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US geek takes on the wacky world of British technology

A trip to the UK takes CNET writer Amanda Kooser through a world of British tech quirks, full of baffling toilet buttons and an alphabet soup of cellular networks.

Amanda Kooser in the UK
I chose slightly the wrong shade of camouflage. Amanda Kooser/CNET

You've heard the quip about how America and England are two countries separated by a common language. I would like to modify that to two countries separated by the same technology.

I spent several weeks roaming around in London and the Peak District, a national park in the north-central area of the country. Along the way, I encountered mysterious toilet buttons, washers that doubled as dryers, endless electrical switches and the joys of Netflix UK.

Cell phone in England.
I found a tiny oasis of cellular data in the town of Bakewell. Amanda Kooser/CNET

Sorting out cellular

My British-technology adventure started as soon as I disembarked the ship in Southampton, wandered over to a massive mall and hunted down fresh SIM cards for my iPad Mini Retina and my unlocked Verizon Moto X. I picked up both from O2, a large cellular service provider. I chose O2 because I heard it had decent coverage in the Peak District, parts of which are quite isolated.

I was thrilled to get an iPad SIM with 1GB of data for about £10 -- that's $15 -- and a Moto X SIM with 2GB of data and a big talk and text allowance for around £20 ($30). Why can't prices be this good in the US? Chalk one up for UK tech. Both of my devices were up and running within minutes.

Coverage was perfect in London, but more of a challenge in the Peak District. I stayed in the town of Bakewell and had no functioning data service within large chunks of it. My strongest coverage was when I stepped out into green fields full of lambs with nary another person in sight. I'm not sure where the cell towers are hiding in the Peak District. I never noticed one. But if I needed to check my email on my Moto X, my best bet was to hike up a hillside and hang out with the local sheep.

My only cellular confusion came in interpreting the different network names as they appeared on the top of my phone. There were H+, H, E and G. They seemed to pop up randomly, but I soon learned the only one worth a damn is "H+." If I saw that designation, I knew I could use the Internet. [UK editor's note: They're different network protocols, and stand for HSDPA+, HSDPA, Edge and GSM. As Amanda found they represent a falling scale of Internet speeds -- HSDPA is a kind of 3G, whereas Edge and GSM are 2G.]

Skip to the loo

Other aspects of UK technology turned out to be more challenging. I'm talking about toilets. There are two buttons, one small button tucked into a larger button. The small button seems to do nothing at all. The big button seems to induce a typhoon. I tried them separately and together and never sorted out exactly what they're supposed to do. I could have googled to find out how it works, but I was determined to leave an intriguing shroud of mystery over my British adventure.

The cottage I rented in Bakewell came equipped with a very European gadget known as a washer-dryer. This space-saving wonder is both a washer and dryer in one machine. My first attempt at using it resulted in about two hours of washing and four hours of drying, after which my clothes were still damp and my unwrinkleable travel shirt had a hundred permanent new creases that wouldn't iron out. I've concluded that the washer-dryer is a modern form of clothing torture.

Another interesting quirk in England is how every electrical plug has its own on/off switch. Several times I plugged in my laptop or phone to charge up only to find later I'd overlooked the switch for the plug. I'm sure this is a smart safety feature that helps prevent gadgets from sucking power, but it takes some getting used to.

Better call Netflix UK

Though I worship British broadcast television for bringing us "Doctor Who" and "Monty Python," I have to give special kudos to Netflix UK. All my friends back in the US are still waiting for "Breaking Bad" prequel show " Better Call Saul" to show up on the streaming service. I, however, got to binge the whole series from the comfort of a cottage in the middle of a national park in England.

While I may never solve the enigma of the toilet buttons, I found plenty to love about the tech and geek world of England. I visited Thornbridge Brewery, a computer-controlled stainless-steel wonderland of microbrews in Bakewell. I drank a "Bilbo" cocktail (a raunchy coconut and citrus contraption) at The Hobbit, a Lord of the Rings-themed bar, in Southampton. My conclusion? The UK is a good place to geek.