SXSW FYI

South By Southwest has somehow been on my calendar every March since 2012, which should mean I know what I’m doing in Austin. I don’t really–but with friends coming to SXSW for their first time, I’m due to share what I’ve learned over these five years of practice at hanging out with the unelected hipster elite.

sxsw-microphonePacking: SXSW is properly understood as CES in a more walkable city. Bring your most comfortable shoes and socks, take a jacket you can stuff in a bag (it gets warm during March days in central Texas), and ensure your bag/backpack/purse/satchel always includes a power adapter and external battery for your phone.

If you have a travel power strip and extra USB cables, bring them. Helping other people charge their devices is a recognized good deed at SXSW.

I hear that packing a sufficiently ironic t-shirt can’t hurt, but every year I forget to bring anything from my dwindling collection of ’80s concert attire.

Getting around: With Lyft and Uber having fled Austin after it enacted rules that require fingerprinting drivers, getting around CES may be more complicated as you deal with various smaller-scale ride-hailing services. I haven’t tried those alternatives, but I usually stick to walking back and forth–downtown is compact enough.

For travel from and back to the airport, the 100 bus is an underrated option, especially compared to cab lines on SXSW’s opening day of March 10. The Red Line light rail can be helpful for getting to spots on the east side of town, and if you have a car2go membership, that works in Austin too. The city also has a bike share network, but I’ve yet to try that. If only my Capital Bikeshare membership got me a discount on a day pass…

sxsw-6th-streetPanels and venues: At the risk of sounding like a dweeb, SXSW panels deserve your time. They gather smart people who have learned insightful things about the intersection of technology and culture, and you will learn from them if you pay attention. In the bargain, they provide a valuable opportunity to recharge your devices.

Unfortunately, they are also scattered around Austin. The core venues–the Convention Center, he JW Marriott, the Westin, even the Hilton across the street from the convention center–are placed just far enough apart that running into one random acquaintance will lead you to miss the panel you’d put on your schedule in a fit of optimism. If you’d set out to hit a more distant SXSW location like the Hyatt Regency across the river: good luck!

Get used to tearing up those plans in favor of going to whatever you can make in the next 10 minutes. Besides, randomly running into people is one of the best things about SXSW.

Don’t overlook the compact trade-show floor in the convention center. Last year, that led me to headphones 3D-printed to fit only my ear canals (unable to sell that review hardware to anybody else, I donated its sale value to the nonprofit news organization Pro Publica) and a nonprofit campaign collecting USB flash drives on which to smuggle non-totalitarian information into North Korea.

Eating and drinking: The amount of corporate-subsidized food and beverages available during SXSW is ridiculous. I’ve spent the last five years waiting for all of these marketing managers and brand ambassadors to be held accountable for the expenses they run up, but no such thing has happened. So it’s quite possible to spend all five days of SXSW’s Interactive festival without paying for lunch, dinner or drinks.

Breakfast is another thing. So is the late-night snack that may become necessary after attending a SXSW event with more booze than chow. Either way, you’re in one of America’s food-truck capitals: Fire up your eats-finding app of choice, be prepared to walk a few blocks, and you should be fine.

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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.

A request for travel-app developers: automatic screen brightness

This weekend has many of you on planes and trains, which means many of you have been  fussing with smartphone apps to get a ticket’s QR code to scan properly. Thanksgiving-weekend travel pain may be unavoidable, but code-scanning snafus should be a solvable problem.

national-airport-runway-1They remain unsolved in practice because travel-app developers can’t seem to grasp the idea of brightening the phone’s screen automatically when displaying a boarding pass. Instead, these apps keep leaving that work to you.

That’s definitely the case with the Android travel apps I use most often, United Airlines and Amtrak. With UA, I can sometimes get away with leaving the screen on its usual brightness–but not if I want to have the code scan properly at both the TSA checkpoint and the gate. With Amtrak, even maxing out the brightness–something the conductors always remind passengers to do–doesn’t ensure the ticket will scan on the first time.

(I’m kicking myself for not calling out this shortfall in Amtrak’s app when I reviewed it in 2012.)

If I had an iPhone, I could bring up United boarding passes and Amtrak tickets in the Wallet app, which does brighten the screen automatically. But I don’t own an iPhone, and neither does a huge fraction of the traveling public.

From what I can tell, other airline apps are no smarter about this. American Airlines’ app doesn’t appear to adjust screen brightness (although that company should probably first fix the issue that results in a boarding pass becoming invalid if you don’t bring it up at least 30 minutes before boarding) and Delta’s doesn’t seem to either.

Paper is wasteful, but at least I know my ticket code will work every time. When I go to a Nationals game, it’s my only option–the barcode scanners at the turnstiles have yet to accept a ticket code in an e-mailed ticket, no matter how bright the screen on my phone gets. (My wife’s iPhone 6 doesn’t have that hangup, because reasons.)

Meanwhile, Eventbrite’s app has automatically maxed out screen brightness when I bring up an event’s ticket since the first day I opened it. It’s too bad that I’m almost never asked to show a ticket code on my phone when I show up at an event booked through that service. Perhaps it would help if somebody set up an event for travel-app developers and required Eventbrite mobile tickets?

Side effect of an aging iMac: Bluetooth mouse rage

Overall, the 2009-vintage iMac that I’m typing this on has aged not just well, but better than any other computer I’ve owned. But every few months, I can expect it to send me into a few hours of powerless rage, all because its Bluetooth mouse keeps making a change of batteries a drama-filled exercise.

imac-mouseIt happens something like this: After a few days of the menu bar flashing a low-battery icon for this “Magic Mouse,” that peripheral will finally go offline–most likely when I’m trying to wrap up an e-mail or a story. I’ll pop open the hatch on its bottom, remove the spent batteries, and pop in a fresh pair of AAs.

And that’s when the green LED on this rodent will either fail to illuminate or blink on and then off. I’ll go through the same troubleshooting steps each time: try different batteries, try cleaning the terminals in the mouse with a Q-tip dipped in rubbing alcohol, then try cleaning the ends of each battery with the same.

Eventually, this rodent will decide to accept its new power source, and that’s when the Bluetooth battle begins. I don’t know if it’s the age of my iMac or of the mouse, but it seems to take anywhere from a few hours to day of having the Bluetooth link repeatedly drop for no apparent reason before the device pairing sets in–as if it were glue that needed time to cure.

I thought I’d knocked the worst of this wonkiness out of the system this spring when I trashed a batch of preferences files and booting the iMac into “Safe Mode.” But then I had to go through another round of iffy Bluetooth pairing after a battery change a few days ago.

A less stubborn person would buy a new mouse already, but I can’t get too excited about paying $49 for a Magic Mouse 2 that can only be recharged with a Lightning cable that blocks any use of the mouse as a pointing device. And would become instantly redundant when I buy a new desktop computer… should Apple ever get tired of selling models that saw their last update a year or two ago. But that’s a separate gripe.

Whenever Apple does deign to ship a revived iMac or Mac mini, one thing’s for sure: I will order it with a wired keyboard.

 

A taste of Nougat on a Nexus 5X

DENVER–Two weeks ago, I tossed caution out the window of a hotel room and installed Google’s Android 7.0 on my phone one day into a business trip. The computing gods smiled on me, and the upgrade proceeded without incident and allowed me to experience the rest of the IFA show with the smartphone operating system Google also calls Android Nougat.

android-n-patch-install

Google’s sales pitch for Nougat may lead off with this release’s inflated inventory of emoji, but the change I appreciated first is the Settings app. In Nougat, it doesn’t just show categories of system preferences–it shows the current status of most of them.

That’s a thoughtful change. Too bad that phones with third-party interface tweaks will probably bury it.

The Nougat feature I use most often, however, is its new multitasking shortcut: Tap the recent-apps button twice, and Android jumps back to the second-most-recent app.

Nougat also offers a split-screen multitasking mode (that leads off the Google’s list of Android 7 features for developers), but my phone’s 5.2-in. screen doesn’t offer the kind of real estate that would make this useful.

I’ve also made little use of my newfound ability to customize the Quick Settings panel after removing the screen-rotation control (which I only ever used by accident). I do, however, appreciate being able to reply directly to more messages from the notifications list.

android-n-settings-appMonday brought a chance to try out the faster system-software updates Google has been touting. September’s security patches took 7 minutes and 15 seconds to install, which is less than instant but much faster than before–because I didn’t have that long wait as every installed app had to get reloaded.

At Google I/O, the company talked up Nougat’s more efficient use of memory. That got my attention, since the Nexus 5x’s 2 gigabytes of memory have often proved insufficient. I have yet to see my phone bog down the way it sometimes did before, although at least once I saw it fail to display my screen wallpaper for a moment after a round of switching between apps.

The Nougat feature that got me to do something as crazy as install a major software update to a critical device in the middle of a business trip was improved battery life. I haven’t done any detailed testing, but the phone does seem to last longer on days when I’m not using it like a tech journalist–that is, when I’m not constantly tweeting, replying to e-mails, and taking photos and notes, I can see the phone predict another 10 hours of battery life after I’ve gone seven hours without a charge.

But here at the Online News Association’s conference, no such luck applies. The phone doesn’t spend enough time in my pocket to benefit from Nougat’s ability to slow the system to a gentle stroll anytime the phone’s screen is off. So as I type this, my phone and my laptop are tethered to an outlet.

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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