Article and photos by Gary Cox
Walking is the best way to see Paris
We recently spent some time in Paris during which we had a chance to try out the Flat Rate aXcess Plan from XCom Global, a MiFi service with a daily flat rate fee which provided us Internet mobile connectivity for up to five devices in France. The aXcess MiFi Mobile Hotspot box which provided the service fit in my pocket and gave us mobile data access wherever we traveled in the city. While service above ground was superior it also worked in the underground subway. Most of our handheld devices support wireless access, but for this trip the star was our Samsung Galaxy tablet.
When connected to the MiFi, the tablet’s map application found our position, including the street and direction. In the same way as a GPS (Global Positioning System) unit in a car, the tablet program offered verbal and text walking directions on the map as we explored the city on foot. This feature alone made having the MiFi along worthwhile. Also, having Internet access came in handy to compare prices online when shopping and to discover the right bus or subway to take on the RATP (Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens or Autonomous Operator of Parisian Transports) website. The MiFi service heightened our touring experience significantly.
Paris streets are challenging even with a map
Although we own a MiFi unit that we use at home in the United States to use the service outside the country we have to register for a plan with a limited amount of bandwidth. Because none of our vendor plans allows unlimited data even a small overage can cost hundreds of dollars. At the same time, connectivity is uncertain. For example, the first time we contacted our vendor, even after multiple calls, the unit never connected on a trip to Asia. We were unable to find out if the issue was frequency compatibility, roaming arrangement or something else. On the second try, we had a good experience in the Caribbean (see ATT Elevate 4G portable hot spot on the road).
The XCom service allowed us to bypass the geographic uncertainty since the service we had was specifically for France, and the bandwidth overage concerns. As long as we made reasonable use of the connection overage was not a concern. The company’s Fair Use Policy stated, “Our standardized FUP policy: if you reached 400 MB within a 3 days period, the service might get suspended or get slower.”
The XCom Global MiFi aXcess Mobile Hotspot kit
XCom Global service filled a niche, allowing us to plan the exact cost for unlimited use (within reason) of a MiFi with the correct mix of frequencies and data plans to roam in our destination country. Fair use policies in some countries limit bandwidth daily, but the data plan had no overage fees. The Flat Rate aXcess Plan MiFi device used the 3G network, not the fastest option, but widely available.
The kit included two batteries, a charger with multiple plugs, instruction manual and a case. XCom Global shipped the package to arrive the day before our departure to France and included a return mailer for its return the day after our arrival home. The insurance seemed wise considering the high cost to replace the unit if lost or stolen ($800). I would consider using the Flat Rate aXcess Plan from XCom Global, Inc. (5910 Pacific Center Blvd, Suite 320 San Diego, CA 92121, +1 858.222.8242, +1 858.222.8243, firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.xcomglobal.com/) in the future.
Article and photos by Gary Cox
The FatCat mPower PowerBar 4200
The FatCat mPower PowerBar 4200, a battery charger for small devices, packs a lot of power into a small convenient package. With a lithium polymer battery that holds about twice the power of a smart phone (4200 mAh) and special circuitry designed to protect the devices it charges, this sleek 4 ounce package can keep the movies and music playing on a long flight, or keep a phone going at that critical moment. For day to day use, we find it much handier than keeping all the various wall chargers on hand when going out with phones, iPad and MiFi unit. It is comforting to know that even if the phone gets a lot of use, or does not get charged the night before, the PowerBar is there to make up the difference. Smaller than a deck of playing cards, the PowerBar 4200 has earned a slot in our laptop and tablet bags.
The PowerBar, priced at $69.95, arrived with a partial charge I was able to top up in four to seven hours plugged into a standard USB port. According to the manufacturer, the battery is good for 500 charge/discharge cycles with recommended topping of the charge at least every three months. The smooth case feels solid and there is a charge indicator on the front that shows a light for each 25 percent of charge the device is holding. We tested a black one on domestic travel. As of this writing the PowerBar is offered in five colors adding blue, red, orange and silver to the front of the case.
The accessory tips and cable came with a cloth bag
The package included a cloth drawstring pouch to hold the selection of tips and the cables. The tips included micro USB, mini USB, male and female USB, iPhone and DC 3.5×1.3. The website indicated less frequently used tips may be available. Most devices that will work with this charger will have a USB cable supplied that can be inserted into the female USB tip. So far all our USB devices have been compatible with the FatCat and the tips that were included. Made by Infora, the FatCat was designed in Sweden and manufactured in China. The company (Infora, 44 Amity Rd, Warwick, NY 10990, +1-845-258-9027, http://www.fatcatgear.com,email@example.com) website lists a two year warranty.
The Rick Steves rolling bag
In these days of airline luggage fees light weight high performance bags are more important than ever. We set out to test a light weight rolling carry on bag. We meant to order a regular Rick Steves carry on bag and instead ordered the new lighter weight Rolling Backpack that retails for $160. By the time we discovered the error it was too late for the first trip to Europe and we decided to try the bag since although we were not looking for a backpack it was light weight and small.
The telescoping handle enters smoothly into the recess
We were looking for a light weight carry on with wheels for an itinerary in Europe that involved multiple transfers in trains, planes and automobiles and later for a short domestic itinerary in which the carry on would be the primary luggage piece. This case with two wide-tracking wheels, 1,960 cubic-inch main compartment, telescoping handle and two outer zipper pockets was just the right size for our needs. It also had an air mesh on the back of the bag, a clip-in document pouch and zippered mesh lid compartment the length of the bag.
One side has a handle and the other a mesh pouch
At first it looked like the backpack bag would not remain upright but that issue disappeared once we packed some contents into it. Although we never made use of the backpack function (two straps were tucked handily in the back of the bag) the carry on case performed well on both trips. At 5.5 pounds it was light weight, easy to maneuver around train stations and airports and lift onto the carry on compartments on the planes. The 7 inch by 20 inch by 14 inch case fit easily in all travel spaces.
The backpack straps tuck into a pocket in the back
The recycled high density polyester fabric survived both trips without scratches or stains although it sat in the high speed train (TGV) luggage rack twice and in the airplane overhead compartments on six flights. It also got wet on several occasions and none of the contents including electronics like cameras and iPad became wet or suffered any ill effects.
The foot in the bottom doubles as a handle
In both itineraries we were pleased with the bag. We will take it again on short domestic and longer itineraries in which traveling light of weight is a priority.
The tarpaulin above the entrance while the Hotel de Crillion was renovated
The last time one of our teams visited the Hotel de Crillon the icon property in the Golden Triangle of Paris, France was shielded by a large tarpaulin while renovations to the historic building took place. Following a year of meticulous renovations under the supervision of Etienne Poncelet, lead architect and head inspector of Historic Monuments, the luxury property designed originally by Ange-Jacques Gabriel emerged at the end of 2011.
Once the work was completed what was the hotel to do with the 1,300 square meters of tarpaulin that covered the scaffolding during the many months of renovations? Instead of tossing the material the Hotel de Crillon teamed up with Bilum to create Recycled Bags from the Hotel de Crillon, an exclusive line of 450 made in France bags and accessories that recently became available for purchase. The line includes three designs: Pouch for 25 euros, Clouch for 35 euros and Shopping Bag for 65 euros each (plus shipping for mail orders).
Our Shopping Bag, made in France with the discarded tarpaulin
Our Shopping Bag, 12 inches wide by 14 inches tall, has plastic reinforced corners at the bottom, two Crillon/Bilum tags, and a sales tag that identifies the bag as an original. The tag also says the bag was made in 2011 in a studio, “specialized in bagagerie and saddlery,” close to Paris.
The preparation work, carried out in Choisy-le-Roi, focused on the artistic and graphic aspects of sizing the tarpaulin into pieces fit for the line. The actual crafting of the bags and accessories took place at three specialized workshops in the Greater Paris region and the south of France. The project’s recycling, fashioning and finishing phases included the participation of a social integration and outreach program in the Greater Paris region.
The one-of-a-kind items, sold exclusively at the hotel gift shop (http://www.crillon.com/#atyourservice/theboutique, +33 44 71 1592, firstname.lastname@example.org), allow hotel guests and fans of the historic building to take home a piece of the Hotel de Crillon’s former tarpaulin facade while contributing 3 euros per item to the National Museum of Natural History association, which strives to preserve plant and animal biodiversity. Kudos to the hotel for its recycling efforts supported by local manufacturing and design.
A tag explains the origin of the bag
By Gary Cox
ATT Elevate 4G
We like to stay connected when we travel. Our latest gadget in this quest is the new ATT Elevate 4G, a portable WiFi hot-spot that allows up to five devices to share a single data service connection. Traveling with a laptop, iPad, Kindle and Skype phone can be a challenge even with today’s ubiquitous WiFi network access, but the Elevate can make connecting simple. The access speed on a 4G network was great, making Skype calls clear and cellphone and web browsing very usable. Enabling the Elevate for international use proved to be the biggest challenge.
The Elevate is a convenient size, and it can be charged via USB or the AC adapter. The devide supports tethered use via USB or up to five devices via a wireless connection. The microSD card that came with it is pointless, since it is only accessible via the USB connection and not to wireless clients.
The online menu provided useful feedback on ATT and roaming data usage, and access to control a handful of settings. The most critical of these is the option to connect to non-ATT networks when roaming. Failing to turn on this feature prevented it from working outside the United States as by default the modem would only connect to ATT networks. SMS messages were delivered via the menu system.
The menu from the ATT Elevate 4G
It was a simple process using an online form to obtain the device from ATT, but it took multiple calls to customer service to get the domestic and roaming services enabled. Getting international data roaming enabled was particularly vexing, as multiple customer service representatives did not seem to understand how to get these features working. A critical step was getting transferred to the international data desk.
We never could get it to connect on the first trip we took it on to India, Nepal, Thailand and Japan. Before traveling to the Caribbean, where the data plan covered several of the islands we were visiting, we activated an international prepaid data package. We had more luck in the Caribbean, but results were still mixed. Generally speaking, each location either worked or it did not, and no amount of playing around with settings made a difference.
Still it was exciting to be offshore in Saint Barths with WiFi access at 4G speeds for all our devices thanks to the Elevate 4G. Several improvements would enhance the service. For example, the possibility of sharing the microSD card out to the wireless devices and more consistent roaming. At the same time, I find it worthwhile to keep the data connection separate from the gadgets and be able to upgrade the data network independently in the future.
Photos: ATT.com, Simon & Baker Travel Review
Article and photos by Joachim Castellano
The Emobile Pocket WiFi-S package and covers
The Emobile Pocket WiFi-S (model number S31-HW) is a versatile Android-enabled smartphone that stands out thanks to a superb feature: with a touch of a button the user can create a personal Wi-Fi hotspot. In Japan, the only place where it was available when I tested it for 42 days, locating public Wi-Fi can be very difficult. Having my own Wi-Fi means I never have to worry about finding a wireless network that connects with my laptop, iPad, or gaming device. I can connect up to five different gadgets simultaneously.
In practice the wireless performance of this 105 gram phone manufactured by Huawei Technologies of China and distributed by Emobile of Japan wasn’t as fast as the Emobile’s Wi-Fi only Pocket WiFi (D25-HW) model. At times, the plastic and glass Pocket WiFi-S’ speed noticeably struggled in the slow lane; that was likely when Emobile’s network traffic was particularly clogged.
The front of the Emobile Pocket WiFi-S
What I lost in speed, however, I gained with the versatility of a full-fledged smartphone. I was able to make phone calls, browse the web, send and receive email, consume media, and navigate with GPS just like with any standard smartphone on the market. Also, because it runs Google’s Android mobile operating system, I was able to download apps from the Android App Market. For example, train schedule and route apps like Hyperdia or Jorudan helped me navigate the labyrinth of Japanese rail. I downloaded one of these apps and recycled the wrinkling pocket rail guide I had been toting around.
The smartphone, 54.8 × 104 × 13.5 millimeters in size, ran Google’s Android 2.2 operating system with a menu system in English and Japanese. The wireless (b/g) WiFi hotspot was capable of connecting up to five devices at HSPA 7.2Mbps down/5.8Mbps up connection speeds. It included a rear-facing 3.2 megapixel photo and video camera, 2.9 inch touchscreen, built-in speaker, 3.5 mm audio jack, Bluetooth 2.1, and had 512MB of memory with expandable memory through a microSD slot.
The back of the Emobile Pocket WiFi-S
The phone I tested had a battery length of five hours of talk time, four hours of standard usage, and 240 hours of standby. It came with one battery pack, AC adaptor, USB cable, microSD card, and three color covers, black, blue, and pink. The retail price was 19,800 Japanese yen ($235) as part of a two year contract, and phone and data plan costing about 8,000 Japanese yen ($95) per month.
While not as slick and graceful as its fruity and shiny rival, the Pocket WiFi-S does have that personal Wi-Fi network trick up its sleeve.