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.

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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?

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.

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.

Side effect of reviewing gadgets: a largely gadget-free Christmas

Since I see so much gadget coverage timed for the holiday season–and have contributed a fair amount of it in the past–I have to assume that normal people give and get gadgets around the holidays.

Present ornament

But I am not normal! I understand why I rarely get the output of the electronics industry as a present; if a friend worked as a chef, I’d feel intimidated trying to buy kitchen gadgets or cookbooks. And as a freelancer, anything that I could use on the job should come out of my budget so it can land as an expense on my Schedule C at tax time.

But I also rarely buy myself gadgets as presents, even when there’d be no reasonable work connection. For that I blame the advent of CES: Knowing that I’m going to get a peek at the next six months to a year of the electronic industry’s handiwork two weeks after Christmas makes me leery of any non-trivial gadget purchases in the month before.

So what do you get for friends or family in the same disreputable profession that still acknowledges their professional interest? Cheap and non-obvious accessories can work. One of the better gadget-related gifts I ever got was a tiny, silicone smartphone stand that attaches to the phone’s back with a suction cup. It’s helped me stage more than a few phone pictures–and as a bonus, our toddler enjoys sticking it on my forehead.

Of you can try to make your gadget-reviewing pal’s business travel a little more pleasant: Figure out what airline he or she flies most often and buy a day pass to its lounges.

Edited 12/14/2013 to remove a stray sentence fragment.

CES tips for rookie reporters (2013 edition)

Will this January really mark my 17th trek to CES? I’m afraid so–I’ve been going to Las Vegas every winter for the annual gadget gathering since 1998.

CES 2013 laptops

What was then known as the Consumer Electronics Show seemed positively overwhelming at the time, but as I’ve wasted an increasing number of brain cells on memorizing the finer points of the show and the city, the Consumer Electronics Association’s annual gathering no longer feels so insurmountable. I hope the following tips (most updated from a Dec. 2011 post) help you profit from that experience.

Planning

The onslaught of PR pitches requesting meetings at CES hasn’t started yet, but it’s only October. Wait until early December! I suggest you be exceedingly conservative in booking appointments: You will be late to most of them (read on for reasons why), and if you’re not the appropriate publicist will probably be somewhere else through no fault of his or her own.

So I usually limit my show-floor meetings to large companies with a diverse product line–the likes of Samsung, Panasonic or Sony. In those cases, scheduling an appointment can yield a better look at unreleased gadgets or a chance to talk shop with a higher-ranking executive. (Hopefully he–almost always a he–hasn’t had so much media training that he can longer converse like a normal human being.) If you really play your cards well, you’ll arrive at somebody’s booth just in time to gobble a quick lunch there.

Packing

The most important item to bring to CES is comfortable walking shoes. I’m partial to Eccos (note to Ecco PR: where’s my endorsement contract?), worn with hiking socks.

Other useful things to pack: Clif Bars, in case you don’t get around to eating lunch; a separate source of bandwidth (either a phone with tethering enabled or a portable WiFi hotspot); a travel-sized surge protector with USB ports (it can make you friends when there’s only one wall outlet left); an Ethernet adapter if your laptop lacks its own wired networking (CES does not take place in the MacBook Air’s magical world of invincible wireless); twice as many business cards as you think you’ll need.

Most important, for the love of all that is holy, do not forget to pack your laptop’s charger.

Press conferences and other events 

The day before the show opens consists of a grueling slog of press conferences, almost all at the Mandalay Bay convention center at the south end of the Strip. Unless you get VIP access, you can rarely get into more than every other press conference–the lines outside stretch on too long. And except for Sony’s customary event on the show floor, the CES press conference rarely permits hands-on time with the hardware or Q&A with the people involved. As tech scribe Roy Choi told me in January: “It’s really more of a lecture.”

The opening keynote takes place on the evening of press-conference day. Microsoft owned that for years but gave up the slot after 2012. Last year Qualcomm took its place, with epically awful results.

Put two offsite evening events on your schedule: Pepcom’s Digital Experience right after the opening keynote, and ShowStoppers the following night. (Disclosure: The latter crew helped put together my last two trips to IFA in Berlin.) At each, you’ll get access to a ballroom full of vendors showing off their wares, plus a good standing-up meal and sufficient adult beverages to dull the pain.

Power and bandwidth

Both are in pitifully short supply. “ABC” here stands for “always be charging,” or at least anytime you’re sitting down and near an outlet. Don’t feel bad if at other times, you must use your laptop as a giant external battery for your phone.

Don’t expect wireless to work with so many gadgets in use, although you may find the occasional exhibit space with a more robust wireless network than usual. Remember that you’re sharing the airwaves with a small city–152,759 attendees in 2013. If you can find a wired connection, use that instead.

The LVCC and other exhibit areas

The massive Las Vegas Convention Center, home to most of CES’s exhibit space, could double as an assembly line for other, lesser convention centers. Budget 15 minutes to get from one of its three halls to the next, 25 to hustle from one end to the other. The Central Hall, where most of the big-ticket vendors exhibit, eats up a day by itself. The North Hall, home to automotive electronics, satellite radio and a grab-bag of iDevice accessories, takes less time, as does the South Hall and its collection of smartphone and tablet vendors, camera manufacturers and–well, everybody else.

There’s also some exhibit space in the convention center’s parking lot, in the LVH hotel (about a 10-minute walk from the North Hall), and in the Sands Expo and the next-door Venetian about a mile and a half southwest.

Some companies also have off-site meetings in nearby hotels. Don’t even think of trying to stop by those places in the middle of the day; visit them before or after everything else.

CES 2013 monorailGetting around

The Las Vegas Monorail flies over traffic to and from the convention center. But you often have to wait 10 to 15 minutes to board in the morning or evening, a delay compounded by management’s unwillingness to accept D.C.-level crush loads.

The monorail also fails to stop at the Sands or the Venetian–what seems a regrettable result of its private funding by participating casinos–so to get there you’ll have to exit at the Harrah’s/The Quad station and walk north.

Alas, the alternatives to the monorail can be even worse. Shuttle buses run between the official show hotels, the LVCC and the Sands but suffer from excruciatingly long lines, especially departing from the LVCC on the first two evenings of the show. You can spend half an hour waiting for a bus to have room, then lose another 30 minutes to crawl three miles. Only the taxi lines can make this delay seem tolerable.

Some evening events happen at the Wynn or the Encore, slightly closer to the LVCC. Remember my advice about walking shoes? Spare yourself a tedious queue for a shuttle or taxi and use them to hike the mile and change from the convention center to the hotel.

Las Vegas also has public buses, and they can be convenient for travel up or down the Strip–or, should you magically get a few hours free, a field trip to the downtown neighborhood Zappos.com founder Tony Hsieh is spending $350 million to terraform into a walkable community.

The RTC can get to or from McCarran as well, once you realize two quirks. One is the horrendous signage in Terminal 1’s baggage-claim area; I had to go downstairs to “Level Zero” to see any indication of public transit. The other is no direct service to the new Terminal 3–but if don’t check bags (a smart move at CES anyway), you should be able to clear security at T1 and then have a slightly longer tram ride to your gate. Update, 10/30/2104: The bus now goes to both terminals, but you should still get off at T1 instead of spending an extra five minutes to reach T3.

Any other tips? Let me know in the comments and I will update this post accordingly.

Post-CES travel-tech recap, 2013 edition

Last week was a little busy. I flew to Las Vegas to cover CES, walked several miles each day trying to stay on top of show events, wrote and spoke at length about it, ran into Vint Cerf (who, no kidding, asked for help getting on the Internet) and met Bryce Harper (I told him thanks and good luck). And I subjected various hardware and software to the cruel and unusual punishment of five days at the electronics show.

CES 2013 travel techHere’s how technology worked out compared to last year–and 20102009 and 2008.

This time, I left my 2011-vintage ThinkPad at home in favor of the lighter, faster MacBook Air I bought last summer. The battery life and backlit keyboard were great; I was not so fond of having to break out an Ethernet adapter (not Apple’s, but a $10 Monoprice model that worked just as well once I went to the trouble of installing drivers for it) when I didn’t want to take my chances with WiFi.

But–this is going to sound crazy–the WiFi actually worked at lot more often at CES this year. Even in the past-fire-code-packed Samsung press conference, where the Mandalay Bay convention center’s wireless somehow never dropped. I would love to think that we’re learning a few things about scaling this technology.

I did my standup computing on two loaner smartphones I’d packed, an unlocked Galaxy Nexus on a prepaid T-Mobile SIM and an HTC 8X Windows Phone unit on Verizon. Both were a lot better than the smartphones I took last year–even though one of them was a Verizon LTE Galaxy Nexus. (Yes, the VzW Nexus was that bad.)

I employed the HTC phone and its faster, more reliable LTE connection for a fair amount of tethered access. That worked fine in my hotel room but was almost unbearably unreliable in crowded settings like Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs’ bizarre keynote. As in, the one where Jacobs kept going on about how awesome our wireless future was going to be.

I took more photos with the 8X than with the Nexus, but I still spent more time on the Android phone. I blame Twitter–specifically, its buggy, clumsy excuse for a Windows Phone client. The Nexus also had slightly better battery life, but I was pleasantly surprised to see I didn’t have to recharge both phones by lunch every day.

The one application I used most often was Evernote. Once again, it was terrific to be able to start a note on one device, then seamlessly pick it up on another. And once again, I could not get through the week without a synchronization hiccup resulting in conflicting modifications that I had to reconcile by going over two copies of the same note to see which one was newer.

For photo editing, I used mostly iPhoto, with OS X’s Preview handling some basic cropping. My word processor? Don’t laugh: OS X’s TextEdit, combined with the free WordService plug-in, sufficed to generate copy to paste into an e-mail or a blog post.

I brought an old Canon point-and-shoot camera (some of its work is on display in the Flickr set shown after the jump). It was fine in most cases, but there’s no way I’d take that to another CES. Modern cameras have better resolution, low-light performance and telephoto reach, and now camera vendors also seem to have agreed that they all should support automatic picture transfers to cameras for on-the-go sharing.

The photo above shows the two other major pieces of technology I brought: the Belkin travel surge protector that avoided “who gets the last outlet?” awkwardness in various press rooms, and the nerdy Airbeltbag messenger bag that distributed the weight of my gadgets sufficiently well to keep my shoulder from feeling completely destroyed. Continue reading