Buying a SIM Card in Germany was harder than it SHould Be

A while ago I gave up my AT&T unlimited international data plan (you did what?) to move my family to a Mobile Share plan.  We have 8 phones on a 10GB Mobile Share plan and have only exceeded our limit once so objectively it was the right decision for us.  Having a Verizon MiFi from work certainly helps although it does mean that I need to actually think when I travel internationally.

I am in Munich this week for work and even though work will pay for the international add-on I have to turn on now when I travel out of the US, I decided I would buy a prepaid SIM card for data and put it in an unlocked Moto G which I have (having an unlocked phone comes in handy from time to time) and see if it would be a viable alternative to the $50 I paid AT&T for 500M of international data.

When I went to Poland a couple months ago I connected via Heathrow and picking up a SIM card was trivial.  You put your credit card in a vending machine, picked the SIM plan you wanted and and it was dropped out like a candy bar.  Simple.  Two minute transaction, if that.

I expected the same in Germany if not even easier, because if there is one thing Germany is good at, it is automating processes.  My experience was pretty much the opposite.  Not a SIM card vending machine in site at the Munich airport.  No big deal, there are several stores that appear to be selling them so I stopped in one.  The person in front of me wanted two SIM cards for their iPhones.  I waited at least 10 minutes before I gave up to go meet some co-workers and the cashier hadn’t   even gotten one working.  Odd.

I ventured out from my hotel having seen a number of stores in the general vicinity – Vodafone, O2, T-Mobile, and several independent stores.  I thought I was looking for something relatively simple.  I was looking for 1GB of data for about 20 Euros, less would be better.  It seemed that every store I went into had a different story.  From two different T-Mobile stores I got different answers.  At one I was told 10 Euros for 500MB but I couldn’t add to it if I went over.  At another store I was told that I could get 200MB per day for 10Euros up to 1GB during a week and  it would cut off after 200MB until the next day.  Odd.

Other vendors had variations of similar things.  I settled on an O2 card of 1GB which was good for a week.  Great, sound just like what I am looking for.  I’ll take it. Give  the clerk my Visa card – uh-oh, only cash for pre-paid SIM cards.  WTF?  I usually have some Euros with me but not an hour earlier I had dropped about 60 Euros for lunch for myself and three co-workers because the restaurant didn’t take credit cards.  That would have been helpful to know before we ate!

So out I go in quest of Euros from an ATM.  While I was out getting Euros I realized the cashier at the cell phone shop still had my passport!  Major panic.  If there is one thing that I worry about traveling it is losing my passport.  I have copies of it but I really don’t want to have to go through that experience.  Fortunately the cashier realized it as soon as I left the shop and put it in a safe place.  Yikes!  Back to find Euros.  For whatever reason the only credit card I can get Euros with is my PayPal debit card. 

So now I have  Euros to pay for the SIM card and this whole experiment is taking way longer than it should but with this much time invested, I press on.  Besides, I need something to keep me occupied until I meet up with my co-workers later this evening.  I need to stay away from the hotel room where it would be too easy to take a nap and be out of sync time wise all week.

As the cashier, a young guy – maybe 20 years old, is completing my transaction three young women come into the shop asking for unlimited Internet SIM cards in English.  After conversing with them in English for a bit he asks if they are Russian and switches to speaking Russian.  At that point his attention is on them and he fails to give me a critical piece of information with my SIM card packet.  The registration number.

I leave the store ready to try my experiment.  The instructions are in German, which I don’t speak but how hard can it be?  It is a SIM card and it has been paid for.  Put it in the phone and it should work.  Right?

Nope.  I have the SIM installed and the phone asks for a SIM activation pin code which is on the package and I enter.  So far so good.  Can I browse the web?  Nope.  An O2 web site comes up, in German of course, which I am clueless as what to do with.  It wants some sort of registration number.  Great.  After futzing around with it for 10 minutes I head back to the O2 store, which fortunately is next door to the hotel, I go back for the third time.

The woman helping me this time asks if I registered it?  No, how would I know what to do or how?  She pulls a scratch card out of the package which apparently my original clerk should have alerted me to and probably would have had he not been distracted by the Russian girls.  10 minutes later I am online and headed back to my hotel.  Oh yeah, one other little caveat.  Prepaid plans only support 3G.  No LTE and no HSUPA.  Bummer.

So in the end was it worth it?  I don’t know.  It was a good learning experience and it kept me busy for a couple hours.  I know a lot more should I or someone in my family, ever need to do this again.  I’ll play with it some more over the course of the week but in summary, it is waaaaaaay harder than it should be and quite a bit harder than in the UK.

Google Updates Forms Again

Sometime in the past few days (as near as I can tell) Google has updated Forms again.  This most recent update adds the H5F Javascript library to do required field checking.  This functionality is similar to the jQuery Validation plugin solution I included in WordPress Google Form a number of months ago.

This new validation functionality doesn’t appear in all forms, just those created after a certain date.  Existing forms do not appear to have this new functionality embedded in it.

So how do I know if I have the new functionality?  The most obvious sign is the appearance of the text “This is a required question” underneath the form element.



It is fairly easy to make these messages go away since they are redundant with the plugin functionality.

You can add the following to your Custom CSS (form specific or global):

div.required-message {
    display: none;

This will hide the messages and the form reverts to looking as it did prior to Google’s latest change.


I will likely include this CSS as part of the default CSS in the next update but I need to do a little more testing first.

I bought a Mac Mini

I bought a Mac Mini off of Craig’s List about a week ago.  I use a Windows machine for work and run VMware WorkStation with a Windows 7 VM for all of my WordPress stuff.  I love VMware, it makes setting up a specific development environment really simple.  So why did I buy a Mac?  Basically because I wanted one.

I had toyed around with a Hackintosh running under VMware about a year ago but it wasn’t very stable.  It would work fine for a while then freeze up.  I was reluctant to really try anything serious on it.  Since I couldn’t justify the cost of a MacBook (Air or Pro), I started watching Craig’s List for deals on a Mac Mini.  I figured with all of the accessories (monitors, mice, keyboards, cables, disk drives, etc.) I already have laying around, it would be the cheapest way to get one.

I picked up a 2010 Mac Mini with 120GB HDD and 4GB of RAM for $220.  Based on the other Mac Minis I saw on Craig’s List, it seemed like a decent deal, I have no idea if it is or not.  The guy I bought it from had used it as a Home Media PC.  When I first booted it up, I noticed he had partitioned the disk into two 60GB partitions.  I have no idea why he did this, maybe there is some benefit and my lack of Mac knowledge is coming through.

Since I want to do some home video editing and iPhoto work with it, I decided 120GB HDD isn’t going to cut it.  I had a 7200 RPM 500GB WD Scorpio Black drive on my desk at work that wasn’t doing anything so I decided to “upgrade” my new Mac Mini.  Yep, less than an hour after buying it, I started taking it apart.  I figured it couldn’t be too hard.  Well, it certainly is harder than upgrading the drive in a laptop!

With lid removed.

With lid removed.

I found a video on YouTube which explained the process pretty well.  I watched it a couple of times and then decided to crack the Mini open.  It took me a little while to get the case open as I didn’t have a paint scraper at work but I did have the razor blade from a box cutter.  It worked pretty well.  It certainly feels like the Mini will break when you open the case but eventually I got it apart.

Got the two halves separated.

Got the two halves separated.

After that it was pretty straight forward.  There are a couple of tricky things to get the SATA cable apart and the drive out but I got it figured out.  Putting it back together went pretty quick too.

Now to see if it still worked.  I would have been pretty upset if I had just broken my new computer but luckily it powered on and everything seemed ok.  Getting the OS installed took me a little while because the disk still had a Windows partition on it.  Once I actually read the messages the MacOS installer was reporting, I got it figured out.

So now I have a “refurbished” 2010 MacMini running Snow Leopard.  I have more than enough disk space to do some photo and video projects.  I am also in the process of moving all of our Audio CDs into iTunes.  My goal is to have the Mini work in conjunction with my Synology DS212j Home NAS and stream movies and music to the rest of the house.  We’ll see if it works out.

Playing with a Chromebook

For the past few days I have been playing with a Samsung Chromebook,  We got it at work to see how useful it would be as a second device or shared device.  I have been a little skeptical on how useful it would be as I can’t imagine not having my PC.  In reality I couldn’t use a Chromebook exclusively, I need tools like Office, Photoshop, Illustrator, VMware, and others for work.

However, I do a lot of volunteer projects (swim team, basketball, soccer, etc.) where I think something like a ChromeBook could be useful and keeping all of the information “in the cloud” would be really useful for transitioning ownership from one person to another.

For the past couple of months I have been using Google Docs exclusively for the church basketball team I am coaching.  I did it sort of as an experiment – can I do everything I need to do using Google Docs?  Not using Excel is a big step for me – we use Excel at work for a million things and I am pretty proficient with it.  It is my go-to tool for many things including, for the past couple years, managing my basketball roster.  Over the course of two seasons I created a spreadsheet which allows me to set my line up.  I can quickly change which players play when and it keeps track of playing time requirements so I make sure all the players meet the playing time requirements.

This season I moved my spreadsheet to Google Docs.  I wasn’t sure all of the formulas would work but they did as did the data validation I had set up to let me select players from a list.  The data validation from a list works a bit differently than Excel does but it is close enough and it is doing what I need it do.

So for my evaluation of the Chromebook, I am trying to do all of my basketball work with it. So far it has been a non-issue.  Now I haven’t add to do anything more complicated then sending email, updating spreadsheets and creating simple documents.

I thought the Chromebook would be pretty limited in what it can do but it isn’t too bad.  I actually like the Samsung machine quite a bit.  It is light and responsive.  I really like the keyboard, it is actually quite a bit better than the keyboard on my Sony Vaio Z1,

While I have had several people login into using their GMail account (no issues there), it doesn’t seem to switch users very well.  When switching users it seems as though it logs the current user out instead of keeping that user’s state in memory.

I’ll continue to play with it over the next month or so.  I can definitely see a use for it in the education market.  If a school uses Google Docs then it is a no brainer and I’d give each of my kids one.  As it is, my kids seem to like it quite a bit.  They’ll pick it up and login with their email address and use it to browse the web.  It will also come in pretty handy on a family vacation as it will allow everyone to keep up with their email pretty easily.

Less clear is how useful it will be at work.  We have a corporate Google Docs account but very few people use it.  I’ll probably give it a try in the next day or two.  If you have Google Apps for your own domain then a Chromebook is a pretty good solution.  It is too bad Google has eliminated the ability to get Google Apps for free.

Why doesn’t the new iPod Touch have GPS?

Yesterday was the big Apple iPod announcement event for 2010.  There has been oodles of coverage of the event.  I was surprised that the iPad didn’t get an OS update and was pleased to see buttons back on the Shuffle.  The Nano is ok although I am not sure losing the slim rectangular shape and click wheel is a good idea, only time will tell.

The real interesting device was the iPod Touch.  I have a second generation 8GB iPod Touch which I bought off of Craig’s List before I committed to the iPhone.  I was unsure about only having a touch screen key board so a used iPod Touch let me test it out without committing to a two year contract for the iPhone which I eventually did.

I like the Touch and actually use mine quite a bit even though I have an iPhone.  I was looking forward to the new Touch, in particular for the rumored camera feature.  Having an HD video camera would be nice, the camera in my 3GS is so-so at best.

Today I was speaking with my co-worker Nick and we were talking about the Touch and my desire to have one, even though I don’t need it.  Nick mentioned that if it had GPS, the Touch would be perfect.  It got me thinking – why did Apple leave out the GPS?

If the Touch had GPS then it could:

  • Geo tag photos and video
  • Enable navigation with Google and/or Bing Maps (there is nothing worse than using my iPhone for GPS only yo have a call come in)
  • Possibly replace dedicated GPS hardware
  • All the location based services that Apps offer

I am sure there are other uses too but these came to mind.  Lack of GPS is really the only short coming that I could see.

I was hopeful that the rumors about the new Apple TV would be true and it would be a screen-less iPod Touch for the TV.  While the new Apple TV has some pretty cool features, I don’t see much differentiation over comting products from Roku, Western Digital, Boxee and others.  Each of these streaming devices seems to have one limitation or another.  I haven’t seen anything that says the new Apple TV supports UPnP which both my Xbox and WDTV Live do support.

I am disappointed in the Flickr support from the WDTV Live so was hopeful that the Apple TV would be more compelling than it is.  As it is, if I had to buy something right now, I think I’d get the Roku HD for $69.

E4300 resolution?

I got word from our IT department last week that Dell is going to replace the motherboard in my E4300 sometime in the next couple weeks.  The rumored BIOS update that was supposed to be out on January 19th still hasn’t appeared.  The only thing that is making life with my E4300 palatable is that the connections problems seem to under control now that I reinstalled the Dell Connection manager software.  It still behaves oddly from time to time but at least it is mostly usable.

The one behavior which still drives me crazy is the unwillingness to turn off or go into Stand-By.  I can press the function key or use the Start Menu option but the computer simply remains powered on.  Sometimes it will go into Stand By only to turn itself right back on a minute to two later.  Very annoying when it happens while it is in my computer bag.

Audio Books and iTunes

Off and on I have tried to get Audio Books which have been ripped from CD to work correctly in iTunes and on my iPod.  The best source I have found so is Aldo on Audiobooks which has been very helpful but I have yet to be successful.

I need to try the Audio Book Builder and see if that helps – right now I am to the point where the books show up correctly in iTunes, under Audiobooks and each one separate, but on my iPod, all of the tracks are all mixed together under the Audiobooks menu.  Bleh.  Makes it really hard to listen to more than one book when the tracks are all jumbled up.

There has to be a good solution to this dilemma.

My E4300 is driving me nuts

I really like my new Dell E4300 laptop but it has an odd behavior which is driving me nuts.  When connected with either WiFi or BroadBand (I have the AT&T card) it will lose network connectivity after some period of time.  Sometime is takes an hour or more, sometimes it happens very quickly.  Once it  happens, I am usually hosed and need to reboot.  But not always.  It only affects WiFi and BroadBand.  It has no affect on the wired Ethernet connection.  As long as I am in the office or at home I am ok.

I have been round and round with our internal IT people as well as Dell on this issue and haven’t found any resolution yet.  A new BIOS update (A05) actually made the problem worse.  With the A03 BIOS when it happened I could still ping other computers and eventually full connectivity would come back.  But not now.

Reportedly Dell has a production stop on the E4300 to resolve a bunch of issues and a BIOS update is supposed to be available on January 19th.  I hope so – I am about to spend a bunch of time on the road for work and having an unreliable network connection is not ok.

If you are considering an E4300 I’d hold off for now and see if reports improve over the next couple weeks.  That is of course assuming that Dell actually delivers a new BIOS update and doesn’t delay it again!

My Pantech Duo is back!

This morning I received a package and in it was new repaired Pantech Duo.  I popped my SIMM card in and the battery and it powered up and seems to work just fine.  Unfortunately I left the USB cable at home, at least I think I did because it isn’t here at work, so I can’t sync it with my laptop which means it doesn’t have all of my contacts and calendar on it but I am happy to have it back.

Sending the AT&T Tilt back

After almost two weeks of use, I am sending the AT&T Tilt back to our AT&T Account Rep who I had borrowed it from.  Much to my surprise, I really didn’t like the phone.  While I really like the slide out keyboard and even though the phone is on the heavy side, ultimately it was Windows Mobile Pro that turned me off.  I also could not get my Jawbone headset to pair with it, not sure why that was an issue since I haven’t had a problem with it pairing with two or three other phones.

IMNSHO Window Mobile Pro really is a PDA first, mobile phone second usage model.  It is simply too hard to use with one hand to make it a viable solution for me.  I actually have reverted back to my old standby AudioVox SMT5600 which, while an ancient phone, simply works.  It is showing it’s age though, some of the buttons are getting a little stickly.  I hope the Touch Flow interface which HTC has on their newer phones addresses this problem.

One of the features which I really like about Windows Mobile Standard is the ability to quickly find a contact simply by starting to enter a name or phone number.  The possible choices are quickly narrowed down and it is easy to dial the default contact number or show all of the numbers and select one.  This same usage model is a PITA with Windows Mobile Pro and with the Tilt, really requires using the stylus unless you have a long fingernail to use instead.

It seems like most of the new Windows Mobile phones are based on the Pro version instead of the Standard version.  I’d love a phone like the HTC S740 but it doesn’t appear that AT&T will offer it.  I am trying to keep my options open by getting my Pantech Duo repaired but it has been several weeks since I sent it to RMS Logistics and I haven’t heard a peep out of the repair center.  Guess I ought to check into that.