17 October 2010

International roaming with Verizon Wireless

Verizon Wireless's may have the best coverage in the U.S., but, regrettably, its handsets use a radio technology that hasn't caught on in most of the world. In most foreign countries, it's impossible to roam with a Verizon CDMA handset. I wanted to continue to receive email on my phone while abroad for a few weeks. Options included buying a GSM phone before I arrived and purchasing local SIM cards, buying a GSM phone in-country and purchasing local SIM cards, or buying a global phone and a global data plan from AT&T. Happily, just before I left I happened upon a Verizon program designed exactly for this: the GlobalEmail program coupled with the amazingly under-advertised Global Travel program.

GlobalEmail gives you flat-rate unlimited data plan while traveling. Global Travel loans you a handset that works abroad. Verizon markets a small number of phones that include both GSM and CDMA radios. In the Global Travel program, they will FedEx you one for your trip which you return after arriving back in the U.S. You can keep your number, so there's no need to set up call forwarding, as you would if you bought foreign SIM cards. (Google Voice won't forward to international numbers, but I assume that there exist paid services that will.) Voice calls are quite expensive ($2/min and up for all but a small handful of countries), although Verizon offers a roughly 20% discount if you pay an extra $5 per month. I might have had to take a long call or two, so I opted for this.

Unfortunately, none of Verizon's global phones run Android. I received a Samsung Saga, which runs Windows Mobile 6.1. The Saga was a candybar-format phone with an amazing array of input methods: a physical keyboard, a touchpad that toggled between moving a mouse cursor and scrolling through interface widgets, and a touchscreen supporting both stylus and (imprecise) fingertip input. The phone was never quite as easy-to-use as the Droid with its paltry two input methods (keyboard and fingertip touchscreen). The UI was also not as slick. I never got the hang of scrolling in large web pages. But it was certainly serviceable: I managed to book lodging, read news, answer email, send and receive Google Voice SMS messages, and even make the occasional phone call.

The chief inconvenience of the program was setting up the phone. Microsoft's email client was a bit under-documented. I had to Google to learn that to override the default ports for mail transport, one had to use server:port notation. Mail-checking and web-surfing were noticeably slower than they were on the Droid, although this may have been a function of the networks I used (mostly Vodafone). I ran into a surprising number of total dead spots, most of which were along train routes in Greece.

Some warts included the USB cable, which confusingly deactivated the phone' radio when I plugged it into a Windows machine. The GPS module didn't feed data to Google Maps (or maybe I never set it up properly), so I was usually stuck with "your location within 500 meters" reports. The built-in browser did not identify itself as (or perhaps Wikipedia did not notice it as) a mobile browser, so Wikipedia sent me to its bandwidth-hogging conventional site instead of its bandwidth-sipping mobile site, as it would on the Droid. Battery life was miserable, but no worse than it was on the Droid. (An unfair comparison: I have far more background monitoring processes running on the droid.) It was really hard to scroll large web pages: switching to mouse mode and click-dragging with the cursor seemed to work, but if a page got stuck reloading, you would have to wait a while.

The good: Very light. Nice form factor---you can use the physical keyboard and even dial one-handed and perhaps without looking at the phone. Worked as advertised. I sent 114 messages with the phone.

The bad: Confusing input methods. Occasionally sluggish UI. Took ages to set up two email accounts. Non-working (or very well-hidden) GPS. No compass, so Google Maps showed my location as a dot, not as an arrow.

The strange: A tiny mirror on the back of the phone, perhaps for composing self-portraits with the camera.

If you're a Verizon customer and are visiting a GSM country, this program is highly recommended. If you plan to travel to GSM countries often, however, it may be worthwhile to buy a global phone and keep it, to avoid having to set-up the phone each time.

No comments:

Post a Comment

About Me

blog at barillari dot org Older posts at http://barillari.org/blog