December is the season for getting out on the road — or in the air, or on the tracks, or maybe even on the water. And during our travels, many of us will carry along an assortment of digital devices.
Here are some tips for entertainment and security when you’re away from your usual home/office Wi-Fi networks.
Watch your Netflix favorites offline
On the last day of November, Netflix announced that it was finally offering offline video viewing, free to subscribers. It was excellent news for anyone wanting video entertainment while away from high-speed broadband.
But the new service was not ubiquitous: some Netflix content — probably newer and more popular shows — will still not allow offline viewing. Also important to know, Netflix’s offline viewing is currently limited to iOS 8.0 and higher and Android 4.4.2 and higher. (You also need to upgrade to the latest Netflix app.) In other words, you can’t call up Netflix in your laptop browser and download a video for viewing offline.
Why mobile devices only? Most likely, it’s because mobile operating systems such as iOS don’t have a true user-friendly file-management systems. That makes it easier for Netflix and other media apps to control access to the downloaded video files.
On my iPad, it took about three minutes to download a 46-minute episode of Doc Martin. The download took about 170MB of space, both on an iPad and iPhone. It did not seem to matter whether my default playback setting on the Netflix site was set to Medium or High resolution. The app’s own Video Quality option was set to Standard by default; changing to High increased the file size of my Doc Martin episode to more than double — 384MB. (You might want to switch the higher resolution if you’re casting the video to a full-sized TV.)
So with the right settings, you can pack hours of entertainment on a typical mobile device, assuming you haven’t soaked up a lot of storage space with music, photos, and videos from sources other than Netflix.
The mobile Netflix app offers other important settings for controlling downloads. By default, the featue is limited to Wi-Fi connections; turning that setting off allows downloading videos over a cellular connection. But just to make things a bit more confusing, there’s also a Cellular Date Usage setting for streaming videos. Six options let you control the amount of data used for streaming. You can, for example, limit streaming to Wi-Fi connections only or use the Unlimited option if you’re one of the lucky few who still have an unlimited cellular-data plan. The default setting is Automatic.
Netflix’s offline viewing tool is nicely designed. If the feature is available for a particular video, you’ll see a down-arrow (see Figure 1) next to the title and description. Another window lists your downloaded media (along with length and file size) and makes it easy to delete shows you’re done with.
Figure 1. Download shows for offline viewing by tapping the down-arrow icon.
(Amazon Prime also allows some content downloading. Check your subscriptions for details. Expect other streaming services to enhance or add downloading options.)
The timing of the Netflix announcement was somewhat ironic. While researching traveling with digital devices, I ran across the PlayOn app (site), which also lets you download and play streaming video offline. You might think that Netflix’s announcement would put the company out of business, but the PlayOn service works on both PCs (PlayOn Desktop) and iOS devices (PlayOn Cloud), and it has other significant differences.
Here’s the catch: Like any old-style personal video recorder, the desktop recording requires playing the video at standard speed. You can’t just do a quick download of a video file. PlayOn Cloud records a chosen show on a cloud-based virtual machine, and the full recording is then downloaded as an .mp4 file to the iOS device.
Note that the service lives in a gray area of legality. Services such as Netflix do not allow recording of streaming content. But in the 1980s battle over recording broadcast TV shows on VCRs, the U.S. Supreme Courts ruled that personal, non-commercial video recording was legal. PlayOn claims that its service falls under that ruling. And apparently it hasn’t been sued in the year it’s been in business.
PlayOn, of course, isn’t free: The desktop edition costs U.S. $2.50 per month, and the iOS version is priced at $.99 per recording.
Listening to audio content when on the road
Years ago, I did numerous drives alone between San Francisco and Seattle. Interstate 5 can get really boring over hours and hours of driving. My solution was an Audible.com subscription, which I’d had since the early 2000s. With little free time for actually reading a book, I now listen books while taking my daily dog walks.
Unfortunately, Audible is relatively expensive; my subscription costs $14.95 per month for one book. So when I saw a promo for Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited (more info), I decided to try it out. For $10 a month, the service lets you check out Kindle-based books from the Unlimited library of over a million publications (magazine, books, etc.). You can have up to 10 titles checked out at any one time.
Having subscriptions to both Audible and Kindle Unlimited might seem redundant, for numerous reasons. Both are owned by Amazon, and both offer a smaller selection of books in audio and text formats. For example, I can sit and read a few chapters on my tablet, then switch to listening on my phone while out with the dogs or on the road. (I maintain that listening to a book in the car is probably less distracting than trying to hold a conversation with a passenger.)
But there are some important differences between the two services. With Audible, you have actually bought a book — you own it and can re-read it as often as you like. If you cancel your subscription, you can still listen to books you’ve downloaded. You can also download a book to as many as four computers and download the Audible app to as many as ten mobile devices. (It’s not clear whether you can have the same book on ten tablets and smartphones.)
With Kindle Unlimited, you are renting the books. It’s like paying to use a classic library. If you cancel your subscription, you can access checked-out books only until your monthly subscription is up for renewal.
In one of those creepy/convenient features found in our connected world, Kindle keeps track of your reading. If I put down my tablet, I can pick my phone and continue from the same page.
I can’t say that one service is better than the other. Audible is listening focused and has a much better selection of books. Kindle Unlimited is less expensive if you do a lot of actual reading, but the selection is relatively limited, depending on topic. Fortunately for me, I like reading primarily history and science fiction, and Kindle Unlimited has an extensive offering of sci-fi titles. (I use Audible for history books.)
Setting up a personal and portable Wi-Fi network
I spend many weekends on my small, rural farm. It’s so rural that there are few options for Internet connections. Until recently, I used tethering on my phone to set up local Wi-Fi and connect tablets and other devices to the Net. But the process has always been a bit of a pain.
So recently, I purchased a cellular-based, mobile-hotspot box from AT&T. The Velocity device shares my smartphone’s data plan (currently 6GB per month), at the cost of an additional $20 per month (two-year contract) to my cell-service bill. The local Wi-Fi network it creates supports up to 10 devices — in my case, two tablets and an Apple TV.
The box provides a better Wi-Fi signal than my tethered phone, and it can be left up and running as I come and go. It’s fully password protected, and a handy status screen gives a quick indication of your data-plan status. With multiple devices attached, you need to watch data consumption carefully. The device also has separate on/off switches for Wi-Fi and cellular connections to help prevent unintended data use.
Verizon, too, offers a mobile hot-spot device. According to its info page, the Jetpack supports up to 15 devices and costs $50. But you can also use it to give an emergency charge to your cellphone.
Digital security when away from home or office
There have been many stories on the dangers of connecting to public Wi-Fi hotspots. And those threats are real. Before heading out on your holiday travels, check that your digital devices are fully secured.
- Whenever possible, check that your browser is connecting to a Web server with secure HTTPS. Note that on some sites, this can be confusing: you might get a security warning because some links on a webpage — for ads, images, etc. — are not using HTTPS.
- Set up a Virtual Private Network service. VPNs add an additional layer of encryption and privacy. There are a few free services but paid services such as CyberGhost typically provide better performance.
- Prepare your devices for travel – One key tip: Make sure all your devices are fully backed up before you leave.
- Ensure that your portable PC is fully locked down.
- Use your smartphone for online banking? It might well be that banking over a cellphone is more secure than using your PC. Banks have beefed up the security of their mobile apps, layering on encryption on top of the encrypted cell signal. The better banking apps also require two-factor sign in.
Check your bank’s site for its mobile-security features and policies. US Bank, for example, offers an “Online Risk-Free Guarantee” (more info) for its mobile app. And as I discovered over Thanksgiving, some mobile apps make it easy to transfer money to traveling family members on a tight budget.
Our digital devices are essential for holiday travel. But while you’re visiting friends and family, take some time to put the devices away and have a real conversation!
Capen, Tracey. “Prepare Your Digital Devices for Holiday Travel.” Windows Secrets Dec. 2016.
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