This is the most interesting conference badge I’ve worn

LAS VEGAS–I’ve spent the last two days wearing a circular circuit board topped with a slab of quartz, which is not just normal but required behavior to attend the DEF CON security conference here.

DEF CON 27 badgeI had heard upfront that DEF CON badges–available only for $300 in cash, no comped press admission available–were not like other conference badges. But I didn’t realize how much they differed until I popped the provided watch battery into my badge (of course, I put it in wrong side up on the first try), threaded the lanyard through the badge, and soon had other attendees asking if they could tap their badges against mine.

These badges designed by veteran hacker Joe Grand include their own wireless circuitry and embedded software that causes them to light up when held next to or close to other badges. As you do this with other attendees of various classes–from what I gathered, regular attendees have badges with white quartz, press with green, vendors with purple, and speakers with red–you will unlock other functions of the badge.

What other functions, I don’t know and won’t find out, as I’m now headed back from the event. That’s one way in which I’m a DEF CON n00b, the other being that I didn’t wear any other badges soldered together from circuit boards, LEDs and other electronic innards.

(Update: Saturday evening, Grand, aka “Kingpin,” posted detailed specifics about his creation, including source code and slides from a talk I’d missed.)

You might expect me to critique the unlabeled DEF CON badge for flunking at the core task of announcing your name to others, but forced disclosure is not what this event is about–hence the restriction to cash-only registration. And since I have mini business cards, this badge met another key conference-credential task quite well: The gap between the circuit board and the lanyard was just the right size to hold a stash of my own cards.

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From Pixel 1 to Pixel 3a

I changed smartphones this week without being forced to–my old phone hadn’t suffered any catastrophic failure or fallen into a weird cycle of malfunctions. Instead, I retired my first-generation Google Pixel because two years and change is a good run for a phone, and upgrading to a Pixel 3a with a better camera and superior network coverage would only cost $400 and change.

I could shop free of duress because my Pixel 1 has been the best smartphone I’ve ever owned. It’s taken a lot of great pictures, it’s had an almost-entirely crash-free existence, it’s benefited from every Google update almost as soon as each was released, its battery life has been fine (except for maybe the last few weeks, and obviously not at battery-devouring tech events like CES), and it’s survived multiple drops on hard floors that left all four corners scuffed.

The Pixel 3a I bought last week–after spending a couple of months trying out a loaner picked up at Google I/O in May–should share most of those virtues. It also cost about two-thirds the Pixel 1’s list price (although I was able to buy mine at a substantial discount when Google refunded the purchase price of the Nexus 5X that succumbed to a fatal bootloop cycle). And like the Pixel 1 but unlike the Pixel 2 and Pixel 3, this device includes a headphone jack, so I didn’t have to underwrite the gadget industry’s latest idiotic design-minimalism fetish.

The obvious upgrade with the 3a is its camera, which includes most of the optical hardware of the far more expensive Pixel 3. But because it also supports the low-frequency LTE band that T-Mobile has lit up over the past few years, this device should also deliver much better connectivity.

(I really hope I haven’t jinxed this purchase with the preceding two paragraphs.)

Finally, after struggling with earlier Android migrations, I have to give Google credit for easing this path. This time around, I only had to connect the two devices with a USB-C cable, start the migration process, and see some 13 minutes later that my app-icon layout had been copied over, after which I could sit through a tedious app-download process. That’s still not close to the simplicity of swapping iOS devices–like, why did my screen wallpaper not copy over?–but I’ll accept that added inconvenience if it means I can still have a phone with a headphone jack.

(No, I’m never letting that go. Why did you ask?)

Finally, an obvious upgrade from Apple

No computer I own has aged better than the iPad mini 4 I bought at the end of 2015. But that device’s days as my work tablet are now unquestionably dwindling.

That’s Apple’s fault and to Apple’s credit. The updated iPad mini the company announced last week may look almost identical (I’ll know for sure when I can inspect it in a store), but it includes a much faster processor and a better screen and camera. Reviewers I trust have essentially been saying “yes, buy this.”

The new iPad mini also doesn’t exhibit two of Apple’s least-attractive habits, in that the company resisted the temptations to remove the headphone jack and sell it with inadequate entry-level storage. So instead of paying extra for a 64-gigabyte model as I did before, that’s now the base configuration.

I wish the new tablet retired the proprietary Lightning cable for a USB-C connector that would let me recharge it with my laptop or phone chargers. But if I must choose, I’d rather be inconvenienced by having to fish out a different cable once every other day than have to remember to bring a headphone-jack dongle everywhere I take the tablet.

If only the the Mac part of Apple would learn from the mobile-device part of it and not gouge buyers who want a reasonable amount of storage! I’m typing these words on a 2009-vintage iMac that I have yet to replace because of this problem. The finally-revived Mac mini would be a logical successor to this iMac–I can’t see buying another all-in-one when its 4K screen should far outlast its computer components–but it starts with a 128 GB solid-state drive. And upgrading that joke of an SSD to a 512 GB model costs an insulting $400.

So I continue to trudge along with a desktop that will turn 10 years old this November–although the 512 GB SSD now inside it is only a year old–instead of paying that Apple Tax. With the new iPad mini, meanwhile, the only real question will be which retailer gets my money.

We finally got an Amazon Echo

More than four years after I first tried out an Amazon Echo, there’s now one in our house. Even by my late-adopter habits, that’s an exceptionally long time for us to pick up on a tech trend.

But waiting so many years did allow us to get an Echo at a good price: $0.00. Late last year, Verizon added a free Echo to its menu of promotions to new and renewing Fios subscribers, and the company (also the parent firm of my client Yahoo Finance) included us in this offer even though we only pay it for Internet access.

(Even weirder, this free Echo came on top of being offered a lower rate for a faster connection. I guess I should see that as belated compensation for us missing out on other new-customer incentives Verizon’s offered since our fiber-optic connection went live nine years ago today.)

We got the code to redeem for a free second-generation Echo a couple of weeks after our speed upgrade went through, I waited a week to cash it in, and our new voice-controlled gadget arrived Friday. I promptly found a spot for this cybernetic cylinder in our kitchen.

So far, I’ve set up our Echo with only a few skills: it can play Pandora Internet radio, read the news from WAMU and can control our Philips Hue lightbulbs. (The Echo’s role as a smart-home hub is the use case that I utterly ignored in the first-look post I wrote for Yahoo Tech.) I’ve already determined that the Alexa app does not make for a great grocery-list manager, so I’m now going to see if Todoist can better handle that role. And I’ve changed one setting from the default: Because we have an eight-year-old at home, purchasing by voice is off.

There’s a lot to learn, but at least I’m no longer quite so illiterate at such a major tech platform. I just hope I can keep up with our kid, who already talks to Alexa far more than my wife and I combined.

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.

This is the worst interface I’ve ever seen

Our water heater broke sometime Monday, and we found out the analog way: Only cold water came out of the tap.

A visit to the basement revealed that the heater had already been reporting a problem in the least intuitive way possible. A single green LED on an assembly near its base was blinking out a pattern–eight flashes in a row, followed by a pause of a few seconds and then two more flashes.

That sequence, a small sticker explained, was the heater’s way of saying “Temperature sensor fault detected.” This same sticker listed 17 other sequences of flashes and pauses that could report anything from “No faults” to “Flammable vapor sensor fault detected.”

(The temperature sensor had indeed gone bad, although it took multiple visits by techs to confirm that and then return with a working replacement. This has left me with a renewed appreciation for household modern conveniences.)

That’s an awful user interface. It’s also what happens when you supply a single, single-color LED to display the status of a fairly complex home appliance. Bradford White, the manufacturer, could have put in a light that changed color–seeing a once-green indicator turn to red is usually your tip that something’s changed for the worse–or put in two or more LEDs.

Or that firm could have splurged on a digital readout capable of showing numeric error codes, bringing the discoverability of this interface up to that of the “DSKY” control of the Apollo Guidance Computer that NASA astronauts sometimes struggled to decipher on their way to the Moon.

Instead, sticking with that sole green LED and offloading the work of discovering its Morse-code-esque interface to customers may have saved Bradford White a dime per heater. On the upside, I’m now pretty sure I’ve seen the worst possible UI. I mean, not even Lotus Notes got this bad.

A travel to-do for Android Pie: enable lockdown

The first new feature in Android Pie that I noticed after installing it on my Pixel 12 days ago was its Adaptive Battery feature, which hunts and handcuffs energy-hungry apps (yes, that seems like a feature that shouldn’t have had to wait for a 9.0 release). The first new setting I changed was Pie’s “lockdown” option.

That’s the feature Google left out of the keynote sessions at Google I/O in May and instead saved for the closing minutes of a more technical briefing on the last day of the conference. Lockdown disables your phone’s fingerprint unlock and hides all notifications from the lock screen–a useful option if, as Android security manager Xiaowen Xin said during this presentation, “you need to hand it over for inspection at a security checkpoint.”

Or as avgeek blogger Seth Miller phrased things in a tweet then, it’s Android’s “airport mode.” It’s how you’d want your phone to behave if you must hand it over to somebody you shouldn’t automatically trust.

But lockdown isn’t on by default or all that easy to find. You have to open the Settings app, tap “Security & location,” tap “Lock screen preferences,” and then tap the slider next to “Show lockdown option” so it’s highlighted in blue.

Turning it on isn’t super-obvious either: Wake but don’t unlock your phone by pressing the power button, then hold down the power button again for about a second. You should see a “Lockdown” button on a menu that will pop out of the right side of the screen; tap that, and your fingerprint’s no good to unlock the device.

Now you know. Whenever you get Android Pie on your phone–yes, I realize that could be many months, unless apathetic vendor support prolongs that timeframe to “never”–enable this option. Then please get in the habit of using it.