About robpegoraro

Freelance journalist who covers (and is often vexed by) computers, gadgets and other things that beep.

Weekly output: OpenAI-enhanced customer support, fixed-wireless upgrades, MLS Season Pass, app-store competition report, FCC broadband map, Matter, Next Level Networks, Twitter offer to creators

I blew off work Friday to do something I hadn’t done in four years: go downhill skiing. Slope conditions were not awesome and I had snow guns blowing in my face most of the time, but it still easily beat spending those hours in a warm, dry home office.

1/31/2023: Can OpenAI Tools Help Customer Service Reps Sound More Human?, PCMag

The PR folks for Intercom gave me an advance on their news about adding GPT-based writing assistance to their widely-used customer-support platform.

1/31/2023: How MU-MIMO could change the FWA game for T-Mobile and Verizon, Light Reading

My editor at this trade pub asked me to summarize a rather technical report from Signals Research Group that found signs of a significant capacity upgrade in progress at T-Mobile–which that carrier had not talked up before but confirmed when I asked about it.

2/1/2023: Apple Invites Soccer Fans to Sign Up for MLS Season Pass, PCMag

After writing last summer about Apple signing this deal with Major League Soccer, I had to follow up with the pricing details Apple announced Wednesday.

2/2/2023: Feds Slam Apple, Google for Abusing App-Store Power (But Mostly Apple), PCMag

The lengthy report the National Telecommunications and Information Administration posted on Wednesday didn’t break any major news about the ways Apple and Google have run their mobile app stores, but its recommended remedies were still interesting.

Screenshot of story as seen in USAT's iPad app2/3/2023: Is broadband available near you? This updated FCC map can tell you. Maybe., USA Today

I’d had this topic on my to-do list for a while, and then Federal Communications Commission chair Jessica Rosenworcel offered an update on the FCC’s connectivity-cartography efforts at an event Tuesday.

2/3/2023: With Matter, Apple HomePod 2 speaker aims to connect to devices no matter who makes them, USA Today

USAT publishing this post (a week and change after I filed it) wraps up my CES 2023 coverage.

2/3/2023: This startup aims to green broadband deserts with an old-school idea: Get customers to pay for the network up front, Fast Company

I first read about Next Level Networks from Ars Technica’s Jon Brodkin, then learned that this Bay Area startup was building a fiber network at a development in Sonoma County, Calif.–not far from where I was already spending the holidays with my wife’s family.

2/3/2023: Twitter offers ad revenue share to creators, Al Jazeera

I was able to jump on Skype to offer a value judgment about Elon Musk’s insultingly vague promise of a share of advertising revenue to undefined “creators” who also pay $8 a month for Twitter Blue because I got back from skiing maybe 25 minutes before scheduled airtime.

An almost Lightning-free gadget existence

Upgrading from my iPad mini 5 to an iPad mini 6 almost two weeks ago hasn’t made a huge difference in my tablet usage aside from my needing to remap Touch ID fingerprint unlocking from a large button below the screen to a power button at the top right. But it’s already yielded a huge improvement every time I need to charge the thing: I don’t need to find a Lightning cable.

Lightning and USB-C cables meet above the Apple logo on the back of an iPad mini 6

Because this tablet has a USB-C port instead, I can plug it into the same cables that I’d use to charge my phone, my previous phone and my old and any new laptop. Not having to worry about proprietary charging accessories is a welcome, if overdue luxury in my history of Apple gadget ownership, and it’s enough to outweigh the mini 6 omitting a headphone jack.

(I do have a pair of Bluetooth headphones–after interviewing Nothing co-founder Akis Evangelidis at Web Summit in 2021, he gave me a pair of that company’s Ear (1) earbuds. I still need to buy a USB-C headphone-jack adapter if I’m going to use any other headphones I own, especially the Bose QC25 noise-cancelling headphones I’ve grown to appreciate on long flights.)

Unfortunately, I can’t get away from Lightning when I’m at my desk at home: The Magic Keyboard with Touch ID and Numeric Keypad on which I’m typing this post has a Lightning connector for recharging (and for working around the occasional Bluetooth dropout). I can’t think of any engineering reason to have this $179 wireless peripheral charge via Lightning instead of USB-C, but Apple can’t seem to let this connector go.

And then there’s the mouse next to the keyboard–which is not Apple’s $79 Magic Mouse. Instead, I am still using the AA battery-powered wireless mouse that came with the iMac I bought in 2009. This rodent continues to function fine at steering a cursor around a screen–notwithstanding the times, more often than with the keyboard, when the Bluetooth connection drops because reasons. And when the mouse runs out of a charge, it takes me well under a minute to pop the two spent AAs out of the thing and replace them with two charged AAs from the charger next to my desk.

Apple’s current, not-so-magic mouse, meanwhile, must be set aside while it charges because its port is on the bottom–an idiotic configuration that the design geniuses in Cupertino have stuck with since 2015. And that charging port requires a Lightning cable, again for no discernible reason besides “Apple said so.” So while I had no big hang-up over spending $550 and change on a tablet with 256 GB of storage (on sale for $100 off), I just don’t want to spend even a small fraction of that to underwrite Apple’s Lightning fetish.

Weekly output: Helicopters of D.C., DOJ sues Google, Rocket Lab launch, DirecTV drops Newsmax

Last week featured my second business trip of the year, and also my third trip to the destination in question since the middle of December.

Screenshot of story as seen in Safari on an iPad mini 6, illustrated with a photo of a UH-60 Blackhawk flying with the Washington Monument in the background.1/23/2023: How Crowdsourced Chopper Spotting Helps ID the Helicopters of DC, PCMag

I’ve been following the @HelicoptersofDC Twitter account for two years and change, so it was a treat to see Andrew Logan, the guy behind this aircraft-tracking project, explain how it works and how he’s dealt with obstacles ranging from uncooperative government agencies to Elon Musk.

1/24/2023: DOJ: Google ‘Corrupted Legitimate Competition’ With Ad-Tech Business, PCMag

My take on this antitrust lawsuit targeting Google’s display-ads practices: If people as politically opposed as U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton all think you’re guilty, you’d better lawyer up.

1/25/2023: On Second Try, Rocket Lab’s Electron Leaps to Space From Virginia Coast, PCMag

Almost a month after the first of three road trips to Wallops Island, I got to see a rocket fly to space–the fourth time I’ve done so close enough to hear it, and the first of those times I didn’t have to fly to Florida first. For another take on the experience, see the writeup from Ars Technica’s John Timmer, who had already decided to drive there and back and gave me a lift.

1/25/2023: DirectTV Dumps Newsmax, Citing Fees, Newsmax Cries ‘Censorship’, PCMag

The notion that DirecTV’s owners–gigantic telecom conglomerate AT&T and the private-equity firm TPG–are somehow members of the woke mob is dumb beyond belief. And yet that claim also fits right into a pattern of performative victimhood in the Trumpian part of today’s Republican Party.

The D.C. area’s no-flying-needed way to see a space launch

Tuesday night treated me to the first space launch I’d seen in person–meaning close enough to hear it–since 2018. And unlike the previous three launches that I have been privileged to experience from that close, this one did not require a flight to Florida.

Instead, only a three-hour drive lay between my house and Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, hosted at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s eastern shore. (Shout out to Ars Technica’s science writer John Timmer for offering a lift.) The occasion was Rocket Lab’s U.S. debut of its Electron rocket, something I had made two earlier trips to Wallops in December to see before those launch attempts got called off.

Electron heads to space, with its second stage leaving a plume that evokes a celestial jellyfish.

Rocket Lab, a startup that first launched Electron from its New Zealand facility in 2017 and had conducted 31 missions from there since, is the newest tenant at Wallops. But this site across an inlet from Chincoteague saw its first liftoff much earlier–in 1945, five years before Cape Canaveral’s first launch. It’s had a quieter existence since, with recent Wallops headlines featuring a flight or two a year of Northrop Grumman’s Antares rockets to send Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station. They remain the only space launches that I’ve seen, faintly, from my house.

A press pass issued by Rocket Lab granted a much closer view of its “Virginia is for Launch Lovers” mission, just two miles away from a spare concrete pad next to the Atlantic. At ignition about 40 minutes after sunset, Electron lit up the shore, a brilliant beacon shooting into the sky. The sound rolled out to us about two seconds later–a steady low-frequency roar that might have been an especially loud jet engine, except jets can’t shoot anything into Earth orbit. A clear sky let me track the rocket through first-stage separation, then follow the second stage as its exhaust left a plume dozens of miles up.

If you’re reading this around the D.C. area, you should have multiple chances to experience that, as Rocket Lab plans four to six launches from Wallops this year. Things to know in advance:

• The no-stopping offseason drive should be barely three hours from downtown D.C. to the Wallops visitor center, but woe betide anybody who hopes to make the trip that quickly on weekends from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

• The range at Wallops doesn’t shout “space flights here,” lacking the giant gantries of the Kennedy Space Center; the tallest structure is a water tower emblazoned with NASA’s “meatball” circular blue logo.

• Wireless coverage can get really bad, so you should not bank on being able to Instagram launch photos.

• Don’t expect the same show you’d get at a KSC launch. At liftoff, Electron’s thrust is 43,000 pounds, while at launch Antares (with one launch left this year) is good for 864,000 pounds. In comparison, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy have 1.7 and 5.1 million pounds of sea-level thrust sending them skyward. But while you won’t have the experience of feeling a giant rocket’s sound rush over you like an acoustic avalanche, it is still a kind of magic to see something people made leave the ground and soar into the black, all the way to space.

• You can, however, see a launch from closer than the Cape allows. A launch-viewing guide from photographer Kyle Henry lists one location, not always open, 1.7 miles from the pad, with an always-open spot 2.2 miles away. The NASA Wallops Visitor Center is another option, about 7 miles away.

• If you can’t make the trip, you should still be able to see a Wallops launch from around D.C. That’s more easily done at night, when you don’t have to distinguish one contrail from everything else in the sky; you just have to spot a rocket’s red glare.

Weekly output: Samsung self-repair, FCC chair’s security concerns, tech-policy forecast, password managers, Google layoffs, electric-car progress, legal risks for security research

This week had me head into D.C. for work events four days in a row, something that last happened in early 2020.

1/17/2023: Samsung ‘Self-Repair’ Program Adds Galaxy S22 Phones, Some Galaxy Books, PCMag

The post I wrote after Samsung gave me an advance copy of their press release noted the limited number of replacement parts offered under this program, but Technica’s Ron Amadeo–who has a lot more experience with Samsung gadgets than I do–went into detail about how much it doesn’t cover.

1/18/2023: FCC Chair: 5G Expansion Creates ‘Broader Attack Surface’ for Cyberattacks, PCMag

I watched a brief but fairly info-dense speech by FCC chair Jessica Rosenworcel about privacy and security risks to U.S. wireless networks and their customers.

Screenshot of the story in Safari for iPadOS, illustrated with a photo of the Capitol not long after sunrise.1/18/2023: Is This the Year Congress Finally Tackles Privacy Legislation?, PCMag

Betteridge’s law of headlines suggests that the answer to that question is “no.” A look at the last decade of Congressional inaction on privacy also points to a negative answer.

1/19/2023: Considering an app to manage your passwords? This advice will be key no matter which app you choose., USA Today

This column got published considerably after I filed it, and I don’t exactly know why. Fortunately (or unfortunately, if you’re a LastPass customer), LastPass hasn’t provided any more clarity about its data breach since I wrote the piece.

1/20/2023: Google layoffs, Al Jazeera

I made an in-studio appearance to talk about Google’s layoffs–and made sure to note Google’s aggressive stock buybacks.

1/20/2023: Feds Tout Progress in Electrifying US Fleet, Building Out Car Chargers, PCMag

The Washington Auto Show’s public-policy day didn’t feature an enormous amount of news, but two panels featuring Biden administration representatives yielded some useful details about efforts to electrify government vehicles and support building out hundreds of thousands of new car chargers.

1/22/2023: Good News, Bad News for Security Researchers: Feds Are Less Likely to Charge You, States Are Another Thing, PCMag

Information-security lawyer Harley Geiger gave an amusing and informative talk at the ShmooCon conference about the state of computer-crime laws and how they can menace legitimate security research.

The major purchase I don’t want to make until next year–if not later

Somebody with a 17-year-old vehicle in their driveway should be the easiest mark possible at an auto show. Any new car on display there should offer an immense advance in comfort and convenience–and an even greater leap in efficiency when the vehicle has a battery-electric drivetrain.

A charging port on the side of a Hyundai Ioniq 5

And yet my visit Thursday to the Washington Auto Show on its public-policy day left me relieved that our 2005 Toyota Prius–somehow still only the second car I’ve owned–keeps rolling along.

It’s not that this year’s show didn’t offer an intriguing selection of electric cars, even with VW sitting out the entire event. Multiple automakers now have not-too-big EVs on the market at not-crazy prices that offer decent range and charge quickly.

(If a tree fell on our Toyota tomorrow, I’d probably make a Kia EV6 and a Hyundai Ioniq 5 our first test drives.)

But the selection will only expand as automakers–here I have to note that decades of poor judgment at Toyota have left it shamefully far behind in EVs–race to bring more electric cars to the market. And each new model year represents another 12 months for manufacturers to improve on existing designs and for batteries to get more efficient. And each new month means more car chargers springing up along the nation’s roads, soon to be accelerated with nearly $5 billion in funding from the 2021 infrastructure law.

Our own house would need its own wiring upgrade before we’d want to park an EV in the driveway. That probably won’t get any cheaper and may cost a lot more than expected, depending on what kind of quirky work lurks inside our century-old abode.

Meanwhile, living in a walkable and Metro-served neighborhood, with no driving commutes for me or my wife, affords us the luxury of not having to use our vehicle that much. And of not even having to think that much about what’s become a relatively low-mileage old car–except, perhaps, when I’m surrounded by shiny new alternatives to it.

Weekly output: FuboTV rate hike, Varjo, NextGen TV, Washington Apple Pi, sustainability at CES, Twitter apps, Mark Vena podcast

You can imagine how much I appreciate having this holiday weekend follow CES. I came home last Sunday morning exhausted and with a cold–but fortunately not Covid, as verified by three negative tests since then.

(Speaking of CES, Patreon readers got a post sharing more of my notes from the show.)

1/9/2023: FuboTV Increases Rates by $5 a Month, Tacks on ‘RSN’ Fee, PCMag

I have to wonder if Fubo doesn’t have some kind of a death wish, because there’s little else to explain why it would want to adopt one of cable TV’s more loathsome practices by sticking subscribers with a new surcharge for regional sports networks–and doing so on the same day it hikes its advertised rates by $5.

1/10/2023: On the Virtual Road With Varjo’s XR-3 Mixed-Reality Headset, PCMag

I got to try out this high-end headset at the end of a long Friday at CES and came away impressed–not that there’s much consumer-relevant in a device with a five-figure price tag.

Screengrab of the story as seen in Safari on an iPad mini.1/12/2023: NEXTGEN TV’s CES sales pitch: strength in numbers, Fierce Video

I thought I’d see more manufacturers shipping TVs with NextGen (aka ATSC 3.0) tuners, but on the other hand I didn’t expect to learn that those sets made up 8% of all TVs shipped to U.S. dealers last year. That already makes NextGen much more relevant than 8K TV.

1/12/2023: Afternoon Learners SIG, Washington Apple Pi

I joined the virtual meeting of this group (SIG being short for “special interest group”) via Zoom for about an hour to share my impressions of CES and answer questions.

1/13/2023: Green tech and trends at CES 2023 point to environmental progress, Fast Company

After noting all of the green shoots I saw at CES, I had to remind readers of how much Las Vegas remains a monument to car supremacy.

1/13/2023: Third-Party Twitter Apps Stop Working in What Appears to Be a Widespread Outage, PCMag

The fact that Twitter management remains silent about blocking third-party clients shows a colossal amount of disrespect for both the developers of those apps and their customers.

1/14/2023: S03 E43 – SmartTechCheck Podcast, Mark Vena

I shared my impressions of CES and discussed smart-home technology in the first 2023 edition of this podcast, also available via video.

CES 2023 travel-tech report: a stand-in laptop and a renewed phone

For the first time since 2011, I shipped out to CES with somebody else’s laptop. The HP Spectre x360 that I’d taken to the 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2022 showed signs in November of a serious motherboard meltdown, so I took a Lenovo ThinkPad X13s loaned by the company’s PR department.

Beyond having a reliable laptop on which to work, my main objective in taking this computer to Vegas was to see if I’d notice a day-to-day difference in the ThinkPad running on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx Gen 3 instead of the usual Intel processor. The answer: less than I thought.

Hardware I took to CES 2023, shot from above: Pixel 5a and Pixel 7 smartphones, Inseego MiFi X Pro hotspots from T-Mobile and Verizon, chargers for the laptop and phones, headphones and my CES badge.

Battery life definitely seemed better, but I had neither the opportunity nor the motivation to see if the X13s would approach the “up to 28 hours” touted by Lenovo. That’s because every time I found myself sitting next to an outlet, I plugged in the laptop as CES best practices dictate.

Meanwhile, running x86-coded programs on that Qualcomm chip did not reveal any awkward incompatibility moments–even though so few Windows apps have been revised for that ARM processor architecture and therefore must run in Microsoft’s Windows 11 emulation. The uncomplicated nature of the apps I used (Chrome, Firefox, Word, Evernote, Slack and Skype) may have had something to do with that.

I had worried that the laptop only offering two USB ports, both USB-C, might require me to fish out an adapter for any USB-A devices or cables, but this was the first CES in a long time where nobody handed me a press kit on a USB flash drive. And while the X13s isn’t a convertible laptop that can be folded into a tablet, I only ever needed to use it as a standard keyboard-below-screen computer.

I also packed a review phone, a Pixel 7 Google had loaned earlier (and which I reviewed for Patreon readers last month). The 7 has better cameras than my Pixel 5a, so I used that device for most of my photography from the show. As for own Pixel 5a–now on its second life after my successful at-home replacement of the screen I’d shattered in September–it operated with pleasant reliability. Its battery life continued to impress me, although every time I found myself sitting next to an outlet, I plugged in the phone as CES best practices dictate. My one complaint with the 5a: the fingerprint sensor on the back sometimes balks at recognizing my biometrics, even after I’d tried cleaning it a few weeks ago.

On both my phone and that laptop, I stuck to past habits and took all my notes in Evernote. And for once, I didn’t have a single sync conflict between devices! I have no idea how that happened, but it did make me feel better about the subscription fee hitting my credit card the day before I flew to Vegas.

I made some room in my messenger bag for twin loaner hotspots, the T-Mobile and Verizon versions of Inseego’s MiFi Pro X 5G. T-Mobile generally offered faster 5G connectivity, but Verizon’s network sometimes reached where T-Mo’s did not. Both hotspots took far too long to boot up–easily a minute and a half before I could tether the laptop to either–and so more than once, I just used the mobile-hotspot function on the Pixel 5a.

This was also the first CES 2023 where Twitter wasn’t the obvious choice for sharing real-time observations. Instead, I alternated between that social network and Mastodon; that seems unsustainable over the long run, but since my next big trip to a tech event doesn’t happen until MWC Barcelona at the end of February, I have some time to figure that out.

Weekly output: Japanese startups, Paula Abdul’s audio glasses, FTC moves to ban non-competes, “dabloons”

My CES travel concluded Sunday morning, but my CES coverage has a few more days to run as I continue to work on pieces from that event. And try to catch up on all the sleep I lost, especially during my red-eye flight home Saturday night.

The CES 2023 app's page describing the LaunchIT pitch competition.1/3/2023: Launch.IT, CES

With Larry Harrell and Connie Koch Harrell of Keiretsu Forum, I helped judge this pitch competition for Japanese startups exhibiting at CES–sponsored by the Japan External Trade Organization and produced by the ShowStoppers tech-events firm, with whom I’ve worked before.

1/5/2023: Paula Abdul Talks Up Her ‘Smart Audio Glasses’ at CES, PCMag

This was not a piece that I had on my list of CES possibilities, but it’s also not the first time meeting a celebrity with a tech venture at the show has led to a story.

1/6/2023: FTC Proposes Rule Banning ‘Non-Compete’ Clauses, PCMag

The possibility of the Federal Trade Commission taking action against non-competition clauses, meanwhile, has been on my list of potential tech-policy developments for a few years now. And as you can see from a link towards the end of this post, I’ve been following this topic for most of the last decade.

1/6/2023: TikTok “Dabloons,” Al Jazeera

I am not entirely sure what led the Arabic-language news nework to decide that I was the guy to offer commentary on this goofy online role-playing exercise.

What has and hasn’t changed about CES over my quarter century of attendance

LAS VEGAS

Wandering past restaurants and bars in a series of casinos this week has stirred up the usual weird Vegas memories for me: not of great meals or fun nights out with friends, but of the receptions and dinners that CES exhibitors have staged at these establishments.

And now that I’ve covered CES in person for 25 years–every iteration of the event formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show from 1998 on, minus 2021’s pandemic-enforced virtual edition–there are quite a few of those memories banked in a corner of my brain that I could probably put to a higher and better use.

CES 2023 signage featuring the #CES2023 hashtag; in the background, a neon sign spells out "Las Vegas."

Semi-lavish evenings on the dime of one company or another haven’t changed since that first CES trip, but the show itself has expanded and evolved considerably.

As in, there’s a reason the Consumer Technology Association–formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Association–rebranded this event from “Consumer Electronics Show” to just “CES.” A convention that used to be built around home audio and video now covers everything from smart-home gadgets to autonomous vehicles; at this year’s CES, that last category included a gigantic Caterpillar dump truck.

The space taken up by CES has grown as well, just not quite as much. The Las Vegas Convention Center has sprouted a few extensions and then, two years ago, an additional hall that by itself is big enough to host lesser conferences.

Meanwhile, the routine of CES journalism is unrecognizable compared to the placid pace I enjoyed 25 years ago, when I recall filing all of one story from the show–via dialup modem. I still have things fairly easy (I’ve never written for any place expecting a dozen posts a day during the show or had to stay up late editing video), but this week once again reminded me how much writing time can eat into note-taking time.

Other parts of the CES existence, however, might not seem that different to 1998 me.

Getting around Vegas remains a huge pain. The incremental upgrades to transportation since then–a monorail that only connects the back doors of some casinos on one side of the Strip to the convention center, the belated arrival of Uber and Lyft, the Vegas Loop that offers an underground Tesla shortcut between parts of the convention center–have still left most CES traffic on roads that can’t accommodate it.

On a more positive note, the utility of an industry-wide gathering like CES has survived repeated predictions of this event’s obsolescence. It turns out that the vast majority of companies in the tech business cannot count on staging their own events and expecting everybody else to show up. And all of the other companies and people that come here to do business would struggle to strike those deals if so many other like-minded organizations and individuals were not in the same crowded space at the same overscheduled time.

I include myself in that last bit. Especially since going freelance in 2011–as in, about halfway through my CES tenure–I’ve found that my greatest return on the investment in time and money I make every year here starts with the connections I make those few days in Vegas.

Finally, the CES schedule hasn’t budged over the past 25 years. With remorseless regularity, it tears me away from family just days after the start of a new year, then re-connects me with industry friends, immerses me in what’s new in the tech business, and then leaves me to look at a rest of the year in which every other event seems easy. And that’s why I know exactly where I’m going to be next January.