T-Mobile’s free 2G international roaming is not bad at all

BARCELONA–I did something weird when I got off the plane in Brussels Sunday morning after a horrendously-delayed flight out of Dulles: I took the phone out of airplane mode.

T-Mobile 2G roaming

My usual routine on a trip to Europe has been to limp along on WiFi until I can buy a prepaid SIM (which hopefully will work right away but doesn’t always). But after switching my T-Mobile service from an old small-business plan to a slightly more expensive Simple Choice plan with free 2G roaming, I didn’t have to put up with that workaround.

What I didn’t know before this trip here for Mobile World Congress is if I could stand to spend that much time on an EDGE or slower connection. The limits of T-Mobile’s network in rural areas give me that experience more often than I’d like, and it’s not fun.

But when the alternative is either WiFi alone or having to find a store selling prepaid SIMs–sadly, the one in the arrivals area of Barcelona’s airport seemed to have closed when I arrived Sunday afternoon–slow but free can be not bad.

T-Mobile 2G roaming speed testBy “slow” I’m talking a connection that the Speedtest app clocked going no faster than .13 Mbps on a download, .24 on an upload. That’s nowhere near fast enough for sustained use or for work–Monday, I switched to faster bandwidth.

But in the meantime, that EDGE service provided sufficient bandwidth for my e-mail to arrive in the background, to read and write tweets (and even share a picture on Twitter, slowly), to get directions on Google Maps, to check up on Facebook and check in on Foursquare Swarm, and to browse mobile-optimized Web sites with a certain degree of patience.

I’m not alone in that judgment: Ars Technica’s Peter Bright mentioned to me on Monday that he was relying on T-Mobile 2G roaming, and avgeek blogger Seth Miller wrote in 2013 that this free roaming could very well be good enough for short visits.

And even if you’ll still buy a prepaid SIM at your first opportunity overseas, there’s a lot to be said for getting off the plane and not having to freak out over what it will cost you to exit airplane mode before that point.

Lenten lunch challenge: crafting sandwiches without cold cuts

One of the lesser-known facts about me is that on Fridays during Lent, I don’t almost never eat meat. It’s not that I’m anybody’s idea of a devout Catholic… but several years ago, I thought that giving up meat on Fridays during those 40 days would be a good idea on a few different levels. Somewhat to my surprise, I’ve stuck with it.

The challenge hasn’t so much been going without meat at dinner (except on a Friday in Austin during SXSW, when I feel like a dweeb for making this sacrifice) but figuring out lunch. I am an extreme creature of habit for mid-day meals: Unless I’ve got a lunch date, I make myself a sandwich.

And that sandwich has almost always been built around some sort of cold cuts: ham one week, turkey the next, roast beef afterwards, repeat. Why not? It tastes good (baking my own bread helps), I save money, I can make the sandwich fit my appetite, and having one instead of leftover pasta or whatever reduces the risk of having the same type of food for lunch and dinner.

I could revert to my childhood staple of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but they’re not too filling. So what else if the traditional sandwich formula is out? In case this season has put this question in your mind–or you just ran out of cold cuts and need to make something for lunch–here are a few options.

Grilled-cheese sandwichOne answer is another childhood favorite, grilled cheese, that’s particularly apt when it’s as cold out as it is now. But not just cheese between two slices of bread; you want to exercise some creativity. Here I have to credit the higher-end grilled-cheese options at Stoney’s in D.C. for making me think about including tomato slices, and I’ve since gotten into the habit of adding such extra ingredients as sautéed onions or apple or pear slices, avocado or garlic-scape pesto. The sandwich at right, photographed after I’d nibbled it into a vague resemblance of D.C.’s outline, features the first two additions on that list as well as whole-grain mustard, and was delicious.

The one downside: There’s actual cooking involved, which means both waiting in front of a hot stove and more stuff to clean up.

Credit for another veggie-sandwich choice goes to the Potomac Pedalers bike club, which on its annual century ride serves up these great cucumber and tomato sandwiches at about the 75-mile mark. It’s been a while since I’ve done one of those rides (can we not talk about my diminished cycling mileage these days?), but the recipe was a keeper. I will often top those thin cucumber and tomato slices with some cream cheese and sautéed bell peppers or caramelized onions. Or you can substitute hummus for the cream cheese.

One potential problem: In the winter, good tomatoes are scarce or expensive, and without one of the two main ingredients this sandwich becomes a little one-dimensional.

My third regular choice on these Fridays is a straightforward ripoff of any good bagel place’s menu: smoked salmon and cream cheese, plus maybe capers or thinly sliced red onions, sautéed or not. (I keep coming back to onions as an accoutrement because they are the easiest thing to cook alongside dinner–either in a pan you’ll later use for another ingredient, or in a foil packet on the grill.) Later in the spring, I can top this with some arugula if my tiny garden has come back to life soon enough.

Awkward issue: Despite all of my efforts, my wife doesn’t like seafood and so remains unconvinced of how awesome this sandwich tastes.

So anyway, hope that helps to diversify your lunch choices. Any other sandwich recipes I should be trying between now and April 5?

(Were you expecting more of the usual earnest musing about journalism or technology? I’ll try to get back to that next week.)

Updated 2/21 with a few editorial tweaks and additional suggestions.

The NFL is so hard to like these days

There’s a football game happening tomorrow night, and like many of you I plan to watch it mainly for the commercials.

Part of that is my scant emotional investment in either team (that said, I’m unquestionably more tired of reading about the Patriots). But the real reason is that the National Football League has become such a difficult corporate entity to support.

I’m not talking about the sport of football overall. It’s a fun game to watch on TV, and I’ve enjoyed the few games I’ve seen in person–some here, courtesy of tickets the Post would occasionally hand out, a few in Charlottesville on pre-parenthood trips with my wife to her alma mater.

NFL ball and ticketBut the NFL itself, that’s another thing. Even by the standards of pro sports in America, there’s so much not to like.

It would be easy to start with the league’s lax responses to the domestic violence committed by some players. Or I could lead off with the player concussions and the league’s decades-long denial of that problem; the more I mull over that, the more I start wondering if (as Tim Carmody wrote persuasively on Friday) football might be the new boxing and on the same path out of the mainstream.

I could begin with the hapless local franchise and everything wrong there: the name, the crummy stadium, the losing records, the abysmal personnel decisions, the deepening despair among a beaten-down fan base, the owner who seems convinced that his own actions bear no relation to all these problems… but that would be too easy.

The NFL’s vaingloriousness also irritates me. We’ll get no end of it tomorrow, but I also see this inflated sense of self-worth on display in things like security-theater rules about what you can bring into an NFL stadium that are to ballpark-access rules what TSA airport security is to boarding Amtrak.

But what really sticks in my craw is how the NFL is the gift that keeps on taking.

Its teams play in enormous stadiums funded at colossal taxpayer expense–$4.7 billion on the 20 new facilities opened since 1997–that usually sit empty except when these largely car-centric properties create massive traffic jams on game day.

On those days, it’s to the NFL’s credit that you can watch on free broadcast TV. But then the league insists on blackout rules that keep games off the air if the team doesn’t sell enough of what are on average the most expensive tickets in pro sports. And it wants the government to back up this business model. A decade ago, the NFL wanted veto power over a new TiVo sharing feature to protect its blackouts, and it only recently lost the Federal Communications Commission’s enforcement of them.

The runup to the Super Bowl has once again shown the effectiveness of the NFL’s control-freak trademark enforcement. Even though it’s legal for advertisers to refer to the Super Bowl in an ad in the same way they might name-check the local franchise, they all call it the “Big Game” lest the NFL’s lawyers send a nastygram. Good thing the NFL gave on trying to trademark the term “Big Game”!

And as the NFL continues to print money, it benefits from non-profit status and the modest tax breaks that entails–something MLB gave up in 2007 and the NBA has never claimed.

So, sure, I’ll watch tomorrow night if for no other reason than maintaining my cultural literacy. But I’ll also be thinking that 18 days later, pitchers and catchers report for spring training.

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.