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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CES tips for rookie reporters (2013 edition)

Will this January really mark my 17th trek to CES? I’m afraid so–I’ve been going to Las Vegas every winter for the annual gadget gathering since 1998.

CES 2013 laptops

What was then known as the Consumer Electronics Show seemed positively overwhelming at the time, but as I’ve wasted an increasing number of brain cells on memorizing the finer points of the show and the city, the Consumer Electronics Association’s annual gathering no longer feels so insurmountable. I hope the following tips (most updated from a Dec. 2011 post) help you profit from that experience.

Planning

The onslaught of PR pitches requesting meetings at CES hasn’t started yet, but it’s only October. Wait until early December! I suggest you be exceedingly conservative in booking appointments: You will be late to most of them (read on for reasons why), and if you’re not the appropriate publicist will probably be somewhere else through no fault of his or her own.

So I usually limit my show-floor meetings to large companies with a diverse product line–the likes of Samsung, Panasonic or Sony. In those cases, scheduling an appointment can yield a better look at unreleased gadgets or a chance to talk shop with a higher-ranking executive. (Hopefully he–almost always a he–hasn’t had so much media training that he can longer converse like a normal human being.) If you really play your cards well, you’ll arrive at somebody’s booth just in time to gobble a quick lunch there.

Packing

The most important item to bring to CES is comfortable walking shoes. I’m partial to Eccos (note to Ecco PR: where’s my endorsement contract?), worn with hiking socks.

Other useful things to pack: Clif Bars, in case you don’t get around to eating lunch; a separate source of bandwidth (either a phone with tethering enabled or a portable WiFi hotspot); a travel-sized surge protector with USB ports (it can make you friends when there’s only one wall outlet left); an Ethernet adapter if your laptop lacks its own wired networking (CES does not take place in the MacBook Air’s magical world of invincible wireless); twice as many business cards as you think you’ll need.

Most important, for the love of all that is holy, do not forget to pack your laptop’s charger.

Press conferences and other events 

The day before the show opens consists of a grueling slog of press conferences, almost all at the Mandalay Bay convention center at the south end of the Strip. Unless you get VIP access, you can rarely get into more than every other press conference–the lines outside stretch on too long. And except for Sony’s customary event on the show floor, the CES press conference rarely permits hands-on time with the hardware or Q&A with the people involved. As tech scribe Roy Choi told me in January: “It’s really more of a lecture.”

The opening keynote takes place on the evening of press-conference day. Microsoft owned that for years but gave up the slot after 2012. Last year Qualcomm took its place, with epically awful results.

Put two offsite evening events on your schedule: Pepcom’s Digital Experience right after the opening keynote, and ShowStoppers the following night. (Disclosure: The latter crew helped put together my last two trips to IFA in Berlin.) At each, you’ll get access to a ballroom full of vendors showing off their wares, plus a good standing-up meal and sufficient adult beverages to dull the pain.

Power and bandwidth

Both are in pitifully short supply. “ABC” here stands for “always be charging,” or at least anytime you’re sitting down and near an outlet. Don’t feel bad if at other times, you must use your laptop as a giant external battery for your phone.

Don’t expect wireless to work with so many gadgets in use, although you may find the occasional exhibit space with a more robust wireless network than usual. Remember that you’re sharing the airwaves with a small city–152,759 attendees in 2013. If you can find a wired connection, use that instead.

The LVCC and other exhibit areas

The massive Las Vegas Convention Center, home to most of CES’s exhibit space, could double as an assembly line for other, lesser convention centers. Budget 15 minutes to get from one of its three halls to the next, 25 to hustle from one end to the other. The Central Hall, where most of the big-ticket vendors exhibit, eats up a day by itself. The North Hall, home to automotive electronics, satellite radio and a grab-bag of iDevice accessories, takes less time, as does the South Hall and its collection of smartphone and tablet vendors, camera manufacturers and–well, everybody else.

There’s also some exhibit space in the convention center’s parking lot, in the LVH hotel (about a 10-minute walk from the North Hall), and in the Sands Expo and the next-door Venetian about a mile and a half southwest.

Some companies also have off-site meetings in nearby hotels. Don’t even think of trying to stop by those places in the middle of the day; visit them before or after everything else.

CES 2013 monorailGetting around

The Las Vegas Monorail flies over traffic to and from the convention center. But you often have to wait 10 to 15 minutes to board in the morning or evening, a delay compounded by management’s unwillingness to accept D.C.-level crush loads.

The monorail also fails to stop at the Sands or the Venetian–what seems a regrettable result of its private funding by participating casinos–so to get there you’ll have to exit at the Harrah’s/The Quad station and walk north.

Alas, the alternatives to the monorail can be even worse. Shuttle buses run between the official show hotels, the LVCC and the Sands but suffer from excruciatingly long lines, especially departing from the LVCC on the first two evenings of the show. You can spend half an hour waiting for a bus to have room, then lose another 30 minutes to crawl three miles. Only the taxi lines can make this delay seem tolerable.

Some evening events happen at the Wynn or the Encore, slightly closer to the LVCC. Remember my advice about walking shoes? Spare yourself a tedious queue for a shuttle or taxi and use them to hike the mile and change from the convention center to the hotel.

Las Vegas also has public buses, and they can be convenient for travel up or down the Strip–or, should you magically get a few hours free, a field trip to the downtown neighborhood Zappos.com founder Tony Hsieh is spending $350 million to terraform into a walkable community.

The RTC can get to or from McCarran as well, once you realize two quirks. One is the horrendous signage in Terminal 1′s baggage-claim area; I had to go downstairs to “Level Zero” to see any indication of public transit. The other is no direct service to the new Terminal 3–but if don’t check bags (a smart move at CES anyway), you should be able to clear security at T1 and then have a slightly longer tram ride to your gate.

Any other tips? Let me know in the comments and I will update this post accordingly.

Help me help you: tech-support support

Your computer vendor may charge you for technical help, but I won’t. And I don’t mind–really. The Q&A column I used to write for the Post and the one I do for USA Today both require readers to ask me how to get their computer/phone/TV/app/service working properly.

Question-mark key

But there are a few things you can do to make my work easier.

One thing I’ve harped on before is being specific. There are a million ways something can “not work” in a computer, so I’ll need to know more about how things failed. What was the text of the error message you saw? What’s the last thing that happened before things went awry? What exactly did the service rep tell you?

If in doubt, take a screenshot. In Windows, hit the Print Screen key and then paste into an e-mail in Windows; on a Mac, hit Shift-Command-3 and look for the new image file on your desktop; in iOS press the home and power buttons; in Android hold down the power and volume-down buttons. I won’t share that image with anybody else unless you’re okay with that.

If I don’t have those details, I’ll probably answer your first e-mail with a round of follow-up queries to elicit that extra information.

But I also need to know if my suggested remedy worked for you, and I’ve had a couple of readers leave me hanging in recent weeks. Sometimes I can try to recreate the issue on my own hardware and software, but in other cases that’s impossible–for example, I can’t subscribe to an Internet service not available anywhere near D.C. to see what’s wrong with its e-mail.

And on a personal level, I like hearing from readers that I was able to help them out. So please don’t forget to send that last “it worked, thanks” message you might think unnecessary.

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.)

Corrections and changes can’t be clandestine

In the bad old days of paper-only journalism, you couldn’t change the text in an already-printed story, but at least newspapers almost always ran the correction in the same spot (usually, a box on A2 quietly dreaded by all in the newsroom). We’ve now flipped around the problem: It’s trivially easy to fix a story that’s already online, but you can no longer count on getting notice that it was corrected.

WordPress update buttonAnd while I’d much rather see stories get updated early and often to fix mistakes and incorporate breaking news, to do so without telling the reader you changed them is… kind of a lie. It suggests that you never made any mistakes in the piece when you really did. And since somebody will always notice the change, if not take a screengrab of the original copy, you risk trust rot setting in among readers.

Ideally, the content-management systems in use at news sites would automatically time-stamp each update and let readers browse older versions, as you can with the “View history” button on any good wiki. But some three years after online-journalism pioneer Scott Rosenberg urged just that and heralded the arrival of a WordPress plug-in to automate public revision tracking, I see few sites following that practice. More often, the bad copy goes down the memory hole.

If you run your own site, the lack of built-in version-browsing can’t stop you from telling readers you changed the copy–just strikethrough the offending text if it’s a minor fix or add a date- or time-stamped note to the end of the piece calling out the correction. (Since WordPress.com doesn’t provide a way for readers to compare revisions like what blog admins get in the editing interface, that’s what I do here.) That’s also how I handle things at the few freelance clients that allow me to sign into their CMS.

What do you do if you lack that access and a “CX” might otherwise go unremarked? Here’s my fix: Once your editor updates your post, leave a comment on it, linked back to a page or social-media account publicly recognized as you, that notes the error and the correction. Readers may not see that comment, especially if some relevance algorithm hides it by default, but at least you’ve documented the change in the closest possible spot to the original mistake.

Between-meetings workspace options in downtown D.C.

One of the weirder aspects about freelance life, beyond being able to work without pants, is the feeling of statelessness I have when I’m between appointments in D.C. The only desk, power outlet and room that I can call mine are across the Potomac at my home; in the city, I have no one place to be.

But when I’ve got time to spare in the District, I need some place with a chair, wireless Internet, a power outlet, air conditioning and heating and, usually, access to caffeine. Here are my usual options; maybe they should be yours too?

Kogod Courtyard

Kogod CourtyardThis beautiful atrium between the National Portrait Gallery and the Museum of American Art is near perfect–it looks fantastic, it’s centrally located at Eighth and F Streets downtown, it’s got a good little cafe off to the side, the sound of children playing can keep you grounded–but for two irritating defects. One is what appears to be a complete lack of outlets. The other is the bizarre way the WiFi blocks IMAP and SMTP ports, meaning my laptop’s e-mail client can’t get or send any messages.

Coffee shops: This would be a “duh” option, but it can’t be just any coffee place. Everywhere chains like Starbucks and Cosi seem just too obvious–if I’m going to spring for a latte, I might as well get something I can’t replicate in any other city in America. I don’t have any one go-to spot in this category, but if there were a downtown D.C. equivalent of Arlington’s Northside Social or Adams Morgan’s Tryst, that might change.

Libraries: If you don’t need coffee on the spot, the District’s library system is an underrated resource. The branch locations are all in much better shape than the MLK Library (901 G St. NW): I love the Mies van der Rohe architecture there, but it’s uncomfortably overheated in the winter and, like it or not, will reacquaint you with the state of homelessness in D.C.

Dedicated coworking spaces: I don’t need a separate office often enough to pay for one, but every now and then places like Canvas (1203 19th St. NW) will have free days. And I’ve had a couple stops in the last month at the Regus business center at 1200 G St. NW (one of nine in the District), courtesy of the free membership United Airlines handed out to me and other people who spend too much time on its airplanes. This is a great place to nap–its tiny, windowless “business lounge” was empty both times–but for the same reason is also seriously deadening.

What options am I missing? Enlighten me in the comments.

Update, 3/29/2014: A couple of days ago, I finally got around to following up on a suggestion a reader left on my Facebook page after this post first went up. Hence the following addition…

Main Reading Room, Library of Congress: You can’t even get in without first obtaining a “Reader Card” at the Madison Building across the street (don’t worry, it’s only a five-minute process), and then you have to check your bag and coat before taking a roundabout route through the Jefferson Building’s basement. But then, wow: You’re typing away in one of the most beautiful spaces in Washington, a regular basilica of books. And the WiFi is fast and reliable.

Conference badge design best practices

I spend an unhealthy amount of my time walking around strange places with a piece of paper suspended from my neck by a lanyard, courtesy of all of the conferences on my schedule. A partial selection from the last 12 months: CES, CTIADemoGoogle I/O, IFA, Mobile World Congress, ONASXSW, Tech Policy Summit and TechCrunch Disrupt.

Conference badges

This experience bothers me more than it should, because almost everybody screws up the basic job of designing a conference badge. And it shouldn’t be that hard–these things only have to perform three functions:

  • Tell other people who we are.
  • Store relevant information we’d need to know throughout the event.
  • Give us a place to stash business cards.

And yet. At most conferences, you’ll immediately see people whose badges have anonymized their wearers by flipping around to show the reverse side. You can fix this by printing the same information on both sides of the badge (see, for instance, SXSW), but it’s easier to have the lanyard attach to both sides of the badge instead of leaving it dangling from the center (something Macworld badges got right).

The design of the front of the badge should also be easy to solve, but many events botch that job too: first name in large type, last name in smaller type, organizational affiliation. Adding your city and Twitter handle helps but isn’t always essential.

What about the back? Too many badges just leave this valuable real estate blank. At a minimum, it should list the event’s WiFi network and, if necessary, password. And if the schedule is compact enough to fit on one page, why not add that as well? But if that requires turning the badge into a booklet–like at last year’s I/O–you should think about just posting the schedule in a lot of places around the venue.

Some badges now embed NFC tags. At this year’s I/O, for instance, tapping mine with my Android phone opened up a link in the Play Store to Google’s I/O attendee app; when event staff did the same, their phones would bring up my registration information. That’s not a bad feature to have, but don’t make it mandatory to participate in some parts of the event.

Finally, what contains the badge? The multiple-pocket, wallet-esque badge holders some events provide are overkill–too big, too many spots to misplace a card or a receipt–and usually eliminate the informational utility of the reverse side. A simple clear vinyl holder should provide sufficient room to hold a bunch of business cards to hand out to other people.

Thank you for your attention to this, event planners of the world.

The business of business cards

A week ago, I ordered business cards yet again–my sixth such transaction, adding up to 900 cards procured since I embarked on this adventure two years ago.

Business-card iterationThat purchase also represented the third version of my card’s design since my initial market research: sifting through the stack of cards on my desk and determining that those made of unusual materials (not to name-drop, but Steve Wozniak’s card is photochemically etched steel) and those in unusual sizes stuck out.

A different size of paper being a lot cheaper than metal or plastic, I opted for miniature cards–which brought the added benefit of doubling my wallet’s capacity.

The basic design has stayed the same since (for those curious, the image on the back is the photo of the Blue Ridge I picked for my Twitter background years ago, the close-up of a manual typewriter’s @ symbol on the front comes from the too-many shots I took for this blog’s header image, and the text is in Franklin Gothic and Hoefler Text). But I’ve increased the font size on the front after people said that copy was too hard to read; on the back, it’s gotten smaller to leave more room to jot down notes.

I’m sure that I’m overthinking this. But I also like graphic design, and this exercise yields nearly instant, mostly positive feedback from people who see a card that doesn’t look like most.

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Where T-Mobile provides 3G service for older iPhones

T-Mobile iPhone 3GT-Mobile announced today that it’s getting the iPhone. But in a practical sense, it’s “had”  that smartphone since it kicked off a network “refarming” effort last year to provide 3G and HSPA+ 4G service on the 1900 MHz frequencies used by the iPhone 5 and older AT&T-specific models, then started marketing itself as a better option for unlocked iPhones. Before today’s news, the carrier said it already had more than two million unlocked iPhones on its network.

T-Mobile’s Web site, however, doesn’t get around to identifying all of these iPhone-friendly markets–an important detail, since without it you’re stuck with slow 2G “EDGE” data service. (6:59 p.m. Engadget reports that new-production iPhones, T-Mobile’s own model included, will support a wider range of frequencies. I’ve revised the title to reflect that.) T-Mobile’s coverage map doesn’t break them out, and a FAQ page only says “Check at your local T-Mobile store for network status in your area.”

(The screen shot above comes from the iPhone of my friend Paul Schreiber, who’s been keeping me updated on where he’s seen 3G service.)

So I asked a company publicist and got this reply:

The following 49 metro areas currently have 4G service in 1900 MHz. This covers 142 million people.

1. Ann Arbor, MI

2. Atlanta, GA

3. Austin, TX

4. Baltimore, MD

5. Boston, MA

6. Cambridge, MA

7. Chicago, IL

8. Dallas, TX

9. Denver, CO

10. Detroit, MI

11. Fort Lauderdale, FL

12. Fort Worth, TX

13. Fresno, CA

14. Houston, TX

15. Kansas City, KS/MO

16. Las Vegas, NV

17. Los Angeles, CA

18. Miami, FL

19. Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN

20. Modesto, CA

21. Napa, CA

22. New York, NY

23. Newark, NJ

24. Oakland, CA

25. Orlando, FL

26. Philadelphia, PA

27. Phoenix, AZ

28. Providence, RI

29. Reno, NV

30. Richmond, VA

31. Sacramento, CA

32. Salinas, CA

33. San Antonio, TX

34. San Diego, CA

35. San Francisco, CA

36. San Jose, CA

37. Santa Ana, CA

38. Santa Cruz, CA

39. Santa Rosa, CA

40. Seattle, WA

41. Springfield, MA

42. St. Cloud, MN

43. Stockton, CA

44. Tampa, FL

45. Tucson, AZ

46. Vallejo, CA

47. Virginia Beach, VA

48. Warren, MI

49. Washington, DC

Does that match your experience? Let me know in the comments.

Post-CES travel-tech recap, 2013 edition

Last week was a little busy. I flew to Las Vegas to cover CES, walked several miles each day trying to stay on top of show events, wrote and spoke at length about it, ran into Vint Cerf (who, no kidding, asked for help getting on the Internet) and met Bryce Harper (I told him thanks and good luck). And I subjected various hardware and software to the cruel and unusual punishment of five days at the electronics show.

CES 2013 travel techHere’s how technology worked out compared to last year–and 20102009 and 2008.

This time, I left my 2011-vintage ThinkPad at home in favor of the lighter, faster MacBook Air I bought last summer. The battery life and backlit keyboard were great; I was not so fond of having to break out an Ethernet adapter (not Apple’s, but a $10 Monoprice model that worked just as well once I went to the trouble of installing drivers for it) when I didn’t want to take my chances with WiFi.

But–this is going to sound crazy–the WiFi actually worked at lot more often at CES this year. Even in the past-fire-code-packed Samsung press conference, where the Mandalay Bay convention center’s wireless somehow never dropped. I would love to think that we’re learning a few things about scaling this technology.

I did my standup computing on two loaner smartphones I’d packed, an unlocked Galaxy Nexus on a prepaid T-Mobile SIM and an HTC 8X Windows Phone unit on Verizon. Both were a lot better than the smartphones I took last year–even though one of them was a Verizon LTE Galaxy Nexus. (Yes, the VzW Nexus was that bad.)

I employed the HTC phone and its faster, more reliable LTE connection for a fair amount of tethered access. That worked fine in my hotel room but was almost unbearably unreliable in crowded settings like Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs’ bizarre keynote. As in, the one where Jacobs kept going on about how awesome our wireless future was going to be.

I took more photos with the 8X than with the Nexus, but I still spent more time on the Android phone. I blame Twitter–specifically, its buggy, clumsy excuse for a Windows Phone client. The Nexus also had slightly better battery life, but I was pleasantly surprised to see I didn’t have to recharge both phones by lunch every day.

The one application I used most often was Evernote. Once again, it was terrific to be able to start a note on one device, then seamlessly pick it up on another. And once again, I could not get through the week without a synchronization hiccup resulting in conflicting modifications that I had to reconcile by going over two copies of the same note to see which one was newer.

For photo editing, I used mostly iPhoto, with OS X’s Preview handling some basic cropping. My word processor? Don’t laugh: OS X’s TextEdit, combined with the free WordService plug-in, sufficed to generate copy to paste into an e-mail or a blog post.

I brought an old Canon point-and-shoot camera (some of its work is on display in the Flickr set shown after the jump). It was fine in most cases, but there’s no way I’d take that to another CES. Modern cameras have better resolution, low-light performance and telephoto reach, and now camera vendors also seem to have agreed that they all should support automatic picture transfers to cameras for on-the-go sharing.

The photo above shows the two other major pieces of technology I brought: the Belkin travel surge protector that avoided “who gets the last outlet?” awkwardness in various press rooms, and the nerdy Airbeltbag messenger bag that distributed the weight of my gadgets sufficiently well to keep my shoulder from feeling completely destroyed. Continue reading