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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Weekly output: Alexis Ohanian, Snapchat, fitness gadgets, Mac webcam

As I type this, I’m on my way to my 17th CES in a row. My laptop and phone have advanced a great deal since 1998, that’s for sure.

DisCo Ohanian interview

1/2/2014: Reddit’s Alexis Ohanian: Current IP Laws Aren’t Much Of A Friend to Startups, Disruptive Competition Project

My final contribution at DisCo was an interview with Reddit’s founder, who’s since become both an investor and activist on many tech-policy issues. We talked about how a balanced intellectual-property system helped make Reddit possible–and how the same system doesn’t always offer much help for small companies whose own IP has been infringed.

1/2/2014: Snapchat experienced a security breach, WTOP

I talked to D.C.’s news-radio station about Snapchat’s inexcusably lax approach to security and how it’s harder to change a compromised phone number than a password.

1/3/2014: New fitness gadgets, Fox 5 News

WTTG’s Sarah Simmons quizzed me on what activity-tracking gadgets like the Jawbone Up and the FitBit can do to help you track your exercise–and how they’re at risk of being made obsolete by tools built into smartphones.

1/4/2014: Q&A: How can I re-install my laptop’s webcam?, USA Today

The column recounts how resetting my MacBook Air’s System Management Controller cured it of an inability to see its own webcam… except that when I opened the laptop this morning, the problem had returned. Either I didn’t do the SMC reset correctly, or this Mac has a deeper ailment. Either way, I hope I don’t have to Skype or FaceTime from this machine this week.

On Sulia, I inventoried the memes I ignored on Twitter this year (“Duck Dynasty” should have been on that list too, as I’ve never watched the show, have no interest in watching it and don’t care who’s on it), wondered why Google Now’s estimate of my cycling mileage in December missed my Capital Bikeshare rides, whined about Chrome asking for saved passwords on every restart (and then updated that post to share a fix), endorsed a great little Mac plug-in called “WordService” that adds editing tools to just about every other app, and teed off on Snapchat for its arrogant refusal to apologize.

Your device can be too small and too thin (July 2012 CEA repost)

(Since a site redesign at the Consumer Electronics Association resulted in the posts I wrote for CEA’s Digital Dialogue blog vanishing, along with everything there older than last November, I’m reposting a few that I think still hold up. This one ran July 27, 2012; it’s on my mind again after two recent stays with relatives who had broadband Internet at home but no WiFi router connected to it.)

For well over a decade, I’ve had the same wish list for each new gadget: smaller, lighter and thinner than its predecessors. But lately, I wonder if I should be more careful about what I wish for.

too-thin laptopI still appreciate carrying around devices that weigh less and take up less space than earlier models—preferably while running longer on a charge. But some recent devices I’ve tested or purchased suggest the costs of being too thin or too small.

Consider the connections around the edges of many new laptops, including the MacBook Air I just bought, but also many Intel-based Ultrabook PCs. The thinnest among them often leave out wired Ethernet ports and standard HDMI video outputs, requiring users to pack adapters.

That’s not a huge tradeoff for video. If you expect to plug a laptop into a monitor or an HDTV, you’re foolish not to bring your own cable, and one with a micro-HDMI plug at one end will take up less space than a full-sized equivalent. But with networking, you’ll need to bring an adapter supported by your operating system or trust that Wi-Fi will always work, no matter how many other people jam the airwaves near you.

And as just about anybody who’s gone to CES or any other tech conference can testify, that rarely happens. Veterans of these events know to look for Ethernet, and some companies have taken note: Google won compliments for providing wired Internet access in the press seats at its I/O conference last month.

The race to build the thinnest laptop, as opposed to the lightest, doesn’t make much sense from a usability perspective. An added eighth of an inch in thickness won’t make a laptop any more awkward to operate or carry. It’s not a thick phone that will break the line of a suit when tucked into a pocket.

Smartphones risk a different sort of miniaturization malfunction. Since the 1990s, phones using the GSM standard have used compact SIM (subscriber identity module) cards to store account data. This has made it easy to move a number from one phone to another and, with an unlocked phone, switch temporarily or permanently to a new carrier.

That’s given GSM a serious advantage over the competing CDMA standard, which doesn’t require any such physical separation of an account and a phone. (Trivia: Some CDMA carriers have employed a SIM equivalent called an R-UIM  or removable user identity module, but not in the U.S.)

In recent years, the SIM scenario has gotten a little more complicated with the arrival of micro-SIM cards. But you can still use a micro-SIM in place of a standard card (technically a mini-SIM) if you pop it into an adapter or position it so its contacts align properly in the slot (I’ve done it, but it took a few tries). And you can cut down a SIM to micro-SIM size.

Now, however, the industry has certified a “nano-SIM” standard that is smaller still and slightly thinner. So you won’t be able to shoehorn a micro-SIM into a nano-SIM slot, and using a nano-SIM card in phones designed for bigger cards will require an adapter instead of just careful placement.

Whether saving .0037 cubic inches of space over the already tiny micro-SIM card (in context, .1 percent of the volume of an iPhone 4S, considerably less in the current crop of big-screen smartphones) is worth that complication seems to have gone unexplored. Would we be better off if everybody had standardized on micro-SIM and let designers find other ways to condense phone hardware? We’ll never know.

Manufacturing ever-smaller gadgets also imposes costs we may not notice until later on. You may find that you can’t upgrade the memory on a new laptop—a serious risk if an operating system upgrade requires more memory than the last release. Are we ready to foreclose on the idea of upgradable hardware?

Repairing a tablet or a computer can also move from tricky to difficult once its components get tightly-packed together. The same goes for recycling a defunct device—although if a manufacturer provides its own, easily accessible recycling service for those gadgets, I’ll give it a pass.

The risk in making this kind of complaint is sounding like a grumpy old man, desperately clinging to his trusty old Ethernet cable and SIM card as he stands in the way of progress and the laudable goal of making computers simple, worry-free appliances.

But at a certain point, standards friendliness, repairability and expandability should outrank shaving yet another fraction of an inch or an ounce off a product. That would leave plenty of other things companies can try to beat each other on. Did I mention battery life?

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

Weekly output: broadband, favorite gadgets, competition, Mountain Lion, miniaturization, location awareness, IP addresses

I don’t usually write this much in a week for my two oldest regular clients (“oldest” being a relative term, since it’s been just over a year since my first post for Discovery), but the scheduling worked out that way.

7/25/2012: Internet Costs and Choices Still Stink, Discovery News

This critique of the FCC’s latest study of the U.S. residential broadband market might have gone up last week had I not set it aside to write about Reddit’s coverage of the Aurora shootings. Instead, I gave it another couple of days. In that time, I came up with the somewhat contrived illustration shown here: an Ethernet cable twisted in the shape of a question mark in front of the FCC report as seen in a laptop’s browser. The headline here overstates things slightly–pricing for most consumer-grade connections doesn’t seem that bad, at least if you compare it to cable TV–but nobody can say the state of competition is good.

I updated the post a day later to add a reference to Google’s just-announced pricing for its Kansas City fiber-optic service (1 billion bits per second for $70 a month, 1 Gbps plus a set of TV channels that exclude ESPN for $120, or 5 Mbps for free after a connection fee).

7/25/2012: Tech Team’s Favorite Gadgets: Photos, Discovery News

As I mentioned upfront, it’s been just over a year since Discovery set out to cover tech and gadget news more closely. This photo gallery, featuring myself and the other regular Discovery contributors writing about gadgets we’ve appreciated more than most, marks that anniversary.

7/25/2012: Rethinking the State of Competition, CEA Digital Dialogue

This reassessment of the relative openness of a few key consumer-tech markets was going to be last week’s post for CEA–as you can see, it’s responding to Microsoft’s pulling out its MSNBC joint venture and Yahoo hiring Google’s Marissa Mayer as its new CEO–but got held up for various reasons. I’m not sure there was a solid 800-word blog post in this topic, but once I realized that I didn’t have time to crank out something different–I was late enough already.

7/27/2012: Your Device Can Be Too Small And Too Thin, CEA Digital Dialogue

Here I question the move to make ever-thinner gadgets at the cost of connectivity, expandability, compatibility and repairability. I could have written it at any time over the last few months, but buying a MacBook Air laptop–and realizing how much more I had to think about its memory allocation when I couldn’t upgrade that later on–closed the deal for me.

7/27/2012: Apple’s Mountain Lion: More of iOS in OS X, Discovery News

I feel better about Mountain Lion than I do about Lion–but I also recall that some of Lion’s annoyances took a few weeks to sink in. You’ll have to ask me in a month if I’m still spending much time checking the Notifications list, using the Share buttons in Safari and the Finder, or employing the Dictation feature to crank out short snippets of text. I also wonder if by then I will have figured out why the MacBook doesn’t see my Canon printer/scanner; nobody had an answer when I asked on Google+, and this post hasn’t generated any input on that subject either.

7/29/2012: How your phone gets location-confused, USA Today

Giving readers a refresher course in how smartphones fix their location through network signals, WiFi and GPS allowed me to bring orbital mechanics into an article, which doesn’t happen all that often. If I hadn’t written this a couple of weeks earlier (my editor was going on vacation), the second part of this column could also have noted the newfound interest of some U.S. Olympics viewers in using proxy servers to watch the BBC’s reportedly-excellent streaming video of the 2012 games.