I recently got back from a Trip to Hong Kong and Japan. Here’s how it went.
I thought it would be fun to bring some gadgets along with me to see how well they work.
Here’s some of the stuff I brought (stuff not pictured, Nintendo DS, noise canceling headphones and a few other things).
There were a few things I wanted to try:
Using VOIP and prepaid phone cards to avoid paying roaming charges.
Playing around with my new digital camera (a Canon 50D).
Seeing how well my Eee PC works for an extended period of time.
Using a Slingbox Solo along with my spare camcorder to watch my pet frogs while I was gone.
I tried to travel light so I only brought 4 phones with me; Nokia n95 8gb, Sony Ericsson K850i, Apple iPhone 3G and a Motorola RAZR2 v9. We also brought a Blackberry 8800 but my wife uses it soley as a PDA. Here’s my reasoning for bringing each of these;
I was actually going to bring an Nokia e71 (e71-2, North American version) but decided the n95 8gb’s vastly superior camera – particularly it’s video recording would be an asset.
The only software I stuck on the n95 was WorldMate (the free version). The weather, world clock and currency converter features were very useful.
The Sony Ericsson K850i has triband HSDPA (850/1900/2100). It’s a nice phone with a decent camera and music player. I planned on letting my wife use this. While she liked the music player she wasn’t crazy about how the Roger’s music player was also present, which made the SE music player harder to find.
The iPhone 3G got packed because I don’t have a lot of HSDPA 2100 devices. It also has a very decent browser. Mine is locked to Fido.
As for the RAZR2 v9, I brought it because I thought it had tri band HSDPA. It turns out the North American one only has HSDPA 850/1900. I should have known better. Anyways my thought was that I would pop a SIM card to use it while in Japan – instead I never really used it on the trip.
The Blackberry is my wife’s. There’s no service on it, she normally uses it as an organizer. To prepare for the trip, we thought it would be a neat idea to load something to help out with the language barrier in Japan. We got BEIKS Dictionary and BEIKS Phrase Book.
We didn’t find the dictionary to be very useful because no one could understand what we were saying when we tried to pronounce the phonetic Japanese. The talking phrase book on the other hand was fairly useful. While we didn’t use it that often, it was great when we needed to. The volume gets pretty loud (really, more of a function of the 8800′s speaker) but it also allows for 100 levels of adjustment. This is nice if you want to use the phrase book to ask a question but don’t want everyone else around to hear it.
Phrases are sorted into categories or you can just search for something by pressing ‘f’ and then entering part of a phrase. You can press in on the trackball to have the Blackberry say the phrase, you can press it again as many times as you want to have it repeat it. Again, a good UI decision.
Another thing I liked is that all the phrases were stored on the device so the program doesn’t need to be connected to the internet to work.
From my experience, no one had trouble understanding the phrases. My only complaint I guess is that I wish there were more phrases built-in.
A general comment about speaking phrasebooks in general is that if you need something to ask the question for you, you probably won’t understand the answer. That said pointing and numbers are often good enough.
For service I was going to get prepaid SIM cards in Hong Kong and then use them to roam in Japan. You see my wife doesn’t really have phone service that will work overseas plus it would cost me $2 to $3 dollars to roam.
In Hong Kong, I had some people to call, while in Japan it would only be used to call my wife in case we want to split up.
My regular line (my Fido), would be forwarded to my voicemail. If anyone left a message I would get the SMS and then check my voicemail using my VOIP line which costs around 3 cents a minute vs 3 bucks a minute if I roamed with my Fido in Japan.
The VOIP service I was using is from http://www.callcentric.com. To be honest I haven’t tried many SIP providers and chose Call Centric because it was one of the first ones I found. I used it with n95′s built-in SIP client.
The other VOIP service that I was going to try is a UMA phone from Rogers (a Blackberry Pearl flip). It turned out that the Blackberry I got was a prototype that didn’t have working WiFi so I didn’t get to try it.
Now I talked about being connected to the internet. For that I used my Novatel MC950D along with my Cradlepoint PHS300 portable router. I used CSL which cost $178 HKD (30 CDN) for 5 days of unlimited HSDPA which works out to $6 CDN per day. The service only for 3G; UMTS and HSDPA only, no EDGE. Not a bad deal for prepaid data – especially when you consider my hotel wanted $140 HKD per DAY for internet service.
I was pleased with the service. While I didn’t walk around all day checking network signal it worked when I wanted it to and noticed real world speeds of around 2.4 mbps.
I didn’t use VOIP much in HK but when I did, it worked okay. My SIP service is located in the US so I was expecting the latency to be a problem (which would result in a lengthier delay from when I speak to when the person on the other end hears it). Normal mobile phones have about 1/4 or 1/2 a second delay which most don’t notice because we’re used to it. I did notice slightly more latency but to be honest it wasn’t bad. Besides the latency the only other issue I noticed was that the volume could have been louder – I think this is more a function of the VOIP provider and not really a n95 8gb issue.
Now my n95 8gb is a North American version which only has HSDPA 850 and 1900 support. In Hong Kong, HSDPA is mainly at 2100Mhz, while in Japan they use 1700/2100Mhz. So it would only be used for voice in HK and only for VOIP in Japan.
So overall I thought my experiment with phones in HK went well.
Let’s move onto Japan.
Now my iPhone is locked to Fido, I thought my wife would use the K850i in Japan while I would use the RAZR2. Those plans were dashed when I realized my RAZR2 is only dual band HSDPA and not triband. So now instead of bringing 3 HSDPA 2100 phones I only had 2 and 1 of them is locked. Boo!
I tried buying a Turbo SIM but it didn’t work because I updated my iPhone 3G to version 2.2 (it only works up to version 2.1).
Regardless, I planned on leaving my Fido SIM in my iPhone like I did in HK so that it could alert me when I had a new SMS/voicemail.
Before I talk more about Japan, I should point out that it’s not easy for foreigners to get prepaid SIM cards. Softbank and DoCoMo operate HSDPA 2100 networks which you could always roam on but the roaming rates for Canadian carriers are very expensive. The solution is to rent a mobile phone (or get a prepaid card from HK with cheaper roaming rates). I ended up doing both. My wife used her People’s prepaid SIM card while I rented a D02HW USB modem. The modem works on the EMobile network which is HSDPA 1700Mhz. I should point out, that this is a different 1700Mhz from the AWS 1700Mhz we have here in North America.
The modem rental was considerably more expensive than the prepaid SIM I used in HKD. It cost 1050 YEN per DAY which works out to about 15 bucks CDN. Ouch!
Now since I only had 2 HSDPA 2100 phones, one of which was meant for my wife and the other for Fido, I was the odd one out. Since I still didn’t want to pay for roaming, I planned on using VOIP for myself only. Since I don’t know anyone from Japan I wouldn’t be placing many calls anyways.
EMobile 1700Mhz is mainly for wireless data only. I often found that EMobile had very low signal levels, even outdoors in urban areas. So, while I didn’t call my wife often when I did, I often dropped the call. When I logged into my Cradlepoint router to check the network signal, it would often read as zero bars (I forgot to log into the modem properties page to check the signal in DBm). Regardless, a dropped call is a good indicator of weak signal. Later in the trip, I would walk around with my iPhone logged into my Cradlepoint looking for spots with strong signal to place the call. After doing this I didn’t drop any more calls. Looking back, walking around like this was a pretty stupid measure not to mention I must be a real cheapskate but hey, I did so I could tell you all about it.
The K850i worked fine in Japan. It roamed on both DoCoMo and Softbank.
Overall I was disappointed with the performance of the USB modem, then again maybe I expected too much from it.
As a side note, the trip made me realize that I have things pretty good with Rogers in Canada. While not perfect, Rogers has decent coverage for me (YMMV) most places that aren’t the subway, the data isn’t that expensive, and data rates are decent. Just remember Hong Kong’s really good too.
Phone Related Stuff:
Now the Cradlepoint router has one weakness, from my experience with my EVDO modem, the built-in battery is only good for about 2hrs of battery life. To remedy this problem, I constructed a battery pack with 8AA batteries that will boost the battery life up to around 12hrs. You’ll also know that I inserted a battery the wrong way and caused it to melt – oops. Anyways, while my router is horribly scared it still works. However, since I’d be gone for a long time I figured I’d pick a new one up (the one pictured is so new, some of the plastic wrap is still on it).
So I brought the router, 8AA batteries, two 4AA holders plus a Novatel MC950D HSDPA modem to get myself on the net while in Hong Kong and rented a HF11w USB modem for Japan.
I made one big miscalculation, The HSDPA modems use more power than the EVDO one I used before so instead of having close to 12hrs of battery life I was looking at closer to 8hrs which is a big problem if I plan to just leave it on all the time. Another problem I noticed is that one of the 2 sets of 4AA batteries I brought stopped working. When I put them in the holder and plugged them into the router they wouldn’t charge it. I’m not sure why this happened… particularly since I just tried them again and now they work. Anyways next time I’m bringing more batteries.
To charge my batteries, I brought my Maha MH-C801D – yup, it has the biggest AC adapter off all the adapters I brought. It can charge 8 batteries in about an hour. It can also condition batteries (discharge them) and slow charge them in 2 hours.
I picked up a Canon 50D a couple of days before my trip. To be honest I wasn’t planning on buying one but a friend convinced me to get one. I already have a pretty full setup of Canon gear so while I’d love to get a Nikon D300/D700 that would be a little out of the question at this point in time. I’m a little ashamed to admit that at the time of purchase I haven’t read any 50D reviews and really don’t know that much about the camera other then that it has: the same LCD as the Nikon D300, live view, 6.something frames per second burst mode, 15 megapixels, along with a few other things.
Now I was pretty sure I would like the 50D, after all the 10D, 20D, 30D, 40D are all solid cameras. Anyways not reading reviews makes getting to know the 50D that much more interesting.
At this point, I should point something else out, I rarely like reading manuals, I prefer to figure things out as I go and only read the manual as a last resort or if I’m really bored.
With that in mind, I also brought the following camera stuff; Canon 24-70mm f/2.8, Canon 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5, Canon 580ex flash and a spare battery. I left my tripod, 50mm f/1.2 and 70-200mm f/2.8 IS (other stuff I’ve traveled with in the past) at home.
On my Rebel XTi I’ve found that the grip is too small and the camera to be too short so I always used a portrait grip with it. The grip makes holding the XTi easier plus it allows it to take over a 1000 shots on a charge. It also allows me to use a AA battery charger to charge it since I travel with one anyways.
I was going to get a battery grip for the 50D but I’ve found that the grip is nice and big plus the camera is tall enough so that I don’t need one. So now I need to pack an extra battery charger.
Okay with that stuff out of the way, here are my camera observations.
In the past I’ve traveled up to 5 days with: body, 24-70, 10-22, 70-200, 50, flash and tripod with no problems at all. This trip would be 3 weeks plus I had to have a laptop, a few phones and a portable hot spot with me at all times so I traveled lighter. I learned a few things about myself;
a) I’m fine with lugging around lots of camera for a few days but after about 6 days I really start to feel it.
b) After about a week of carrying a camera on my neck, I began running out of skin on my neck – eww!
Now you’re probably wondering how I managed to carry all this stuff around. While I do own a couple of LowePro bags I find they’re too bulky for a 3 week trip. Instead of using them, I decided to wrap my camera and lens in bubble pack and then I just threw them into a regular North Face backpack. Did it work? Well my camera gear still works well. There are a few caveats. First off, the bubble wrap is no substitute for a proper padded bag. I did my best to not drop my bag (and indeed I never did), another more amusing thing is that whenever you show someone the bubble wrap they tend to laugh and start popping it which isn’t good for the wrap.
One thing that may cause some photographers to cringe is that I accidentally dropped my 50D on the ground. I was at a cramped Starbucks in Japan and had the camera on the table, then I walked off and accidentally knocked the camera onto the ground! I’d say it’s a medium height drop – oops it was at Starbucks so it was a ‘grande’ height drop.
The hood on my 24-70mm is really durable, I dunno how many different things it bumped into over 3 weeks.
Anyways the camera was fine. You can’t really tell it was dropped – impressive.
Another durability comment I had was that I didn’t have a LCD screen protector on the display. I walked around for 2 weeks with the camera on my neck with it bouncing off me where ever I went. Well, after 2 weeks I decided to buy a screen protector (a made in Japan one). After one day, the screen protector was completely covered in scratches. Again, the scratch proof coating on the 50D’s display… impressive.
Now I mentioned the skin on my neck – after a week, my neck felt like it had a major sun burn. My solution was to get a nicer neck strap that was more cushion-y. I picked up a LowePro Voyager S neck strap. It works great and I’m happy to say that my neck is back to normal.
As for the camera, I shot exclusively in RAW+JPEG mode. I used a 16GB Sandisk CF card. 16GB is good for around 550 RAW+JPEG images.
There are a lot of features on the 50D and to be honest, between the phones, computers, trying to figure out how to get around and enjoying myself, I haven’t learned all of them yet.
Anyways what stuck out most to me is that the 50D has a much nicer screen than my Rebel XTi, the imaging processor is really fast, you really notice this when you’re reviewing pictures you’ve taken. The speed at which it moves back and forth between pictures coupled with the high resolution LCD really makes the 50D excellent for comparing pictures.
My Rebels shoot at something like 3 fps, the 50D shoots twice as fast at 6.3 fps which is useful for bracketing in case you want to make HDR’s.
Now I’ve been wearing contact lenses for 16 years. I learned on the trip that I have trouble manual focusing when I’ve been wearing them a lot. Luckily the 50D autofocus worked most of the time.
I loved the 50D’s high ISO abilities (it goes up to 3200 along with 2 special 6400 and 12800 modes). Having all these ISO’s available gives you amazing flexibility with your shots. Just watch out, the 6400 and 12800 modes are very noisy which in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing – what’s bad is that the noise doesn’t look like film noise.
So lately I’ve been enamored with my Asus Eee PC 1000h. It’s small, has good battery life and most of the time it has adequate performance.
Unfortunately, after 3 weeks of using it with no access to other computers, I can say the honeymoon is over.
The 1000h is fine in small doses but after 3 weeks I had grown to loath the 1024 x 600 display – I need more resolution sometimes. Also, it’s slow processor does not make the ideal machine to look at pictures for the 50D. To be honest I rarely looked at the pictures I took because I couldn’t take the speed (I’m a very impatient guy). Secondary problems were that I couldn’t stand the fact the touchpad is so easy to accidentally tap when you’re typing. I did manage to get used to the awkward positioning of the left shift key though it became a problem occasionally.
At this point I’d like to point out that you CAN disable the touchpad if you download the touchpad driver from Asus.com. I wish I figured that out on the trip.
I did like the battery life. To save money we had a monstrous 2 connection flight; Toronto to Detroit, Detroit to Japan, Japan to Hong Kong. I picked up a cheap battery for the 1000h from Deal Extreme. It’s advertised as a 12000mah model (the 1000h’s base battery is a 6 cell 6000mah model). With the screen brightness turned almost all the way down and bluetooth and wifi off, you can get about 6 hrs out of the base battery when you’re watching divx videos. I was kind of annoyed to find that the new extended battery only lasted around 9hrs (it’s advertised at having almost 2x the capacity). While I was moping about this (before the trip) I popped the batteries on a scale when I noticed the new battery only weighed about 30% more so the fact that it gets about 30% more battery life makes sense.
As far as economy class goes, the Eee PC is a good size for the plane trays, you could fit something bigger but you might run into problems if the person in front decides to recline their chair all the way.
The other thing I got for the trip is a neoprene sleeve for the 1000h (also from Deal Extreme). It doesn’t have the best build quality (the sewing is funny and there’s a loose thread). Still it did a good job of keeping my 1000h from getting scratched up. To carry it around, I tossed it in the front pouch of my backpack. I had to be careful not to drop the bag because it might cause the 1000h’s case to crack (plus it might damage the camera equipment).
My wife brought her Sony TZ 170. It still has that horribly slow 4200rpm hard drive.
For our mice, I brought a Logitech VX nano which has a small wireless dongle and a Microsoft 5000 Bluetooth mouse (which just uses the Bluetooth in your laptop). While I liked how the Microsoft mouse doesn’t require a dongle, I thought the VX was a better mouse when it came to tracking on different surfaces.
Let’s move onto the SlingBox/Camcorder/Frog thing. Now as I’m sure you’ve noticed whenever I take HowardForums down for maintenance there’s a frog telling you to check back later. Yes, I have a bunch of pet frogs who live in the water. I wanted to keep an eye on them and make sure my parents weren’t forgetting to feed them.
I set the camcorder up on a tripod, hooked it up to my Slingbox Solo and hooked the Solo up to an ethernet jack (my house has a whole bunch of them).
Now my frogs don’t place too much strain on my tank so I don’t have to run the filter 24 hrs a day. What I did was hook the filter and tank light up to a timer so that they would only be on at night in North America – which would be around the time I’d be waking up in Asia, that way I can see them more easily.
Originally I was going to use this to view my frogs only but then I got the bright idea to have it aimed at both the frogs AND my front door. It turns out that when there’s light outside it’s much brighter than the light in the tank so I wasn’t able to make out the frogs during the day. Otherwise this setup worked well.
Now since I travel with a lot of electronics, most hotel rooms don’t have enough outlets for all my electronics. I usually need; my laptop, wife’s laptop, AA battery charger, his and hers digital camera charges and usually my Apple Airport Express if there’s an available network jack.
To address this problem I got a Monster Power Outlets to Go 6 power strip a few years ago. The power cord is flat and folds neatly around so that it takes up very little space when it’s being transported.
Until this trip, I’ve only used it in North America (since that’s where I usually travel). In North America we use 120 volt outlets while in Hong Kong they use 240 volt and Japan uses 100 volt. All my adapters are 100-240 volt compatible but I’m not sure if the power strip can handle voltages besides 120volts. The power strip normally has a LED which lights up when it’s plugged in – that no longer works. That aside, the power strip worked great on the trip.
I got my Airport Express a few years ago and it has paid for itself many times over because of all the hotels with pay internet and just a single ethernet jack my wife and I have stayed at.
You’ll notice that I didn’t bring chargers for all the phones. We charged them all using USB cables connected to our computers.
The only phone which didn’t charge as expected was the K850i. It seems you have to put it into mass storage mode before it will charge.
I brought a Suunto Core watch. The main features which interested me are the dual zone clock, timer and compass. The dual zone clock really helped minimize jet lag as it made it easy to know when to sleep before I left.
I have some funny stories about the compass. In Hong Kong I got lost despite my compass; later I found out that the area map at the subway station didn’t have north as up (oops). In Japan, the compass never worked – remember how I don’t like to read manuals? Well eventually I did read it… if you’re having trouble with the compass you have to calibrate it. You do this by holding the compass level and turning around 360 degrees. Once you do this it works well.
Notice how the orange band is all dark around the edges? That happened after a few days.
Carrying all this crap around:
So you’re probably wondering how I managed to haul all this crap around on a long trip.
Now if you own a lot of gadgets and have carried them around in the past, you’re probably thinking I have a nice gadget bag but really I just used 4 pencil cases I got from the dollar store for the accessories (they were $1 each). I put those inside a regular backpack (the backpack didn’t have any padding).
The reason I just used regular stuff to carry my gadgets was because from experience I know that a) I never drop my bags – I always place them down b) the lack of padding makes things lighter plus you can fit more stuff when there’s no padding.
The laptops had their own cases (mine was 6 bucks from Dealextreme, wife’s was free from Sony with her laptop). The camera and lens got a nice case made of bubble pack. I put the router inside a small fanny pack (which I wore sometimes) and sometimes I left it in the backpack.
I should point out this arrangement was only for airplanes. The only stuff I walked around with was; laptop + mouse, camera + lenses + flash + batteries, router + modem + batteries and phones.
For phones, I stuffed the iPhone and n95 in my pockets. My wife threw the k850i and 8800 in her purse.
What would I do differently next time:
I would double check that my phone forwarded properly! I used the menus on my phone to forward all my calls to my voicemail. It turns out it forwarded all calls to the number used to check voicemail and NOT my voice mailbox.
First off I’d bring a faster computer. While I like my eee PC I was ready to throw it against the wall after 3 weeks. I’d like something like my Thinkpad x300 but with much better battery life (maybe a x200?).
For my next trip to Japan I’d also probably bring more HSDPA 2100 phones. If not it’s okay because most places have EDGE support for phones with no HSDPA 2100.
If I had to use my router again, I’d bring more AA batteries or maybe construct a battery pack using 11000maH D cells.
For the camera I might bring a wrap instead of bubble pack as the bubble pack was starting to fall appart near the end of the trip. It would have been nice to bring a tripod too but I wasn’t willing to pay the weight penalty associated with one.
Otherwise I was very pleased with how the trip went.
So there you have it. What I brought, what worked and what didn’t work on my trip to Asia.
13 comments December 29th, 2008