Sunday, 22 August 2010

Get Your Own Space - Zoom 3G Wireless Travel Router

I've been using PDAs and Smartphones for longer than I care to remember. Since trading in my Filofax in the early 1990s my life has existed in Cyberspace on a Psion 3, Psion Series 5, HP Journada, various Orange Smartphones and over the last two years on my iPhone 3G and now my iPhone 4. All these gadgets have had connections to laptops and desktops, initially Windows, but now everything exists in Apple Space.

The better these toys get, the more I find I'm reliant on them - from keeping track of expenses, looking up passwords, linking back to my Pogoplug and its disks back at home, to route finding, on-line timetables, and of course social networking and mail - I can do nearly everything I need to do on my iPhone and link it back to my iMac or MBP when back at base, wherever that may be.

Which means that there are times when I'm completely and utterly screwed - especially when I'm abroad. The old O2 unlimited data plan may have been replaced by a more restrictive 500Mb allowance, but this is simply luxurious when you are abroad, with prohibitive roaming charges and exorbitant wireless fees for anything more than very casual access. And without liberal access to data, the iPhone (or any other Smartphone for that matter) becomes little more than any other phone on the market, except it's much more painful having all those apps at your fingertips that you can't or daren't use.

What you need is a personal WiFi space around you which provides you with a mobile lifeline to Cyberspace. In the UK 3 have led the way with their MiFi device which is a 3G device that generates a WiFi hotspot from the 3G signal. But this is locked to 3, and as soon as you step out of the UK you get hit by those evil roaming charges once again. launch2net (see the review from earlier this year) allows you to generate a WiFi hotspot but it means dragging a laptop around with you which is not a particularly mobile solution - it's a bit of a throwback to the days when mobile phones came with batteries the size and weight of a car battery.

There is an alternative to the 3 MiFi solution which costs a similar amount but does the same job without tying you to a specific network. Enter - stage right - the Zoom 3G Wireless Travel Router.

Zoom 3G Wireless Travel Router

The Zoom device allows you to plug in (almost) any 3G USB stick and will then generate a WiFi hotspot from the 3G signal. I've had mine for about a fortnight and it's had a huge impact on my life here in Zurich. I can use the translation programme while I'm in the supermarket (my German is non-existent). I can do currency conversions using the latest Forex data rather than week old rates. I can get train and tram times before I leave the office so that I don't have to hang around the tram stops in the rain. I can see Twitter at work (a social networking free environment) and get my mail without having to fire up the laptop.

The Zoom 3G Wireless Router is not as elegant (pretty) as the 3 MiFi, but it is downright functional. The box is about 4 x 3in and an inch thick. It weighs just under 5 oz with the battery. The photo below shows a size comparison to the 3G iPhone. The unit is supplied with a rechargeable battery which lasts about 3 hours in a single go, and takes a couple of hours to recharge from the power adaptor (also supplied). The router can run from the mains if required. LEDs on the top panel show power/charge status, USB connection, Wireless on, and Ethernet connection. An on/off switch is located at the rear of the unit, alongside an Ethernet port. As shown above the 3G dongle fits into the USB socket on one side of the box. While this looks a bit ungainly, the connection is good, and I've never had the dongle fall out, despite having the unit sitting in a rucksack pocket and in my trouser pocket.


Router configuration is very simple. It's easiest to connect the unit to your computer via the ethernet cable, plug in the dongle, power up and then set your browser to point to which will load up the configuration page for the device. A Wizard is available to quickly get you up and running, and allows you to modify the configuration manager password, choose a security method for protecting your WiFi hotspot and assigning a password if necessary, and finally for setting up the dongle/ISP settings - APN, username and password, and PIN. Some of these will be provided with your dongle, others are easily available from the internet. You will have to go through this configuration every time you change the dongle. If you use the same dongle all the time the device retains the settings.

There a numerous other configuration options available through the configuration page advanced settings but I've not really investigated these. Everything I need can be achieved through the wizard. I regularly change 3G dongles and configuration literally takes 30 seconds between changes. For those of you concerned about security (which should be all of you!), the router can handle WEP, WPA and WPA2 protocols. And while on the subject of protocols, the router supports 802.11n/g and b wireless capabilities.

The Zoom travel router has proved to be one of my best buys of the last few years. Inevitably there are going to be places where it won't work because no 3G signal is available. I very much doubt I'll be able to use it on most of the train journey between the East Midlands and London on which none of my connections seem to work for very long, but when you are out of range of a wireless hotspot in town there shouldn't be any problems. It really comes into its own as soon as you go abroad, especially for iPhones, iPads and other smart gadgets which need live data to truly make them smart. Zoom also produce a 3G dongle which is not locked - so with the pair of gadgets, all you need to do when you go to a new country is buy a PAYG SIM card and you should be up and running in no time.

Highly recommended!!!

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Apple Magic Trackpad - Simply the Best

Despite having subscriptions to all the UK Mac magazines, access to all the gossip and rumour mongers on Twitter and other internet sites, and tuning in to the live coverage of the most recent WWDC, the first I heard of the Apple Magic Trackpad was when it appeared in the Apple Store website a couple of weeks ago. I honestly wasn't sure quite what to make of it initially. I think my first reaction was "what the ... is this, and why does it cost £59.00?".

So I went round to my local Apple Store (one benefit of living in one of the most expensive capital cities in the world is that I have an Apple Store on the doorstep) and bought one. It was a bit of a "comfort" buy to be honest. Women buy shoes, nerds buy gadgets and everyone buys chocolate when they feel a bit sorry for themselves (I actually bought shoes and chocolate as well, but for different reasons).

After two weeks of use I have now dispensed with the Magic Mouse completely and even carry the Magic Trackpad around with me. But more about that later...

The Magic Trackpad is a near 5 inch square of Mac standard metallic finish which connects to your Mac via Bluetooth. The catch is that you must be using Snow Leopard 10.6.4 and you need to download an additional supporting piece of software from Apple to make it work. In fact, it seemed to work in a limited capacity right out of the box, but there was very limited functionality. Once the software update had downloaded and installed, a whole new rafter of functionality was available. There have been some reports of problems with the installation, but I found everything worked smoothly without any issues.

The trackpad performs all the functions currently available on the most recently multi-gesture trackpads across the MacBook range. My own MBP is a 2007 model and doesn't have this capability so this is a way of accessing it. Clearly the iMac and MacPro ranges have no trackpad at all, and while these are probably the target machines for the trackpad, it works brilliantly with the laptop as well.

The "glass" surface is very similar to the Magic Mouse surface - very smooth and cool to the touch, and forgiving of even the sweatiest fingers. It is possible to track very accurately with the pad as it has very fine precision. The big difference between this and the Magic Mouse is that the trackpad doesn't run out of room! While I think the Magic Mouse is the best mouse I've ever used, I do get frustrated with it occasionally when it fails to respond properly to my instructions. So far the only similar problem I've had with the Trackpad is that it can be too responsive, but I think I may still need to tweak some of the sensitivity settings.

The Apple software installs into the System Preferences and is fine as it stands, but to really take advantage of the Magic Trackpad you really need to install one of the third party applications available for the Magic Mouse. I use BetterTouchTool which is much more configurable and allows me to set up gesture recognition for many more things. I have set up Tap to Click for everyday use as it seems more natural than to use the slightly stiff physical click of the Trackpad, although this works fine on a hard surface like a desk. Two finger scrolling through web pages is also very natural, and I find that I'm able to use different fingers for the same gestures which is less onerous on the index digit in particular. With BetterTouchTool I have gestures set up to access the Dashboard, Spaces, Expose, System Preferences and I can even put the laptop to Sleep with a five finger click.

Because it is so light, even with the two AA batteries installed the Magic Trackpad is easy to slip into my work bag and the design allows me to keep it upright next to the laptop. It's actually easier to carry around than a mouse. Since installing the Magic Trackpad my Magic Mouse has been consigned to the cupboard. To be honest, there are one or two things that are probably easier with a mouse - multiple item selection being the most notable - but I think that may be because I've been doing them for such a long time with a mouse. I'm not sure that I'm ready to lose the mouse completely, but the trackpad has really become an integral part of my computing activity.

Battery life is pretty good too. After two weeks of constant use the battery level is down to 86% - far better than the Magic Mouse.

The worst thing is that I occasionally find myself reaching out for the MacBook Pro trackpad by mistake, and since it's an older model (late 2007) far from being a smooth tracking experience, it feels like I'm running my fingers over a cat's tongue.

Check out the Trackpad. You won't regret it, and you may well reconsider the way you work with your current input device.

The biggest surprise of all for me was that the Magic Trackpad was about £10 cheaper in Zurich than in the UK. In fact all Apple prices are lower than in the UK. So I can stock up on some extra chocolate!