It is time to share more of the “Tech” side of Technomadia. As technomads, we’re constantly updating our technology arsenal. Here is an update on some of the technology toys we’ve been playing with lately – the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Millenicom 4G Hotspot Plan / Samsung SCH-LC11 Hotspot
We absolutely love Millenicom – we have been loyal customers for years, and have long recommended them as the best deal out there for US based technomadic connectivity.
Which is why it pains me to give this warning — don’t be tempted by the new Millenicom 4G Hotspot Plan.
Millenicom resells Verizon and Sprint service under their own name – and the Verizon 3G powered Millenicom Advanced Plan (20GB/month for just $60 with no contract) has been serving us wonderfully as our primary connection to the net since we returned from the USVI.
We have however been paying close attention to the ever-expanding 4G coverage maps (keeping our app ‘Coverage?’ updated!), and have noticed 4G service available in more and more cities that we frequent.
Geeks like us always crave more speed, so when Millenicom began offering a Verizon-powered 3G/4G Hotspot Plan for $70/month that includes up to 10GB of 4G data and 10GB of 3G data (for a combined 20GB – with no contract), we decided to upgrade our plan and give it a try.
The plan is great, but unfortunately the Samsung SCH-LC11 4G / WiFi Hotspot that Millenicom ships proved exceedingly frustrating. After receiving one dead-on-arrival device and having it replaced, the new unit was blazingly fast, when it was working.
But particularly when both of us were online using the hotspot at once, the SCH-LC11 proved to be essentially unusable, needing rebooting every 30 minutes or so.
We spent hours troubleshooting with both Millenicom and Samsung tech support, but even with the latest firmware updates the hotspot remained a source of unending frustration. Plentiful accounts and reviews posted around the internet confirm we aren’t the only ones experiencing these annoying issues. The Samsung SCH-LC11 is a dud of a product.
In our opinion, Millenicom should not offer this modem for sale – they should have held off offering any 4G plan until they had a more reliable modem to offer.
When it comes to connectivity, reliability is WAY MORE IMPORTANT than speed.
If you want to read my more detailed (and frothy) rant about our frustrations dealing with the Samsung SCH-LC11, you can read about it over at my personal blog. Cherie wisely suggested keeping so much negativity off of the main blog here.
Anyway, other than the 4G fiasco, we still love Millenicom. They reactivated our 3G Advanced Plan, and after the month of 4G frustration and constant modem reboots, the last few weeks have been heaven. Our connection has been up and solid and has not dropped for days on end.
It is so nice when technology actually works!
Top Signal 55 Cell Phone Booster Vehicle Kit
We haven’t had much chance to use it extensively out in the deep boonies, but we do spend a lot of time inside a big metal signal-blocking box (aka ‘bus’), and the booster has made an incredible difference. Thanks to the Top Signal 55, the cell signal inside our bus is always better than outside – often taking a marginal signal and turning it great.
Unlike the Wilson Booster we used to use in our Oliver, the Top Signal constantly recalibrates itself, continuously adjusting to the signal available, even while in motion. The Wilson was much more temperamental, and if the signal started to oscillate (the exterior antenna picking up the signal rebroadcast by the interior antenna), the booster would shut down entirely until manually reset. The Top Signal on the other hand never needs to be manually reset – we just leave it on all the time and enjoy the constant boost for all of our 3G devices (iPhones, iPads and USB data stick).
One interesting catch we discovered with the Samsung 4G Hotpsot & Top Signal 55 combo is that the Samsung has no option to force a 3G connection when a 4G signal is present, even if the 3G signal is much stronger. So at one campsite we discovered we would often have a modem connected with a spotty barely-there 4G signal when the 3G signal was actually much stronger, thanks to the booster. When we do finally switch to a 4G device, we’ll be investigating a system that can handle boosting that too.
Top Signal is our answer to pulling in distant cellular signals, and we’ve recently started to experiment with a borrowed WiFiRanger Wireless-N Router for pulling in distant WiFi.
WiFiRanger seems to be perfectly designed with the needs of RVers in mind. The device is a smart router that automatically scans for any nearby open hotspots, and then connects and rebroadcasts the signal to the various gadgets inside your RV. If there is no WiFi that you are able to connect with, the WiFiRanger then uses your 3G or 4G USB data card to fall back on to keep you connected.
We are also trying the WFRBoost Mobile optional add-on kit which is an extra-long-range roof mounted WiFi antenna that works with the WiFiRanger and should allow you to get online via WiFi at vastly further distances.
We’ve camped in dozens of parks where there was “free WiFi”, but it was actually unusable inside our rig. The WiFiRanger is made for these situations, and it is super-simple and automated to use. You can even use the WiFiRanger to allow multiple devices to share a single paid connection (like campground Tengo Internet) that would normally be locked to just a single laptop.
So far in the short time we’ve had the WiFiRanger, we haven’t been anywhere where there was any open WiFi within range (of even the WFRBoost!) to thoroughly test it. But the WiFiRanger has been working wonderfully as a local wireless/wired router that controls our USB data card, keeping us connected 24/7 to Millenicom.
We’ll be able to make a more solid recommendation once we’ve used it in a wider ranger of environments, but right now our first impressions of the WiFiRanger are extremely favorable. They have great online support forums too, and we were completely blown away by having some of our suggestions posted there responded to by the head engineer of WiFiRanger R&D personally!
Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex Home NAS
I’ve wanted to set up a NAS (network attached storage) drive for a while now, to simplify our backups and media streaming. When we stumbled across the FreeAgent GoFlex Home NAS on sale at Costco recently, we decided to give it a try.
And… We are still trying…
The hardware is fabulously capable in theory – there is a full Linux server and 2TB’s of storage inside, and all sorts of great hacking potential lurks under the hood. But, the stock Seagate software and documentation is a mess, and getting things initially configured was a nightmare. We never did manage to get the built in print server to work at all.
And even more troubling, we’ve actually already had TimeMachine detect that a backup had gotten corrupted! It has been over a week now without a repeat, but I am feeling wary.
Seagate is beta-testing new firmware with an entirely new setup process and lots of fixes, so hopefully this will soon be vastly improved. But right now – this is probably a product that is best not trusted with critical data.
Apple MacBook Air – 13″
With our new desk setup in the bus, we’ve been re-thinking our core mobile devices. For years, we both had 15″ MacBook Pros, which was a great compromise between power and portability in a self contained unit. Now, we have deskspace for large monitors, and we want to optimize for docking ultraportable gear. Our goal is to be able to occasionally park the bus and take a backpack overseas for a month or two at a time, and when backpacking every ounce counts.
I’ve been itching for a faster and smaller laptop for a while now, and I at last found something worth investing in when the new MacBook Air 13″ model was released. It is blazing fast, yet incredibly small, and built incredibly well. It is the best all-around laptop I have ever used.
I haven’t missed having a DVD drive one bit. And I am totally in love with having an SSD (solid state drive) for storage instead of a regular spinning hard drive. The Air may have half the capacity of my old 15″ MacBook Pro, but the HD speeds are so much faster that it makes using a computer without an SSD an exercise in frustration now.
Apple Thunderbolt Display & Input Devices
The Apple Thunderbolt Display is the perfect companion for the MacBook Air. The Air’s small size makes it ideal for portability, but it is lacking in expansion ports and the screen real estate that I crave when working at a desk. The beautiful 27″ Thunderbolt display uses the Air’s Thunderbolt port to turn the monitor into a high-speed docking station, giving the Air a load of extra ports and an incredible 2560×1440 resolution screen when connected.
With the 27″ Thunderbolt display and Cherie’s (new to us) 30″ Apple Cinema Display, we’ve turned our bus into an incredible mobile office. After working exclusively on a 15″ laptop screen for years, all this screen real estate is fabulously refreshing.
While we were stopped in Evansville, IN on the way down to Florida – a fellow bus nut with welding equipment helped us build custom ‘seat belts’ for our monitors to let them stay clamped to our desk while in motion. It’s been working out fabulously!
To complete our desks and let us fully dock our laptops, we have also each added wireless keyboards and trackpads. We are absolutely loving them!
Apple iPhone 4S
The iPhone 4 was the best all around phone on the planet, until the 4S came along. Now there is a new king. It rocks. I love it. And Cherie accuses me of having an affair with Siri because I am always chatting with her asking bizarre questions… Using Apple’s Friend Finder, she even knows “Where Is Ben?” *grin*