Road testing some new technology

31 Aug

August 31, 2009

By Geoff Meeker

I just returned from a relaxing two weeks in Florida, during which work was kept to an absolute minimum. However, being self-employed, it was essential to stay connected, with a reliable source of email and a decent computer, in case a client tossed a hot assignment in my direction.

I have a Palm Treo smartphone, which is good for email access, barely adequate for web browsing and no use at all as a word processor. It is also expensive to use from afar, because it connects long distance to Aliant’s system in Newfoundland for all data downloads.

Before going on vacation, I was paying Aliant $25 monthly to download 4 Mb of data per month, which is usually adequate because I work at home and use the device only rarely for email. So I called Aliant to ask about the cost of increasing my monthly data (if you exceed your monthly limit, you are charged $6 per Mb, which can add up to thousands of dollars faster than you can say youtube).

Imagine my surprise, on being told it would cost $140 to increase my downloads to 50 Mb a month. That’s a lot of change.

While on the topic of money, I asked about long distance and roaming charges on my cell. The service guy said long distance calls would be billed at $1.69 per minute, due to the high “tower cost” in the U.S.

I told him never mind; that I would leave my PDA off for the entire vacation, and would only switch on my cell when absolutely necessary.

After all, I had a plan B.

In the last few months. I have purchased an iPod Touch and a Lenovo netbook, both of which have wireless Internet capability. It was simply a matter of finding an unsecured connection once every day or two, for a quick check of the email.

It was also an opportunity to give my new gizmos a real ‘road test’.

Our first destination was a sprawling resort with no free Internet (or unsecured routers). I had to pay $20 per week to hook up, and the connection quality was not great because we were located at the periphery of the resort. In fact, it was so bad that, several times, I had to wander to the other end of the building, or down by the pool, just to check email.

At the next resort, wireless Internet was free. However, it was only available poolside, or in the Internet lounge. Fortunately, our room was located right next to the pool, and the connection was much better than our previous lodging.

The Lenovo netbook performed quite well throughout the trip, doing a decent job of latching onto the weakest signals, long enough to check email. Its small size made it a breeze for traveling, slipping into the carry-on bag as easily as a paperback (I traveled with a full-size laptop on my last vacation, and it was much more of a drag to lug around). And the netbook is loaded with Microsoft Word, in the unlikely event that I am faced with a work emergency.

Our Internet connectivity proved extremely valuable when choosing where to go for supper from the hundreds of restaurants on the main drag nearby. We have some fussy eaters in the family, so it was a real convenience to visit a restaurant’s web site, check its menu and even browse some reviews, before setting a foot in the door.

The iPod Touch did not perform as well as the netbook for Internet connectivity. I tried the iPod several times, while the netbook was logged on and surfing, but sometimes the device couldn’t locate the signal. However, the Touch was a hit for another reason: I had preloaded some game applications, and my teenaged boys promptly became addicted to them (Stoneloops and Peggle are highly recommended).

As a postscript, when I returned home from vacation, I called the folks at Aliant to cancel my 4 remaining Mb of data downloads on the PDA. I had decided it wasn’t necessary. I work at home most days, and when I drive into town for meetings, my email can wait until I get back home.

“You realize that you’re paying $6 per Mb when you do use it?” he asked. I said yes, but I won’t be using it at all in the future. And if there is a situation – such as a week-long trade show or conference – where I do need it, I will arrange coverage as needed.

The service guy was looking at various other options as we spoke, and seemed genuinely surprised when he came across a new data package: 500 Mb per month for $25. (I don’t think he offered this to keep my business – it sounded like this was a new addition to his menu.) I was a little irritated, given that, two weeks ago, they were going to charge me $140 for 50 Mb. Not to mention, I had been paying $25 monthly up to then for a measly 4 Mb.

But no matter. I’m not paying anything for it now.

Geoff Meeker is a communications consultant with a soft spot for technology. He also writes a blog about the local media scene, which is hosted at http://www.thetelegram.com.

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