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.

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.

Newspaper alumni need the occasional reunion too

CHICAGO–I’m here for the Online News Association’s annual conference, and it’s been pretty great so far. Not necessarily for all the panels and discussions (although they’ve been good too, especially Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile’s explaining how news sites and advertisers need to focus on time spent instead of page views, then Texas Tribune editor Amanda Krauss discussing how changing the “Like” button in their commenting system to a “Respect” button helped elevate the discussion), but for the people.

ONA 14 logo on tote bagThe right and honorable profession of journalism has many virtues, but occupational permanence or even long-term stability isn’t among them. Jobs change, news organizations grow or shrink, and your fellow cubicle farmers may not be there next year. The cubicle farm itself may vanish.

(That lesson is particularly obvious in this city: My walk to the ONA venue takes me past the Tribune Tower, where Sam Zell’s malicious mismanagement sent the newspaper into bankruptcy.)

You can still talk to the people you used to work with on Facebook, Twitter and mailing lists, but sometimes you want to see them in person. Tech events help–I don’t miss going to Apple product launches because of the chance to inspect a new iPhone under tightly-controlled conditions, but because they let me catch up with tech-journalism pals–but ONA is fantastic for reconnecting with old Post colleagues.

We run into each other, we ask what we’re up to now, we share our recollections of horrible CMSes, we trade tips about travel and technology, we talk about our families… and I love realizing that we’ve found happiness in our post-newspaper lives.

I’ve also run into some current Posties here, who seem much more content than many of us were when we left: The Jeff Bezos money has ended a long and seemingly unending cycle of staff cuts and started paying for hiring and travel on a scale unimaginable back then. That’s good to see too.

Your con-call invitation isn’t as enticing as you think

I enjoy talking shop, but not so much when I first need to call a toll-free number, punch in a four-to-six-digit code, press the pound key, speak my name after the beep and be dumped into a cybernetic void in which I must wait to hear the sound of another human voice.

Con-call invite from OutlookNo, I’m not a fan of conference calls. Part of that is a common rationale–they allow a PR minder to be on the line and make sure nobody says anything too compromising–but, really, most of it is the exasperating user experience.

That starts with the con-call invitation, which inexorably arrives on my Mac as a blank e-mail consisting only of a “Mail Attachment.ics” file. OS X’s Quick Look won’t reveal its contents, so I must open it in Calendar to see that it contains the number, con-call code and time that should have been in the e-mail itself.

Make me open another program to see what you’re talking about in your e-mail? No.

To judge from the headers of these messages, this is a Microsoft Outlook-transmitted social disease–sending a calendar invitation from inside that sprawling program must not offer the sender any hint of how it will be displayed to a recipient. In my case, it’s badly: Not only does Mail for OS X throw up its hands, the Gmail app for Android doesn’t even show this file.

(And yet Mail for iOS displays a nifty calendar widget for those invitation messages. Apple’s inability to keep its desktop mail client at feature parity with its mobile mail client is a subject for a future rant.)

After the aforementioned routine of punching in numbers and waiting for a response, I often face an extra challenge in con-calls with more than one executive, or in which the publicist and the executive are of the same gender: figuring out which of two or three white guys is speaking at any one time.

And have I mentioned that this is the tech business? There are good, Web-based conference systems that let you connect by clicking a link and then make it easy to tell who’s there and who’s talking. I’ve used UberConference and it was terrific; I hear great things about Speek but haven’t used it yet (note that a friend works at that D.C.-based startup); video chat through apps like Skype, Google+ Hangouts, Vidyo or Rabbit works too, as long as I tidy up the parts of my home office within camera view.

And yet when a company wants to talk up its technological prowess, we must jack into the AOL chat room of group voice communication. PR friends, if your client insists on that routine, can you at least do me a favor and dial my phone directly before patching me into the call?

DIY doings: components, cables and code

I’ve been playing with gadgets ever since my dad let me and my brother take apart an old calculator for fun, but until last week I had never wielded a soldering iron to connect electronic components.

Hand-soldered LED flashlightMy chance to remedy that oversight came at the end of a tour of a redone Radio Shack store across the street from the Verizon Center Phone Booth in downtown D.C.

After getting the company pitch about its screen-repair services, inspecting some Kodak camera modules made to clip onto phones, and playing with a littleBits synthesizer kit, I was invited to assemble a tiny LED flashlight by soldering the required parts to a small circuit board.

Dripping the molten flux onto the right contacts revealed itself to be a painstakingly precise, hold-your-breath task. I needed coaching from the rep manning that station, after which he had to redo some of my work–making me think this whole project was perhaps more like when our toddler puts together some arts-and-crafts project “with help.” But a few minutes later, I did have my own tiny, battery-powered flashlight.

I had also completed my first hardware tinkering in a while.

The last time I’d cracked a computer’s case was two years ago, when I doubled the memory in my iMac (Apple has since made that at-home upgrade impossible on newer models) and then swapped out my ThinkPad’s hard drive for a solid state drive. Either chore involved less work and anxiety than the multiple transplants I performed on my old Power Computing Mac clone in the ’90s, including two processor upgrades and a cooling fan replacement.

Crimping tool

While we’re keeping score, I last seriously messed with wiring when I strung some Ethernet cable from the basement to an outlet behind our TV to prepare for our Fios install in 2010. Going to that trouble, including terminating the bulk cable and attaching plugs myself, allowed me to use my choice of routers on our Internet-only setup.

The crimping tool I used for that task hasn’t seen much use since, but I’d like to think I’m still capable of moving a phone, power, or coax cable outlet. Especially if given a spare length of cable on which to practice first.

My DIY credentials are weakest when it comes to code. I learned entry-level BASIC in grade school but now recall little of the syntax beyond IF/THEN and GOTO. I used to lean on AppleScript to ease my Mac workflow, but now Automator lets me create shortcuts without having to remember the precise phrasing required after AppleScript statements like “tell application ‘Finder’.” My HTML skills now stretch little further than writing out the “<a href=” hypertext link.

I do, however, still grasp such important basics as the importance of valid input and proper syntax, how easy errors can crop up and how much time it can take to step through functions to figure out what threw the error. For anything more complicated, the usual reporting technique comes into play: Ask as many dumb questions as needed to get a little smarter on the subject.

The importance and difficulty of clocking out on time

I had a long chat the other night with a younger tech journalist about work/life balance. I suspect this person was hoping to learn that I had found this one weird trick to regain control of when the job can cede priority to the things that the job pays for, but I had to admit that I had not.

Clocking outThat’s because experience, at least in my case, has not changed this basic conflict in journalism: As long as praise (financial or otherwise) for good work outweighs compliments for filing early, you’re motivated to keep noodling away at a story until about 30 seconds before your editor sends an “are you filing?” message. And even if you don’t, filing ahead of schedule typically guarantees that your editor’s attention will immediately get hijacked by breaking news.

As a work-from-home freelancer, I should be in a better position to log off at a normal time because I’m immune to many of the usual newsroom distractions. My editing software is faster to boot up and less likely to crash than many newsroom CMSes, I don’t get dragged into random meetings, and I don’t have to worry about the time to commute home.

Plus, if a client wants an extra story, that will usually mean an extra payment instead of another revolution of the newsroom hamster wheel.

But I’m also disconnected from the usual boss-management mechanisms. I can’t look up from my desk to see if somebody else is occupying my editor’s attention and/or office, or if I should hurry up and file the damn thing already. I can’t tell just by listening to the collective din of keyboards how busy the news day has become. Writer-editor occupational banter in chat-room apps like HipChat amounts to an inexact substitute.

What I told my younger counterpart was that you have to remember that not every story requires the same intense attention to capturing the finer points of an issue–that it also feels pretty great to crank out solid copy, clear on the outlines of a topic, in half an hour and then be done with it. That’s also a skill you need to keep current, because you won’t always have the luxury of an entire afternoon to futz with the language of a post. Give yourself a fake deadline if you must, but try to make putting down your tools at a time certain a part of the exercise.

That’s why I set a timer on my phone to ensure I’d finish up this post and get started on cooking dinner. It went off… oh, about 15 minutes ago.