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.


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!



Backup Primer for Home Users – Part 2 – Software

Like I said at the end of Part 1 of this post here http://sysguy.com/wordpress/?p=253, my original intention was to put everything in a single post. Then I got on about the hardware and the post would have run too long if I added the software portion on to it.

So as promised here is Part 2 of my Backup Primer – The Software!

So you have picked up a hardware device and want to backup to it. There are a couple of programs you can get that will allow you to do different types of backups. Many of these are free and can be downloaded. To make things simple I will discuss the software that should work with the hardware that you are using. I am not including the backup software here that may have come included with your external drive as these vary across manufacturers and products. These programs will probably work very well and you should take them for a test run as well.

Vista Users have a freebie!

While not officially supported in Windows Vista Basic or Vista Home Premium, there is a feature called Volume Shadow Services that are turned on and enabled by default in all versions of Windows Vista.

Shadow copy is basically a service that runs in the background on your PC and a couple of times a day takes a snapshot of your data files. In theory of you delete or change a file you can revert back to a previous version of the file later.

However the menu to see previous versions is only available in Windows Vista Business or higher. There is a way that Vista Home Premium Users can take advantage of  using a freeware program called Shadow Explorer. Here is a link to a blog post that describes the functionality in more detail as well as a link to the software download.

Be warned however that Shadow Copy is not a replacement for a good backup of your files and will not protect you against a system or OS failure only against user error.

Vista also comes with a built in backup program although only Business and higher get the full PC Image backup portion. On a Vista based PC do a search in the search bar for backup.

Windows XP home does not come with NTbackup installed by default however if you have your Windows installation disk you can install it from the CD. It is located in the valueadd\msft\ntbackup folder. Click on the ntbackup.msi file to install it. Windows XP Pro users should have ntbackup by default and is usually found under the system tools program group.

Backing up CD or DVD

This is one of the basic methods of backing up and is best suited for specifically backing up your data only. If you are using Windows XP or better you have all the software that you need built in to create CDs or DVDs of your data. Simply select the files you want to add to the disk. Right click and select Burn to CD. Once you have all the files you want selected, go to the files waiting to be burned, insert the appropriate disk in your burner then go ahead and burn your files to disk. On a Mac create a Burn folder somewhere (I usually do it on the desktop) then drag and drop the files you want to burn to the disk to that folder. When completed you can delete the files in the Burn Folder.

I suggest always making at least two or more copies of your CD or DVD backups.

In most cases on a PC, you may also have received some sort of OEM CD/DVD Burning software with your system. This software could be Nero, Roxio or some other brand. Personally I find that this software is much better than the built in Windows Disk Burning module. Usually you have better control of the burning process, the selection of files etc. But if you didn’t get software with your PC don’t worry as there is free software you can download that works very well. My suggestion for CD Burning freeware is CDBurnerXP which is available here. It works with virtually all CD and DVD burners that are recognized by the PC.

Most of the free software that comes with systems is a feature reduced version of the manufacturers full software. Nero for example offers their Ultimate Edition upgrade that does more than just burn CDs and DVDs. It can do Video editing and DVD authoring, audio editing and more. These full packages also usually include a system backup utility that will allow you to create recovery or backup disks of your system. These can work very well, however be warned even with a DVD disks, you could end up with 20 – 30 disks and a backup that takes a very long time to burn to disk. Having said that, this is better than doing nothing at all!

Backing up to Other Storage Devices

The software I will include here will work with a variety of different storage devices. Most will work with just about any storage device from a USB Key to external devices and networked attached storage devices.

One of the simplest is the Microsoft Sync Toy Powertoy. This free software utility from Microsoft is a very handy little tool. The application works by syncing a set of folder pairs so that they are identical. You simply download it and install it on your PC. After installation open the application. The first thing you want to do is use the wizard to set up a folder pair.

For example let’s say you want to back up your documents folders. In the wizard make the source folder your my documents (Documents folder in Vista) then create a folder on your external device using the software. Click on next. You will then be prompted for what type of a sync you want to do. A Synchronize (make both folders identical copies), Echo (new and updated are synced left to right deletes and renames happen on the right folder) or contribute (sync left to right, renames are kept but no deletions on left folders). To be safe you may want to use either sync or contribute to backup your files.

This is one of the utilities that I use constantly. I sync things like my accounting software data, my pictures and Lightroom Databases, my documents folders all to either my LAN attached storage devices (DNS-323 or Drobo Share) as well as external Hard drives or a folder locates on my PCs second drive. The first sync could take a little bit of time depending on the amount of data you have to sync. I try to remember to do mine about once a week as there is no way of scheduling from within the software itself. However you can use the built in Windows task scheduler to perform this feat. Here is a link to a blog that explains the instructions on how to accomplish this.

Another application that you can use is Allway sync. It works similar to the MS Sync Toy and has the added benefit that it can run directly from a USB key and automatically sync folders as soon as the drive is connected. Allway Sync is free for non commercial users with some limitations (and I had a client hit the limitation). If you exceed syncing 40,000 files in a 30 day period you are considered a Pro user and have to purchase the software for further use.

Unfortunately Mac users cannot use the MS sync toy however there are options for Mac users as well. You can use Carbon Copy Cloner that can do file backups or whole image backups, however you will need some form of attached storage device (USB or Firewire) to accomplish this. If you are using OSX Leopard and have an external drive you can use Time Machine program that is included with the OS. Time Machine is very similar to the previous versions and Shadow Copy functions of Windows Vista. On my Mac have also found some automator actions that  allow me to sync folders between external devices, folders and network storage devices. I am sure there are more programs that you can search for and find for both Macs and or PCs.

There are plenty of other back up programs that you can find that are free or very low cost. Looking at the freeware backup page of Snapfiles.com shows a fair number of applications (backup or sync programs) that can do a variety of different backup types, from creating zip files as well as other file syncing programs.

Something to note here is that most of these files won’t do backups of your email messages unless you specify them to. Backing up email is a little more difficult as you have to know where your data (messages are kept) and you usually have to be out of your email program when doing the backups. I will soon write another post about how to do email backups for the home user. For now if you want to get started right away do a Google search for instructions on how to do email backups.

All of the above software however only backs up your selected files (with the exception of Carbon Copy Cloner for Mac). Another type of backup you may want to do is an image based backup.

Image Based Backups

You may want to consider doing an image based backup of your system. What an image based backup does it basically take a snapshot of your system at a certain point in time and allow you to restore your whole system in the case of problems. There are both advantages and disadvantages about using image based backup software. These are typically the types of backups I do to external drives of client machines before I do any important work to them.

The advantage of using an image based backup is that you end up backing up all of the files on your system including some files that may be stored in folders that are different from where you normally store your files. In addition if you do run into a major problem with your system, you can restore it to your hardware without having to reinstall the OS, all of your programs and then restoring data. Another advantage of using an image based backup is that your email is also backed up at the same time (you are backing up the whole drive after all).

Some of the disadvantages are they they are typically slower and take up more storage space than a file backups. You may not be able to use your system while the backup is happening and you may have to boot via a CD or DVD to start the backup. Another problem is that you may backup problems and viruses that you may have on your system and then end up restoring it back to your system or you may run into problems if you change certain components of your hardware.

There are several commercial packages that are available including Norton Ghost or Acronis True Image or Image for Windows. All of these packages do a good job of imaging your system and several SMB Consultants use True Image Pro and server versions for imaging backups of their clients servers.  Image for Windows and True Image also include tools that allow you to restore to different or upgraded hardware as well. These programs start at about $39.00 USD (Image for Windows) and go up to $69.99 USD (Norton Ghost). Look for a feature in the program as well that can recover individual files and folders from your backups as this can come in very handy at times.

A free alternative that I have been using for sometime however (for client PCs and for my own hard drive upgrades) is DriveImage XML available from www.runtime.org. However they have recently changed their licensing agreement to make the program free for non commercial use only (commercial use requires a license purchase). I use Drive Image XML on my favourite recovery CD (Ultimate Boot CD for Windows) that I use religiously on client PCs. With Drive Image I can backup a system, restore just the files that I want or the whole system or use it for drive to drive imaging (I recently used it for my EEEPC 1000H hard drive upgrade).

How all of these software programs work is that they start and you indicate that you want to image your drive and where you want to image it too. For backing up your system you will usually save the backup to image files on another media source. Some of the above packages allow you to make just incremental changes (only changed files) which allows for faster backups.

For Mac users you can use Carbon Copy Cloner listed above to do the same thing and I have heard very good things about SuperDuper. Carbon Copy Cloner is donation ware and Super Duper sells for $27.95 USD.

I recommend that you do a combination of both types of backup if you have the external storage space available. Typically I only back up my own data, but for me rebuilding and reinstalling an OS on my PC is usually a better option (and fun) for me.

Offsite Online Backup

With more and more people moving to high speed broadband internet connections, offsite backup software and services are becoming more and more popular. These services typically backup your data to various datacenters around the world and store your valuable documents off site or in the cloud.

Three of the most popular of these services are www.carbonite.com, www.mozy.com and www.jungledisk.com. Carbonite and Mozy work in similar ways, you pay a fee, $54.95 USD for Carbonite or $4.95 per month or 54.95 per year for Mozy. You install the software on your PC or Mac, Select what you want to back up and the software runs copying files up to their datacenters. If a file changes, it get’s queued for backup. If your PC ever crashes you can download the files after reinstalling the software and get your files back. The prices however are per PC so if there is more than one computer in your home you have to buy additional accounts for each PC. These software programs can also be used to transfer data from an old PC to a new one.

The software that comes with Mozy and Carbonite can be set up to back up your email messages as well. Both also allow web access to your backed up files.

Jungle Disk works a little differently. You purchase the software for 20.00 USD however you can use the software on as many PCs or Macs (including a Windows Home Server Plugin) as you want. The software is basically an interface to the Amazon S3 service. Once the software is set up, you can set you an Amazon S3 account from within the software and start backing up. The S3 service (which is widely used by a large number of large websites) charges on a volume and bandwidth model. With S3 you pay $.15 per month per Gigabyte for the storage, $.10 per gigabyte uploaded and $.17 per Gigabyte downloaded. In addition you can purchase for $2.00 per month the ability to access and change your files via the web. As this model supports multiple computers (they all back up to the same S3 account) it can be cheaper than using one of the other services, but of course this depends on how much you are backing up. In addition the Jungle Disk software adds a network share to your PC do you can drag and drop files to your share any time. With Jungle Disk however you have to know where your email messages are stored in order to get them backed up.

Personally I have been using Jungle Disk for almost a year. With close to 24 GB of stuff backed up I pay on average about 7.00 per month to Amazon and my Desktop Fee to Jungle Disk. This is currently set up on 4 laptops though. I am looking forward to adding the WHS plugin soon.

All of the companies above encrypt your data so it is safe and both Mozy and Jungle Disk have business offerings. Mozy also offers a 2GB free account to home users and Carbonite offers a 15 day free trial. I did try Mozy before I went to Jungle Disk but I had issues with the software slowing down my system and I had to remove it. I can’t say that I have tried it since but have heard good things about it in the past.

Don’t rely as these services however as a sole backup solution. For one it is still slow (even with broadband) to do some backups. My largest upload to Amazon via Jungle Disk (of about 20 GB) took just over a week to do and it is slower than a USB backup to restore from. These services are ideally to protect you against catastrophic events, such as fire, theft of a laptop or complete hardware failure.

A very specialized way of backing up your photos offsite can be something as simple as a photo sharing site. For almost a year now I have been using Smugmug.com as my primary photo sharing site. My best digital photos as well as those I want to share with family and friends have been posted there. While these are not the Raw images that I keep and that have come out of my camera, they are the highest quality jpegs I can post. Should any thing happen to my storage or backups I know that I can at least recover some of my pictures from there.  In addition Smugmug is a great way of sharing your photos. If you are looking at an account please use my coupon code ( XUgaKIvXVMo0Y ) in the referred by field when signing up to save $5.00 off of your first year.

Windows Home Server

While I mentioned the WHS in the backup hardware post, I do want to mention it again here. Windows Home Server can do automated backups of all your Windows Machines to the server daily (Image backups). Once your WHS is installed, run the software CD on each PC you want connected and they will be backed up to the Home Server. If a machine crashes, boot it from the WHS CDE and you can restore from the last backup on the WHS box. If you have one of the newer HP WHS units you can also backup Mac machines, this functionality will also be added to the older HP MediaSmart servers like the EX475 soon (according to HP). Alternatively you can use Time Machine with your home server and another software application called iTime Machine installed on your Mac. Full instructions are available here.


While this is list is by no means everything that you can do for backing up it should at least serve as a starting point. Do you have to do all of the types of backup mentioned above? I would say no (although I do). You should though consider at the very least backing up important documents and pictures that you deem important and that you would be heartbroken to lose. Then at the very least create two copies of your backups (on a hard drive and maybe DVDs) and keep one somewhere offsite and secure.

Almost every time I work on a client PC, I ask the client whether or not they have created a backup recently and almost every time I get the same answer, no. Don’t be that person that loses all of their precious family memories and their important documents thinking it could never happen to you!  It does, hard drives fail, OS’ get corrupted and PCs and Laptops get stolen. This happens to both PCs and Macs.  Spend a little time (and if necessary money)and do a proper backup at least once every couple of weeks!

If you need assistance with setting up some sort of a backup system. Please feel free to contact us!