I can hardly remember now what it was like to travel without tech. A journal and a pen! Post restante mail! It’s like the Dark Ages – listen up kids, let me tell you about the time I had to line up for my mail…
For this trip I spent a lot of time and money choosing, buying, and setting up my tech tools. Some worked well, some not so well, and some were abject failures. In this post I’ll share with you all that I brought and give you a rating on its effectiveness.
What Linda brought to China
From top left, clockwise (all prices CAD$), “new” = October 2019:
A: Wireless keyboard, Omoton (new, Amazon, $22)
B: Apple iPad 4 Mini (new, Horizon Saskatoon, ~$600), with Otterbox cover (new, Amazon, $30), loaded with Mobile Mac Family Tree 9 (new, about $20) and 3 novels on Apple Books (new, about $50 for Crazy, Rich Asians (Kevin Kwan); The Cunning Man (Robertson Davies); and Old Sins (Penny Vincenzi)).
C: International power converter with USB, SK Ross (bought 2 years ago, currently available at MEC for $55)
D: International power converter with USB, Fujifilm (gift, no longer on the market)
E: USB 3.0 Travel Hub, Insignia (bought last year, currently available at Best Buy for $30)
F: Apple iPad charger block (comes with iPad) (unnecessary and could have been left at home)
G: Apple wired headphones (comes with new iPhones)
H: Lithium-Ion Camera battery charger, Optex (new, London Drugs, $55)
I: Backup ENEL-23 Nikon camera battery (new, London Drugs, $70)
J: Apple USB cord (comes with any iPad product, available locally at Django’s for $15 each); I brought one and I should have brought two.
K: iPhone 6 for travel (used 64 GB iPhone, Django’s, $210)
L: Nikon P900 bridge camera (bought ~5 years ago in Calgary at the excellent Saneal Cameras for ~$750, currently available on Amazon for $649)
M: Nikon USB cord for charging and transferring files (packaged with Nikon camera)
N: 4 extra AAA batteries for the wireless keyboard (I know you can get these anywhere but for the same of completeness: London Drugs, $13)
O: Lexar 128 GB 633x card for Nikon (new, Best Buy, $30)
P: Kingston 64 GB card for Nikon (bought 5 years ago with the camera, but can be bought at Best Buy today for $19)
How I packed it
I bought this inexpensive bag in Hong Kong in 2014: it’s ripstop nylon. It was filled with everything from letters C-P above. Besides carrying everything neatly, it was great to be able to hand this little bag to airport security for inspection. (You can’t carry lithium-ion batteries in your checked luggage.)
Tech travel bag, open and closed. Purchased in Hong Kong, ~2014. © 2019 Past Presence. All rights reserved.
What really worked
Apple iPad Mini 4 and Omoton Wireless Keyboard – Grade: A
I was pleased with the iPad Mini + wireless keyboard. If you’re a writer like me, you get itchy if you can’t write, but I didn’t want to take my laptop with me to China. This setup was the ideal workaround and performed without a single glitch. I’d get up every morning between 5:00 and 6:00 am, make some Starbucks Via instant coffee (like my hero Ava Lee) and sit down to write. When I was done, I’d plug in the iPad to charge while getting ready, then pop it into its Otterbox for the day’s travel.
Aside from being a tiny laptop, the iPad had my e-books and MacFamily Tree, and functioned as a backup camera and voice memo recorder. It was tremendous to have something so light and portable with me at all times, and the Otterbox made it travel-tough.
Once back in Vancouver, I used the iPad to connect to my friends’ Apple TV to run a slideshow of photos for a party. I like Apple products for this reason – they work, and they work with one another. This setup took us ~10 minutes to do, despite never having done it before.
Mobile Mac Family Tree 9 and Mac Family Tree 9 – Grade A
I have a desktop-resident version of my own family tree with Mac Family Tree (MFT) 9. There are over 1500 people in this tree, complete with photos and documents. It was fantastic to be able to bring an electronic copy of MFT with me on my iPad, knowing any changes I made would automatically sync with my main tree back home. On the tour, I was able to bring up documents that were relevant to the discussions we were having, show relationships using my own tree as an example, show photos of my relatives, and even work out which of the members of my group were distant cousins! Can’t get better than that in genealogy.
If you want to do this using your laptop and any of iPhone or iPad, you’ll need the same setup: a copy of MFT 9 for your laptop and a copy of mobile MFT 9 for your device. See References below for links.
Nikon P900 CoolPix Camera – Grade: B
Now that I’m looking at some of the photos I’ve collected, and comparing them to the photos taken on the iPad, there is no comparison. For clarity, sharpness and detail, not to mention the extraordinary feature of being able to capture candids from across the rice fields, never mind the room, the Nikon beats the iPad hands down. This camera has an 83x digital zoom. I joke it’s my paparazzi camera. The only area where the iPad came out on top was very low-light conditions where you didn’t want to use a flash (think museum displays). I had my Nikon set for maximum detail, size and quality for all photos. You don’t know what’s going to be wonderful until long after the opportunity to shoot has disappeared. Don’t let size stop you from having wonderful photos.
That having been said, this setup only worked with the use of the power converter charger (to charge the camera via USB), the lithium-ion camera battery charger (to charge the 2nd battery), and the 128 GB camera card. That’s why I’ve downgraded the Nikon to a “B” – it’s only going to work if you buy necessary accessories totalling $155 before taxes. The ENEL-23 camera battery holds 2-2.5 hours of continuous shooting at best, worse with the video running, and the the camera card that comes with new Nikons is a joke – 16 GB. For comparison, all my photos and videos taken on this trip total 24 GB (for 11 days).
Finally, you can save a bit of battery life on the Nikon by switching the GPS off. Despite having my GPS-enabled, the camera recorded no GPS data. For more on GPS woes, see my post Travels in China – The beginning.
Nikon – scenes of China. Oct 2019. © 2019 Past Presence. All rights reserved. To see much larger images, click on the photos above.
Extra power charger / converters – Grade: C
If you can stand it, I’d recommend three.
I’ve downgraded them because good ones are expensive – $55 each – and the cost encourages people to buy cheap knockoffs when they get to places like China. I don’t think this is a good combo: cheap knockoff + electricity. I have a horror of blowing the hotel’s power grid – how do you say I’m sorry for burning down your hotel in Cantonese?
I was carrying 4 devices needing charging: i) iPhone, ii) iPad, iii) Nikon, and iv) Nikon backup battery, and I didn’t find the local USB chargers worked without first going through a converter. You can jury-rig an iPhone to charge from an iPad but you’ve still got to charge the iPad. Don’t spend precious vacation hours worrying about charging your devices – get another converter.
In the end, I didn’t use the iPhone. See below.
What sort of worked
Calling home: FaceTime, IM and the good old telephone – Grade: E
I’ll call or text you to let you know I’ve arrived safely, I said to my husband when I left Canada. I said that, but I didn’t know how hard it was going to be. I knew the hotel had free wireless. I was planning to use it to text him using my iPad as soon as I got unpacked. I’m here and I arrived safely, I texted.
Message not delivered. – Apple Messages
What? I tried many more times. I tried texting and I tried FaceTime. After a couple of hours of this fun, I thought, Fine. I don’t care. I’ll call using the hotel phone and pay for the charges. This might have been a lame idea but I was exhausted and brain dead. In my mind, there was only one thing to do before going to sleep, and that was assuring my husband I was OK.
I couldn’t get an outside line.
Next up, I called Reception for help, and asked for the English-speaking clerk. He said the phones are locked for long distance calls, and I needed to come put a deposit down for hotel incidentals. I went down to Reception and paid a 500 RMB (~$CAD$100) deposit.
No outside line.
I called Reception again, this time asking him to make the call to connect me. He called me back. The phone line is broken, he said.
I tried again, half an hour later, Please try the number again.
The phone line is broken, he said.
It was 3 days before I was able to use FaceTime. I don’t know why FaceTime started working, whether it was wireless connectivity or something blocking the signal, but in the interim I’d found out I could, bewilderingly, text my friend in Calgary. That’s how my husband and I ended up communicating for 3 days: through our IM carrier pigeon. Thanks a lot, FaceTime.
My epic tech fail
WeChat – Grade: F
In China, WeChat is king. Everyone uses this platform for everything from instant messaging (IM) to buying airline tickets. You can use it to call for rides. You can use it to pay for things. I had no idea I’d be in for such trouble when I learned we would be using WeChat as our group’s internal IM service. I give myself an “F” for total fail.
Here’s my list of do’s and don’ts for setting up WeChat:
- Do ensure you have a phone plan that allows international roaming to China. (I have Public Mobile, which is a great plan… unless you’re going to China.)
- Don’t take the SIM card out of the phone once you’ve set up WeChat. (This is good to know if you are using a second phone like I was.)
- Do respond to all verifications immediately. Try not to let any of them lapse. (Don’t be like Linda.)
- Do: If you buy a data-only SIM card in Hong Kong for use in China, ensure you call to verify it while still in Hong Kong. (Don’t ask me what you can do if you fly directly into China – that’s what I did. I don’t know the answer here.)
- Don’t expect to be able to buy SIM cards in China. (You need a Chinese phone number, which are available for Chinese residents only.)
- Do have a WeChat friend ready to call the instant you need them to verify your existence. If possible, set up WeChat with them sitting beside you.
Without WeChat, I had no use for a cell phone in China. I shut it off and put it away.
I refused to allow the tech fails to ruin my vacation or even my mood. I was in China – that’s all that mattered. And in the end, I was able to talk to my husband, other people were kind enough to relay messages, and I had a much more immersive experience than I would have if I’d been able to randomly text friends at home. When I got back from my 11 days in China, I felt I’d been away a month.
I did not come up with these tech ideas on my own! I crowd-sourced suggestions from Facebook Groups such as Technology for Genealogy. I’d especially like to thank Art Taylor for taking the time to explain differences in VPN networks, security while travelling overseas, and many other technical questions.
I am still locked out from WeChat. One day I hope to be accepted to an app that about a billion people use.
I’d very much like to thank all the people who helped me with my tech issues: CK, DS, HY, & JL, and the people who so kindly offered the use of their own devices when mine refused to work: HY, TJ, JJ and CB.
Any mistakes I made, I made on my own.
Popular USB travel adapters failed safety tests, pose risk of short circuits and electric shocks, Hong Kong consumer watchdog warns. (14 Jun 2018). South China Morning Post at link here. Accessed 5 Nov 2019.
The best travel adapters (20 Dec 2018). Wirecutter, a New York Times Company at link here. Accessed 5 Nov 2019.
Mac Family Tree for laptop and mobile
I am not paid to endorse these products, FYI.
Mac Family Tree 9. Available at Synium.
Mobile Mac Family Tree. Available at Synium.
2 thoughts on “Travels in China – the tech”
Hi Linda, I’m a fellow genealogist based in Vancouver, but I don’t think we’ve met. I just wanted to leave a comment to say how much I enjoyed your ‘Travels in China’ articles. It sounds like it was the journey of a lifetime! I look forward to reading your future posts.
Hello Hello! Sorry for the delay – it’s my annversary and we are just returned back home. Many, many thanks for saying hello, and if you’d like to chat online sometime, I’d love that too. China was mind-bending, life-changing and packed full of both rewards and challenges (much like a good genealogy problem). As much as I wrote, there’s so much more to share.