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.

My next Mac desktop needs one more thing…

It’s early days, as they say in tech, but Apple’s switch from Intel processors to chips built to its own designs on the ARM architecture seems to be working far better than I expected in June.

Reviews of the opening round of “Apple silicon” Macs have consistently applauded how amazingly fast they are–even when running Intel-coded software on Apple’s Rosetta 2 emulation layer. Witness, for example, Samuel Axon’s glowing writeup of the reborn Mac mini at Ars Technica.

Have I mentioned that I’m typing this post on a 2009-vintage iMac?

Having Apple finally update the desktop Mac that would best fit my circumstances–I don’t want to buy another all-in-one iMac, because a separate monitor would be far more useful over the long run–gets my interest. Knowing that this updated Mac mini would run dramatically faster than the previous model intrigues me even more.

But am I ready to pay $1,099 for a Mac mini ($699 plus $400 to upgrade from an inadequate 256 gigabytes of storage to 1 terabyte)? Not yet. Not because of any hangups over buying the 1.0 version of anything, and not because Apple still charges too much for a realistic amount of storage. Instead, I want this thing to include one more thing: a Touch ID button.

The fingerprint-recognition feature that Apple added to its laptops years ago would not only spare me from typing the system password every time I woke the computer from sleep, it would also relieve me from typing the much longer password that secures my 1Password password-manager software. I’ve gotten used to that combination of security and convenience on my HP laptop, where the Windows Hello fingerprint sensor reliably unlocks 1Password. The idea of buying a new Mac without that feature is maddening.

(I know I could get an Apple Watch and use that to unlock the computer. But then I’d also need an iPhone, and switching smartphones and incurring at least $800 in hardware costs to address Apple’s lack of imagination strikes me as idiotic.)

I would like to think that Apple will remedy this oversight with the next update to the Mac mini. But I also thought adding Touch ID would be an obvious addition to desktop Macs two years ago. Unfortunately, large tech companies have a way of ignoring what can seem unimpeachable feature requests–see, for instance, how Microsoft still won’t add full-disk encryption to Windows 10 Home or simply add time-zone support to Win 10’s Calendar app.

So I might be waiting a while. I do know I’ll be waiting until at least January even if Apple ships a Touch ID-enhanced Mac mini tomorrow–so I don’t get dinged for my county’s business tangible property tax on the purchase until 2022.

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.

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.