Backing up cell-phone data

The Baltimore Sun

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Lenny Salmon was text-messaging in a bar's restroom when he fumbled his cell phone into a toilet.

Along with trashing the $300 phone, he also lost hundreds of telephone numbers. On his new replacement phone, he's restored only about 12.

"I made a lot of friends in the military, and now I have to just hope they call me," said the West Sacramento commercial lender.

Salmon is among an estimated 30 percent of U.S. cell phone subscribers whose phones are lost or damaged each year, according to Asurion Corp., a provider of cell phone insurance in Nashville, Tenn. With an estimated 234 million U.S. cell phone accounts, that adds up to about 70 million handset casualties.

In a world where cell phones often serve as our only phone book - storing essential numbers for everything from college pals to your favorite pizza joint - retrieving and reprogramming those numbers into a replacement phone can be a painstakingly low-tech task. But increasingly, technology is stepping into the breach: hardware, software and cell phone services that do the backup for you.

Yet many dialers appear unaware that those options even exist.

"I didn't even know that I could back them up," said Salmon, whose troubled history with phones includes dropping one into a can of paint and another into a glass of beer.

Users of "smart phones," such as Treos and BlackBerries, typically "sync" their phone content - phone numbers, e-mails, calendar items and other information - directly to their personal computer for storage.

But even those with less sophisticated phones can store their phone data on their PC, by way of software-based products such as Snap-Sync and DataPilot.

Those systems link cell phones to computers via a cable, storing contacts on programs such as Microsoft Outlook. If a phone is lost or damaged, its numbers can be easily retrieved and transferred to a new phone.

Don't want to hassle with your computer?

Several companies offer hardware options that store cell phone numbers on a separate device. The $40 CellStik connects directly into the power outlet of most cell phones. Pressing one button copies the contacts to the device, pressing another zaps them back to the phone.

A similar unit, the Backup-Pal, stores more than 2,000 phone numbers, and features one-button transfer of contacts to and from the device.

Phone companies market their own backup services. Verizon Wireless, for instance, offers "backup assistant," which automatically pulls contacts from your phone and stores them on its secure servers. They can be retrieved and transferred to a replacement phone. The monthly fee is $2, but free if you manage your account online.

T-Mobile offers a similar service free to its customers, but it works with only a handful of phones.

Cingular/AT&T; customers can use the company's Voice Dial Address Book, which costs $5 a month to store names and numbers on a server. The service's main function is to allow users to dial a number and place calls using verbal commands.

SureWest Wireless of Roseville, Calif., offers its Call Backup service, which saves your contacts to a server for $1.59 a month.

Haavard Sterri, SureWest's executive director of marketing, said his company hasn't heavily promoted the service, but is seeing more interest. "A lot of times people aren't even aware they've lost all their information," he said. "So [a lost phone] is a wake-up call."

Expensive ring tones, which can cost $3 or more, generally can't be backed up because of copyright issues, experts say.

But several ring-tone sellers such as Flycell and Thumbplay will store your purchases in a "vault" where they can be retrieved for free and sent to a replacement phone, as long as it's the same number.

If you've made your own ring tone from music stored on your computer, using software from a company such as Xingtone, your backup is on your hard drive and free of copyright issues.

Photos and videos taken on a cell phone can be saved by sending them to your e-mail via text message. If your phone has a memory card that stores photos and music, it can be plugged into a PC and its contents copied to the computer.

But most games stored on a damaged phone are lost forever.

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