Keeping your iPhone alive in France — Part III

I’m back in France, this time for a leisure trip (my first real vacation in Europe since I graduated here as a Ph.D.) Yes, it’s Winter, but promenading through the streets of Paris without having to worry about the next meeting / deadline / academic obligation is a nice change of pace, cold and rain notwithstanding.

I’m skeptical about the concept of unconnected vacations — in my leisure time I still want to have access to the hive mind, lest my IQ drop a full 30 points. But having a decent data plan in France without breaking the bank is not necessarily obvious, as I’ve been exploring for some time.

mobicarte-holidayOrange Telecom, the main cell-phone company of France, has finally waken-up to the reality that 80M tourists come to France every year — 20% more people than the country own population of 66M. They now propose the Mobicarte Holiday, a pre-paid SIM card loaded with 2h of calls, 1000 SMS, and 1GB of cell data, and unlimited access to Orange Wifi Hotspots — at a price of 40€. If you already have a working Mobicarte you can buy a “Holiday recharge” for 30€. After you use all your credit (or after your credit expires) you can reload the Mobicarte with either the “Holiday” or a normal recharge.

That package is not exactly the cheapest, but it is the most convenient I’ve experienced so far : an offer completely adapted to the needs of the traveller.

Well, almost…

The first limitation is that you’ll probably won’t be able to buy the Mobicarte Holiday from Orange Online store — unless you have a French credit card. This prevents having it delivered directly to your hotel. To compensate that inconvenience, several Orange physical stores are open from Monday to Saturday, until 19h30. I had no difficulty in buying it at the physical store at boulevard Haussmann on a Saturday afternoon.

The second limitation is much more irritating : you won’t be able to connect to the Orange Wifi Hotspots — unless you have a French credit card ! In order to get access to the Wifi hotspots, Orange forces you to install an iOS app — “Mon Réseau” (My Network) — but that app is only available at the French App Store ! Here the synergy of Orange’s nearsightedness and Apple’s greediness creates the perfect storm, as you won’t be able to create an Apple ID for the French Apple store unless you enter a credit card valid in France. (My love–hate relationship with Apple has such a healthy dose of hate because of those things.)

Finally, the kick on the shins : the Holiday credit is valid for meager 14 days, so for longer trips you’ll have to keep buying recharges.

Is there any silver linings ? Well, the SIM card itself will remain valid for 6 months after the last recharge. The price of 20€ a week is still 3 times cheaper than the data roaming offer of my Brazilian operator (Vivo Telecom). You can get a Mobicarte in any one of the mini-, micro-, and nano-SIM formats : you won’t have to deal with SIM clippers (or worse : a sharp kitchen knife and a steady hand). In addition, the 3G Internet offer takes effect immediately (some previous Internet options of Orange took up to 3 days to kick in.)

The Mobicart Holiday is far from perfect, but it’s still the most traveller-friendly offer by Orange France I’ve experienced so far.

Upgrade cascade : iPhone, Yosemite, iPhoto, iMovie

I’ve noticed a consistent trend of my colleagues and I, Computer Sciences / Engineering faculty, being way less eager than the general public in updating to the latest hardware or software. There is, maybe, a component of the shoemaker’s son going barefoot, but most importantly — I suspect — it’s the knowledge on sausage-making impairing our appetites. When you know the reality of system design intimately, you become very reluctant in disturbing whatever metastability you might have reached.

But all systems have a service life, and eventually even the most reluctant user will be forced to upgrade. After skipping 2 generations, I thought it was time to abandon my iPhone 4S for a new iPhone 6.

(Which was an adventure in itself : amazingly, after almost 2 months, there are still queues for buying an iPhone on the States. So far, ok — supply and demand, etc. — but for some unfathomable reason, Apple has instructed their clerks to outright lie about the non-contract T-Mobile iPhone, in saying that it is not unlocked.  After some googling and whatsapping with friends, the truth emerged : it is unlocked. Still, at the first Apple Store I tried, the clerks where very non-cooperative, and one of them positively adversarial, like he’d rather not sell anything to me. I am really not the type of person to buy into this “privilege to be a customer” attitude, so I just went to another store. Long story short : two days and 830 bucks later, I had an iPhone 6 in my pocket. It is indeed unlocked, I had it working with my Vivo telecom nano-SIM immediately, still inside the store.)

But as often it happens, one upgrade leads to another in cascade effect : the iPhone rejected my old iTunes, forcing me to upgrade old faithful Mountain Lion to Yosemite.

Update Unavailable with This Apple IDAs if to confirm that upgrading is a messy business, Yosemite got me a great welcoming surprise : it disabled my old iPhoto (“incompatible with new OS version, must be updated”), and made it impossible for me to update it (“Update Unavailable with This Apple ID”). For some strange reason, the App Store utility insisted on that message, no matter which Apple ID I used (I only have two).

Apparently this is not a rare situation, and the causes and solutions are exasperatingly diverse. What solved the problem in my case, was closing the App Store, deleting iPhoto altogether (dragging the disabled application to the trash), opening the App Store again, and doing a fresh install. The procedure itself is not very painful, I concede : the annoyance is having to find out what exactly to do.

For upgrading iMovie, the solution was not so simple. It is not a mandatory upgrade (the Mountain Lion version still works with Yosemite), but since I had gone so far, I now wanted to go all the way. Deleting iMovie made available a fresh install on App Store… for 15 bucks. No good. I’ve tried, as some suggested by some users, reinstalling the original (from the Snow Leopard CDs in my case), but to no avail. In the end, I just moved the old Mountain Lion iMovie from the trash back to the Applications folder.

Curiously, XCode, which is normally a trouble-maker, updated without further ado.

Edit 19/11 : upgrading to Yosemite 10.10.1 solved the iMovie Apple ID issue. I’m guessing it would have solved the iPhoto issue as well. This is another golden rule of upgrading — never move to the version with a round number, always wait for the next minor patch.

Keeping your iPhone (sort of) alive In France — Part II

I am again in Paris, meeting my colleague and former Ph.D. advisor Prof. Matthieu Cord at Université Pierre et Marie Curie as part of our ongoing cooperation. And again I’m fighting to keep my iPhone alive without breaking the bank.

If you’ve read my previous post, you know that you can buy a pay-as-you-go SIM card from Orange Telecom called a Mobicarte. It is still available, and many of the previous considerations are still valid, but some things have changed, most of them not for the better.

First, the (big) bad news : the monthly Internet Max for 9€ is no longer available (as you remember, it offered “unlimited” web access for 30 days, actually capped at 500 MB). In its place you now have an Internet Max day pass for 2€, with a cap of 50 MB. Boy, that’s per day, almost seven times more expensive than the previous offer, and even per megabyte, it is more than twice as expensive. It is still, however, more than three times cheaper than the best roaming offer of Vivo Telecom (my Brazilian company), even considering that I have to amortize the price of the Mobicarte itself (about 9€, with 5€ worth of credit) — so I sucked it up and went for it.

Now for the (silver-liningish) good news: the option goes into effect immediately, it doesn’t take the 48h of the monthly pass, so for shorter trips it could potentially be more advantageous. But there is still that 24h delay for the SIM card ID registration to take place, before which options might be refused at all. And POP/SMTP/IMAP traffic is still not comprised on web traffic (be careful with that), so you still have to pay extra 6€ for the — monthly — Option Mail(*). And that option still takes 48h to activate.

It is just one big ugly mess.

Mobicarte NouvelleThe clearly good news is that the Mobicarte now comes in a double mini/micro-SIM format. It comes as a mini-SIM with a micro-SIM inset, and the micro-SIM can be easily detached by hand, so you no longer have to worry about SIM clippers or sharp kitchen knives.

* * *

One day one phone company will say to its users : “You know what — let’s talk the truth — there’s an international holding that owns our operations in 95 countries. So, since, it makes no sense for us to charge from ourselves, we will give you free data roaming in any of those 95 countries. Just don’t get too crazy on the downloads, ok ?”

And then pigs will fly.

* * *

Configuring the iPhone to prevent unwanted POP/SMTP/IMAP traffic(*) Alternatively you can go to the Settings App and select Mail, Contacts, Calendar, and then Fetch New Data. There you can Disable Push notifications and set data fetching to manual. Remember to go on the Advanced tab (in the end of the screen) and set everything to Manual as well, and that will probably prevent any unwanted POP/SMTP/IMAP traffic.

Keep your iPhone alive in France

I’ve traded my tropical Brazilian summer for what turned out to be a harsh French winter. My brain is delighted to exchange ideas with my colleague (and former advisor) Prof. Matthieu Cord at the Université Pierre et Marie Curie, and my colleague (and old friend) Prof. Frédéric Precioso at the Université de Nice Sophia Antipolis. My nose, however, is complaining a lot.

* * *

I’ve heard that traveling with a smartphone makes for a much enhanced experience. Living it first-hand, I realize the huge difference some simple things make when you are abroad, like having Google Maps ready at your hands. Apps for specific destinations are la cérise du gâteau (the Parisian metro/bus company RATP has a terrific one, also available for Android).

However, keeping the gourmand smartphone alive without breaking the bank might be a challenge. The solution I adopted was buying a pre-paid local SIM card. Making it happen, however, is harder than it should.

As far as I know, none of the main French carriers offer interesting pre-paid Internet offers in micro-SIM format. Among the prepaid mini-SIM offers, Orange’s Internet Max is interesting : it gives you “unlimited” (actually something around 500 Gb) data access for a month.

  1. Having chosen to go with Orange Fr, and their pre-paid offer, the Mobicarte, I’ve tried to buy it online — so it would be waiting for me, when I arrived. Their damn online shop, however, would not take my credit card. Maybe you’ll be luckier ?
  2. So, one day after I landed, I went to a physical shop and asked for a Mobicarte (priced around 10€). They’ve asked in which phone I’d use it and I answered “oh, it’s an old Nokia — I was using a friend’s Mobicarte in it but now I have to return it”. (No, my pants weren’t on fire.)
  3. They’ve asked me for an identity document. I didn’t have my passport on me, but they accepted my Brazilian identity card. In doubt, I think it’s safer to bring the passport.
  4. I also bought some credit, around 25€, to complement the 5€ of credit that comes with the Mobicarte.

All that was incredibly easy —I kept reading stories round the net on how buying the chip is a nightmare —  maybe the secret is to feign ignorance : don’t mention the words “iPhone”, “Android” or “Internet Max”, and you should be safe.

Now, the difficult parts are : (I) to make the card fit in the iPhone ; (II) to be patient enough to go through all the hoops in order to activate the Internet Max options.

Part I is a matter of having guts. I’ve heard of people who use their own (or a friend’s) micro-SIM as a template, and a very sharp kitchen knife, with good results. I’m not so brave, so, just before my trip, I’ve ordered this gadget on Amazon.fr : a mini-SIM trimmer, which performs the operation without requiring much adroitness. It arrived two days after I landed. You can check both the clipper and the results below :

SIM clipper used to convert a mini-SIM (a Mobicarte from Orange Fr) to a micro-SIM

One obvious recommendation is to clip and test the chip on the iPhone before loading the credits, so if something goes wrong you’re losing 10€ instead of 34€. I’m only emphasizing this because, as a good absent-minded professor, I went and loaded the credits immediately after buying them.

Activating the Internet Max is a matter of patience. First, chances are you’ll have to wait at least 24h after buying the chip, until the system identifies you. Otherwise you’ll receive a frightening message saying that you are not identified, and that your account you be cancelled, and that you’ll be guillotined at the place de la Concorde. Nothing like that will happen — ignore the message and wait another day :

Vous ne pouvez pas souscrire à l’option Internet Max car nous ne pouvons pas vous identifier. Vous devez vous rendre dans votre point de vente accompagné de votre pièce d’identité. Votre ligne sera rétablie quelques jours après l’enregistrement de vos cordonnées. Sans action de votre part, votre ligne sera suspendue un mois après l’activation de la ligne. Vous ne pourrez plus passer des appels et votre ligne sera résiliée deux mois après son activation.

Services menu of Orange Fr, invoked calling #123# Then, to activate the Internet Max option, invoke the services menu calling the number #123#, then choose the options :

4 – Mon space (My space)
3 – Ajouter une option (Add an option)
5 – Suite (Next)
1 – Internet + Mail
2 – Internet Max
1 – Suite
1 – Souscrire (Subscribe)
1 – Valider (Validate)

Or something like that, to be honest. The menu changes a lot, according to the current design and promotions, but you should be able to find your way.

Internet Max will cost you 9€ for a month, at current prices, but one word of warning : it doesn’t cover POP / SMTP / IMAP traffic, used for example, by most e-mail apps and e-mail push notifications. If you’re on a budget, avoid using those apps, and disable push notifications for e-mail. Otherwise, you can buy an “Option mail” (following instructions very close to the ones above, but changing the 5th step), that covers unlimited traffic for those protocols, for 6€. So, the real cost for “unlimited” net is 15€ per month.

Finally, the most difficult step : waiting. Beware, because the options max will not be activated immediately : that will take 48h ! With the identification delay after buying the card, that makes for a minimum of three days of waiting, so this solution is only practical for longer trips.

Big thumbs-up for the guys at VeloNomad — I’ve first learned about that possibility there. They seem to have a service that sends you a French SIM home, before the trip, so you can have your phone ready to communicate from day one. I’ve discovered that service too close to my trip for it to be useful — if you use it, I’m curious to find about your experience. They add those very good remarks  :

  • Disable the 3G/data roaming before you put the SIM on the phone, or the credits might disappear surprisingly fast (if you are serious about avoiding roaming charges, it’s actually a good idea to do it home, before turning off the phone in the plane) ;
  • Before diving in the net or mail, use it a bit and check if the credits are draining — if they are, the option is not yet activated ;
  • Obvious, but sometimes overlooked : ensure that your phone is unlocked before you leave home !

(Finally, my lawyer is telling me to reinforce that those instructions are provided in good faith, but that you should be careful, find information and make your own decisions : if you follow the instructions and your phone turns into a brick, or you are attacked by a flock of angry birds, I’m not liable.)

(Postscriptum : the intention here is having access to the web at reasonable cost, so to have a more enjoyable trip in France, not to cheat Orange Fr. Be reasonable : don’t go and tether all your party of 20 travelers on a single chip, don’t download an entire Hollywood worth of pirate movies, etc. In other words : be a conscious hacker and don’t spoil this for everyone else.)

Edit jan/14 — The Internet Max offer has changed, and not completely for the better. I’ve blogged about it in a recent visit to France.