Sunday, April 1, 2012

Going the High Tech Road

Some people like the high tech stuff, others recoil in horror.  On this trip, we will have a Representative of each school of thought. Mary Ann does not care much for high tech stuff, so it was unusual when she said we should get an iPod so that we could run the iBird app.  iBird is the killer app for birdwatchers, with pictures and information on almost 1000 birds, plus a quick identify feature, and many bird calls that are so real the birds answer them.  But other than the iBird app, she has reservations about the usefulness of a cell phone or a GPS.  She also has doubts about the safety of the radio waves coming off these devices, and she says "What's wrong with having a map and stopping to ask for directions if we're lost?  That what people used to do".  I have done plenty of trips based on nothing but a map and some tourist brochures, and that's partly why I got hooked on riding the interstates and dining at McDonald's.

To get iBird, I only need a $200 iPod and a free WIFI connection. But it seemed to me for a little extra money we could get an iPhone which would add a lot more functions like GPS location, and radar weather map - two things I have been looking for ever since my first and only cell phone twelve years ago.  I didn't need the phone calls, and I didn't like the 3 year plan for $50 per month. But some new companies promise low rates for smart phones.

Koodo advertises a data plan starting at $5 per month, with no penalties for terminating the plan. They had cheaper smart phones, but I was willing to pay $300 for the Nexus "S".  But there are many terms to the agreement, nothing is that simple.

The first thing to know about data connection for smart phones, is that the phones can usually connect over WIFI or from a cell phone tower.You can find WIFI Internet connections for free at many McDonald's, also motels, even campgrounds.  But WIFI has a short range (like maybe 10 meters). The cell phone data connection, has the same coverage area as cell phones, but costs money. he cell phone coverage also has some limitations. Koodo for example has little or no coverage in Northern Ontario or the Rockies, or much of the sparsely populated areas of northern Canada.

Typically cell phone hookups are not the same price everywhere you go.  With Koodo, you can get coverage all over Canada (* except where not coverage is not available) for the same price, which is good.  But then Koodo charges more for Internet coverage in the USA.  But then you are allowed to sign up ahead of time for a one month $40 deal to get a special price in the USA.  So what's the catch?

My first price shock was when I asked for the $5 per month data plan.  It was explained to me that this "plan" was not a plan, it was an add-on to a plan. The cheapest real plan was $20 per month for 50 minutes of cell phone time.  So actually, the cheapest data plan would be $25, even though I was not interested in the phone.  Well, it still didn't sound too bad to me so I went ahead with the sign-up.

Once I got home, I did some further checking, to see how much it would cost me for my monthly Internet access. The $5 data saver plan is not unlimited use, so I needed to know the terms. I can check my current daily usage usage online.  But as I was going through the terms for crossing the border I came to another shock.  In Canada if I read it correctly, 3 Gigabytes of download in month will cost me $30.  Beyond that, I will pay $0.02 per megabyte.  But if I cross over into the USA, and download one Gigabyte, my bill will be $3000.  Note that this is one third of the data I can downloaded in Canada for $30.  The $40 special one-month add-on for USA roaming will reduce my Internet bill but one Gigabyte will still come to $1040 under this add-on contract.

The lesson is, you do not just go using your new toys while on the road without reading the fine print.  For example, although I do not care about the phone charges, since I don't plan to use them much, I noticed that you are billed for both outgoing and incoming calls.  So watch out if you give your cell phone number to your third cousin in Outer Mongolia.  But there is an even bigger trap waiting for the unwary Koodo subscriber who ventures into Mexico to download a Gig of data. That bill would be $25,000.

Mary Ann asked me so what is a Gigabyte then?  I said it's half of your iBird app.  If we had downloaded iBird in Mexico, without using WIFI, it would have cost us $12,009.99.

Picture: Koodo's coverage in Canada.  Big spaces left out where I need to rely on WIFI only, or worse yet, a map.


  1. The irony is that, as the user interfaces for technology have become ever easier to use, the charges for using the services have become ever more opaque.

    I've been appalled by the endless succession of stories about people who've received massive cell phone bills, occasionally for otherwise innocuous usage (such as being too close to an American border cell tower and being whacked with roaming charges!)

    Small wonder that the more 'technically sophisticated' resort to tactics like purchasing unlocked phones and buying local SIM cards. It shouldn't have to be this complicated!

    I imagine that if I were in your situation, I'd wimp out and simply use a tablet without 3G/4G at free WiFi locations just to spare myself having to worry about those insidious monster charges. Not as convenient as a smart phone ... but a lot safer (and the screen is nicer, too ;-)

    Cell phone for phone calls; tablet for data ... the paranoid's choice of technology :-(

  2. An update on the Android smartphone.

    I tested the GPS system on the Samsung "S", which can sync with my Scala Rider Q2 Multiset. It synced up easily, meaning I could see on my smartphone that Scala Rider was connected. I did it by simply following the directions for both the Scala Rider and for the Samsung Android smartphone.

    When I started my test ride, I could not hear any voice instructions. I noticed that the FM radio went silent from time to time, exactly when I would expect to hear some voice instructions. On the way home, I wondered if it was simply that the volume of the GPS voice was set too low. I didn't remember reading any instructions about setting the volume of each source separately. But if you adjust the volume when the FM radio is playing, it seems you adjust only the FM radio volume. If you adjust the volume while the GPS is interrupting the radio, you adjust only the GPS volume, and not the FM radio or other sources.

    So after upping the volume on the GPS voice, I began to received voice directions while riding the bike. They were not what I might call clear or loud, but enough to still be helpful.

  3. How about about an actual bike GPS? I have fine..


    1. The Android phone has the function I really want: current radar weather map. The GPS is an unexpected bonus that I am just trying to figure out because it's there.

      But before I considered the phone, I did briefly look at motorcycle specific GPS's, because I like that they can talk through my headset. I found that they were very expensive (like $1000?) Many less expensive GPS devices will not pair up with my headset, apparently.

    2. I don't think mine was quite that expensive (xmas gift in '10) and yes have blue tooth..

    3. This is from my intercom manual:

      "NOTE: Not all Bluetooth enabled GPS devices allow connections to Bluetooth headsets like the scala rider Q2. Please consult your GPS device’s User Manual for more information."

      The only GPS devices that I could confirm were compatible on the internet were the Tom Tom Rider and the Zumo.

  4. most phones will allow you to disable data roaming preventing costly data charges if you somehow are not on the right network. Works great, especially along the border. My telus phone also sends a 'welcome to the US' message when roaming begins.