Playing with a Chromecast in Canada!

March 19th, 2014 Update – Chromecast is now available in Canada for 39.00 via Google Play Store or Amazon.ca

A couple of weeks ago on trip to the US I was able to pick up a couple Google Chromecast devices. I have been playing around with these for a about a week now and can describe what they are and what they aren’t!

s5-productheroIn late July of this year Google held an announcement regarding the Google Nexus 7 tablet refresh, Android 4.3 Release and they snuck the Google Chromecast in during the same announcement. The Google Chromecast is basically a dongle that plugs into your TV’s HDMI port and allows you to cast (stream) video and music from your mobile device or PC to your TV. The device was announced to sell for 35.00 USD and included a free 3 months of Netflix service. The Netflix offer was quickly discontinued shortly after launch. The device was also only being made available in the US through the Google Play Store, Amazon and Best Buy. At launch the device was only able to stream movies from Google Play Movies, YouTube, Netflix and a Chrome Browser on a PC as well as music from Google Play Music. As of today these are still your only options but Google is saying that they are working with other partners.

The device sold out virtually immediately at all sources within 48 hours. Knowing I was going to be Las Vegas for Photoshop World 2013 in September, I kept an eye on Best Buy in store stock levels. On the first day I was in Vegas I saw that one of the stores in the city had just received stock so I drove the 30 minutes each way to pick a couple up!

I was too busy to play around with them that week but I did go ahead and download the Chromecast App for Android using my US Google Play Account to both my Nexus 7 and Nexus 4. I was also able to download the IOS app for my iPhone using my US iTunes account as it is not in the Canadian iTunes store.

I have played around a little with the devices and can report back to what the Chromecast is and what it isn’t.

First of all what it is. The Chromecast is a really small, light device. It is about twice the size of a USB thumb drive and plugs directly into the HDMI port of your TV. If your TV HDMI port won’t fit the dongle directly, Google provides an HDMI Extension Cable in the box. Once plugged into your TV’s HDMI port the device also needs additional power and if your TV has a USB port you can plug the Chromecast into it with the supplied USB cable or use the included AC adaptor to plug it into the wall or power bar. Once you have the device and plugged and running, you run the setup from the Google page, it will find your Chromecast, help you connect it to your Wi-Fi network and configure Chrome on your PC to use it. I had no problems doing this in Canada at all.

So what does it do? Once your Chromecast is set up, it allows you to basically use your device as a remote control to watch Netflix, YouTube or Google Play Movies from your android or IOS device directly on the TV. It does not stream the content from your device to the Chromecast, it sends a link to the Chromecast and the Chromecast connects to the content directly and then streams the video to your TV. As I stated above as of right now the only apps that this works with are Google Play Movies, YouTube and Netflix. I can confirm that this works very well with Canadian Netflix and my own Google Play Movies. It can also stream form Google Play Music but I haven’t tested it and I believe you need a Google Music account to do this which is not available in Canada yet although there are persistent rumours that it is coming soon.

There is  one case however when content can actually streamed from your PC to the Chromecast device and that is via a Google Chrome Tab that you can stream to the Chromecast itself. Your computer transcode the video and sends the stream directly to the TV. This is one of the primary reasons that I actually got the devices was to send some web content from my 14” laptop screen to my big screen TV. This does require a little horsepower on the machine though as it has to transcode video and stream it to the Chromecast.

Here’s what the Chromecast is not, especially for those living in Canada. The Chromecast is not a way to stream your own content to your TV. There is one developer who released an app that allowed you to play your own content but that was quickly shut down be Google. He is developing another app that will be released soon that will give a little more functionality to Chromecast and I am anxiously awaiting that release. I have also recently seen reports that Google is working with Plex software to make local content available via Chromecast. If this comes to pass it will make the Chromecast a little more useful to some people.

If you are thinking that you can use the Chromecast to stream US Netflix again you are mistaken. While it is possible to stream and use US Netflix with the Chromecast, you have to be pretty tech savvy and have the proper equipment and services to accomplish this. Like I stated earlier, the Chromecast doesn’t stream the content from your device it get’s a link and goes out to get the content directly. If you have a VPN or a region blocker or changer on your device or laptop you likely won’t even be able to see the Chromecast when you are connected! To be perfectly honest it would just be easier to plug an HDMI cable into your device or laptop and go directly to your TV! it can be done though and there are a few instructions in this thread over at XDA Developers on how to accomplish this including the APK required to install on your android devices if you are outside the US. In short though  you need a way of intercepting DNS packets from the Chromecast (it is hard codes for Google’s DNS servers), an Unblock US account and a router that has DD-WRT firmware installed on it. I may try to  play around with this down the road but right now for our household, it is easier to just use an HDMI cable on an old Asus Transformer Tablet and a ProXPN VPN account to access US Netflix or like my daughter, use a chrome extension like Hola and connect your laptop via HDMI to the TV!

So why did I go through the bother of getting a couple of Chromecast units for myself if they are so restrictive? Well I can report that they do work just fine with the Canadian version of Netflix once the Chromecast app is installed on your device. In addition I wanted to be able to watch some of the Google Play movies I have purchased on my large screen TV and now I can do it with the Chromecast. In fact it I will probably purchase more from Google Play Movies now that I have the devices and can watch them on my big screen TV. I also wanted them to be able to stream video from Chrome to my TV. For example I have a subscription to Kelby Training and this allows me to play the training videos on my large screen TV instead of on my desktop or laptop monitor. There is a  caveat to this though, if you want full screen on the TV, the video also has to be running full screen on the browser but you can do other things while it plays in the background. Because of their small size and light weight they are good for travel to watch Netflix on larger screen TVs. I haven’t tried using them on a typical hotel Wi-Fi set up but am planning on doing that on my next trip!

So why might you want a Chromecast for your own home? The device can be used as an inexpensive way to add Netflix, YouTube or Google Play Movies streaming to a TV that has no other set top box connected to it. Using the Netflix app as a remote on y9ur device is also a little easier for searching and starting movies as you do have access to the virtual keyboard on your device as opposed to using a TV remote and the typical onscreen keyboard. There are also some VOD movies available on YouTube that you can stream to your TV as well.

For the most part I would think that for a majority of Canadians, a Chromecast really wouldn’t be worth the trouble of getting one unless you are dedicated into setting it up for use with the US Netflix service. As I stated before, there are far easier ways of doing this than using a Chromecast, at least right now. If the talked about Plex and Google partnership comes about then there would be  one more advantage to getting one of the devices in Canada in that you could stream your own content to a TV. Until this happens I would advise that you wait a little bit longer before trying to get one.

Questions or Comments? Go ahead and post them below. I would be happy to answer any that I can!

Using Roam Mobility and T-Mobile While Travelling, an Update.

I recently got back from an extended trip into the US where I used my smartphones, testing the various carriers that I wrote about in  this blog post.

I was in the Hawaiian islands (Maui and Kauai) for 3 and a half weeks. I used 2 phones while travelling. I purchased a voice only travel pack from Rogers for my iPhone, 14.50 for 15 minutes of talk time to Canada or locally, with 1.00 per minute for any overage. This was done primarily for incoming calls to my existing Canadian cell phone number. For my unlocked Samsung Galaxy Nexus, I purchased a couple of plans from Roam Mobility and used T-Mobile on some days .

Before leaving, I purchased a 14 day plan with Roam Mobility via phone because I wanted it to start on a specific day and I had a small credit on my account. The plan regularly sells for 69.95 for unlimited Talk and Text, both to US numbers and to Canada and 1 GB of Data. When we arrived in Maui and I turned on my phone. I immediately got cell service for the phone but no data. After checking into our condo I was able to use Wi-Fi so everything was OK for that night. This is the only issue I ran into over my trip with Roam. The next morning I tried to contact Roam Mobility because despite several restarts of the phone I was still not getting a data connection. I tried calling 611 as per their support pages on their site and was getting a message that the number could not be dialled. I then tried the 1-800 number listed on their page and again I got the same cannot dial error message. I also got the same message when trying to dial the 1-800 number from the condo’s landline!

I got online with my laptop and used the chat feature on their website (www.roammobility.com). In my chat I explained the problem and the 611 and 1-800 number problem. I was directed to a support page that solved the problem. My phone was trying to connect to a T-Mobile APN not the Roam APN. I had to set up a new APN on my Nexus following the instructions. The procedure was actually very easy and the instructions are located here. Although the article says it is for the iPhone and iPad, it works with all phones. Setting up the APN on my phone, selecting it and restarting the phone worked perfectly. I was now getting full 4G data speeds.

To Roam Mobility’s credit they also called me several times (and had T-Mobile Tech support call me) to try and resolve the 611 and 1-800 number problems  I had in trying to contact them. Not sure if that ever was fixed as I didn’t need it again but I suspect it has something to do with Hawaii as I have seen other 1-800 numbers not work there.

For the week on Maui I had no issues with the Roam Plan and was able to use data at full speeds and even was able to tether my daughters iPod to my phone so she could do a quick Rdio music sync. After 6 days we flew over to Kauai. Now Kauai is a little technically behind and a lot of the island has poor cell phone reception. Further more there are no 3G or 4G carriers on Kauai so my phone reverted back to Edge or 2G speeds. While it was slower than service here, it was sufficient for things like email and looking things up on the web. I wouldn’t try to tether another machine or try downloading lots of things using 2G.

After my Roam Mobility plan expired I had planned on using my T-Mobile SIM for the last few days of our trip. Knowing there was no 3G on Kauai, I logged into my T-Mobile account online and changed my plan from the 3.00 per day plan to the 2.00 per day 2G only plan. I also learned a few things about T-Mobile and the way their pay by the day accounts work.

While in my T-Mobile online account page I noticed that my balance had gone down a little since the last time I checked it. I had also seen this happen before and knew I hadn’t used the phone so was confused as to what was happening.  I called T-Mobile customer support to find out  why this was happening. The rep put my on hold and looked up my account. This is one of the beefs I have about the T-Mobile online account site, you can’t see your own billing history at all! When the rep came back she informed me that my phone number had received a couple of text messages and that had activated the plan for the day, despite the fact that my SIM card was not even in my phone! If you decide to use T-Mobile pay by the day plans this is something that you should be aware of as even a SPAM text will cost you 2.00/3.00 depending on the plan you have set up!

While in Kauai my phone on T-Mobile worked fine but I did notice on some parts of the island that there was no T-Mobile service and I was roaming on AT&T. The problem with this is that while roaming there was no data service available! This was not something I noticed when I was using Roam so they may have additional roaming agreements from T-Mobile that allow roaming with AT&T. I could be wrong about this but I didn’t see it with the Roam card in my phone.

One thing I did have to call back to a client while away and on T-Mobile. Instead of using my Rogers phone (that still had about 8 minutes of time left), I used my T-Mobile phone. I then received a T-Mobile text saying my account balance was low. The 4 minute call back to Canada cost an additional 2.00 on my plan (.49 per minute).

Another thing that I used with both services was Text Plus. By signing up with Text Plus I was able to receive Text Messages from other TP users or to a Text Plus number (local Calgary phone number) so people could send me a text without incurring a charge for texting a US number if not included in their own plans.

When we decide to extend our stay for another week, I decided to purchase another weekly plan from Roam for 39.95 and again use T-Mobile for the day and a half that the Roam plan would not cover my stay. I simply logged into my Roam account, purchased the plan and away I went!

During our stay the rest of our family used our LG Tracfones that worked fine on both islands but these are not smart phones. They offer talk and text and very basic web browsing. As I stated in my previous post the phones cost 20.00 and we add 1 year service plans for 100.00 including 400 credits (which the phones also have double minutes on purchases for life) so 800 credits per year. Sending and reading text messages have .3 credits deducted from the bank and calls are 1 credit per minute deducted. Long distance is included at the same rate but you have to use a 1-800 number to dial internationally or they may cut off your phone for security reasons. This has happened to us once!

In summary here is what I spent on cell phone charges for being in the US for 3 and a half weeks and using my smart phones the same way that I would if I had been at home.

  • Rogers 14.50 CDN for 15 minutes of US to Canada Voice
  • Roam Mobility 100.00 + GST CDN for 1.5 GB of Data Service and unlimited talk and text to Canada and the US (I used about 650MB of Data)
  • T-Mobile 14.00 USD for US talk,text and data (includes 2.00 for my Long distance)

So a total of approximately 130.00 CDN for 3 and a half weeks of US travel. If I decided to do the same things with Rogers Travel Packs here is what I would have spent

  • 100 Minutes Roaming talk @ 50.00. Good for 30 days
  • 2 x 500MB 1 Month Data Passes @ 100.00. Good for 30 days
  • Unlimited sent text messages @ 50.00. Good for 30 days

The total would have been $300.00 for my trip. I may have been able to reduce this by 60.00 by purchasing the Rogers Text and Talk combo pack for 40.00 which includes only 100 roaming minutes and 100 sent text messages! But going over on the text messages could have been costly! However if you are a Rogers customer and have signed up for their free One Number Service and don’t need your Canadian phone, you could use that to check voice mails, read and reply to text messages and even make voice calls from an Internet connected laptop. I haven’t tried this from my Android tablets or phones yet so I am not sure if it would work but I am guessing that this feature may be blocked on those devices.

I did end up carrying 2 phones around with me for the entire trip but that is no big deal anyway as I would have had to do that as well if I had used one of our Tracfones.

So what will I be doing going forward? I have a conference in Las Vegas in October and will be spending 6 days there. My plan so far will be to get a 7 day Roam Mobility plan and once again the 15.00 rogers voice pack for incoming calls to my regular phone. I will also  either be unlocking my wife’s Galaxy SII phone or setting up my older Nexus S phone for her to use on T-Mobile while we are there. She can text using text + with our daughter that way. It will be interesting to see what T-Mobile’s service in Las Vegas (Roam’s Carrier) as from past experience I can say that AT&T ’s service there is awful especially if there are large conventions there! Where  I have used T-Mobile and their high speed data service available it has always been good. I may also purchase an additional Roam SIM card for the Mrs.

I will likely keep both services for the foreseeable service but will more than likely use Roam Mobility far more than the T-Mobile service. Roam gives me the ability to call back to clients, family and friends in Canada. Although it costs a little more than T-Mobile but the fact that I can call or text back without worrying about long distance charges makes sense! I will continue to use T-Mobile when I am transiting in the US (for example one day) or if I am away for 8 or 9 days and one of the Roam plan’s just doesn’t fit my requirements. Again one of Roam’s advantages is that the SIM card is good for a year from each plan purchase. T-Mobile is only good for 90 days after each top up and a card that has gone inactive cannot be re-activated. You have to go to a T-Mobile store and purchase another SIM and top up.

I hope that this information helps a few of you in saving money if you are travelling to the US and want to use a Smart Phone while there. Please leave any questions in the comments!

If you found this review helpful, Roam Mobility now offers a referral program. Help us bring more stories like this to the web and use the link for a referral below. You save 2.95 on your SIM card purchase and help us a little too!

http://www.roammobility.com/referafriend/?bl=c3lzZ3V5QHN5c2d1eS5jb20=

Update for Canadians using Smartphones While Travelling in the US.

Way back in 2006, I wrote this post about getting Tracfones for travelling in the US to save big on the roaming charges that are charged by Canadian Cell phone carriers. A lot has changed since then (except the fact that you will still get gouged by your carrier for roaming) in the cell phone industry. Many of us are using Smartphones with email, maps, applications, surfing the web and posting to Facebook and social network sites while also using cell phones and texting. You don’t want to come back from a vacation or business trip where you spent enough money already to be surprised by a 200.00, 300.00 or even 500.00 bill for roaming with your smartphone. So what can you do to avoid these bills?

Well your first option is not to use the data feature on your phone. All smartphone operating systems have a way of turning off data while roaming. Your phone and texting function will work but email and other data will not. Then you can use Wi-Fi connectivity to get your email, post to Facebook etc. I would suggest keeping this feature turned on in your phone all the time to protect yourself. Phone calls and texting in the US without an appropriate plan however can still cost you a fortune!

Now there are more options than ever for you if you travel. We will try to go through what we consider some of the best ones while travelling in the US.

Your Existing Carrier

Most of the Canadian carriers offer add on travel packs for travelling in the US. I have used them from Rogers several times and I can’t speak to the specifics of the other carriers but I find the Rogers ones expensive and you usually have to buy several travel packs for your device especially if you will be gone for more than 7 days. For example for a trip to the US in the fall I had to buy a voice plan, a data plan and a text plan. It became very expensive and it was restrictive (60MB of Data good for 7 days only for 50.00, 50 text messages and 15 minutes of talk). While this could work for a short trip or if you are not planning on using your Smartphone much while you are away.

Basic Phone, Texting and Webmail

After 7 years we still use our Tracfones while travelling. I upgraded all of our phones the past February to a new LG version. This phone looks similar to a Blackberry and allows for calls, texting and some basic web surfing with a full qwerty keyboard.

To save time, I pre-purchased the new phones via WalMart.com and had them delivered to a store local to where I was staying (you can pay via PayPal so you don’t need a US credit card). I did it this way so I knew the phones would be there and I didn’t have to go store to store to find them (i needed 6). With the new phones we got double minutes for life and I bought some 1 year, 400 minute cards for 100.00. This gives each phone 800 minutes of talk time with the service good for a year. With Tracfone there is no long distance in the US and you can talk internationally as well but you still have to dial a 1-800 number first. You can text another US number with no issues as well but you can’t text Canadian  numbers even if those phones are in the US. There is web surfing but it is fairly basic using the web browsers on the device and you can get email via a web browser and more. This would be a fairly basic option compared to a smartphone but it is far cheaper if you need more than 1 phone in the US for example if you need 2 phones for a family.

Swapping your Sim Card

What  do you need?

Just an unlocked smartphone that uses a SIM Card. Smartphones that used to use Telus’ or Bell’s old CDMA networks will not work as they don’t use SIM cards unless they were “world phones”. You can also do this for travel to Europe and other parts of the world where buying a SIM card is very common.

All cell phones that get sold subsidized by the carriers (cheap with a contract) are carrier locked. This means that you can’t take out the SIM card and put a new one in for another carrier. This is how they protect from people buying a phone subsidized, using it for a year, then cancelling the contract and going somewhere else. You can buy unlocked phones but they usually cost big dollars (450 to 600) for the latest and greatest phones. However unlocking a cell phone is easy (except iphones but I’ll give options for that below). There are several sites across the web where you can send your IMEI number to them pay a small fee and they will send you an unlock code and instructions on how to do the unlock. Carrier unlocking your phone doesn’t do anything strange to your phone except allow you to use different carriers with the same device. iPhones have to be jailbroken to unlock and that is an issue whenever Apple issues an IOS update because you have to jailbreak your phone again after the hackers learn to do it again. www.cellunlock.net has unlock codes for 16.00 and up. You can find other sites and unlockers on Ebay. I don’t think I have paid more than 8.00 to unlock previous Blackberries I have owned. So shop around.

So after unlocking your phone what happens? If you put in another SIM card for another carrier typically you will get a new phone number. All of your apps and email will work but if people want to call or text  your regular number you won’t get them until you put the original SIM card back in or check your VM or they call your new number. So why use a different SIM? Well you have your phone that will work where you are and have full access to data, local calls in most cases long distance, your existing contacts and email. In short everything on your own device with your Canadian carrier. Here are a couple of options for different SIM cards. Texting to a US number will also cost extra for a Canadian unless they have that built into their plan (I know some Rogers Value packs have this).

T-Mobile USA

T-Mobile. www.t-mobile.com  After a lot of research I found that T-Mobile offered one of the best pre paid plans in the US. A sim card costs between 8 – 10 dollars and you can get prepaid cards for 10, 20, 30 or 50.00. I bought a card at a T-Mobile store in Miami with a 20.00 prepaid card when we were there in February. I was assigned a Miami number, had the pre paid applied to the account and walked out of the store in 15 minutes. With T-Mobile you have 2 choices of plans. 2.00 per day for unlimited voice (All US), texting and unlimited data (but it is 2g speeds, like Rogers Edge or Bell and Telus’ old CDMA services). For 3.00 per day you get unlimited voice, text and the first 200 MB a day of Data @ 4G speeds (HSPA+) like Rogers, Bell and Telus in your area. After you hit 200MB in one day you get throttled back to 2G speeds but still unlimited data. This way you can post and check Facebook, upload pictures, use maps etc.. Be sure to check their coverage maps before leaving to ensure that they are available where you are travelling. SIM cards are available at T-Mobile stores and some other locations (Radio Shack).

Here are a few little gotcha’s with T-Mobile

1) If your device is not on the same frequency as their network you only get 2G speeds regardless of the plan you choose. The Galaxy Nexus  is one of a few phones that offer a 5 band radio. T-Mobile uses the same frequency as Wind and Mobilicity here in Canada so if you have an unlocked phone from them it would work at the highest 4G speeds. As a result the 2.00 per day plan is what most would use.

2) Text’s to Canada and LD to Canada get deducted from your pre paid card in addition to the daily fee.

3) Daaily billing only happens when you turn on your phone. The billing cycle is 12:01AM to 11:59 PM. Turn your phone on at 10:00 PM and you are charged for the day then after midnight if the phone is on you get charged for another day.

4) You have to top up every 90 days or the SIM card will be deactivated. Minimum top up is 10.00 USD and can be done online, So it costs 40.00 per year for the number. If the SIM card is deactivated you have to get a new one as you can’t reactivate it.

5) You would have a US number and your Canadian number while the T-Mo card is in your phone wouldn’t work, people would have to call or text the US number.

6) Not sure if this works in Canada or Internationally (I haven’t tested this yet). Some reports say it will work in Canada.

7) No Blackberry BIS (or BES) Service is available, so you can’t use your Blackberry email service but you can browse via the browser to web based services.

8) Not sure if tethering other devices works (haven’t tested).

Most Canadian Smartphones would only get EDGE or 2G data speeds. You do get an online account that you can manage your plan with, purchase additional time cards. I recently had to top up to my account to keep from deactivating my sim card. I used a prepaid US Visa card (registered to A US relatives home address) . I buy one of these cards (50.00) almost every time I go to the US for services like this. Haven’t tried a Canadian credit card yet so I don’t know if they work online for purchases. You can always pick up T-Mobile pre paid cards almost anywhere (grocery stores, Wal-Mart,, convenience stores, etc.) in the US.

Roam Mobility –  www.roammobility.com

Roam Mobility has been very active in their advertising lately. They are a company out of Vancouver that is reselling T-Mobile’s services to Canadians with a couple of  additional benefits for Canadians at slightly higher cost than T-Mobile’s.

First you purchase a SIM card from Roam either online or at Pipestone travel stores here in Calgary  The SIM card costs 19.95.

You activate the card online and pick and purchase a plan. Your US number is only assigned once you turn on your phone in the US. They do have several options for text, talk and data

1 day for 7.95 + 100mb data

3 days 18.95 + 200MB of Data

7 days 39.95 + 500 MB of Data

14 Days 69.95 + 1 GB of Data

30 Days 99.95 + 2 GB of Data

All plans include unlimited texting and calling back to Canada, this is one of the advantages they have over T-Mobile.

Because they are reselling T-Mobile’s services they have some of  the same gotchas as above in regards to phones and data speeds. In a chat with them while I was writing this they say if your phone supports tethering you will be able to do it, but it could use up your data quickly. Once you activate a SIM though it is good for 1 year and you only have to activate 1 top up per year. Plans expire 30 days after purchase. Once you use up your data you have to buy another combination plan. I have a 6GB data plan here in Canada and I rarely use more than 1 GB of Data per month but I do use Wi-Fi most of the time..

They do offer voice and text only services though at 2.95, 8.95, 20.95, 34.95 and 59.95 for the same periods as above.

There is a solution for iPhone owners and data only services that don’t want to Jailbreak their phones! This solution is also ideal for connectivity for Wi-Fi enabled devices like Tablets, Portable games and laptops.

You can purchase a Mobile Hotspot device from Roam (Liberty Mobile Hotspot) for 129.95 with a SIM card. This is a small device with a rechargeable battery that connects data only to the T-Mobile Network. You then buy a Data Only package from Roam and activate the device. The device gives you a portable (pocket able) Wi-Fi hotspot that you can connect iPhones, Laptops, Tablets and Game machines to. Data only pricing is not priced too badly compared to Canadian Carriers roaming prices. You can also purchase data only with a Sim Card for a Jailbroken iPad or Unlocked Android Tablet.

500MB – 29.95

1000MB – 39.95

2 GB – 59.95

5 GB – 99.95

Data plans are good for 30 days from date of purchase.

The only disadvantage to this service is everyone has to be reasonably close to the Wi-fi hotspot to get a signal (30 feet) and you have to carry the device around. The advantage is multiple devices, fastest speeds and multiple people can share the same data. Note text won’t work with this option nor would voice unless you used SKYPE and texting services like text+

You can do the same with Virgin Mobile in the US but their Hot Spot Modem is 150.00 and 1 month of unlimited Data is 50.00

Update January 2013
Here is an update for Roam Mobility as of January 11th 2013. Most of Roam’s products are available in Calgary at Pipestone Travel Stores. You can pick up a Sim Card or if you don’t have an unlocked phone they are selling their Breeze model with a Roam Sim for 49.95. This is not a smart phone but it does feature a qwerty keyboard for texting..
Some of their plan pricing has also gone up a few dollars but for the Talk Text and Data plans that comes with a corresponding jump in data caps.
In addition T-Mobile has been updating their networks in the US and so some phones that support the 1900Mhz band (iPhone, Nexus S) will no longer be dropped down to edge speeds in certain areas. Most major US Cities have or are in the process of being upgraded with the new HPSA+ service.

Conclusion

I have a family vacation planned this summer in the US. I will be using a combination of Roam Mobility and T-Mobile while I am there to compare the two options. I will be carrying 2 phones with me. I will have my Galaxy Nexus that will be connected to T-Mobile for part of the trip and my iPhone with my Rogers sim in it and a 15.00 Voice Roaming plan. Data while roaming will be turned off (although I will use it with Wi-Fi). I plan on using it just to be able to accept calls on my  regular cell phone number.

If you need access to your Canadian number you can do a couple of things. Use an old cell phone that is locked to your existing Canadian Carrier, or pick up a used phone on your carrier or an unlocked one form Craigslist or Kijiji. All you may need this for is Voice and receiving texts.

I will report back after my trip on how my experiment worked. I sent an email to the rest of my family earlier this week so that they also knew the options and I will update how we coped.

If you liked this review or found it helpful. Roam Mobility offers a referral program where you save 2.95 on the purchase of your SIM card. Please use the following link and support this blog so we can bring you more stories like this!

http://www.roammobility.com/referafriend/?bl=c3lzZ3V5QHN5c2d1eS5jb20=

 

Roku in Canada! A Mini Review

There is another player that just joined the web video to TV game in Canada. Roku, a company that has been around in the US for quite some time, came through on their announcement from the fall and started selling their set top boxes in Canada April 30th, 2012. They join the Apple TV, Xbox360, PS3, LG, Boxee as well as several TV manufactures that offer Internet connected TVs and devices.

This is not going to be a detailed technical review, because their products have been available for some time and there are reviews easily findable all over the web. This review will give a brief description of what boxes are available in Canada and the differences in how they work over their US counterparts.

roku-xs-chart-pics

Roku has so far partnered with 3 resellers in Canada. The devices can be purchased from Amazon.ca, London Drugs and Wal-Mart. Two models are available here. The Roku 2 XS for 109.99 and the Roku 2 XD for 89.99. Both stream 1080P video to your TV, connect via Wi-Fi to your home network and feature a Micro SD slot for additional storage. The XS however comes with a few added features. It has an Ethernet port to hard wire the device to your connection, a USB port so that you can play media from USB devices (flash or external hard drives) and a special RF Remote that can be used to play games (a full version of Angry Birds is included).

I pre-ordered the Roku 2 XS from Wal-Mart and it showed up in my mailbox on April 30th. I was surprised that the box itself was tiny (about half the size of one of the new Apple TVs and about the same size as a hockey puck) and setting it up was a breeze. I plugged in an HDMI cable, plugged in an Ethernet cable then plugged in the AC adaptor. The box turned itself  on and updated itself to the latest software. Next I was prompted to create a Roku Account on their website and link my box via the code on the screen to my account. When creating the Roku account you do have to add a payment method. You are not charged anything and this is to be used to purchase premium channels. The payment method can be a credit card or a PayPal account. Next I visited the channel store from the device and it added some base channels to the box, including Netflix, the Angry Birds game, the USB player and a few more.

On your TV screen you will see the installed channels from on your Roku device and you can scroll side to side to see all of the channels. To use one you just click the OK button. Pressing the back button takes you back to the previous screen and the home button returns you to the main menu. There are 4 arrow keys for most of the navigation. I fired up the Netflix Channel signed in with my account and away I went!

Like I said they do have a Channel Store on the device and many of the apps are free. Unfortunately there are not nearly as many channels available in Canada as there are in the US. I saw about 80 channels in Canada while the US store features approximately 300. In addition the US has services like Hulu and Hulu Plus, HBO Go and Amazon on Demand so the box could be used as a cord cutters only device. Hopefully Roku will continue to negotiate with Canadian TV and content providers and we will see more channels available.

Another disappointment is that there is no YouTube Channel! While we have a YouTube app on our Apple TV and Blu-Ray player (that doesn’t get used) it is still disappointing not to see it as an option (although there is a workaround, see below).

I have watched a few movies on Netflix and the streaming quality is about the same as it is with the Apple TV on our Pioneer 720P TV. The first day I also watched a movie on the Crackle Channel and video quality was very good and there was no pauses in the streaming.

Other content… One way of getting to see other content on a Roku device is to install the Plex channel and then install the Plex Media Server on a network connected PC in your home. This gives you the ability to add additional content (including YouTube) to the Roku using the PC as an intermediary as well as stream iTunes music and Podcasts to the Roku box. Going through the setup for this would make this post too long so I will create another post in the next couple of days describing the process.

Using the special remote bundled with the Roku 2 XS you can play games like Angry Birds on your big screen TV. The remote works very much like a Wii remote and the game play was fairly smooth. There are some other games available on the Roku Channel that you can purchase but I have not tried any yet.

Final thoughts

So far in the testing I have done over the last few days, I like the Roku box. I am still not sure if it will replace the Apple TV that is connected to our primary HD TV. I can watch everything that I would like to in the Roku box including some of my iTunes stuff using the Plex Media Server and the Plex Channel. Should you get a Roku box? Well that would depend on your viewing preferences.

If you are invested in the iTunes world I would suggest instead going with an Apple TV. With the latest Apple TV you can rent and purchase movies from iTunes, Watch purchased TV shows listen to music and if you have an iPad, iPhone or even an Android device with DoubleTwist Air Sync, watch content from those devices on it. Apple TV also features Netflix, MLB and NHL Networks (as does Roku) for streaming. If you purchase movies with Digital copies included you can also watch these via the Apple TV.

If you have a game console (Xbox 360 or PS3) you can do virtually everything that you can do on the Roku on one of those machines. The Roku is much quieter though especially compared to early PS3s and the white Xbox 360s, but you can’t play the games on the Roku. The Roku however is significantly cheaper and you don’t need an Xbox Live account or PSN account to watch Netflix. Over the last couple of years I have been able to pick up the new black version of the Xbox 360 4GB console for 129.00 over boxing week. You also have to add the Xbox Gold account (60,00 per year or 99.00 for a Family account) in order to use Netflix.

If you are looking at adding a web streaming device to your main TV or to an additional TV and you don’t have any other devices  then you may really want to consider a Roku 2 box. If you have a game console or DVD Player with Netflix I would probably pass on it.

What really hurts the Roku in Canada is the lack of channels and content. Without HBO 2 Go, Hulu and Hulu Plus and Amazon Video on Demand out of the box the Roku can only do what some of the other devices can do. However if you are willing to play a little and set up Plex (an upcoming  post) the little box can do a lot! Hopefully Roku will continue working to get more Canadian services (not that there are a lot) signed and on the device and this little box can have potential.

I haven’t decide yet if we will be replacing the Apple TV with the Roku box yet. I am awaiting for more testing from my family that uses Netflix and other services a lot more than I do to voice their opinions. After they compare quality the quality between the two boxes one will stay and one will be moved to another TV (likely my office).

 

Some of the Channels I have installed

Smugmug, Flickr, CNet TV, Twit.tv, Revision 3, Plex, Tunein Radio, Rdio, MLS Live, Pub-D-Hub, Moonlight Movies, Crackle, Nasa TV, CNBC, Vimeo, Facebook (photo and Videos).

Apple Announces iPhone 4, Coming to Canada in July!

Today at Apple’s World Wide Developers Conference in San Francisco, Steve Jobs took to the stage to deliver the keynote address. To no one’s surprise the new iPhone 4 was announced!

Jobs claimed that there were over 100 new features of the phone but he went over just 8. The new phone is a thinner phone than the iPhone 3GS and  has a much larger battery. It also features a front facing camera that can be used in a new Wi-Fi, iPhone to iPhone only video chat application called FaceTime. They have added an led flash to the camera and the ability to record 720p, 30FPS HD video. In addition a new application will be available for purchase called iMovie for iPhone, allows you to edit and produce video directly from the phone including adding titles and transitions. iMovie will sell for 4.99. The camera resolution has been bumped to 5MP and has a new backside illumination sensor that is supposed to allow for less noise in low light photos.

The screen resolution has been much improved using a technology called retina display that provides 326 pixels per inch. The screen resolution is 960 x 640. Reports from people who have seen the displays are saying it is incredible and has to be seen to be understood.

They have added a gyroscope to the phone and linked it in with the radios so motion control gaming should be better.

The stainless steel frame around the phone has been turned into the antenna and the phone

Several of the announcements made also included some of the previously announced iPhone 4 software which has now been renamed iOS 4.

iBooks is being updated and ported to the iPhone and will now allow to read PDF documents in that app directly on the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch and will support wireless purchasing and syncing between devices (unfortunately no word on when books will be available in Canada).

The phone is being released in the US and select other countries on June 24th and the new iPhone OS that offers multitasking is being made available free on June 21st. iOS 4 offers the ability to create folders on the home screens, offers multitasking on newer devices and more. For a change iPod touch owners will also get the upgrade free instead of having to purchase it. No exact date was given for the phone release in Canada other than July 2010. It was not confirmed whether Canadians will have to wait for iOS 4 until July either or whether we will be able to download it on the 21st as well.

Apple has also announced their own cases for the phone called Bumpers and available in a variety of colours.

To learn more about the phone follow this link to the Apple Site or for the tech specs click here.

With this announcement today I may finally breakdown and get myself an iPhone! I started to consider it when iOS 4 was originally announced as it had some of the features that I was waiting for in the iPhone, such as the ability to connect a Bluetooth keyboard and multitasking. One thing I am concerned with though is whether or not Rogers will offer a good data plan with the phone. While I do qualify for an upgrade from Rogers, I also have a year left in my 6GB data plan contract that is at a very good price (30.00). For the last week I have stopped using my Blackberry Bold 9000 and have switched to a Google Nexus One Android based phone. I am awaiting the announced 2.2 FroYo upgrade for this phone as it offers many desirable features and this phone already does do many of the things that an iPhone doesn’t yet (multitasking). I am still getting used to the new device and will have more to write about it later.

One thing to note as well is that the new iPhone uses the new Micro SIM card that is also currently in the iPad 3G. It will be interesting to see if Rogers will let me get a new Micro SIM card for an iPhone and keep my old sim card active so that I can use the iPhone, Nexus One or my Blackberry (not of course not at the same time).

Watch this space for more information as I will soon be writing about my thoughts with the Nexus One as well.

Why I Might Change My Mind and get an iPad!

Way back when on January 27th, I got out of bed got out of bed while vacationing in Kauai, poured a cup of coffee and fired up my laptop. I immediately went to Engadget’s live blog of the Apple announcement regarding the much rumoured iPad.

My first thoughts on seeing what the iPad could do was that while it was a cool device, I really didn’t think I would get one anytime soon. To me it was just an overgrown iPod Touch. With it you could read eBooks, play music and video (not high def though), show photographs and use iPhone Apps. All in a device that weighed 1.5 pounds.

I use a Sony PRS-600 Reader and really like the experience of reading on that device (although the screen is not as good as my older PRS-505). It is fairly small, easy to handle and comfortable to read for long periods of time with it’s E-Ink screen.

As time went and more specs on the iPad were released there were a few things that really started to make me think it wasn’t the device for me. Apple was saying it would get 10 hours of battery life and I have come to learn with most manufacturers, you can take that number down by 20 or 30%. I think the real turn off in regards to this device was the fact that it wouldn’t support ePub books using the Adobe Digital Editions DRM scheme which is most of the books in my library and that Apple would have it’s own fairplay DRM on eBooks. Once again Apple was putting it’s users in a closed system and forcing users to buy from them alone.

One of the things that I really like about my Sony Reader is the fact that it does support the ADE DRM scheme. Last fall Sony’s own book store went all ADE ePub from a proprietary format and they have been supporting the ADE format on all of the readers since July 2008. This is very important to me as I am not tied to the Sony Store to purchase my eBooks! In fact I have bought books from Sony, booksonboard.com, Dieselebooks.com and Kobo as well as renting them from my public library. This open system has not tied me to one book seller and I can shop around for the best prices on my eBooks.

So what has changed over the last few weeks that I have re-sparked my interest in the device. Well there are several factors. I do have a iPod 3rd gen Touch device that I carry for pocket computer use more than as an iPod (I use a Microsoft Zune 120 and a 32 GB Zune HD hooked up to a Zune pass for music and podcasts).  I have found several apps though for the Touch that I use frequently and that I feel would work very well on an iPad. These apps could also allow me to use the iPad instead of my Asus 1000H Net Book.

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Amazon Kindle Now Available in Canada – Big Deal!

Amazon announced yesterday (Nov 17th, 2009), that the Amazon Kindle EBook Reader was available to Canadian customers. A year and a half ago this news might have really excited me, but today I shrugged it off saying who cares!

In August 2008, while I was searching for news of the Kindle coming to Canada, I found out that the Sony EBook readers had been available in Canada since April 2008. After researching the Sony Reader a little more, I contacted a few Sony Style Stores locally and finally found one that had 1 Reader left (PRS-505). I went down to the store to look at it and after seeing the crisp text on the screen and starting to read the sample book I immediately got hooked and purchased it. By all accounts the Sony Readers have been selling very well in Canada and the local Sony Style stores have been regularly selling out of readers.

I had been using my Sony PRS-505 daily since then and just a couple of weeks ago decided to upgrade my reader to the new Sony PRS-600. My old PRS-505 has been passed on to my wife and daughter. I am very happy with my Sony devices and there are more than I few reasons why I think that these readers (as well as some other brands) offer more features than the Amazon Kindle overall.

What is an EBook Reader?

Here is a brief primary for people that don’t know what an EBook reader is. These devices allow you to store and read books (as well as newspapers and magazines) on the device. They are about the size of a standard Trade back book (and about as heavy) except that they are much thinner. The devices use a technology called E-Ink. These screens are non backlit, light grey screens that use very little power, in fact they only use power when you turn the page. You can think of them sort of like the old Etch A Sketch toys. When you turn a page the screen flashes and the new page is displayed. I find that the screens are very easy to read and not hard on the eyes. In fact I prefer reading an E-Ink screen than trying to read a book on my desktop or laptop PC. Because they use so little power the battery life on these devices is usually very good. Sony has been in this market for quite some time and Amazon came along a couple of years ago with the first Kindle.

While all of the devices from different manufacturers basically do the same thing they all have a few different features, Amazon’s Kindle features 3G Wireless while Sony’s new PRS-600 offers a touch screen and the ability to take notes.

You can usually buy books from the vendors stores as well as from some other EBook stores on the web as well as adding your own content. One of the problems with all of these devices is that the books that you buy have DRM on them (Digital Rights Management). This means that if you buy a book, you cannot lend or give it to another person. If you do have multiple readers on your account you can put the titles on those devices. You can’t resell your books either.

Why I really like my Sony Reader!

Before I bought my first Sony Reader last August, I did a lot of looking at the specs, reading reviews online and my usual in depth research. The biggest thing that I discovered really surprised me especially for a Sony product. In what seemed to be a change from their usually Modus Operandi, Sony moved away from proprietary features with their readers. In July 08 they released firmware for their readers that added ePub support. ePub is the standard that publishing industry has adopted for EBooks. In addition the Sony also supported both non DRM’s and DRMed PDF files.

Another feature is that the Sony device had is 2 memory card slots, one for Sony’s Memory Stick Pro as well as a slot for a standard SD card. This makes the devices expandable for storage. Again kudos to Sony for not just leaving it as their own format.

An early criticism of the Sony Reader was that there was no Mac Software. That changed at the end of September this year when Sony released their EBook Library Software for the Mac.

The biggest feature for me with the Sony Reader is that I am not locked into one bookstore or vendor for my books. I can buy from the Sony Bookstore, Booksonboard.com or Shortcovers.com (Chapters Canada’s store)and many others. This is because the Sony Readers support the ePub standard that all of these bookstores use. In addition, I can also borrow books from the library because the Calgary Public Library offers eBook downloads in PDF or Epub format and read them on my reader.

In my business and hobbies, I have loads of technical EBooks, manuals and other documentation. All of these PDF, Word and txt files can be added to my Sony Reader as well. For example I have all of the Canon manuals for my Canon Camera bodies, Flashes and other gadgets. I have Microsoft Press EBooks for SBS and Virtualization on there and even PDF manuals for some phone systems that I support for clients. If I travel all of this is in one convenient spot. I also create PDF versions of all of my travel documents and confirmations and put those on the reader.

The Sony readers have excellent battery life. My PRS-505 could go a couple of weeks on a single charge and while I haven’t really used my new 600 that much (I only started using it a week ago) I find that the battery life is not quite as good as the PRS-505 (due to the touch screen) but I still get a good week and a half out of the battery reading at least an hour each day. Battery life is usually measured in page turns and the Sony REaders are supposed to be good for 7500 page turns.

Why the Kindle doesn’t excite me now!

You would think that being a gadget guy I would be excited by the Kindle being available to me, but I really think it is no big deal. The Kindle does feature 3G wireless purchasing directly from the device, but again I can live without this feature. With the ability to add memory cards to the Sony and the fact that I can store hundreds of books on there, I don’t think that I will ever get caught not having something to read on the device and I can wait until I can start up my laptop, buy and transfer books to the device. In addition the wireless radio will drain the battery faster on the Kindle especially if you are in area of poor coverage where the device may not get a strong 3G signal and will try to fall back on an Edge/GPRS connection.

Another disadvantage of having the Kindle connected wirelessly directly relates to something Amazon did this past summer. They had sold a copy of a book via their store that they did not have the rights to sell in the US. Amazon then wirelessly deleted the books all Kindles with no warning at all. While Amazon didn’t handle this very well at the start, they did make it right for all customers by replacing the title with another copy of the same book, they restored the notes people had taken in regards to the title and they also applied a 30.00 credit to the people who had purchased the book. Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos apologized to all users about how the whole situation was handled. However the fact of the matter is that they can delete a book off of the devices wirelessly and not inform purchasers that they did it. This is a major concern for me.

The other thing that really disappoints me about the Kindle is the built in format support. The Kindle only supports it’s own EBook format natively as well as Audible Audio Files,MP3 audio files and unprotected (non DRM) Mobi or PRC files. The device supports unprotected PDF, Word Doc, Jpg Gif, HTML or BMP files via a conversion by Amazon. You have to send these files to Amazon via email where they are converted and sent wirelessly to your Kindle at a cost of .10 each! I am not sure if I want to send all of my camera manuals and my MS Press EBooks (some of which are 50MB + in size) via email and then get them back this way. On my Sony reader I import documents to my EBook Library software then drag and drop them onto the device or the SD card in the device to copy them over when connected via USB.

Because the device doesn’t support the industry standard, when you buy a Kindle you are locked into just buying from Amazon. You can’t borrow books from your local library and if down the road you want to change devices you would have to re buy your library. With my Sony I could move to any device that supports the ePub format down the road and still have access to my books.

Sony has also announced that they will be converting all of the books in their online bookstore to ePub and allowing purchasers to get ePub versions of books that they bought in Sony’s proprietary format free.

While I do have an Audible account, in the year and a bit since I have had my Sony Readers I have never once listened to audio on them, I find that this feature doesn’t do anything for me and just drains the devices battery life. I listen to all of my Audible books on either one of my Zunes or my iPod Touch. In addition I also have Audible software loaded on my Blackberry and can stream books to it if I really need something to do.

Same goes for picture formats. These device have displays with either 8 or 16 shades of grey and don’t do justice to photos so I don’t put any on my devices either. Another unused feature.

These are things that Sony realized when they designed the PRS-300 Pocket Edition of their reader (smaller and lighter with a 5” screen). They removed the MP3 Audio Player and removed the picture file format support from this reader. This device is strictly an EBook reader.

You can also subscribe to your favourite blogs on the Kindle but you do have to pay to get this service. The Sony does have a few blogs that you can subscribe to for free and have transferred to your reader but they are limited to about 10 of their choosing and you can’t add your own. I can use Google Reader Mobile on my Blackberry to read blogs too.

The Kindle also offers newspaper subscriptions that can be delivered to your device daily. Again this to me is not a big deal. There are currently two Canadian newspapers available; The Globe and Mail and the National Post. I don’t read either of these papers as I find them too Toronto centric. In addition the cost is 15.00 per month for a subscription. Instead I have purchased a subscription to the E-Edition of my local paper, The Calgary Sun that is currently on special for .99 per month. I can download a copy of this paper to my laptop using their own software for offline reading as well.

There is also a limited number of Magazines that are available for purchase on the Kindle, however I do the same thing with Zinio.com except that I can read my magazines in full colour on my laptop or desktop even offline.

Sony will soon be offering a new reader called the Daily that will feature newspaper subscriptions and wireless connectivity (and will be available in Canada soon as I was told at a local Sony Style Store). No word on the price yet but I anticipate that it will be a very expensive device.

Here is another thing I just discovered while writing this post about the Kindle. Amazon may not have the rights to sell certain books to Canadians via their store. I found this out as I was trying to compare prices on Dan Brown’s latest novel The Lost Symbol. Sony sells it for 9.99 USD but I could not find it on the Amazon Store for Canadians, although it is available for 9.99 USD to Americans. To be fair, I have run into this occasionally on the Sony Store too, however it says US only in the store software and virtually every book that I had saved to my wish list that was originally US only is now available for me to purchase.

What I do find cool about the Kindle!

There is one feature that uses the wireless that is cool on the Kindle and I would love to see this on the Sony reader. It is the Whisper Sync technology. With the new software available for Kindle users (for the iPhone or iPod Touch although it doesn’t look like it is available in Canada yet) and the new Kindle for Windows software,  whisper sync will add your notes and the sync your place in books from the Kindle to the other devices with the Kindle software installed on them and connectivity. So you can start to read a book on your Kindle and then continue to read from the same place on your iPhone or PC.

Pricing

These EBook readers are currently not cheap devices. The Sony’s that have been available in Canada for a while now sell for 259.00 CAD for the 5” screened PRS-300 and 399.99 for the 6” Touch Screen PRS-600. The Kindle which is available through Amazon.com only, costs 259.00 USD + Shipping and whatever Duty and GST that you will get hit with at the border.

Pricing for books is about the same for both devices. Sony sells NYT Bestsellers for 9.99 USD and offer a number of specials on books. In addition Sony has a deal with Google and you can search and download Public Domain Books from their site.

Amazon has 360,000 books available. Pricing is similar to what Sony offers although I just found 3 books on there for 2.00 USD each that the Sony Bookstore is currently giving away on their bookstore. Most bestsellers I have found at about the same price on each store.

Conclusion

As I mentioned earlier in my post, if this announcement had been made a year and a half ago I would have been using the Kindle by now. But because it was not available, I stumbled onto the Sony Readers, did a lot of research and purchased one of those. Am I disappointed with my decision? No definitely not! Would I purchase a Kindle now? No I probably won’t as 90% of my EBook library is ePub format and I couldn’t read them on the Kindle. Surprisingly not being able to buy a popular book like Dan Brown’s the Lost symbol as I indicated above also makes me pause.

I will have to wait and see as to whether or not I will buy future versions of the Kindle. The biggest thing holding me back is the lack of support for the ePub format. Although I don’t see this being added anytime in the near future as Amazon developed the device to sell books through their site and adding ePub would allow you to buy anywhere!

EBook readers are still relatively new and very expensive. Some people claim that EBooks are also too expensive. We are in the early days of EBook readers now and I think as more devices and bookstores come to market the prices on the readers and the books themselves will also fall.

Some people will claim that they prefer the feel of books and wouldn’t switch to a reader and to those people I suggest that they actually try a reader! I have seen a few people switch after saying the same thing and then actually trying a reader.

I plan on reviewing my Sony PRS-600 and doing some comparisons to my old PRS-505 on this blog soon so stayed tuned to learn about the good and the bad about it.

If you still want to purchase a Kindle please support my blog and use my Amazon Link

Tools for People with Multiple Machines – Dropbox

Most people today are now starting to use multiple systems. It is not uncommon for most folks to have a desktop PC and a laptop at the same time. But is there an easy way of ensuring that data that you need is available on all of your machines? You can easily do this with a USB key, but you really don’t have to.

As a user of a couple of MacBook Pro laptops, a windows Asus net book and a primary windows desktop PC, I have found a couple of tools that I use on a regular basis that help keep my information up to date on all machines. Most of these programs work on both Macs and PCs as well. This is the first post regarding a couple of these tools.

The first tool I want to write about is a little service called Dropbox available at www.getdropbox.com.

Dropbox is a free (they also offer a paid Pro accounts) service and software combination that gives you 2 GB of space, on a free account, to store and sync data between machines and to the web. Once you sign up for an account at the site, you then install the client software on your PC or Mac. There is even an application for the iPhone or iPod Touch. The software creates a folder in your My Documents folder called My Dropbox. Any files that are saved or moved into these folders are then synchronized to your Dropbox account on the web.

Once you install the software on multiple machines, when each computer connects to the Internet, the files in the My Dropbox folder get synchronized to and from the website.

Right now this is one of the most important pieces of software that I am using. I store documents that I may need in my dropbox folders (I have created a hierarchy of folders under that one folder) and I have access to these files from every one of my laptops and or desktop. In addition by going to the Dropbox site I can also access my files from any Internet connected machine.  You can also store photos, software programs virtually any type of files in your Dropbox account.

Another feature of Dropbox is that you can share files with family, friends and business associates. All you have to do is set up sharing via the web site (for a particular folder) and send the URL to whoever you want to share the file with. If they update the file or add files these can also be synced with your machines.

If you need more space a Dropbox Pro account costs 9.99 USD per month and you get 50GB of storage. If that is not enough, you can sign up for 100GB plan for 19.99 USD.

Right now running my own business in addition to being a soccer coach and member of our club’s board of directors, Dropbox allows me to move around and always have the information that I need wherever I go. For my uses the 2GB is just fine right now.

If you want to sign up for a free account please use the following link to do so. By using my link you will get an additional 250 MB of monthly storage as well as giving me an additional 250 MB of storage. https://www.dropbox.com/referrals/NTEyMTkwNTk.

Watch for more posts in the coming weeks for more of the tools that I use to ensure that all of my data is synced up between multiple machines.

Upgrading your Shaw HD PVR

I was searching the web recently trying to figure out how to move recorded content from my Shaw HD PVR to my DVD recorder via firewire. While searching I saw that many Shaw users were indicating that their Motorola HD PVRs had received the firmware that enabled the eSata port on the back of their boxes. More searching indicated that the while the firmware could activate the port it was not yet active. Forum posts indicated that Shaw had told several people that the ports would be activated soon.

Last week while checking out the Shaw site, I saw that the Shaw was now selling a PVR expander for 200.00 CAD. This PVR expander is a Western Digital external 1TB eSata drive. I called Shaw to find out if you needed the Shaw PVR expander or could you use any external eSata drive.

Update November 13, 2009 – I just found out that Shaw has dropped the price of their PVR Expander to 150.00 CAD. TIt looks like they now have the Western Digital drive and a Seagate Drive Available.
I was told that you could use any drive, and that the eSata ports on the Motorola boxes were globally enabled at the end of October.

I ran down to Memory Express (http://www.memoryexpress.com) where I picked up a Velocity external USB/eSata enclosure and a Seagate 1 Terabyte drive for 119.00.
Once I got home it took me about 15 minutes to install the drive in the enclosure and then another 5 minutes to plug it into my Shaw box’s eSata port and get it powered up. When I fired up the Shaw box it indicated that I was not authorized to have an external drive. I 10 minute call to Shaw Technical support and the enabled the port on my box and rebooted it.

When the box came back on it indicated that the drive was not formatted for the PVR and did I want to format it? I indicated yes and within a couple of minutes I flipped to the PVR menu. Sure enough all of our old recordings were there however there was a nice number 0% of space used. we have since recorded several shows and space is no longer an issue.

So I upgraded the box in less than half an hour with a new external drive and now we don’t have to worry about space. I haven’t tried this yet but I should be able to plug in yet a different eSata drive if I ever need more space. I should be able to swap between a couple of drives over time.

Shaw indicated that they wouldn’t support a drive other than the one they are selling however it is a very easy procedure. One problem with the Velocity enclosure is that it is a little noisy compared to the Western Digital firewire enclosure I have but it is not too bad. If you are looking at a little quieter solution Costco in Calgary is selling a 1 TB external drive with USB, Firewire and eSata for 159.99. So it is still 40.00 cheaper than the Shaw drive. See below for updates. There is not really much to performing this upgrade. If your port is not activated it is a simple call to Shaw support asking them to activate it which requires a box reboot and you lose your programming guide and menus for a short period of time, but it truly is a plug and play install.

I have read that the largest drive supported is 1 TB but I haven’t confirmed that as of yet but better to stay with the 1 TB size. It will give you significantly more recording space than the default 160 GB drive that comes with the box.

Important Update November 19th, 2009

I have been reading the forums and have discovered a few things about upgrading your Shaw PVR with an external hard drive enclosure.
1) There is a problem with external enclosures that feature a sleep or low power setting (most of the desktop style drives from Western Digital and Seagate). These drives will go to sleep and not work with the PVR. The lower costs enclosures don’t do this nor do the dedicated PVR Expanders. I would suggest staying away from the Costco WD drive mentioned above.

2) There is a known problem where your Motorola Box will not be able to track space on the external drive and will always register at 0% full. Some people have had Shaw fix this by resetting their boxes several times however another reset (even a firmware upgrade or a power failure will reset this down to 0 again). When the box starts tracking again it will ignore what content is on the drive and start counting at 0 again not indicating how much space there is. To check you use the diagnostics. Power off your box and power it on hitting select immediately, go to PVR diagnostics and use option 13. The first two numbers on each drive will tell you space available on the drive in GB. Motorola will have to release new firmware to connect this and it looks like it might be spring of 2010 before seeing it. This happens with all drives attached.

3) If your PVR box is connected to your TV via an HDMI cable, some people have reported that they do not see the format option. Connect your PVR via component or composite cabling to the TV  to set up the drive

4) Once a drive is connected to the PVR it cannot be swapped. Contents are encrypted and tied to the box they are connected to. Swapping drives will not work as you will not be able to get your old content back after changing external drives.

5) The enclosures that Shaw sells contain special drives designed to record video. These are non error correcting drives (unlike desktop drives). I have had no issues with my EC drive but some people have reported video and audio dropouts in recorded shows and this can be caused by built in error correcting on the drives. With the lower price being offered by Shaw on their expanders (in addition to a 3 year swap warranty) I would suggest that these drives are the best way to go. I may soon be switching my drive to one of the Shaw Expanders.

Use Your Blackberry GPS as a Golf Aid!

When GPS devices started showing up for golfers, I seriously considered getting one to help improve my game. Then I looked at the cost of most (300.00 +) and decided that I had been a member of my own course long enough and I could do a decent job of figuring out my own yardage.

Then last August I got my new Blackberry Bold that has a built in GPS receiver and started looking at software that I could maybe use on the golf course. I did find and try two excellent packages; IntelliGolf and GreenFinder. Both are programs that you can purchase with IntelliGolf coming in at 59.95 USD for the non GPS version and 69.95 USD for the GPS enabled (Eagle Edition) IntelliGolf also sells versions for other mobile devices. GreenFinder sells a yearly subscription for 35.00 USD and is available for Blackberries and the iPhone. Rogers Wireless in Canada also sells this as a service that you can add to your wireless plan for 3.00 CDN per month.

I downloaded GreenFinder to my Blackberry Bold and used the 5 course trial download last fall. It worked very well on my phone and I found that it was quite accurate for the yardage. You can see the distances to the front, middle and back of the green, see distances to hazards and even mark and get a distance for your shot. Currently there is a database of approximately 10000 courses online. I was quite impressed with the software when I used it and was seriously considering purchasing it.

I also tried IntelliGolf which can do a little more than just give you distances of the course. It can track your scores, keep track of side games, as well as keeping your stats. The price of the software is a onetime fee and you can download from their library of 25000 + golf courses. When I tried it my course wasn’t GPS enabled in the database and I never got around to doing it on the course itself using the software.

Recently I happened upon a free application called BB GPS Golf. I downloaded the software over the air to my Blackberry Bold and tried to find my home course (we actually have 27 holes). They did not exist in the database so I visited the web site to see how to map the courses myself and found that I could do it via their website using satellite images and Google maps. I mapped each of the nine hole course at my club simply by dragging pins on the maps from the tee to the green and using very simple instructions (although I have to say it was probably a little easier on my dual monitor system). In less than 2 hours I had all 3 nine’s mapped out and saved to the database. The next time I went to the club, I downloaded the 3 nines to my Bold selected the first 9 I was playing and off I went.

The first time i used the software I didn’t take advantage of any of the extra features found in the program (like keeping score, marking club distances etc), I didn’t even download my club distances from the site. I concentrated on checking the data for the courses I created using markers on the course. I did find that I was in most cases very accurate with the distances I think the largest discrepancy was 3 yards. I also found, just like with other GPS devices, that you had to stop and wait for the device to settle before taking a reading.

The software interface is pretty simplistic. It gives you text data to the front, middle and back of the green as well as the calculated depth. If you have input your club data on the website and download them to your Blackberry, the software will also suggest a club. When I mapped our courses I took advantage of the 5 extra fields for every hole and marked the start and end of fairway hazards as well. If you want to see a detailed image of the hole, the program has the option to view the hole on Google maps.

This weekend I played a round and actually marked some of my shots and used the score keeping feature. I had to figure out how to mark each shot but after the first mistake I made I figured it out.

To mark a shot, you press a menu button, indicate to mark location at which point the software will ask for what club you are using, hit your ball and move towards it. Once you get to your ball, wait for the unit to settle a bit, press the menu button and press end mark. The software will ask you if you hit a good, ok or bad shot. Once you answer the software will upload the data to the website under your account (or new with version 1.17 released May 18, 2009) allow you to store the information to a memory card or device memory for later uploading. This could be a worthwhile feature if you are travelling and don’t want to pay roaming charges on your data.

I checked the results of my shot marking today from my last round this weekend on the website and I was quite impressed (not with my shot making but with the software)! I was able to see the data of my good, ok and bad shots, as well I had the ability to see the shots on a map. I did notice that a few of the shots were a little off but I believe I can attribute that too two things; marking the end point of the shot before the GPS had settled and/or inaccuracy of a consumer grade GPS unit (usually +or – 3 Meters). For the most part however the information was pretty good. Another factor that was difficult to account for was wind. Out here in the west we often get high winds and the day I played it was a 1 to 2 club wind (I know because I hit my Sand Wedge 130 yards, normally it is 105 yards). I think I solved this by marking almost all my shots as OK (except for the really bad ones). Shots marked as Good and OK show up in your club stats, shots marked as bad do not.

While out of the three BB Golf GPS software packages I have tried BB GPS Golf has the fewest courses in it’s online databases, one of it’s big strengths is that is very easy to create a course yourself at the website. Currently there are just over 4200 courses in the database online and just over 2400 of them are fully mapped. As users add courses though they immediately become available to all users. Usually before I travel (and if I am planning on golfing) , I often make my decisions on where I will be playing before I leave. I will search the database before leaving and if the courses I am planning on playing don’t exist I will quickly map them. I have noticed that three of the courses that I usually play when visiting Maui are not listed so I will probably try to map those this summer in case we head out there this winter again.

While there is no formal documentation for the program, the website has some tips and tricks and there is a fairly active community with 3100 + members and a forum. The author of the software has been very good about finding bugs and adding features that are being requested. He does give away the software for free, but does ask for a small donation. I agree that if you try the software and like it, you should donate a little bit of money to the author so that he continues to develop it.

In fact I was playing a few weeks ago with someone at our club. On the second hole he asked what software I was using and within a few minutes he had downloaded and installed the software as well as downloading the courses I created and was using it himself on his Blackberry Storm!

Overall I have really enjoyed using the software and will continue to use over the foreseeable future! I like all of the features in the software the way they are now and it has been very stable running on my Blackberry Bold. True there aren’t as many courses listed but that will change as people discover the software and start mapping their own courses. You really can’t go wrong if you want to use GPS with your Blackberry  on the golf course. Even if you don’t have a GPS enabled Blackberry there are small Bluetooth GPS receivers that you can use with your Blackberry and still enjoy using this software!

You can get more information, create a free account and download the software from http://www.bbsgpsgolf.com.