This post is about how technology failed me on my recent trip to Europe/UK/Ireland. I’m hoping that readers might find it useful, for those planning such a trip. I’m also hoping it’ll find its way to the various vendors, giving them some (what I imagine to be) valuable feedback.
Bing Translator App for Windows Phone
It’s simply not useable.
I tried to use this on a daily basis for the two-and-a-half weeks I was in Germany, after downloading the German language pack. I used both the keyboard input to type words, and the camera input for capturing and converting German text on-the-fly.
Typing is slow, and inconvenient on any smartphone – it’s the last thing you want to do if you’re being waited on – it just takes too long to type in lots of words (i.e. sentences). It’s ok if you just need a single word. Regardless, I found that the German dictionary simply didn’t know many of the words I entered. Make no mistake, I downloaded the entire German dictionary into the software – it wasn’t just a case of not having the language pack installed properly. It was laughable as to how many words it didn’t recognise.
At one point I was completing a form for accommodation, and was being asked how I’d arrived at my destination. I held the camera over the text on the page. The software interpreted my four response options as ‘car’, ‘plane’, bus, and ‘seagull’. Seagull?!
The ‘camera’ input method, which is used by holding the phone up to German text at which time it is converted to English, live, just doesn’t work. Again, if you have a single word, it’s fine, sometimes. Sentences, it doesn’t understand, ever.
As with any language, you can grab a random selection of words which all have their own meanings individually, but when assembled into a sentence may have a very different meaning. It is this that the software failed at also; it just can’t make sense of the sentences it sees – it can’t convert them to the English equivalent.
You can’t resize the camera-captured text. When you point the camera at a block of text, the software converts that text to your language of choice and overlays it on the image you’re viewing; hold the camera up to a street sign and the converted language is superimposed in white font over the street sign image. Theoretically brilliant. If you’re trying to capture a whole block of text, it can appear very small on the screen. It would be nice to be able to pinch-zoom this text to size - white text, when very small, can appear as a blur.
Nokia HERE ‘Drive+ BETA’ and HERE ‘Maps’
Can someone please explain to me why ‘Drive+’ and ‘Maps’ are two separate applications? I was forever swapping between the two – it was a total pain in the arse.
Now, this might be fine for you if you have an unlocked phone, and buy a SIM for the country you’re in, and are in a location where you have data access. In my case though, my phone was new and locked to my provider (in Australia), and I didn’t want to pay the insane data roaming charges. Furthermore, Germany’s wireless broadband / 3G system is awful - you really don’t want to be reliant on wireless data when travelling the German countryside.
Maps loses it’s connection with the GPS sometimes, if you close the app. I found that once this happened it would rarely rediscover the GPS signal again. I resolved this by opening Drive (which was able to locate the GPS signal with relative ease), and then switch back to Maps. Huh?
The turn-by-turn voice guidance is confusing. ‘She’ (I chose a female voice, and found myself talking to her) doesn’t know the difference between ‘turning’ and ‘veering’. She thinks that a road that merges into the one you’re on can be turned into. So, as you approach it (with the idea that it doesn’t affect you, so you can ignore it), she might say “Now, stay right”, when in reality you shouldn’t be receiving any instructions, because it’s only the merging traffic that needs to be aware of what to do – not you.
At apparent random times she’d say “Now stay left” or “Now stay right” when there was actually nowhere else to go anyhow. If you were on a major road and happened to pass a driveway through a farmer’s field (for example), she’d confuse this as some sort of intersection, and prompt you to “Stay left (or right)”.
It was very confusing at first. I found myself having to look at the map on the screen every time she spoke, to double-check what she was asking me to do.
She navigated me into dead-end streets. She navigated me onto a rough dirt road, through what looked like someone’s sheep paddock, before I decided not to go any further and turned back. She did this despite there being a surfaced road nearby that took me to my destination anyhow. She’d try to have me turn down streets that technically could be turned into, but in reality were restricted to buses only, for example. How could the software not know these things? How old are these maps it’s using?
3G and WIFI Access
Germany’s 3G access, outside of any large community, it pretty-much non-existent. If you’re planning a day trip to drive Schwarzwald for example, plot all your points of interest into your GPS software first, ’cause you’ve got little chance of researching sites to visit once you’re there. In Ireland and the UK on the other hand, there’s excellent 3G coverage, and there were only a few brief moments where I lost connectivity during my three weeks there.
There are plenty of free WIFI hotspots in Europe/Britain/Ireland. However, everywhere I tried to connect to a free WIFI spot in a German McDonalds or café for example, I could only connect if I had a valid German (European) mobile number they’d TXT me a passcode to. In other words, if you don’t have a German mobile number, you can’t make use of the free WIFI. This goes for Switzerland too. In the UK/Ireland only an email address was asked for, if anything.
Many (most) hotels, B&Bs, Guest Houses advertise free WIFI access in the bedrooms. Whilst this might technically be true, it was only on a few occasions where the signal strength was actually useable. More often than not I had problems with either connecting at all, maintaining a connection, or speed.
With no disrespect to the various owners/hosts where I stayed, who I believe provided their WIFI service in good faith, you’ve not been properly provided for by your IT people. It’s not sufficient for the local computer store owner to only sell you a router and/or repeater that theoretically provides for your needs – they need to come out and conduct a practical test of your network’s connectability and useability.
As a traveller, if you’re planning on staying at places that offer free WIFI, be aware that’s it’s most likely not going to be very useful from within your bedroom. Ask for a room close to the router, or sit in a common room where the signal might be stronger, and also take a 3G-connected phone with you that you can tether your laptop to.
Microsoft Surface Pro and Wedge Touch Mouse
The Wedge Mouse looks great, and it’s small, slim design is great for dropping it into your laptop bag or tablet sleeve. It’s relatively comfortable to use, but it’s finicky.
The touch surface feels good, but using it is awful; horizontal scrolling is fine, but the slightest movement in a ‘vertical scroll’ manner throws your browser’s/app’s scrollbar into auto, and it won’t stop scrolling after you’ve released your finger.
Microsoft states their BlueTrack Technology “Works on virtually any surface in your home, office, or anywhere in between”. Total bollocks. The Wedge mouse only works on perfectly flat, dense surfaces. It doesn’t work on beds, sofas, pieces of paper, jeans, or any other makeshift surface you might have available to you when travelling.
I wish the mouse had two physical buttons for left/right click instead of one button which supposedly detects which side of it is pressed. Too often I’ve made a distinct right click, which has been determined as a left-click. It’s really annoying.
The Surface Pro (with ‘Touch’ keyboard) was generally great to use on my travels. The Touch keyboard is excellent, but I’ve noticed after about 6-7 weeks of heavy use that the surface on the keys is starting to get ‘shiny’; the lettering hasn’t worn at all, but the nice ‘brushed’ texture on the surface is dissipating. In about six months it’s going to look crap.
One other small issue I’ve noticed with the keyboard is that unless you have it resting fairly flat, you can get random key presses occurring. For example, if you’re using the Surface on your lap and the keyboard is slightly askew, random key triggers can occur. It’s a minor thing, but it does require you sit up straight while you’re using it.
The Surface Pro itself is also excellent, with only two concerns, both pretty major. The first concern is it’s awful integrated WIFI – it’s too weak. Now, I know I’ve just had a whine about the poor WIFI provided by (most) hotels etc., but even close to a router, the Pro’s WIFI receiver detects less than maximum signal strength. My Nokia Lumina 920 and iPhone 4 display a stronger signal strength than the Surface, and furthermore they don’t lose the signal when I move around, whereas the Surface does all the time. It’s infuriating. Just do a Google search for “Microsoft Surface WIFI problems” to find hundreds of other unhappy customers. At the time of this writing I believe Microsoft was aware of an issue with the WIFI in the Surface RT and released an update for it, so here’s hoping there’s one in the works for the Pro too.
The second concern of mine relates to the ability to shut down the Surface by closing the keyboard (if you have it clipped on). Sometimes it doesn’t shut down. I first discovered this when I pulled the Surface from my tablet bag to find it as hot as hades – it had not shut down and had overheated in the closed bag. I couldn’t turn it on again until it had cooled down. Now I only shut down the Surface using the Windows shut-down routine.
On that note, that’s reminded me of another issue I’ve experienced from time-to-time; it won’t start up. I don’t know why it does this, because it seems to shut down ok, but sometimes when you press the ‘on’ switch, nothing happens. To resolve this, you hold down the ‘on’ switch for 5-10 seconds, release it, and then click it again and the Surface powers up ok. I don’t like it.
That’s all for now.
Men Without Hats is one of my favourite bands. Their debut album Rhythm of Youth (from 1982) is my favourite album ever. It’s the only album to-date that I loved instantly, every track, and have never tired of it. Everyone has one of those albums that they couldn’t imagine having lived without – one that has contributed to the soundtrack of their lives.
The new MWH album ‘Love in the Age of War’ is due to be released towards the end of May. I’m counting the seconds. It’ll be their first release in 9 years, and the second in 21 – a long time between albums.
The first single ‘Head Above Water’ is available on iTunes (currently for the US, rest of the world to come). Here’s the world premier broadcast. I just have to give these guys a plug – their music has brought me so much happiness – I wish them every success.
Ivan, you’re a master of intelligent synth-pop. I tip my hat off to you, sir.