Firmware Modding Your Vintage Nokia Handset

A Nokia 5110 playing a game

These days we’re spoiled for choice when it comes to smartphone software, especially games. Official repositories for the leading handsets feature hundreds of thousands of games, and sideloading adds infinite possibilities. If you were lucky enough to be sporting a Nokia handset in the late 1990s, you probably had all of three games to choose from (and only one that was actually fun). [Janus Cycle] explores the steps needed to firmware mod your vintage Nokia phone, and how to expand on that paltry games library.

Enthusiasts have been modding their Nokia handsets since the 2000s, and the tools required now are the same as they were then. The Nokia 5110 and 6110 (as featured in the video below) use a proprietary cable and connector for communicating with PCs and other devices. Nokia’s official serial cable already opens up many possibilities for handset tinkering, including access to RAM and toggling Monitor Mode. This cable interfaces solely with the phone’s fast FBUS protocol, however firmware flashing takes place using the slower MBUS protocol over a single wire bi-directional pin.

The handset expects both serial ports to be available during firmware flashing. [Janus Cycle] demonstrates how to build a custom harness that connects both serial ports to a PC parallel port. At this point the flashing process is relatively straightforward, especially if you have an appropriately vintage computer to run the old flashing software.

Nokia owners may fondly remember changing the network name on the home screen to all sorts of inappropriate graphics, yet far more was possible with the right technology and know-how. It’s interesting to think about what may have been if softmodding was more widespread during the reign of the Nokia 5110 and its peers.

[Many thanks to the anonymous tipster for submitting this story]

7 thoughts on “Firmware Modding Your Vintage Nokia Handset

  1. I still remember some of the tricks I was able to do via flashing on my Nokia N900 linux phone (I stopped using it because the USB/charge port broke, the cellular radio started becoming flaky and unreliable, the battery stopped holding a charge and I needed a 4G phone going forward anyway as my carrier is going to shut down 3G at some point in the near future).
    I was able to recover from software situations (including accidentally upgrading the kernel modules but not the kernel) that would have been impossible with most smartphones (or at a minimum would have required me to wipe the device and loose everything)

    Too bad the Neo900 project (basically a new motherboard with faster CPU, more RAM, 4G cellular radio and a few other upgrades that kept the case, keyboard, display and other hardware of the N900) didn’t actually make it into production (due to a number of reasons including PayPal being scumbags and refusing to release money that people had given to the Neo900 project). If that project had advanced to the point of being available to actually buy I probably would be using one right now… :)

  2. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to connect to your carrier’s network.

    S40 phones are a better target. But yeah, I am not that passionate, or skilled in fact, to burn hour in reverse-engineer such phone even though it being my day2day.

    SymbianOS is opensource but the toolchains are frightening !
    And yet, you need the drivers.

    those nokia from 2010 are still great.

    1. I think most of the Symbian phones have been exploitable for a while (I even remember enabling unsigned installations on N95) but their biggest problem is that almost all of them (except only, I think, Siemens SX1) have completely locked down bootloader. A while ago there was even a homebrew project to run Linux on the SX1 (Qtopia, iirc).

  3. Still using my 14 year old Nokia 6120 today as my personal mobile phone (Australian 3G network)

    I have about 7 spares when it dies…
    Unfortunately the 3G network is being turned off at the end of 2023 I believe.

    1. I would love to read an article on your blog about these “good old times”! You made really cool stuff for vintage Nokia phones.

      People seem to be getting more and more nostalgic about these phones, there’s even a popular game jam where people try to make games with Nokia 3310 graphical and sound limitations in mind: https://itch.io/jam/nokiajam3 The organizers were even discussing making games for actual hardware, but there is no an easy to use vintage Nokias emulator (which you could embed on the web, for instance).

Leave a Reply

Please be kind and respectful to help make the comments section excellent. (Comment Policy)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.