Seville: All things tech

For those of you who consider yourself to be "tech savvy", who right now may be worried about losing all the digital and gadget comforts of the U.S.you can relax in most cases. Some of you may want to bring a laptop with you. Others of you may be simply be looking for a recommendation on the features of a digital camera you plan to bring. More will be added as time permits. Meanwhile, enjoy the image to the right: Seville is where they invented the first phone made entirely of cured pork, which you can hanging in in the photo. Ok, so there is no pork phone. But if there were it would surely be invented in Seville.

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Many of you plan on bringing your computer and most often it will be a laptop. One of the advantages of bringing your own computer is using the English version of your OS. While it's probably a good idea to learn the Spanish equivalent for XP, 2000 or Mac OS, it will take some time to figure out the new vocabulary. The options are generally in the same place but you'll still be guessing from time to time.


A few other advantages of laptops:
  • Portability: you can take them to a lot of cyber cafes and connect to the internet, either with Wi-Fi or using a network cable.
  • Automatic switching power supply:almost all laptops can handle both the U.S. and Spanish voltage. You simply buy a new power cord when you arrive in Spain and plug it in. No need for converters, etc.
  • Keyboard:you can stick with your English keyboard and avoid learning a different keyboard layout here in Spain.


Some, like myself, can't stand the though of a laptop as their primary computer. While it's a little more of a challenge you can put together a desktop computer in the U.S. that will work in Spain. A few notes on what you need to consider:

  • Make sure the model you have has a switching power supply. These are not common and you may have to special order one for your existing desktop. There are a few out there which offer this standard.
  • Consider what is called a small form factor (sff) computer. These are much smaller than theSmall Form Factor computer from Shuttle normal desktop towers. Mine is the size of a toaster and I even got a cool little bag to bring it back and forth to the states.
  • Buy a monitor in Spain. You don't want to even try to bring your monitor over unless you're considering a larger scale move. And again you'll be caught dealing with the voltage change. While monitors are a little more expensive here it is worth selling the one you have and buying a new one here.
  • Bring your keyboard with you, unless you want to change to a new layout they use in Spain. There are of course some advantages to a new layout, especially if you plan to write in Spanish a lot. Having the ñ as an option is quite handy. Then there are some confusing parts to switching to the layout here - like finding the @ key. Either way you want to go.

Many, as I did, may plan to use a TV tuner card on their computer to watch television in Spain. The problem is many cards in the U.S., like televisions, come only with NTSC compatibility. The ATI All-in-Wonder is a good example. The card sold in Europe is only PAL compatible while the card in the U.S. only NTSC capable. There are a rare few models out there which include both PAL and NTSC capabilities. I think back to my first ATI card that offered it some 5 years ago (those days are long gone), or a few other models which are still out there. However, this only applies to the actual antenna which plugs directly into the card. If you choose to use composite video cables you can switch the tuner to PAL video and receive a perfectly good signal. The downside to this is that you'll need a separate tuner, like a VCR or cable (satellite) box. With one of the two you can hook up to your computer but you'll need to the remote to the VCR or cable box to change channels. Using this set-up you'll also lose Teletexto. If you do buy the tuner card in Spain and install it, an easy option, you'll be able to plug it in and go, and get the use of Teletexto.



Wi-Fi has certainly begun to hit the home market in Spain, although wireless routers and other equipment is still more expensive than in the U.S. and some other countries. And unlike in the U.S. you will likely have to purchase the equipment from your ISP (service provider) instead of going out on your own and buying the equipment. My first experience with Telefonica wireless was interesting in this respect - they sent me a modem-router which could be set-up to use WiFi with an additional PCMCIA card which fit into a slot in the back of the modem-router. Seeing the price on the Telefonica web site for one of these PCMCIA cards I decided I could do better on my own and find one cheaper. I did manage to save 20 Euros, but it wasn't until a few days later and a couple of calls to Telefonica that I was informed only Telefonica brand PCMCIA cards would work with the modem-router. Seems Telefonica used a little code which blocked other cards from working with their equipment for no other reason but to have a monopoly on the sales of these cads to their clients. Since then the modem-router turned out to be a bust: there were so many problems with them that they stopped providing the units to their customers. Thankfully now they provide decent equipment.

Wi-Fi has yet to hit most of the internet cafes so bringing a laptop or PDA with a wireless card won't be of great help. This is slowly changing since the beginning of 2005 and their are some open hot spots around the city center. Soon I will be adding a list of where you can connect, just don't hold me responsible if you get in trouble for using someone else's bandwidth.


Ordenador del bosillo

I chose a Pocket PC (Toshiba e740) to bring with me, and it is likely not the most practical option. I do miss the days of my Palm III and the easily replaceable AA batteries that run it. I just wanted more gadget than practicality and like the screen and built in Wi-Fi. I purchased a continuous run converter and that is how I powered it up before I realized a few simple options. The USB synch and charge cable they have now for $19.95. Then one day I decided to read the back of the little two cable plug for the unit and saw the CE. Seems all I needed was a new cable for 1 Euro and I was able plug it in and power up. Do consider how your PDA will be charged before bringing it over - AA batteries are always easiest, but most have dropped that option and need to be plugged in. If they cannot be powered by a USB cable and they don't have the CE symbol on the back you'll need a convert or to keep it charged. You have a two choices: a continuous run converter which you can leave plugged in all day, or a travel converter (less expensive) which can be plugged in for a few hours but which you should not keep plugged in all day. Finally, a PDA is a nice toy but you can't go around playing with it in the streets. Some of these PDAs cost upwards of $350 or more and they are a target for petty theft. I've learned to keep mine in a pocket within a notebook/folio I carry around for work. I don't tend to flash it around when I am in a cafe or bar, but will break it out in El Corte Inglés when I need to go over my grocery list.

As with most computers and gadgets I'd recommend purchasing a PDA in the U.S., especially considering the exchange rate. A quick comparison of street prices in January of 2004 shows you why:

model U.S. Price Spain Price
Palm Tungsten T $299 489€
Toshiba e740 $269 425€
iPaq h1930 $309 299€

We are no entering late 2005 and I still recommend buying in the U.S. While other goods have started to come down in price, PDAs seem to remain much more expensive in Spain than in other countries.

Digital Cameras

Cámeras digitales

Digital cameras are becoming the choice of more and more travelers. Not having to buy film every where you go will save you money, although the batteries may cost you. Choosing a model can be difficult when considering megapixels, resolution, digital and optical zoom, size and available accessories. When it comes down to it the model best suited for your trip may be different from what someone else or I choose. If you want prints from a digital camera a better resolution (and more megapixels) is needed. If you only plan to post on the web you may be able to opt for a less expensive model, although ultimately the picture quality may suffer. For my set-up here I did a little research and came away with some conclusions on what worked best for me:

  • Get a AA battery (or AAA) powered camera. While it will be more expensive to buy batteries, it's also a big hassle to have to recharge your camera when you are in the middle of a the Alcazar or some other place. AA batteries are everywhere so you can buy them without problem or carry a spare set with you. This is especially important if you plan to travel a lot, and less important if you plan to stay in one place. I also purchased rechargeable AA batteries which have worked great. Those regular AAs now serve as my back up.
  • Consider the type of media. Smart media, compact flash, mini-disk are a few. Consider the storage size of each: how many pictures you can fit on the card and if it is reusable media how often will you have to download the pictures so you have space to take more? Many cameras come with card that hold a very small amount of memory. THankfully there have been some big price drops in memory cards in the last year. That is starting to happen in Spain, but in the U.S. they are much cheaper.
  • Consider a 6-in-1 card reader. There are many models as cheap as $15 and they can hook up to any computer via a USB port. They are very light and small and can fit in most camera bags. You also don't lose battery life downloading your photos. There are internet cafes in Sevilla which will let you download pictures and burn them to a CD.
  • Digital zoom is crap. If your looking for zoom capabilities focus on the optical zoom specs for your camera. Digital zoom allows you to get even closer but the resulting picture will be fuzzy and/or pixilated. Certainly nothing you'll want to save.
  • Resolution is the key. Especially if you want to make prints from the pictures you've taken. If you plan only to store them digitally to send to friends or post on your web site you'll be fine with a cheaper model. For making prints adjust your camera resolution according to the print size you desire. Below is a helpful chart for determining resolution which I found on this nice site:
Camera Resolution Print Size (approx)
1024 x 768 3.6" x 2.7"
1152 x 864 4.1" x 3.1"
1280 x 960 4.5" x 3.4"
1600 x 1200 5.7" x 4.2"
2000 x 1500 7.1" x 5.3"

DVDs and DVD Players

DVD y reproductores de DVD

Thanks to the movie studios you can't bring your DVDs over and just pop them into a stand alone DVD player here. The movie industry decided to use region codes for DVD and DVD players in order to control distribution as well as (in my opinion) illegally fix prices. Each continent has a region code of 1-5 and a DVD sold in Spain or Europe will have a fixed code different from the same DVD sold in the U.S. or Canada. The same DVD you pay $13-15 for in the U.S. may cost you 20€ here as well. There are of course differences - castellano is an option here on all DVDs where you may not have that option in the U.S.. Extra features such as behind the scenes may be cut or simply included without a Spanish audio track. Aside from that the industry simply doesn't want you to be able to order from Amazon or another company in the U.S. and cheat the distributor (and the industry's cut of selling the distribution rights) of potential revenue. The DVD player you buy here will also have a fixed code, so the industry is trying to keep it safe for themselves on both the media and hardware options. There are now several region free players on the market which allow you to play any DVD. Most will work with NTSC DVDs as well, and while more expensive, they may prove a worthwhile investment if you have a large DVD collection you want to bring over with you.

What you can find for stand alone units are more or less the same range of DVD players for the same prices in other countries. There are plenty of sub 100€ models (I saw a DVD player the other day for 40€) and others which reach into the 300-500€ range. As in the U.S. the same characteristics are the reason for the price differences - the way the DVD is read, formats and media it will read, number and type of connections in the back, sound capabilities, etc all will influence the amount of money you spend.

If you have a DVD player on your computer you can watch your DVDs from the U.S., but depending on your screen size and sound system that may not be your best option. If you plan to go with the computer route consider that you're fine if you stick to using only the DVDs from the U.S. and not using any you buy or rent here in Spain. Almost all software programs you run to view a DVD on your machine will have you set the region code once you first use it. From there you can change your region code up to 5 times, with the 5th time locking in the region code for the last DVD you used. Example: you watch your U.S. DVD and then watch a few purchased in Spain. Upon using inserting the DVDs you purchased in Spain you will receive a warning that these are from different region and the amount of times you have left to change the region. After a few times of switching back and forth between the regions the software locks in the last region (on your 5th time switching) so you are stuck being able to play either the U.S. region code DVDs or your Spain (Europe) region code DVDs. You will not be able to go back to the other after it is locked. A special thanks to the industry for sticking it to the traveling consumer.

All said there are plenty of alternatives and ways to get around the region codes, some legal and others maybe not. A quick way around this region junk for a stand alone player is to search for DVD region hacks in Google. If you want to know what a crock of *%#%* the region codes are this method will make you realize it quickly. I was able to strip the region code from my stand alone Samsung player by doing a quick search in some forums. After entering a series of numbers on the remote and pressing 1 or 2 additional keys, my player restarted and presto - it is now region free and I can watch any of my DVDs from the U.S. on my DVD player! If you have both a computer and a stand alone DVD player purchased here you can choose to use the stand alone for the European region and the computer for the U.S. region. Not a bad option (it's the one I chose for a while) if you have a large monitor and a decent sound system hooked up to the computer. I have recently moved my desktop computer into the living room and have connected it to my flat panel television (which has a VGA, or computer monitor input on the back). Not only can I now watch all my DVDs from back home on my television, but I can also watch any TV program I download from the internet. Another option for stand alone players was one suggested to me by a couple of jerks in a high-end video and sound store here. I buy a DVD player there and they open it up and change it so it is region free for only 250€. Now these guys aren't jerks because they offered to do this, even if the price is pretty damn steep. They're jerks because of a separate incident - they lie to sell you anything more expensive and when proven wrong or challenged of course they know best and "get the hell out of their store". Considering what they're offering to do - change a region code in a stand alone player as a vendor of many well-know brands - is illegal, they should try and treat their customers a little better. One of us may get tired of their crap and report them someday (hint, hint).

My rant being over... you can also buy a region free player but that will cost you more. Certainly an option if you have more money to throw around. First try to find a hack for your DVD player, which will cost you much, much less.

On the computer side things get a little easier. There are some software players out there you can buy which work with most brands that will strip the region option. If you prefer a trickier (and somewhat riskier) solution you can actually "upgrade" the firmware of your player which will eliminate the region checking as well. If you get it wrong be prepared to have your DVD player turned into a paperweight. Then there are plenty of software options which for $50 you can strip the region from you player as well. Although not as good in quality and not a true commercial option, VCDs are wonderful for skipping all of the region code "BS". Thanks to a friend and a fellow in the UK who likes to upload to newsgroups I have 5-6 seasons of the Simpson's in VCD format. They work in both my standalone and computer - no PAL or NTSC to worry about either.

VCRs and video tapes

Videos y cintas de video

Thank goodness times are changing and the VCR is no longer the best way to watch a rented movie. If you want to record this is your only option aside from $1000 video hard drives (PVR) and a very small selection of still expensive recordable DVD players. Times are now changing and those hard drives are coming down quick. DVD burners are also down to about 250 - 300€, likely because they are about to be replaced by better units. PVRs are still very expensive and have yet to be integrated with cable or satellite terminals. That means if you buy a PVR you will have to set it to record like a VCR. Sorry TiVo lovers, the service nor anything like it has made an appearance in Spain yet. Two companies are developing a similar system, one which has an integrated recordable DVD player and some other crap you don't need to bundle in. Prices are in the thousands of Euros, not quite like TiVo. VCRs were similar to televisions in that they are PAL or NTSC specific. (For more information on PAL and NTSC see the Television page). Things have changed for the better and at least half of the new VCRs on the market have what is called NTSC playback. That means you can play NTSC or U.S. tapes on your VCR using your PAL television. The picture is often a little smaller than the actual screen size, but this is a very workable solution. Without problems I watched an entire season of the Amazing Race on tapes a friend sent to me. That was before I learned about BitTorrents. What you can't do is record TV on an NTSC tape. You'll have to buy a tape in Spain if you wish to record.

CDs and transporting your music collection

CD y transportar tu colección de música

In the new digital age it is getting easier and easier to transport your music with you and leave your Cds behind. It's also easier to find the latest tracks from an artist, download and burn them. That or simply get the CD from a friend and make a quick copy. So I won't spend too much time going over the purchasing of a CD in this section. Do know there are two places which are your best bets to buy a new CD: Sevilla Rock and El Corte Inglés. CDs are expensive in Spain, which unfortunately helps the sale of pirated versions in the street. Often you're looking at 12-16€ or higher when purchasing them new. If you can piece together a large enough order you may be better off ordering from Amazon and having it shipped abroad.

I had a collection of some 700 CDs, most of which I don't listen to anymore. Still, I didn't want to leave any of them behind and knew I wasn't going to ship boxes of CDs over. That left me with one solution: burning and storing. So I researched a few storage options. I didn't want to lose 30 gigs or so of space on my computer as I've got enough games and applications to fill a few hard drives. So it needed to be an external solution. My first thought was an MP3 player like the iPod and I admit it was attractive, not just the look but the easy user interface. There were plenty of other options such as the Nomad and other hand held devices. I could also bring it with me on the road and have my entire collection wherever I traveled! But I'd run the risk of losing it or having it stolen and then my whole collection would be gone. Then there was the price of the iPod - about $400 for the model which had enough storage for my entire collection. Prices have since come down, and integration with your stereo (car of home) has become much easier. Other non-Mac options were cheaper but I was still looking at over $250. And at least for me bringing music on the road wasn't such a big deal anymore.

This all led me to the idea of an external hard drive, which had several advantages. First, I could get 60 Gigs of storage for around $120 (now it is likely double the space for the same price!) . Second, my collection would be hooked up to my PC and ready for play whenever I needed it: no transferring of tunes from the iPod or other device to the hard drive if I wanted to listen to them. Keep in mind it is now much easier to play directly from a hand-held device such as an iPod, but you still don't get the sound quality you would get from a good sound card. Not to mention I'd prefer to navigate on my computer rather than through a 2" LCD screen to find what I want. This is getting easier every year, so my thinking on this may be a bit outdated. Considering I had already bought a continuous run transformer and had an extra outlet I wouldn't have any additional costs due to the voltage change. This was also before I realized that with a 2€ investment I could simply change the plug and the hard drive would work! I'm just looking back on some of my oversights now. Another solution is a hard drive without an external power source. Instead the hard drive gets it's power from the computer's USB or Firewire port. These drives are more expensive when you consider the $ or € per gigabyte ratio. They also have slower read and write speeds (generally 5400 instead of 7200 for a drive with an external power source. For music there are no playback issues, while for video it may take longer to load up, but in general there is no loss in quality.

I also had to decide what software I would use to burn and play my music. I chose MusicMatch because it made my life much easier when cataloging my tunes. MusicMatch, like a lot of the software for digitally storing music, automatically downloads the title and track information as well as the cover art for each CD. It even assigns a category so you can browse by genre, although I've found that less useful than other functions. If I wanted a CD to bring along somewhere I could always burn one - plus it's easier to bring a CD to play when you're at someone's house than trying to hook up an MP3 player to their stereo. AGain, that has changed over the last year or so, but you can't get any easier than inserting a CD into a player.

Digital Media: CDR, CDRW, DVDR, Compact Flash, SD Cards and more

CDR, CDRW, DVDR, Compact Flash, Tarjeta SD y má

First off, don't worry as it's all here, though it may be harder to locate. There is a price difference when buying in Spain and the exchange rate doesn't help. However, every day the prices seem to be coming down and it's getting closer to some of the deals you can find in Best Buy and CompUSA. I notice a large difference when it's a matter of the popularity of a certain technology. For instance as I write this DVD+R are double the cost in Spain compared to the U.S. A lot of prices below come from El Corte Inglés which I am recommending less and less every day for these purchases. It does seem that some of the name brands we are all familiar with tend to be in El Corte Inglés and other off brands often pop up in some other stores. So I still stuff a 50 pack of CDs or DVDs in my bag when I return from the U.S.. Now that I own a DVD burner I'd be a fool not to buy in the U.S.. Memory cards will always be cheaper in the states as well. The only advantage in Spain which many overlook are that prices already include IVA, or tax. That still doesn't make it cheaper, but a little more competitive. A quick comparison of El Corte Inglés prices shows you the differences:

Media U.S. Price Spain Price
CD-R (50-pack) $15 22€
CD-RW (10-pack) $12 18€
DVD+R (25-pack) $13 25€
CF Card (512MB) $25 35€
USB II Card reader $20 30€

I should make one note - the absolute worst place to buy this type of media is El Corte Inglés. Their prices in some instances are 100% higher than the smaller computer stores. And buying off-brand media will help keep your cost down, although in some cases you may experience incompatibility issues with stand alone DVD/CD players. Note that these prices will vary in either the U.S. and Spain. I also don't get into the whole DVD-R, DVD+R and DVD-RAM differences as I use exclusively DVD+R. . I need to make a quick trip to El Corte Inglés and a few other stores - soon I'll post prices for the rest of the media in the table above!

Dream set-up

el sueño tecnológico

Its always fun to talk about what the ultimate computer and audio/video set-up would be as an expat. I am slowly working on mine (I think by now you may realize that I have a problem with gadgets, computers and audio/video equipment. An expensive addiction which often means many lost hours of frustration in tweaking and troubleshooting). The below dream scenario would keep me locked away in the house for several months:

  • Dual satellite systems: Digital Plus (Spanish satellite) as well as Sky Satellite with a PVR. This gets me all of the Spanish and English programming one could hope for. The PVR on the Sky satellite system means I can record any programs just by selecting it from the guide. I would also be a fool not to subscribe to NASN, so I could catch pro and college sports from back home. This means erecting two separate satellite dishes, one much bigger to catch the signal for Sky. If I was really crazy I would also find a way to subscribe to the Armed Forces Satellite service (National networks and sports programming), although this would require some bribing of military officials somewhere. Something I may get thrown in jail just for talking about. I would also add a separate terminal and remote controlled satellite dish for Free view from Astra and other satellites. I could pick up all the channels that are out there for free.
  • Windows Media Center PC with DVD burner and 400 Gig hard drive in my living room: Promised to be out in the fall of 2005, but more likely to be Spring of 2006, is Windows XP Media Center edition in Spanish. With this I could then record programs from any video source. 400 gigs would give me plenty of space, and I could download TV shows and movies from the internet and play them back on my television. I could also strip the region code for the DVD and watch my movies from the U.S. as well as Spain. Because the computer would be connected to my television through a monitor cable I wouldn't have to worry about any NTSC and PAL playback issues. I could also subscribe to some of the online sports packages such as ESPN Full Court Press, CBS NCAA Tournament, and ESPN College Football. Then on my television I could watch streaming live video of college sports.
  • A laptop...and a Tablet PC, and a PDA all with WiFi of course.
  • LCD large screen television (HD ready): 40" or greater with a resolution high enough to view my computer and surf the net. Things like Google Earth are much better on a 40" display, not to mention the postage stamp size window for watching streaming video becomes much bigger. This television would have plenty of connections for digital video and audio, plus VGA for my computer.
  • Home Cinema with Surround Sound: I have reached the age where I no longer need the best of every component. A small wireless 5.1 system with good sound would be enough. Stand alone DVD player/burner which is region free and has NTSC compatible playback. I don't care if this is redundant with my Media Center PC DVD player. Sometimes I don't want to boot up my computer to watch or record a DVD.
  • Wireless network: The highest speed internal network possible to stream video and audio throughout the house. I want to be able to to watch video, listen to music or share files on any device - laptop, PDA, Desktop, home stereo or television. I don't care if I never use it - I want just want to have the possibility to!
  • A 20Mbit internet connection: Telefonica keeps upgrading us for free, but I am still stuck with a 1Mbit connection for about 40€ per month. I would prefer 20Mbit, thank you.
  • TiVo for Spain: someone who can produce a low entry cost product which does what TiVo does: an easy to use interface, searchable by actor, title, show, etc. I want to select a program and record it, not set up a PVR to record at a certain time on a certain channel. I want one touch record in Spain! And if it is redundant with my XP Media Center computer, I just don't care. I want them both.

Now my spoiled brat - want, want, want - exercise is over. As I mentioned before, I have a problem with technology.


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