The fable of the one-handed phablet

For most of the last three years, I have been fighting a battle against “phablets” and losing it badly. Not only have people flocked to buy supersized phones after each negative review I hand down, the dimensions of these displays have steadily crept up.

Phone size inflationThe 5.3-inch screen of the first Samsung Galaxy Note, the one that I mocked at the time for its enormousness, now ranks as just a bit over medium-sized. And that 2012-vintage hardware seems positively compact next to the 5.5-in. LCD of the iPhone 6 Plus, the 5.7-in. screen of the Galaxy Note 4 and the 5.96-in. display on Google’s upcoming Nexus 6.

Minimum sizes have gone up too. The 4.7-in. touchscreen on my Nexus 4 once seemed quite the expanse of glass but is now approaching minimum-viable-product material.

All along, my core complaint against enormophones hasn’t changed: How do you use these things single-handed? Here are some common situations where it’s difficult or impossible to wield a phone with both hands:

  • Holding a shopping basket at a store
  • Pushing a stroller
  • Wheeling your luggage through an airport
  • Standing in a train or bus and holding on to a handrail or stanchion
  • Eating a slice of pizza or other no-utensils-needed food
  • Standing in a coffee shop, bar or restaurant with a beverage in one hand
  • Holding your child’s hand
  • Walking a pet

And no, wearing a smartwatch doesn’t help unless you’re willing to annoy everybody around you by issuing voice commands to your computer of a chronograph.

But with millions of people choosing to pay what’s often a non-trivial price premium for plus-sized phones, I have to allow for me being the person who doesn’t get it.

So I’ll ask this: If you have a phone with screen that exceeds five inches across, how do you work its touchscreen when you don’t have both hands free? Has the act of tilting the phone in your hand to let your thumb reach a corner become so natural that you no longer notice, do you put down or let go whatever has your other hand occupied, or is there some other trick I’ve been missing?

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An individual customer rep is not a reliable source

Twice in the past few weeks, I’ve gotten into debates with readers about whether an option I’ve written about exists. Each time, my source has been a company PR contact, against which the reader has cited a sales or support representative who told them otherwise.

Verizon support chatThe first case came up in my Wirecutter guide to wireless carriers (updated today for the iPhone 6!) when I warned readers that Verizon’s otherwise appealing “Single Line Smartphone” plans exclude tethering.

I noted that I’d seen Verizon reps say otherwise (as in the screenshot here), but that I’d gotten the official word from a Verizon spokeswoman and the @VzWSupport Twitter account.

Then I had a commenter on the story report that two different reps had said  tethering was included. Even though that would make zero business sense for VzW–why offer a plan with the same features as one that costs $30 extra?

Next came last weekend’s USA Today column about buying an unlocked iPhone 6. In it, I cited reports from iPhone 6 purchasers and a confirmation from an Apple publicist as proof that the “no-contract” T-Mobile iPhone 6 for sale at Apple’s site is unlocked and can be used with any carrier.

Big surprise: I’ve since had readers saying Apple and T-Mobile reps told them that this phone is locked to T-Mobile. One particularly anxious shopper wrote that he’d gotten that answer from nine different people at Apple and T-Mobile.

Look: I am not the biggest fan of Apple PR, but they have been honest when I ask a yes-or-no question about an Apple product such as “is this phone unlocked?” (That’s going back many years; the staffer who gave me this answer is somebody I’ve dealt with since at least 2008.) Remember, too, that you’ve got firsthand reports from iPhone customers, including several who commented on the USAT piece.

(T-Mobile’s @TMobileHelp Twitter account did chime in, but its reply only mentions the carrier’s own warranty and “premium handset protection”–neither of which should concern you if you’ll use another carrier–and doesn’t actually say the phone sold by Apple comes locked. Apple said nothing in response because it’s apparently allergic to social-media conversations.)

Meanwhile, customer-service and support reps get the story wrong all the time. They think an old policy still applies, they try to make the customer happy, their boss told them something else, they just guess. This happens so often in travel that FlyerTalkers have an acronym for their preferred workaround for getting reps to do something allowed by policy: HUACA, short for “hang up and call again.”

None of this back-and-forth is necessary when companies post the correct answer on their sites. But I shouldn’t complain too much; their failure to do so opens an information inefficiency that I can exploit for profit… and subsequent reader e-mails explaining how they know I got it wrong.

 

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?

Halfway around the world in less than two weeks

I racked up 13,686 miles in the air over the last two weeks–with about 21 hours on the ground between each trip–and yet the experience didn’t physically destroy me as I expected. Color me pleasantly surprised.

Thinking of homeThe stage for this exercise in propping up the airline industry was set last January, when the wireless-industry group CTIA announced that it would consolidate its two annual conventions into one and run “Super Mobility Week” in Las Vegas right after IFA.

I tried not to think about the scheduling until this summer, and then I gulped and booked my tickets: Dulles to Berlin via Munich and returning through Heathrow, then National to Houston to Vegas and back.

The flying was actually pretty good. The perhaps embarrassing amount of time and money I’ve spent on United paid off when I could use an upgrade certificate to fly across the Atlantic in business class on a flight going as far east into Europe as feasible.

Not to sound like every other travel blogger, but the lie-flat seat really is one of commercial aviation’s better inventions. I slept sufficiently well on the way to Munich that on waking, I momentarily wondered where I was. That rest, followed by being able to shower and change out of slept-in clothes at Lufthansa’s lounge in Munich, helped me feel human again sooner than usual; instead of napping that afternoon in Berlin, I wrote an extra column for Yahoo about Apple’s iCloud security breach.

I almost fell asleep at dinner that evening and then had one obnoxious night when I woke up at 3 or 4 a.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep for another hour or two, but that was about the end of my adaptation to Central European Time. And then an exceedingly rare, free “operational upgrade” at the gate bumped me from an oversold economy section into business class for the return. (Thanks, United!)

Even with a great nap on the way home, I could barely type a sentence in one try by the time I fell asleep in my own bed after 11 p.m. that night–5 a.m. CET. But I zonked out for seven hours straight, woke up feeling fine, walked our daughter to her pre-school (a big reason why I didn’t book a direct but early flight to Vegas), did a few chores and then headed off to the airport.

I was a bit of a zombie on the first flight, but from then on the jet lag was only slightly worse than on any other trip to the West Coast.

Flying home on Sept. 11So apparently I can function on that kind of schedule.

But over the last two weeks, no amount of frequent-flyer travel hacking could stop a lot of things from slipping. Back at home, the lawn grew untidy and the vegetable garden became a mess. I couldn’t use my ticket to an exciting Nats game.

On my own screen, I gave up keeping up with my RSS feed after a week; it’s probably now groaning under the weight of 2,000 unread Apple-related items.

Even without companies committing any major news in Vegas, my ability to fulfill my regular obligations decayed to the point that I filed today’s USA Today column on Friday evening. That should never happen with a non-breaking story, especially not when that haste apparently results in an avoidable error in a piece.

This post, in turn, was something I’d meant to write Saturday.

And I missed my wife and my daughter something fierce when I had to say goodbye to them twice in six days.

Next year, CTIA’s show will again follow IFA by a day. Should I once again fly more than half the circumference of the Earth in less than two weeks? That will require some careful thought.

My not-so-simple prepaid SIM card

BERLIN–Having repeatedly endorsed using prepaid SIM cards in unlocked phones when traveling overseas (most recently at NowU), I owe it to you to note when this normally-simple transaction goes sideways.

Prepaid SIM cardThat was my story the first day and a half here. The afternoon I arrived, I went to the mall across the street from my hotel and discovered that the electronics store I’d used the last two years of covering IFA had closed. I went downstairs to a small Vodafone store and was told they were out of prepaid SIMs (no, really).

Then it was time for dinner, and by the time we got out all the stores were closed.

The next morning, I remembered I’d seen good reviews of some German wireless resellers at a crowdsourced wiki and another prepaid-data guide as well as on FlyerTalk. Meanwhile, a few of my dinner companions had suggested I check out two other telecom stores at the far end of the mall that I’d missed before.

The first had a decent deal but wanted cash when I only had €10 in my pocket–and the ATM, predictably located near the opposite end of the mall, refused to dispense cash for reasons I could not deduce from the German text. The T-Mobile store a few doors down, however, was happy to take plastic for a Congstar SIM with €9.99 credit.

First problem: After rebooting, the phone didn’t light up with the new signal, instead showing none at all. The shopkeeper pointed out that I had to set up the card online–which sent me back to the hotel to use its WiFi to configure the account. As Congstar’s site is entirely in German, I had to lean on Google to translate each page.

With my account set up and a data plan selected to use up that credit… I still had nothing. This was getting frustrating.

After a friendly but unproductive chat with Congstar’s Twitter account–they suggested trying the SIM in another phone, then referred me to a Web chat I couldn’t enter because the site couldn’t seem to deal with me posing an opening query in English–I gave up for the time being to attend Samsung’s “Unpacked” event.

Back at the hotel, a few other journalists sitting near me were fussing with phones. I asked if any of them had an unlocked phone with a micro-SIM slot. One did. He removed the SIM from his device, rebooted it and saw the phone immediately pick up a signal.

I put the SIM back in my phone, rebooted it, and finally had sweet, blessed mobile bandwidth. And I have absolutely no idea why that happened, or why it didn’t happen over the prior eight hours. Keep that in mind before you place too much trust in my tech advice.

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.

Mail merge? Work, home and other e-mail addresses

I keep telling myself that one of ways I maintain what’s left of my work/life balance is to have separate home and work e-mail addresses. And yet I have to ask who I’m kidding when these two Google Apps accounts, each at its own domain name, constitute separate lines or windows in a mail client, and when I’m sometimes corresponding with the same person from each address on alternate days. Meanwhile, many people I know seem to function perfectly fine with one all-purpose e-mail address.

MailboxIn a prior millennium, it was an easier call. After having lost a bunch of messages from friends during a transition from one e-mail system to another at the Post–and then discerning the dreadfulness of the new Lotus Notes system–I had little interest in trusting personal correspondence to my employer’s IT department.

I also figured that I would have less trouble staying on top of friends-and-family e-mail if it weren’t competing for space and attention in the first screen of my inbox with random PR pitches, interoffice memos and chit-chat with other journalists. And the address that wasn’t listed on a major newspaper’s Web site should, in theory, get vastly less spam.

(Because I am this persnickety about my communications tools, I also have a regular Gmail account that I use for almost all of my online commerce, financial transactions and other things that are neither personal- nor work-related. I don’t mind the ads there, while my Google Apps inboxes have no such distractions, courtesy of Google ending ad scanning for Apps users–even those on the free version it no longer offers to new users.)

It’s been years since I’ve had to worry about IT-inflicted mail misery. What about the other virtues of this split setup?

  • Being able to flag messages for follow-up means I’m now less likely to forget to answer an important message, whatever address it was sent to.
  • But I don’t need 11 different folders to sort my home e-mail after I’ve dealt with it. Less cognitive load is a good thing.
  • Having to ask myself nit-pick questions like “since I’m asking a friend about something that may lead to him being quoted in a story, should I send this message from my work address?” increases my cognitive load.
  • Searching for messages and then looking over the results is faster when I’m excluding an entire account’s worth of e-mail. But when I ask Mail for OS X to query all of the gigabytes of messages that have accumulated at both addresses… ugh.
  • My anti-spam strategy has been a total bust. When I checked earlier this morning, Google had quarantined almost 1,500 spam messages in my home account, about 100 of which were messages on my neighborhood mailing list that shouldn’t have been screened as junk.

On that last note, here’s a question for you all to ponder: That mailing list will soon be moving to a commercial hosting service subsidized by ads, and of course I haven’t yet read its privacy policy. Should I switch my subscription to my Gmail address, where I can read those messages alongside those from my neighborhood’s smaller Nextdoor group, or should I keep using my home address there?