My first trip to Berlin this week was an experiment for me in using technology abroad. While road warriors can set up their gadgets for easy travel, I hadn’t done so before. My experience was pleasant, though not without some hiccups, and generally much better than I expected.
I was in Berlin to give a speech to game developers. Before the trip, I bought print travel guides to Berlin and checked out a history book from the library, but there were tons of web sites with useful tips. One of the more interesting was a virtual Berlin site with 360-degree photos that let me virtually visit some tourist spots.
I had the basics, such as a laptop. But I had to pick up an electrical converter to conform with Continental Europe’s own electrical plugs. Fry’s Electronics had it, although I had to look up what kind of converter to get. I also had a Nikon P80 camera with an extra battery and a USB cable to load images to the laptop.
While still in the U.S. I set up my Verizon-based BlackBerry with a SIM card to get on Europe’s GSM networks. I called Verizon to configure my World Phone 8830 model to receive emails abroad. That was easy. But setting up phone access in Germany took a trip to the Verizon store, where we ran into trouble. The Verizon folks gave me a new SIM card, but then my phone failed to boot quickly. The salesman asked me, “Have you backed up your contacts?” Gulp.
The phone eventually booted after a half hour, but the salespeople decided to transfer my contacts to a new World Phone and set up a new SIM card. It worked and I was ready to go. But while the data charges were going to be minimal, roaming on Vodaphone’s network was going to be expensive at 99 cents a minute.
Getting access to the Internet was easy at the hotel via Wi-Fi, and Berlin is littered with cafes that have Internet access. It’s pretty fast too. I was able to check into all of my work stuff and write some stories from the hotel room and generally keep up with all of my email, thanks to the BlackBerry.
Since the Verizon roaming costs were so expensive, I set up my laptop with Skype and created a Skype account for the family at home by downloading the software onto an iMac. It worked great, and we were able to do free video conference calls. Since Berlin is nine hours ahead of California, we had to do quite a few Skype video calls while I was on the move, which worked fine. That made the traveling a little easier, and it’s why Skype will eventually kill Verizon.
I had access to an iPhone which I used to do some Facebook updates while at the airport, but I didn’t bother to set it up for international access. It did, however, work fine in a Wi-Fi hotspot. I saw a lot of other people with iPhones there. I used the camera to take more than a hundred photos, which I backed up on the laptop. The rechargeable camera battery lasted the whole trip, so I never had to pull out the spare battery.
I did some regular updates from the Wi-Fi in my room on Twitter and Facebook. The game conference I attended also had T-Mobile Wi-Fi access, which I logged onto using hour-long access cards. That proved essential when I had to download OpenOffice, the free productivity software that mimics Microsoft’s Office functions. I needed that fast, since I had slides to show the crowd during my talk and neglected to bring Office software. (In hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t shell out $99 for Microsoft Powerpoint before I left.)
My friends asked for photos, so I used the laptop to upload pictures to Facebook. I emailed photos to those who didn’t have access to Facebook. One person who saw I was going to Berlin set up a contact with a former reporter in Berlin. We almost made that connection, but he was busy.
I should have looked up the weather more often (I know, if I had used the iPhone . . .). One day, the weather was spectacular. So the next day, I left the room without a jacket. While on a bus tour of Berlin, it started getting windy. Still, I was determined to go inside the Reichstag, (above) the most impressive building in Berlin (next to the Berlin Dome cathedral) and a place I had seen only in a video game (Call of Duty World at War). The shot to the right here was taken at the top — a picture that took me a considerable amount of time and misery to get.
By the time I got into the line to get into the Reichstag, it started to rain. It was a miserably wet 90-minute wait to get inside, but I entertained myself with Trism on the iPhone. Once inside, I took the elevator to the top floor, snapped some pictures, and then headed back to my hotel, where I finally picked up my jacket.
If I’d used an iPhone as my main device, I could have more easily taken advantage of location-based travel apps on the fly, since the iPhone has location awareness. Among the services that are useful on the run are Yelp (for nearby restaurant reviews), Loopt (to meet fellow travelers), Hear Planet (for detailed tourist descriptions) or Yahoo Local Search.
Nokia and Intel have demoed technologies (Point and Find, magnotrometer) that will tell you what landmark you’re looking at if you point your phone or netbook camera at it. That’ll be very useful, whenever it arrives. I’ll be able to make use of it on my next trip.
Overall, it was a wonderful trip, made easier by the fact I was able to keep up with all my messages, the family, and work.