Dialed In: Back Up Your Cell Phone's Address Book

Some people lose or break their cell phones more often than they probably want to admit. Other folks just want a shiny, new phone. I haven't lost or broken a phone--yet (knock on wood). But I've definitely upgraded a few times. And every time I get a new phone, I face the problem of transferring my phone book, which leads me to my mission: Finding quick and easy backup services and tools.

Here's what I found, starting with the carrier-specific services, followed by third-party tools. Note that I cover backup helpers for standard phones. I didn't include applications for PDA hybrids because they often come with a PC syncing program that serves as a backup utility.

Backup Services From Carriers

Several U.S. carriers offer a way to back up and update contact information on their servers. The backup process is usually simple, and most services allow you to update information on the Web, instead of tapping away on your phone's keypad.

The services are available for most handsets, though you should always check with your carrier about compatibility. As for cost, all wireless operators charge a monthly backup subscription fee that ranges from $1.49 to $6.49. (Think of it like a monthly fee for a landline phone feature such as call waiting.) Keep in mind that accessing a carrier's backup service will incur voice and/or data minutes as well.

Alltel: The company provides an in-store data transfer service, plus two over-the-air backup applications.

Alltel subscribers who replace their phone can come into an Alltel store and have a sales rep transfer the contact data from the old handset to the new one via a cable. Alltel says this service costs $10 per transfer and is available for nearly all its handsets.

Alltel CellBackup

To back up data on a server, Alltel customers can choose between CellBackup and MightyBackup. Both programs store information on their respective servers. If you lose, damage, or upgrade your phone, you can easily restore and download your phone book to your new handset. Plus, you can view, add, or edit contacts at the software company's site, and have those changes sent to your cell phone.

Alltel MightyBackup

MightyBackup lets you set up automatic daily or weekly backups. CellBackup promises to save ring tones, photos, and wallpapers that don't have digital rights management protection. CellBackup costs $1.49 per month (or a $10 flat fee for the life of the phone) and MightyBackup goes for $2 per month. To view a list of phones that these apps support, go to Alltel's CellBackup and MightyBackup pages.

Cingular: Cingular offers two options, an over-the-air backup service and an in-store data synchronization service.

The over-the-air option is called the VoiceDial Address Book. In addition to saving contact information on your phone, you can store contacts on Cingular's server via VoiceDial. To access and call folks listed in your VoiceDial address book, you need to call in to the service, similar to the way you retrieve voice-mail messages. According to Cingular, you can store up to 2000 contacts with up to four telephone numbers each. Adding contacts is relatively simple: You can add and update contacts on Cingular's site either by typing in one contact at a time or importing multiple contacts from a PC application such as Microsoft Outlook. You can also upload 20 contacts at a time from your cell phone to Cingular's server. The VoiceDial service costs $5 per month.

If you upgrade your phone and want to transfer contacts from one phone to another, you can take the handsets to a Cingular store and ask a sales representative to migrate the data from your old handset to the new one. Many of the carrier's stores have a device (called a Universal Memory Exchange) that transfers phone-book data at no charge. According to a sales rep that I talked to at my local store, the data transfer device works with many current phones, including those from LG Electronics, Motorola, Nokia, Samsung, and Sony Ericsson. But not all phones are supported--it depends on whether the store you visit has the cable that is compatible with your handset. The device transfers information that is stored in your handset's memory or SIM card. You can move contacts and photos, but not files with digital rights management tags such as ring tones, music, and games. That means you'll need to pay for the apps again if you want to use them on your new phone.

Sprint Nextel: Your backup choice for this carrier depends on whether you use a Nextel or a Sprint handset.

If you've got a Sprint phone, you need to upgrade to a new model. The company currently offers the Sprint Wireless Backup service for two new handsets only: the Samsung A580 and the LG 350. Going forward, the backup service will be available on Sprint's Vision-capable handsets. The $2-per-month service performs over-the-air backups of your address book to the Sprint server. After you add or edit information on your phone, and the unit is on standby, the backup utility automatically transmits the data to the server. You can create new contacts and edit existing ones on the carrier's Web site, too. Any updates will be pushed to your phone. If you replace your phone, you can do an over-the-air transfer of your address book to your new handset. Although the download time varies depending on the number of contacts, Sprint estimates that transferring 250-plus contacts would take about 5 minutes.

If you're part of the Nextel clan, you can use the MyNextel Address Book. This $5-per-month service works on Nextel Internet-ready phones with a Nextel Online service plan. It's similar to Sprint Wireless Backup, though it lacks the automated features. With the Nextel backup service, you can manage and store up to 2000 contacts either online or from your phone. Using the online address book, you can import contacts from Outlook and Excel.

T-Mobile: Sidekick users can back up their data on a server, but T-Mobile cell-phone users are currently out of luck. The company doesn't offer any backup options, so your best bet is to use a third-party tool (go to the "Third-Party Options" section for more information).

Verizon Wireless Backup Assistant

Verizon Wireless: For $2 per month, many Verizon users can subscribe to Backup Assistant, a wireless service that saves a copy of a phone's address book to a secure site. (For a complete list of supported handsets, visit the company's Web site.) Like other backup solutions, this service copies your saved contacts to a new phone. From your new Verizon handset, you navigate to the Get It Now menu and download the application. The service automatically recognizes your phone number and then transfers the contact information associated with that number to your new phone. You can schedule daily, automatic backups and view, add, delete, and edit contacts on your Web-based account. You can also specify either on the handset or online if you want to send the changes to the server or to your phone, respectively.

Verizon also offers two backup applications that synchronize with your PC's PIM program: iPhonebook and AirSet.

The $4-per-month iPhonebook syncs with the address book in Lotus Notes, Microsoft Outlook and Outlook Express, and Palm software. With iPhonebook, you can sync and back up the contacts from your computer to your cell phone and vice versa. For a list of phones that work with iPhonebook, visit Verizon's Web site.

If you want to sync and back up your contacts and your calendar, consider using AirSet. For a relatively pricey $6.49 a month, AirSet lets you update contacts and schedule and change appointments using your phone. You can then sync that information to people in your group list. For example, when a coworker reschedules a meeting on the calendar or changes a phone number, the information is automatically updated on your cell phone. For a list of AirSet-compatible phones, visit Verizon's site.

Third-Party Options

Backup and data-synchronization services offered by carriers are designed to shuttle data between a given company's handsets, not across different providers. For example, you can transfer information from one Verizon Wireless phone to another Verizon phone, but you can't move data from a Verizon phone to a Sprint phone. If you're switching carriers and want to transfer your existing phone book to your new carrier's phone, you'll need to use a third-party backup tool. Instead of backing up data on a service provider's server, you store your information on a device that you keep, then copy it to your new phone as needed.

Backup-Pal

Backup-Pal: The hockey-puck-shaped Backup-Pal promises to back up your phone book with the touch of a button. The device holds up to 1000 contacts, says Backup-Pal spokesperson Sabrina Cook. It plugs into your phone's proprietary connector and transfers data from the phone to the unit or vice versa. Backup-Pal is compatible with many cell phones on the market, including handsets from Audiovox, Kyocera, LG Electronics, Motorola, Nokia, Samsung, Sanyo, Siemens, and Sony Ericsson, says Cook. Depending on your phone model (which affects the type of adapter you need), Backup-Pal costs between $40 and $50. If you want to transfer data to a computer, you need to buy the USB adapter with syncing software for an extra $15. It will be available in July.

Spark Technology CellStik

CellStik: Spark Technology's $40 CellStik supports both CDMA and GSM handsets. One end of the unit plugs into your phone's proprietary connector (usually where the battery charger plugs in) and the other end plugs into a USB port. CellStik comes with software that lets you sync the phone book between your handset and computer.

Universal USB SIM Card Reader and Writer

Universal USB SIM Card Reader and Writer: If you have a GSM phone (such as those from Cingular and T-Mobile) that uses a SIM card, check out SuntekStore's $29 Universal USB SIM Card Reader and Writer. To back up data stored on your SIM card, you insert the card into the reader and then plug the reader to a PC's USB port.

PC Syncing Software: If you prefer to back up cell phone data on your PC, two apps worth considering are Susteen's DataPilot and FutureDial's SnapSync. Both let you enter, edit, and sync contacts between phone and PC via a USB cable.

The $80 DataPilot Universal Kit is a good bet because it has adapters for various cell phone models. For more on DataPilot, read "Tip Jar: Recycle Your Old Phone."

The $30 SnapSync doesn't come with cables; you need to buy them separately, each costing $30. For more information on SnapSync, read PC World Senior Editor Yardena Arar's review, "Two Ways to Back Up a Cell Phone Book."

If you don't back up your address book somehow, you'll need to manually enter your contacts on your new phone. But now you know that better options are available.

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