Across the Pond: Tech Edition


As covered in the social edition I’ve been living in the UK for a couple of weeks for work. In planning for the trip I was in a bit of a panic over what my mobile device status would be (I know… “Geek problems”). But if you think about it, work aside, we all rely more heavily than we think on these electronic bricks and being in a foreign city you really need them more than ever! As a review, there are a whole bunch of things you need to consider when traveling with your mobile kit:

1 – device signaling protocol: are you rocking GSM, LTE, IS95/1xRTT/1xEVDO (Verizon CDMA), etc. This matters a lot because if you’re far enough off (like bringing a legacy, non “world phone” Verizon device to the EU), you won’t be able to connect to a tower at all! The device is then “wifi only” at best.

2 – the supported bands: Even of you have a compatible device, it doesn’t mean you’ll be able to do everything you want. Carriers across the world utilize different frequency ranges for transport of the cellular protocols. So LTE in the EU is on a different set of frequency bands than LTE I the US and even within a region different carriers use different bands. Google can help discover the bands used by different carriers in different regions, but the net of this is that you want a device which supports as many bands as possible. Bit of a spoiler here, but I’ll say it right off the bat: the iPhone 5S is absolutely the best “world phone” currently available in this regard. I like Android a bunch, but there is lots of region and carrier specificity going on in the Android ecosystem and precious few true “world devices”. Apple did travelers a great device in the 5S

3 – SIM lock status: if you have a GSM/LTE device, which you pretty much have to going to the EU (and modern Verizon world devices are dual radio so do have GSM support complete with a SIM slot) the next step is to make sure you can put in a local carrier SIM. The SIM of course is what personalizes your device to a carrier, gives you your local number, and enables you for a set of capabilities (a plan) and in the EU you Can literally buy them from vending machines:

Data by the Shed Load!  I had actually wanted Bag Load, but unfortunately they were sold out.
Data by the Shed Load! I had actually wanted Bag Loads, but unfortunately they were sold out.

If your phone is locked, it won’t let you swap SIMs, and you’ll be stuck roaming. Given that roaming can cost thousands of dollars a day apparently, if you can’t swap SIMs, turn off cellular data. The exception, and again this is a bit of a spoiler, is T-Mobile. Their data plans have unlimited international “web data” (whatever that means) in supported countries. More on this later.

4 – charger compatibility: mobile devices become useless after one day at best these days, so you’ll want to make sure your charger can actually work. The little USB bricks they come with tend to be auto switching 110/220V, so all you’ll need is a physical plug converter. Don’t forget to read the brick and verify it is auto switching first before plugging it in or you will fry it. The plug configuration converters are easy enough to find at Best Buy, Staples, etc and of course online (where they’ll be 1/10th the price)

With all of that squared away, you should be in good shape to travel. Here is the kit I hauled over and my findings:

1 – Nexus 7 LTE 2013 edition: I can finally settle the debate on this one as it seems the question is asked a lot and never answered definitively. The USA 2013 Nexus 7 works fine in the UK. The catch here is that you must use either Three or EE. Those are the only two carriers on an LTE band that the Nexus 7 supports (I believe it was 1700Mhz). Here are some shots of the results of dropping an EE SIM into the N7 and doing some speed tests:

Houston, we have 4G!  EE UK SIM dropped into Nexus 7
Houston, we have 4G! EE UK SIM dropped into Nexus 7

So how is the speed?  Quite good then, thanks for asking!

2013-12-02 23.18.18

2 – iPhone 5S: farewell beloved Galaxy Note II, alas your bands were too narrow. The Note is great, but the US device isn’t a good world warrior. With the prospect of international travel on a regular basis looming larger, I decided to reward Apple for their commitment to the travel weary and picked up a new 5S. In London I dropped in a Vodafone SIM and was off to the races. Was just like being back home just with Voda instead of AT&T

3 – T-Mobile LTE iPad Air: this was he interesting one. I brought along the Air to test the roaming policy and also verify that it’s radio is as flexible as the 5S. I did switch the plan over to the $30/month prepaid data rather than attempting the 250MB free tier. I can report that this was also a happy ending. The iPad roamed to EE most frequently and it looks like my bill has stayed stable at $30. I didn’t detect any restrictions in what I was able to do, and I did establish PPTP VPN, so I’m not entirely sure what “web data” means. As usual with T-Mobile they say “web data”, but I think it just means data. When actually sending HTTP traffic it seems to be proxied, but other traffic didn’t seem to be getting dropped. Of course as always with them YMMV!

That pretty much wraps it up for the tech segment other than to say I finally got to sample an Xperia Z Ultra at an O2 store and fell in love. The Nexus 7 suddenly seemed like a clunky dinosaur to me. Buying expensive electronics in pounds isn’t a smart move for someone paid in dollars, so it did not follow me home, but the N7 may be headed for eBay!

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