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.

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.

My 2014 gardening scorecard

The D.C. area got its first hard freeze this week, and so this year’s outdoor gardening has officially ground to a halt–which also means it’s once again time to assess my attempts to grow my own food in a few spots around a tiny, largely shady backyard.

(See my earlier reports from 2011, 2012 and 2013.)

Green beansGreen beans: A

We literally could not eat these fast enough. The funny thing is, the pole beans that took over the larger raised bed did not come from the bush-bean seeds sown this spring; I guess last year’s experiment in growing pole beans had lasting effects.

Arugula: B

This was once again a reliable performer–but my attempt to grow a second crop in the fall ran afoul of a stretch of dry weather in which I was out of town too often to water the garden regularly.

Lettuce: B-

For the second year in a row, we had good results in the spring and nothing in the fall.

Herbs: C+

We never lacked for parsley, mint and rosemary (you can imagine my excitement this spring at seeing that the rosemary bush planted last fall had survived our polar-vortex winter). The sage did okay, and cilantro and basil briefly flourished. But dill, chives, thyme, and oregano all apparently don’t like me anymore.

Cucumbers: D+

After last year’s near-total bust, we were pleased to be able to harvest a few decent-sized cukes in the late summer.

Strawberries: D

Once again, I failed to water the pot on the back patio often enough or shield it adequately from the squirrels.

Blueberries: D-

The one medium-size and one small blueberry bush in the side yard yielded a respectable amount of fruit, which I’m sure the birds enjoyed very much.

Tomatoes: D-

The pole beans that grew so well also effectively blocked the sun for the tomatoes. After the bean plants died, one of the tomato plants mounted a comeback of sorts, and maybe the two puny specimens I grabbed before the first freeze will ripen on the countertop. I need to look into growing tomatoes elsewhere in the yard.

Bell peppers: F

I planted seeds. Nothing came of them. The end.

Transit is my travel hack

PALO ALTO–I spent most of the last three days here in the middle of Silicon Valley at the Privacy Identity Innovation conference, with a side trip to San Francisco for a press dinner last night. And a car never figured into my plans.

Auto-awesomed Caltrain photoInstead, I took Caltrain up and down the peninsula, with one connection via a VTA bus and reasonable amount of walking. What do you think I was going to do, drop $100 and change on a rental car that would sit idle except for when it would have me sitting in the loathsome traffic of U.S. 101?

For the most part, that worked fine. My travel times were sometimes longer, but I could get work done on my laptop and then get some exercise on foot at either end. The one huge exception: Missing one southbound train from San Francisco meant I had to spend almost an extra hour in the city when I was dead tired and just wanted to get back to my hotel.

Even when the alternative is not renting a car but taking a taxi, the local rail or bus service has often been a better idea. Take Las Vegas–please. Between Vegas cabbies’ documented habit of “long hauling” passengers to run up the fare, the deliberate inefficiency of the one-person-per-car taxi line at McCarran, the ripoff $3 surcharge for paying with a credit card, and the militant opposition to Uber and other potential competitors, I’ve had more than enough reasons besides the non-trivial cost savings to begin acquainting myself with bus service there.

Vegas bus guidancePlus, there’s the perverse pride to be had in getting around car-free in a place not known for its transit service. (See also: taking the VTA light rail around Santa Clara County and taking Capital Metro’s Red Line in Austin.)

Yet I keep hearing things like “I don’t know how to take the bus” from other out-of-town types at these events when I mention my mode of transportation.

I understand: It can be intimidating getting on a large vehicle full of strangers when you’re not sure exactly where it’s going or how you’ll know when to get off. I remember the anxiety of trying to figure out Metro buses from a tiny map at a stop or on a brochure.

Fortunately, it’s the year 2014 and you no longer need to rely on printed documentation. Google Maps and Bing Maps both include transit directions, and Google’s even offer turn-by-turn navigation. As long as your phone has a charge and a signal, you cannot get lost. You can, however, win the satisfaction of unlocking the workings of a new and somewhat complex system–which is, as a tech journalist, is the kind of thing I’m supposed to be doing anyway.

MLB playoffs > NFL, NBA and NHL playoffs

It’s 0-0 in the bottom of the second inning of the Nationals’ division series against the Giants. I am excited to see my city’s team playing in October. And a little nervous. Nats 2014 postseason tickets

The 2014 postseason–the second the Nats have reached since coming to D.C. nine years ago, also the second for a Washington baseball team since 1933–may end with a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue. Or it may end in the kind of soul-crushing loss that leaves one staring blankly into space until 4 a.m. I don’t know yet.

But I do know that baseball’s postseason–the difficulty of reaching it, the unpredictable outcomes allowed by a quick schedule and five-game division series, and the overall beauty of the national pastime–beats football’s, basketball’s and hockey’s. Let’s inventory what those other prime-time pro sports get wrong:

NFL: The impossibility of multiple-game playoff rounds in a sport as injury-prone/dangerous as football keeps the postseason relatively brief. But teams with a regular-season losing record can get in. And the hype about the Super Bowl–should I call it the “Big Game” to avoid annoying the NFL’s control freaks?–irks me to no end. Get over yourselves already.

(I have other issues with the NFL, but I’ll save those for later.)

NBA: By bloating the postseason to four best-of-seven rounds and then further padding out the schedule with a travel-dense 2-2-1-1-1 format, the NBA ensures that its playoffs regularly welcome teams with losing records and then grind on for almost two months. Wrong. And then the same handful of teams dominate the Finals. Boring.

NHL: Hockey, too, lets losing teams into its postseason. But my major gripe with the Stanley Cup playoffs–aside from the Caps’ helplessness in them–is the nearly two-month duration that ends with the absurdity of a sport born on frozen bodies of water being played in June.

(As for soccer: MLS, your postseason is fine by me, especially with D.C. United in it.)