This digital life: A reset of the TV set

The joke people used to share about the coming computerization of consumer electronics was that we could all look forward to rebooting the TV. Well, ha ha, because that’s exactly what I did Saturday night.

TV powerAnd I should have seen that coming. For a few days before, the power LED on our 2009-vintage Sony had been blinking red. I ignored it (we watch so little TV it’s almost un-American), and then we decided to change up our toddler’s post-dinner routine by letting her watch the episode of “Cosmos” we’d recorded earlier. (We’re bringing our kid up right!) But only minutes into the show, the TV clicked, shut off and rebooted.

And then it did the same, again and again, until Daddy gave up after having possibly expanded his daughter’s vocabulary.

Some quick searching determined that a flashing red light indicated that “there may be an issue with the TV.” Unplugging the TV for a minute and then plugging it back in didn’t cure the issue, so it was time to reset the set to its factory defaults.

(Before I look like I’m whining too much about Sony, I should note that this TV got free software updates through April 2012, which is far better support than most smartphones get.)

The procedure was uncommonly like resetting a Mac’s NVRAM or System Management Controller: Hold down the up-arrow button on the remote, press and release the power button on the TV, release the remote’s up-arrow button.

A moment later, the TV asked me to go through the setup routine I had not done since unboxing it in the summer of 2009: Zip code for its no-longer-supported over-the-air program guide, date, time, cable or antenna, and so on. I knew it had finished detecting all 30-odd digital broadcasts when salsa music began blasting out of its speakers–courtesy of the sole remaining analog TV broadcast in the Washington area, WDCN’s low-power, audio-only signal.

And I couldn’t lower the volume: With the TV in its setup mode, the remote’s volume buttons didn’t work, while those on the side of the set only stepped forward or backwards through this configuration routine. With our daughter’s bedtime at hand, I gave up, then resumed the effort the next day, when I had to sit, wait and listen as the TV took an improbably long time to detect its wired Internet connection and conclude its setup.

And now everything seems to be fine. I hope it stays that way. But, really, should I even complain that much? One factory reset in five years makes this Linux-based device one of the most reliable computer-ish things I’ve ever owned.

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International upgrades: plugs, phone, passport

Preparing for an overseas event like Mobile World Congress or IFA isn’t too different from getting ready for CES, except that your power adapters and phone won’t work like usual, and you can find yourself waiting a whole lot longer to escape the airport when you return.

Plug adapter, SIM and passportTo address the first issue at MWC, I packed a small power-plug adapter from Monoprice. I picked that not because the Cube2 cost $15 and change at the time, but because it includes two USB ports to charge other devices. This is actually the second one of these I’ve used; the first had its USB ports go dead, but Monoprice sent a replacement after I returned the old one at their expense.

To fix the second problem, I once again bought a prepaid SIM–which at Barcelona’s airport, I was able to do before even reaching baggage claim. (Making this purchase is not so easy elsewhere; Berlin’s Tegel airport has no such retailer.) I opted for an Orange prepaid SIM, $21.05 at the current exchange rate, with 1 gigabyte of data but no included calling or texting.

I was fine with that, since I could always place a VoIP call using the GrooVe IP app, while texts to and from my Google Voice number continued to travel over the Internet. And the one time somebody did phone me from D.C., I happened to be in the press room with my laptop open, so I took the call via Google Plus’s Hangouts app—and broke it to a TV producer that I couldn’t make it into the studio that evening to discuss OS X’s “gotofail” vulnerability.

Despite being on my phone all the time, I only used up 313 megabytes of data. Almost 100 megs came from tethering: I loaned my connection to a Yahoo Tech colleague who needed to finish a few edits after the WiFi was turned off at an event. It’s always nice to be able to give the gift of free bandwidth.

Finally, my return to the U.S. did not involve the usual wait to show my passport and get it stamped, courtesy of Global Entry. After years of hearing friends rave about this trusted-traveler program, I finally signed up at the end of last year (it helped that my frequent-flyer status meant United covered the $100 application fee). It was kind of magical to exit customs 12 minutes after getting off the plane at Newark; doing so by having a machine scan my fingerprints and then report a match with a government database added the faintest whiff of dystopian sci-fi. Having spent more than an hour to clear customs at Dulles, I think I can live with that.

Making use of misfit review hardware

One of the recurring First World problems in technology journalism is possessing review hardware that you don’t get around to reviewing anywhere. That’s easier to happen than you might think: The device you want to review only works with another one that doesn’t warrant a writeup from you; a PR shop sends along a gadget you don’t need along with one you requested; you ask for a loaner device but then can’t interest a paying client in a story on it.

Chromebook Pixel with Galaxy Note 3 and Republic Wireless Moto XEither way, I hate to send the hardware in question back without getting some journalistic value out of it. (No, I don’t get to keep review hardware for my own use–and selling it on eBay isn’t an option either.) Here’s how I’ve tried to make additional use out of three gadgets that found their way to me without making it into a detailed review by me.

Galaxy Note 3: This size-XL phone was a supporting actor in my reviews of Samsung’s Galaxy Gear watch. I’ve since used this Sprint-spec Note 3 as a guinea pig in tests of the charging speed of its forked USB 3 cable (it was only about 22 percent faster than a generic USB cable) and of Absolute Software’s Lojack kill-switch app. I’ve also been taking notes on which of Samsung’s default settings merit changing–starting with that annoying whistle notification sound. Look for a cheat sheet on that topic, here or somewhere else.

Moto X: When Republic Wireless sent me its version of this phone, I was sure I could sell somebody on an assessment of how its WiFi-centric wireless service has evolved since last summer’s cruder offering. Nope! The loaner unit got a brief mention in a post about some positive trends in the mobile-phone industry and hasn’t shown up in any stories since then. I’ve used it to check the speed of Sprint’s LTE in my neighborhood (just now at my desk, a weak 4.51 Mbps down and 4.58 Mbps up) and to check its battery life (unsurprisingly enough, it’s vastly better on WiFi).

Chromebook Pixel: At Google’s I/O conference this May, journalists were invited to take home loaner units of this $1,299 Chrome OS laptop. I thought it would be educational to see how the Web looked on an ultra-high-resolution, 2560-by-1700-pixel display. Answer: pretty sharp! But I’ve spent surprisingly little time on the thing. For me, at least, the utility of a laptop with all of my usual apps trumps the beauty of a screen bereft of those tools. My last intensive use of the machine was to set up a fake Facebook account so I could check the social network’s default settings for a how-to post at Yahoo Tech, but this laptop’s smooth gray finish has also served as a backdrop in a few gadget close-up shots.

If you have any lingering questions about these devices that I might be able to answer, speak up now–sometime in the next few days, they’re all going home.

CES 2014 journalism-tech report

For once, I made it through a CES without my phone dying. But it was close: Wednesday night, I arrived at a party with my phone showing 2 percent of a charge left. One of the hosts asked if I wanted a drink, and I replied that I could use an outlet first.

Phone battery charging

America’s annual gadget gathering is an unfriendly environment for gadgets. Too many people using too many phones, tablets and laptops result in jammed airwaves and a severe power shortage.

And this year, I gambled a little by not bringing any a spare review phone or two for backup. Plugging in my Nexus 4 every time I was sitting down helped the phone survive the show. But I also think I tweeted less than last year and didn’t take as many pictures as I expected (including only one panorama and no “photo spheres”).

I should have packed an external phone charger–my MacBook Air, unlike the ThinkPad I brought to CES in 2012, can’t charge a phone when closed and asleep in my bag, and it’s not that fast at replenishing my phone when awake. (On the other hand, the ThinkPad doesn’t have a backlit keyboard, making it far inferior to the MacBook for keynote note-taking.) I also should have remembered to pack my travel power strip, which I sorely missed on press-conference day but survived without the rest of the trip.

WiFi was not quite as reliable as last year, but it did suffice in the only places Ethernet was a viable option–meaning I never used the MacBook’s USB-to-Ethernet adapter.

The Canon 330 HS camera I’d picked up at a low, low sale price on the Wirecutter’s advice worked out better than I’d expected (see my Flickr set from CES to judge for yourself). I never even had to recharge the battery, and it was compact enough to leave in a jacket pocket full-time.

But after I couldn’t get the Canon’s WiFi linked to my phone–the upcoming 340 HS that I saw at CES should ease that by automating the pairing process with NFC wireless–I was stuck geotagging and uploading photos on a computer, same as ever.

That communication breakdown also cost me the chance to have the phone fix the incorrect date I’d set on the camera. Yes, I was the guy still writing “2013″ on his photos, something I only noticed when I couldn’t find them at the end of my iPhoto library. Everybody point and laugh now… because I’m totally sure this mistake will have been engineered out of possibility by the time I pack for CES 2015.

Side effect of reviewing gadgets: a largely gadget-free Christmas

Since I see so much gadget coverage timed for the holiday season–and have contributed a fair amount of it in the past–I have to assume that normal people give and get gadgets around the holidays.

Present ornament

But I am not normal! I understand why I rarely get the output of the electronics industry as a present; if a friend worked as a chef, I’d feel intimidated trying to buy kitchen gadgets or cookbooks. And as a freelancer, anything that I could use on the job should come out of my budget so it can land as an expense on my Schedule C at tax time.

But I also rarely buy myself gadgets as presents, even when there’d be no reasonable work connection. For that I blame the advent of CES: Knowing that I’m going to get a peek at the next six months to a year of the electronic industry’s handiwork two weeks after Christmas makes me leery of any non-trivial gadget purchases in the month before.

So what do you get for friends or family in the same disreputable profession that still acknowledges their professional interest? Cheap and non-obvious accessories can work. One of the better gadget-related gifts I ever got was a tiny, silicone smartphone stand that attaches to the phone’s back with a suction cup. It’s helped me stage more than a few phone pictures–and as a bonus, our toddler enjoys sticking it on my forehead.

Of you can try to make your gadget-reviewing pal’s business travel a little more pleasant: Figure out what airline he or she flies most often and buy a day pass to its lounges.

Edited 12/14/2013 to remove a stray sentence fragment.

Nexus 4 long-term evaluation

About seven months ago, I turned on a new Android phone and started installing and configuring my usual apps. That’s not an unusual event for me, except this time it was a phone I’d bought for the sum of $327.94. I’ve been using this Nexus 4 every day since, so I’ve gotten to know this device a little better than the average review model. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Nexus 4 backBattery: This was my number-one concern–a loaner model had tested poorly in this area, and it was only after I found a loaner Nexus 4′s battery life workable during Mobile World Congress that I decided to go ahead with the purchase. Seven months later, I’m surprised by how rarely the phone’s battery has gotten into the red.

I’ve learned to put this phone on WiFi whenever possible (that extends its battery life considerably) and I’m more careful about recharging it if I’m sitting down than I once was. But this experience has me a little more skeptical about relying too much on any one battery-life benchmark. I mean, if a phone can make it through SXSW without dying or needing a recharge every few hours, its battery life can’t be that bad.

Android: I love using the stock Android interface, without any spackled-on layers of interface from a phone vendor and without any bloatware locked in place unless I root the device. I also love not having to wait more than a few days for an Android update to land on the phone. I’m trying to think of what would get me to buy a non-Nexus Android phone… still thinking… let me get back to you on that.

Camera: This is the weakest part of the phone, even if it’s not enough to induce  buyer’s remorse. The lack of optical image stabilization makes this 8-megapixel camera clumsy at most outdoor photos after dark, and its shutter lag is just bad enough to make taking pictures of our toddler or any other fidgety subject (like, say, a monkey) a trying task.

In this camera’s favor, it can take some great photos, and not just with the sun overhead. One of my favorite shots involved early-morning sunlight streaming into the National Airport; I suspect the aging Canon point-and-shoot I had with me would have had trouble balancing that exposure. The Nexus 4′s also done well with food porn, sunsets, panoramas and photo spheres.

Bandwidth: The Nexus 4 doesn’t have LTE, and I don’t care. T-Mobile’s HSPA+ routinely hits 15-Mbps download speeds in the Speedtest.net app. LTE can run faster still, but when my phone’s mobile broadband matches my home’s Fios access I’m not going to mope about the difference. (Those mean things I wrote about carriers marketing HSPA+ as “4G”? Maybe not so much.)

T-Mobile’s coverage is not what I’d get with Verizon. It can also be frustrating to have the phone lose a signal inside a not-large building. But I’m saving about $50 a month compared to what VzW charges. And since this phone is an unlocked GSM phone, I can also pop in any other GSM carrier’s micro-SIM card–as I did when I went to Berlin last month for IFA.

Storage: As the price I mentioned should have indicated, I cheaped out and got only the 8-gigabyte version. So far, that hasn’t been an issue–I still have almost a fifth of the 5.76 GB of user-available space free–but at some point I may have to delete some of the apps I’ve installed and then forgotten about. If I could pop in a microSD card, I wouldn’t have that concern. But I can’t.

Durability: Considering how beat up my older phones have gotten, I worried a little about buying a phone with a glass front and back. But I’ve babied this thing (I never put it in a pocket with change or keys) and after seven months it still looks pretty sharp. You need to hold it up to the light, as in the photo above, to see any faint scratches. I remain paranoid about dropping it–which may explain why I haven’t. Should I buy Google’s bumper case anyway?

Extras: You may not be surprised to read that after seven months, I have yet to buy anything with the Nexus 4′s NFC wireless. I have, however, used that feature to install apps, look up data and stage quick Android Beam file transfers. This phone’s Qi cordless charging has also gone unused at home, although I’ve verified that it works at a couple of trade-show exhibits.

Any other questions? I’ll take them in the comments.

Sorry, no iPhone review this week

PORTLAND–This may not be the kind of thing I should admit in public, but I am, uh, not reviewing the iPhone 5s or even the 5c for anybody. Things just didn’t work out: One client felt the new models would be covered to death everywhere else, another was holding out hope that Apple would loan a review unit to one of their staff writers, and then I ran out of time to conjure up other options in a week loaded with two conferences in two states.

PDX Apple Store iPhone sign

So that’s how my ambitions of repeating last year’s strategy–where I bought an iPhone 5 and wrote up my findings for two sites before returning it two weeks later–did not pan out. (Fellow tech journalists: Buying and then returning review hardware can be a wonderfully liberating workaround for slow or unresponsive PR departments. Try it sometime!)

I can’t say that I minded not having to run over to some PDX-area AT&T, Verizon, Sprint or T-Mobile store yesterday morning–and possibly find them already out of stock of the 5s–or wait hours at the Apple Store downtown. Even at 9:30 this morning, there was a line waiting outside that shop.

And it’s been pleasant to be able to focus on the XOXO conference here instead of mentally unplugging from it to crank out a review or two.

But beyond the feeling that I’m committing a tech-journalism foul by not holding forth on a new iPhone, I’m personally curious about the 5s. I want to see how the Touch ID fingerprint sensor works, and if the camera represents that big of an improvement over the iPhone 5 camera’s output. Fortunately, a friend on Facebook already made the mistake of bragging about how great Touch ID has been on his new iPhone. He’ll be hearing from me not long after I return to D.C.

IFA extras: tidbits from Europe’s big gadget gathering

BERLIN–I’ll be leaving this fair city many megabytes heavier, between my notes about the IFA electronics trade show and all the photos and videos I’ve taken. Here are some observations I had to leave out of my my reports for the Disruptive Competition Project and at Discovery News.

Rack of TVs• The “Air Command” contextual menu in Samsung’s Galaxy Note 3 strikes me as yet another example of something that looks great in a demo but will rarely see much use outside of that. You’re supposed to extract the stylus, press its button, tap the screen and then choose something off the Air Command palette that may itself open up further options: Does that sound like something you’ll want to do standing up?

• This may get me some hate mail, but Windows laptops are showing more creativity than MacBooks. The ability of more of them to convert to tablets, either by folding or detaching a screen, offers a level of utility unavailable from Apple–and since these convertible models accept touchscreen input, Windows 8 fits better on them than on my rapidly aging ThinkPad.

• But some Windows vendors have basic quality issues to address. The Toshiba convertible I inspected Wednesday visibly flexed when I pressed the plastic in front of the keyboard; when I eyed the seam between its screen bezel and the back of the lid, its backlight glowed through the gap. An Acer tablet, meanwhile, couldn’t scroll through the Windows 8 start screen without blurring noticeably.

• LED lights have the same prominence here that compact fluorescents had at CES a decade ago. (We’ve swapped out CFLs for LEDs in a few spots at home and like them a bunch.)

Sphero Revealed• The Sphero robotic ball I reviewed for Discovery the other week now has a “Revealed” version with some clear sections that let you see its innards, and its makers Orbotix will update the iOS and Android Sphero app so you can just drive the thing without the distracting game mechanics I called out in that post.

• It’s remarkable how little space 3D TVs got here, a mere three years after its big debut at CES. And not all of the 3D TV exhibits here made a good case for the technology: TCL’s demo of glasses-free viewing looked awful, as if I were watching it through wavy 1920s-vintage windows.

• I came here hoping to finally settle on my next camera, but I’m still on the fence about a few models that offer a larger sensor, a decent zoom, GPS and the ability to connect to a phone via WiFi–or which of those qualities I’ll have to sacrifice. Any thoughts on Panasonic’s ZS-30, Sony’s DSC-HX50V and RX100 Mark II and Canon’s SX280 and S120?

• Cameras have been using WiFi to connect to smartphones for a few years, but now both Sony and Panasonic are adding NFC wireless to some new models to automate that pairing process, in much the same way NFC helps two Android phones set up an Android Beam file transfer.

• Strangest neologism heard here: “Glancivity,” a noun thrown out by Samsung’s Pranav Mistry at Tuesday’s event introducing the Note 3 and the Galaxy Gear watch. This post has already run on too long to have much glancivity, right?

• Number of times my phone’s battery ran out: two. That’s pretty good, considering that one was the fault of my laptop for shutting off power to its USB port overnight.

• Number of Evernote sync conflicts: two. Also better than I expected, given the wildly fluctuating bandwidth availability. (I’ll have to whine about that later.)

Updated at 7:30 p.m. to link to Sphero’s announcement and clarify the status of this reversal.

Old reviewer learns new review tricks

I wrote about a couple of new smartphones earlier this week. That’s not an unusual development, but the client–PCMag.com–was new. And so were the review guidelines by which I wrote my assessments of the AT&T Terrain and the HTC 8XT.

PCmag logoFor that matter, having review guidelines at all was different. For all the other gadget writeups I’ve done lately, I’ve had the latitude to make up my own criteria. So I elected to test battery life by playing Web radio instead of placing phone calls, write a lot about picture quality but not much about a phone’s video output, and spend little time discussing how voice calls sound.

The risk in that scenario is that I wind up writing reviews optimized for one reader: me.

At PCMag.com, however, they’ve been doing this for a while and have their own ideas about what readers need to know. As you can see in those two writeups–the first of which I expect will be a few posts a month there–they include things like observing call quality in indoor and outdoor settings, running a traditional talk-time test, recording video clips from both the front and back cameras and running benchmark tests to get a sense of the phone’s overall rank.

After I filed each review, my editors there had further questions: How was call quality over the speakerphone? What sort of frame rates did you get in your video clips? Does the touchscreen work with gloves on?

It was more detail work than I’m used to, but it helped me a spot a few issues I wouldn’t have noticed doing things my way. (For instance, the Terrain couldn’t connect to 5 GHz WiFi.) And now I’ve learned a few more things to watch for when inspecting phones–and that I haven’t finished learning how to evaluate technology.

(On a personal note. PC Magazine was the computing publication my dad subscribed to from the mid-’80s on, and therefore the one I read through high school. It’s neat to see my name on its site.)

Your device can be too small and too thin (July 2012 CEA repost)

(Since a site redesign at the Consumer Electronics Association resulted in the posts I wrote for CEA’s Digital Dialogue blog vanishing, along with everything there older than last November, I’m reposting a few that I think still hold up. This one ran July 27, 2012; it’s on my mind again after two recent stays with relatives who had broadband Internet at home but no WiFi router connected to it.)

For well over a decade, I’ve had the same wish list for each new gadget: smaller, lighter and thinner than its predecessors. But lately, I wonder if I should be more careful about what I wish for.

too-thin laptopI still appreciate carrying around devices that weigh less and take up less space than earlier models—preferably while running longer on a charge. But some recent devices I’ve tested or purchased suggest the costs of being too thin or too small.

Consider the connections around the edges of many new laptops, including the MacBook Air I just bought, but also many Intel-based Ultrabook PCs. The thinnest among them often leave out wired Ethernet ports and standard HDMI video outputs, requiring users to pack adapters.

That’s not a huge tradeoff for video. If you expect to plug a laptop into a monitor or an HDTV, you’re foolish not to bring your own cable, and one with a micro-HDMI plug at one end will take up less space than a full-sized equivalent. But with networking, you’ll need to bring an adapter supported by your operating system or trust that Wi-Fi will always work, no matter how many other people jam the airwaves near you.

And as just about anybody who’s gone to CES or any other tech conference can testify, that rarely happens. Veterans of these events know to look for Ethernet, and some companies have taken note: Google won compliments for providing wired Internet access in the press seats at its I/O conference last month.

The race to build the thinnest laptop, as opposed to the lightest, doesn’t make much sense from a usability perspective. An added eighth of an inch in thickness won’t make a laptop any more awkward to operate or carry. It’s not a thick phone that will break the line of a suit when tucked into a pocket.

Smartphones risk a different sort of miniaturization malfunction. Since the 1990s, phones using the GSM standard have used compact SIM (subscriber identity module) cards to store account data. This has made it easy to move a number from one phone to another and, with an unlocked phone, switch temporarily or permanently to a new carrier.

That’s given GSM a serious advantage over the competing CDMA standard, which doesn’t require any such physical separation of an account and a phone. (Trivia: Some CDMA carriers have employed a SIM equivalent called an R-UIM  or removable user identity module, but not in the U.S.)

In recent years, the SIM scenario has gotten a little more complicated with the arrival of micro-SIM cards. But you can still use a micro-SIM in place of a standard card (technically a mini-SIM) if you pop it into an adapter or position it so its contacts align properly in the slot (I’ve done it, but it took a few tries). And you can cut down a SIM to micro-SIM size.

Now, however, the industry has certified a “nano-SIM” standard that is smaller still and slightly thinner. So you won’t be able to shoehorn a micro-SIM into a nano-SIM slot, and using a nano-SIM card in phones designed for bigger cards will require an adapter instead of just careful placement.

Whether saving .0037 cubic inches of space over the already tiny micro-SIM card (in context, .1 percent of the volume of an iPhone 4S, considerably less in the current crop of big-screen smartphones) is worth that complication seems to have gone unexplored. Would we be better off if everybody had standardized on micro-SIM and let designers find other ways to condense phone hardware? We’ll never know.

Manufacturing ever-smaller gadgets also imposes costs we may not notice until later on. You may find that you can’t upgrade the memory on a new laptop—a serious risk if an operating system upgrade requires more memory than the last release. Are we ready to foreclose on the idea of upgradable hardware?

Repairing a tablet or a computer can also move from tricky to difficult once its components get tightly-packed together. The same goes for recycling a defunct device—although if a manufacturer provides its own, easily accessible recycling service for those gadgets, I’ll give it a pass.

The risk in making this kind of complaint is sounding like a grumpy old man, desperately clinging to his trusty old Ethernet cable and SIM card as he stands in the way of progress and the laudable goal of making computers simple, worry-free appliances.

But at a certain point, standards friendliness, repairability and expandability should outrank shaving yet another fraction of an inch or an ounce off a product. That would leave plenty of other things companies can try to beat each other on. Did I mention battery life?