Thursday, February 7, 2013

Unlocked Nexus 7 3G tablet coming to Japan

This will be just perfect with a prepaid data SIM. The 32 GB Nexus 7 3G version will be on sale in Japan from 2/9 at major electronic stores for ¥29,800. That is by far the best deal in Japan for a 3G tablet. It uses a micro SIM card.

List of b-mobile SIMs here.

This would also be perfect for Ingress.

Monday, February 4, 2013

A month with UQ WiMAX

My wife recently ordered an iPad Mini, just to see what the fuss about tablets is all about. As it's a toy she sensibly doesn't want to be locked in on a multi-year 3G contract, especially not with Softbank. So she got the wifi-only version, and we got a WiMAX router and subscription from Bic Camera instead. That way we can both use it, with her tablet as well as with my N7 and laptop.

The contract terms from Bic Camera are pretty good:
  • 3880 yen a month ("BIC Fixed Year Passport")
  • 3150 yen application fee
  • Unlimited data, a WiMAX wifi router and a 10k yen discount on a tablet or similar device
  • Automatic yearly renewal
  • Free cancellation during 30 days before the renewal date
  • 9975 yen cancellation fee otherwise
The application fee and cancellation fee doesn't even quite cover the retail cost of the router, so it's a fairly reasonable price even before you add in the 10k device discount. if you want two routers (see further below) it actually pays to apply for one router, cancel the account, then reapply with two routers.

There's other plans available, including a daily and a monthly plan and a "hybrid" plan with AU's 3G network that gives you expanded coverage.

A few more details:
  • Service is "best effort", with no numerical speed guarantees
  • Outbound port 25 is blocked to avoid spammers. If you need SMTP mail routing (a normal user does not) they recommend using port 587 instead.
  • If you try to push enough data through at once that it impedes the use of the network for others, they will drop your effective data rate to avoid trouble.
WiMAX is sort of long-range, high-speed Wifi, and is intended mostly as a way to connect homes and offices to the net at high speed without having to pull cable under streets and through buildings. The speed is higher than the mobile phone data networks and you get unlimited data, but coverage is not nearly as good. The (slow, badly coded) coverage map shows that coverage is good around major cities and university campuses, patchy along the high-speed rail networks and in smaller towns, and thin to non-existent elsewhere. This covers most people and businesses, and they offer a free trial period so you can test the coverage yourself.

The URoad-SS10. Small and light enough to go in any pocket or anywhere together with your phone.

The router we got — URoad SS-10 — is small and trivially easy to use. It's the size of a small, thin deck of cards and acts as a wifi hotspot. You switch it on, pick the router on your phone, tablet or PC, and enter the key printed on the back of the router. They claim 9 hours on one charge, and I get over ten hours with the Nexus 7 and light to moderate use. The standard Mini-USB connector makes it trivial to top it up at work or power it from your laptop should you need to. It takes about a minute to a working connection when you power it up, but there's a sleep button that will wake it up much faster. Out of the box it is just a little flaky; on occasion you need to restart it when it gets confused about whether it's connected or not.

The coverage seems fine in practice. Reception at home is good, and surprisingly it's better in the middle of the apartment than near the windows. I get 14mbit/s down and 7mbit/s up; a decent speed, and much better than when I tether to my phone. I got the same speed to our old wireless router connected to a fast wired network, so I suspect the wifi could be the bottleneck here, not the WiMAX network.

When we got this, the ping latency was around 150-250ms. I updated the firmware just a couple of days ago1, and the ping times have dropped to the 70-80ms range. It's much too early to tell if the flakiness above is gone, but I haven't had that problem yet.

Coverage is good out on the street, in most buildings and on above-ground trains. Even with a marginal connection the transmission speed is still about 4-5Mbit/s down and 1-2mbit/s up, more than good enough for normal use. The router does get quite warm when the signal deteriorates or disappears, but it's never uncomfortably hot and I appreciate the hand-warmer effect in winter. There's no signal in the subway and none at my desk at work — but I don't get a phone data connection either so it's not WiMAX specific. On the Shinkansen it tends to briefly lose connection now and again, especially between Kyoto and Nagoya. Overall I haven't found any coverage issues where I move about.

We got the WiMAX router for my wife's new iPad. But the tablet was on back-order, so I used the router with my Nexus 7 and my computer until it arrived. The experience has been very positive. So positive, in fact, that I decided I really want this for myself too, even though I can already tether to my phone with wifi. UQ offers a pair-type contract where you can have two routers for just another 200 yen per month, or 4100 yen per month in total. The one drawback is that you can't use both routers at the same time. If one of us is already connected, the other one can't connect. But we figure that collisions should be unusual, and it has yet to happen in practice.

So, who could make use of this? Here's a few situations where this can come in very handy:

  • You live in a short-term kind of situation. Perhaps you're here in Japan for just a year or so, or you're temporary working somewhere away from your regular home. Perhaps you're doing weekly commutes between two places. This will give you unlimited internet for both computer and phone without the hassle of a contract for a wired connection to a temporary place.
  • You don't have a smartphone or a data plan, but you want a tablet. For many people, having both a smarthpone and a tablet would be redundant (and truly, I mostly rely on my N7 these days). With a router like this you can connect any tablet to the net without having to buy a locked version or get stuck in a multi-year contract with a mobile carrier.
  • You have multiple devices and want to use them all, everywhere, all the time2. A separate data plan for each device would become incredibly expensive. Tethering to your phone is a solution — and the one I've used up until now — but it tends to cost extra, usually has data limits, is only available with a few phones and will drain your phone battery. A single WiMAX router lets you connect any devices you want. You could even cancel your phone data plan altogether, though it is pretty handy as a back-up for when WiMAX coverage is lacking.
  • You want to use a computer on the road. The phone networks such as LTE are OK for phones and tablets, but the data-limits are completely inadequate for regular computer use. My monthly 7Gb phone allotment covers my phone and tablet use quite nicely, but I'd exhaust that in a week or less with my laptop — or in a day or two if I tried to work over the connection.
  • You play Ingress, watch Youtube or do anything else that needs a good, steady data connection while out and about.

Would I recommend this? Yes, I would. Do I use it myself? Yes, I do, and happily. In fact, my smartphone recently met with an accident involving a set of concrete stairs, and I've come to realize I now rely almost exclusively on the Nexus 7 and WiMAX for apps and internet nowadays. I may even go back to a "feature phone" to save on my monthly bill.

#1 Updating the firmware is commendably easy on this device: connect through the router wifi, go to the internal web server with your browser — it explicitly supports all modern browsers and has a separate page for mobile browsers — click the "system" tab, then click "update firmware".

I'm a bit conflicted about this kind of thing in general. We shouldn't have to do something like this to fix problems with our devices. Indeed, most consumers would never even know to look for this kind of solution, much less have the confidence to actually go through with it.

I increasingly believe this should fall on the shoulders of the actual seller of the device, whether it be a router, a digital camera or whatever: They, or the maker, should briefly inform the customer that there may be updates in the future that fixes problems, and offer to collect an email address used only to tell them when an update is available. The email would link to instructions, but also offer the customer to bring their thing to the store and have a clerk update it for them. It wouldn't have to be a burden; offering this as part of the in-store service could be a nice differentiator for physical shops against their online competitors.

#2 Guilty as charged.