Staying Connected in the US - November 2012

Well, after switching between three SIM cards (Wind Mobile, AT&T, and T-Mobile) for several months, it seems the best solution for me is to just pay Wind an extra $5 per month to get a US roaming plan.

When AT&T ditched the pay-per-use data for the pay-per-day phone plans, I tried switching to T-Mobile. T-Mobile offers a pay-per-day plan for $3 that includes unlimited data (the first 200MB at 4G, then it switches to 2G). That's actually really good. The problem is as soon as you go somewhere without T-Mobile coverage, you lose the data. Honestly, this probably isn't a problem if you're planning on visiting a major city. Unfortunately, if you wander off the beaten path, you'll be roaming (most likely on AT&T) and you will not have any data access at all. It doesn't even appear that you can pay T-Mobile extra to get it. You're simply offline.

So, what does $5 per month (on top of your monthly plan) get you from Wind? Calls are 10 cents per minute (normally 25 cents), outgoing text messages are 5 cents (normally 15 cents), and data is 50 cents per MB (normally $1). The rate for data is still high enough that you won't want to watch any streaming videos, but shouldn't break the bank to at least stay up to date with your favourite social networks. I have confirmed that the data works on either T-Mobile's or AT&T's network, so it doesn't really matter where you end up.

Two months with the Nexus 7

I have been using my Nexus 7 for two months now. That line alone almost sums up my thoughts and experience with the 7. I didn't say that I received my Nexus 7 two months ago. Rather, I have been using it quite regularly over the last two months.

My iPad (3rd gen) has barely been used. Virtually all my casual at-home web browsing has been done on the 7. Watching videos, reading, e-mail, Flipboard, Google+. If I used the iPad in the past, I'm pretty much just using the 7 now.

The iPad isn't the only victim. Most of my game time is now on the 7. The PS3, Wii, XBox 360, PSP and my well-spec'd PC have seen almost no game play time from me in the last two months. This has undoubtably been assisted by the wonderful Humble Bundles for Android, but the Nexus 7 is without a doubt a great platform for games.

App-wise, it hasn't been difficult finding what I need or want. I've installed a lot of games, Skype, a couple of e-readers, Pocket, an app for wireless printing to my HP printer (like AirPrint), a DLNA browser, SplashTop Whiteboard, SketchBook, and more. While I do believe there are far more web sites out there curating, describing, and reviewing iOS apps for many different categories, it doesn't mean good apps don't exist in the Google Play store.

I am definitely not trying to say the Nexus 7 is the perfect device. The back camera and AirPlay mirroring on the iPad enable some classroom activities that just can't be done with the 7. It is unfortunate because the Nexus 7 would be so much easier to carry around the classroom. Mirroring, combined with the existing Bluetooth and USB game controller support, would also go a long way toward making the 7 an even better gaming system. The lack of Google Play gift cards is also an annoyance. Apparently gift cards are available in the US now, but no word on when they'll come to Canada. I have never liked associating a credit card with an online account.

From a hardware standpoint, I don't think I need to go into much detail. There are many, many reviews out there. I think the only hardware-related comments I will make are about the screen. Many users have reported issues with the screen (build quality issues mostly). It does make me concerned because occasionally I think I see a screen glitch, but it's always just a split second, and I am never able to forcibly cause the glitch. The other comment about the screen is actually in response to one review with a bizarre complaint about the PPI of the screen. Granted, the PPI of the 7 isn't as high as the iPad 3rd gen, but it is significantly higher than the first or second gen iPad, and is definitely high enough that you won't "notice it".

In terms of the overall experience, the OS is smooth and easy to use. Once again, I don't think it's necessary to go into much detail because there are many reviews out there, and they are mostly favourable.

If the folks from Apple aren't working on an iPad Mini, then they really have made a serious mistake. The Nexus 7 has me hooked, while the iPad has become nothing more than a supplementary device that fills in a very small number of gaps. With a potential mirroring solution for the Nexus 7 that could arrive before the end of the year, the iPad may just become a device that I used to use.

Google surprised by Nexus 7 16GB demand? Why?

Apparently Google is surprised by the demand for the 16GB Nexus 7. I'm not sure why.

First, the apparent $50 difference in prices really isn't $50. The 8GB model is only available through the Play Store and Google charges $15 US or $20 CDN shipping. The 16GB model can be purchased from several retail stores so that price difference between the models is reduced to $30 to $35. Had I known this before I pre-ordered, I too definitely would have waited for the 16GB model (which would have meant waiting less than I did for the 8GB).

Second, without expandable storage, there is definitely a perception that the 8GB model will run out of space far too quickly. Although there are solutions, most people just aren't aware of them or just want something simpler.

Finally, Google really should have known that the market for a $250 tablet was very strong. It is still well below the $400 mark of most 10-inch tablets.

It is unfortunate Google was so desperate to get "below" the $200 mark. They could have simplified by having a single model at the $250 price point, added in a couple of other missing features that were referenced in various reviews (like expandable storage, HDMI, and a rear camera), and still actually made a slight profit from the sale of every unit.

Why Google shouldn't sell hardware

Don't be evil. That's the informal motto of Google. Unfortunately, they can't seem to keep themselves from doing wrong, even if it's not intentional.

The Nexus 7 tablet is one of the most anticipated gadgets of the year. Google has been tight-lipped about how many were pre-ordered when the tablet was officially announced on June 27, but I was among those who decided to bite.

A couple of weeks passed and rumours of shipping dates started to pop up. Then pictures started popping up of retail stores with boxes of the tablets that apparently couldn't be sold until some unknown date.

"Surely Google won't let those get sold unless they've already shipped my pre-order, right?"

The first rumblings began as those who pre-ordered did not get any update on their order, even as it became more and more clear that retail stores really did have stock ready to sell.

Then, last Friday, the retail stores were clearly given the green light by Google, and anyone was able to walk into several retail chains (including GameStop!) and just buy a Nexus 7 right off the shelf. Those who had pre-ordered still hadn't been given any update on their order. No credit card charge. No tracking number. Nothing. To add insult to injury, Google levied a hefty shipping charge for those that pre-ordered ($20 CDN, $15 US, and £10 in the UK). Essentially, if you pre-ordered through Google Play, you were paying extra to wait until others already had the device.

Some contacted Google to cancel their order and were told their only recourse was to refuse the delivery, and after a few weeks would get their money refunded (no word on if that includes getting the shipping charge refunded).

Needless to say, Google screwed up. Throughout this entire process they have not said a word, outside of the not-so-cute tweet/post, "Locked and loaded, ready to play: we’ve started shipping +Nexus 7 pre-orders today!" I think it's safe to say that many, myself included, will not be pre-ordering anything from Google until they have demonstrated that they know how to handle it properly.

As for my own order, I do have a tracking number now. Sadly, I won't have it until a week after I could have just walked into a GameStop and bought one.

Why No Expandable Storage in the Nexus 7 Doesn't Matter

While not shipping just yet, there are plenty of reviews of Google's new Nexus 7 tablet. Most of the reviews I have read complain about the lack of expandable storage options. The Nexus 7 does not have a MicroSD slot, nor does its USB port support mass storage devices.

At first I was definitely agreeing with the reviewers. If you install a few of the bigger games onto the tablet, there really won't be much room left for high quality videos to take with me on the road. I travel in the US a lot, so it's not really feasible to depend on cloud services when using a very limited data plan shared from my phone....

Shared from my phone?

That was it. I always have my phone with me (except for when I drop and break it). My phone has a 32GB MicroSD card, and I already have the ability to share my phone's content using Twonky. All that is necessary is to enable the WiFi hotspot (whether I'm connected to cellular data or not), and my phone becomes a portable media server with expandable storage.

Granted, there are some limitations. I'm not sure this is the best solution if flying. I know that some airlines now have on-board WiFi, but I do not know what the policy is with respect to firing up your own hotspot.

Does Wireless Really Reduce Clutter?

With iOS5, Apple introduced AirPlay mirroring, a feature that would allow the iPad 2 to wirelessly stream its screen contents to a large screen. While the iPad already allowed a teacher/presenter to create and show a presentation from the iPad via a VGA or HDMI adapter, AirPlay suddenly untethered the teacher from the front of the classroom. Unfortunately, AirPlay is a proprietary protocol that Apple only licenses to third party companies for audio devices.

Apple isn't the only company that wanted to keep a wireless display technology all to itself. In January 2010, Intel introduced its own proprietary wireless display protocol called WiDi. Not only does Intel keep this protocol to themselves, they restrict it even further by only allowing it with a few specific combinations of Intel hardware and software (all laptop oriented). The only advantage that WiDi seems to have is that Intel is planning on also enabling Miracast support for newer devices (2nd or 3rd generation Intel Core systems) with WiDi.

What's Miracast? Miracast is a wireless mirroring protocol, formerly known as WiFi Direct Display, that was developed by the WiFi Alliance, and announced January 2011 (note that Apple is a sponsoring member of the WiFi Alliance, and announced AirPlay mirroring in June 2011). The certification process for Miracast was announced at the end of May 2012, and certified devices should be available by the end of the year. Miracast is important because Google introduced support for WiFi Direct (the protocol that drives Miracast) in Android 4, and Texas Instruments will have Miracast certification for its chips which support both Android and the upcoming Windows RT (Windows for ultraportable and tablet devices running on ARM processors).

But wait! There's more!

Last week, AMD held their Fusion Developer Summit (AFDS). There were a number of announcements made at the Summit, but one in particular I found quite unusual, and frustrating. AMD Wireless Display. AMD's approach is to enable wireless display without the artificial Intel WiDi restrictions. Apparently AMD is planning on working with the WiFi Alliance on this protocol (AMD is also a regular member of the Alliance). I'm not sure why AMD doesn't just support Miracast.

Wireless screen mirroring is an incredible feature that many educators are excited about. Unfortunately, it also has the potential of being the source of much frustration.

Will Windows Phone overtake iOS in 2016?

I am always curious how some analysts make their predictions. Magic 8 Ball?

I am definitely not going to say they're wrong, but it is difficult to believe that Windows Phone will actually gain as much market share as they claim. Windows 8 has the potential to combine the laptop and tablet worlds, and some of the early designs actually look appealing. At the same time, critics are pointing out that Microsoft is making too many compromises on the traditional interface in order to make Windows 8 a tablet operating system (OS). If Windows fails to be more than just a mobile-centric OS, I doubt many people will switch from their current mobile OS.

On the Google front, Android phones seem to be doing well, but Google hasn't made as much headway against the iPad as they would like. The Android-based Kindle Fire did really well, but cut Google out of the profit loop by linking to Amazon's store and not Google Play. Additionally, the Fire used Android 2.3 rather than the tablet-centric Honeycomb, and lacked several other features that are found in many other tablets (camera, microphone, bluetooth, GPS, video out, accelerometer, gyroscope, light sensor). It would seem that Google is looking to get personally involved with Android's success in tablets with the rumoured launch of the $199 to $249 7-inch Nexus Tablet with Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean).

Not to be out-rumoured, there are claims that Apple is looking to shake things up with iOS devices this year. There have been various photos of the supposed iPhone 5 with a larger screen, and rumours of a new iPad with a smaller screen.

Chances are you will want your phone and tablet running from the same "store". No one really wants to buy an app multiple times. A strong tablet launch by any of these players could really change the market share of the phones as well.

As for RIM in 2016, well... Recall that in the late 90's there were many people predicting the demise of Apple. Will RIM be like Apple, or more like Palm?

I guess all I'm saying is that there is no way I'd want to it to be my job to be trying to predict which phone/tablet OS is going to be on top in four years.

Staying Connected in the US - May 2012

In November, 2011, I wrote about the cellular options for travelers to the US who wanted voice and data service. At that time, AT&T had a pay-as-you-go plan (Go Phone) that was just $2 per day, and you were able to purchase data packages of 10MB ($5), 50MB ($15), and 500MB ($25).

The data would expire within 30 days of buying the package unless another data package was purchased prior to the expiry date. Signing up for automatic renewal would allow for "roll over" data. Although only in the US a few days at a time, I am there regularly so I decided to purchase 500MB, then sign up for a $5 per month 10MB automatic renewal. I use the data for web and email, so I would normally only use about 30MB to 70MB per trip. At the end of my last trip to the US in April, I had roughly 350MB remaining on my account.

I returned to the US on the May long weekend to discover that all of my data was gone. It seems that AT&T no longer offers data packages to those on the $2 per day plan, so my data was not automatically renewed. AT&T simply canceled the plan, took my data, and ran.

So what does AT&T offer now? You must be on a monthly plan just to be able to purchase a data package, and smartphone users must purchase data packages (they aren't eligible for the data included in monthly plans). The cheapest monthly plan they offer is $25. Imagine staying at a hotel for a few nights, asking about Internet access, and being told that you can only access the Internet if you rent a room for a month! Yes, it is that ridiculous!

I estimate that I used to pay roughly $12 to $15 per month based on the number of days I would be in the US, including my $5 automatic renewal for the data, plus the odd extra charges incurred calling back to Canada. Now AT&T is expecting me to pay at least $30 per month for a plan with some smartphone data. Not only that, but that plan actually includes less than the $2 per day plan as far as calling and texting goes!

Obviously I must renew my search for the ideal provider for staying connected in the US. It would seem that a new roaming agreement between AT&T and T-Mobile might actually help. T-Mobile has per day plans that include data, with national coverage and no roaming charges. Unfortunately, T-Mobile's site is light on the "fine print", so I'll have to figure out if the data works with smartphones, and if the texting includes messages to Canada (or at least how much each message to Canada will cost).

If things do indeed work out with T-Mobile, AT&T's cash grab is going to backfire on them. I'm just thankful that the proposed buyout fell through last year.

SMART Classroom Audio


We recently acquired a variety of SMART Classroom tools including a SMART Classroom Audio system. We already have several rooms outfitted with FrontRow classroom audio systems, and have been mostly pleased with their performance.


The system includes four wall mount speakers (or ceiling mount speakers), IR receiver, IR microphone and charger, and control box. When unboxing and checking the installation instructions, it didn't take long to hit a snag. The IR receiver is designed specifically for rooms with drop-ceiling tiles. Our classrooms do not have drop-ceilings, and the room we were installing in has a very high (over 17 foot) ceiling. The local installer we use for AV systems had not installed a SMART Audio system before and had a couple of ideas, but couldn't guarantee that the receiver would be effective.

The room was to be a SMART room, so a SMART technician came on-site to provide some guidance. We had already installed a new 800-series interactive board with the UX60 short-throw projector. The technician recommended installing an arm above the projector that would extend from the wall roughly two feet, and suspend the receiver from the arm. The receiver is quite light, so the arm doesn't need to be fabricated from a particularly heavy material.
The custom arm supporting the infrared receiver.

Sure enough, once everything was installed, the receiver worked quite well. It is unfortunate that SMART doesn't include such an arm, or give instructions in the manual for this type of install. Having to manufacture a custom arm to support the receiver adds quite a bit to the installation cost.

Microphone and Inputs

The included microphone is a blocky device with volume buttons, a mute button, and two 3.5mm RCA jacks on either side. There is an additional, unlabelled button that is apparently for use with a school-wide system, but otherwise doesn't do anything. The microphone sits inside a rubber sleeve that, unfortunately, covers up the labels on the two RCA jacks. One jack is a mic in, while the other is line-in. This is useful for quickly amplifying your MP3 player or phone.

There are two, switchable clips on the microphone; one for clipping the mic to a pocket, and the other a lanyard style clip for wearing the mic around your neck. The former is quite small, and I found it difficult to actually clip onto anything that would hold the mic securely. The latter worked well, but the pendant-style microphones on the FrontRow system are a much cleaner design. It is important to pull the lanyard tight (close to your neck) so the microphone doesn't hang too low. The microphone is quite sensitive, and it will make quite a bit of noise as it rubs across your chest.
Microphone with the lanyard clip attached, and the belt clip on the right.

Pull the microphone lanyard tight to avoid noise from the microphone rubbing on your shirt.

The control box has two pairs of 5mm RCA (red/white) inputs. If you are installing with a projector that passes through audio (like the UX60), you can run the output from the projector to one of the inputs. We have a wall plate with another set of RCA connectors that can be used to plug in any audio source (MP3 player, stereo system, etc).

This set of RCA connectors runs to the projector. The projector passes the audio through to the classroom audio system.
From left to right: HDMI to the projector, 5mm RCA to the classroom audio, and VGA to the projector.

The control box also has a USB cable that will work as a standard USB audio device when plugged into a computer. With a clean install, the only two parts of the control box that the user needs to worry about are the power button and USB cable.
The control box.

All of the audio inputs will play simultaneously, enabling various voice-over activities (like karaoke). Overall, the audio input options are remarkably flexible.

Audio Quality

The sound quality of the speakers is quite good, maintaining a consistent tone and volume throughout the classroom. Although there are four speakers (two on each side of the room), they do not produce surround, or even stereo, effects. It is important to remember that the purpose of classroom audio is to ensure everyone is the room is hearing the audio equally well.


As mentioned, the audio system was installed along with an 800-series SMART Board and UX60 short-throw projector. The UX60 has inputs for HDMI, RCA, and VGA. Additionally, the extender for the 800-series boards enables USB audio through the same USB cable used to connect the board.

I connected various pieces of equipment in a variety of ways. A Kodak Play camera sent video and audio over HDMI. A computer sent video over VGA, while the single USB cable to the SMART Board enabled both the interactive board and audio. I was able to plug my phone into the 5mm RCA wall plate (with an adapter), and into the line-in on the wireless mic and play music. I connected an XBox 360 to the RCA (red/white/yellow) connectors, and started playing. Everything just worked.
Complete system: infrared receiver above the UX60 projector, SMART Board, and classroom audio control box underneath and to the left.


I only had a couple of issues with the SMART Classroom Audio system. First, SMART needs to include an arm for mounting the IR receiver to the wall. Second, the microphone needs a better lanyard solution, and the rubber microphone holder shouldn't hide the input labels.

Once everything is installed, and you are familiar with the microphone, everything just works, and works well. Honestly, the biggest challenge using the audio system is remembering to turn it on.

Remembering the Support in IT Support

To say that I have noticed an increase in the number of laptops students are bringing to the campus would be an understatement. During my first few years in the Faculty of Education (I started here in 2000), there were probably only a handful of laptops brought on campus by students regularly. In recent years, there are so many students bringing laptops that many IT departments are running into a problem. Students are looking for power, and will unplug whatever they have to in order to get it.

A member of the Central IT department sent out an email to other Lab Support staff in other universities, specifically asking how to prevent students from unplugging the computers. Apparently only one of the responses actually suggested buying power bars to let students plug in without affecting the lab computers. The other responses were simply methods to prevent students from accessing the power plugs.

Proposed solution to preventing students from unplugging lab computers to plug in personal laptops.

Sadly, this is a typical response by many IT support staff, and it doesn't "support" what the clearly identified need is.

Unfortunately, students unplugging lab computers is a real problem. In many cases, the computers will be unplugged while the computer is running (very bad). The other problem associated with this is it interferes with lab software management. Most managed labs will use software that enables the IT staff to remotely install updates and new software. The software will even allow a lab computer to be started if it is turned off. Obviously, this doesn't work if the computer is unplugged, and the IT staff member now has to spend time going to the lab to figure out why the computer isn't starting up. This becomes a bigger issue when trying to initiate a task on an entire lab of computers. It reaches a point where it's not worth writing down the list of computers that aren't responding, and you just go over to the lab and manually check any computer with nothing on the monitor.

Fortunately, we have people who recognize that it is important to find solutions that address a need rather than simply "fixing the problem". Sean, who works with me part-time, came up with a proposal to rearrange the lab in a way that provides table space with easy access to power, and without introducing any tripping hazards. The instructors that use the lab supported the change, and Maria, the Director of Facilities, purchased what we needed to make it happen.

To start, some of the computers that used to face the wall were moved so that they would extend out from the wall in groups of three. This slight change still left plenty of table space for students to work at when not using a lab computer.
Groups of computers extend from the wall to avoid power cables on the floor.
By extending them out from the wall, we ensured there wouldn't be any cables running along the floor for people to trip on. A 12-outlet power bar was mounted to the top of the three computer desks. Only 6 of the 12 outlets are needed, so there are 6 spare outlets a very short distance from a table that was added to the end. This was done on both the left and right side of the room, with a total of 6 groups of three computers.
There are 6 spare outlets for student devices at each of the 6 additional tables.
Of course, I'm not convinced that there still won't be instances of people unplugging computers. People will always do unexpected things. I also know that our specific solution won't be universal. What should be universal though is the desire to find real solutions, not just additional challenges for our users to overcome. I am actually looking forward to seeing what unique "solutions" the end-users in the "lock down lab" come up with for getting at the power they need. I'm already thinking of one method that would probably work, but I'm not going to share it here.

Tablet experiences and updates

After spending some time with the Asus Transformer, a few things have happened.

Asus Transformer Prime
Asus released the Transformer Prime in December. It's hard to believe that it is now possible to get a quad-core processor in a tablet. I really don't think there's much benefit to it right now, but I would like to test out the Transformer's video editing app again. The reviews of the Prime are mostly favourable, but there are a few things worth noting.

The dock / battery from the original Transformer isn't compatible with the Prime. The wireless network signal is hampered by the new, all-aluminum design. The GPS is having reception issues as well. Anandtech has a good description of what's going on with the WiFi and GPS reception issues.

iPad 2
The iPad 2 has been out for a while but I just recently had the chance to use one for several weeks. Compared to the iPad 1, it's thinner, it has a camera, and the faster processor and increased RAM make for a slightly smoother interface. The increased performance is nice, and is a natural evolution for gadgets, but that alone would not have made the iPad 2 a worthwhile upgrade.

After using it for an extended session I didn't actually notice it's "thinness". I am not a small person, so I really don't get excited about the push for thin and light. If anything, I would prefer the size and feel of the iPad 1.

The camera is definitely a welcome feature. More specifically, the front camera enables video conferencing which can be a very useful feature for tablets.

iOS 5 on the original iPad
I updated my iPad 1 to iOS 5 (5.0.1 to be precise). What a mistake. I mean that in the sense that it was a mistake for me to update, and it was a mistake for Apple to release such an unstable update. I am not alone in the experience. I have only a few apps installed, no iCloud sync, and no media, and it is common to crash to the home screen. I mostly use the iPad for web browsing, and Safari crashes. A lot.

iOS 5 wasn't ready. Period. I'm honestly surprised Apple let it out the door. The biggest issue I had with the iPad before the update was the checkerboard background when scrolling pages quickly. I'm going to look into rolling back to iOS 4.

More tablets and Ice Cream Sandwich
There are a number of Android tablets due out soon, and we can expect to see many running Android 4 (Ice Cream Sandwich). I am looking forward to ones like the 10 inch Acer Iconia Tab A200 and the 7 inch Archos 70b IT which should offer some decent performance at lower prices ($329 and $200 respectively).