You are here

A New Lease On Life For The Matrix Phone

The only mobile phone that I have ever owned is the Samsung SPH-N270. In 2003, when The Matrix Reloaded came out, 2500 of these phones were made and sold for $500 each to promote the movie. Mine is number 551. They were by no means the most feature-rich phones of their day but they may have been the coolest. Few phones are able to divide a community in this way. Everyone who knows about the N270 either thinks it is the ugliest phone ever or the sexiest phone ever. My opinion is obviously the latter.

The only carrier participating in the promotion was the American network Sprint PCS. Figuring out how to use the phone in Canada was a minor hurdle to overcome, but that is nothing compared to the hoops I had to go through to get this phone fixed. The phone is now 8 years old which is probably twice the average lifespan of a cell phone. The only forum posts about the phone that I have seen recently say something like "I used to use my Samsung N270 but now either the phone or the battery is broken." This happened to me but to make a long story short I found a company that is willing and able to do internal repairs on this phone and other phones from that era. That company is CellFix and they did an amazing job.

While I was stuck with a broken cell phone, I briefly considered doing what normal people do and purchasing something more modern (like an Android phone). But now that it is clear that my matrix phone is still usable, I will proudly recount my experiences with this phone and mention some tips to anyone who has one or wants one. It's not like I will stop using it any time soon!

The matrix phone on my desk.

I first heard about this phone in 2004 from a special feature on the Reloaded DVD. By that time it was probably too late to buy one from the official site. I also had neither a credit card nor a need for my own cell phone so the matter remained in the back of my mind for some time. In 2006, when the urges became too powerful to overcome, I started looking for the phone on eBay. The only sites where I have seen the phone being sold since are eBay and iOffer. My plan was to either get a Canadian plan for it or try to put up with exorbitant rates by using it with Sprint as a roaming customer. Eventually, I found one on eBay for its original price of $500 and got it working with Bell.

In 2006, the only cellular providers in Canada with nationwide coverage were in the BRT triopoly: Bell, Rogers, Telus and their subsidiaries. Since then, I believe Wind and Mobilicity have achieved coverage wide enough to include more than half of Canada's population. I am also pretty sure that in 2006, the only cellular communication standards in use were GSM (the one that used a SIM card) and CDMA (the one that did not). The SPH-N270 uses CDMA so that narrowed the choices down to Bell and Telus. The newer providers like Wind and Mobilicity don't want to use something as old as CDMA. Even if they did, there probably isn't enough spectrum left for them to enter that market. They'd have to buy some of it back from BT.

I went with Bell because when I first tried to place a call, an automated Bell Mobility message played telling me to get a plan. This is probably the network that the phone would've used if I had called 911. When I went to the Bell store, the employees looked behind the battery and wrote down the ESN and told me that they needed to find out how to enter the "Home SID" and "Home NID" into the phone's memory. These are entered in a place called the service menu. On most Samsung phones, it is accessed by pressing ##MSL. This did not work on my phone so I decided to call a bunch of Sprint employees who obviously knew how to activate it at one point. At this, I was successful. The numbers to dial on the matrix phone are ##845468. This number is apparently the only thing the Bell store needed. I have since reactivated the phone with Bell multiple times.

Does the matrix phone work with Telus? Apparently not. I tried to activate the phone in a Telus store once and even though I told everyone how to get to the service menu, they said the network was refusing to recognize it. They told me that a CDMA carrier needs to have signalling information about each phone model in its database which is inaccessible to regular employees. Since no one in Telus management expected the SPH-N270 to be used, the relevant information is not there. Maybe Bell has some agreement with Sprint that allowed them to share databases or maybe Bell is more open about adding new phones at a customer's request. This might explain why the first activation with Bell took over an hour while the second one worked instantly. I think the guy was either adding the phone to the database or actually making an effort to get the phone working despite its absence from the database (trying to register it as a different model which is hopefully similar enough to the N270).

So I got a few years worth of use out of the N270. I was okay with the fact that the phone had no camera or web browser but I was annoyed with the inability to send text messages. SMS can be received just fine but whoever made the firmware decided not to include a send function for some reason. The most memorable feature of this phone is the earpiece that snaps up. Few other phones have replicated this to date but I believe the Nokia 8110 (the phone that appeared in the first Matrix) had it too. Another rare feature it has is a normal ringtone - something that makes it sound like a phone and not an annoying cell phone. This makes sense because phones were central and symbolic in The Matrix. Last but not least, there is not a single matrix phone in existence that has a carrier label printed on the case. I can use it without giving a network free advertising and $500 is not even a bad price for an unlocked phone. Some people have paid this amount for the "prop version" of the phone. In addition to the 2500 SPH-N270 models launched with Sprint, some non-functional pieces of plastic having the same design were also released. I'm not sure what price those had in 2003.

I used this phone from time to time between 2006 and 2010 but by 2010 the battery life seemed to be abysmal. I would put the phone in my pocket at full capacity and be unable to turn it on one hour later. Eventually it got to the point where the phone would not turn on even when it was plugged into the wall. It simply refused to accept a charge. In 2011, after the phone had been left alone in the tin for several months, I tried turning it on and that time it worked. I went on using the phone for a week but then I saw it suddenly die while I was looking at the screen. The battery indicator had three bars and without me even pressing a button, the screen suddenly went black. After this happened, the phone could not be resurrected and months of waiting did not help. I checked the manual to see if it had some information about this problem. Of course it did not. I also called Samsung to see if they would fix it. They said that an old phone with obsolete parts and no warranty had no chance of being fixed, even if I spent money. Since no one could tell me what the problem was, I went with my gut and concluded that the problem was the proprietary battery - the most infamous cause of portable device failures.

I tried searching for a new SPH-N270 battery but this was a bit like searching for "full episodes" of a TV show. Thousands of links to online stores showed up but none of them actually had the battery in stock. There were also thousands of sites that had the "SPH-N270 battery charger" making the search even more difficult. For all I know, the only SPH-N270 batteries ever made were the 2500 batteries that came with the phones. When this didn't pan out, I went to a few stores in shopping malls that specialize in cell phone batteries. When I brought the phone in, all they did was search Google to take a look at the same spurious sites that I had found. They suggested that I try to get my existing battery upgraded with a new cell. There are some companies that claim to do this. I tried asking Batteries Plus and The Hamilton Bulldogs Bulldog Battery but they were surprisingly unhelpful. These must be companies that perform repairs on all types of batteries except Lithium-ion cell phone batteries.

I kept calling battery stores and cell phone repair stores hoping that someone would be adventurous enough to try fixing a broken 2003 phone. I held on to the idea that it was possible to get new cells because someone else has apparently done this. Incidentally, I found an ad that led me to believe that the SPH-N270 battery and the SPH-N240 battery are the same thing. I ordered an N240 battery but the shape would not allow it to fit in the N270. I connected the leads anyway using solder but this still wouldn't get the phone to work. While I had the solder out, I also tried soldering the N270 battery to some standard batteries in the trickle charge configuration. However, raising the voltage this way did not have the desired effect.

The reason I am using the phone again is the expertise and helpfulness of CellFix in Victoria. It took them a long time but this is understandable. My phone is a project and their main income is from the more straightforward repair jobs requested by other people. The problem was not the battery, it was a bunch of loose connections involving the "VCTXO PMIC" or Power Management Integrated Circuit. The manager reflowed the connections, securing the chip to the ball grid array. He also ran some tests and put the battery though a Cadex battery analyzer. The battery life doesn't even seem that bad anymore and he told me that it has 84% of its original charge. He also gave me the name of a real battery repair shop (Polar Advanced Battery in Burnaby) that will be able to insert a new cell when the time comes. CellFix has made a customer for life.

My hope is that people with broken N270 phones will see this and send their phones to a place like CellFix to have their power management ICs checked out. There is no reason that this phone cannot still be used. If you want your phone to have all the bells and whistles of a computer, the SPH-N270 is obviously not the phone for you. But if you think a phone should be a phone, this is a really fun one to use. The only disadvantage is the one way SMS but in a year or two I might have a solution allowing people to work around this limitation. Stay tuned!