through speaker or headset.

The downsides:

  • eMobile’s network is not as strong as any of the big three providers. In Tokyo, the main place you notice this is on the subway and in basements, as there is never any signal underground (although you can get a good signal above ground anywhere in the 23 wards).
  • No RFID chip for mobile payments. I was quite fond of the Suica chip in my DoCoMo phone, as I could charge it with my credit card and roam the city at will. Now I’m back to using a Pasmo card which I have to recharge with cash–bummer.
  • The GPS seems more erratic than my Docomo phone’s. Usually it’s off by several blocks.
  • Battery life isn’t great when the phone is on 3G and syncing data all day. It’s just about enough: I charged the phone overnight on Sunday and was down to my last bar of battery when I got home from work on Monday. If you plan on spending the night in an atypical location, you’ll need to bring a charger with you.
  • Contact management is really complicated in comparison to most mobiles, since Windows Mobile uses a slightly simplified version of Outlook.
  • No international roaming. Not a huge deal for me, since my DoCoMo phone could only roam in Europe and certain developed countries in Asia. The WiFi feature largely makes up for this anyway, especially since my family’s house in South Carolina has a good DSL connection and wireless router.

18 thoughts on “Switching to eMobile for handheld broadband in the ‘burbs”

  1. Hello! I just found this blog. I live in Tama area, Tokyo.

    eMobile seems to be a good choice for you. For me, I’m thinking about buying a Willcom D4 or an iPhone. I have FTTH at home, so the internet speed won’t be a problem at Home.

    Anyway, keep up your good work.

  2. Welcome!

    Well, if Ken Y-N is to be believed, the iPhone is gonna be pretty steep.

    I should also add that I was an Apple convert for just over three years (G4 Powerbook and 20gig 3gen iPod), and toward the end I became really frustrated with the vertical integration and non-user-serviceable nature of Apple products. Now that I’m back in the Windows world, I’m happy to have my MS products even if they are riddled with little bugs.

    The D4 looks pretty sweet, though, and GSM compatibility is a big plus for globetrotters… though I wonder how usable Vista would be on a machine of that size.

  3. The D4 looks like a neat machine- but certainly not as a primary phone type unit. It might have great battery life for a full fledged Windows machine, but it certainly won’t be getting days of standby power on a single charge like a good handset running a mobile-only OS and the low power hardware designed for it. I also wouldn’t really want to run full Windows on anything smaller than an eeePC (which I plan to pick up fairly soon.)

  4. Yeah, D4 isn’t for everyone. Only geeks like me are interested. However, a review of D4(including videos) just came out from Gizmodo. Well, I have to say it’s kind of disappointing. I’m guessing battery life will be something like a few hours… And you can’t expect GSM compatibility because it’s PHS. I’ll probably end up buying iPhone. I can’t wait!

  5. Of course, the iPhone has no tethering feature, which was Joe’s main reason for using eMobile. The iPhone 3G looks like a nice gadget and all, but I don’t think it’s remotely worth 10,000 yen per month without even including any actual talking.

  6. We don’t know yet it costs 10,000 yen/month. I went SoftBank shop today, but the lady told me that they did not know anything yet. I’m really hoping it’ll be something like 8,000 yen or less with talking and all.

  7. I saw something about it being 10,000/month on another blog, although actually it seems unlikely to me that Softbank would have a special plan for the phone like AT&T does in the US when their regular plans should accommodate it fine. Of course, with the recent trend to lessen phone subsidies and require more of a payment for the handset upfront it may set customers back quite a bit, but actually I doubt it will cost more than the very expensive “internet machine”, which is even more proprietary than the iPhone.

    I should also say, I still have some doubts about the iPhone’s Japanese input. I would have to see how well the Japanese language IME worked before I even remotely considered buying one.

  8. Roy, wow, you can write Japanese too? Wonderful.

    Suppose new iPhone 3G Japanese version uses the same input method as iPod touch, iPhone 3G’s IME may be good. iPod touch’s IME was developed by a guy who also developed IME for Sony’s mobile phones called POBox. He now works for Apple and he said he developed the new IME for iPod touch.

    But, I imagine lots of people (especially those who sends a lot of mails from mobile phones using 10 key) would be put off by touch screen keyboard.

  9. Was there supposed to be any content to that blog post, or just the title saying “I made it”? A little info would be nice, even though I’m not seriously considering buying an iPhone now, good enough software could change my mind-if the price is acceptable anyway.

    I had actually forgotten that the ipod touch was out in Japan, so I could in theory find one in a store that I’m allowed to play with and try it. The only difference between the Touch and the iPhone is, after all, the presence of the cell phone chipset and radio/antenna. But I do have a hard time believing that the touchscreen IME with no tactile feedback at all could be as good for blind, single handed entry as the standard keitai numpad system. I’m not familiar with the Sony IME. How is it different from the generic system?

  10. That’s a twitter. It’s very popular (among geeks I should add) in the US and Japan. The “title” is the content. He was probably responding to other posts or news articles.

    I’ve never used POBox nor iPod touch, so I can’t explain very well. But “POBox like” means it’s got 予測変換機能 which is a … hard explain… like if you type “ni” then IME
    predicts and pops up a few suggestions such as 日経(Nikkei newspaper).
    This picture this may explain much better.

    PS. I heard a software version of numpad is included in iPhone 3G. But yes, you are right. I don’t think it’s better than keitai numpad system. But I’m a qwerty guy, so it’s not a big deal for me..

  11. Yeah, I know what twitter is, but I just don’t get why a blog RSS feed with just titles and no body is so popular.

    The predictive IME doesn’t seem much different from the one in my phone, and every other. What annoys me is that phones in Japan have no predictive entry for English as well as the local language, as phones do everywhere else. And why is phone OS/software so crappy that I still can’t just install the Japanese font and IME on my American phone, or the Chinese one on my Japanese phone, even though they have plenty of RAM and gigs of storage space?

  12. “no predictive entry for English as well as the local language” “can’t just install the Japanese font and IME on my American phone”. I see what you mean. Actually, I’ve never thought about that! That must be a pain in the a**.. Is that same with Windows Mobile phone as well? I’m not sure how well iPhone 3G handles those problems. Well, let’s see when iPhone 3G comes out.

  13. I messed around for a while with getting Japanese to work on my Samsung Windows Mobile phone that I used last year and this year while I was back home in the US. I never had any success getting it to work, although if it were a model that was more similar to one of the Windows Mobile devices sold in Japan I might have been able to install the OS/ROM from a different phone on it. Annoyingly, I couldn’t even get it to DISPLAY Japanese, much less get the IME working. It’s really irritating that internationalization of mobile phone software seems to be at around the level of desktop PCs pre 1995. Hopefully the new iPhone will be multilingual wherever you buy it.

  14. One of the minor problems with my new phone is that I can’t switch stuff over to English. If I reply to an email, for instance, the header info for the original email is quoted in Japanese and gets mojibake’d for many recipients.

    And one area where Apple really shines is in multilingual support: you can switch the interface language on a Mac or iPod almost instantaneously by clicking a few buttons. I suspect the iPhone will be similar.

  15. Actually, cell phones are one of the last advanced computing platforms with shit multilingual support. Every halfway decent mp3 player and every digital camera I’ve used can switch languages as easily as an ipod, and although for some reason Windows doesn’t come standard with interface language switching (although it is available as an extra install) I haven’t had any problems displaying or inputting multiple languages. You’d think that there would be some effort made for cell phones.

  16. Hi! I have a question… when tethering you mobile to your pc, are you able to download content that you would normally download using your home Internet? I mean with no extra charge? ’cause I using embile Touch Diamond and have the unlimited data plan but I’m afraid of tethering for long hours and don’t speak japanese that is why I cannot ask emobile directly. I would appreciate it if you could let me know. Thanks

  17. Yeah, the tethering works just like any other home internet connection would, although it’s a bit slower and latency is not great (you mainly notice this with streaming media). There are no extra charges beyond what you pay for the data plan.

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