My wife and I just returned from a two-week vacation visiting Oslo, Bergen and the fjords in Norway, and several towns in Normandy and the Loire Valley in France. I was able to try out some products — not to make work more efficient, but to help make our vacation run smoothly. We carried a MacBook, iPad, and two phones, a Verizon iPhone and T-Mobile HTC One.

Getting connected was less important for email and work, and more important to get in touch with the surroundings to make good choices and better use of our time. WiFi connections at the many hotels we stayed in were free, but in several of them the service was too slow or erratic for browsing or making Skype calls.

While I tried T-Mobile’s new international plan in China a couple of months ago and found it to work well, this was my first time trying it in Europe. Like almost everywhere else in the world, T-Mobile offers free data and phone calls for just 20 cents a minute.

Not surprisingly, it turned out to be the most useful gadget we brought. Last time I was in Europe, I was reluctant to use my Verizon phone for data of any kind, fearful of all those exorbitant international roaming charges. I had to be extra careful: Turn it on, check out directions or a restaurant, and quickly put it back on airplane mode. Even then, I paid nearly $200 for a week of carefully monitored use.

With the T-Mobile service, there were no concerns, no worries and everything worked much as it does at home. We used data for getting directions, checking out restaurant reviews and researching the areas we visited. We gave out our phone number without a concern, knowing that a short call might cost $10 or $20 on other carriers. We made local calls, calls back home and even responded to some email messages. And we used Yelp to find local restaurants and visited the websites to check menus.

Our data connection varied from 2G to 4G, depending on location. It was mostly 3G and 4G in and near cities. 2G data, mostly in the countryside, was marginal and you wouldn’t want to browse, but it usually worked for directions and email. And with a feeling of satisfaction, we used the T-Mobile phone’s hotspot to connect my wife’s iPad and my Verizon iPhone to the Internet to check mail and make a Skype call.

In France, where we rented a car, our most important use was accessing the phone’s GPS. However, we found Google Maps to be disappointing and not nearly as good as it is in the United States. It occasionally got confused and led us astray, once when we were driving to a famous chateau in France and another time driving to Charles de Gaulle Airport.

On several walking excursions, it sent us to the wrong location and didn’t seem to know where we were. When searching for a destination, it often failed to return directions. No matter how we set it, the directions that it did give seemed to be the shortest route between two points, no matter that it was through a farmer’s cornfield!

Most noticeable was its abysmal pronunciation of French street names, even well-known names. For example, “Voltaire” was pronounced as Vault-er. I can understand the app doesn’t speak French, but to mispronounce so many words so badly made the speech nearly unrecognizable.

On the other hand, Waze, now owned by Google, worked much better. It instantly found routes, offered detours around traffic and identified accidents on the highway.

I also took along a new Garmin GPS to try out. Before I left home, Garmin had provided me a subscription to their European maps ($100). But loading the maps was a complicated process: I had to register the GPS unit by plugging it into the computer and it took several attempts to be recognized.

I then downloaded the maps onto a microSD card in the device; that took almost an hour over a fast home cable Internet connection. When I was all done, and it told me it was successful, I tried checking for the maps on the GPS, but the simplified user interface had no way to let me check its map contents, as best as I could tell.

When I arrived in Norway and again in France and turned on the GPS, it failed to show any local directions or destinations. Even if it had worked, with such complexity, I’m sad to say the Garmin is no longer competitive for either cost or ease of use.

One of the frustrations in visiting Europe is that U.S. banks still don’t offer chip and PIN credit cards. They’re standard in Europe and provide greater security because your information is read from a chip imbedded in the card — not the magnetic stripe — and it requires you to enter a PIN number. Shopkeepers bring you a handheld terminal so you always have your card in your possession.

Some credit card companies (American Express, Chase, and Citibank) offer a card with a chip, but you often have to request it, and it’s available only on premium accounts. While we were able to make purchases and pay for meals, we ran into trouble paying highways tolls and buying gas. The cards didn’t work for either, and we needed to use cash. This is just one area where we are behind in technology.

According to milecards.com, the only issuers of chip and PIN in the United States are State Department Federal Credit Union EMV Visa Platinum, Andrews Federal Credit Union, GlobeTrek Visa, PenFed’s Platinum Rewards, Promise & Gold Visa, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard and the Hawaiian Airlines World Elite MasterCard.

I took along a few other products that proved useful: a portable power strip that turns one outlet into three, something very useful with most hotel rooms having a scarcity of outlets. I used the Travelocity 3 Port Travel Outlet for $15. It’s the smallest one I could find, but there are similar units from Belkin and Monster. You just use it with an outlet plug converter such as the OREI Grounded Universal 2 in 1 Schuko Plug Adapter from Amazon ($6.25), and you can charge three items at once.

I traveled with a $75 ScottEVest Pack Jacket. This lightweight jacket with a rain hood took very little space to pack, and was vital during the many rainy days. Its 16 pockets were perfect for protecting my camera and phones and even holding an umbrella and mini-iPad. (www.scottevest.com)

On the last night of our stay we found online that a flight to San Diego opened up where we could use our mileage for super saver awards, so we wouldn’t need to fly into LAX and rent a car to drive home. I immediately called United Airlines from the hotel room using Skype, knowing it would be a lengthy call. But Skype was not working well, so I redialed using the T-Mobile phone. Even a 20-minute call was only $4 and the connection was superb.

The bottom line is, if you travel internationally, it’s important to take the right gadgets. As it turned out, I used mostly the T-Mobile phone and notebook computer. I would have left the other devices home. Most important, taking along a T-Mobile phone will save you a fortune and make your trip easier and more enjoyable.

If you do consider T-Mobile, one caution is that it doesn’t have as big a data network as Verizon and AT&T across the United States, so check your local coverage. My experience over the four months of use is its coverage has been more than adequate for me throughout Southern and Northern California.

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I recently returned from a short trip to Shenzhen, the large Chinese city less than an hour’s drive north of Hong Kong. When anyone wonders why we don’t build consumer electronic products in the United States, the one-word answer is Shenzhen.

When I first traveled to this city more than 30 years ago, I’d walk out of the train station and see locals hawking live chickens and the sidewalks filled with homeless people. I’d get into a cab that was usually filthy, both inside and out, and pray for my life while the driver navigated gravel roads full of ruts while his head was sticking out his window because the windshield was covered with mud. At that time, the area was full of factories making cheap consumer goods. Now Shenzhen is a large modern city comparable to Shanghai or even Hong Kong.

But as I was reminded on this trip, Shenzhen has turned into the world capital of consumer electronics manufacturing. Shenzhen is to the making of these products as Silicon Valley is to designing them.

In fact, there’s a practical bond between the two areas, evident each day at breakfast at any one of the dozens of internationally branded hotels, such as the Sheraton, Shangi-La, Hyatt, Hilton, Four Seasons, St. Regis and Westin.

At breakfast you see tables full of young American engineers and project managers from Apple, Google, HP, GoPro, Amazon and dozens of smaller startups beginning their day of heading into the factories to solve problems to get their products into production. For many, it’s a constant shuttle between San Francisco and Hong Kong airports, as often as twice a month for some.

An employee monitors machinery that adheres components to smartphone circuit boards in a manufacturing facility at ZTE Corp.’s headquarters in Shenzhen, China. Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

After a few visits, it’s certainly not much fun to make the 15-hour flight, especially crunched up in an economy seat. But in spite of that, making the trip is the best way to take your product from an idea to manufacturing with the best chance for success — not just for large companies, but even for entrepreneurs with an idea.

Shenzhen companies thrive on building new products, and there are usually companies skilled in your area, so you can find an experienced team for not much cost, because they want to fill their factories.

Shenzhen looks much like any other large modern city, but with a population of 10.35 million, everything is in large scale. It has the largest library in the world and the largest city hall. Beneath the appearance of a buzzing metropolis full of skyscrapers and clogged highways, is a network of thousands of companies focused on supporting the world’s thirst for the next smartphone, HD TV or gizmo you didn’t know you needed until you read about it.

These companies are housed in factories scattered within a two-hour radius that vary from nondescript cement structures to sprawling office parks that look like ones you might see in Japan or Taiwan. Depending on what they produce, they can be as clean as an automated Japanese factory or something resembling a sweatshop from the 1930s.
Occasionally, but not often, there will be a factory producing low-cost components that barely skirt the laws of tolerable working conditions, but that’s the exception rather than the rule when it comes to technology products.

But what this network in Shenzhen — supported by huge factories in other cities such as Shanghai — does better than anywhere else in the world, is build huge volumes of the components that go into consumer electronic products: lithium-ion batteries, LCD displays, touch screens, motors, electrical components, switches, plastic moldings, printed circuit boards, semiconductors, packaging, antennas, speakers, microphones, leather, plastic and other assorted materials. And for each component, there are scores of companies in intense competition that keep the prices down and advance the technology.

There’s one human characteristic that’s also important, and it’s not labor costs, although that is a secondary factor. It’s the attitude of the people who work in this industry. They have a high work ethic and can-do attitude that gets things accomplished without any fear of failing or thinking something can’t be done — even when sometimes it can’t. Whether companies are thriving or struggling, they will rarely turn away new business, and most have an insatiable thirst to try new things so they can learn and grow.

Now, it’s not all rosy. Every company has strengths and weaknesses, A teams and C teams, smart and not so. Interest in taking on your product can wane if sales don’t meet expectation or if a bigger customer comes along. It’s often painful to get things done with junior people. But in the end, there’s no better alternative. As to copying your product, it’s not a big issue, and when it occurs, it’s usually by other companies that become aware of it once the product goes on sale.

I’m often asked why we can’t make these products in the United States. When it comes to a high-volume consumer electronic product that contains a variety of components, building it in the United States is just not practical or often even possible, while still maintaining the cost, quality and fast time to market. And even if it were, we don’t have the same attitude of taking quick action and being responsive.

When Motorola tried building its smartphone in a plant in Texas, the company needed to import the parts from China. There are virtually no companies in the United States that make batteries, displays, speakers, semiconductor chips and wire for mass-produced products. While there may be companies building some of these components in low volume for the military, few are competitively priced.

The United States does build printed circuit board assemblies (PCBAs), partly because it’s a highly automated process using assembly machines and components available worldwide. But you still need to take those PCBAs and combine them with the touch screens, the lithium-ion batteries and the tiny motors and speakers. To import these efficiently you must send them by boat; that takes a couple of weeks and ties up lots of dollars in inventory costs.

But more importantly, suppose that when the displays arrive, they have a defect. What do you do? If you were building the product in Shenzhen, you would call the company that’s an hour away and they will have engineers in your factory in a few hours to fix the problem. Try that from the United States and you would likely shut down your assembly line for several weeks.

Multiply this by the hundreds of parts and processes that go into your product that comes from China. Not only is it inefficient, but it’s also just not practical to build these kinds of products in the United States. And even if a company were to try, it could not compete with its competitors on many dimensions. A perhaps cruel, but accurate, analogy is trying to build an automobile in the Arctic from parts made in Detroit.

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Ever since I discovered T-Mobile’s ridiculously low-cost International service, I’ve been carrying a T-Mobile phone (HTC One M8) along with my Verizon iPhone 5s.

Not only has it allowed me to report on how the two carriers compare, but I’ve also been able to compare Android and the Apple iOS operating systems. So it’s been helpful for my reporting.

But I’ve discovered that there’s other value to doing this. With smartphones offering so much functionality beyond just talk, it allows me to multitask using some of the other functions. For example, while talking on the Verizon phone in the car, I use the navigation on the T-Mobile phone. Verizon’s CDMA technology doesn’t allow simultaneous use of data and voice.

I’ve had a few instances of getting an incoming call while using the iPhone’s navigation, when suddenly my directions stop. The two phones allow me to take the call rather than pulling over to talk, if I continue to need directions.

I’m also able to use one phone while accessing email and the Internet on the other. That comes in handy when on a call and needing to refer to an email, calendar or contact list at the same time. The HTC phone also provides an advantage when I need a larger display.

Carrying two phones works especially well for those who love their Blackberry yet want some of the features of an Android or iOS phone, such as better Web browsing or access to a much larger assortment of apps.

Some might also find it useful to give out two numbers, one for work and one for personal. That way you can filter your calls by which phone you use. In my case I use a single Google Voice number (available free from Google.com/voice) and set it up to ring both phones simultaneously.

That allows me to answer an incoming call on one phone while on the other. While I could use the hold function on one phone to answer the incoming call, too often I find the hold will drop the waiting call, particularly with the iPhone.

Having two carriers can also help when you have a weak signal. The other day my wife said my voice was breaking up while using the Verizon phone; when I switched to the T-Mobile phone it was much clearer.

Ever come across a situation where you get a voice message, and you never heard the phone ring? That occurs when the carrier’s towers are overloaded and is much less likely to happen with two carriers.

One of the disadvantages of two phones is keeping the calendars and contacts in sync and up to date on both. The HTC has a feature that lets you import contacts from your other phone using Bluetooth. That worked fine for me to move all my contacts from the iPhone to the HTC phone, but it doesn’t keep them synced.

I haven’t found a convenient method to sync Google and Apple calendar directly in a reliable manner. As a result, I don’t use the Google calendar on the HTC and instead use the iPhone’s iCal and Fantastical calendars. If I wanted to keep them synced on the two phones, I’d enter all my appointments on my Apple products as Google appointments. Or even better, I could use two iPhones; then my contacts, calendar and even apps are perfectly synced.

Another advantage of carrying two phones is I can go much longer between charges by using both phones. With my usage patterns I find the iPhone 5S’s battery to barely last a day, but now I can revert to using the HTC phone if needed. But typically I carry the iPhone with a Mophie battery case and don’t worry about it. Both the iPhone with the Mophie and the HTC phone now use the same micro USB cable for charging.

Now, you might assume that carrying two phones would cost twice as much, but that’s not been my case. With my overseas traveling of about five times a year, I no longer opt for Verizon’s international data plan of $25 for 100MB when traveling and no longer use the phone for calling when I leave the country.

I put the Verizon phone in airplane mode and turn on Wi-Fi to avoid all charges outside of the United States. That typically saves me about $80 per trip or $400 per year. I also reduced my data plan on Verizon for a $20 per month savings, because data is now shared between both phones. That adds up to a $620 yearly reduction off my Verizon bill.

My T-Mobile plan costs $60 per month plus $28 per month for the phone or about $1,050 per year, so net cost is $430 or about $35 per month. Now, if I already owned a T-Mobile phone, signing up to T-Mobile would be essentially free.

This is surely a step away from simplifying your life, but with smartphones becoming so essential to our daily lives, some will find two phones to be better than one.

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Over the course of a business day I spend lots of time using iCal, Apple’s default calendar program. I use it to plan, to keep track of my schedule, create alerts for appointments and import my travel schedule from TripIt.

I also try to use it for reminders and to-dos, although that’s one of its weakest features. Although it has been one of the most requested features, Apple has unfortunately all but abandoned adding new functionality to iCal, and has made few improvements over the last half-decade. The most recent was a visual makeover to more closely resemble its iPad version.

I was recently introduced to a new calendar program by Michael Simmons, co-founder of Flexibits. It’s called Fantastical and is available for the iPhone, iPad and Mac computers. It adds a wealth of new features that make it more flexible and provide better integration of your to-do activities into your calendar. Simmons explained that he created it as a result of iCal not having the features he needed to use.

There are three versions, for the Mac, iPad and iPhone.

• The Mac version is on sale at half off for just $10. It appears as an icon on your taskbar at the top of the screen. A click opens a small window that displays a monthly calendar at the top with a scrollable list below it that contains your reminders, to-do items and appointments. What is displayed can be easily customized.

As you scroll down the list, the calendar date being highlighted synchronizes with the events under your cursor. Likewise, as you move your cursor over the dates on the calendar, that day’s items appear in the list. You can click on any event and a box opens detailing the event, allowing you to make changes, much like iCal. The list contains appointments and to-do items that are easily distinguishable.

The Fantastical calendar program is available for the iPhone, iPad and Mac computers. Courtesy photo

But the best feature, common to all versions, is how easy it is to add items to your calendar. Simply type in natural-language phrases such as “meet with Bob Tuesday at 9” and it creates an appointment, even using some cute animation. Or type in a to-do and it will set an alert for a specific day.

Fantastical is localized in English, French, German, Italian and Spanish, and allows users to enter events in any of the languages, regardless of the language setting of the computer.

Fantastical is integrated with iCal so that after entering a new item, it immediately appears on iCal and vice versa. For example, when Tripit imports an event into iCal, it shows up on Fantastical. Apple could take a lesson from this company when it comes to creating a much richer product with a superb user interface.

• Fantastical 2 for the iPad 2, also on sale for $10, is even more impressive. The full-screen view resembles the iCal monthly page, but there are many additional features. Open a meeting appointment that you’ve been invited to and you see all the attendees, and can even email them from the window.

While the monthly view looks much like that on the iCal, when you drag the bottom of the calendar up you see a three-pane window. One graphically shows your busy time for the week, day by day; another displays a smaller monthly view; and a third lists all the events and activities.

Fantastical is designed for all iPads running iOS 7. Additional features include half-screen and full-screen week view, reminders, choice of white text on black or black text on white, background app refreshing, floating time zone support, and birthday reminders and greetings.

• The basic view for the iPhone, at the sale price of $5, is a monthly calendar below which is a list of upcoming events, much like the drop-down window on the Mac. You can shift between the month view and a five-day view with a search field.

The list by date can be set to show all days or just those with appointments. Other settings provide plenty of flexibility for what’s included in the list. You can rotate the phone in portrait mode to see a weekly view.

Entering appointments is much like the other devices, but you can also use the phone’s speaker to dictate a new event. That’s even easier than typing, and it works better than Siri.

The beauty of using each of these apps on your Mac, iPhone and iPad is that everything is synced. If you decide to try one of the apps, I’d recommend the iPad version as a start. But like me, you’ll likely find it such an improvement over iCal that you’ll buy it for all your devices. (https://flexibits.com/fantastical)

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Net neutrality means that the Internet service providers (ISPs) treat all data that travels over their networks in exactly the same way. It’s the way the Internet has worked since its inception and has transformed our lives in nearly everything we do. It’s also spawned innovation to create products and services we never imagined.

But there’s an effort underway to change the way it’s been working that will benefit a few large ISPs at the expense of the public and other businesses. This change is being led by FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, a former lobbyist for Comcast appointed by President Barack Obama.

His proposal is to change the equal-access provision and set up two classes of service, one that provides faster speeds and better access to those websites that pay, and a slower access speed for those that don’t want to pay.

Comcast is one of the strongest advocates for this change and would be one of the companies to benefit the most from it; if Comcast succeeds in buying Time Warner Cable, it would control a third of the high-speed Internet market. Since few of us have more than a single choice of high-speed Internet service providers, the purchase would extend its reach even further.

But Comcast has one problem: It is constantly in the running for being the most hated company in America. This year the company won that title in a contest conducted by the consumer site www.theconsumerist.com, owned by Consumer Reports. A phone call last week that made news all over the Web demonstrated why they are so disliked.

Ryan Block, a friend of mine who co-founded the gadget website Engadget, and his wife, Veronica Belmont, were recently trying to cancel their Comcast cable account, but the customer service agent had no interest in accommodating them. Even though they had already signed up for a new service, the rep refused to allow them to cancel.

Ryan writes, “The representative continued aggressively repeating his questions, despite the answers given, to the point where my wife became so visibly upset she handed me the phone. Overhearing the conversation, I knew this would not be very fun.

“What I did not know is how oppressive this conversation would be. Within just a few minutes the representative had gotten so condescending and unhelpful I felt compelled to record the speakerphone conversation on my other phone.”

“This recording (http://time.com/2985964/comcast-cancel-ryan-block/) picks up roughly 10 minutes into the call, whereby she and I have already given a myriad of reasons and explanations as to why we are canceling (which is why I simply stopped answering the reps repeated question — it was clear the only sufficient answer was “OK, please don’t disconnect our service after all.”)

Even at the end of the call when the agent finally gave up, he refused to provide any cancellation number or confirmation of the call.

Comcast issued a statement saying, “We are very embarrassed by the way our employee spoke with Mr. Block and are contacting him to personally apologize. The way in which our representative communicated with him is unacceptable and not consistent with how we train our customer service representatives.

“We are investigating this situation and will take quick action. While the overwhelming majority of our employees work very hard to do the right thing every day, we are using this very unfortunate experience to reinforce how important it is to always treat our customers with the utmost respect.”

Consumerist.com reported that it, “Has heard from Comcast call center workers, both past and present, who agree that maybe while this guy went a bit far, it’s only because that’s the culture at the company, and that customer service reps are actually trained to do just what he did. … As multiple tipsters are telling us, CSRs can only have a certain amount of “discos” — or disconnects — on their personal tallies each day, and must meet a certain quota of “saves,” for which they can earn bonuses and/or commission.”

This is the same company that wants to insert itself in one of the country’s most precious assets.

Nearly every company and organization in the technology sector, as well as a large majority of the population, is opposed to these changes proposed by the FCC. How much do people care? When comedian John Oliver explained on HBO’s “Last Week Tonight” what was being proposed, it generated 45,000 near instant responses to the FCC.

The FCC has received more than 1 million comments from the public regarding its proposed net neutrality rules. According to the FCC’s Gigi Sohn, 1,030,000 comments had been submitted by noon Friday on the East Coast.

Opposition is also coming from the major technology companies such as Amazon, Google, Facebook and Netflix that have petitioned the FCC to drop their plans. The Internet Association, the organization representing nearly 40 tech companies, including those above, also filed a formal petition in opposition. They want companies to compete by being able to attract customers based on their products and services, not on speed of access.

The FCC has recently begun accepting direct comments from the public. If you are opposed to this new scheme, it’s important to contact the FCC and Congress to let them know. We don’t want to hand over control of one of our most important resources to a near-monopoly. Call the FCC at 888-225-5322 or email comments about the net-neutrality plan to openinternet@fcc.gov.

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