Monday, July 15, 2013

Travelling with a Nexus 7 in China

Travelling with any device that needs an Internet connection is troublesome anywhere outside one's home country. But in a country like China there are many problems and obstacles, particularly if you are reliant on Google services and Western social media platforms. This article explores the problems encountered whilst using a Google Nexus 7 tablet.

WiFi reliant

Being a WiFi only device, unless one purchased the more expensive 3G device, one is reliant on finding a good WiFi network. In some areas of the country this is like searching for a needle in a haystack. Most hotels only have a wired Internet connection in their rooms, and as such any WiFi device, whether it be an iPhone, Android phone, iPad, Android tablet or Chromebook, is effectively nothing more than an expensive paperweight.

There are some apps one can use offline. Many games, be it Angry Birds, chess or checkers, can of course be played without an Internet connection. But there are a great many apps that are completely useless without web access. And in China, because of Internet filtering and censorship, even a good WiFi access point does not solve one's problems as regards Internet connectivity.

Browser issues

Open a web page in China and, unless going through a VPN, access may well be blocked. Using the built in Chrome browser on the Nexus 7 has its own special issues. All searches are conducted through Google. And while search results are displayed most of the time, many links fail as they utilize a Google redirect, a system Google uses to track how many people arrive at a particular site via its search engine. Many websites use redirects, but in China, Google redirects can often create issues.

These issues stem from a sour relationship that exists between China and Google following the battle between the web giant and China's authorities over censorship and cyberattacks on Google's systems in late 2009 and early 2010. Google directly accused  China of attempting to hack into its servers and attempt to obtain the keys which would allow access to users' Gmail accounts. Of course China denied these attacks, and after a long drawn out dispute Google moved its search engine from the Chinese mainland and redirected all traffic from its .cn address to its Hong Kong servers.

This snub to Chinese authorities was not accepted happily, and while many Google services were already blocked, others soon came under attack. Google search became more problematic and GMail was at times almost inaccessible.

For the most part search has returned to normal, though sensitive search topics will still lead to interrupted connection. GMail too can create problems and is often slow to load, though on Android devices the issues are less apparent.


Most people make use of Apps, whether accessed on a tablet or mobile phone. And many can prove very useful when travelling. Social networks can help keep one up to date on news, or enable friends to keep in touch. For visitors to China this is extremely problematic.

Most western social networks are almost entirely inaccessible. Thus Twitter or any third party client Apps are virtually useless. Foursquare is also inaccessible, though holes occasionally appear in the Great Firewall that allow access without a VPN.

And it goes without saying that Google+ is entirely blocked. This in itself is particularly annoying since it is tied into Google Maps. Google Local replaced Places some time ago and became tied into Google+. Reviews became real name only, and users could upload pictures as well as rate the place of interest. But while a search for a restaurant will bring up results no further information can be gleaned from Google Maps without a VPN since reviews and other information is all tied into Google+. Even beyond this annoyance are the issues with mapping generally.

Mapping issues

Google Maps is perhaps one of the most used Apps when travelling, and the facility to have offline maps stored on the device is a bonus. But even with a clear map, there are still problems.

It is hard to say what the reason is, but using Google Maps in China could leave you lost simply because the GPS signal is often misaligned with the correct mapping location. On one day the GPS locator may show one exactly outside the restaurant one is standing. The next day it could show the user in an adjacent street. There is no consistency in terms of where you are either.

Maps used by Google are supplied by Chinese firm AutoNavi, and for all intents and purposes they are highly accurate. However, in many parts of China the GPS icon on an Android device using Google Maps will often show the user as being in a location up to a kilometre from one's correct position.

The reason for this can only be guessed at. There have been accusations by Chinese authorities that western companies, such as Coca Cola in a recent case, as well as individuals have been using GPS devices to illegally log information. While only speculation, it could be that authorities use GPS jammers to interfere with GPS enabled devices. Such devices have been known to be used by North Korea who severely affected the workings of South Korea's Internal Airports in May last year [ArsTechnica]. In parts of Europe smaller devices have been used to circumvent GPS monitoring of stolen vehicles [Guardian].

It could be that maps supplied by AutoNavi are misaligned to the GPS coordinates, though this does not seem to tally with certain anomalies observed while using the Nexus 7 in China. On arriving in Beijing the GPS showed a discrepancy putting the device some 200 metres to the west, yet the following day the discrepancy was much reduced to only a few metres. In Kunming, the discrepancy was far more obvious showing the device more than a kilometre from the actual location. Yet some 100 km south of Yunnan's capital the GPS locator showed as being almost 100% correct. Returning to Kunming weeks later and the discrepancy was gone. Coincidence? Anywhere else in the world perhaps. But this is China, where nothing is ever quite what it seems.

New Google Maps

The new Maps update has made things a little trickier too since offline mapping is not so easy to organise [Telegraph]. And as already mentioned the tie in to Google+ does complicate things. Saying that, before the update, reviews could not be entered without a VPN and information about the place of interest could not be seen. Since the Maps update reviews can be entered and items starred, though of course one still needs an Internet connection. There is still a flaw in that reviews cannot be seen when clicking on a landmark, only when accessing via one's own review page. However this seems to be a Google Maps anomaly rather than an issue with China's Internet filtering.

Google Play

There does however appear to be issues with Google's application platform when accessed in China. There have long been issues with regional blocks, more to do with Google than host countries. Apps available in one country would simply be unavailable in another. For mobile phone users one could simply swap the SIM card and Apps available in one's home country could then be updated or downloaded.

But with the Nexus 7 tablet there is of course no SIM [unless one has the 3G version]. However, this does not appear to create a problem. Apps available in the UK are still available, and updates download perfectly - most of the time. Here is the crunch. Whether it be a phone, with a foreign SIM, or the Nexus 7, some Apps simply won't update or download in China. Only by connecting to a VPN will the likes of Facebook, Facebook Messenger and Twitter successfully update. And of course one can only use them by connecting to a VPN anyway.

Blocked Internet radio

Other Apps download but are regionally blocked. TuneIn Radio is a hugely popular Internet radio App, but the providers have effectively kowtowed to Chinese authorities and only allowed local, i.e. Chinese, stations playable through the application [TechinAsia]. For travellers wanting to catch up on the news at home this is of particular annoyance. In fact without a VPN there are few ways to get information from the outside world. The BBC radio App sometimes works, and sometimes it simply fails to load. In fact the BBC World Service has been almost completely blocked in all its forms. While one may be lucky with one ISP, more often than not an attempt to stream any BBC channel over the Internet, either through an App or from the BBC website, will come up against a brick wall - or rather the Great Firewall. Even if you possess a shortwave radio, the BBC WS is inaccessible since transmissions were jammed earlier this year [The Register / Guardian / BBC / BBC Statement]

As for watching streaming video or television, this can be very hit or miss. There are some apps that allow the watching international channels like CNN or BBC World, though one needs a good, stable broadband connection to maintain the link. Most video streams are however regionally blocked and a VPN is needed, though this can slow the Internet so much as to effectively make it impossible to watch any streamed show.

However, audio podcasts can be a suitable alternative to the above restrictions. Also, if one uses a laptop in conjunction with one's Nexus device, Google Music can make life just that little bit more comfortable.

Google Music

Google's Music service service appears to be one of the few things provided by the Internet giant, unaffected by China's censorship machine. And for Nexus 7 users the service can be a Godsend. Anything dropped into one's allocated Music folder on an Internet connected PC ends up on Google's servers and available across all Android devices in the same account. Thus a BBC podcast, downloaded on a PC and dropped into the Music folder, will soon be available on one's Nexus 7 - given all devices are somehow connect to the Internet.

After playing the selected clip on the Nexus 7 via an Internet connection, it will also be available offline. One does have to check the "automatically cache while playing" box in settings however.

Google Books

While musical entertainment might be less of an issue, trying to buy, read or download a book can be real headache. Offline books will of course be accessible but even pre-purchased items cannot be read without logging on to a VPN. It is difficult to say whether this is a regional blocking issue or a Great Firewall issue. However, it is advisable that one makes any book you wish to read on the fly available offline when a good Internet connection and VPN access is accessible.

Purchases of Google Movies, and now even TV shows, as well as Magazines also create issues. The main issue with purchasing anything on Google Play is a regional one. Even while Google Play may open in China without a VPN films are simply unavailable there as the service has not been rolled out to all four corners of the world.

By using a VPN one can circumvent this issue, but there are still problems. Coming from the UK one may have some already purchased movies, which as Google says are accessible across all signed-in devices. But here comes the catch. A movie cannot be watched in China, because essentially it is served via YouTube which is blocked. However, connecting to a VPN server other than one's home country will bring up an error or won't even recognise you've made the purchase and suggest you pay to watch or buy the movie in the connected country's currency.

Thus, just as with books, it is advisable to 'pin' [download] any films to the device before arrival. Any purchases made whilst travelling are best made whilst connected through a VPN to one's own country, but don't expect to be able to watch or read them until back home!

Google Translation

Anyone stuck in a country with only a small grasp of the language will feel somewhat lost without some form of translation aid or phrase book. And for those with an Android device translation is made so much easier with Google's offline language packs [Note that Apple devices do not support offline translation].

But there are a few pitfalls. The first is that with non Romanised alphabet based languages there is no help with pronunciation. So an English to Chinese translation will only give Chinese characters. Thus this needs to be shown to the person with whom one is conversing rather than read to them.

Furthermore for good two way translation one really needs a Chinese character recognition App. One good input method is the SCUT gPen App, a handwriting input method released by SCUT-HCII Laboratory of South China University of Technology.

It can be a little slow and cumbersome to flip between input methods and swap between languages, but a conversation can be achieved with a little patience.

For single word translation, Pleco Chinese Dictionary is perhaps the best free example. Note that both Google's offline language packs and Pleco's database are quite large, so they could eat a large chunk of memory.

Anomalies and other issues

Most problems associated with using the Nexus 7, and indeed any WiFi only and Internet connected device, in China has more to do with connectivity, the lack thereof, and the Great Firewall.

A VPN will often solve problems associated with the latter, though one has first to find a WiFi connection. But many VPN services are also unstable and can themselves be targeted by Chinese censors with DNS poisoning attacks.

Even without a VPN, the Nexus 7 is a useful device to have, given one has some periodic access to a WiFi connection.

Having cached maps across parts of an intended route one can keep track of one's journey. My Tracks also works well on a mobile phone even without a data connection, and the information can later be uploaded to Google Drive and Google Maps, once connected through a VPN to the Internet.

While a VPN is needed to upload to Google Drive, bizarrely Instant Upload appears to works without one. Any photos or videos taken on a mobile phone or tablet seem to upload without issue. Even more bizarre, images and video can even be shared on Google+ without a VPN, though only images can be viewed across all devices without jumping the Firewall. Videos can't be viewed since they are hosted on YouTube, which is blocked in China.

Another interesting feature is that pictures uploaded to Google+ seamlessly create a folder on all device's gallery and stored for offline viewing. This is a boon for those wanting to show that selection of pictures to friends later at a restaurant when an Internet connection might not be available.

While an Internet connection makes translation easier, especially in that it offers pinyin, the offline facility is indispensable at times.


There is certainly a case for investing in a solid VPN service, which is relatively easy to set up on the Nexus 7 or other Android device. The most important issue concerning this is that of updating Apps, some of which will not do so without breaking through the Great Firewall. By not updating Apps, one could potentially leave oneself open to malware threats given that updates sometimes deal with security flaws.

Beyond that, other aspects are an inconvenience or irritation. By planning ahead one should have enough reading material cached in Google Books, a good collection of offline music and even a film or two to watch, if space allows. One note of interest to users of Flixster; even if one has downloaded a movie in connection with one's Ultraviolet/Flixster account it will not play without an Internet connection. Downloaded Google movies will play perfectly without any Internet connection.

Even though WiFi is hard to find across the country, for short excursions the Nexus 7 is a far better companion than lugging a large or heavy laptop from place to place. And in respect to its use as a translation device it outdoes the iPad and other Apple devices for offline translation. Furthermore, the battery life is excellent, and by keeping screen time to a minimum the Nexus 7 can survive a full day of various tasks including translation, map reading and playing music. 

In short, even in a net restricted country like China, I would not be without my Nexus 7
[Updated 08/08/2013].

tvnewswatch, Kunming, Yunnan, China

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