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.

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.

Not the best time for a laptop to break, not the worst time either

Not even a day after arriving in Hawaii last week for Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Summit, my laptop started showing signs of homesickness: When I opened my aging HP Spectre x360 before the Tuesday-afternoon keynote that led off this conference’s agenda, it would not wake up—or shut down or restart, no matter how long I pressed the power button.

I gave up, shoved the laptop in my bag, grabbed my phone and took my notes on that much smaller screen. Afterwards, I took the laptop out of my bag and it was scorching hot. Holding down the power button one more time finally got it to shut down and restart, after which the computer treated me to a new failure mode: The display snapped into a crazed checkerboard of randomly colored pixels. Then it kept doing that through successive restarts, sometimes with the screen locking into colorful horizontal streaks.

HP Spectre with its screen showing rows of lines filled with randomly-colored pixels.

I retreated to my room to try to work the problem. And after two more cycles of rebooting and having the display go nuts, the laptop seemed to snap out of it, while its hardware diagnostic tools don’t report anything amiss.

Alas, the HP hilarity resumed the next morning when the laptop worked in my room but then refused to wake up for the interviews I had booked with T-Mobile and Verizon network executives. I recorded each on my phone instead, hoping that I could avoid finding some novel way to screw that up.

After my laptop didn’t recover from its stupor back in my hotel room, I sent an apologetic e-mail to my editor at Light Reading asking if he could deal with my filing the two lengthy stories he’d assigned from those interviews after I got home. He could, writing back “It happens to the best of us.”

(Reminder: Qualcomm paid for my airfare and lodging, an arrangement approved in advance by my editor at that telecom-news site.)

I managed to write two more shorter stories from the event without my laptop. The easy one involved a PC borrowed from Qualcomm for a couple of hours Thursday—a Lenovo Thinkpad x13s featuring the Snapdragon 8cx chip introduced at last year’s summit, Qualcomm’s venture into laptop processors having become of more than academic interest over the week.

The hard one was a 500-ish word post that I wrote in the Google Docs app on this phone Friday morning, an experience that left me wanting to ice my thumb afterwards.

On the first of two flights home, the laptop worked again for long enough to allow me to transcribe all of one interview and part of another—and then lapsed into its coma until I came home. Then it resumed working properly as if nothing had happened, or as if it really had been homesick.

But while it’s a relief to have my laptop back, it’s also time I got on with replacing this 2017 purchase. The malfunction that mysteriously went away can return just as mysteriously, and in any case computer design has advanced a bit over the last five years. On the other hand, I hate having to make major electronics purchases barely a month before CES, when I should get a good perspective on what’s coming over the next several months.

My answer: continuing my overdue evaluation of Windows on non-x86 platforms by borrowing a review unit of that Lenovo Thinkpad x13s. I may not always be lucky in my gadget ownership, but when things go wrong I do try to be resourceful.

I forgot my laptop’s charging cable–and it wasn’t disastrous

NEW YORK

My e travel scenario revealed itself a few minutes after my train pulled out of Union Station Wednesday morning: My gadget-accessories bag was missing the USB-C-to-USB-C cable that I was counting on to connect my compact travel charger to my laptop and phone.

HP Spectre x360 laptop trickle-charging off a USB cable plugged into an aging Palm Pixi charger.

And yet I freaked out less than I would have imagined after realizing I’d forgotten to reclaim the cable that I’d handed to my wife for her Android phone migration–and then deciding to leave my laptop’s heavier charger at home to travel a little lighter.

Fortunately, unlike the could’ve-been-disastrous CES trip that started with me leaving without a proprietary charger for my Washington Post-issued Dell laptop, my HP laptop uses the same charger as most new laptops, Apple’s included. I assumed that would mean I’d have no trouble borrowing chargers after arriviing in NYC, or at least I’d have less trouble than when my old MacBook Air’s power cable fatally frayed at SXSW years ago.

But while I quickly plugged in my computer at my Wednesday-afternoon stop at gadget-reseller Back Market’s Brooklyn offcies–where I led a panel discussion about people’s rights to repair the things they’ve bought–I had to get more creative afterwards.

The front desk at my hotel near Madison Square Park (disclosure: paid for by Qualcomm as part of an event for press and investor types that I attended Thursday) did not have a spare cable, so I tried using the USB-A to USB-C connector that I did have to plug the laptop into the USB charging port next to a nightstand in my room. To my pleasant surprise, that worked, sort of: The computer charged, so slowly that the taskbar icon didn’t even indicate that it was plugged in.

For regular use, this hack of a solution wuold not fly–the trickle of current it provides is so slight that the battery only drains a little more slowly when in active use. But in sleep mode overnight, that slow drip brought the batttery back to full. I repeated this exercise during some idle time Thursday, using the ancient but tiny Palm charger that I had long ago tucked into my gadget-accessories bag on just-in-case grounds.

Once again, it helpd that I’d replaced the battery on this HP last fall, allowing a vastly better battery life than what I would have suffered with a year and a half ago.

Now that I’ve made it through this unplanned exercise in power management and am headed back to home and a full set of chargers and cables, one thing’s for sure: I will not repeat my mistake Wednesday of leaving home without consulting the travel checklist that I’d prepared years ago to avoid this exact situation.

Some Time Machine backup-volume trial and error

The Mac-maintenance task that has taken care of itself for most of the last four years brought itself to my attention Wednesday, and I wish it had not. Two days of troubleshooting later, I think I once again have a working backup routine–but I still don’t know what went wrong here.

My first hint that Apple’s Time Machine backup system had shifted out of its usual orbit was an error message Wednesday night reporting that my backup volume had become read-only, making further backup cycles impossible.

The drive in question, a 2-terabyte Seagate portable drive that I’d bought in 2018, seemed too young to be suffering from disk corruption. Especially since other partitions on this hard drive remained readable and writeable.

So I opened Apple’s Disk Utility, selected the Time Machine backup partition, and clicked “First Aid.” Several minutes later, this app returned an inscrutable, no-can-do result:

The volume Time Machine backups could not be repaired. 

File system check exit code is 8.

Well, then.

Disk Utility’s help was of no help, reporting “No Results Found” when I searched for that error message and shorter versions of it. Googling for “check exit code is 8” yielded nothing at Apple’s support site (a fruitless result confirmed by Apple’s own search) but did surface a data-recovery firm’s explainer that this was “one of the most frustrating file system errors to encounter, and it is difficult to know if you are experiencing a logical or physical fault on the hard drive.”

Trying to repair the volume a few more times with Disk Utility–a suggestion in a Stack Exchange thread that seemed worth testing–didn’t yield a better outcome. An attempt to copy the entire Time Machine volume to the partition that I’d created on this Seagate drive last year to usher my data from my old iMac to my current Mac mini stopped early; Shirt Pocket’s SuperDuper app was less informative than usual, saying it “Failed to copy files.”

Then I realized that I was looking right at a short-term answer: wiping that no-longer-needed iMac disk-image partition, then making it my new Time Machine backup volume while leaving the old Time Machine partition alone. After a timeout to unplug the drive and then plug it back in, without which Disk Utility would not reformat the partition, this fix seems to be working. But just in case, I’ve also plugged a 1-terabyte SSD into my Mac mini as a backup to my backup.

It would be great if Apple would provide clearer explanations and more usable fixes to disk errors like this. But considering that Time Machine’s starfield file-restore interface hasn’t changed since it debuted in 2007, I will not stay up late waiting for those updates.

Suggested Windows 11 laptop taskbar-settings edits

My overdue introduction to Windows 11 hasn’t allowed me enough time to develop too many informed judgments about this operating system as a whole. But three weeks have left me pretty confident that I made the right choices in editing the default taskbar settings in this release.

Fortunately, all these preferences live in the same window, under the Taskbar category of the Personalization pane of the Settings app:

I’ve also pinned a handful of core apps, starting with Settings itself, to the taskbar. And I’m sure I’ll continue twiddling with the interface settings of Win 11 as I get accustomed to this release–which, to be clear, continues to grow on me as I soak in less-obvious edits like a right-click menu that finally tries to respect my time.

Two belated desktop operating-system upgrades

Both Apple and Microsoft shipped major new releases of their desktop operating systems last year. And then I, somebody who writes about computers for a living, didn’t get around to installing either macOS Monterey or Windows 11 until this month.

I guess it looks a little embarrassing written out like that. But I had my reasons, the first among them being the absence of story assignments that would require me to familiarize myself with either OS. My regular clients all had other writers evaluating Monterey and Windows 11 and, as far as I could discern, they weren’t in the market for stories taking a closer look at any one feature in either new release.

A collage features Apple's round, stylized-mountains logo of Monterey and the square blue "11" logo Microsoft sometimes uses for Windows 11.

Further, desktop operating systems just don’t figure as much in my coverage, even factoring in the six years that elapsed between Windows 10 shipping (which I covered in July 2015 at Yahoo Tech) and the debut of its successor. My last piece focused on a macOS release seems to have been a June 2017 Yahoo post suggesting features for the upcoming macOS High Sierra (Apple, as is its habit, did not take my advice).

That freed me to take my own time, so I ignored my Mac mini’s suggestions to install Monterey after its late-October debut and instead waited to see if early adopters would report any glitches. Enough such reports emerged–in particular, with third-party USB hubs–that I decided I’d wait until the first update to Monterey shipped before I’d put it on my mini, on which I rely heavily on the USB hub built into the Philips monitor I bought with the computer.

My late-2017 HP laptop’s copy of Windows 10, meanwhile, didn’t even suggest installing Windows 11 when that update shipped in early October, in keeping with Microsoft’s phased rollout of this OS. But by the time Windows Update finally offered Win 11 sometime in December, it was too close to CES, and I didn’t feel like complicating my show prep by installing a new OS on a five-year-old machine.

After surviving CES, however, it was finally time. I installed Monterey on this Mac without incident a week ago, but Windows 11 threw one last obstacle at me: Both Windows Update and Microsoft’s PC Health Check app said my laptop was no longer compatible, citing an issue with its Trusted Platform Module security chip. And after re-enabling that in the HP’s BIOS, I had to wait another day for Windows Update to agree with PC Health Check that it was time for Windows 11–allowing me to install it Friday.

You may have noticed that I’ve now written more than 400 words in this post about these releases without discussing any one new feature in either. That is not by accident–and that’s why, now that I’ve finally caught up with 2021’s updates in 2022, I don’t feel like I missed out on too much by waiting to install Apple and Microsoft’s latest work.

Repairability FTW, or how I bought an old laptop some new life by replacing its battery

My four-year-old laptop now feels a little less ancient and my bank account still only has one new-computer-sized dent in it for this year, thanks to one replacement component that proved to be harder to shop for than to install.

This 2017 HP Specte x360 shouldn’t have needed a new battery at all, given how infrequently it’s left the house or even been unplugged from a power outlet since March of 2020.

But over the last 18 months it had exhibited increasingly bad battery life, to the point that I could not reasonably expect it to last more than hour away from an outlet. HP’s hardware diagnostics app outright labeled the battery “failed” and advised a replacement–even though its logs showed this component had only gone through 387 charge cycles out of its design life of 1,000 and still had a capacity of 25 watt-hours instead of the original 60.

Photo shows the replacement battery on top of the original one, with part of the laptop's circuitry visible behind both.

(Then again, my old MacBook Air also began reporting battery issues well short of that 1,000-cycle mark.)

For a while, I considered toughing out this problem until I could buy a new laptop. But between the chip shortage bogging down laptop shipments and my trip to Web Summit coming up next week, I decided it would be stupid to keep limping along.

Annoyingly enough, HP’s parts store did not carry a replacement battery for my model. I checked the company’s list of authorized vendors next; only one, ITPAS, seemed to sell the battery I needed.

They listed a $99.80 price for the battery, which seemed a bit steep. I found other vendors selling what was at least identified as a compatible “CP03XL” battery on Amazon and NewEgg’s storefronts that advertised much cheaper prices. But none had nearly enough good and at least not-obviously-fake reviews to make me want to trust them all that much. I tried asking on Reddit for further guidance, but this usually reliable source of crowdsourced tech support did not come through here.

So I decided to go with the most-legitimate retailer, and after a pleasant chat with an ITPAS customer-service rep that cleared up some details left vague on the site (notwithstanding the “Available to special order” note on the battery page, they had it in stock, and “FedEx Home Delivery” would mean only a few days), I placed my order Friday and hoped to see the battery arrive before the middle of this week.

It arrived the next day, before I’d even received a shipping-notification e-mail–and then a few days later, a second battery arrived, a generous glitch the company couldn’t explain when I reported it but quickly responded by e-mailing a FedEx shipping label with which I could return the duplicate.

The bigger delay here turned out to be me, in that I didn’t think to ask a friend to borrow his set of Torx screwdrivers until he’d already left for the weekend. Arguably, I should already own my own set, but the last time I needed these tools was when I replaced my old iMac’s hard drive with a solid state drive in 2018.

Anyway, with the right implements at hand, HP’s maintenance and service manual revealed the battery replacement to be a fairly simple procedure. Shut down the laptop, remove six screws holding the bottom lid (two of which were underneath a strip of plastic on the underside that once held its rubber feet in place), and pop off that lower lid. Then detach the old battery’s power cable from the system, gently tug the speaker cable out of the bracket at one end of the battery, undo four more tiny screws to free the battery. and lift it out. 

I did those steps in reverse to connect and secure the new battery, then found myself struggling to get the bottom lid to close up properly. After a second try with the six outer screws, there’s still some flex at its front, underneath the trackpad. Was that there all along? I can’t tell, not having thought to take beforehand photos to document this laptop’s condition as if it were a rental car I’d need to return later to a nervous agency.

The re-empowered laptop them rebooted into an screen reporting a CMOS checksum error that I could fix by resetting it to its defaults, I did, and the laptop has not complained further. That HP diagnostics app now reports the the battery state as “passed,” which is nice–and when I set the laptop to run a battery-life test in which it would stream NASA TV via YouTube, it ran a full five hours and 40 minutes.

I’ll take that–at least as far as Lisbon next week and Las Vegas in January, but maybe even for a few more months after.

A mediocre experience with Apple’s Migration Assistant

This post is coming to you from a Mac manufactured in this decade, but it took far more fiddling with software and cables and more swearing at them than I ever expected to make that possible.

The fault here was Apple’s Migration Assistant, a tool to move your apps, files and settings from one Mac to another that I’d found so faultless in the past that in 2010 I touted it to Washington Post readers as “fantastically helpful.” I expected the same seamless experience this time, but after connecting my old iMac to my new M1 Mac mini via Ethernet (weirdly enough, Apple’s instructions only mentioned WiFi), launching Migration Assistant on each computer, having it add up all of the hundreds of gigabytes of data to be moved, and beginning that process… that progress stopped after about three hours without explanation.

After further fruitless trial and error, I settled on plan B in Migration Assistant: Transferring my data from a Time Machine backup. After a strange wait for it to see the backup volume, Migration Assistant informed me that it was “Starting up…”

Two hours later, it was still “Starting up…”

Nine hours later: still “Starting up…”

(Memo to Apple: This is one fantastically uncommunicative app here. Can’t you hire some underemployed English majors to write more informative status messages for it?)

Then I remembered that Migration Assistant can also restore from a disk image. And that I could create a new clone of the old iMac’s SSD using the same tool I’d downloaded three years ago when I transplanted the SSD into that aging computer.

I launched Shirt Pocket’s SuperDuper for the first time since 2018, had it create a new disk image in a partition on my backup drive, and then plugged that drive into the new Mac mini. I set Migration Assistant to transfer from that, it once again added up all of the files to be moved. And this time, it not only started the job but finished it, rewarding me with a “Migration Complete” message the next morning.

A laptop aging only somewhat gracefully

My not-yet-four-year-old laptop has spent most of the last year and a half parked on a desk and plugged into a power outlet, but the HP Spectre x360 I bought in November of 2017 is still showing its age in ways that are increasingly hard to overlook.

The most obvious sign of its time is the decaying battery life. It’s not so much that I can’t count on the battery to make it past two hours; it’s more an issue that the percentage-left estimates in the taskbar seem a lot less reliable once the computer falls below 30 percent. And that if I leave this laptop in sleep mode but unplugged, the battery seems to need much less time to exhaust itself.

Photo shows my laptop with its charging cable plugged in.

HP’s hardware-diagnostics app now rates the battery’s condition as “weak,” which doesn’t make a lot of sense considering it’s only seen 380 or so charge cycles out of the 1,000 for which it’s rated. If I had a major tech conference coming up, I would be looking at prices for a new battery. But with Black Hat behind me as an event I covered remotely, it now doesn’t look like I’ll have a battery-destroying, laptop-torturing tech event on my calendar before CES 2022.

The exterior of the laptop doesn’t look too banged up in comparison–unlike my previous MacBook Air at a younger age, none of the keys have had their labels start to wear thin. The hinges that let me rotate the screen 360 degrees and turn the device into a laptop–one of the primary reasons I ditched Apple to buy a Windows laptop–remain sturdy, even if the one on the left looks a little out of alignment.

But the rubber strips on the underside that were supposed to help it stay in place on a slick surface have almost entirely peeled away, making the bottom of the laptop look decidedly janky.

At least the computer itself still seems fast enough, its 512-gigabyte solid state drive is not that close to being exhausted, and Microsoft has yet to rule it too old for any Windows 10 updates.

Four years is a good run for any laptop, so the prospect of having to buy a new one doesn’t bug me that much. But I do wish I could get some extended hands-on time with upcoming hardware from the major vendors–which I won’t get until I can travel to a battery-destroying, laptop-torturing tech event like CES.