Although the iPhone was officially released in China very recently, it’s been available here in it’s various incarnations for years. For those who don’t know, the iPhone is one of the best phones on the market and there have only been incremental updates in the two years since it’s original release. Aside from being an outstanding phone, it’s one of the best aids available if you study Chinese. Whether you’re interested in buying an iPhone in China or just want to learn about the options and differences between them, read on.
The iPhones that you’ve been seeing people with over the last few years are classified as “Shui huo” devices. That is, they’re not licensed for use in China and they’ve arrived from another country, often as near as Taiwan and Hong Kong. Since ordinary iPhones are locked to the territory that they’re purchased in, you’re required to circumvent security features in order to make and receive calls on an unauthorized network like China Mobile. This process (commonly referred to as unlocking or Jailbreaking) requires no equipment and little software because it’s a firmware hack that doesn’t require any physical modification. What this means is that the process is completely reversible if you decide to return to your home country that you purchased the phone in. You can change the firmware yourself (the most popular tool Quickpwn has a forum with thousands of posts if you need help), or you can save yourself the hassle and take it to a computer market where it won’t be difficult to find someone to unlock your iPhone for less than 100 yuan.
Should I go with China Unicom or settle for the “unlicensed version”?
Considering the two years that China spent waiting and wondering if the iPhone would be released, this weeks legitimate release is underwhelming. The phone arrives in only its latest variation (the 3GS) which offers a speedier processor among a handful of other ho-hum additions like a digital compass, but the real downside is that this iPhone is missing one of it’s most versatile features: Wi-fi. Yes, China has waited two years for an iPhone only to have it arrive without one of it’s most critical features. If you check your weather, e-mail, or news on this iPhone it will transmitting data through China Unicom at all times, even if you’re in your living room or Starbucks and Wi-fi is available. This is a major omission and alone warrants skipping the China Unicom bundle (phone plus service provider since an annual contract is required), but there’s more: going the “official” route means you’ll also be paying a stiff premium. The iPhone 3GS in its largest 32gb configuration costs over 7,000 yuan. With Shui huo phones that offer the same functionality (albeit at lower 8 and 16gb capacities), it doesn’t make a lot of sense to be switching to a China Unicom iPhone if you, like most of us, are on China Mobile and already have a SIM card and contacts. The downside to Shui huo is that you won’t be getting the latest 3GS model and you won’t have access to a few proprietary features like the 3G network and visual voicemail. But you’ll be paying half as much, still have access to everything in the App Store, and all other iPhone functions like iPod and Safari browser work as you’d expect.
Which model to get, where to buy
Should you choose to not step into a China Unicom office, you can get Shui huo iPhone locally or online. A good tactic is to check Taobao to familiarize yourself with the price for the model you want, and then negotiate locally with that price in mind. In Chengdu, you can buy iPhones at Digital Square ?????? or at the cell phone district on Tai Sheng Nan Lu ??????. Currently the price for a new condition first generation iPhone is about 1,700 yuan and the price goes up to 3,000 for the 3G model although that seems like a poor choice when a 3G network isn’t available. Getting the cheapest model you find isn’t a bad idea as long as you check the condition of the phone, especially the screen. Examine the surface under a light to detect scratches in the glass – although the iPhone doesn’t scratch particularly easily, if it does get a scratch you’re stuck with it for good since the glass surface isn’t replaceable.
What about the 3G cellular network in China?
If having the fastest internet connection on your phone is important to you, then you’ll have to sign up for China Unicoms 3G service. But with Youtube, Facebook, and so many other big mobile sites blocked, a high speed connection on your phone doesn’t seem nearly as fun. And you won’t be streaming Youku or Tudou either, since the iPhone is natively tied to Youtube for streaming video content. For checking e-mail or reading news the slower EDGE network used by imported iPhones is sufficient for most, loading full websites in about 7 seconds.
For anyone who hasn’t used one, the iPhone is an incredible device (and platform) and it’s great that it’s here no matter what form it takes. Unlike other smart phones it effortlessly transcends the phone landscape and with the insane number of Apps available it becomes one of the best aids available for learning Chinese, among many other things. When you discover the capabilities of the device along with what’s available in the App Store, you’ll be priviledged to enjoy the best mobile computing experience available on a phone.
Unless you absolutely need a 3G connection, save yourself $500 and get an imported iPhone locally or online. You won’t be bound by contract to China Unicom, you can keep your current phone number, and you still have access to everything in the App Store.
note: Check out ChengduLiving.com on an iPhone or iPod Touch with Safari
Leave a comment if you have an iPhone experience to share or question to ask