Have Internet, will travel


— 12:00 AM on May 25, 2012

To borrow the first line from The Streets' magnificent A Grand Don't Come for Free, it was supposed to be so easy. After a brutally long crunch period that lasted from late March through the first week of May, I set out on vacation. For two weeks, I would be roaming through the Italian countryside, girlfriend by my side, and the rigors of life as a hardware reviewer left behind.

Yeah, we get to play with the latest and greatest techno-toys all the time—and we get paid for it. But we also endure tight deadlines and last-minute releases that come without warning. The reviews we create here at TR take a lot of time, and I don't even want to contemplate my hourly wage between the latter part of March and the first week of May. During the month of April, I think I maybe spent two days away from TR-related work completely. Admittedly, a lot of the hurt is self-inflicted, in the pursuit of higher quality, so I'm not complaining.

My epic crunch is simply relevant because it explains why I didn't have time to do much planning for the trip. Neither did my feminine side, who was in the middle of her own work-related flurry. We were going to wing it. For two weeks, we'd road-trip from Lake Como to the Amalfi Coast. We'd done a little research and made a handful of reservations ahead of time, but the rest we were going to figure out along the way.

As I signed off from TR Friday afternoon, I felt optimistic that it would all work out. I had a secret weapon: the Internet.

Most folks eschew the thought of connectivity while taking time off from their everyday lives. In this situation, I was hoping to embrace it. While I planned to be dead to the world in terms of calls and text messages, I would have a 3G data device with an unlimited plan and support for up to five Wi-Fi devices. Add a Transformer tablet, two smartphones, and the power of Google—and its maps. What could possibly to wrong?

A couple of things, actually. But first, I should first take a moment to talk about this Internet device. I've seen smartphone and SIM rental services in airports before, but my smartphone is region-locked, and I didn't want to be hampered by a cramped keyboard and screen. Cellular Abroad promised a MiFi hotspot with 3G connectivity and support for up to five simultaneous Wi-Fi devices within a 10-meter radius. My girlfriend could post Facebook updates while I read up on the day's Giro d'Italia stage without having to make sense of Italian.

Although most of Cellular Abroad's services have restrictive usage limits, the MiFi Italy plan offers unlimited data pretty much throughout the country. The first 10GB is available over a speedy 3G connection that offers 2.5/0.9MBps of downstream/upstream bandwidth. After that, you're stuck on a slower 2G link.

For two weeks of connectivity, I paid $168 plus shipping. That's not cheap, but the daily price goes down for longer durations. Given what some hotels charge for Internet access these days, I figured I was getting a pretty good deal for a device I could take anywhere. There would be no need to pay for a GPS to go along with the rental car, either.

A few days before we left Vancouver, the MiFi device arrived at my door. It was tiny and came with all the requisite power adapters. There were also instructions not to turn on the device in the US. Worried that Canadian cellular networks might mess with its programming, I kept the hotspot in its case until we arrived in Milan. I didn't even charge the thing.

Upon arrival, my pocket ace got off to a good start. The hotspot had a full charge, and it took only seconds to establish a 3G connection. Connecting my tablet was no more complicated than joining the encrypted Wi-Fi network. We were soon barreling down the Autostrade, following Google Maps' directions to our hotel in Como. The Transformer's GPS tracked our location, and I was able to send out a quick email while sitting at a gas station, waiting for my navigator to combat jet-lag with a couple of espressos.

Although things started off well, we quickly ran into a problem. While walking about that evening in search of a quick bite, our hotspot dropped its data connection and displayed an "SMS only" message. Restarting the device didn't fix the problem, and the few instructions provided with it gave no clues about what to do next. Initially, I figured we were too close to the border with Switzerland and had somehow latched onto a foreign cell tower that wouldn't work with the service package I'd ordered. But the disruption persisted when we traveled south, guided by horribly antiquated maps printed on sheets of dead tree.

Turns out Cellular Abroad screwed up my order. Fortunately, and as in A Grand Don't Come for Free, everything worked out in the end. The error was corrected, and the several-day blackout confirmed the value of an omnipresent Internet connection. Traveling through a foreign country is much easier when the Internet has your back. Languages can be translated, routes mapped, hotel reservations made, and restaurant reviews perused without having to do more than tap a few times on a touchscreen.

Google Maps was probably the biggest asset during the trip. It made navigating a snap and saved me having to defy my male programming and ask for directions. However, real-time mapping did little to ease the butt-clenching stress of sharing impossibly narrow roads with oncoming tour busses. Italian drivers are insane and have seemingly no use for lane dividers or turn signals.

Interestingly, the Transformer's GPS proved more accurate and reliable than my girlfriend's iPhone 4S both in the city and on the road. Both struggled to establish our location when driving at high speed, though. Once the Transformer had a fix, speed wasn't an issue. Its larger 10" screen made directions easier to follow than on the iPhone, anyway. We brought bicycles, too, and the ability to overlay terrain maps proved valuable when planning each day's ride. I like hills, but my girlfriend does not.

Then there's Google Maps' ability to find just about anything. We tracked down laundry services, supermarkets, wine shops, and restaurants with little trouble, usually while strolling with the iPhone, which is considerably more discreet than a tablet. Online restaurant reviews were helpful and easier to trust than the recommendations of hotel receptionists, whose directions weren't as good. Reviews also informed our decisions on the final few hotels left to book. We booked those online with little trouble, of course.

The Internet came in handy for a bunch of little things, like checking hourly weather forecasts to figure out the best time to ride or to relax in the sun. Wikipedia answered questions like "what's that mountain range over there?" as we raced from Tuscany toward Rome. While munching a porchetta sandwich at an early morning market, I hit the Canada Customs website to confirm that cured meats could be imported, so long as they were pork-based, vacuum-sealed, and totaled less than 20 kg. Jackpot! During downtime and while waiting for the occasional train, I kept up with my favorite sports. I even sent a few emails to friends and family, which were banged out quickly and enjoyably on the Transformer's keyboard.

The point of this exercise wasn't to stay connected to my life back home, though; it was to have access to the incredible information resource I've grown accustom to having at my fingertips. We rarely had the hotspot on unless we were actively searching for something, in part because the battery only seemed to last about half a day. Connection speeds were typically slow outside major centers, but that was rarely an issue. We weren't streaming videos or downloading files. Scoping the scenic potential of a ride while zooming in and out of Google Maps' satellite view was probably the most bandwidth-intensive task.

Connection snafu aside, the service was absolutely worth the money. I probably wouldn't bother for shorter trips or for those confined to all-inclusive resorts, but the hotspot was a vital resource in an adventure that covered close to 3,000 km of roads, trails, and the narrow alleyways that pass for old-world city streets.

That said, when the time comes to plan another trip, I'll be looking for alternatives to Cellular Abroad. The service plainly states that emails may take up to 48 hours to answer, which is too long for paying customers who might have urgent needs. Three days have passed since I inquired about getting a refund for the days of service I lost, with no response yet. Also, the mix of power adapters provided with the MiFi device didn't inspire much confidence. Three adapters needed to be daisy chained to charge the unit, and the last one was looser than Fox News' interpretation of the term "fair and balanced." I had to prop up the adapters every time I charged the device, or it wouldn't stay plugged in.

Those complaints apply to this particular service rather than the general concept, though. The Internet has become a fixture in our lives in part because it's an unparalleled source of information. I can tell you from first-hand experience that travel is much more civilized with it than without.

   
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