Chip's Technical Blog

Tech commentary of thoughts, challenges, how-to's, and the mundane.

Archive for March, 2011

Virgin Mobile MiFi is Useless

Saturday, March 19th, 2011

Before Christmas, I purchased a Virgin Mobile MiFi as an alternative to the then-weak tethering options for an iPhone. I was particularly excited about the MiFi from VM because I do not need one all the time, but just sometimes while I’m traveling.

Over Christmas, it worked OK. I had a problem keeping it charged in the car because it wouldn’t charge from a normal micro-USB connection, but needed a specialized one (I think it may simply have to do with making the data lines, but for whatever reason it would not charge from a separate USB cable plugged into a car-USB adaptor, despite the fact that it will charge an iPhone and an iPad simultaneously.

But I fixed that by getting a separate car charger. Well, now I cannot download any content at all over the MiFi. It became un-activated, and I had to go back through the activation process. After doing so, I can download content from virginmobileusa.com (I even purchased some bandwidth so I could use it – I’ve been able to use none).

I’ve now tried to use the MiFi 3 times on 3 separate days over 3 weeks. It has failed each time, with the same symptoms. I have rebooted everything, tried to use the reset button on the device, the laptop, etc. I am thoroughly and utterly convinced that it is a VirginMobile problem. (This is obvious from the fact that it can connect to the virgin mobile site).

I also tried to call the support line just now, and sat on hold 5 minutes with frequent apologies from the automated system that they are busier than usual. From what I’m reading on websites, they have been busier than usual for months.

So that’s it. I’m going to give up on my MiFi. I might try to sell it, except that I don’t think I would feel good selling it.

Instead, I’m going to try the new hotspot functionality of my iPhone. It’s disgustingly priced as a tethering plan, but from what I’m reading, I can turn it on and off at will, switching between data plans anytime I want. So if that’s true that may work out well for me.

If VirginMobile wishes to correct this, they can refund my $20 for the data I bought recently, and contact me. Maybe they can unlock the device to use with companies other than VM, or maybe they can make it work. But from what I’m reading on the internet, this infrastructure is just a disaster, and many of us feel like we totally wasted the money we put into it.

Oh well. Live and learn.

GPS iPhone Apps

Friday, March 4th, 2011

I have received a number of requests from people interested in lists of worthwhile Apps for iDevices (iPhone, iPad, etc.). Underlying this is of course a question about whether I like my iPad. I do. I rate it as a “fun toy”. It is good enough that many evenings I do not need to use my computer – because if I am just consuming content (reading news, shopping, etc.), then there is no need for my laptop. It’s only (like tonight), when I’m doing a lot of typing that I need my laptop. As an added bonus, the iPad is easier to use in bed, and never gets hot.

In any case, today I want to focus on one particular kind of App – the GPS app. Around Thanksgiving last year, we (Kristina and I) tested out several GPS Apps on the iPhone. These included Navigon, CoPilot Live, and MotionX GPS Drive (in opposite order).

In rating GPS Apps, we identified a few key factors:

  • Maps: downloaded on-the-fly, or as part of the app itself. This impacts map freshness, app size, and mobile data usage. Including the maps in the app means the maps will be more stale, and makes the app around 2GB. Downloading the maps as you go makes the maps more fresh and keeps the app small, but uses more mobile data, and doesn’t work well in areas of poor coverage.
  • Live Traffic: Useful for routing around accidents and such.
  • Routing: TTS (Test-to-speech), for reading street names aloud. We found this feature very important to avoid looking at the screen too often. Some apps read only street numbers or numbered streets: you actually want one which can synthesize street names.
  • Polish. How elegant is the App.
  • Price
  • Map Data: there are two main map providers NavTeq and TeleAtlas. They have different qualities, strengths, and weaknesses. This turned out not to be a major issue for us (I forget which one we’re using anyway).

The apps rate as follows:

  • MotionX GPS: This is the cheapest of the options, but comes with a subscription model instead of a pay-for-the-app model. Maps are downloaded on the fly. The app was reasonably impressive, but in the end we decided we needed the maps included in the app. At the time, it also did not support TTS, though I think that may have changed.
  • CoPilot. CoPilot worked just fine – with the features we wanted, but was rather unpolished. However, in exchange it was cheaper.
  • Navigon. This was the most expensive app we tried, and in our opinion, you get what you pay for here. It has TTS, live traffic (add on charge), and also includes the maps in the app. All this, and a very polished interface as well.

While I have not tried the newer Garmin App, it downloads the maps as you go, so it doesn’t really fit the criteria we needed. In our opinion, Navigon was the best choice. I do, however, recommend looking for times when the app is on sale. You can use something like AppShopper to see the history of pricing on an app. Note also, with Navigon, you can pay different amounts depending on how much maps you want. If you don’t need Canada – get the US only version, etc.

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