Ask Rick 2009 & Houston We Have a Problem 09



Ask Rick 030, 02/03/09 & Houston 120, 14/03/09


Roaming in the USA

I am planning a trip to Florida and would like to take a laptop with me for Internet and Skype use. The villa where I will be staying has broadband but not Wi-Fi.  As yet I cannot establish whether there is a wireless hotspot close by.  Would a USB modem for mobile broadband work outside the UK and how close to a hot spot would it need to be?  Can you suggest a solution?

Ruth Martindale, by email


You should be able to connect your laptop to the broadband modem using a LAN/Ethernet cable; these are widely available from computer stores, here and in the US, for around £5.00. Simply plug the cable you’re your PC’s LAN socket, and the other end goes to the corresponding socket on the back of the modem. Once connected XP and Vista will immediately recognise the modem and the Internet connection and you’ll be online.


Mobile broadband in the US lags some way behind the UK and Europe. Older, slower 2G services are fairly widely available but you’ll need a specialised mobile modem or triband cellphone with data capability and PC connectivity, plus a suitable connecting lead. 3G services are still patchy and quite expensive, especially if you are ‘roaming’ on your UK mobile broadband contract. There are ways to cut costs, such as using an ‘unlocked’ triband or quadband modem with a SIM and pay-as-you-go data package purchased when you get there, if you can find one, but it’s a bit of a minefield at the moment so unless you are going to be visiting the US on a regular basis, and know you’ll be in an area with good coverage I would stick with the villa’s broadband. Providing your laptop has wi-fi capability you should be able to connect to any free hotspot in range (typically 25 – 30 metres) and there are plenty of them, just Google ‘free wi-fi florida’ for locations.



Google Maps Blindspot

I recently had a nasty accident negotiating a bend, going uphill, in the rain (86mm in 24 hours - I am in Spain!).  I wanted to make a printout of the scene of the accident showing all the white lines, the arrows on the road and where I finished up in a gully having traversed, travelling backwards, the lane of oncoming traffic. I had a brilliant idea of zooming in on a satellite images from Google maps. When I attempted to print the image the map all that came out was the actual road map.  So I emailed the satellite image to myself and again it came out as the actual map. Do you know of any way round this?

Ernest Bulitude, by email


Unfortunately you can't print satellite images in Google Maps. There doesn’t seem to be any good reason for this and it’s a bit odd in view of the fact that there are no such restrictions in Google Earth (, which as far as I’m aware uses the same satellite image database. When you click the print icon in Google Earth you get whatever is showing on the screen.



Guilty As Charged

Why is it that rechargeable batteries run down in a relatively short space of time, even if they’re not being used, and stored properly? To what extent does the quality of the battery make a difference? How many charges should I expect from a set of batteries?

Peter Martin, East Yorkshire


All rechargeable batteries self-discharge and the speed at which they do so depends on a number of factors, including the chemistry and the cell’s internal resistance. Lithium Ion (Ion) batteries usually have quite good long-term storage characteristics and this can be from a few weeks to several months. Nickel Cadmium (NiCad) and Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMh) cells can lose between 1 and 4 percent of their charge every day. However, a lot also depends on the quality of the cells, the pack construction and the device they’re powering.


Even when switched off many laptops and mobile phones, for example, can still consume a few micro amps to several milliamps of power to keep an internal clock running or maintain data on ‘volatile’ memory chips. Self-discharge rates also increase with temperature and the age of the battery. 


Li-Ion batteries degrade from the day they're made and there can be a significant drop in capacity, as much as 50 percent, in as few as 500 charge/discharge cycles, though it’s getting better all the time. NiCad and Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMh) cells can typically go through 1000 charge cycles before the rot sets in, and NiCad battery packs also suffer from the so-called ‘memory’ effects or cell imbalance. This happens when one or more cells in the pack retain a higher charge than the others, which fools the charger into delivering an incomplete charge. 



Don’t be Dense

I appear to have bought, online, 1Gb of RAM, which runs as 512k. It seems to be ‘high density’ RAM, a version unknown to me. Is this common and how can a purchaser know what they are buying?

Gordon Lee, by email


High-density RAM modules have been appearing on ebay at enticingly low prices and I suspect quite a few people have been caught out. Virtually all PCs are designed to work with Low Density RAM modules. High Density RAM works in a slightly different way and is designed for specialist applications, like server computers and until recently they have not been available in the consumer marketplace, so it wasn’t a problem. The problem is the two types look almost identical. In fact the only way to tell them apart is from the coding on the labels. These can be difficult, if not impossible if all you have to go on is a fuzzy picture and a vague description, so the best advice, as always, is to only buy from reputable sources. Unless you can persuade the seller to take them back, or they were knowingly miss-sold to you then I’m afraid there’s not much you can do. There’s a helpful guide to identifying the different density types in ebay Reviews at:




© R. Maybury 2009 0902


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