A broken MacBook power adapter and crowdsourced charging

I spent my last two days and change at SXSW without a working power adapter for my MacBook Air, and remaining productive on my laptop was far easier than I could have imagined.

Frayed MacBook Air chargerThe insulation around the cable on my 2012 model’s MagSafe 2 charger had started fraying just off the power brick months ago. Sometime Sunday afternoon I realized that the wiring underneath had become entirely exposed, and the thing would only charge if it fell away from the brick at the right angle. By that night, it wouldn’t charge at all.

It’s a testament to the enormous popularity of Apple hardware that keeping my laptop charged over the next few days was so little trouble. It was nothing at all like the horrendous experience I had after forgetting to pack the charger for a Dell laptop on my way to CES 2007, when compatible power bricks for this model were a lot harder to find than Dell’s popularity at the time would have suggested.

Instead, my biggest hangup was properly spacing out my “hey, can I borrow your charger” requests so each of my SXSW pals with a MacBook Air wouldn’t feel too put upon. The closest I came to genuine inconvenience was when my Yahoo Tech colleague Jason Gilbert and I, sitting side by side with depleted laptops, had to take turns with his power adapter: We’d plug in one MacBook, charge it long enough to get its battery gauge out of the red, then plug in the other.

It also helps that laptop battery life has advanced enormously since 2007: Even after two and a half years of charge cycles, my MacBook can still last for four hours, then retain most of its remaining charge while asleep.

I didn’t even bother going to the Apple Store in Austin, far north of downtown, or looking up other computer stores downtown. I saved that errand for when I got home, when I paid $83.74 with tax for a replacement charger. Oof.

I’m not a fan of the minimalist, mono-port design of Apple’s new MacBook, but at least its use of the compact and crafty USB-C standard for charging means its users won’t have to pay those kinds of monopoly prices if they wind up in my situation.

In the meantime: Is there anything I could have done to the charger before it failed completely? The guy at the Apple Store who sold me the replacement said he sees plenty of charger cables shrouded with electrical tape, and it appears that I could have patched the cord with sugru–but of course I had neither of those things handy when the charger still worked, sort of. Sigh.

CES 2015 travel-tech report: less battery angst, more about bandwidth

One of my post-CES traditions, besides waiting for the din of slot machines to fade from my head, is critiquing how various gadgets and apps helped me cover the show. See, for instance, my 2012, 2013 and 2014 recaps.

CES 2015 gadgetsThis year, I once again leaned on my 2012 MacBook Air, paired with the Nexus 4 I bought last spring. I took all my notes on each in Evernote, and for once I didn’t have any sync conflicts; maybe the app was happy that I finally signed up for Evernote Premium?

Battery life on both the laptop and the phone has declined a bit as they’ve aged, but I had much less angst over that than I’d feared. Some credit for that goes to my having to step away from the show floor for an hour or so each day to write, which gave me a chance to plug in everything. Some also goes to the compact external phone charger WAMU gave me when I was on the Kojo Nnamdi Show in December. I have no idea who made that device, but it’s a great piece of hardware, including a micro-USB cable long enough to allow you to easily tuck it and a charging phone into a jacket pocket.

I remembered to pack my Belkin travel power strip this time; the two USB ports on the top helped charge devices overnight, while the extra outlets allowed me to not be a jerk when taking the last available wall outlet. See that flat contraption to the right of the power strip? It’s a Charge Card, a USB cable that’s been designed to fold flat and fit in a wallet. I picked up one from the vendor at CES a few years ago and remembered to bring it this time.

My primary source of bandwidth was not hotel or convention WiFi but LTE from the AT&T and Verizon mobile hotspots I’ve been reviewing for a future story. Most of the time, they worked great (their battery life makes them a much better choice than a phone for extended tethering), but the overwhelming amount of WiFi traffic sometimes prevented my Mac from connecting to either.

I shot a decent amount of pictures and video clips on my phone for quick sharing from the show floor, but for anything I wanted to publish I switched to the compact Canon 330 HS model I bought just before last year’s show. I’d picked out that model in particular for its ability to geotag photos using a companion phone app–but I never used that feature during the show. Why? I spent almost all of my time in only a few locations, while that Android app does too much damage to my phone’s battery if left running full-time.

I took a new gadget to the show, the Moto 360 smartwatch I reviewed in September. The experience strengthened my conviction that the idea here is sound–it really does help to have an external, wearable display for the most important notifications coming up on your phone–but the implementation needs work. In particular, charging should neither have to be a nightly routine nor require an ungainly cradle like the 360’s.

The other good reason to bring a smartwatch to a trade show: having its step counter inform you of how many miles you’ve walked. I peaked on Thursday with 25,308 steps.

The other new item I brought doesn’t count as a gadget, owing to its complete lack of electronics: a caliper that I bought after reading too many Apple Watch stories that offered only vague guesses about the device’s thickness. I used that cheap Home Depot purchase to check the thickness of a few smart watches and one absurdly thin HDTV.

2014 in review: old and new clients

Somewhere there must exist freelance writers who keep the same core group of clients for many years in a row, but I’m not one of them. This year, like last, saw the Web addresses and the names on checks and direct-deposit transfers change yet again.

2014 calendarRealizing the transient nature of freelance work makes me appreciate the third anniversary of my contract-columnist gig with USA Today that much more. They continue to be one of my favorite clients, and this year that association led to some enjoyable extra work at Gannett’s NowU site.

Then there’s Yahoo Tech. This year kicked off with the moderately mind-bending experience of seeing my photo and those of my fellow columnists on a giant slide during Marissa Mayer’s CES keynote; since then I’ve discovered that I work with a fun bunch of people, that moderating comments gets difficult after the first few hundred, and that I enjoy taking my own stock-photo shots more than I’d realized.

And selling extra stories to Yahoo Tech beyond my weekly column has generated some much-appreciated extra income… while allowing me to cross “fly in a private jet” off the bucket list.

After those two, the client that’s occupied the bulk of my time has been the Wirecutter. Writing its guide to wireless service–already updated once, with a second revision in the works–has involved an enormous amount of time and math, but it’s made me a better student of the wireless industry. And I appreciate how my friends there not only run a good comment system and participate in it regularly but will send me quick notes about noteworthy input there.

I’ll also give a shout out to VentureBeat, which has neatly filled a gap in my current lineup by allowing me to review gadgets and apps that I should check out but which already have reviewers assigned at Yahoo and USAT.

Most of this outside work stepped up in the last third of the year. That plus a few payment hiccups earlier that inconveniently coincided with quarterly-tax deadlines provided me with the humbling experience of developing an intense interest in each invoice’s progress. Things are fine now, but the experience left me more sympathetic to startup types who have to obsess over cash flow.

I traveled almost as much as I did last year but with a much less even distribution of trips. As in, I didn’t go anywhere for work in August but then spent over half of September away from home. Ugh. Can the conference-scheduling cabal space things out better in 2015?

Although I upgraded the security of my accounts this year, I didn’t make any serious hardware upgrades–the first time I’ve gone 12 months without any major computer or gadget purchases since I started freelancing. I hope the industry can forgive me.

Thanks again for reading, and I’ll see you all in 2015.

You can leave me voicemail

My phone’s been doing something weird over the past few weeks: It’s been ringing and buzzing with incoming calls.

Missed callsAnd not just any calls, but those in which the callers don’t leave a voicemail when I don’t pick up. I don’t pick up because it’s December and calls from tech-heavy area codes–206 and 415, I’m looking at you–usually mean CES PR pitches that, by virtue of referencing something happening weeks from now, do not require my immediate attention.

I keep wondering if one of these calls will break with the pattern and leave me with a voicemail summary. Instead, I only get Android’s after-the-fact identification of the PR agency behind the number. What happened? Was the caller on the verge of leaving a brilliant little soliloquy before he or she had the iPhone stolen. Did an attack by a bear interrupt things? I can only wonder.

I whined about this on Twitter, and one PR rep responded that he didn’t want to annoy journalists by adding yet another voicemail to their queue. I get where he’s coming from. But here’s the thing: A voice call without any here’s-what-you-missed followup (could be voicemail, could be e-mail, could be a tweet) basically reads as “my message is so important that I will not say it unless you drop everything to hear it in real-time.”

And that’s not something I want to do when I have this many to-do-list items to finish before CES.

Look, I have visual voicemail through Google Voice; playing messages is not that painful, and GV’s automatic transcription often makes it amusing too. Besides which, at the moment I can’t seem to get anybody to leave me voicemail. So if you do, PR friends, you can tell your client how this one weird trick made your message stand out from everybody else’s.

Why yes, I did get your CES PR pitch.

I’ve gotten seriously behind in my e-mail, even by my usual pathetic standards. To save time, I will use this post to answer an entire category of messages: e-mailed requests for my time during CES in Las Vegas next month.

CES 2014 tablet manAre you still going to CES?

Yes. Why should this January be any different from the last 16 17?

Will we see you at our press conference?

Good question! On one hand, the waits to get into big-ticket press conferences (that are more like lectures, what with the lack of time for Q&R or even hands-on inspection of these products) often preclude going to earlier events. On the other hand, I don’t know what my various editors will want me to do. Sorry, it’s complicated.

Would you like to schedule a show-floor meeting with [giant electronics company]?

Yes, probably. When one company’s exhibit space is a large fraction of an acre, getting a guided tour of the premises can be a real time-saver. If I haven’t gotten back to you yet, I will soon. Probably.

Can we schedule a show-floor meeting with [small gadget firm]?

Most likely not. The point of vendors paying exorbitant amounts of money for show-floor exhibit space is to provide a fixed target for interested attendees. So as long as you’ll have somebody there who can answer questions, I’ll get to you when I can. Hint: Telling me where to find your client in your first e-mail helps make that happen.

This general outline of my CES schedule may also be of use:

  • Tuesday, the first full day of the show, I probably won’t go further than the Central Hall of the LVCC.
  • Wednesday will find me there and then in the North Hall.
  • Thursday will probably be the soonest I can get to the South Hall’s two levels and to the Sands exhibit space.

We’re scheduling meetings at [someplace not at the convention center or walkable distance from it]. 

You do know how much CES logistics suck, right? The odds are not in your favor, not unless some attendance-required event pulls me off the show floor and near your event.

Can we set up a meeting at [ShowStoppers/Pepcom]?

Those two evening events, in which an outside PR firm books a hotel ballroom, rents tables to various gadget vendors and caters food and beverages so journalists can have dinner on their feet, constitute an efficient use of my time because I don’t have to find these companies and find time for them. Can we please not then get all OCD by booking a meeting inside an event at a spot inside a location?

Any interest?

I’d make fun of this follow-up, but I’ve used the same lame line when checking up on freelance pitches to potential clients.

The holiday season, as seen by a tech journalist

To those of you with normal jobs, this time of year means things like eating and spending too much, long travel to see far-flung relatives, having to remember where you stashed the ornaments, and wrestling with wrapping paper.

WreathIn my line of work, however, the holiday season includes all of those things and then a few extras:

  • Gift guidance: We’re expected to reel off lists of what computers, phones, tablets, other gadgets and games to buy, even if knowing that CES will offer us a peek at the next year’s crop of consumer electronics discourages gadget purchases at this time of the year. (I have escaped that particular obligation so far this year, but my Yahoo Tech colleagues have been busy offering tech-procurement advice; won’t you please check it out?)
  • Watching people make purchases they’ll regret: You will inevitably see somebody you care for buy the wrong device or app–perhaps because they read somebody else’s misinformed gadget-gift guide–and you can’t get too bent out of shape over that.
  • Holiday tech support: Taking a look at issues on the computers, phones, tablets and other gadgets of the people we see over the holidays is part of the deal. I can’t say I mind, since I can count on getting at least a couple of ideas for my USA Today Q&A column every holiday season.
  • A break from business travel: December is second only to August for its paucity of tech events likely to land on my travel schedule. I’m okay with that!
  • CES is coming: My enjoyment of quality time with friends and family always gets eaten away by the realization that only a few days after New Year’s, I’ll have to leave all that behind and spend five or so hours in a pressurized metal tube on my way to Vegas for this annual gadget gathering. CES is a good and useful event, but I sure would like to see it happen later in January.

Captions are good for panels, not just photos

LAS VEGAS–I am here once again for yet another conference, this time Tech Cocktail’s Celebrate. Some of the discussions here ranged a bit afield of my own consumer-tech focus, but It’s been a pretty good event overall–including my turn in the spotlight this morning, when I interviewed SmartThings founder Jeff Hagins about the future of smart homes and the “Internet of Things.”

Tech Cocktail Celebrate panelIn one respect, however, Celebrate has clearly outdone other conferences I’ve spoken at or attended. During every session here, the screen behind the stage has displayed these data points:

  1. each panelist’s name;
  2. each panelist’s photo;
  3. each panelist’s Twitter handle;
  4. the above presented in the order in which they’re seated onstage.

Conference organizers, won’t you please go and do likewise?

I hate having to hit Google to confirm who said which quotable quip, especially in the too-frequent cases when the panel is all or mostly white dudes. (Note: In those situations, the organizers should address their diversity issues first, then tackle their presentation.) Having to lean on Twitter’s clumsy search to look up people’s handles–it’s basic etiquette to mention somebody in a tweet about them, their company, or their product–amuses me even less.

Make it clear who’s talking and how to identify them when I tweet about the panel, and I can focus on taking notes and sharing them. And when I happen to be on the panel and check my phone for Twitter mentions (don’t judge…), I can be more confident that I’m not missing any backchannel banter about my performance.

While you’re doing that, event planners, don’t forget to consult my advice about conference-badge design.

(Disclosure: I’ve known Tech Cocktail founders Frank Gruber and Jen Consalvo since at least 2009, long enough for them to move from “people I deal with for work” to “people I enjoy talking to outside of work.”)