Weekly output: tax prep, Google Glass, Heartbleed, Nearby Friends, online banking

This was a multiple-microphone week, and two of my three broadcast appearances involved shows that hadn’t booked me as a guest before. That’s good.

In other news: Happy Easter!

4/15/2014: The Strange and Successful Campaign to Make Taxes More Taxing, Yahoo Tech

A lot of material had to get left out of this already-long column denouncing the crony-capitalism campaign by Intuit and such Washington groups as Americans for Tax Reform and my former client CCIA to stop governments from letting citizens file and pay taxes at their own sites. (For example, these direct-filing sites cost little to run–$80,000 a year at California’s ReadyReturn, $150,000 for Pennsylvania’s soon-to-be-shuttered padirectfile.)  Comments debuted at Yahoo Tech late Tuesday afternoon, and as you can see I did not wait long to show up in them myself.

Speaking of feedback, you might as well see ATR’s latest post opposing IRS-run tax prep and stories, mine included, that suggest it would be a good thing… which, in a coincidence too weird for me not to disclose, was written by the guy who’s done my taxes since 2012.

4/16/2014: Google Glass and privacy, Al Jazeera

The news network’s Arabic-language channel had me on the air to talk about Google Glass and privacy issues. Since I was being translated into Arabic in real time, the producer emphasized that I speak slowly and simply–a challenge when my usual habit is to speak too fast on the air.

To the Point Heartbleed show4/16/2014: Heartbleed and Internet Security, To the Point

KCRW’s news show had me on to discuss the Heartbleed bug and how  open-source development broke down in this case. I wish I’d thought to compare major tech companies’ unwillingness to kick in any money to the OpenSSL Foundation with all the effort they’ve put into finding ways to pipe income to shell corporations in overseas tax havens.

Most of my input happened in the first 20 minutes or so, but keep listening to hear Internet Governance Project founder Milton Mueller discard some silly objections from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation’s Daniel Castro to the government’s proposal to hand over supervision of the DNS root zone.

4/18/2014: Nearby Friends, WTOP

D.C.’s news station had me on the air for a few minutes via Skype to talk about Facebook’s new location-based option, its privacy implications and how it competes with such existing apps as Foursquare and the D.C. startup SocialRadar.

4/20/2014: Safety you can bank on: Chromebook, Linux, phone, USA Today

A relative’s question about whether he should buy a Chromebook for his online banking gave me an opportunity to note a couple of cheaper options to separate your Web financial transactions from your regular use: booting your computer off a Linux CD or flash drive, or using your bank’s app or the built-in browser on your phone or tablet.

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CES 2014 journalism-tech report

For once, I made it through a CES without my phone dying. But it was close: Wednesday night, I arrived at a party with my phone showing 2 percent of a charge left. One of the hosts asked if I wanted a drink, and I replied that I could use an outlet first.

Phone battery charging

America’s annual gadget gathering is an unfriendly environment for gadgets. Too many people using too many phones, tablets and laptops result in jammed airwaves and a severe power shortage.

And this year, I gambled a little by not bringing any a spare review phone or two for backup. Plugging in my Nexus 4 every time I was sitting down helped the phone survive the show. But I also think I tweeted less than last year and didn’t take as many pictures as I expected (including only one panorama and no “photo spheres”).

I should have packed an external phone charger–my MacBook Air, unlike the ThinkPad I brought to CES in 2012, can’t charge a phone when closed and asleep in my bag, and it’s not that fast at replenishing my phone when awake. (On the other hand, the ThinkPad doesn’t have a backlit keyboard, making it far inferior to the MacBook for keynote note-taking.) I also should have remembered to pack my travel power strip, which I sorely missed on press-conference day but survived without the rest of the trip.

WiFi was not quite as reliable as last year, but it did suffice in the only places Ethernet was a viable option–meaning I never used the MacBook’s USB-to-Ethernet adapter.

The Canon 330 HS camera I’d picked up at a low, low sale price on the Wirecutter’s advice worked out better than I’d expected (see my Flickr set from CES to judge for yourself). I never even had to recharge the battery, and it was compact enough to leave in a jacket pocket full-time.

But after I couldn’t get the Canon’s WiFi linked to my phone–the upcoming 340 HS that I saw at CES should ease that by automating the pairing process with NFC wireless–I was stuck geotagging and uploading photos on a computer, same as ever.

That communication breakdown also cost me the chance to have the phone fix the incorrect date I’d set on the camera. Yes, I was the guy still writing “2013″ on his photos, something I only noticed when I couldn’t find them at the end of my iPhoto library. Everybody point and laugh now… because I’m totally sure this mistake will have been engineered out of possibility by the time I pack for CES 2015.

Weekly output: startup pitches, LG Optimus F6, Windows 8.1, OS X Mavericks

I feel like I should apologize or something for having only three stories to my name this week. I assure you that I was busier than this list would suggest–how else could I feel so tired on a Sunday?

10/25/2013: If Any Idiot Can Get Funding, How Do You Not Look Like Any Funded Idiot?, Disruptive Competition Project

After watching a few rounds of startup pitches at Tech Cocktail Celebrate in Vegas–then reflecting on all of the others I’ve seen at similar events in the Bay Area and around Washington–I felt compelled to write about what I think of some of the more common sales pitches.

10/25/2013: LG Optimus F6 (T-Mobile), PCMag

I initially gave this a three-out-five-stars rating, and one of my editors asked if I wasn’t being too generous, considering all of the flaws I’d identified with this phone. Should I have punished this model with a lower numerical assessment? You tell me.

USAT Windows 8.1 post10/27/2013: Tips on upgrading to Windows 8.1, USA Today

Devoting most of my USAT column to a Windows issue doesn’t happen that often–most of the time, I’m covering a mobile topic. But Microsoft’s release of a good update to Windows 8 that requires additional tweaking to deliver on its potential gave me an excellent reason to ignore phones and tablets for a change. And since Apple shipped an operating-system update of its own only days after Win 8.1, I could share a tip about OS X Mavericks as well.

On Sulia, I reported a successful installation of Mavericks but then had to confirm a serious problem with how its Mail app syncs Gmail accounts, shared some good answers the Celebrate judges had to a thoughtful question about mistakes, noted some quirky interactive demos (kids’ pajamas and LED lights, I kid you not) seen at that conference, and followed up on last weekend’s USAT column about a sketchy tech-support operation.

Nexus 4 long-term evaluation

About seven months ago, I turned on a new Android phone and started installing and configuring my usual apps. That’s not an unusual event for me, except this time it was a phone I’d bought for the sum of $327.94. I’ve been using this Nexus 4 every day since, so I’ve gotten to know this device a little better than the average review model. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Nexus 4 backBattery: This was my number-one concern–a loaner model had tested poorly in this area, and it was only after I found a loaner Nexus 4′s battery life workable during Mobile World Congress that I decided to go ahead with the purchase. Seven months later, I’m surprised by how rarely the phone’s battery has gotten into the red.

I’ve learned to put this phone on WiFi whenever possible (that extends its battery life considerably) and I’m more careful about recharging it if I’m sitting down than I once was. But this experience has me a little more skeptical about relying too much on any one battery-life benchmark. I mean, if a phone can make it through SXSW without dying or needing a recharge every few hours, its battery life can’t be that bad.

Android: I love using the stock Android interface, without any spackled-on layers of interface from a phone vendor and without any bloatware locked in place unless I root the device. I also love not having to wait more than a few days for an Android update to land on the phone. I’m trying to think of what would get me to buy a non-Nexus Android phone… still thinking… let me get back to you on that.

Camera: This is the weakest part of the phone, even if it’s not enough to induce  buyer’s remorse. The lack of optical image stabilization makes this 8-megapixel camera clumsy at most outdoor photos after dark, and its shutter lag is just bad enough to make taking pictures of our toddler or any other fidgety subject (like, say, a monkey) a trying task.

In this camera’s favor, it can take some great photos, and not just with the sun overhead. One of my favorite shots involved early-morning sunlight streaming into the National Airport; I suspect the aging Canon point-and-shoot I had with me would have had trouble balancing that exposure. The Nexus 4′s also done well with food porn, sunsets, panoramas and photo spheres.

Bandwidth: The Nexus 4 doesn’t have LTE, and I don’t care. T-Mobile’s HSPA+ routinely hits 15-Mbps download speeds in the Speedtest.net app. LTE can run faster still, but when my phone’s mobile broadband matches my home’s Fios access I’m not going to mope about the difference. (Those mean things I wrote about carriers marketing HSPA+ as “4G”? Maybe not so much.)

T-Mobile’s coverage is not what I’d get with Verizon. It can also be frustrating to have the phone lose a signal inside a not-large building. But I’m saving about $50 a month compared to what VzW charges. And since this phone is an unlocked GSM phone, I can also pop in any other GSM carrier’s micro-SIM card–as I did when I went to Berlin last month for IFA.

Storage: As the price I mentioned should have indicated, I cheaped out and got only the 8-gigabyte version. So far, that hasn’t been an issue–I still have almost a fifth of the 5.76 GB of user-available space free–but at some point I may have to delete some of the apps I’ve installed and then forgotten about. If I could pop in a microSD card, I wouldn’t have that concern. But I can’t.

Durability: Considering how beat up my older phones have gotten, I worried a little about buying a phone with a glass front and back. But I’ve babied this thing (I never put it in a pocket with change or keys) and after seven months it still looks pretty sharp. You need to hold it up to the light, as in the photo above, to see any faint scratches. I remain paranoid about dropping it–which may explain why I haven’t. Should I buy Google’s bumper case anyway?

Extras: You may not be surprised to read that after seven months, I have yet to buy anything with the Nexus 4′s NFC wireless. I have, however, used that feature to install apps, look up data and stage quick Android Beam file transfers. This phone’s Qi cordless charging has also gone unused at home, although I’ve verified that it works at a couple of trade-show exhibits.

Any other questions? I’ll take them in the comments.

Weekly output: app stores, NEC Terrain, HTC 8XT, ride-sharing, cable modems, guest WiFi

I spent three days in a row working outside of my home without actually leaving town, courtesy of the Usenix Security Symposium taking place in Washington. That was a little confusing.

8/13/2013: Mobile App Certification, IDG Enterprise

Another enterprise-focused Twitter chat I helped host. This week’s looked at company-specific app stores and other ways a business might try to regulate what mobile software runs on its network.

PCMag NEC Terrain review

8/15/2013: NEC Terrain (AT&T), PCMag.com

My first review for this new client covered NEC’s ruggedized Android phone, one of the last acts of a company leaving the smartphone business. I appreciated its sturdiness, but not its tiny screen or the high odds of future Android apps not running on the Terrain.

8/16/2013: HTC 8XT (Sprint), PCMag.com

My second covered a successor of sorts to a Windows Phone device I tried out earlier this year but wound up not reviewing for anybody. I can’t say the 8XT represents an upgrade over the 8X.

8/16/2013: Ride-Sharing Revs Up Around D.C., And Regulators May Not Even Freak Out Over It, Disruptive Competition Project

I returned to a topic I covered this spring–car- and ride-sharing services that can make private auto ownership more efficient by making private auto use more widely distributed–to note what seems to be a change in attitude among regulatory agencies in the District and elsewhere.

8/18/2013: Should you buy your own cable modem?, USA Today

This Q&A item about Time Warner Cable’s recent increase in its modem rental fee has really blown up–it’s picked up more comments than, maybe, anything I’ve written for USAT. There’s also a tip at the end about setting up a guest WiFi network and, should you desire, naming it “openwireless.org” to make it clear to passerby that they’re welcome to use it.

At Sulia, I relayed an avid D-SLR photographer’s assessment of the Nokia 1020, complained about “captive portal” WiFi networks that have names generic enough for my phone to have remembered them from other sites, noted a couple of presentations from the Usenix conference (one on a study of the effectiveness of browser-security warnings, another on Windows 8′s security upgrades), and shared reader feedback over the cable-modem item.

Updated 8/24 to add the IDG Twitter chat I’d left out. And updated again 9/29 with a better link to that.

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.)

Fortnightly output: Google and ITA, Android APIs, digital-TV converter boxes, cable-box power use, NFC, Android File Transfer

I had originally thought I’d post my usual weekly summary last Sunday, but then I remembered that I was on vacation–and besides, it would have been a short list then. So instead you get a two-for-one special, and I get a chance to use “fortnightly” for the first time on this blog.

6/4/2013: Remember When Google Was Going To Annex The Travel-Search Industry?, Disruptive Competition Project

One of the first ideas I pitched to the DisCo people was a look back at the predictions of doom that we all heard–and that I found somewhat credible–when Google proposed to buy the travel-search firm ITA Software. When I finally got around to writing it, I was surprised to see how little of a dent Google has made in the market for airfare queries.

SmartBear Android APIs report6/5/2013: Google I/O Android News: Location, Location, Location (Plus Cloud Messaging and Bluetooth), Software Quality Matters

A friend edits this blog, hosted by the software-testing firm SmartBear, and was looking for a report about the new Android application programming interfaces Google had unveiled at I/O. This was a lot more technical than I usually get, but I’m glad I did it. And I’m looking forward to seeing apps built on these new APIs, in particular those involving location services.

6/9/2013: How to get an analog TV set back on the air, USA Today

A friend on Facebook had bought a flat-panel set just before they all started shipping with digital tuners and wanted to know what her options were. And so, once again, I wrote a how-to piece about tuning in digital signals. I didn’t want to leave out cable subscribers, so I added a tip about a new initiative by major cable and satellite providers to ship boxes that use less electricity–which won’t help existing subscribers unless they ask for an upgrade.

6/16/2013: What exactly is ‘NFC’ wireless?, USA Today

My phone includes a Near Field Communication transmitter, and I’m still waiting for a chance to use it outside of specialty environments like tech trade shows. This column explains why, and adds a tip about Google’s Android File Transfer app for Macs that is really a plea for Google to update the thing so it doesn’t fit in so poorly with OS X.

I didn’t post anything on Sulia while I was out (thought about it, decided not having a work obligation outweighed passing up a week’s worth of stipend). But before and after my travel, I summed up a briefing about that cable-box efficiency program, compared the AT&T and Sprint versions of the Galaxy S 4, explained how car2go was more useful to me in Portland and Seattle than back home in D.C., and reviewed an Android app that can get a GPS fix on your position from 32,000 feet up and at 550 miles an hour.

Weekly output: PR pitches, Google I/O (x2), photo-album apps, smartphone multimedia

I spent the workweek in San Francisco–as in, my flight left National Airport at 8 a.m. Monday, and my flight home landed at Dulles around 6:30 p.m. Friday. Next week will also involve a long commute: I’m off to Las Vegas tomorrow for the CTIA 2013 wireless trade show.

5/13/2013: Your Brand Message Sucks: How to Pitch Your “Amazing” Product to Journalists, Influence HR

I spoke on a panel with Reputation Capital’s Mary Ellen Slayter, the Starr Conspiracy’s Lance Haun and Angles PR’s Ania Kubicki about good and bad ways PR types can deal with the press. (What was I doing at an HR-oriented conference? Mary Ellen’s an old friend from the Post and invited me onto the panel.)

I talked to WTOP about Google’s I/O news on Wednesday, but that interview doesn’t seem to have been preserved on the station’s index for that day. Drat!

Google I:O Discovery News post

5/16/2013: Google Probably Knew About This Post Before Me, Discovery News

The headline for this Google I/O recap popped into my head almost fully formed. I’m glad the editors stuck with that; I’m a little disappointed nobody picked up the Suzanne Vega reference in the excerpt that shows up in search results and on D News’ home page.

I was interviewed again that evening–this time at a press reception, along with USA Today’s Ed Baig, by Thai tech journalist Chatpawee Trichachawanwong. I don’t know if that piece has run, or how insightful Ed and I might sound in it. (We didn’t have much time to prepare.)

5/17/2013: Google’s I/O News: A Reminder Of How Apps Don’t Just Write Themselves, Disruptive Competition Project

Here, I tried to put Google’s developer-focused I/O news in the context of iOS’s continued lead in one important area: profit potential for the average developer.

5/19/2013: Q&A: What’s the best basic Windows photo program?, USA Today

A question from a relative looking to prune the assortment of photo apps on his laptop led to this column. It also includes a tip about the difficulty you may have sharing some of the neater multimedia-enhanced photos your phone’s camera can take.

Most of this week’s posts on Sulia covered particular I/O announcements or sessions–for instance, a talk on Android’s design principles, an upcoming fix for buggy Bluetooth, an uncertain detail about Google’s stock-Android version of Samsung’s Galaxy S 4–but I also reviewed the Lyft and SideCar ride-sharing services and described my experience being served, slowly, by a robot bartender.

5/20/2013, 12:52 p.m. And here’s my brief Flickr set from I/O 2013.

How much of your unlimited mobile broadband are you actually using?

In one comments thread this week, I’ve had readers say it’s silly to hold out for unlimited mobile broadband when you can save so much every month by opting for a capped plan. In another, I’ve had readers comparing strategies to hang on to their Verizon unlimited accounts for as long as possible.

March data usageMy hunch is that the first group has the wiser strategy. Consider the graph at right, charting my data usage from early March to early April: Even with all of SXSW and more than 900 megabytes’ worth of tethering, I still only racked up 2.13 gigabytes.

And that’s well above average, going by the latest numbers about North American usage from Alcatel-Lucent. That wireless-infrastructure vendor found that LTE users consumed an average of 46 MB a day–about 1.4 gigabytes a month–while 3G users ate up 17 megs a day, or only half a gig.

Am I missing something here? You tell me. Take a look at your own phone’s monthly data consumption and report back in the poll below. To check that detail in Android, open the Settings app and select “Data usage.” In iOS, open the Settings app, tap General, then tap Usage, then “Cellular Usage.” (Note that this isn’t broken down month by month, and that if you want to see which apps ate up the most data you’ll have to spring for a third-party app like DataMan Pro.)

For extra credit: Is that number more or less than you expected, and does it have you rethinking your choice of wireless plan?