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.

Happy 10th birthday, iMac

A decade ago today, I set up the computer on which I’m typing this post. That is an absurdly long lifespan for any computer, much less one that’s seen near-daily use over that many years.

But here we–meaning me and the late 2009 iMac that’s now graced the same desk for 10 years–are. Three things made this longevity possible.

One is my working mainly in text and non-moving images. If I had to do any serious video editing, this model’s processor would have forced its retirement long ago. As is, there’s not that much computational labor involved in polishing prose–and while working with high-resolution photos can require a few CPU cycles, I do most of that editing online anyway.

Another is the relative repairability of this model. In the previous decade, Apple still designed desktops that allowed memory upgrades, so I took advantage of that option to double this iMac’s RAM early on. Apple didn’t intend for owners of this model to replace the hard drive, but its design left that possible with fairly simple tools–as in, no need to cut through adhesive holding the screen in place. I didn’t exploit that opportunity until a couple of years later than I should have, but the SSD upgrade I performed last spring now looks like some of the best $200 I’ve spent.

I could have replaced the optical drive that stopped reading CDs and DVDs in the same manner, but instead I bought a cheap Samsung DVD burner and plugged that into a free USB port–so much for the all-in-one concept!

(My second-longest-tenured daily-use computer, the Mac clone I kept from 1996 to 2002, was far more tolerant of tinkering, since Power Computing designed it along the lines of any PC desktop. That box ended its service to me after two processor upgrades, one hard drive replacement, an internal power-supply transplant, a memory upgrade and the addition of two USB ports.)

Last comes Apple’s baffling inability to keep its desktops current over any sustained stretch of time. The company formerly known as “Apple Computer, Inc.” spent several years not updating the iMac or Mac mini at all. By the time it finally refreshed the iMac, buying a new all-in-one desktop would have meant buying a 4K monitor inseparable from a computer would grow obsolete well before the display. But when Apple finally updated the moribund Mac mini last year, it shipped it with a joke of a 128 GB SSD and then listed insultingly high prices for adequate storage.

It’s since slightly moderated the storage rip-off, but the Mac mini has now gone over a year without an update, so I’d feel like a chump paying new-Mac pricing for that old design now. Even though my legacy Mac is now living two editions of macOS in the past–Apple dropped support for this model with macOS Mojave, leaving macOS Catalina completely out of the question. If Apple weren’t still shipping security updates for macOS High Sierra, I’d be in a real pickle.

Okay, I guess there’s a fourth factor behind this iMac’s longevity: I can be really cheap, stubborn or both sometimes.

Updated 12/3/2019 to note my OS-support issues and better crop a photo.

CES 2019 travel-tech report: overcoming oversights

I’ve survived another CES, this time after committing two of the dumber unforced errors possible at an enormous tech trade show.

One was not arranging an update to the Wirecutter LTE-hotspots guide to coincide with CES, such that I’d have to bring a couple of new hotspots to the show. Instead, I was left to cope with intermittently available press-room and press-conference WiFi.

It confounds me that in 2019, anybody would think it okay to host a press event and not provide bandwidth to the press. But that’s CES for you, when either PR professionals or their clients seem to shove common sense into the shredder.

Fortunately, the show press rooms offered wired Internet, so I could fish out my USB-to-Ethernet adapter and get online as I would have 20 years ago. A couple of other times, I tethered off my phone.

On its second CES, my HP Spectre x360 laptop worked fine except for the one morning it blue-screened, then rebooted without a working touchpad. I had to open Device Manager and delete that driver to get it working once again. I also couldn’t help think this doesn’t charge as fast as my old MacBook Air, but I’m still happier with a touchscreen laptop that I can fold up to use as a tablet–and which didn’t gouge me on storage.

My other big CES error was leaving the laptop’s charger in the press room at the Sands. I looked up and realized I had only 30 minutes to get to an appointment at the Las Vegas Convention Center, hurriedly unplugged what I thought was everything, and only realized my oversight an hour later. Fortunately, a call to the Sands press room led to the people there spotting the charger and safeguarding it until I retrieved it the next morning.

Meanwhile, my first-gen Google Pixel declined to act its age. It never froze up or crashed on me, took good pictures and recharged quickly over both its own power adapter and the laptop’s. I am never again buying a phone and laptop that don’t share a charging-cable standard.

I also carried around a brick of an external charger, an 8,000 milliamp-hours battery included in the swag at a security conference in D.C. I covered in October. This helped when I was walking around but didn’t charge the Pixel as quickly, and leaving the charger and phone in my bag usually led to the cable getting jostled out of the Pixel.

The other new tech accessory I brought on this trip made no difference on the show floor but greatly improved my travel to Vegas: a pair of Bose QC25 noise-cancelling headphones that I bought at a steep discount during Amazon’s Prime Day promotion. These things are great, and now I totally get why so many frequent flyers swear by them.

Credit where it’s due: Thanksgiving tech support has gotten easier

I spend a lot of time venting about tech being a pain in the neck, but I will take a break from that to confirm that my annual Thanksgiving-weekend routine of providing technical support has gotten a lot easier over the last 10 years.

The single biggest upgrade has been the emergence of the iPad as something usable as the only computer in the house. It took a few years for Apple to make that happen–remember when you had to connect an iPad to a computer for its setup and backups?–but Web-first users can now enjoy a tablet with near zero risk of malware and that updates its apps automatically.

As a result, when I gave my mom’s iPad a checkup Wednesday afternoon, the worst I had to do was install the iOS 12.1 update.

That left me free to spend my tech-support time rearranging that tablet’s apps to keep the ones she uses most often on the first home screen.

Things have gotten easier on “real” computers too. Apple and Microsoft ship their desktop operating systems with sane security defaults and deliver security patches and other bug fixes automatically. The Mac and Windows app stores offer the same seamless updates for installed programs as iOS and Android’s. And while Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox aren’t in those software shops, they update themselves just as easily.

But the openness of those operating systems makes it easier for people to get into trouble. For example, a few weeks ago, I had to talk a relative through resetting Chrome’s settings to get rid of an extension that was redirecting searches.

Other computing tasks remain a mess. On a desktop, laptop or tablet, clearing out storage to make room for an operating-system upgrade is as tedious as ever, and it doesn’t help when companies like Apple continue to sell laptops with 128-gigabyte SSDs. Password management continues to be a chore unless (duh) you install a password manager.

Social media looks worst of all. Facebook alone has become its own gravity well of maintenance–notifications to disable to curb its attention-hogging behavior, privacy settings to tend, and propaganda-spewing pages to avoid. There’s a reason I devoted this year’s version of my USA Today Thanksgiving tech-support column to Facebook, and I don’t see that topic going out of style anytime soon.

A different default browser with a different default search

Several weeks ago, I switched my laptop to a setting I’d last maintained in the previous decade: Mozilla Firefox as the default browser.

Firefox took the place of Microsoft’s Edge, which I’d decided to give a shot as part of my reintroduction to Windows before seeing Edge crash too often. In another year, I would have made Google’s Chrome the default instead–but a combination of privacy and security trends led me to return to an old favorite.

Firefox had been my default browser in Windows since February of 2004, when it was an obvious pick over the horrific Internet Explorer 6. But a few years after the 2008 introduction of Chrome, Firefox had stopped keeping up, and I began relying on Chrome in Windows.

I kept Safari as the default on my Macs for its better fit with the operating system–although its memory-hogging habits had me close to also dumping it for Chrome until a recent round of improvements.

Last year, however, Mozilla shipped a faster, more memory-efficient version of Firefox. That browser has since finally caught up with Chrome in supporting “U2F” two-step verification, where you plug in a cryptographically signed USB flash drive to confirm a login. And as I realized when writing a browser-comparison columns for USA Today, Firefox comes close to Safari at protecting your privacy across the Web–especially if you install its Facebook Container extension, which blocks Facebook’s tracking at other sites.

This doesn’t mean I’ve dropped Chrome outright. I almost always keep both browsers open, with much of my Chrome tabs devoted to such Google services as Gmail and Google Docs. (Confession: I only learned while writing this that Google Docs’ offline mode now works in Firefox.) Chrome continues to do some things better than Firefox–for instance, while it doesn’t offer a simplified page-display option like Firefox’s Reader View, it’s been more aggressive at disciplining intrusive ads.

When I set Firefox as the default in Windows, I also switched its default search from Google to the privacy-optimized DuckDuckGo. That’s something I’d done in my iPad’s copy of Safari years ago, then recommended to readers last July in a Yahoo post; it seemed a good time to expand that experiment to a browser I use more often.

Since DuckDuckGo doesn’t match such Google features as the option to limit a search to pages published within a range of dates, I’m still flipping over to Chrome reasonably often for more specialized searches. But even there, I’ve reduced my visibility to Google by setting a sync password to encrypt my browsing history.

All this adds up to considerably less Google in my Web life. I can’t say it’s been bad.

How I inspect laptops at tech events

BERLIN–I’ve spent the last three days here at the IFA tech trade show poking and prodding at new laptops to see if they might be worth your money. That inspection has gotten more complicated in recent years, thanks to some new features I welcome and a few others I could do without.

The following are the traits I now look for after such obvious items as weight, screen size, if that screen is the rare Windows laptop display that doesn’t respond to touch, advertised battery life, storage, memory and overall apparent sturdiness.

Acer Swift 7 close-up

  • Screen resolution: On smaller screens, 4K resolution eats into battery life without making a meaningful difference in picture quality–from most viewing distances, you can’t even see the pixels on a 1080p laptop screen anyway.
  • USB-C charging: Now that I have a laptop and a phone that can both use the same charger, I never want to go back to needing a proprietary power cable for a computer. You shouldn’t either.
  • USB ports: Laptops that only include USB-C ports can be thinner than those with full-sized USB ports, but I’m willing to accept a little bulk to avoid having to pop in an adapter for older USB cables or peripherals.
  • Other expansion options: For people who still use standalone cameras, SD or microSD Card slots will ease data transfer. I also look for HDMI ports, which ease plugging the laptop into a TV. (Since my own laptop doesn’t have one of those: Anybody have a recommendation for a USB-C-to-HDMI cable?) And now that I’ve seen a laptop here without a headphone jack, I need to confirm that audio output’s presence too.
  • Backlit keyboard: Typing without one in a darkened hall is no fun. While I’m looking for that, I’ll also see if the trackpad is governed by Microsoft’s simple Precision Touchpad control or janky third-party software.
  • Webcam placement: Some laptops stash the webcam not at the top of the screen but below it, which leaves video callers stuck with an up-the-nostril perspective of the laptop user.
  • Windows Hello: Fingerprint-recognition sensors are cheap, while having to type in a password or PIN every time you log in imposes its own tax on your time. I’m not so doctrinaire about Windows Hello facial recognition if fingerprint recognition is there.

This list is a little involved, but on the upside I no longer have to worry about things like WiFi or serial ports. So now that you know what I fuss over when inspecting laptops at tech events like this, what else should I be looking for on each new computer?

When your old laptop dies at the perfect time

My old MacBook Air is now not only retired but dead. And it could not have happened at a better time.

I had resolved to donate the 2012-vintage laptop I’d finally replaced with an HP Spectre x360 last fall by donating it to the local Apple user group Washington Apple Pi, whose MacRecycleClinic refubishes still-functional Macs for reuse and scavenges the rest for parts. And since I’m speaking at Saturday’s Pi meeting about the state of computer security–the gathering runs from 9:30 a.m. to noon-ish in Enterprise Hall room 178 at George Mason University’s main campus in Fairfax, with my spot a little after 11 a.m.–I could bring the old Air with me to hand over.

So yesterday afternoon, I made one last backup of the Air’s files, signed it out of its Web services as per Apple’s advice, and rebooted it into macOS Recovery to wipe the drive and re-install macOS High Sierra from that hidden partition. Then I followed the counsel of experts for a USA Today column earlier this month and used Apple’s FileVault software to encrypt its solid state drive all over again.

Several hours later, High Sierra wrapped up that chore. I once again rebooted into Recovery, used Disk Utility to wipe the SSD–and then couldn’t install High Sierra, because the installer reported that the drive’s Self-Monitoring, Analysis, and Reporting Technology (SMART) software had found a problem that left the volume unusable.

After a moment’s irritation, I realized that this timing was perfect. It followed not just five years of trouble-free drive performance but a complete erasure, re-encryption and re-erasure of the volume, so there could be nothing left to recover–and therefore no need to apply physical force to destroy the drive. This Mac has failed me for the last time, and I am okay with that.