Those of us who have forgone a fancy BlackBerry, Treo, or iPhone know a standard mobile phone is probably the most non-interactive, un-tweakable device in the gadget stable. But for many phones, there's a way around overpriced cables, intentionally weak Bluetooth software, and lack of good syncing software. The multi-tool of phone data, BitPim, is a free, open-source, cross-platform solution that can back up all or most of your phone's data, put your home-baked ringtones on your phone for free, and sync calendars and contacts between your apps and your vanilla phone. Let's take a look at how to get started with BitPim on any system and make the most of the device you take everywhere.
What you'll need
Before we get started, gather up the necessary items for your BitPim setup:
- Compatible phone: The abbreviated list is most LG phones, most Samsung and Sanyo models, a good number of Motorolas, and one Toshiba model. The full list of phones supported by BitPim gives more details on the accessible features and quirks of each model. As noted there, some non-officially-supported phones are accessible through a straight-up filesystem view, but you have to be very, very careful with what you touch in that mode. You don't want to wait in line at the phone store and fork out for a new model just because you were desperate to get a free "Umbrella" ringtone.
- Computer and phone with Bluetooth or USB phone connector: We'll detail the basics of hooking up your phone and computer via Bluetooth below. If you're going the cable route, make sure it's a true USB cable (not a USB-to-serial cable sometimes sold as a generic solution), that you've got any software that's supposed to work with it, and shop around to get a better deal than the big markup you'll likely encounter with your existing telco.
- BitPim software: Available for Windows 2000/XP/Vista, Mac OS X (PowerPC and Intel), and Linux (pre-packaged for Debian/Ubuntu, Fedora, Gentoo, and as source).
Connecting your phone by Bluetooth
The latest operating systems—Vista, OS X Leopard, and major Linux distros—make Bluetooth connections mostly simple, but I'll run down the specifics. If you're not familiar with how to enable Bluetooth and make your phone "discoverable," or enable other options, refer to the manual or Google your phone model. If you're connecting by USB, you can skip these steps.
Windows Vista: Head to "Bluetooth Devices" by searching "bluetooth" in the Start Search. In the "Devices" tab, click "Add," and follow the prompts. After selecting your phone, you'll be asked to set up a numeric passkey for your device—not necessary, but probably safer—and your phone will check that you really want to connect. If your phone times out of discoverable mode, no worries; just hit "<Back" and try again.
When you're finished, you'll see your phone model in the Devices tab. Select it, hit "Properties," click the Services tab, and make sure at least "Serial port" (with a COM and number on the right-hand side) is selected. Hit OK, choose the Options tab, and enable most of the options there. Click the "COM Ports" tab and ensure that both an "incoming" and "outgoing" port are enabled; if not, hit Add and open one up.
Windows XP: The process is almost exactly the same in XP as it is in Vista, with a wizard leading you through the pairing steps. Once connected, select the phone, hit "Properties," then enable incoming and outgoing ports and other options.
OS X: Head to your System Preferences and choose Bluetooth. Ensure the service is on, head to the Devices tab and choose "Set up new device." Walk through the setup assistant, and then, back at the "Devices" tab, hit "Edit Serial Ports" and open up any incoming or outgoing ports. Head over to the "Sharing" tab and enable the file transfers and syncing options you see there.
Linux: If you're lucky, you can use the built-in Bluetooth controller in distros like Ubuntu and Fedora to find, pair, and connect for access. If you're not so lucky, your connection won't fly in BitPim (my phone) or crashes your system outright (wife's phone). Luckily, one Ubuntu Forums member has detailed the handful of terminal tweaks it takes to get rolling. The directions are for Ubuntu, of course, but most Bluetooth-capable distros should have roughly the same steps.
Working with BitPim
Now that everything's hooked up, let's get inside that phone. Launch BitPim, and head first to "Settings" (the one with that ubiquitous "wrenches in brotherhood" logo). If you just want to back up or grab data from your phone, check "Block writing anything to the phone" to add a layer of security. Otherwise, click "Phone wizard" on the right, choose your model by carrier and model, and then, in most cases, choose the "auto" port on the next screen. Hit "Detect phone" on the next screen, but don't despair if BitPim claims it can't find your phone—there's a good chance it's there, but, in Linux particularly, the software can get a bit picky. In Windows Vista, though, I also got nothing when I hit "Find Phone," but managed to connect perfectly fine.
If you've followed along, you're ready to connect to your phone and make your first backup. This both lets you see how your phone stores its data, and provides a starting point for messing about. Hit the icon in the upper-most left (arrow pulling away from phone) and choose how you want to pull data. "Add" or "Replace All" won't matter much on your first connection, but they're good to note for future use. I'll note here that it took a seriously long time to download "wallpaper" (which can include all your camphone pics), so only pull those if you really want them all. Otherwise, select what you want and hit "OK."
Depending on your phone model, you've now got a complete backup of your contacts list, your SMS messages, ringtones, pictures, videos, recorded sounds, calendar, memos, and to-do items. If you're going to start trading data back and forth with the phone, I'd recommend keeping one backup intact, while creating a second to mess with. Head to Data->Create new storage, give it a name (like "Transfer"), then tell BitPim where you want to store it. This creates a config file in that location, where you can copy all your BitPim data over for safekeeping. Now, let's get to the cool stuff.
What BitPim can do
Now that you're all set up with BitPim, here are just a few things you can do with it.
Transfer calendars and contacts to your phone: This is probably my favourite feature, as I never had any use for my phone's low-power calendar until now. BitPim can grab calendars from an .ICS or CSV file, Google, Outlook, contacts from vCards or Outlook, and many other scheduling tools. Head to File->Import and choose your input, or use the Calendar Wizard to smooth over a tricky interface. If you set up "Auto Calendar Import" in the same menu, you can quickly grab your updated data and push it over every time you sync up.
Grab and place ringtones: Paying $4 to use 20 seconds of a song you already own is all kinds of wrong, and BitPim is a great way to fight back. All you have to do is cut out 20 second s of a song for a ringtone, or just a blip for an alert sound, using a free tool like Audacity (explained in Gina's guide to making ringtones from any MP3). But wait! You don't have to do any file conversion or down-scaling; BitPim ably converts your sound files for you.
Prevent the dreaded "Lost my phone, need your number" email: It's a really simple feature, but being able to export your entire contact list to an acceptable-almost-anywhere CSV file is truly one of those things everyone should try to do. Mobile phones are easily dropped, hardly waterproof, and easy to lose—and re-plugging even a measly 50 contacts is time you don't want to spend.
The rest of what BitPim can do is up to you—it gives you all your cell data, available for export, and lets you drop files onto your phone with no charge or delay. What uses have you gotten out of BitPim, or could you imagine getting? Share your unlocked ideas in the comments.
Kevin Purdy, associate editor at Lifehacker, might just spend this weekend assigning dorky custom ringtones to his friends. His feature Open Sourcery appears weekly on Lifehacker.