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Roaming sucks. This Handy travel phone could rescue your bill

Tink Labs' phone wants to be the ultimate travel companion, and it's coming to a hotel room near you soon -- if it's not already in one.

Google Maps, online flight check-in, access to TripAdvisor and Yelp on demand -- there are a thousand ways the internet makes traveling more convenient and fun.

You know what's not so fun? Roaming bills.

It's a problem Hong Kong-based Tink Labs is trying to solve by putting custom-made phones with free data in hotel rooms across the world for foreign visitors to use.

The journey started in 2012 when CEO and founder Terence Kwok tried to rent phones and SIM cards at the Hong Kong airport -- an idea he now admits "was not a very good one."

"The first thing people want to do when they get to the airport is to get the hell out of the airport," the 24-year-old Kwok, dressed in a blue suit with a starched white shirt, said in an interview at the Montcalm hotel in London's financial center.

He switched his strategy to targeting hotel rooms and decided the best way to deliver the internet to travelers was through a custom-made phone, which he called the Handy.

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Give a big hand to Handy.

Katie Collins/CNET

Five years on, there are Handy phones placed in 20 cities across Europe and Asia, with more to come. As of last week, Handy phones were on schedule to be in 1 million hotel rooms around the globe by the end of the year, through partnerships with major chains such as IHG, Intercontinental, Crowne Plaza and Ritz London.

For tourists, these phones offer a data lifeline while they're in a foreign land, with a local guide preinstalled in the phone offering tailored recommendations and a direct line to the hotel concierge. For the hotels, it's a way to differentiate themselves from stiff competition. They can also boost revenues by an average of 20 percent, Tink Labs says, by advertising paid services to guests through the custom Android interface and push notifications.

"Once a guest leaves the hotel in general, that connection is sort of lost," Kwok said of the usual tourist.

Beyond differentiation and a way to sell services, the phone gives the hotel a way to extend its relationship to its guest.

"It's a virtuous cycle," said Ramesh Arora, managing director of Montcalm, which has deployed Handy in all its hotels over the past six months. "Increased engagement begets better service, greater income and ultimately a deeper understanding of how we can work best for our guests."

Be our guest, be our guest, put our service to the test

It works for hotel guests, too, because they get the benefit of unlimited minutes and data when they're out.

It sounds ripe to be taken advantage of. What if someone spends 24 hours calling premium rate numbers or streaming a mother lode of content?

"It certainly does happen. We do have people who -- well, I don't know what they do, but they use tens of gigabytes," said Kwok. "We pay a very large phone bill."

Tink Labs' policy is to cough up. Fortunately, the usage is generally manageable, with some people barely using anything at all.

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Tink Labs purchased Luxos Guides to provide local content to customers.

Katie Collins/CNET

Tink Labs has partnerships with local networks in each country it places phones. In the UK it happens to be EE, but Kwok said that in most markets it works with multiple carriers -- all that matters is that they can guarantee good coverage.

The company is set to expand to the US in the coming year, according to Kwok. Rather than going after hotel chains, though, it's targeting major cities like New York and San Francisco. Once one hotel offers the service, it's easier to persuade the hotel across the road that it should invest in the program, too, Kwok said. This's how Tink Labs has managed to get into 25 percent of three- to five-star hotels in London, from 50-room boutiques to massive chains.

Hands-on with the Handy

CNET got an early look at the second generation of the Handy phone before it arrives in hotel rooms on May 1. The phone is manufactured by Foxconn, which also owns an 8 percent stake in the company.

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The Handy stands out due to its distinctive orange flourishes.

Katie Collins/CNET

The phone has distinctive flourishes, with bright orange piping on the buttons and a signature scrawled on the bottom of the screen. The updated Handy snaps magnetically into a charging dock with a special micro-USB adapter. This will make it tricky to charge when out and about, as the adapter cannot be removed, but Kwok doesn't foresee battery life being a problem.

The Handy is slightly thicker and heavier than most high-end phones, but that's because inside is a 3,200 mAh battery -- larger than typical for a relatively small-screened device. To compare, the iPhone 7 has a 1,960 mAh battery and the recently released Samsung Galaxy S8 packs a 3,000 mAh battery.

The most interesting thing about the Handy is the interface, which is a deeply customized version of Android with a selection of preinstalled apps. Each phone can be personalized by the individual hotel or chain to offer information about facilities or options to book and buy services. The hotel wipes each phone fully between guests, allowing them to log into their own Google Play account and download apps they might want to use on the go (Sorry, iPhone users).

In some hotels, you can use the Handy to order room service and control the TV with built-in infrared sensor. A handful of hotels are also investigating the option to replace room keys with the phones.

CNET already experienced the original Handy in Hong Kong and found the concept to be useful in navigating the metropolis alone. Due to popular demand, Tink Labs will soon introduce a new website feature that will allow travelers to see which hotels at their desired destination offer a Handy.

"We get a lot of emails from people asking us, where are you?" said Kwok.

Unsurprisingly, once people have experienced unlimited data with no roaming charges on their travels, they don't want go back.

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