Being connected when traveling is getting easier all the time. As new technology rolls out, travelers worldwide find connecting to Wi-Fi hot spots easier than ever. Pricing is becoming more reasonable too, enabling more to enjoy constant connectivity wherever they may travel. The need is there and technology companies are delivering, as I found out on a recent international trip.
On land, Comcast has a new program for hotels, offering reliable, high-performance bandwidth that can easily scale up to meet increased demand. Prices are starting to come down too, as hotel chains provide complimentary Internet access to members of their loyalty programs. Look for more of the same as travelers list having to pay for Internet access second only to noisy neighbors as the most annoying part of staying at a hotel in a recent survey.
Air travelers have been connecting over the continental United States for years. Now they do it less expensively with day and hourly passes and bundled services from companies like GoGo Internet. Soon, American Airlines and others will add access over the Atlantic Ocean for international travelers. Through May 21, 2013, American had provided free International Internet access as they worked out the bugs. Going forward, American will offer a “duration of the flight” pass over international waters for $19.By rail, Amtrak’s new AmtrakConnect cellular-based Wi-Fi using 4G technologies is already complete on many lines and will be rolled out to all remaining Wi-Fi equipped Amtrak trains by late summer.
Not all that long ago, Cruise travelers resigned to seeing “no service” once they set sail. Today they can connect ship-wide all the time. Now equipped with Wi-Fi options that are costing less and doing more, cruise lines are increasingly adding content of their own with internal networks for cruise travelers. Soon, Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas will offer passengers high-speed, satellite-delivered, broadband service thanks to a multiyear, multimillion dollar agreement Royal made with O3b, a global satellite service provider.
Even those who travel by motor vehicle are finding more connectivity as giant networks like AT&T, local cable companies and municipalities make nationwide Wi-Fi hotspots readily available. This availability is combined with smartphones that easily switch between service providers either on their own or via a connection service like Boingo Internet.
In the not so distant past, I would reduce my smart phone to something just shy of brick-status in order to avoid hefty roaming, long distance and other surcharges when traveling internationally. It seems that with each trip abroad though, connecting gets easier, with stronger, more reliable signals. A trip to Italy last month required simply switching on an international data plan that enabled me to travel in Europe as though I had gone on a road trip within driving distance of my North American home.
Travelers who long for constant connectivity? Your ship is about to come in. Oddly, it may arrive at nations other than the United States first, as we see in this interesting video:
Frequent travelers who like to stay connected while on the road will want to take note of this story. A company called Karma has launched a new pay-as-you-go data service that provides access to a high-speed 4G data network for laptops, tablets, smartphones and other devices. This isn’t exactly a new concept of course, but what separates Karma from the rest of the crowd is their social-sharing options that allow you, and those who connect to your Wi-Fi hotspot, to earn free data.
The concept is a simple one. New users visit the Karma website and purchase their own personal hotspot for just $79. The hotspot comes with 1GB of data to start you off, which is a solid amount provided you don’t stream movies from Netflix or listen to Pandora constantly. Each additional gigabyte of data will set you back $14, which is fairly competitive with the likes of Verizon and AT&T. But the data plans from those companies aren’t pay-as-you-go, which means if you don’t use up your data at the end of the month, it goes away and you automatically get charged for more. With Karma, you keep your data until it runs out, then you simply buy more as needed.
But Karma users also get the opportunity to earn free data just by being nice to those around them. The hotspot allows you to connect up to eight devices, so when you invite friends, family or strangers at the airport to connect to the service through your hotspot, you’ll both earn 100MB of free data. The more you share, the more data you get. That is your reward for having good data Karma with those around you.
The hotspot has a built-in battery that is good for 6-8 hours and can be charged via USB to keep you going as long as you need. It also weighs just 2.1 ounces, which means you’ll barely know you have it with you when traveling.
The Karma service provides coverage in more than 80 cities across the U.S. using Clearwire’s 4G WiMax network. It can provide connections at up to 6 Megabits per second, which is generally plenty fast for checking email, surfing the web, or even uploading photos to Facebook. It isn’t as fast as Verizon or AT&T’s LTE service, which is often twice that speed or more, but again, it is tough to beat Karma on costs, particularly if you don’t use a lot of mobile data. The service is also offered without a contract, giving you the option to discontinue using it at any time.
Karma’s approach to mobile data is quite an intriguing concept. I’ve used Clearwire’s network in the past and it provides surprisingly strong coverage in a lot of places. It is also consistently fast, although it doesn’t come close to the (more expensive) LTE service that I use now. But considering how affordable it is and the fact that there are no monthly fees, it is tough to beat for the traveler who only needs to connect from time to time. Add in the ability to share with others, something that happens frequently anyway, to earn free data, and you have a service that could be very popular.
In what has become an annual rite of spring, Apple has released an updated iPad to much critical and financial success. The third-generation iPad, which hit stores last Friday, brings some excellent updates to the device, which has managed to become a true favorite with travelers over the past two years.
The list of improvements in the new iPad includes an amazing new screen, an updated processor and the option for 4G cellular data services for the first time. Each of those is a game changer on its own, but together they represent a dramatic improvement to a device that was already well ahead of the competition. Apple also saw fit to add more memory and a much-improved camera as well, which only helps to round out an already great refresh to the product line.
The most highly touted of these updates is easily the new display. Apple says that it has the highest resolution of any screen ever put into a mobile device and when you see it in action it is difficult to argue against that point. Images and colors pop off the screen like never before and the text on websites and e-books is sharp and clear. Reading on the new iPad is a joy and apps that have been updated to take advantage of the display are beautiful to behold. The “Retina Display,” as Apple has branded it, is so good that it is nearly worth the price of the upgrade alone.
In order to drive that new display, which has four times the number of pixels as the first and second-generation iPad, Apple had to develop a new processor with improved graphics capabilities. That processor allows the new iPad to continue operating as smoothly and quickly as we’re accustomed while still generating much more advanced 3D graphics and images. This is evident in all operations on the device although games are where we’ll most likely see the new processor flex its muscle the most — particularly once developers have had a chance to code their apps to specifically take advantage of the new graphics system.The one new addition that will likely be of most benefit to travelers is the option to add 4G data services to the device. Previous iPad models had a 3G data option and while it was great to have the ability to connect to the Internet while away from a Wi-Fi network, the speeds weren’t always great for doing anything more than checking email. 4G LTE service is a serious upgrade in speed, on par with many home Internet services, and it makes the iPad even more useful while traveling. Better yet, the tablet can now be used as a Wi-Fi hotspot, which allows the data connection to be shared with laptops and other devices as well. While testing out the new iPad with 4G, I was impressed with how fast it brought up YouTube videos, webpages and even movies on Netflix. The only downside is that 4G service isn’t available everywhere yet, which forces the device to fallback to 3G in those areas.
The iPad’s new camera is also a nice upgrade. With a 5-megapixel sensor the camera is now capable of taking high quality images and shooting video at 1080p quality. While the iPad wouldn’t be my first choice for use as a camera, it is at least a decent option now if it is the only device you have close at hand. More intriguing to me, however, is the ability to shoot HD video then edit it directly on the device using Apple’s revamped iMovie app. When finished, you can even upload it directly to YouTube without the use of a computer of any type. I haven’t had the chance to try this functionality out just yet but it really does open up the door for content creation on the tablet.
The new iPad isn’t without a few small issues of course. For instance, in order to power the new processor and screen, Apple had to use much larger power cells in order to maintain the same ten-hour battery life. They’ve managed to achieve that goal but the larger batteries have made the device slightly thicker and heavier than last year’s model, and recharge times have grown substantially as well. Additionally, the high-resolution screen is forcing many apps to improve their graphics and that is causing them to grow in size as well. As those programs continue to improve and upgrade, storage on the device could become an issue too. These are minor nit-picks for the most part, but definitely worth pointing out to would be buyers.
Speaking of which, all of these great updates to the iPad have many consumers wondering if they should upgrade or take the plunge on purchasing the device for the first time. Personally, I think that this is the best iPad yet, and by a considerable margin. If you’ve been toying with the idea of buying Apple’s tablet, now is the time to pull the trigger. Likewise, if you’re a first-gen iPad owner looking to improve performance, this is a more than worthy upgrade as well. On the other hand, iPad 2 owners will need to decide if they think it is worth the investment after purchasing their devices within the past year. My guess is that once they get a look at the screen, they’ll be convinced that this isn’t just a minor adjustment to the product line.
As someone who purchased the original iPad on the first day it was available, and was traveling with it just a few days later, I have found the device to be an invaluable travel companion. The ability to carry books, magazines, games, music and video on a single lightweight device with great battery life is a fantastic option. Add an Internet connection to the mix and you have a fantastic communications tool as well. The new iPad does absolutely nothing to diminish its value to travelers and the inclusion of 4G Internet and the improved display could actually make it more valuable. Either way, Apple has set the bar even higher with their latest device and the competition is continuing to play catch-up. Quite honestly, in terms of the tablet market, there is the iPad and then there is everything else, and the gulf between them just got bigger.
2011 was a great year for Gadget lovers – the tech industry pushed out new products at an insane pace. As usual, a vast majority of said gadgets were borderline useless, but especially for the traveler, the year proved to be quite rewarding.
Like most years, I went through a huge amount of new gizmos, but some of them really stood their ground – and made it into my bag for more than one trip. Here are the ten products I deemed worthy of claiming they actually changed how I traveled in 2011. Fitbit Ultra
In the early weeks of 2011, I realized this was to be the year I would take better care of myself. As any self respecting nerd would do, I did not start with “diet and exercise”, but went shopping for gadgets that would make the job easier. As the year comes to an end, one product has stuck with me through thick and thin – the Fitbit Ultra (I upgraded from the original Fitbit to the ultra).
This compact clip-on gadget measures your steps, calculates how many calories you burn and can even determine how many floors you climbed in a day. I have a goal of 10,000 steps a day, and rarely let myself end the day without hitting the goal. The $99 investment in the product has definitely paid off, and I can end the year feeling much better than I did going into it. The unit wirelessly sends your steps to its base, and the (mobile) web site lets you track food, exercise and progress.
Rarely has there been a product that has worked from day one and never let me down. Verizon’s real 4G service launched in 2010, but expanded almost everywhere I went in 2011. LTE is not the same 4G as you’ll find on some other carriers (I’m looking at you T-Mobile with your Faux-G), this is the real thing. Speeds on the road are faster than what I get on my residential 20mbit cable connection. Finally, I can sit in a hotel room and actually get some work done, instead of work on trying to get a reliable connection.
I’m hooked on LTE – I have an LTE phone, LTE hotspot, LTE tablet and backup LTE USB modem. 2012 should bring even more LTE covered cities to Verizon, and AT&T recently started their own (albeit sluggish) rollout of the service. The largest downside – LTE is not even close to being a global standard, and given how pricey international data roaming can be, it is probably for the best.
It took till the middle of the final month of 2011 to get me the Samsung Galaxy Nexus – the best phone ever made (until the next best phone ever made is announced). The Galaxy Nexus is spectacular – speedy, 4G service, gorgeous looks and the newest flavor of Android.
Sadly, as a T-Mobile user (for phone service), the only way to get one is to fork over $700 to a vendor selling the unlocked version and accept the risk of an imported version with no warranty. Alternatively, you can pick one up for Verizon (with LTE) for around $220.
Life as someone who tries to avoid Apple products was tough earlier this year – the iPad was the killer tablet to get, and Android lovers were stuck with second class options. Then in February, Google and Motorola released the Xoom – the first device outfitted with a tablet version of Android. It is by no means the best looking tablet, and with the arrival of the new Asus Transformer Prime, it isn’t even the fastest. But now I have 4G in it, it does everything I could ever ask for. Best of all, the insane launch price of $899 has come down to a much more reasonable sub $500 mark.
For years, Europeans were able to enjoy music service Spotify. Sure, unlike them, we had Google Music, Netflix and Hulu, but the holy grail of streaming music services remained out of our reach until earlier this year.
Spotify is in my opinion as close to perfect as you can get – a massive music selection, mobile apps with offline caching and an easy to use interface. Free versions are relatively limited, but the $9.99/month option gets all you can eat music and mobile listening.
The Sony Vaio SE13FX is the exact opposite of what you’d expect from a travel friendly laptop – it is relatively large (15″) and weighs 4.4lbs – but unlike other computers, this powerhouse keeps on running for well over 14 (real) hours.
See, I learned that a laptop is just not always the best solution for using on a plane – and a small laptop is not always suitable for being productive in your hotel room. So, for this, I carry the Vaio. When I fly, I use my tablet, and when I’m at my destination, I use a computer that doesn’t make me cut corners. I never have to worry about battery life when I’m at a trade show or other event, and if I need to do some last minute processor intensive work, I don’t have to find anyone with a “real” computer. The optional slice battery on the Vaio doubles its battery life, and switchable graphics mean I can make it sip power instead of slurp it. Best of all, the Vaio comes with an insanely sharp HD display.
Price: From $999 (custom configuration)
Product page: Sonystyle.com
I hate carrying keys, but after one long summer afternoon waiting outside my house with a dead garage door opener waiting for a locksmith, I decided to never leave my keys at home. Since then, I’ve scratched three different gadgets because of keys in my luggage. Of course, the simple solution would be putting my keys in a pouch, but as a true gadgethound, I prefer to look for the nerdier solution – which lead me to Keyport Slide.
Keyport is a unique gadget designed to hold up to six of your keys. The product can also hold automotive transponders, USB memory drives, a flashlight, or even a bottle opener. Ordering is simple – tell Keyport which blank keys you need, and have your local locksmith cut them. End result is a compact unit which holds all the keys you need. Brilliant.
I am a horrible photographer – the kind that takes 20 photos of each object in the hope that at least one of them turns out alright. Sadly, I’m also a geek, so the more complicated (or the more buttons), the better. In 2011, I threw that lack of logic out the window and settled for a camera that just seems to understand me – the Canon PowerShot S95. I don’t know enough about F-stops or ISO to explain why this camera is so good, all I know is that I can point it at an object, click the shutter, and the photo will look great. Even though the S95 upgraded in 2011 (to the S100), I prefer the reliability of my trusty S95.
One of the smallest products on my list – the Micro 250 is a tiny folding tripod that allows me to place my camera on any flat(ish) object, and take some great photos. Along with the self-timer, it also lets me finally take more photos of myself. When attached to my camera, it still provides access to the battery/card compartment, and infolded, offers a pretty stable platform and ball-joint for getting close to that perfect shot.
My quest for the perfect travel noise isolating headphones came to an end in 2011 when I started using the Etymotic Research hf3 headset. I can go on and on about how well they isolate outside noise, or how awesome they sound, but since music is such a personal thing, all I can say is that these are the best (and only) headphones I’ll carry. They include a three button audio control mic, a variety of earpieces (including some freaky powerful rigid foam isolators) and best of all – in its case, the whole thing weighs just 1.5oz. If there was ever a reason to dump the bland white headphones that came with your iPhone, this is it.
It isn’t often that we post rants here on Gadling (unless it involves airport security), but recent developments in mobile broadband have annoyed me enough that the time has come to post an angry rant.
Mobile broadband is in many ways a travelers best friend – it replaced dial-up on the road, it powers the data hungry appetite of our smartphones, and it makes it possible for bloggers to post rants no matter where they are.
Mobile data has been around since the mid 90’s – when it launched as a wireless way to get dial-up like speeds.
You had to bring your own ISP, and had to invest in a pricey mobile modem card. In 1997, I handed over $1400 to get my hands on a Nokia phone and PCMCIA modem card.
It quickly became my best friend on the road (and a sure way to burn through my minutes). Then, in the early parts the new millennium, mobile operators began to act as the ISP, selling data packages as add-ons to your mobile subscription.At first, these were used to access mini web sites using WAP or I-MODE. Then, when technology evolved, it allowed mobile phones to connect to laptops using Infra-Red, Serial and then Bluetooth. Speeds increased from 9.6kbit/s to a more reasonable 54kbit/s. Then EDGE and 1x (on CDMA networks) came along, and we sped things up to 144kbit/s. After that, 3G became the new buzzword, and speeds have been increasing ever since.
The latest buzzword is of course 4G, and if you believe the commercials, every one of the mobile operators offers the absolute fastest 4G network in the country. Some have hired attractive women to promote their speeds, others simply point out how they are better than anyone else and how you can “rule the air” with their lightning fast service.
Thing is, even though speeds have increased by almost 4500x, the amount of data your mobile operator lets you use each month has not.
The fraud that is “unlimited mobile broadband data”
Almost every operator in the country offers unlimited mobile broadband data. And at the same time, none of them actually do. When you start going through the fine print of your contract, you’ll come across the “acceptable usage policy” or AUP. The AUP says you can use all the data you want, as long as you keep it under a specific limit. On an unlimited plan, the limit is usually 5GB. Go over this, and you’ll either be cut off, charged more see your data speeds getting throttled.
The throttle of uselessness.
Throttling is the motoring equivalent of driving your supercharged Italian sports car without any wheels. Sure, you still have an impressive engine, and it’ll make plenty of noise, but you won’t really go anywhere.
On T-Mobile for example – once you hit their “unlimited” limit of 5GB, your speeds drop down to “EDGE speeds” – the same speeds you got back in 2002, or about 144kbit/s. At these speeds, anything other than basic web content or email is unusable. Forget streaming music or video – and forget loading a large web site in under a minute.
Speeds have increased, but guess what has not…
As I mentioned earlier – compared to 1998 speeds, the latest technology (HSDPA+ at 42mbit/s on T-Mobile) is 4500x faster. But guess what – even though the Internet has evolved, mobile broadband has been stuck on the 5GB/month limit for over 7 years.
Seven years ago, we didn’t have streaming Netflix, Facebook, Twitter, Pandora, Slacker or even YouTube. In other words – the entire world has changed, but the mobile operators haven’t realized this.
The limit with no options
This part is the most annoying – once you hit that miserable 5GB limit and get hit with the throttle hammer, you have no options. No matter how much money you offer your operator, you are stuck on the slow train until your new billing month begins.
Sprint and Verizon Wireless are examples of mobile operators that understand how the Internet works – once you go over on their plans, you can pay to stay at full speed. You can do this by switching to a higher plan (up to 10GB) or by paying overages. AT&T Wireless limits you to 5GB, then charges $0.05/MB. Good luck working out the math on that one.
T-Mobile shows how to annoy customers – hit their 5GB limit, and you get a text message with the bad news. Worst of all – their original data transfer limit on Android phones used to be 10GB, but they silently reduced that in 2009.
The mobile operator giveth and the mobile operator taketh away…
This one annoys me more than anything – the operator that lures customers with their promises of limitless data without throttling, only then to change the rules once enough people have signed up.
Virgin Mobile is the clear winner here – when we reviewed their MiFi mobile hotspot, they were the only 3G operator in the country with absolutely no limits on their data. Their terms and conditions didn’t even mention a fair use policy. Then, out of the blue, they decided that 5GB was plenty for everyone, and implemented the dreaded throttling. To top it all off, they even changed those rules on existing customers and keep the service at the same price. Less for the same – that is how mobile operators make their money.
The best way to hide bad changes to your plans? Confuse the heck out of people with your legalese…
T-Mobile in the U.K. shows how to really screw with your customers – they recently told customers that their current 5GB package would drop to 500MB. The message was simple: deal with it, and download your larger stuff at home. After an intense social media outcry, the operator backed down, and changed the new rules so they’d only apply to new customers. Still – the message was clear: you and your downloads suck.
Bottom line – everyone that invested in the product at the time, got screwed by their mobile operator. With the possible exception of banks, no business can pull stunts like that.
Time to burn through your alloted data package will surprise you…
When downloading at top speeds back in 2002, it would take you 64 hours of non stop downloading to burn through your EDGE powered mobile broadband allotment of 5GB. Do the same thing on the newest HSDPA+ networks in 2011 and it’ll be gone in 43 minutes. Speed really does come at a price.
On my cable internet service, I get 250GB/month, and pay $45 for that luxury. On one of my stand-alone mobile broadband subscriptions, I pay $59.99, and get 1/50th of that amount. And while I agree that the technology behind mobile broadband and cable Internet is inherently different, once the networks are in place, there is no good reason to offer one fiftieth of data without a good reason. If this doesn’t show how backwards the operators are, nothing will.
What operators need to do is take a close look at the phones they sell…
In 2002, the average smartphone was a pretty dumb terminal compared to current devices. There was almost no streaming video, no Google Maps, no Qik, no Skype. In fact, the only app that could really downoad a lot of data was the browser – and back then, browsers sucked so much, that you’d have a hard time downloading anything.
As phones improved, we added maps with navigation, video calls and customizable streaming radio stations.
We all know what our phones are capable of – and even though the operators are the ones touting their newest speeds and features – they have apparently failed to realize that people might actually use the speed.
What we really need is for operators to wake up and start offering the speeds that match the Internet. If 5GB was enough in 2007, we really should be offered 10GB or 15GB in 2011.