Making use of misfit review hardware

One of the recurring First World problems in technology journalism is possessing review hardware that you don’t get around to reviewing anywhere. That’s easier to happen than you might think: The device you want to review only works with another one that doesn’t warrant a writeup from you; a PR shop sends along a gadget you don’t need along with one you requested; you ask for a loaner device but then can’t interest a paying client in a story on it.

Chromebook Pixel with Galaxy Note 3 and Republic Wireless Moto XEither way, I hate to send the hardware in question back without getting some journalistic value out of it. (No, I don’t get to keep review hardware for my own use–and selling it on eBay isn’t an option either.) Here’s how I’ve tried to make additional use out of three gadgets that found their way to me without making it into a detailed review by me.

Galaxy Note 3: This size-XL phone was a supporting actor in my reviews of Samsung’s Galaxy Gear watch. I’ve since used this Sprint-spec Note 3 as a guinea pig in tests of the charging speed of its forked USB 3 cable (it was only about 22 percent faster than a generic USB cable) and of Absolute Software’s Lojack kill-switch app. I’ve also been taking notes on which of Samsung’s default settings merit changing–starting with that annoying whistle notification sound. Look for a cheat sheet on that topic, here or somewhere else.

Moto X: When Republic Wireless sent me its version of this phone, I was sure I could sell somebody on an assessment of how its WiFi-centric wireless service has evolved since last summer’s cruder offering. Nope! The loaner unit got a brief mention in a post about some positive trends in the mobile-phone industry and hasn’t shown up in any stories since then. I’ve used it to check the speed of Sprint’s LTE in my neighborhood (just now at my desk, a weak 4.51 Mbps down and 4.58 Mbps up) and to check its battery life (unsurprisingly enough, it’s vastly better on WiFi).

Chromebook Pixel: At Google’s I/O conference this May, journalists were invited to take home loaner units of this $1,299 Chrome OS laptop. I thought it would be educational to see how the Web looked on an ultra-high-resolution, 2560-by-1700-pixel display. Answer: pretty sharp! But I’ve spent surprisingly little time on the thing. For me, at least, the utility of a laptop with all of my usual apps trumps the beauty of a screen bereft of those tools. My last intensive use of the machine was to set up a fake Facebook account so I could check the social network’s default settings for a how-to post at Yahoo Tech, but this laptop’s smooth gray finish has also served as a backdrop in a few gadget close-up shots.

If you have any lingering questions about these devices that I might be able to answer, speak up now–sometime in the next few days, they’re all going home.

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Weekly output: car connectivity, business models, virtual voting, LTE fragmentation, Google Keyboard

I hope you all enjoyed your more-or-less four-day weekend. I did–and managed to spend enough time away from my various keyboards that I’m now posting this after midnight Sunday. Oh well…

7/1/2013: Car Connectivity Nears A Fork In The Road, Discovery News

My last report from CE Week covered the philosophical split I saw between companies vying to make car dashboards smarter by essentially turning them into smartphones, and those looking to provide easier and more powerful phone-to-dashboard links. I’m hoping the second contingent wins out, but I see a lot of ways they might not.

7/3/2013: Transparency About Your Business Model Ought To Be A Competitive Advantage, Disruptive Competition Project

First I saw the popular Google Reader replacement Feedly get criticized for not having a  business model (it does but has been weirdly quiet about it). Then I read blogger Andrew Sullivan’s impressive transparency about his venture into reader-supported publishing. Then I decided it was time to call out dot-commers who don’t think they need to tell their users how they plan to make money.

KTVU virtual-voting spot7/3/2013: Bill would allow virtual voting in Congress, Cox Media Group

A House resolution would let representatives attend committee hearings via videconferencing and even cast some non-controversial votes remotely, so it seemed  appropriate to have Cox correspondent Jacqueline Fell interview me about the bill via Skype. And so viewers in such places as Atlanta, the Bay Area (linked above), Palm BeachPittsburgh and Reno could have seen me briefly identified as a “Technology Expert.”

7/7/2013: Carriers have different ways to spell ‘LTE’, USA Today

A reader asked Sprint customer support a simple question–can your LTE phones roam on Verizon–and got a wrong answer, and things got more complicated from there as I dove into the tangled universe of LTE bands here and overseas. The tip part of the column is a lot simpler: If you hate your (new-ish) Android phone’s keyboard, install Google Keyboard today.

On Sulia, I poured one out for the now-officially-defunct Nextel, noted a documentary profiling five D.C. tech startups I’ve covered, griped about TiVo’s dismissive, “sorry”-free response to a friend’s perfectly reasonable query, and called out glib, alarmist rewriting of a mobile-security company’s report of a partially-addressed Android vulnerability.

Weekly output: SXSW (x2), Google Reader, bookmarks, Galaxy S 4

Another travel week ends as it should: me at home, photos from the trip posted, expenses duly categorized in Mint and a flurry of LinkedIn invitations sent.

Discovery News SXSW 2013 post

3/13/2013: SXSW Sights: Silly Robots and Serious Wi-Fi, Discovery News

This year’s SXSW didn’t feature any breakout apps, or even a particular category of app that had people excited. Here, I wrote about the panels, talks and demos that caught my interest instead–and noted the conference’s most pleasant surprise, reliable, fast and free WiFi almost everywhere I went.

3/15/2013: Digging Into A Few Of SXSW 2013′s Disruptive Dreams, Disruptive Competition Project

In this SXSW recap, I focused more closely on a few topics that interested me at the festival: 3-D printing, HTML5 apps, mobile finance and our not-fully-rational responses to transformational technology. I wrote about three-quarters of this on the plane home; the remaining one-fourth took the last three-quarters of the time.

3/15/2013: What’s the big deal about Google Reader’s demise?, USA Today

Google’s surprising (and, to many, infuriating) announcement of the July 1 shutdown of its Google Reader RSS service sparked this column, posted a couple of days early. I thought about linking to the “Hitler finds out Google Reader is shutting down” Downfall parody video, but I wasn’t sure all of the potential audience would be hip to the joke.

3/15/2013: Can the new Samsung Galaxy S4 take on the iPhone?, WTOP

D.C.’s news station had me on the air for a couple of minutes to discuss Samsung’s latest flagship smartphone. (Samsung invited me to what turned out to be a hot mess of a launch event at Radio City Music Hall; I opted not to run up to NYC the day after getting home from Austin, but part of me regrets not going.)

Sulia worked well for sharing my notes from SXSW in something close to real-time: for instance, highlights from Oatmeal cartoonist Matthew Inman’s keynote, details about one startup’s dubious patent filing, and a glitchy demo of Siri’s Eyes Free Mode in a Chevy hatchback on the show floor. I also noted Google’s backpedaling after a stupidly terse  post had people thinking the company was ending support for the open CalDAV schedule-syncing standard.

End the CES press conference as we know it

LAS VEGAS–Around 1 p.m. yesterday, when one of the two lines to get into Samsung’s press conference had already stretched around the corner of one long corridor in the Mandalay Bay hotel’s conference center, I had to question the use I was making of a painfully long day.

CES journalists assembledPress conference day has been part of the CES routine for as long as I’ve known the show. From 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. the day before the show actually opens, a line of consumer-electronics vendors take turns pitching their plans for the coming year. It should be a good opportunity to get a read on their priorities and see most of their new products.

But the massive crowds these events attract–and the lack of any meaningful Q&A time, usually a requirement in real press conferences–increasingly make them a no-win proposition. First you wait half an hour or longer to get in line (if you’re lucky or on excellent terms with the PR types running the show, you can squeeze in later), then you hunker down on the floor, in the back or the side of an enormous room (to get a seat, you’d need to have camped out more like an hour in advance).

You then watch a parade of executives bantering on about the company’s hopes and dreams and showing off their upcoming wares, which is good and useful–but from the cheap seats, you see no more detail than you’d get from watching video offsite. And except for Sony’s presser, which takes place in its exhibit area at the Las Vegas Convention Center, you rarely get any hands-on time with the new hardware either.

And only a lucky few reporters get to have any sort of conversation with the executives involved before everybody has to rush off to the next press conference–make that, the one happening an hour later, since the one kicking off in 10 minutes is already at capacity. TechnoBuffalo’s Roy Choi came up with an apt description of the phenomenon while standing next to me on one of these lines: “It’s really more of a lecture.”

If you’re a large and successful tech-news operation, you can work around this inefficiency by flooding the zone with reporters–CNet sent 90 people to cover CES, a fact that kind of makes me want to cry. But if it’s only you and one or two other journalists, you have to question spending a day like this.

So next year, maybe I’ll fly out on press conference day instead. I’d still have the full show itself before me–and, to rebut the “CES is dead” crowd, being able to see almost an entire industry’s worth of upcoming products and talk to the people involved remains worth the time and travel expense. And in the bargain, I’d have an extra day with my family.

How a Samsung phone and an iPad mini don’t mix

After accidentally invoking Siri on my iPad mini for the fifth time this morning, it hit me: The proprietary layout of buttons on the Samsung Galaxy Note II that I just reviewed is making me stupider at using Apple’s mobile devices.

ImageSamsung veers from the lineup of Android system buttons that Google established with last year’s Ice Cream Sandwich release: Instead of back, home and recent apps, arranged left to right, Samsung’s Android phones offer menu, home and back buttons. (LG also departs from the Android standard, but its back-home-menu array keeps the back button in the expected place.) To see your open apps, you have to press and hold the home button.

On my iPad mini, that same gesture opens Siri, while I have to tap the home button twice to see open apps.

(Yes, when I first wrote about ICS, I was skeptical about removing the menu button and thought that requiring a long press of home to see open apps was good enough. I was wrong: I rarely miss the menu button, while I hit the recent-apps button all the time.)

It’s an exasperating situation, and if I were to get a Samsung Android phone and keep my iPad I’d have to waste brain cells on memorizing this unnecessary difference. You can’t remap the system buttons on a Samsung phone or change Apple’s home-button behavior;  if you disable Siri a long press of the home button will instead bump you over to iOS’s search.

If, on the other hand, I get a phone with the regular ICS buttons–many vendors alter Google’s interface in other ways but stick with that lineup–I face a lot less confusion. At worst, I’d find myself pressing the phone’s home button twice and having nothing happen, which beats launching an unwanted app and hearing Siri’s “ding-ding” prompt.

So that’s one thing that I know will govern my next phone purchase.

Weekly output: Chromebook, newspapers and search engines, Amtrak, photo spheres, Google Calendar, Gmail

What’s not on this list? Any gift-guide pieces or reports about Black Friday sales. I can’t say I miss those two staples of Thanksgiving-week tech coverage… and yet I feel vaguely guilty about dodging them.

11/19/2012: Google’s cheaper Chromebook: enough of a computer, Boing Boing

Having this fall’s implementation by Samsung of Google’s Chromebook laptop concept priced for half of last summer’s made the results easier to like. But Samsung also gave this $249 model better battery life and faster performance, while Google contributed more offline-compatible Web apps. I’m tempted to pick up one to have as a backup computer, which was not the case a year ago.

11/19/2012: A Business Perspective on the Snippet Tax, Disruptive Competition Project

My second post for this tech-policy blog picked up where a 2009 rant over stupid newspaper publishers whining about news-search sites had left off. Now, it’s news organizations in other countries complaining that Google News and sites like it are taking away readers; I’m not any more persuaded by that logic three years later.

11/20/2012: Amtrak’s New App: Does It Actually Make Travel Easier?, The Atlantic Cities

I like trains, and I like smartphone apps that simplify my life a little. I wasn’t sure that Amtrak’s offering for iOS and Android would be worth keeping around, but after using it to book and manage a round-trip from D.C. to NYC, I see where the railroad is going with it.

On Wednesday, USA Today was kind enough to publish a condensed version of last weekend’s Q&A about adding a Start menu to Windows 8 in its print edition. That was the first time I’ve appeared in a newspaper of any kind since Roll Call ran a version of a post I did for the Consumer Electronics Association just over a year a ago , and my first spot in a general-interest paper since I logged off from the Post in April of 2011.

11/24/2012: Spherical Panoramas from a Phone, Discovery News

Writing about a feature confined to a new Android release that most users of Google’s operating system won’t see for months, or ever, seems unfair, but the 4.2 edition’s “photo sphere” option genuinely intrigued me. Alas, I initially neglected to note that the older iOS app Photosynth–from a Redmond, Wash.-based software developer called Microsoft you may have heard of–can also generate interactive spherical panoramas from a phone’s camera.

11/25/2012: How to sync your Google calendar with your iPad, USA Today

Credit for this Q&A item goes to my wife, who asked me about this problem on her iPad. Credit for the tip about a new Gmail search option goes to the Google Operating System blog, an old favorite of mine, which brought that change to my attention last week.

Weekly output: Microsoft Surface (x2), Kojo Nnamdi Show, soundbars, NFC payments, This Week in Law, HDMI DRM, remote-control apps

Microphones played almost as big of a role in my work this week as keyboards usually do.

6/19/2012: Microsoft’s Tablet: No Depth Below The Surface, Discovery News

I wasn’t invited to Microsoft’s Monday-afternoon event in Los Angeles to unveil its Surface tablets (not that I would have been too keen to fly across the country on four days’ notice), but I didn’t mind that much after learning how attendees didn’t actually get to use the display units in any meaningful way.

6/19/2012: New Microsoft Tablet Is Unveiled, Fox 5 News

The local Fox station’s Will Thomas interviewed me about Surface on its morning-news show. As I did in the Discovery post, I noted what Microsoft left out of its introduction of the two Surface tablets: a price, a ship date and even vague promises about battery life.

(Update, 5:53 p.m. Oh, one other thing… the next guest on the show was rapper Ice-T. That does not make me his opening act, but it did result in a photo of me with the gentleman and his wife.)

6/19/2012: Personal Tech Advice, The Kojo Nnamdi Show

About three hours later and half a mile south on Wisconsin Avenue, I talked about cell-phone pricing, iOS 6′s maps app, password security, car2go, and, yes, Surface with two old friends: veteran tech journalist Wayne Rash and guest host Marc Fisher, who remains one of my favorite people at the Washington Post.

6/22/2022: No Soundbar To Mass Adoption, CEA Digital Dialogue

This week’s CEA post chronicles my evolution from a set of what I’ve called Single Guy Speakers to a far more compact soundbar system and discusses how many other people seem to have decided to trade some sonic fidelity for a less bulky (and more baby-proof) setup.

6/22/2012: The High Cost Of Paying By Phone, Discovery News

My first attempt to buy something with the Google Wallet app on the Evo 4G LTE phone I reviewed last month was a flop. The second one worked–and then the entire Wallet app stopped working. I don’t know if I’ll have a chance for a third try before I have to return this loaner phone.

6/22/2012: Episode 167: Are You Game?, This Week in Law

I talked about politicians on Twitter, privacy rights in an age of ubiquitous cameras, how “quantified self” apps might push us to do dangerous things, and the latest DMCA anti-circumvention debate with host Evan Brown and fellow guests Joseph Gratz (a San Francisco-based lawyer) and Sherwin Siy (a vice president at Public Knowledge). I look forward to my next spot on TWiL–one of a series of podcasts produced by TWiT.TV, a Petaluma, Calif.-based network–and hope that it won’t feature Skype locking up and crashing with about 10 minutes to go.

6/24/2012: TiVo ‘viewing error’ a rights issue, USA Today

You may recall me venting on Twitter two weeks ago about an annoying HDMI failure on a Samsung HDTV; this column is the result of that failed troubleshooting session. It also includes a tip about using smartphone or tablet apps as remote controls that I explored at greater length on CEA’s blog last month.

Weekly output: laptop, Android and iOS security, spectrum, Galaxy Note (x2)

The lineup of sites that have run my work lately is a little different this week.

2/19/2012: Tip: How to secure your laptop data, USA Today

I was a little worried that some of the advice I was throwing around in this column–using apps like TrueCrypt to encrypt files, adding third-party DNS services to your Internet setup–would be too technically-involved for a general-interest audience. (I rewrote the DNS item to make some definitions clearer because of that concern.) Did more than a handful of readers add OpenDNS or Google Public DNS to their computers after reading the piece?

2/21/2012: Samsung Galaxy Note: Large, Not In Charge, Discovery News

I wondered what Samsung was up to when it splashed enormous ads on the side of the Las Vegas Convention Center during CES to tout this oversized Android device–”Phone? Tablet? It’s Galaxy Note!”–then ran that goofy Super Bowl ad . I’m even more puzzled by its intentions after reviewing the Note itself. Then again, check out all the comments from people professing that they love this phone and would even prefer that it came with a larger screen.

2/22/2012: Samsung Galaxy Note Review, Boing Boing

I’ve been reading Boing Boing for years; this is the first time I’ve written for the site. The piece decries some of the more common problems in Android phones, as exhibited by this device. Note the extensive comments thread: Many readers critiqued some assumptions I made while writing the piece, but they were generally civil about it. I can appreciate that.

2/22/2012: A Change of Channels on Spectrum Policy, CEA Digital Dialogue

The wonkiest thing I wrote all week, this post unpacks the deal the government worked out–contrary to my own predictions of two years ago–to transfer some airwaves from TV stations to wireless services. Everybody seems content with the outcome, which I can’t recall ever happening with a tech-policy issue affecting so many different interests.

2/24/2012: Who Defends Your Phone: Robots or Humans?, Discovery News

I’d meant to write this right after Google announced its “Bouncer” automated screening of Android Market apps for signs of malware, but got sidetracked by other items for a few weeks. That delay allowed me to put a lot more reporting into the piece and broaden it to address some app-trustworthiness issues that have cropped up more recently with Apple’s App Store.