Weekly output: CES vaporware, wireless carriers, Jeff Bezos’s Washington Post, removing iTunes DRM

This was what I did over the seven days I define as “CES recovery week.”

Yahoo Tech CES vaporware1/13/2015: 5 CES Innovations That Completely Flopped, Yahoo Tech

Putting together this look back at products that got high-profile debuts at CES and then didn’t ship (anybody remember Panasonic’s Comcast-compatible AnyPlay portable DVR?) made me realize two things: I should have started taking my CES notes in Evernote years earlier, and some of the cameras I took to the show were pretty weak. The photo atop the story, in case you’re curious, is one I took a few minutes before the 2012 CES keynote.

1/14/2015: The Best Wireless Carriers, The Wirecutter

I updated this guide yet again to account for T-Mobile and then AT&T adding data-rollover policies and to call out Verizon Wireless for its creepy and arrogant insertion of ad-tracking headers in subscribers’ unencrypted Web traffic. Next on the to-do list: Rearranging the presentation of Sprint’s mix of phone-procurement options to cut down on confusion.

1/15/2015:  Der Allesverkäufer, Wiener Zeitung

Adrian Lobe, a writer for Vienna’s oldest newspaper, asked me for comment about Jeff Bezos’s influence on my former employer. If you, like me, are hopeless in German and don’t want to rely on Google Translate (it reads the headline as “The all sellers,” which I’m pretty sure should end with a singular noun), the original English version of the first quote from me is “I know my former colleagues take pride on beating the NYT as often as they can.” The second, about any shifts in the Post’s op-ed section: “Not much, and that’s an area where many people were hoping for a change. It’s still populated by too many neocons with a questionable grasp on the facts.”

1/18/2015: How to free iTunes purchases from DRM, USA Today

You can’t pay 30 cents to upgrade a song from DRMed “iTunes Minus” to higher-fidelity, DRM-free iTunes Plus, but you can pay $24.99 for an iTunes Match subscription that will bulk-convert those files. Or you can try your luck with the song-matching feature in Google’s free Google Play Music.

Weekly output: Sling TV, 4K TV, net neutrality, future of search, i.amPuls, TiVo-to-TiVo migration

I’m back from CES and feeling a little tired–as well as confused to see no work events on my calendar this week that will require me to leave the house.

1/5/2015: Hey, Cord Cutters: Dish Network Wants You, Yahoo Tech

Dish Network’s $20/month Sling TV is the CES 2015 product I am most likely to purchase with my own money. I thought I’d be waiting years longer to get a chance to pay for online viewing of ESPN without a cable or satellite subscription attached.

1/6/2015: 4K TVs Are Coming for You, Even if You Don’t Want Them, Yahoo Tech

4K UHD TVs, meanwhile, remain the CES product I’m least likely to spend my own dollars on. But I’m getting resigned to the fact that the industry is moving this way regardless of what I think.

1/7/2015: FCC Chair: Strong Net-Neutrality Rules Are Coming, and Soon, Yahoo Tech

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler said the commission would vote on “Title II” reclassification of Internet providers as common carriers, the thing I and many others have been suggesting for years as a solid foundation for net-neutrality regulations. This is an amazing comeback story.

1/8/2015: The Future of Search, CES

My hour-long panel with Samsung senior director Ryan Bidan, Yelp product manager Travis Brooks, and Moz CTO Anthony Skinner wasn’t as wide-ranging as that title would suggest: We were trying to focus on how increasingly self-aware mobile devices and “Internet of Things” smart-home gadgets could further chip away at our privacy, provide more useful information or do both.

Yahoo Tech Puls hands-on report1/8/2015: I Tried Will.i.am’s PULS Band, the Most Unusual Smartwatch at CES, Yahoo Tech

Sitting down to talk shop about wearables with will.i.am was not on my calendar that morning. Instead, I saw the Puls logo outside a meeting room, asked if I could take a look at the hardware, and was somewhat confused to be told to stand and wait while inquiries were made. Then they ushered me in, the gentleman in question emerged, and I got a first-hand look at a “smart cuff” that has little in common with smartwatches as we know them. I have an interesting job.

1/11/2015: How to transfer shows to new TiVo, USA Today

This column started with yet another round of holiday tech support for my relatives. When I saw that much of the scant documentation for a migration from one TiVo to another existed on other sites, I thought there might be a story in that. When I saw up close how tedious the process got, I was sure I had something to write about.

If you still somehow haven’t had enough CES coverage, please have a look at my Flickr album from the show.

1/12 update: I can’t believe I forgot to mention my own panel. 

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.

Weekly output: 2014 tech policy in review, Mac scroll bars

LAS VEGAS–Here I am for yet another CES. Sad fact: I’ve made the trip to Vegas for the show so many times that I lost count in an earlier post whining about being badgered by CES PR pitches.

Yahoo Tech 2014 in review12/30/2014: Tech Policy 2014: Mistakes Were Made, Yahoo Tech

I came up with the photo illustrating this column last of all: As I was about to file the thing and stick my editor with the job of finding some stock art, I thought that a photo of OS X’s Calendar app showing “2014” with the setting sun in the background might work just as well.

1/4/2015: How to bring back scroll bars on your Mac, USA Today

Not for the first time, I used my USAT Q&A to revise and extend remarks I’d first made here. Your reward for reading to the end of a column that might otherwise seem too familiar: a tip about an OS X feature that Apple doesn’t seem to have documented.

You can leave me voicemail

My phone’s been doing something weird over the past few weeks: It’s been ringing and buzzing with incoming calls.

Missed callsAnd not just any calls, but those in which the callers don’t leave a voicemail when I don’t pick up. I don’t pick up because it’s December and calls from tech-heavy area codes–206 and 415, I’m looking at you–usually mean CES PR pitches that, by virtue of referencing something happening weeks from now, do not require my immediate attention.

I keep wondering if one of these calls will break with the pattern and leave me with a voicemail summary. Instead, I only get Android’s after-the-fact identification of the PR agency behind the number. What happened? Was the caller on the verge of leaving a brilliant little soliloquy before he or she had the iPhone stolen. Did an attack by a bear interrupt things? I can only wonder.

I whined about this on Twitter, and one PR rep responded that he didn’t want to annoy journalists by adding yet another voicemail to their queue. I get where he’s coming from. But here’s the thing: A voice call without any here’s-what-you-missed followup (could be voicemail, could be e-mail, could be a tweet) basically reads as “my message is so important that I will not say it unless you drop everything to hear it in real-time.”

And that’s not something I want to do when I have this many to-do-list items to finish before CES.

Look, I have visual voicemail through Google Voice; playing messages is not that painful, and GV’s automatic transcription often makes it amusing too. Besides which, at the moment I can’t seem to get anybody to leave me voicemail. So if you do, PR friends, you can tell your client how this one weird trick made your message stand out from everybody else’s.

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.