CES 2017 travel-tech report: My devices are showing their age

 

I took the same laptop to CES for the fifth year in a row, which is not the sort of thing you should admit at CES. I’m blaming Apple for that, in the form of its failure to ship an affordable update to the MacBook Air, but 2016’s Windows laptops also failed to close the deal.

My mid-2012 MacBook Air did not punish my hubris by dying halfway through the show and instead was content to remind me of its battery’s age by running down rapidly once past 25 percent of a charge. Seeing a “Service Battery” alert last fall had me thinking of getting the battery replaced beforehand, but my local Apple Store’s diagnostic check reported that I could hold off on that for a little longer.

2017-ces-gearWhen I had to recharge my MacBook, nearby attendees could also guess its age from the black electrical tape I had to apply to its power cord to cover a frayed area–yes, this is the power adapter I bought not even two years ago. In any darkened room, they might have also noticed the glow coming my from my laptop’s N key, on which the backlight shines through now that this key’s black coating has begun to rub off.

My Nexus 5X Android phone, my other note-taking device, kept bogging down as I was switching from app to app. If I could upgrade the RAM on this thing, I could–but, oops, I can’t. Its camera, however, once again did well for most shots, and T-Mobile’s LTE held up up except for press-conference day at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center.

WiFi was once again atrocious. I’m not surprised by this, only that the Consumer Technology Association tolerated this kind of crap connectivity at its most important event.

Two hardware items I know I can and should easily replace before next year’s CES are the USB charger I took for my phone and my travel power strip.

The remarkably compact charger that came with my wife’s old Palm Pixi almost 10 years ago still functions as designed, but it doesn’t charge my phone fast enough. I only took that item to Vegas because I lost the charger that came with my Nexus 5X (yes, the one I almost misplaced last year at CES) at Google I/O. I should have packed my iPad mini’s charger, which replenishes my phone much faster, but I won’t mind buying a cheap, fast-charging, two-port USB charger. Any endorsements?

My travel power strip also charges USB devices slowly, but the bigger problem is this Belkin accessory’s relative bulk. The Wirecutter now recommends a more compact Accell model; remind me to get that sometime soon.

I’d written last year that I probably wouldn’t take my aging Canon 330 HS point-and-shoot for another CES, but I did anyway. I experienced my usual wishes for better low-light performance and the ability to touch the screen to tell the camera where to focus, but this camera’s lens cover also no longer closes without me nudging its plastic petals into place.

I should have spent more time at CES checking out replacements, but I only had time to verify that the Canon pocket-sized model that looked most appealing doesn’t take panoramic photos.

I’d like to think that I’ll address all of these hardware issues well before next year’s CES. I’d also like to think that by then, I will always remember to note a CES event’s location in its calendar entry.

Things I have learned from 20 years of CES

January 1998 brought something new to my schedule: a flight to Vegas (Southwest from BWI through Midway) and four days at the Consumer Electronics Show.

I’m pretty sure that at the time, I didn’t think this event would occupy my January schedule for the next two decades. But it has, and now that I have 20 CESes in the books I’ve learned a few things about the show.

ces-timeline• The timing is dreadful. Tearing yourself away from your family only days after the warmth of the holidays sucks—and having to deal with CES prep for the weeks beforehand doesn’t exactly put me in the Christmas spirit. If I could build a time machine, I would be tempted to let somebody else kill Hitler (on the theory that if I could construct such a device, so could many other people) and instead go back to 1973 to lobby the founding fathers of CES to hold the damn thing in early February.

• At the same time, the show often represents the first time I will have seen journalist and analyst friends in months. Catching up with these tech-nerd pals makes up for some of the family angst. Unfortunately, I’ve been doing this for long enough that some of these people have filed their last report; I had to cover this year’s show without the insight of Envisioneering’s Richard Doherty.

• The deliberate inefficiency of Vegas (casino-floor layouts are America’s answer to Tokyo’s inscrutable system of street addresses) is infuriating and has only gotten worse as CES attendance has zoomed past 175,000. I struggle to think of a major American event held in a place less capable of moving that many people around, in part because of its own choices: Not having the monorail stop at the Sands represents one of the worst unforced errors in the history of American transit planning.

ces-south-hall• Not getting a flu shot well before going to CES is one of the worst unforced errors in the history of business travel. I found out the hard way in 2009, when I spent five days after CES staggering around my house in a diseased haze–including the day when President-elect Obama toured the Post’s newsroom.

• Year after year, I never work harder than I do at CES. It’s not like I’m a foreign correspondent getting shot at… but when people who have never been to CES say they wish they could go, I struggle to respond with any graciousness.

• People will talk about the obsolescence of shows like CES, but most tech companies can’t pull an Apple and summon reporters to their own events. Having so many of these firms hawking their wares in one place helps me do my job of making sense of the tech industry–and the chance meetings that happen have connected me to good sources and new clients. As annoying as CES gets, it remains one of my more important journalistic and business-development ventures. It looks like I’m stuck with it for a while longer.

• After being from home for a few days and catching up other people’s CES coverage, I have realized once again how many things I missed–an event or a dinner I should have attended, a corner of the floor I overlooked, a vendor I should have met, a demo I should have checked out–despite spending five painfully long days immersed in the show. Whatever else 20 years of covering CES has taught, it hasn’t allowed me to not feel swamped before, during and after this thing.

Updated 1/11/2017 with some concluding thoughts.

2016 in review: a year of travel

This has been a trash bag of a year in so many ways, but on a personal level it could have been worse. As in, for a few weeks in the late winter I thought the overwhelming source of my income would vanish along with most of the Yahoo Tech operation.

Instead, Yahoo Finance picked me up before I’d gotten too far in exploring other possibilities. But the publicity over Yahoo’s content cutbacks wound up helping an overdue diversification of my income anyway–an editor at Consumer Reports e-mailed to ask if the news meant I’d be interested in writing for them. That led to a good series of stories, one not yet published.

2016-calendarI got another lucky break when a press-room meeting at the cable industry’s sparsely-attended INTX show yielded a string of assignments for the FierceTelecom group of sites.

These and other new clients still leave most of my income coming from a single company, but the totals aren’t as skewed as they were last year.

2016 did, however, see me do much better at finagling opportunities to speak on panels that got my travel expenses covered in the bargain. My mileage totals kept climbing as conferences and other tech events took me to places I’d hadn’t seen in 18 years (Hong Kong), 25 years (Paris), 43 years (Lisbon), or ever before (Israel), as well as my now-regular trips to Barcelona for Mobile World Congress and Berlin for IFA.

Domestically, New York was once again my most frequent travel destination, followed by Boston (now that both my brother and my mom live around there, I’m kind of obliged to find interesting tech events around the Hub). I also made my way to Austin, Denver, Las Vegas, New Orleans, and the Bay Area. Having SFO appear as a work destination only once seems like a grave dereliction of duty; I’ll try to do better.

(Read on after the jump to see all of my air travel plotted on a map of the world.)

My single favorite trip of the year: Viva Technology Paris, which brought me back to France for a second time this summer and showed that I could moderate four panels in a day. The trip also allowed enough downtime for me to take a train to the suburb of Louveciennes, knock on the door of the house my family rented a quarter-century ago, and discover that the family we’d rented the place from still lived there and was happy to let me look around.

The most challenging trip of 2016 would have to be Web Summit. Doing three panels on four hours of nightmare-level sleep is not an experience I need to repeat.

On that note, I can only hope that 2017 will bring less bad news than 2016. But I don’t know how it will turn out, only that I have work to do and good fortune to repay somehow.

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Why yes, I did get your CES pitch. Again.

As I started working on this post, my phone buzzed and its screen lit up with a predictable subject line: “Are you going to CES?”

Of course it did. And of course I am. This January will mark my 20th consecutive trip to CES, the gadget gathering formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show–which itself will mark its 50th anniversary. So this December features not just my usual late and disorganized attempts to shop for gifts, but the annual wave of requests to book meetings at CES.

And just like last year, I have yet to address more than a small fraction of that correspondence. To save tech-PR types some time, here are my answers to the most frequent questions about my schedule in the first week of January. To save myself time, I copied much of this from last year’s post.

GoPro clusterAre you still going to CES?

Since I’m apparently serving a life sentence at this show, that would be a yes. I’ll be there from Tuesday morning through Saturday night.

Will we see you at our press conference?

Your odds are actually better this year, since my flight should land at LAS before 11 a.m. on Tuesday. That leaves me a lot more time for the events before the show officially opens Thursday. But that doesn’t change the basic problem of big-ticket press conferences at CES: endless lines to get in. Not be all “do you know who I am?!,” but if you can put me on whatever list frees me from spending an hour queued up in a hallway, it will help your company’s cause.

Would you like to schedule a show-floor meeting with [giant electronics company]?

Yes, probably. When one company’s exhibit space is a large fraction of an acre, getting a guided tour of the premises can be a real time-saver. I should have answered all of these pitches by now; sorry for the delay.

Can we schedule a show-floor meeting with [small gadget firm]?

Most likely not. The point of vendors paying exorbitant amounts of money for show-floor exhibit space is to provide a fixed target for interested attendees. So as long as you’ll have somebody there who can answer questions, I’ll get to you when I can. Hint: Telling me where to find your client in your first e-mail helps make that happen.

This general outline of my CES schedule may also be of use:

  • Thursday, the first full day of the show, I probably won’t go further than the Central Hall of the LVCC.
  • Friday will find me in the South Hall of the LVCC (it’s become drone central) and then probably in the Sands, where it looks like I’ll be moderating a panel on cybersecurity… which will actually be the second panel on cybersecurity I’ll do that day, because CES.
  • Saturday’s my day to cover everything else before what I’m sure will be a delightful 3.5-hour red-eye flight to O’Hare and then home to National Airport.

Can we set up a meeting at [Pepcom/ShowStoppers]?

Those two evening events, in which an outside PR firm books a hotel ballroom (Pepcom is in the Mirage, ShowStoppers at the Wynn), rents tables to various gadget vendors and caters food and beverages so journalists can have dinner on their feet, constitute an efficient use of my time because I don’t have to find these companies and find time for them. Can we please not then get all OCD by booking a meeting inside an event at a spot inside a location?

Strip trafficCan you come to our reception/happy hour/dinner/party? 

Pepcom and ShowStoppers have me occupied most of Wednesday and Thursday night, but if you have an event before or after them in someplace nearby, I’m more likely to show up. If your event has a couch I can fall asleep on, that might help too. If it will be in a place with no convenient way to charge my devices, that will not help.

Okay, jerk, we get that you’re busy. Are there any times or places that won’t cause you to whine about your trying circumstances?

So glad you asked! Considering how annoying it is to get around Vegas during CES, giving journalists a lift in exchange for a quick product pitch can be pretty smart–I’m surprised I’ve only gotten one offer along those lines. Breakfast is also a good time to try to get a reporter’s attention at CES, because what they do to bagels in CES press rooms should be a crime. And remember that I’m around through Saturday–my schedule should open up after the insanity of Thursday.

Any interest in the e-mail I sent yesterday?

If there is, I promise I will write back… in the next week or so… probably.

WAS-NYP-WAS: commuting from D.C. to NYC and back

New York is my most frequent travel destination, and my most frequent mode of transportation to there is Amtrak train 2100, the 6 a.m. (lately, 5:55 a.m.) Acela Express.

This train keeps showing up on my calendar despite my fondness for sleeping in past 4:40 a.m. because it works to get me to morning meetings in Manhattan. And because the next few Acela departures get ridiculously expensive unless you book weeks or maybe months in advance.

early-morning-acela(Don’t even talk to me about flying. Transit-starvedtraffic-choked LaGuardia is not an airport I need to see again, I’d get much less work done on the way, and I would save little to no time when I can usually walk from Penn Station to whatever event has me in NYC for the day.)

So I keep getting up in the middle of the night–Thursday being the latest example–and finding myself marveling at the sight of stars from my front porch before heading out.

If I’m taking Metro, I need to catch the first inbound train of the day and not run into any delays of more than a few minutes. Thursday, with Metro’s struggles on my mind, I summoned an Uber and enjoyed the rare spectacle of a 14th Street Bridge free of traffic.

Union Station is not too crowded at 5:40 in the morning, and seeing all the people in suits greet each other on the train reminds me that it could be worse: I could be doing this as often as them. Noticing MARC trains bringing commuters into Union Station that early gives me the same reaction.

Thursday, the sun didn’t rise until we crossed the Susquehanna River. That’s not bad compared to taking this train in the winter, when I’ve had to wait until somewhere in Delaware.

trenton-makes-the-world-takesWith the sun up, seeing familiar scenery like the “Trenton Makes, the World Takes” sign over the Delaware River helps the miles go by. So does the right Northeast Corridor-specific soundtrack, which always includes Bob Mould’s “Brasilia Crossed With Trenton” and Suzanne Vega’s “Ironbound (Fancy Poultry).”

After years of seeing decades-old infrastructure unchanged, the past couple of years have allowed me to watch the progress of a long-overdue upgrade: replacing 1930s-vintage overhead wires north of Trenton. At Penn Station, meanwhile, I’m waiting on another project: the new concourse and entrances on 8th Avenue, which have to be less grim than Penn’s current setup.

After a day of NYC events, the trip home usually takes place on train 2173, the 8-ish Acela. Again, ticket prices often dictate that scheduling–the earlier Acela departures cost too much.

The upside of this train: If you’ve burned Amtrak points for first-class upgrade coupons or you got some with Select or higher Guest Rewards status, there should be space at the end of the train where they bring the food to you. The downside: The train rolls into Union Station after 11, a time when Metro rebuilding-induced delays may or may not mean I get home after 12:30.

That was the case Thursday, when my day ended almost 21 hours after it began. Friday was not my most productive day ever.

Covering Apple news from afar

My streak of never covering the launch of a new iPhone in person continued Wednesday, when I watched Apple unveil the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus the way any of you could have: via Apple’s video stream.

iphone-back-closeupWatching a product launch on my iPad in my own home looks less like “journalism” than typing away furiously in a crowded auditorium in San Francisco. But as long as my main clients have full-time staffers who regularly cover Apple events–David Pogue at Yahoo Finance, Ed Baig at USA Today–I don’t expect that to change.

(As vain as I can get, I don’t think I’m anywhere near enough of an “influencer” to warrant an invitation solely for my social-media audience.)

The obvious downside of not being there is no hands-on time with new hardware. Worming your way through a scrum of other tech journalists to get a few minutes of time to fiddle with a phone can be a mildly degrading waste of time, but it’s also the only way to try out features like fingerprint unlocking. I’ll have to wait until the new phones’ Sept. 16 retail debut to do a hands-on inspection.

The less obvious downside is not getting to meet some tech-journalist pals. Many of the reporters who focus on Apple don’t go to CES or the other regular events on my schedule, so sitting out Apple’s events means missing their company.

On the upside, not being in a position to cover a new iPhone’s launch means I don’t have to spend too many mental processor cycles worrying about Apple PR’s opinion of me–a profoundly liberating state of affairs. And when I’m tweeting from my own couch instead of inside an event venue, I know the WiFi will work.

(After the jump: How I didn’t cover the iPhone’s 2007 debut, even though I was in Pacific time at the time.)

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Lesson re-learned: Daytime offsite events at a trade show rarely work

BERLIN–I had a decision to make about my schedule Thursday morning here: Would I cut away from IFA to attend a Huawei event on the other side of town from the Berlin Messe, or would I stick with the official show schedule and check out some press conferences that might not prove all that newsworthy?

Huawei Nova phone

I opted for the unusual, thinking that a firm on the scale of that Chinese vendor would have to commit some news–and in any case, the event wouldn’t take too long and I would be able to get over to the Messe soon enough.

I was wrong on both counts. The taxi I shared to the Velodrom with some journalist friends took 25 minutes, after which we needed another 15 minutes to find the entrance to this half-buried arena. Huawei’s event went on for an hour, after which the hands-on area to try its Nova and Nova Plus phones and MediaPad M3 tablet opened and consumed more of my time.

And when I finally walked over to the S-Bahn station and got on a train to the Messe, I had to exit halfway there because of a scheduled closure that Google Maps didn’t warn me about when saying transit would be as quick as a taxi. After failing to puzzle my way through substitute bus service, then taking a different train with an extra connection to IFA’s venue, I finally showed up at 1:30–an hour and a half later than I’d expected in my earlier, delusional moments.

It’s true that attending Huawei’s event did allow me to witness some extended selfie coaching from social-media celebrity Xenia Tchoumi (a few tweets highlighting audience reactions follow after the jump), which yielded some much-appreciated humor.

But if I’d made the more boring choice, I wouldn’t have lost more than half the day to an event that featured no details about U.S. availability of the new hardware. It’s something I will recall immediately the next time somebody suggests I step aside from the daytime schedule of the first day or two of a sprawling show like CES or Mobile World Congress to have a client monopolize my time for what should only be an hour.

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