Here’s the plan – I have a quick business trip planned to Paris for just 3 days and 2 nights – can I get by, me, a HEAVY computer user, for that time with just an iPad? What equipment do I need to do so? What things won’t I be able to do? Sounds like a pretty good test of the functionality of the device and a great way to review the 3G iPad for travel use on a business trip.
Let’s set up the testing process. The equipment I have with is the iPad 3G, an external battery to make sure I’m covered for the long flights, the Apple Bluetooth keyboard, a case and a bag. For back up, I have my Macbook, and my iPhone. Thats a lot of Apple devices in one bag. I hope I don’t have problems with security.
The iPad 3G gives me the most flexibility for all legs of the trip. The WiFi will give me the fastest connection in most locations. If needed, I can use the 3G when there’s no WiFi available. I opted to purchase the international data package ahead of time from AT&T for this trip.
I chose the HyperMac Mini battery to accompany me for this trip. It’s a pretty high power battery 7200mAh but not too physically large. Its slightly larger than an iPhone and about the same shape. It has unfortunately not been updated for the iPad yet, but it does still charge the iPad, even though the iPad warns that its not charging. The battery can keep the device battery even when in use, or can recharge it if the screen is turned off.
Apple Bluetooth Keyboard
This keyboard has some obvious advantages over the on-screen keyboard. For one, it’s a complete standard layout. The other reason is that things like arrow keys work, copy and paste, option option-arrow, etc. Many of those quick keyboard commands that are standard on OSX work. Those shortcuts alone increase typing efficiency greatly over the on-screen keyboard.
Case and Bag
I chose the Apple iPad case – because it’s not too bulky and provides dust and scratch protection and covers the front screen. There are lots of things I don’t like about the case, but at least its not bulky.
I also have a nice small Timbuk 2 bag/man purse that just fits the iPad so I don’t have to carry it around in my hand like some Euro-tech-hipster. And since I don’t have those jeans with the giant iPad pocket in the back, I needed something.
International Data Plan from AT&T
If you want to use the 3G data while overseas, you need to purchase the AT&T International Data Plan ahead of time. It will then go live on the date you set with the earliest possible date being midnight Eastern Standard Time in the US the next day.
You purchase the plan pretty much the same way you purchase the regular data plan, through the Cellular Data item in the Settings App. Click on View Account, sign in, then select Add International Plan. The differences are that you have to decide how much data you want to buy, and the International plan, unlike the regular data plan, doesn’t automatically renew. AT&T offers the following International data plans:
20 MB for $24.99 ($1.25/MB)
50 MB for $59.99 ($1.20/MB)
100 MB for $119.99 ($1.20/MB)
200 MB for $199.99 ($1.00/MB)
All of the data plans are valid for 30 days and there are dozens of countries where you can use it (see the list on the ordering page).
I purchased the 50 MB International Data Plan and had it set to go live just a couple of hours before I landed in Paris. We’ll see how far that takes me.
For this business trip, I need to stay in touch. So I’ll need to be able to read and send emails, surf the web, write and post blog posts, and the occasional IM conversation. All of these can easily be done on the iPad. I’ll do my very best to resist using the Macbook and iPhone. I plan to rely solely on the iPad, as long as it doesn’t stop me from doing the simple things I need to be able to do. But I’m not sure I it can do it. Let’s see.
A Long Damn Time on a Plane
All in all, I’ll spend about 30 hours on a plane or in airports for just 52 hours in Paris. A little crazy. Right now I’m really wondering about my sanity. My trip is broken into 4 legs. San Francisco->Charlotte, Charlotte->Paris, and back again the same way. While on the plane I plan on mainly writing up notes/planning my trip, and watching movies on the device.
On the two US flights, US Air has gogo Internet service so that I can connect with WiFi and get to the Internet. It was a great connection that generally holds up well to light email and web surfing.
I’m not sure who invented WiFi on the airplane, but they deserve the Nobel Prize for awesomeness. Life before it seems like living in the stone ages.
On the first leg of my trip, San Francisco to Charlotte, NC, I was able to use the iPad for about 3.5 hours total. The first 2.5 were reading and sending email, checking Twitter, and surfing. I watched part of a movie in the final hour and the battery was down to 82%. Damn, that’s awesome.
While on my layover in Charlotte, I used the AT&T 3G connection to check email a couple more times and the battery was still above 80%. Unfortunately, for the next leg of the trip, an excruciating 7.5 hours, I will be without WiFi.
Jumping the pond
The second leg of the flight, Charlotte, NC to Paris was long, but it went well. Luckily I was on a newer plane that has USB ports in the seat armrests for charging portable electronics. When plugging in the iPad, I get the same not charging warning. But it is charging, just very slowly.
The iPad spent a lot of time playing music, and I spent a lot of time catching up on some writing I’ve wanted to do. I was using SimpleNote for writing up drafts for blog posts and this worked out great. I think in all I wrote about 4,000 words on the iPad. Considering I’m working on about 4 hours sleep in the last 48 at this point, we’ll see how many of those words are coherent.
All of this writing, on the first half of the trip, was done using the on screen keyboard. It went well, except that the auto-correct has stopped correcting the single lower case I to an upper case one. But the ease of use and convenience were great. The on screen keyboard took a little getting used to, but once you do, it works very well and much more convenient than an external keyboard.
I used the app Air Video to convert a few movies and TV shows for the trip. Then used iTunes to sync them to the device. The quality was decent. I’m guessing it was optimized for playback on the iPhone and not the iPad. While I would have liked to have seen higher video quality, I was happy with the saved space.
Watching video on the iPad is fantastic experience. The screen is larger than the majority of the video screens on the plane and other portable video devices. If you can get the angle right so it’s not reflecting a bright light, it works amazingly well. I got a lot of questions from the flight attendants about the device. They were all very impressed with it.
I played a handful of games on the trip. Mainly Iron Man, Strategery, and Galcon Fusion. Overall, gaming on the device on a plane is pretty good. Especially so for touch/movement games like Strategery and Galcon Fusion. I resisted playing Flight Control HD and X-Plane — I didn’t want to freak out the people sitting across the aisle from me when my plane crashed on-screen.
Landing in Paris
Here we are, in Paris. Passage through immigration and customs was a breeze. Now to get to the hotel and check in. On the way to the Hotel, I pulled out the iPad and turned on the International Data for the first time to see how it works.
Using the International Data Plan
As I mentioned earlier, I pre-purchased the 50MB International data plan from AT&T. This plan works basically, just like your local data plan. Data is used up on the International plan only when you have cellular data and data roaming turned on. Data is not deducted from your main data plan while using the International plan.
You will also get the same warnings about data remaining as you do on the normal plan. Warnings when there is 20% of your data plan and 10% of your data plan remaining. And when the data runs out, you are out of luck unless you purchase more before it all runs out. If you need more after it runs out, you will need to find a WiFi connection to be able to purchase more. And you may need to wait until midnight Eastern the next day for it to go live again.
How’s The Data Connection?
AT&T gets a lot of complaints about their service in certain areas in the US, particularly large cities like San Francisco and New york City. How’s the 3G connection elsewhere? While I can’t speak for other areas of France or other countries, but the 3G connection in Paris was absolutely horrible. Made AT&T look like an amazing provider. While the coverage is great, nearly everywhere I went I had 4-5 bars and 3G, you couldn’t do anything with it. What good is good coverage if you can’t get a data connection? More than half of the time I would turn on the cellular data, I would not be able to connect to email or open a web page. It just wouldn’t work — the spinner would just keep spinning. And as I found out later, it would churn through data amazingly quickly while this happened.
I am pretty certain that the International data plan is messed up and robbing me of my data quota.
While doing nothing but reading and replying to email after less than 1 hour, I had used nearly 35 MB of the 50 MB allotment. I was not downloading attachments, I was not surfing YouTube, just simple email, with images turned off even, and the data disappeared that quickly. I was careful to put the device in airplane mode when not in use too — to make sure it wasn’t sucking down data in the background.
While I suppose this strange behavior could be blamed on the fact that the iPad isn’t available in the EU yet, and it hadn’t been tested with that network, this isn’t an entirely new device. It’s so similar to the iPhone, that it should just work.
In another instance, when heading back to the airport, I checked Google Maps twice to see where we were and how close we were to the airport. The connection was fairly good, but I churned through nearly 8 MB in about 3 minutes of use all just waiting for a Google map to load.
In what I would guess adds up to about 7-8 hours of general use checking email and light browsing while in the US, I have only used 45 MB total. Clearly, something isn’t working properly with the measuring of the data internationally. I’m just going to go ahead and call the International data plan a complete disaster. Don’t use it at any cost. It’s just too expensive, and too broken.
As you may have guessed, on the rare occasion when this worked, it was a pretty spectacular thing. The sun parted the clouds, rainbows sprouted, and the world seemed a better place. Or maybe that’s going a little overboard. Imagine a time when you can grab this one little device and use it nearly anywhere in the industrialized world to have a data connection. No need to carry a heavy laptop, just this one little iPad. But after those wonderful moments, it all went down hill quickly. Strike 1. So, time for plan B.
Using Public WiFi
So the international data plan isn’t going to work. It would cost me $75/day to keep filling up the data I needed — if I could even get a connection. So, let’s try public WiFi.
My hotel didn’t have free WiFi. What? Yeah, I know. It had free wired Ethernet. Which must me much more expensive to install in each room, but not free WiFi.
That WiFi is 9 Euro / day for unlimited use. I figured I would go ahead and use it — while expensive it’s much cheaper, faster, and more reliable than the International 3G data plan. Though the downside is that it’s tied to the single location.
So I signed up, put in my credit card, got my login and password and then… nothing. The connection dialog just died. I couldn’t connect. I tried again, putting in my obtuse login and password. Locked up on the login screen. The Orange WiFi registration and login system is incompatible with the iPad. Great. How tough is it to program web sites to standards? Pretty tough for Orange I guess.
To make sure that everything was OK and to verify that the iPad connecting was the problem, I pulled out my iPhone and logged in using the login and password I was given without a problem. Tried the iPad again, same thing. Locked up after putting in my username and password. So, I shouted the few rude things I know in French and had to declare strike 2 on this experiment.
Ok, what about other public, free WiFi. There are plenty of cafes with great coffee and WiFi. Lets try those. Look, here we go, first try, a “Free Wifi” connection. Needs a login and password, but no way to create one. Can’t connect? Why?
Well, turns out all those “Free WiFi” connections aren’t really what they advertise. I got the details on that from a local — they are only free to people that subscribe to a certain DSL service. If you subscribe to that service you can create a login and password and connect, for “free”, to any of the Free WiFi connections — who happen to be other customers of that same service. Great idea, not good advertising it as free WiFi when it’s only free for your customers.
I was able to find a couple places that had free WiFi. Real, genuine free WiFi. But it was limited. You were limited to 1 or 2 20 minute sessions per hour or day, depending on how the place had it set up. And the closest I could find was 8 blocks from my hotel. This isn’t going to work.
The most convenient, paid Wifi doesn’t work on the iPad because the login system is just not programmed well. Strike 2.
And, the closest other wifi option I found that I could use was way too far away from my hotel to be useful.
Sigh, Strike 3.
The iPad as the sole device for international business travel, is out. Better luck next at bat.
Do the French hate the iPad?
I had to break down and pull out the Macbook to continue working and get caught up. The world is just not ready for the iPad yet I guess. Such is the life of the early adopter. I guess that makes sense since the rest of the world can’t even get the iPad yet.
I really wanted it to work. I wanted to be able to rely on just the iPad and leave the Macbook at home all the time. But that’s not going to work. At least not yet.
There are some great things to look forward to in the future with this kind of test. The iPad sold in the US is unlocked. So that means that in theory, I should be able to go to another country, once they have the iPad and it’s special sim cards (should be May 28th in most of Europe) and purchase a pre-paid card for just a couple Euros per day and have unlimited 3G data. Now that sounds like nirvana.
Why didn’t I do that this time? Well those data plans aren’t available yet. They have just been announced, and will be active once the iPad goes live in those countries. Plus, the iPad uses a smaller SIM card than most mobile phones, and many providers don’t have those yet.
So for the next trip, I will most certainly try the local SIM idea. It should work, and will be much cheaper than AT&Ts sham International Data Plans.
Maybe I’ll try this experiment again later in the year. Perhaps travel somewhere sunny and warm. No really, I’ll do it for you, the reader. I’m dedicated like that.
But for now, where can I find a real fresh baguette?
iPad Apps mentioned in this review:
Released: 2008-09-08 :: Category: Productivity
Released: 2009-03-03 :: Category: Utilities
Released: 2008-12-08 :: Category: Games
Released: 2010-05-03 :: Category: Games
Tagged with: 3g, airplane, att, france, iPad, Travel