This is the age of the train…

May 15, 2010

About once or twice a month I find myself on a train travelling to some far flung exotic location, like London, Leeds or Birmingham! Though more often then not it is the First Great Western train to London.

As I travel I like to try and get some work done in the time I have available. One key aspect of my job is communication and for that I need a decent internet connection. First Great Western, unlike some other train operating companies does not provide wifi on their services.  So what is one to do?

I have over the last few years used different ways of getting online on the train, all of them though have involved 3G.

Well recent tests show, as reported by the BBC that:

Mobile broadband speeds are improving but coverage is getting more patchy, suggests a survey.

The survey was…

…carried out by analysts from comparison site Broadband Genie, the annual test involved using dongles from UK mobile operators during a long train journey.

Interestingly…

T-Mobile came out top in the tests because it racked up higher speeds and proved more reliable during the tests.

So how do I use 3G on the train and with what services?

My original way of getting online was with a 3G PC Card from Vodafone, however this went once I changed jobs back in 2006.

I then had an 3G Dongle from Vodafone. This actually worked quite well, some dropped connections, but once within a 3G area, a good speed both up and down. I did notice though that more often then not, I could not get 3G speeds and the connection dropped to GPRS speeds. The main problem with the dongle is that it sticks out and on cramped trains this can be problematic.

After getting a T-Mobile contract phone (with Walk’n’Web Plus) I was able to use the phone as a tethered Bluetooth modem to connect to the internet at 3G speeds. The main disadvantage with this process was the impact that both Bluetooth and 3G had on battery life of the phone. The upside for me was a more reliable and faster connection.

Using a Nokia N95 I was able to use JoikuSpot on the Nokia, this shares the 3G connection over WiFI. This has one key advantage JoikuSpot allows more than one device to connect. A simple idea which just works. Basically it turns my Nokia N95 into a wireless hotspot, allowing me to connect multiple wireless devices to my phone’s 3G internet connection. I start JoikuSpot and once started I can then join the wireless and surf the internet. This was really useful allowing both my laptop and an iPod touch to connect to the internet using the single 3G connection. The Light version only really does internet, it doesn’t allow e-mail or https for example, whereas the Premium version does; this is the reason I upgraded to the Premium version and very pleased I am with it. The main downside is the impact it has on the battery life on the Nokia N95, down to less than four hours, often less!

I used this process for a fair amount of time, made easier when First Great Western introduced power sockets on their trains. Swapping over to the Vodafone 3G dongle if the signal failed or was weak.

I have recently tried a couple of other options, the first was not as successful as I would have hoped and that was the MiFi.

So what’s the MiFi? A battery powered 3G wireless router. Using a 3G SIM it would connect to the internet and then allow  up to five wireless clients to connect and share that 3G connection. With a four hour battery life, could be charged via USB and about the size of a credit card. Using a SIM from a Vodafone 3G USB dongle it was very simple to set up and configure and I would recommend that you use the details from Ross Barkman’s excellent website on connection settings for GPRS/3G to save having to work out where the information is on your providers’ website.

However one of the downsides for me was that though the MiFi worked a treat in stationary location (say at a conference) it was less satisfactory when travelling by train. What seemed to happen was that when the MiFi lost its 3G connection, as does happen on a train, it would switch itself off. As a result you had to check now and again and see if it needed turning back on. This also had an impact on the WiFi connection on my Mac laptop, which even when the MiFi was back on would not re-connect back to the MiFi wireless. In the end the experience was so unsatisfactory that I stopped using the MiFi on trains as a wireless router. The nice thing about the MiFi is that it will work as a USB 3G dongle, so you can use the MiFi in your event and meeting as a wireless router and revert to the dongle mode when on the train.

I have recently switched from the Nokia N95 to the Google Nexus One that runs the Android operating system. There is no JoikuSpot for the Nexus One and I am not 100% on how or even if it is possible to use it as a Bluetooth modem. One thing I have tried is PDAnet that allows me to use the Nexus One as a tethered 3G modem.

One thing I have noticed though is that though my 3G connection from Bristol to London is pretty good, travelling on the Voyager trains from Bristol to Birmingham, the signal is really poor.

I initially thought this was just down to the route, but I have heard that the main issue is the construction of the train and the metallised windows. This basically blocks the 3G signal!

I have used various methods to get online on the train and though each have their disadvantages and advantages, I think I prefer the 3G dongle, though the wifi methods are neater.

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National Rail Enquiries – iPhone App of the Week

March 16, 2010

National Rail Enquiries – iPhone App of the Week


This is a regular feature of the blog looking at the various iPhone Apps available. Some of the apps will be useful for those involved in learning technologies, others will be useful in improving the way in which you work, whilst a few will be just plain fun! Some will be free, others will cost a little and one or two will be what some will think is quite expensive. Though called iPhone App of the Week, most of these apps will also work on the iPod touch.

This week’s App is National Rail Enquiries.

National Rail Enquiries provides complete journey planning for journeys across the UK National Rail network and live departure information for all National Rail stations in the UK. This is an official application from National Rail Enquiries, with fully-licensed and accurate real-time information.

£4.99

For many users a 99p App is too expensive, this is a five pound App, so is it worth it? If you travel by train then in my opinion it is.

A simple example, I know that this App helped my college secure £40,000 of funding, so well worth the £4.99 I paid for it.

Really?

Well, let’s just say it certainly helped.

What’s the story?

I was on my way to London to be interviewed for a funding proposal we had put in.

The interview was at 11.00 and I had my train ticket and was intending to catch a train from my local station and arrive at 9.45 giving me just over an hour to get to the venue for the interview.

So there I was waiting…. waiting…. waiting…

I got out the iPhone and checked National Rail Enquiries.

It said that the train was running very late and would not be going to London! Confused I was to begin with. A few minutes later the “train” arrived. It wasn’t the big High Speed Train I was expecting, but a smaller local train. As it arrived the driver lent out the window and shouted that this was the next train to Bristol. What had happened was that the original London train had broken down and they were using this as a replacement. Arriving in Bristol later than expected and on checking the departures form Bristol on the iPhone via National Rail Enquiries, I knew that if I caught the Manchester train I could change at Bristol Parkway and catch a London train from there. This I managed to do with literally seconds to spare after running across the station; and eventually I was in London by 10.00! Only 15 minutes later than originally planned.

If I had relied on finding out trains from departure boards or information kiosks I would have been much later into London and would have been late for the interview.

Would it have made a difference? Don’t know for sure, but I am glad I was there in plenty of time.

So what about the App itself?

Simply it is a portable station display board. It tells you the departures and arrivals from any station on the national rail network. It can also tell you the whereabouts of your train, if it is running late or worse cancelled.

It can also be used for journey planning, though there are other websites that do that for free. For the immediacy of catching trains now, it works really well.

If you travel anywhere by train, then this is one useful app. True you can find the information online for free, but the user interface of this app beats most websites interfaces, which have been designed more often then not for use on a computer and not on an iPhone sized screen.


Tube Exits – iPhone App of the Week

March 9, 2010

Tube Exits – iPhone App of the Week

This is a regular feature of the blog looking at the various iPhone Apps available. Some of the apps will be useful for those involved in learning technologies, others will be useful in improving the way in which you work, whilst a few will be just plain fun! Some will be free, others will cost a little and one or two will be what some will think is quite expensive. Though called iPhone App of the Week, most of these apps will also work on the iPod touch.

This week’s App is Tube Exits.

With unique information, Tube Exits will give the savvy tube rider the inside track on how to get one-step ahead of their fellow commuters to get a speedy exit off the Tube. Save about 10 minutes on average peak hour journey times. No more delays following crowds, and walking the length of the platform. Save valuable time out of your busy schedule and avoid frustration.

£1.79

If you ever go to London and ever go on the London Underground then Tube Exits is one app you should get.

While writing this article I found a free App which does something similar, called Tube Changer Lite. Now I have not used the free app, but do make extensive use of Tube Exits when I am in London.

So what does it do?

Well to put it simply, it allows you to plan your journey on the London Underground and make it as easy and stress-free as possible.

The App works out your route and then lets you know which carriage to get on, so that when you arrive at your destination (or transit) station you know which side the doors will open and you get off on the platform next to the way out! This means, especially when the tube is very busy, you are not stuck on the wrong side of the train when it arrives at your destination and when you do arrive you can get out the station quickly, avoiding delays walking down the platform and the throngs of crowds as they stream to the exit.

You can save regular journeys, to save having to recalculate each time you use the tube.

A simple App that has made it easier and less stressful to use the Tube.


ALT-C 2009 Day #0

September 7, 2009

It’s day zero of the ALT Conference. Well the conference starts proper tomorrow on Tuesday and I am using today to travel up north like.

It’s a four hour train journey (changing at Bristol Temple Meads) and though Virgin Cross Country trains do have power they have a major flaw in that their construction blocks 3G signals quite effectively. Initially on the Bristol – Manchester route I thought it was down to the geography, but a recent trip on the line using a “normal” train demonstrated to me, yes there are areas with no 3G, but the trains used by Cross Country block the signal, especially when it is a weak signal.

Now I know that this is not a major design flaw (some would say it was a feature) but without on-board wifi, I would prefer to have a decent 3G signal now and again (as I can find when travelling to London).

Anyway back to the conference…

There is some stuff happening tonight, but I am hoping to touch base with a few people and go out for dinner, probably use Twitter to organise this.

I am pretty much prepared for the conference, I have a poster, organising and taking part in a symposium, supporting a workshop and running another workshop. I also have a fair few scheduled meetings during the conference too.

Hoping to enjoy the Gala Conference Dinner which is on Wednesday night.

I expect to be twittering over the conference, and I am also hoping to get a fair few blog entries in over the next few days too. Photographs should appear on Flickr and/or Twitpic. There may also be video too!

I have been preparing for the conference using the Crowdvine site that has been set up for the conference. You may recall that Crowdvine was in my top ten web tools for 2008. This has allowed me to sort my schedule, promote the sessions I am involved in and see who else is coming and what else they are doing. Hopefully this year the delegates will continue to engage with the Crowdvine site once the conference starts proper like tomorrow.

I have also been adding links to the ALT-C Cloudscape “clouds” for my sessions. Not sure at this time of this adds or detracts from the Crowdvine site.

Overall I am looking forward to the conference, it will be a time to share effective practice, learn from others, find out new stuff, network, meet old friends, discover new friends and leave with ideas, inspiration and stuff.


e-Learning Stuff Podcast #026: We’re waiting for a train…

July 12, 2009

train0709gloucester

David, Lilian and Dave discuss what they did at the Gloucestershire College Staff Development Day whilst waiting for a train at Gloucester Station.

This is the twenty-sixth e-Learning Stuff Podcast, We’re waiting for a train…

Download the podcast in mp3 format:We’re waiting for a train…

Subscribe to the podcast in iTunes.

With Dave Foord, David Sugden, Lilian Soon and the introduction by James Clay.

Shownotes

gc0709

Photo sources, Gloucester Station and Gloucestershire College.


This is the age of the train….

October 8, 2007

I wish I was back in 1976…

Sometimes I wish I was Sam in Life on Mars, stranded back in 1976, well I know it was 1973, but what’s three years between friends?

Why?

The High Speed Train is now over thirty years old, introduced in 1976, they have been travelling at 125mph across the UK for over three decades (except when I am in a hurry and then there are speed restrictions which means we crawl along at a walking pace).

High Speed Train

First Great Western, now I know on this blog I have thrown a lot at First Great Western, and when I say throw I mean in words via this blog and not literally throw physically at the train as that wouldn’t be very nice (and is probably illegal as well) and is something I wouldn’t do and you shouldn’t either, no matter how many times you find the train going nowhere or really slowly. So where was I, ah yes, so I have whinged and moaned about First Great Western a fair bit, but compared to some other train operators, naming no names, cough Virgin Trains, cough, First Great Western travel for me has on the whole been pretty good. Being a typical consumer, I write when I have something to complain about, not when everything is going well.

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