Juha Saarinen is a tech blogger for nzherald.co.nz.

Juha Saarinen: iTravel and iTravails

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Is there an app to find out in which snowdrift I parked the car? Photo / Juha Saarinen
Is there an app to find out in which snowdrift I parked the car? Photo / Juha Saarinen

Finland, Finland, Finland as oldies who love Monty Python love to torment me with; having experienced the country, and Helsinki in particular, in person and during winter, it's a great place that's super well-organised with excellent public transport and bread and pastries to die for.

One reason for the visit was that I got sick of Kiwi friends travelling here, and telling me how fantastic it is. My family left when I was tiny, so bar a few memories about deep snow, cold and long dark winter days, I was a total tourist in the country of my birth.

This felt both exciting and uncomfortable but we're in 2016 though, and personal technology takes the edge off being a foreigner in a strange country.

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You don't have to muster up courage to stop people rushing to work or just to get out of the freezing cold outside to ask for directions, and Google Translate demystifies names of common items in another language, which you would never work out otherwise.

Of course, you miss out on human contact and it doesn't help with everything such as being humiliated in the supermarket because you didn't know that in Finland, customers are meant to weigh loose produce themselves and put a sticker with the price on it.

Nevertheless, it's nice never feeling lost or not finding places especially when it's dark, cold and snowing outside. As long as you keep your electronic devices warm, that is.

I put the iPhone into my jacket pocket while walking around the beautiful Senate Square in Helsinki in -11C, headed down some side streets and pulled out the smartphone to see where on earth I was.

To my surprise, the iPhone, which was fully charged when I went out, now displayed the red dead battery symbol of no charge left. My unscientific estimate is that the iPhone 6 Plus is OK outside to no more than -5 degrees Centigrade, judging from stumbling around earlier when it was warmer.

No fear, I asked for directions instead and hopped aboard a tram that looked like it was going the right way, to warm up. I put the stored value card for Helsingin Seudun Liikenne on the reader in the tram to pay the fare and... there was no money left on the card, which was supposed to be valid for another two weeks at least.

Then I remembered I had kept the card in the same cold jacket pocket and the penny dropped. Warming up the card between my hands restored the value on it, and I was able to pay the fare. Which was a relief as dodging fares in Helsinki can cost you 80 euro in fines.

That's a winter traveller's pro tip then: keep those iDevices and fare cards warm when it's freezing outside.

I also brought the iPad Pro along as a backup device for the laptop as I had to work a bit while away, and that turned out to be a great idea. Not so much because I used it for work, but more so as I was travelling with a five year old.

Smaller iPads are nice to watch movies on, but the iPad Pro is excellent, especially for more than one person. That feature alone can be a lifesaver if you fly with an airline that has rubbish inflight entertainment systems (KLM, I'm looking at you). I would like to have more than 128GB of storage for the iPad Pro though.

Better yet though, there are elaborate, and really good colouring-in and drawing apps that work great with the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil. Those, and a selection of games, are perfect for keeping kids happy when the inevitable waiting time while travelling strikes without having to find paper and pencils.

The only drawback is that you'll feel old and slow when you see how disconcertingly quickly a five-year-old figures out things like AutoDesk computer assisted design apps, and uses the advanced features in sketching and drawing software you couldn't figure out.

Another pro-tip: turn off in-app purchases before handing over the tablet to the child, or watch your travel budget go out of the window.

Also, if you travel with an iPad Pro, pack the beefy charger it came with. I didn't, in the misguided belief that it was better to travel light, with fewer electronic bits and pieces to worry about. The USB dongle for the MacBook will charge the iPad Pro but it takes a long time, like overnight.

As for the necessary internet connection for the devices, that's zero drama in Finland.

Public Wi-Fi is everywhere, but I'm not keen on using open wireless networks and looked for a 4G LTE SIM instead. Vodafone doesn't offer the $5 a day roaming in Finland. Even if they did, I'd use a local connection instead as otherwise the traffic would bounce from Finland to NZ and back, which makes for a very sluggish internet experience even on 4G.

There are several telcos to choose from, but OpenSignal's survey reckoned DNA was top dog for coverage and speed, so picked up a prepaid SIM card from them at the local dairy.

It's the top of the line prepaid option from DNA, and cost a total of 24.80 euro, or approximately NZ$41, for thirty days.

For that I get unlimited usage, the ability to tether other devices, and Speedtest showed that with four bars on the iPhone, I get up to 100Mbps downloads and over 40Mbps uploads, and low latency (delay) of 25-30ms locally.

Plus, you can roam in Europe with the SIM and watch Netflix without problems.

DNA's 4G LTE service is quick enough to show up Apple's Personal Hotspot tethering over Wi-Fi as inadequate: it uses just 20 MHz of bandwidth in the 2.4GHz Wi-Fi band which meant wireless tethering ended up not going faster than around 20Mbps. Android devices such as the Huawei-Google Nexus P6 and Sony Xperia Z5 use the faster 5GHz Wi-Fi range.

The workaround is to tether with the USB cable instead of Wi-Fi, which is less convenient but a good deal faster.

DNA's 4G LTE prepaid is a great deal when you're from NZ. It is also a painful reminder of just how badly our telcos rip us off.

I'm looking forward to being back, being warm again, but stingy data caps on pricey mobile connections is something I'd love to see gone in NZ, seeing it's possible in Finland, a country with similar population to ours.

- NZ Herald

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Juha Saarinen is a tech blogger for nzherald.co.nz.

Juha Saarinen is a technology journalist and writer living in Auckland. Apart from contributing to the New Zealand Herald over the years, he has written for the Guardian, Wired, PC World, Computerworld and ITnews Australia, covering networking, hardware, software, enterprise IT as well as the business and social aspects of computing. A firm believer in the principle that trying stuff out makes you understand things better, he spends way too much time wondering why things just don’t work.

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