small stuff   12 comments

Posted at 12:17 pm in review - equipment

I don’t tend to write reviews of, or comment too much on my gear, but probably should do so a little more often for any fellow nomads who might be reading this blog. One thing about spending a lot of time camping and traveling – you soon learn what is worth having along with you, and what should have been left back home. Last year, I brought along too much – not so much through stupidity or bad planning, but because I sold the farm and had to practically throw things together for the trip in a few chaotic days. I ended up dragging along a bunch of unnecessary belongings mainly because I couldn’t decide where to leave them while I was away. That’s not going to happen again. This year, the theme of my preparations is “make more space and reduce brain damage”.

These are the targets for this year’s trip gear. In no particular order:

  • Scale down the size of everything as much as possible. If there’s a smaller sized option, go with it.
  • Use as much rechargeable gear as possible – and pay attention to energy efficiency. Low watts and long-lasting charges are what is needed.
  • Avoid items that require a lot of cables to power and run. I’m sick of hauling sacks of specialized cables that get tangled up, misplaced, or lost.
  • Look for durable, self-contained, compact units – objects that fold up and don’t need special packing, and don’t have parts that can get broken off if they aren’t packed exactly right.
  • Improve communications equipment – look for more reliable and easier-to-use gear that has affordable data plans that work in both Canada and the U.S.
  • Avoid gear that is fussy to set up, or that I can’t remember how to use without reading a manual.

    As I do a good deal of photography, my camera gear has always taken up a lot of prime real estate on the passenger seat of the van. This year, I’m going to be paring that down considerably. Over time, I’ve gradually replaced my larger cameras with smaller gear and have now settled on a Canon G11 and a Canon D10 as my main cameras. The G11 can shoot just about anything I wish to photograph, and the D10 is waterproof and can take a bath shooting photos in a tide pool. Both use small batteries which just require a compact charger unit and no cables. I have a spare battery for each of them. In addition, I have a little LED camcorder lamp that I use for photographing moths and other small creatures at night, and one of those cheap mini-tripods you can find at dollar stores. There is also a large, sport tripod that doubles as the mount for my spotting scope. That’s it for the camera gear coming on this year’s trip. With the exception of the sport tripod, everything should fit into one fairly compact camera bag.

    My camp stove, which just barely limped through to the the end of last year’s trip after being tossed off a table by a strong gust of wind while at Red Rock Canyon, will be replaced with something much smaller this year. It was a large 2-burner stove with a griddle bought when Don and I were camping quite a bit. Now that I’m alone, I can get by with something smaller. I’m patiently waiting for a sale on one of the compact single-burner stoves with a built-in lighter so that I don’t have to keep a propane lighter in the cooking bag.

    One of the major changes for this year’s trip will be the addition of an Apple iPad to be used as my main communication and computing device. When I’m traveling, my main connection to everyone I know is via the internet – sending and receiving emails, being able to share photos with friends and family, and to work on my blog or read the blogs of my friends. I use my computer to look up maps, info on places, and to check weather forecasts for my planned routes. Yes, I will have an iMac stowed under the bed platform for the months when I’m at a rental house in Arizona, but for the months when I’m on the road camping, I’ll be using the iPad. This is one of the 3G + wifi models which can generally connect to the net in any place where a cell phone would work. In my last post, I mentioned having bought the iPad, but that I was not able to get the SIM card activated. I said I’d provide a follow-up on that, so read on further below if you’re interested. Perhaps my experience will be of some help to others who might buy an iPad and have a similar problem. In any case, the iPad is finally working right now and is very pleasing to work with in a number of ways. However, there are a few shortcomings which should be mentioned. Here is my take on the pros and cons.

    First the pros. The iPad is quite small – about 9.5 x 7.5 inches and about 1/2 inch thick. The 3G + wifi enabled model weighs about 1.6lbs (.75 kgs). You can see the entire specs on this page. I bought a black Apple case which, while seeming to be fairly pricey for what it is, does protect the iPad and folds in a way that makes it easier to use the touch-pad keyboard, or allows it to be positioned on a table for viewing photos or watching videos, etc… I haven’t actually found I’ve used it that much in the folded position, but just like having a case that makes the iPad look like a small notepad – fairly inconspicuous as an object worthy of stealing out of my van when I’m parked somewhere. It should be easy to hide among all of my other junk when I’m off for a hike somewhere, but is also light and small enough to be brought along if desired. Other things I like about it are that the screen resolution is quite good – crisp and clear – and that you can tilt the screen in either direction and the images are instantly oriented to that view. There’s a lock so that you can lock the direction, which is handy if you’re trying to work while lying down (something which I do in the evening when I’m traveling in the van). The touch screen technology of the iPad takes awhile to get onto, but the sensitivity is quite amazing. I’ve bought a couple of apps (applications = small programs) which make good use of the touch sensitivity – one being Penultimate (cost $2.99) which can be used to make sketches or take hand printed or written notes on notebook pages, and then saved or emailed in .pdf format. It works quite well when drawing with your finger on the screen, but I ended up making a little stylus out of a Q-tip with foil wrapped around the stick after reading about how to make one on Instructables – took me about a minute and it works fine for drawing — but note that the Q-tip has to be a bit damp when you use it. I’ve bought a couple of other apps, but have not yet experimented with them, so don’t want to comment at this time. I’m currently looking at GPS-mapping apps, but have not made up my mind about which to download. What I may try to do is post app reviews from time to time, as these might be useful for others as well.
    EDIT: One additional plus that I thought of after writing this post. The wireless keyboard from my iMac is supposed to work with the iPad using its bluetooth connection. I haven’t given that a shot yet, but that will be very cool as I can touch type very quickly on the iMac’s keyboard. It is very light and compact and well suited to use when I’m on the road.

    Okay, so, what about the “cons”? Getting the Bell microSIM card activated was an extremely frustrating experience (see account down below). I’m sure that just about anyone else would have been hitting the roof and might have returned their iPad if they had experienced the run-around that I got. That said, I have a feeling that, once more of these iPads have been sold and activated, there won’t be such confusion. These are some of the other problems which I’ve encountered. A camera adapter is required in order to download photos into the iPad either from a kind of card-reader or jack for the USB cable. That costs about an extra 30 bucks. I have one on order so have not tried it as yet. Next, as far as I know, you can’t download any app larger than 20MB from the iTunes store using 3G, so you have to have access to a good wifi connection, or download the app into your computer first, then synch the iPad to the computer to transfer the file into the iPad. That has caused me problems with downloading iBird Explorer Pro, an app which I’ve purchased but, as yet, have been unable to download as the file is 346MB and there is no wifi hotspot around here where I can complete the download. I’ve paid for it already and am just hoping that all will proceed without incident when I finally get to some place where I can download the program. I guess the only other negative I see at this time is that I think the iPad may be more dependent on a computer than I had expected. You can’t do certain things (probably some O/S upgrades, etc..) without having it hooked up to your computer while running iTunes. I’m hoping that doesn’t present problems once I’m on the road. I don’t think it will, but it did make me a little uneasy to find that I couldn’t get the SIM card activated without first hooking the iPad up to my iMac.

    Anyhow, the point in getting the iPad is that I have a hard time typing a decent email on the Blackberry that I’ve used for the past couple of years while traveling. The screen and keys are very small, so any email longer than about 3 sentences is extremely tedious to tap out. I’ve also found that my Canadian data package doesn’t work out to be very cost effective once I’m in the U.S. Phone calls are horrendously expensive. I think I may have solved that by changing to a plan that has a “World Phone” optional plan, but that remains to be seen. I decided to add the iPad to my gear as my laptop was having some major issues (can’t run off a battery anymore) and the last two years, I’ve found it a pain in the can to use in the van — it’s always sliding off of somewhere and falling to the floor with the screen open, or bending the modem stick so that it looks like it will break off, etc. It’s my hope that the iPad will be a good stand-in for the laptop, and possibly also replace the Blackberry. This autumn will be the trial run, and if it works, bye-bye Blackberry as the data plan is just too expensive for what I get. From all that I’ve read, when I get to the U.S., I can purchase a microSIM card for the iPad and set up a monthly data plan the same as the one I will use in Canada. If that works out without any hitches, the iPad may well be all that I need in the future. I’ll report back on all of this in a few month’s time.

    ~ * ~

    Now, for the story of the iPad activation — probably only of interest if you are having problems activating a microSIM in your own device.

    I bought the iPad at FutureShop in New Minas, N.S. on August 20th. It was a warm day and I’d left the dogs in the van with water and plenty of windows open. However, I did not want to leave them for very long in case they got feeling uncomfortable. I ran into the store, quickly picked out the iPad I wanted and asked for a recommendation on which carrier to go with. The sales guy said that he thought Bell probably had the best coverage – which pretty much jives with my own research – so I told him I would like a Bell SIM card. He got that for me, but by now, there were several people standing around the cell phone counters. I don’t know if the card could have been fully activated that day — neither did the sales guy. He said I’d be able to take care of that over the net once I got home, so I decided to leave and try from home as I didn’t want to keep the dogs waiting in the van any longer.

    I arrived home and opened the iPad package. The instructions were very short – just a postcard sized piece of paper with instructions telling me to insert the SIM card and then hook up the iPad to my computer, open iTunes, and follow the onscreen instructions. Sounded easy, so that’s what I did. Unfortunately, the first message was about how a new O/S for the iPad needed to be downloaded and installed (version 3.2.2). It was a large file of about 450MB. I have a very poor net connection here – just a modem stick that gets really bad transfer speeds – so I could not download the O/S. I finally gave up with that and attempted to activate the SIM card, but that didn’t work at all. The screen on the iPad didn’t seem to show the items that I needed to access to activate the card. I called Bell and they finally transferred me to a tech support guy. This after talking to two different Bell customer service people who didn’t know what an iPad is and thought I had an iPod and just didn’t know the correct name for it (Arrrgggghhh!!!). The tech support guy was knowledgeable and said I’d have to get that O/S downloaded along with some kind of transfer update before I could go further. He also took the number of the SIM card and in what I should have taken as a prophetic statement, said something like, “That’s kind of an odd number.”

    I made a couple of more unsuccessful attempts to download the O/S but the file was just too large to be downloaded over my rather lame net connection. I’m quite amazed that the O/S file wasn’t compressed into some form that could be opened after being “unstuffed”. Anyhow, after a couple of failures after watching the computer try to download the files after several hours online, I decided to drive back to FutureShop and have them update the O/S at a cost of about 30 bucks. I left the iPad with the tech guy for about an hour while I went off to do some shopping. Returning home, I thought it would be a simple case of trying to activate the chip again. Wrong!!!! Same results as before — nothing really looked any different than before and despite trying variations on all of the things I’d previously tried, the SIM card was not activated.

    Once more, I called Bell and spoke to a very nice female customer service person who tried everything she knew to help me get the card activated. She seemed pretty determined. However, at last, she finally said she’d struck out and transferred me to someone else — someone who is a CRU or some such acronym. He asked for the SIM card number and immediately snapped. “That one is no good. You will have to go back and get another!” I said something about how that’s about a 3 hour round trip and that I’d already been back once already. He said that I’d just have to go do it. I got off the phone feeling pretty grouchy. I was also concerned that I might drive all the way back to New Minas, get another card, and that it would be “no good” too. I decided to leave the whole mess for a day or so and ponder over my next move.

    Somewhere on the Bell website, I’d noticed that there were Bell outlets in my region, so I looked for that info again. I found that “The Source” store in Annapolis handled Bell products, so called there and asked about microSIM cards, but they said, no, they didn’t have them. Then, I called the Bell Aliant store in Greenwood. The woman who answered my call asked the other staff and was told that they did have the cards and that it would cost $5 for a card, and another $10 to activate it for me. I said I’d come there later in the afternoon. Around 5 p.m. or so, I loaded up the dogs and drove to Greenwood – about an hour’s drive from my place. I left the van parked in the shade with the windows open and went into the store to get the SIM card. They had a card, but the store staff person – a very nice woman who tried very hard and called Bell support about 4 times in an hour – could not get the SIM card activated. During this time, I went out to check on the dogs. When, I returned, I was told that someone at Bell had told her to just sell me the card for $5 and send me home to try activating it myself online. Slightly frustrated, I just paid for the card and we drove home.

    That night, I tried the card again, but it wouldn’t work any better than the previous one. By this point, I was feeling pretty damned annoyed, so I just put the iPad away and decided I’d try again in the morning. The next morning, I called and spoke to someone at customer support and told him the whole sad story. He listened politely and began going over the various steps and asking if I’d done this or that. I finally said, “Yes, I’ve done everything that it says in the instructions and nothing works. I think I’ll need to talk to a tech support person.” He transferred me through. I got a tech person by the name of “Maurice” (I believe). He wanted to know the IMEI number of my iPad. I gave him that number and he mumbled something about something not seeming to be set up right. Then he wanted to know the SIM card number, so I gave him that too. He said to wait for a minute while he checked some things. Then he told me to change the iPad over to “Airplane Mode”. After that, I was to turn off the iPad, but to use both the on-off switch, as well as the “home” button together – to do a sort of reset thing. After that, I was to turn off the Airplane Mode in the settings. At this point, instead of getting a “No Service” at the top of the screen, I could see Bell 3G and graph bars of the signal strength. He said that I should now be able to go ahead and set up my account on my own and said goodbye. That wasn’t quite right. I did end up having to turn the iPad off and on again one more time before I was able to go into the set-up screen and enter the info needed to set up my account and pay for 30 days of service. It didn’t take too long and after that, everything worked fine. The iPad has quite a quick connection – much faster than the Rogers modem stick that I use to connect to the net with my iMac.

    Anyhow, I believe the entire process took me about 9 days. It was pretty frustrating and cost me quite a bit in gas and time, not to mention an additional $30 for the O/S upgrade and 5 bucks for a microSIM card to replace the original free one supplied with the iPad. I have read quite a bit on various Mac and also Canadian carrier forums and it sounds like I’m not the only one who has had these troubles, and that such trials and tribulations are not restricted to Bell either. I expect that, a few months down the road, activation will be fairly routine, but at this point it wasn’t nearly as simple and straightforward as it should have been.

  • Written by bev on September 1st, 2010