More thinking on travelling without a laptop

When it comes to the technology that I carry with me on trips away, I have begun to start weighing devices on my kitchen scales. The results are a little revealing. The HP Pavilion dm5 that has gone with me to Ireland and other places weighs between 2.5 and 3 kg while my Apple iPad Mini 2 comes in at 764 grams. My 12.9″ iPad Pro with its Logitech keyboard weighs between these at 110 to 1200 grams. The idea of consolidating computing devices for travel has been discussed on here before now and the main thing stopping my just going with the iPad Pro was the viewing of photos without filling up its 32 GB of storage space.

Since then, I just may have found a workaround and it is another gadget, this time weighing only a few hundred grams: a 1 TB WD My Passport Wireless portable hard drive. Aside from having a SD card slot that allows the automatic backup of photos, it also can connect with tablets and phones using WiFi broadband.

WD My Passport Wireless

It is the WD My Cloud app that makes the connections to mobile devices useful and it works smoothly on iOS and Android devices too. Nevertheless, there is more functionality on the latter ones such as DNG file support and an added slide show feature that works with JPEG files. Both of these are invaluable for viewing photos and I feel a little short-changed that they are not available on iOS. Hopefully, that will get resolved sooner rather than later.

Thankfully, my Pentax K5 II DSLR camera can be persuaded to save DNG and JPEG files simultaneously so that they can be viewed full screen on both types of devices without having to transfer them onto the tablet first as you would with Apple’s SD card reader. Usefully, that gets around my oversight in buying iPads with only 32 GB of storage each. That now looks like a false economy given what I am trying now.

Such is the weight difference, just taking along my Apple iPad Pro and the WD device will save around 1 kg and there is less fuss at airport security screening too. While my HTC phone would suffice for seeing photos as slide shows, I am wondering if my battered Google Nexus 9 could come too. The only dilemma then would be how to pack things since I am not sure how a large iPad screen would seem to cabin crew or other passengers during take off and landing. That makes using the Nexus 9 onboard more of a proposition and the iPad might go into the hold luggage to make life a little easier. Still, that choice is a minor concern now that I can try travelling overseas without a laptop to see how I get along.

Upgrading a 2012 Google Nexus 7 to Android 5.0

Today, I was lured into upgrading my 2012 Google (ASUS) Nexus 7 to the final version of Android 5.0 (also known as Lollipop) by an icon in the device’s top panel. Initially, it felt as it was working OK but a certain sluggish could not be overlooked and there have been complaints about this with some questioning the sense of what Google have done. However, there would have been comments about grandfathering the device if they had not left us have the latest release of Android so there was no victory either way. We humans are fickle creatures and there is an example of exactly that in a well observed double-ended short story by the Irish writer Maura Laverty.

My impressions of how the upgrade had lumbered the tablet had me wondering about replacing the thing with either an Apple iPad Mini 2 or a Google (HTC) Nexus 9 but a much less expensive option came to mind: doing a full factory reset of the device using its recovery mode. That may sound drastic but much of what I had on there was in the cloud anyway so there was nothing to lose. So these are the instructions from Google themselves and I will leave you to use them at your own risk:

  1. If your tablet is on, turn it off.
  2. Press and hold the Volume Down button, then press and hold the Power button at the same time until the tablet turns on. You’ll see the word “Start” with an arrow around it.
  3. Press the Volume Down button twice to highlight “Recovery mode”.
  4. Press the Power button to start Recovery mode. You’ll see an image of an Android robot with a red exclamation mark and the words “No command.”
  5. While holding down the Power button, press the Volume Up button.
  6. Use the volume buttons to scroll to “wipe data/factory reset,” then press the Power button to select it.
  7. Scroll down to “Yes -- erase all user data,” then press the Power button to select it.

Note: If your tablet becomes unresponsive at any point during these steps, you can restart it by holding down the Power button for several seconds.

Once that was completed and the tablet restarted, the set-up routine began and took around an hour to reinstate the various apps that had been lost by the rest. Much of that was down to the time taken for re-installation rather than that taken by the actual downloads themselves over a wired broadband connection. The wait was worth it because the Nexus 7 feels more responsive again. While there times when little lags are noticeable, they are nothing next to the slowdown that I had witnessed before the rest. It might have been a better option than attempting to return to Android 4.4.4 using a factory image, which was another option that I was considering. So long as there is no deterioration in speed, the effort expended to do a reset will have been worthwhile.

Trying out Irish Mobile Broadband

Over the course of a year, I end up visiting Ireland a few times so I decided to invest in a Meteor PAYG broadband stick to see how I’d get on with it. For €20, your can get a 30-day pass with 7.5 GB downloading capacity, a more generous offer than you’d get with some UK mobile networks (T-Mobile really come to mind here). Signal strength was strong wherever I tried it too with 3G being available so long as you are in the right place with EDGE being the lowest that I got otherwise. Download speeds are good too so it turned out to be a good investment of €30 to get the Huawei E173 USB dongle (I had a T-Mobile one of these before and it no longer works so I am keeping an eye on reliability with this one; the design seems a little different and I am getting OK so far) and €20 of credit that comes with it. After all, anything’s better than the punitive roaming rates that UK providers charge.

A useful little device

Last weekend, I ran into quite a lot of bother with my wired broadband service. Eventually, after a few phone calls to my provider, it was traced to my local telephone exchange and took another few days before it finally got sorted. Before that, a new ADSL filter (from a nearby branch of Maplin as it happened) was needed because the old one didn’t work with my phone. Without that, it wouldn’t have been possible to debug what was happening with the broadband clashing with my phone with the way that I set up things. Resetting the router was next and then there was a password change before the exchange was blamed. After all that, connectivity is back again and I even upgraded in the middle of it all. Downloads are faster and television viewing is a lot, lot smoother too. Having seen fairly decent customer service throughout all this, I am planning to stick with my provider for a while longer too.

Of course, this outage could have left me disconnected from the Internet but for the rise of mobile broadband. Working off dongles is all very fine until coverage lets you down and that seems to be my experience with Vodafone at the moment. Another fly in the ointment was my having a locked down work laptop that didn’t entertain such the software installation that is needed for running these things, a not unexpected state of affairs though it is possible to connect over wired and wireless networks using VPN. With my needing to work from home on Monday, I really had to get that computer online. Saturday evening saw me getting my Toshiba laptop online using mobile broadband and then setting up an ad hoc network using Windows 7 to hook up the work laptop. To my relief, that did the trick but the next day saw me come across another option in Argos (the range of computing kit in there still continues to surprise me) that made life even easier.

While seeing if it was possible to connect a wired or wireless router to mobile broadband, I came across devices that both connected via the 3G network and acted as wireless routers too. Vodafone have an interesting option into which you can plug a standard mobile broadband dongle for the required functionality. For a while now, 3 has had its Mifi with the ability to connect to the mobile network and relay Wi-Fi signals too. Though it pioneered this as far as I know, others are following their lead with T-Mobile offering something similar: its Wireless Pointer. Unsurprisingly, Vodafone has its own too though I didn’t find and mention of mobile Wi-Fi on the O2 website.

That trip into Argos resulted in a return home to find out more about the latter device before making a purchase. Having had a broadly positive experience of T-Mobile’s network coverage, I was willing to go with it as long as it didn’t need a dongle. The T-Mobile one that I have seems not to be working properly so I needed to make sure that wasn’t going to be a problem before I spent any money. When I brought home the Wireless Pointer, I swapped the SIM card from the dongle to get going without too much to do. Thankfully, the Wi-Fi is secured using WPA2 and the documentation tells you where to get the entry key. Having things secured like this means that someone cannot fritter away your monthly allowance too and that’s as important for PAYG customers (like me) as much as those with a contract. Of course, eavesdropping is another possibility that is made more difficult too. So far, I have stuck with using it while plugged in to an electrical socket (USB computer connections are possible as well) but I need to check on the battery life too. Up to five devices can be connected by Wi-Fi and I can vouch that working with two connected devices is more than a possibility. My main PC has acquired a Belkin Wi-Fi dongle in order to use the Wireless Pointer too and that has worked very well too. In fact, I found that connectivity was independent of what operating system I used: Linux Mint, Ubuntu, Windows XP and Windows 7 all connected without any bother. The gadget fits in the palm of my hand too so it hardly can be called large but it does what it sets out to do and I have been glad to have it so far.

Why go elsewhere when you can get it at Argos?

It is perhaps a sign of the technological times in which we live that even mainstream stores like Argos stock computing equipment these days. For instance, last weekend, I bought a Seagate Expansion 2 GB external hard drive in there for backing up my digital photo collection and never got to a local independent computer shop like I had planned to do. Maybe, it was the convenience and lack of fuss with a catalogue shop that swung it for me but the largest size at the other place was 1 GB according to its website anyway.

Other items bought from the pervasive chain have included a BlackBerry, a Vodafone mobile broadband dongle and an Asus Eee PC. All have done what I have asked of them and without any trouble but it does make me wonder about the threat to the specialist PC stores from their more mainstream competitors and it isn’t just Argos either. Tesco also tempt folk into their stores with technological goods and I must own up to having a cheap DVD player from  there.

In former times, I might have been lured into purchasing at online stores until the reality of dealing with inflexible delivery services took away the shine after a few years. After all, I’d prefer not to burden neighbours with taking delivery of any purchases. My current job offers the possibility of some home working so that might be an option for those things that do need delivering but there remains a certain immediacy to going into a real shop for what you need and bringing it away on the day (having paid for it, of course) that is difficult to beat.

While I tend to decide what to get using my mind after doing some research, others may prefer the idea of getting some advice in a shop and that’s where the specialists score. In fact, it may be the only way that they are going to cope with the onslaught from megastores like Argos and Tesco. All this reminds me that going to a local independent shop next time is in order because they cannot be doing brilliantly in these cash-straightened times.