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Skyroam Global Hotspot review

technologyEdward Kiledjian1 Comment
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Like most of you, I want to be connected all the time, even while travelling. Check out your carrier's data roaming charges and you'll quickly realize there needs to be a better option. This is where new services are popping up hopping to fill a void. 

The Skyroam Global WIFI Hotspot is a $125 solution that promises unlimited global data roaming in 60+ countries for an affordable flat fee of $10 per day for unlimited use (the company says the per day rate will drop to $8 before the end of summer) They aded 14 new countries in the last 6 weeks including Philippines, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Poland, Slovakia.

I've had my unit for several weeks now and I wanted to travel test it a couple of times before writing this review. 

The idea behind SkyRoam’s global WIFI hotspot is fantastic but I experienced some issues that may cause you to reconsider.

Life With and without Skyroam

A traveller without Skyroam's hotpost has to:

  • SIM unlock his phone through the carrier
  • Find a local sim card in the destination country
  • Insert the new SIM card and make sure you don't lose your original one
  • Reconfigure the APN setting of your device and voila

With Skyroam, you :

  • turn on the Skyroam device
  • start a day pass
  • connect to the Skyroam Global WIFI hotspot (with as many as 5 devices)

So obviously the process is a lot easier but using Skyroam means you have to carry another device. You have to charge another device. Since you are using WIFI, your original number is still active and you can connect multiple devices to the glorious internet.

The Unit

The Skyroam Global WIFI Hotspot is made by a Chinese company and is not one of the traditional WIFI hotspots we have come to expect from our carriers. It is a thick hunk of plastic (4.2x2.3x0.8") and weighs in a 4.9 ounces. The size of the device allows them to use a bigger battery and probably keep production costs down.

When you remove the orange back cap, you see a 2,900mAH battery, a SIM card slot but no SIM card. Yes it is a GSM based device (850,900,1700,1800,1900,2100) with theoretical speeds of up to HSPA+ 42Mbps down but... In Canada and the US, I never experienced speeds faster than 4Mbps

The device works using a virtual SIM technology. The company has banks of SIM cards stored in locations around the world that allow your device to pick a free one for the country you are in (over the air) and get connected fairly quickly.  The Skyroam Global WIFI hotspot has a built in GPS which allows it to identify its location. The advantage of this technology is that you benefit immediately from new Skyroam partnerships without having to mail sim cards or carry a pocket full of SIM cards and swap as you move around. This virtual SIM technology is extremely unique and it really set's them apart from the competitors in this space. 

The only caveat is demand may outpace supply. During discussions, the company confirmed that they over-provision in country SIM cards, there have been 3 occasions (in the span of 3 weeks) where I have been unable to secure a network connect (with a network connection failed message). It seems the demand for Canadian and US service grew faster than they could add capacity which meant I had no network access (the longest "failure to connect" lasted almost a full day).

I trust the company when they say this is an isolated incident but it is still frustrating to be on the road with no connectivity.

The Skyroam Global WIFI Hotspot Experience

So you buy the $125 unit and it comes pre-loaded with 5 (24 hour each) day passes. Each additional day pass costs $10 but they are running a promo right now that drops the per day price to $8 when you buy multi-use packs of passes. 

As a comparison, XCOM Global (the 800lb gorilla in global WIFI connectivity) offers unlimited daypasses for $15 a day. Skyroam offers coverage in 60+ countries while XCOM Global's coverage is double that but certain regions will require region specific hardware where Skyroam works with the same unit everywhere. Skyroam seems to have prioritized the countries with high US traveller volume so the countries you will likely visit are already covered by the Skyroam service.

To buy passes or change your info, you can connect to the device itself and visit a.skyroam.com or use any browser and go to http://service.skyroam.com/ Regardless of which account access method you choose, you will realize it is slow. Very painfully slow.  I have a 50Mbps down fiber optic internet connection at home and it still took several minutes for the service webpage just to open.  [update: I have seen a marked improvement in their back end servers during the last week]

Once you have your day-passes, you travel to your destination country, start the device, give it a couple of minutes to locate you and then you will be prompted to start a day pass. Once you start a day pass, it connects to the local partner and starts beaming wonderful connectivity to your WIFI devices. I tested it in Canada and the US and worked good most of the time. 

In Canada they use Telus (I figured this out by comparing connectivity in various locations against devices from Telus, Rogers, Bell and Videotron). Anywhere Telus has good HSPA or HSPA+ reception, you get good Skyroam connection.

In the US they seem to use AT&T. I did a 7 hour drive from Montreal to Wellsboro Pennsylvania through NY State. My iPhone was connected to Tmobile (using the Roam Mobility service) and my MotoX to the Skyroam hotpot. For good measure, I also borrowed an AT&T Android device for testing. This is how I know its an AT&T partner. It seems many segments of the road had good TMobile coverage but horrible horrible AT&T coverage which meant my Skyroam Global WIFI hotspot kept losing its connection to the non existent network or when it connected service was slow.

Skyroam is dependent on the quality of the in-country service provider. If they have bad connectivity, Skyroam get’s bad connectivity.

Each Skyroam Global Wifi Hotspot supports up to 5 connected devices and this worked very well. All of the WIFI settings are hardcoded into the device but can be changed using their IOS app. You get WPA2 security with a pre determined password over a 2.4 Ghz connection. This isn't a major problem but as a security conscious geek, I would like to have more WIFI setting controls. 

The device is made of plastic and doesn't feel premium. But I didn't experience any hardware issues. The USB connector was solid and worked well (for charging) and the device looked great even while being tossed into my bag for close to a month. 

Their site is plastered with large colorful fonts proclaiming unlimited data but it's unlimited with a big caveat. The first 100 MB of daily use  are truly unlimited and you get all the speed the local carrier makes available via HSPA+. After the first 100MB, you are throttled to 2G speeds. Most modern mapping applications (Waze, Google Maps and Apple Maps) will have  problems working when in 2G mode (256kbps). You should be able to get emails and send text messages (Apple Messages, Hangouts and Whatsapp). I know SkyRoam is considering various bandwidth cap options so I'm hopeful well get something better than the 100 MB cap.

With modern devices and data hungry apps, the 100 MB cap can be relatively easy to hit unless you make a conscious effort to conserve capacity and connect to other WIFI options when available (restaurants, hotels, etc).

Several times during testing I received a message that the device failed to connect to the network (after a day pass was activated). This means I could not use data yet my day pass was still ticking away in the background. This happens because everytime you restart the device, it tries to reserve a temporary SIM from their inventory, if none are available, you can’t connect.

I ran specific tests for the battery and typically I had 6-7 hours of use unless I was in an area with spotty connectivity which seems to drain the battery faster. 

I performed speed tests in various Canadian and US cities and the fastest speed I had was 4 Mbps. In most cases, it was around 2 Mbps. I know many users complained online that their connection was slow but slow is relative. It is slow when you compare it to my 30Mbps down LTE connection but remember this isn't an LTE capable device because there are too many global 4G standards for one device. HSPA+ is relatively standard worldwide which is why they chose it as the wireless tech.

Conclusion

If you are a fairly technical person (able to change your device's APN settings) and travel internationally then you may be better served by buying a local SIM card in your destination country or using KnowRoaming (link).

If you are fairly technical and travel only in the US then your best options are ReadySIM for prepaid SIM card (link) , RoamMobility for reusable refillable SIM cards (link) or YourKarma if you only need pay per use non expiring data (link).

Where does Skyroam come in? It is the ideal solution for the less technical traveller, the tech savvy traveller that doesn't want to fiddle with device settings or the traveller that plans to visit multiple countries. 

I am hopeful that the company will rethink the small 100MB daily unthrottled limit. 

I do think frequent travellers should buy this and through it in their laptop bags. The cost is reasonable, the service is acceptable and overall the solution is robust and easy to use.

Apple launches HomeKit with a handful of partners

technologyEdward KiledjianComment
 Photo by Insteon 

Photo by Insteon 

We knew it was coming but didn't know exactly when. Apple's home automation platform, HomeKit, finally launched and you can expect the first slew of products to hit retail shelves shortly. 

Launch parters include Insteaon, Lutron, Elgato, Caseta and Ecobee. 

We’re excited to be shipping our HomeKit-enabled Insteon Hub and releasing the Insteon+ mobile app, enabling the mass consumer market to live in a world where all of their connected devices work together in perfect harmony,” “HomeKit streamlines home automation for consumers, brings together multiple manufacturers and offers advanced features like remote control and voice control through integrations with Siri.”
— said Joe Dada, CEO, Insteon

The Insteon HomeKit Hub will be available through Amazon and Smarthome.com for $149.99 shortly and in retail stores in July. 

Expect Apple to talk up HomeKit at its annual developer conference (WWDC) with new features probably included in IOS 9.  

In addition to these companies, we expect to see a slew of other manufacturers jump on this bandwagon as the home automation market heats up.

Microsoft to launch global wifi network for enterprise customers

technologyEdward KiledjianComment

Microsoft's Skype entity already offers a product called Skype WIFI (link) which allows you to buy WIFI access in millions of locations by the minute. A barebones webpage now may indicate that Microsoft has bigger plan for it's WIFI resale business and may be branding it Microsoft WIFI (link). 

The service (purportedly) will offer access to its millions of WIFI access hotspots to Office 365 Enterprise subscribers, Surface 2 owners or buyers of the Work & Play bundle. 

The DNS lookup of the website seems to indicate that it belongs to Microsoft so I am assuming it is legitimate but it is still very sparse and missing tones of information. Based on the info it does contain, it looks like this service will continue in the path started by Skype WIFI where Microsoft will resell WIFI hotspot access belonging to other providers such as Boingo, XFinity WIFI, BT and more. And yes, it does look like a global service. 

We don't know the model they will use. Will it be a subscription based model, a pay-per-use model or a hybrid? Will some access time be included in the base subscriptions? 

We do know, based on the website that they will have apps for most platforms including Windows, Android, Mac OS X, iOS and Windows Phone. Skype WIFI also offered an app for these platforms but also included one for Linux (which the Microsoft WIFI page does not mention right now).

At this point that's all we know but I'll keep watching this site and report back when things develop further.

 

Eye2TV color correct's TV for the colorblind

technologyEdward KiledjianComment

We have witnessed an onslaught of "smart" HDMI dongles from the Chromecast to the chromebit to Intel's PC on a stick. These are all very cool technologies but do they really improve your life in a measurable and tangible way?

Colorblindness isn't as serious as many other human afflictions but it's great to see a Kickstarter campaign trying to create a device to help improve their lives. The Eye2TV is an HDMI dongle that plugs into your TV an automatically (immediately) upgrades the image to compensate for the things colorblind people don't see. 

The promise is that normal sighted viewers will not notice the minute changes. They also said the device is adjustable to accomodate different types of colorblindness. 

Is the LifeProof waterproof iPhone case worth it?

technologyEdward KiledjianComment

 

LifeProof isn's a new company but interestingly I receive a handful of reader emails every week asking whether the $89.99 investment is justified. The questions I see the most are:

  • Does the Lifeproof case work?
  • Does the Lifeproof case leak?
  • Will the Lifeproof case protect my iPhone from my toddler

Interestingly reviews on the the internet are split. There are large organizations and hard users that swear by Lifeproof cases and then there is a vibrant boisterous anti-Lifeproof community that tries to have its voice heard everywhere. 

So this review is my attempt to answer the simple question: Is the Lifeproof waterproof case for iphone/ipad/samsung/Motorola worth the $90 asking price?

The first rule of Lifeproof

Remember that you are asking the case to protect your $900 smartphone. For most, this is the most important piece of technology. So why do so many buyers avoid reading the manual then complain that something went wrong? I don't know but please... pretty please... read the damn manual.

The first thing the manual says is to test your case in the sink using a tissue paper inside the case to check for leaks. Lifeproof does test every case in their warehouse but considering it will be wrapped around you smartphone, invest the 30 minutes to test it with tissue paper (or using the fake cardboard iPhone provided in the packaging) first in the sink. 

The most popular version is the Nuud which basically seals around your devices glass screen itself. People choose this because it allows you to enjoy the wonderful retina display without looking at it through a cheap think plastic film. But in order for this to work, your phone should be relatively intact. Deep screen scratches or cracks could make your device non waterproof.

The internet is complaining

I read hundreds of comments from users and it seems the biggest complaint is that condensation forms on the inside of the speaker mesh. Most complainers said the phone continued to work but that they had to have Apple replace the speaker. 

I contacted 12 of the most vocal complainers about this issue asking if they had first sink tested their case before first use. 2 answered saying they had not.

Food for thought.

The warranty 

So Lifeproof provides 1 year of warranty from the date of purchase (link).  Buying it with some gold credit cards may allow you to extend this to 2 (your results may vary). I contacted their warranty support service (as a test) and the agent was extremely helpful and willing to quickly send out a replacement piece. [I claimed it was leaking]. 

Additionally many stores will offer you 30/60/90 days of in-store warranty.

I am a scuba diver and have scuba certified camera cases. For those cases, we typically apply a special silicon lube (link) to the O Rings before each day starts. You could use this same lube on the O Rings of the Lifeproof but it would likely invalidate your warranty so I wouldn't do it.

My field tests

I love my smartphone and it is with me 24x7x365. Subjecting my beloved iPhone to torture testing breaks my heart everytime. For these tests, I dropped the phone (in case of course) on jagged medium size rocks from 6 feet and all that happenned was some small case scratches. 

I then tested the phone in a 1 meter tank for 60 minutes and the phone worked great. 

Touchscreen's don't like water and therefore may not respond when wet. The traditional Lifeproof with cheap plastic screen protector allows you to use the phone in fairly wet conditions because ultimately the screen is dry. Not so for the Nuud. Because the original screen is exposed in the Lifeproof Nuud case, the touchscreen becomes unresponsive when wet. This is something you will have to think about before you get the screen wet. As an example if you want to take pics, start the camera app before the device get's wet and use the volume button to snap pics. The home button will work but screen presses will likely go unanswered by IOS.

Lifeproof Total Water Protection Program

Lifeproof has a program called the TWPP and describes it as:

TWPP is a limited warranty that is included with your purchase of a LifeProof Case when purchased through select retailers. The TWPP Limited Warranty includes coverage of your electronic device as a consequence of water damage due to a material or workmanship defect of the LifeProof case.

the important point here is to register your TWPP warranty as soon as you buy your case from an authorized provider (link to register) , otherwise you forfeit this protection.

The accessories

There are now a bunch of accessories you can buy. The most interesting one, if you spend time around water, is the LifeJacket.

Basically it is designed to work with the Lifeproof case and make your device float and of course makes it super visible. I wouldn't walk with the Lifejacket on the beach but would use it while boating.

Verdict

It is not perfect. It makes the device just a bit bigger (not much but still noticeable). It basically covers the beautifully crafted aluminium smartphone in a much cheaper plastic case. You will need a special adapter to use headphones (link). Some IOS accessories won't work because of the added thickness around the lightning port which means you'll have to give up on those accessories or buy one of those third party lightning port extenders.(link)

I think this is a fantastic option for the right consumer. Who is the right consummer? It is someone that spends enough time around water or situations hazardous to their smartphone, to make this investment worthwhile. Someone that needs this protection once a year shouldn't spend $90 for this case.

It's cool using your smartphone for everything but I have taken a step back. For situations where I want to take pictures in wet or hazardous conditions, I use my though, waterproof, dropproof, freezeproof Olympus TG-2 (link). (they are up to TG-4 now). 

For situations where I am carrying my smartphone (or documents or other electronics) and just want to protect it against unintended splashes or water, I store it inside a reusable, extremely though and easily accessible AlokSak waterproof bag (link).

Having used many waterproof cases, I find them too clumsy to use and they distract from the beauty of my devices. Personally I would rather endanger a device made to be thrown or bathed like my Olympus TG-4 Though camera or a GoPro. If however you work in a job where you need your phone AND it is hazardous for the device then this is a fantastic option. It is one of the sleekest and most usable waterproof cases aroound.