About robpegoraro

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

The boring art of testing hotspot bandwidth and battery life

I’m nearing the finish line (I hope) of an overdue update to the Wirecutter guide to WiFi hotspots. The research for that had me repeatedly subjecting an array of loaner hotspots from all four nationwide wireless carriers to tests of the two core metrics of bandwidth and battery life.

It hasn’t exactly been my most exciting work.

For bandwidth testing, I’ve continued to rely on Ookla’s Speedtest.net Web, Android and iOS apps to clock the download speeds, upload speeds and ping times each hotspot has served up. This is pretty much an industry-standard benchmark, and these apps are simple enough to run.

But getting data out of them is another thing:

  • The iOS app creates a .csv file you can open in any spreadsheet app that includes every relevant bit of data–date and time, GPS-derived location, WiFi network name, download/upload/ping measurements, shareable public link–and attaches it to an e-mail message.
  • The Android app also generates a .csv file–except that choosing to have it saved to your Google Drive leaves you with a .eml mail-attachment file. You have to e-mail it to yourself to get a usable .csv, at which point you discover that this export doesn’t include the name of the wireless network.
  • The Web app’s “Export” button yields a third type of .csv file, one without a record of the WiFi network name, your location, or a shareable link.
  • No, the option to create a Speedtest account won’t help–because you can’t log into that from the mobile apps.

Ookla is owned by PCMag publisher Ziff Davis, but that has yet to result in any corporate pressure to make exporting measurements less janky for the hardworking journalists at that and other Ziff tech media properties.

Testing hotspot battery life only requires recording the times you started and ended each trial. But because these things often run for 12 hours or more, it’s not realistic to tether a laptop to a hotspot and keep working nonstop until the hotspot battery expires and the connection drops.

To ensure my laptop would be keeping each hotspot working full time, I opened a page to NASA’s live YouTube channel. Beyond running up the social-media metrics for one of my favorite four-letter government agencies, keeping the browser on a single live channel avoids the risk of YouTube’s recommendations sending me off to some nutcase conspiracy hub.

Because I’m not always that smart, I didn’t think to check my laptop’s ability to log a wireless connection going offline until after I’d spent an hour and change watching one hotspot linger at 1% of a charge.

As a helpful StackExchange thread pointed out, that logged data awaits inside Windows. Type “Event Viewer” in the taskbar search, open that app, select “Applications and Services Logs” in the left-hand pane, double-click the center pane’s “Microsoft,” “Windows,” “UniversalTelemetryClient,” and “Operational” entries in succession, then select “Filter Current Log…” in the right-hand pane. Type “55” in the resulting dialog’s Event ID field, hit “OK” and you’ll see a series of entries.

Assuming you check this right after seeing that the laptop went offline, opening the most recent should reveal a properties field consisting of “Is the Internet available: false,” with the time corresponding to when the hotspot died.

Since I don’t have a Mac laptop, I’m not sure how you’d do this on one. A different StackExchange thread suggests a Terminal command, but that doesn’t work on my iMac–maybe because this aging desktop isn’t running the latest macOS edition. It would be ironic if you have to hit the command line on a Mac to perform a task that Windows lets you accomplish inside a graphical user interface–but the Windows Event Viewer app is mighty ugly itself, and neither operating system covers itself in glory in this aspect.

Weekly output: talking CES 2020 with Mark Vena

This was one of those weeks where all of my public output involved me talking about my job instead of doing it (including one radio interview that doesn’t seem to have gotten aired and a second podcast that should get posted next week). The exception: Patreon, where I unloaded my CES 2020 notebook by writing about my observations of TiVo’s strategy, how HBO took me and my data with dinner, and my aborted ride in a self-driving car.

1/16/2020: Moor Insights & Strategy Podcast (1-13-20), Mark Vena

I joined my analyst friend Mark Vena via Skype Monday afternoon (hence the Jan. 13 reference in the title) to unpack what we learned from CES 2020. We talked about privacy on connected TVs (others call them “smart TVs,” but I’m not ready to bestow that kind of compliment), foldable phones and laptops, 5G wireless and the industry’s addition to hyping it up, and much much more.

Google told me to put this blog on a diet

The screen real estate around these words should look a little neater now–not much thanks to my own editing instincts. Instead, I needed a scolding from Google.

That came from its PageSpeed Insights tool, a page you can use to check the performance of your own site or any other. It’s been around for years, but I didn’t think to use it until after I finally connected this site to Google’s Search Console webmaster tool last May (yes, even though I’ve been blogging here since 2011 and am supposed to be a professional tech journalist) and saw a prompt to try PageSpeed Insights in my results.

The results were not flattering: a mobile performance score of 47 out of 100, with desktop performance better but still subpar at 89. Scrolling down revealed a variety of flaws in this blog, some that I could correct with the limited tools of a free WordPress.com account and some that I could not.

I started with the first obviously fixable thing, image sizes. Google suggested that I convert such frequently-downloaded elements as the background image to “next-gen formats” like WebP or JPEG 2000. But instead of switching to files that Apple’s Safari browser can’t display, I opened the original photo for the background (a view of the Blue Ridge from a bike century ride in 2006) in my Mac’s GraphicConverter app and exported it with a lower image-quality setting that cut its size by a third at no visible cost.

That did not impress PageSpeed–my mobile score actually dropped to 44–so I moved on to the third-party code that Google reported had been getting in the way of my own content. It listed Facebook as a major offender, accounting for 207 milliseconds of delay. Removing the Facebook widget that you formerly saw in the right-hand sidebar boosted my mobile score to 53, with the desktop score essentially unchanged at 87.

(PageSpeed Insights scores fluctuate up and down with each test, so don’t get bent out of shape if yours drops by five for no apparent reason, at least not until you run the test again.)

Then I removed the Facebook and Twitter share buttons and elected to toss all of the share buttons except the tool to e-mail a link to the page. That edged the mobile score up to 58 and pushed the desktop score up to 96.

This pruning got me to look again at all the ads you see around here–and think about how low-rent so many of them are. I turned off the three “additional ad placement” options that had been salting each post with extra banners. That may cut into my ad revenue, but it’s already so thin I’d rather that my professional presence online not look quite so janky.

Having spun myself up fully into Marie Kondo mode, I returned to the sidebar and removed the Twitter widget (PageSpeed Insights had blamed Twitter code for 119 ms of delay) and some non-interactive links that only cluttered that part of the page.

The results of all this effort as calculated by PageSpeed Insights just now: scores of 76 on mobile and 99 on desktop. I hope you notice this blog loading a little quicker–and I trust you appreciate how this exercise has also rid my blog of Facebook’s tracking.

Weekly output: OurStreets, ATSC 3.0, innovation in 2020, 5G meets retail, connected-TV privacy, Last Gadget Standing, Korean smart-city tech, best of CES

Yet another CES is in the books. It was a tiring week, but once again I got an enormous amount out of the show. And it is nice to think that less than two weeks into the year, I’ve already finished the year’s toughest business trip.

Earlier this evening, I put together a Flickr album of my pictures from the gadget show; at some point in the next few days, I will write up the more interesting bits from my notes for Patreon subscribers.

1/6/2020: This app helps pedestrians and cyclists wage war on terrible drivers, Fast Company

The second-to-last piece I filed in 2019 ran a week later–a look at an upcoming app that will help pedestrians and cyclists report bad behavior by drivers.

1/8/2020: ATSC 3.0 draws selective, if not scant, support at CES 2020, FierceVideo

Industry support for a long-awaited upgrade to broadcast-TV technology is a somewhat wonky topic compared to, say, robots bearing toilet paper, but that’s why it’s handy to have a trade-pub client that deals in wonky stuff all the time.

1/8/2020: What’s Next for Innovation in 2020?, VentureFuel

I debated fellow tech journalists Eric Savitz and Rick Limpert in a panel discussion hosted by this New York-based consultancy before a small audience of investor and founder types.

1/8/2020: 5G Meets Retail, CES

My contribution to the show’s high-tech retailing track was this talk with Nokia 5G market-development director Jason Elliott and Verizon connected-solutions managing director Arvin Singh about what 5G could do for the retail experience–in a shop and along its supply chain.

Yes, this was my second manel of CES. I should have said something about that when I was asked to join each panel but did not, and feeling strung out by December’s cognitive overload is a weak excuse.

 

1/9/2020: CES: Your smart TV is watching you. Will Samsung, LG, Vizio do more to protect privacy?, USA Today

Think of this column as a sequel to the one I wrote for USAT from Google I/O in May. Where Google showed it could speak in detail–if not as much as I’d like–about adopting such data-minimization techniques as federated learning, TV manufacturers at CES appeared to be grossly unready for that sort of privacy discussion.

1/9/2020: Last Gadget Standing, Living in Digital Times

Once again, I helped judge this competition and then introduced two contenders on stage Thursday: the Octobo connected toy and the Flic 2 programmable smart button.

1/9/2020: A Look At Korea’s Smart-City Ambitions At CES, Ubergizmo

Friends at this gadget blog asked if I could help with their coverage by writing up one set of exhibits in the Eureka Park startup space. They offered a suitable rate, so I said that would be fine.

1/9/2020: CES 2020: Our best of show, USA Today

I contributed a paragraph about Hyundai’s air-taxi venture with Uber that ended with a contrary comment from an aviation-safety professional who’s understandably skeptical about the odds of this and other attempts at urban air mobility. If you’re not in the mood to read that much, you can also hear my spoken-word rendition of this piece (recorded on a Vegas sidewalk Wednesday night) on Jefferson Graham’s Talking Tech podcast.

Updated 1/16/2020 to correct the spelling of Elliott’s last name; updated 1/29/2020 to add a YouTube embed of the panel.

CES 2020 travel-tech report: too much rebooting

My 23rd CES in a row featured an accomplishment I may never have pulled off before: I didn’t open my laptop the last day.

I got away with that because I’d filed all of the copy I owed from Las Vegas by Wednesday evening, leaving Thursday writing-free. And because I was starting to worry about having to rely on my laptop for one more day at the gadget show.

Each prior morning in Vegas, I awoke to find that my late-2017 HP Spectre x360 had crashed overnight and then failed to reboot, instead landing on a black-and-white error screen reporting that a boot device could not be found. Rebooting the laptop–sometimes more than once–allowed this computer to rediscover its solid-state drive, but I kept worrying that the condition would become terminal.

And then Friday morning, I dared to open the HP’s screen after my red-eye flight out of Vegas and had it awake normally, as it’s done every time since. I need to figure this out before I head out for MWC next month.

My HP is showings its age in other ways. The two rubber pads on the bottom have peeled off (this seems to happen a lot), and the battery life could be better.

My Google Pixel 3a, on the other hand, worked like a champ throughout my long work week as I took pictures and notes, stayed mostly on top of e-mail and tweeted out my usual snarky CES commentary. This phone didn’t crash once, and its battery lasted long enough for me not to get anxious about it–though having it recharge so quickly also helped with that.

But my Pixel 3a also briefly hijacked my Twitter account when I apparently didn’t press the phone’s power button before shoving it in my pocket after I’d tweeted my congratulations to a friend on his new job. And then I didn’t even realize this storm of pocket-tweeting had erupted until a few minutes later. Ugh.

Unlike last year, I benefited from the fortuitous overlap of an update to Wirecutter’s WiFi-hotspot guide. This let me borrow the bandwidth of the top two devices in this review, a Verizon Jetpack 8800L and an AT&T Nighthawk LTE, while also subjecting them to the harshest use possible. The 8800L also doubled as a battery pack for my phone; the Nighthawk also offers that function, but not via its USB-C port–and I forgot to pack a USB-A-to-C cable.

The Belkin travel power strip that I’ve been packing since 2012 also proved instrumental in keeping my devices charged, because there are never enough power outlets in CES press rooms. This gadget had the added advantage of not needing any firmware updates or reboots. So did the handheld storage device I used to access my notes for a panel I led Wednesday: a Field Notes notebook.

Weekly output: FOIAing for facial-recognition software

LAS VEGAS–I’m only a few hours into this year’s CES, and I’ve already had to bag one appointment. Not because I was running late, but because I tried to stay on schedule by going direct from the airport. But while the two individual vendor events I’m going to are okay with that, the CES Unveiled reception was not. Whoops.

I If you’d like to know more about my agenda for this week in Vegas, I outlined all that for Patreon subscribers earlier today.

1/4/2020: To learn how police use facial recognition, we must ask the right questions, Fast Company

A presentation a few weeks ago at the Cato Surveillance Conference in D.C. got me interested in this crowdsourcing experiment in surfacing information (do we call that “crowdsurfacing”) about police uses of facial-recognition technology by using state freedom-of-information laws. Then it took me a few more frazzled pre-holiday weeks to quiz one of the people who worked on this project, plus another week to write the thing.

 

2019 in review: rerouting through adversity

I spent much of this year dealing with two issues that I haven’t talked much about here until now.

One was the quiet end of my work at The Parallax after the sole sponsor of that information-security site, the security-software vendor Avast, ended this relationship in January. I knew that was a risk factor going in–as I admitted in last December’s year-in-review post–but I also thought The Parallax would find new sponsors quickly enough. Unfortunately, that has yet to happen.

2019 calendarThe other was the shrinking of my role at Yahoo Finance. Starting in the spring, I went from regularly writing six or more posts a month to just two or one… the most recent being in October.

Why that’s happened isn’t totally clear to me, but I know that the folks at Yahoo Finance have increasingly emphasized live video coverage from their NYC studios while leaning more on such other Verizon Media properties as Engadget for tech coverage. Meanwhile, my own story pitches this year didn’t feature any topics quite as captivating as self-driving Cadillacs or giant rocket launches.

Whatever the causes, seeing a high-paying gig expire and a high-profile gig diminish–after USA Today cut my column back to a twice-monthly frequency–made this my first year of full-time freelancing without real anchor clients. Meaning, I’ve started most months of the year without being able to count on the same set of companies for the majority of my income. And then I took too long to work the problem instead of hoping that my batting average at Yahoo would improve.

In that context, it ranks as a minor miracle that my income for 2019 only fell by about 15 percent compared to 2018. 

I made up the difference by writing for a batch of new places–the Columbia Journalism Review, Fast Company, TechCrunch, The Atlantic, and Tom’s Guide–and becoming more of a regular at some of these new clients as well as some older ones, in particular Fast Company and the trade publication FierceVideo.

Among all those stories that ran in all of those places, these stand out months later:

I also launched a Patreon page that’s contributed a modest amount of income and might do more were I less apathetic about promoting it. And I had more of my travel this year covered by conference organizers in return for my moderating panels at their events; see after the jump for a map of where I flew for work in 2019.

The series of sponsored (read: well-compensated) feature-length explainers about 5G that I did for Ars Technica in December have me ending 2019 in better shape than I’d thought possible a few months earlier. I can also feel a grim sort of pride at remaining in this profession at all after a brutal decade for the journalism industry.

But I know what I need to do in 2020: Find more ways to make money that don’t rest on the brittle business of online programmatic advertising.

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