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.

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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.

Trade shows may have ruined Las Vegas for me

LAS VEGAS–I’m writing this from a hotel room a little before 7 a.m., and I did not just get back from the casino floor. Instead, I got back after a couple of receptions for the CTIA 2013 wireless-industry show, thought I’d lie down for a bit and then slept for six hours.

The Strip at nightI could head downstairs now for a little gambling–but, honestly, I have some e-mails to attend to after this post, and then I want to get to McCarran to try to get on an earlier flight home. Maybe I’ll have time to hit the breakfast buffet first?

This is what traveling to Vegas for business has done to me. I have now made my way to this city 18 times. Sixteen of those (!) were for CES, there’s this trip for CTIA, and I went to Vegas once for a friend’s bachelor party. The one time I couldn’t get my expenses reimbursed or put them on a Schedule C, I had to stop myself from asking for a receipt everywhere.

I can’t tell you what any of the fancy shows at the Strip hotels are like, but I have memorized the fastest walking route through the Venetian’s floor to the Sands exhibit space. I’ve eaten in some of the better restaurants in town, but I have no idea what they charge. I should find better uses for my brain then caching the locations of bathrooms in the convention center.

Before the invention of blogging and Twitter, I had a little free time in my Vegas schedule. One year, I blew off a keynote to check out the Star Trek Experience; another, I detoured to the Gun Store and discovered how quickly an M-16 can empty a clip. But from 2007 or so on, my only time to experience Vegas as a civilian has been the last night in town–except when I’m too tired and conk out first.

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

Packing and planning for CES

Here we go again: Tomorrow morning, I’m going to board a plane and fly to Las Vegas for my 16th consecutive year of covering CES.

CES 2012 South HallI should have the packing routine down by now–if you’re going to the show and haven’t read the cheat sheet I wrote in late 2011, it’s not too late to check it out–but I’m still not sure that I do. This year’s gear doesn’t stray too much from last year’s:

  • 13-inch MacBook Air
  • Ethernet adapter to make up for the Air’s lack of wired networking (has nobody at Apple ever tried to use the WiFi at most tech events?)
  • unlocked loaner Galaxy Nexus phone overdue to return to Google; in the meantime, I’ve got a prepaid T-Mobile account on it
  • Verizon-loaned HTC 8X, since I haven’t given Windows Phone 8 a real torture test yet
  • My own pathetically obsolete phone
  • aging Canon point-and-shoot camera (I need to upgrade and hope I’ll get a sense of what I should buy at CES)
  • charger and spare AA batteries for the camera
  • Belkin travel power strip
  • compact USB hub, in case the two USB ports on the power strip aren’t enough to power nearby devices

I’ll be in Vegas through Friday morning, meaning I have all of Monday to hop between press conferences, followed by three days on and around the show floor. Beyond incessantly tweeting out whatever I see, I’ll be writing a CES recap for Discovery, a couple of posts for the Disruptive Competition Project, and some sort of contribution to the PBS NewsHour’s site.

I’ve got a couple of video interviews on tap as well–the Motley Fool wants to get my thoughts on the show, and I’m supposed to chat with tech journalists Cali Lewis and Jordan Burchette on Panasonic’s Live@CES video stream Tuesday at 3:30 Pacific. And I’m going to try an additional experiment: posting too-long-for-tweets updates at Sulia, a “subject-based social network” that aims to provide more depth and context than Twitter.

I will not be at all surprised if this to-do list expands over the next few days.

If there’s anything in particular that you’d like me to look for or check out while I’m at CES, now would be an excellent time to leave a comment.

Comparing IFA to CES

BERLIN–I’ve been to CES 15 times and I’ve only attended IFA once, so I don’t have an enormous amount of experience with this trade show to compare it to the one that’s been welded to my calendar since 1998. But a few things jump out at me.

One is attendance. Although CES doesn’t draw as many attendees–156,153 this January, compared to 239,518 for last year’s IFA–the former convention feels more crowded. I think that’s because IFA, unlike CES, sells tickets to the public (last year, about 105,000 people) but doesn’t admit them until after two days reserved for the press and other “trade visitors.”

Another reason has to be the location. The Las Vegas Convention Center consists of three enormous halls large enough to store airplane hangars, while the Berlin Messe sprawls across 27 smaller structures. The LVCC pays for that simpler setup with perpetually gridlocked connecting passages, while this facility offers more, and more confusing, ways to get around. Some of these connections can only be described as Escher-esque.

The Berlin Messe also offers more food options with shorter lines–and beer on tap–and its bathrooms seem less disgusting than the LVCC’s.

The selection of exhibitors at IFA and CES doesn’t overlap nearly as much as I thought. While you have the same usual electronics-industry suspects–LG, Panasonic, Samsung, Sony, Toshiba but, of course, not Apple–IFA draws fewer obscure Asian manufacturers but collects far more appliance vendors.

These companies, many European-only operations that I’d never heard of until getting here, fill the lower levels of eight halls. I have never felt so inadequate about my oven, dishwasher, refrigerator, washer and dryer until now. Another, more pleasant, side effect: All of these manufacturers feel compelled to show off how well these machines work by offering snacks and beverages prepared with them, causing this part of IFA to double as a cooking show.

Far more actual news happens at CES, so that makes it more relevant overall–covering technology without going to that show borders on journalistic malpractice. (As you know, the Consumer Electronics Association pays me to blog for them, but I would have written the previous sentence anytime in the last 15 years.)

Getting to and from the show and around the city, however, is no contest: The U-Bahn shuts down the Las Vegas Monorail in every way. Berlin itself is more my kind of city, with things like walkable neighborhoods, mostly human-scale architecture and trees that can grow without constant irrigation. Yeah, Vegas has casinos–but there is one a short walk from the press center here, on the third floor of Hall 7. I think I’ll show a little more common sense than I do at most CESes and save that distraction for some other time.

(Updated 9/5 with an embedded slideshow of my Flickr set from the IFA trip, included after the jump.)

Continue reading

CES tips for rookie reporters

My first trip to what was then called the Consumer Electronics Show in 1998 feels like it happened so long ago, I can’t guarantee that my voice didn’t crack as I was introducing myself to people. But over the 13 subsequent visits to the show that now calls itself the “International CES,” I’ve picked up a few tips about how to manage its chaos.

Planning:

If you want to feel like you’re not being ignored by the rest of the universe, get on the CES mailing list. I received 66 e-mails pitching various CES exhibitors last week alone. My advice is to be exceedingly conservative in booking appointments: On one hand, you will be late to most of them (read on for reasons why), and on the other if you show up on time the appropriate publicist will probably be somewhere else through no fault of his or her own.

So I usually limit my booth appointments to large companies with a diverse product line–the likes of Samsung, Panasonic, Sony or Microsoft. In those cases, scheduling a meeting can help get an advance look at unreleased hardware or the chance to sit down with a higher-ranking executive.

Packing:

The most important item to bring to CES is a set of 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; some separate source of bandwidth (either a phone with tethering available or a MiFi or equivalent); a travel-sized surge protector with USB ports (it can make you friends when other people notice the sole available wall outlet just as you reach for it); 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.

The LVCC and other exhibit areas:

The Las Vegas Convention Center, home to most of CES’s exhibit space, could double as an assembly line for airliners–or for other, smaller convention centers. Budget 10 minutes to get from any one of its three halls to the next, 20 to hustle from one end to the other. I usually do one at a time: the Central Hall, where most of the big-ticket vendors exhibit, will eat up at least a day by itself. The North Hall, home to automotive electronics and satellite radio, takes less time (but may also deafen you faster). The South Hall collects smartphone and tablet vendors, camera manufacturers and–well, everybody else. You’ll find the weirdest items on its lower level.

There’s also some exhibit space in the convention center’s parking lot, in the Las Vegas Hilton (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. (And some are exceedingly off-site: A few years ago, one manufacturer of high-end speakers offered to take journalists on its private plane to Los Angeles for a tour of its facility there. Not wanting to get fired for violating the Post’s ethics policy–and not being interested in audio hardware more expensive than most cars–I declined.) Don’t even think of trying to stop by those places in the middle of the day; visit them before or after everything else.

Getting around:

The Las Vegas Monorail is a good way to avoid traffic on your way to and from the convention center–except when you have to wait 10 to 15 minutes to board it in the morning or evening. But even then, it can be faster than getting on a bus that has to crawl through traffic to and from the LVCC–or spending even more time on a horrendously long taxi line. But since it doesn’t stop at the Sands or the Venetian, you’ll have to get off at the Harrah’s/Imperial Palace station and walk a block or two north.

The Consumer Electronics Association (note: a freelance client of mine) also hires out a fleet of shuttle buses to run between the official show hotels, the LVCC and the Sands. You shouldn’t have a long wait for them in the morning, but forget getting out of the LVCC  in a hurry on the first two evenings. The wait for one can exceed half an hour.

Many evening events happen at the Wynn. That’s nowhere near a monorail stop, but getting a taxi or shuttle bus can also require a prolonged queue. Remember my advice about walking shoes? Use them to hike the mile and change from the convention center to the hotel.

Power and bandwidth:

Both are in pitifully short supply. So anytime you’re sitting down and near an outlet, recharge your devices. 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. If you can find a wired connection, use that instead. And remember that if your phone has to spend more time hunting for a signal, it will run down even faster than usual.

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