Killer Hardware Tips

Cell Phone Hacks ↦ Modding Keyboards

First Published: Computer Power User
Date Published: August 2003
By Kevin Savetz

If you're a user who can't leave things alone if there's a chance you can make them better, even if it means bucking the norm, read on. We have some tips and tricks that just might make you more productive.

The 411 On Cell Phone Hacks

Hacking telephones isn't new. Since the late 1960s, phone phreaks have been exploring and exploiting the telephone system. As technology has improved, holes in POTS have slowly been patched. However, even though that blue box you built in the '70s was rendered obsolete long ago, cellular phones provide new territory for hackers to explore.

Most mobile phones have hidden features easily accessed by entering a secret code. Just like hidden codes that can whisk you to a secret level in a video game, a cell phone code can unveil little-known menus and features.

"Typical secrets in phones range from technical details, such as internal phone information, to games that can be unlocked or uploaded to the phone from the computer," says "Nokia Man" of You may have to experiment, though, because features vary from phone to phone. "Because each phone runs different software, it depends on the make/model and what version of software it is running," he says.

For example, on Nokia phones with model numbers 3210, 3310, 3330, 6150, 6210, and 7110, you can enable an extra menu, normally used by technicians, by entering *#92702689# on the keypad. The menu can display the phone's serial number and manufacture date, purchase date, repair stats, and total time the phone has been on.

Maybe peeking at your phone's International Mobile Equipment Identity number or battery voltage isn't that fascinating. The most requested hack at is more utilitarian: codes to "unlock" phones so they aren't tied to a particular mobile service provider. "Normally when you purchase your phone directly from a vendor, such as Cingular or T-Mobile, your phones are locked . . . the phone can not be used on another provider. People request unlocking when they switch providers and would like to use their same phone that's compatible with a different network," Nokia Man says.

Another popular hack is changing a phone's built-in graphics, such as the startup image or the cellular provider's logo. Such software as LogoManager ( can upload new images to some phones. (You'll need a special cable, which you can buy or build, to connect the phone to the PC's serial port.)

Codes for your phone model are a Google search away or look to, (, and others.

Many hacks are harmless and perfectly legal, but beware. Some adjustments can permanently disable the phone, rankle your service provider, or get you into legal trouble. Stealing service is illegal, as is eavesdropping on other users' conversations. "With older phones and minor modifications you were able to listen to other conversations by using the phone as a scanner," Nokia Man says.

But for those willing to experiment, there are plenty of surprises hiding in their mobile phones. Cell phone technology is young, and the hardware is more hackable than a touch-tone pad ever could be. "There are many systems powering the cell phone services and software running the phone. There are people exploring every system," Nokia Man says.

I Feel Dirty

In "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," author Douglas Adams theorized that telephone sanitation had a crucial role in human development. He may have been onto something. According to a recent study testing the bacteria levels on various workplace surfaces, telephones were the most germ-infested objects, followed by desktop surfaces, water fountain handles, microwave door handles, and computer keyboards.

Yes, the keyboard. Your keyboard is a festering cauldron of germs, harboring 3,295 germs per square inch--67 times the number of microorganisms than the average toilet, including E. coli, streptococcus, salmonella, and staphylococcus aureus.

Disinfecting wipes or a bleach solution reduces the germs and bacteria on a surface by 99.9% percent. You can't completely eliminate bacteria and viruses, but cleaning your keyboard, mouse, and desktop daily can reduce the likelihood of causing illness.

If a surface cleaning doesn't seem good enough--and really, we don't blame you if it doesn't--consider disassembling your keyboard for a more thorough cleansing. This involves removing the screws, prying the keyboard open, removing the keycaps and other plastic parts, and running them through the dishwasher. (Tips on opening and taking apart a keyboard are available at You may want to use the antibacterial setting, if your dishwasher has one, which uses hotter water to kill germs. (Be careful not to warp the plastic.)

Or don't take it apart at all. We found online discussions ( and =32513&highlight=dishwasher) that advocate putting assembled keyboards in the dishwasher to remove cola spills and other sticky messes. Advocates recommend skipping the dish soap and placing the keyboard with the keys facing down so water doesn't pool up on the circuit board. Let the keyboard dry thoroughly before plugging it back in.

John Skeehan, Logitech senior product marketing manager for keyboards, says dishwashing a keyboard is a terrible idea. "Don't put your keyboard in the dishwasher. It is full of sensitive electronics and mechanical parts that will be damaged by the water and soap," he says. "The hot water will cause warping of plastics. There is high risk that when the device is plugged in all of the water will not be evaporated. This may result in damage not only to the device, but to your person, and possibly even the PC."

With Your Keys Clean, Mod It

If your keyboard survives your cleaning attempts, it may survive anything. Why not open it up again and modify it with backlighting, for example. Electro-luminescent fiber under the keys will give off an eerie-colored light.

You'll have to open the keyboard, remove the keys, and route the EL cable underneath them without obstructing their range of motion. You'll also need to install a small inverter to power the fiber. This probably won't fit in the keyboard, so you'll need to add a power supply plug for the light system.

EL fiber is available from StreetGlow (, (, and others. Guides are on the Web at and,2414278~root=ocusa~mode=flat. If you'd rather buy than build, ready-made lighted keyboards, such as the Auravision EluminX Illuminated Keyboard (about $100;, are available.

While you're at it, why not add other functions? A track pad, biometric sensor, or FireWire port perhaps? An article at ( shows how one intrepid modder added a USB hub, Smart Media reader, and touch pad to his keyboard.

Other keyboard modders want less from a keyboard, not more. This Web page ( details how one user lopped off the numeric keypad from his Microsoft Natural Keyboard.

The best keyboard mod might be rearranging the keys. Countless computer users swear by the Dvorak layout. It's easy enough to change the keyboard layout in Windows using the Keyboard Control Panel. On the hardware side, you could open the keyboard and rearrange the keys or simply affix stickers in the Dvorak arrangement. However, if you've been typing on a QWERTY keyboard for years, relearning to type can be a slow process.

Another option is a halfkeyboard ($295;; it's about half the width of a regular board but lets you type with one hand. Each key has at least two functions. For example, Q is also P. Advocates say retraining yourself to type on it can be quick because the finger that's used to type each letter is the same finger that's normally used in touch typing.

Also consider a touchless keyboard. Instead of pressing keys, touchless keyboards, such as the iGesture Pad ($199;, have a flat panel that registers the slightest touch. The pad also works as a mouse, but there's a learning curve. For mouse movements, you'll need to learn "gestures." For instance, to right-click, you tap the thumb, middle, and ring fingers on the pad. The device is particularly suited to computer users with repetitive stress injuries and other disabilities.

Reprinted with permission from Computer Power User magazine.

Articles by Kevin Savetz