CES 2018 travel-tech report: Ethernet lives!

I survived another CES without having my laptop or phone come close to running out of power during the workday, which is worth a little celebration but may also indicate that I did CES wrong.

One reason for this efficient electrical usage is that I showed up in Vegas for a new laptop for the first time since 2013. The HP Spectre x360 laptop that replaced my MacBook Air couldn’t get through an entire day without a recharge, but plugging it in during lunch and any subsequent writing time freed me from having to think about its battery for the rest of the day.

The Google Pixel phone I bought last summer was thirstier, mainly because I could never really put that down even after dark. But I still never needed to top off the phone with the external charger I bought.

Having both the phone and laptop charge via USB-C delivered an added bonus: Whenever I was sitting near an electrical outlet, I could plug either device into the laptop’s charger.

CES telecom, however, got no such upgrade. The press-room WiFi worked at the Mandalay Bay conference center but often did not in the media center I used at the Las Vegas Convention Center. And having to enter a new password every day–what looked like a misguided episode of IT security theater–did not enhance the experience.

Fortunately, the cheap USB-to-Ethernet adapter that my MacBook had inexplicably stopped recognizing a few years back worked without fuss on the HP so I often reverted to using wired connections. The irony of me offering an “it just works!” testimony to a Windows PC is duly noted.

T-Mobile’s LTE, meanwhile, crumpled inside the Sands and often struggled to serve up bandwidth at the LVCC. More than once, this meant I had to trust my luck in CES traffic when Google Maps coudn’t produce any road-congestion data.

I packed two devices I’ve carried for years to CES but only used one. The Belkin travel power strip I’ve brought since 2012 avoided some unpleasantness in a packed press room Monday but wasn’t necessary after then. The Canon point-and-shoot camera I’ve had since 2014, however, never left my bag. The camera in my Pixel is that good for close-up shots, and I didn’t come across any subjects that would have required the Canon’s superior zoom lens.

I also didn’t come across a worthy, pocket-sized successor to that “real” camera at any CES booths. But with some 2.75 million square feet of exhibits at this year’s show, I could have easily missed that and many other solutions to my travel-tech issues.

Advertisements

A Safari upgrade I like: accountability for resource-hogging pages

Apple is a few days away from shipping its next big update to its desktop operating system, but people running its current and previous macOS releases can already benefit from one of macOS High Sierra’s components.

Yes, I’m writing something nice about Safari for a change.

The browser that I’ve spent much of the past few years cursing at for its weak memory management and general inability to let me run the computer instead of the other way around got a welcome, pre-High Sierra update Tuesday.

The most talked-about feature in Safari 11.0 may have been its ability to automatically silence sites that without invitation play videos with audio on (yes, I know that includes some of my freelance clients), followed by its blocking of cross-site ad tracking. But the option I’m enjoying most at the moment is Safari 11’s ability–stashed in a new “Websites” tab of its preferences window–to open every page at a given site in the minimalist Reader view.

Where ad blockers are often clumsy and random, Reader can be an elegant weapon against sites that demand attention with junky ads and auto-playing media. It might also spare you from a particularly piggy page locking up your Mac with a demand for more memory than the system can allocate.

“Isn’t that the system’s damn job,” you say? Yes, it is. Fortunately, Safari 11 also now seems able to quash a site in the middle of a memory binge, to judge from the banner I saw atop a page advising me that Safari had reloaded it “because it was using significant memory.”

I’m not going to tell the Safari developers to kick back with a nice vacation – since this update, the browser has already forced a reboot when it somehow refused to restart or fully quit–only a week after I’d had to go through the same routine with Google’s Chrome. But at least I don’t feel like this app is conspiring against me.

Goodbye, Nexus; hello, Pixel

I’m no longer rocking a four-year-old phone. Instead, I’ve upgraded to a 2016-vintage model.

This Google Pixel represents–I hope!–the end of the smartphone saga that began when my increasingly glitchy Nexus 5X lapsed into a fatal bootloop. The refurbished 5X Google offered as a free out-of-warranty replacement never shipped, notwithstanding the “confirmed” status of that order, so after a second call with Google’s store support I took their fallback offer of a full refund of my 5X purchase.

(It’s possible I got special treatment–Google should know how to Google me–but comments in Reddit’s 5X-bootloop thread report similar outcomes.)

I opted to use that money (technically, future money, since I won’t get the credit until the dead 5X completes its journey back to Google) on a Pixel for a few reasons. It remains the Wirecutter’s pick as the best Android phone; a pricier Samsung Galaxy S8 would subject me to tacky interface alterations and delayed security fixes; the new OnePlus 5 would be cheaper but comes with an even weaker record of software updates.

(I did consider buying an iPhone 7, but its absence of a headphone jack has not stopped seeming idiotic to me. And my frequent iPad experience of seeing apps revert to the stock keyboard instead of Google’s better Gboard isn’t something I need to repeat on a phone.)

It bugs me a little to upgrade to a device that shipped last fall, barely a year after the 5X’s debut. Although the Pixel’s camera does indeed seem terrific, in other respects this phone doesn’t represent a major advance over the 5X. But smartphone evolution has slowed down in general–a point people forget when they whine about Apple not shipping breakthrough products anymore.

It’s possible that the next Pixel 2 will add cordless charging, expandable memory and water resistance, and in that scenario I may wish my old phone could have staggered on for another few months. Or maybe Google will follow Apple’s foolish lead and get rid of the headphone jack on its next Pixel, in which case I’ll be patting myself on the back for timing my phone failures so well.

WeChat, but I can’t

SHANGHAI–It wasn’t until shortly before I left for CES Asia that I realized showing up here without a WeChat account would mark me as some kind of hick. I’m now about to head home, still bereft of a WeChat account. But I tried!

WeChat, for those as uninitiated as I once was, is the service AOL Instant Messenger became in an alternate universe. Tencent’s messaging app not only connects almost one billion users in real time, it functions as a wallet, a business card, a news feed and a great many other things.

So I downloaded the Android app, plugged in my Google Voice number–as the work number on my business card, it’s what I ordinarily use without a problem on phone-linked messaging systems.

But what worked in WhatsApp and Signal did not in WeChat. After creating an account and entering the security code texted to my number, I got this error message:

“This WeChat account has been confirmed of suspicious registration in batch or using plugins and is blocked. Continue to use this account by tapping OK and applying for an account unblock.”

Whoops. I tapped through to a “Self-service unblock allowed” screen, tapped its  “Read and accept” button. That presented me with CAPTCHA prove-you’re-not-a-robot interface that had me tap the letters in one graphic that matched those in another.

But after going through that, I still couldn’t log in. Instead, the app told me to get another WeChat user to verify my existence on their phone. I’ve now tried that a few times with both U.S.-based and local users, and after each try the app has offered a vague error message about the other person not being eligible to vouch for me.

After some further research, I think the problem is my using a Google Voice number. That possibility goes unmentioned in WeChat’s English-language online help, but a Quora post reports that Tencent quashed that option years ago.

And thinking about it, it does make sense: I can’t imagine that the Chinese government would look fondly on any communications service that allows people to use a number likely to be untethered from a billable address.

When I get back to the States, I will see if I can’t get WeChat to work with some kind of a burner number still attached to a real account–maybe from a loaner phone. Otherwise, I guess I’ll have to set up WeChat with my “real” phone number. I can’t stay illiterate in this service forever, right?

What made this Facebook post bot bait?

I never quite know what I’m doing with my public Facebook page, but I can usually count on this much: Only a small fraction of however many people see something I post there will Like it.

Something different happened with the link I shared on Saturday to my USA Today recap of Mobile World Congress. Of the 516 people it reached, 320 have liked it. Which would be nice, except that so many of them appear to be fake accounts that I should have put scare quotes around “people” in the previous sentence.

My new fans all appear to be young women of excellent health and are almost all dressed for the beach, an evening out, or an evening in. Some of them apparently use the same first and last names to make it easier to remember them: Alyssa Alyssa, Isabel Isabel, Kate Kate.

So while my page does desperately need a better gender balance–Facebook’s analytics report its audience is 71% men, 29% women–I don’t think my page’s new pals reflect a genuine shift. Question is, what made this one post draw out the bots when others don’t? And can I at least get some of them to click on the USAT story itself and maybe linger over an ad or two?

Do I really have to use Snapchat?

Snapchat filed for its initial public offering Thursday, which makes it a good time to admit that I completely suck at Snapchat.

I have the app on my phone (I installed it first on my iPad, which should exhibit how confused I am about the whole proposition), but it’s among the least-used apps on that device. And that doesn’t seem likely to change.

Self-portrait using Snapchat's snorkel-and-fish lensFew of the friends from whom I’d want to get real-time messages number among its 158 million daily active users, and even fewer seem to use it actively versus lurking on it. I will check out the occasional Story from a news or entertainment site, but that slightly longer-form medium has yet to become a regular part of my info-diet.

I could use Snapchat as yet another way to connect with readers. But without any clients or readers asking me to do this–and with a surplus of social-media distractions already on my various devices–I’m struggling to see the upside.

The biggest reason for my holding off is, to put it bluntly, is that I’m ancient relative to Snapchat’s millennial demographic. I didn’t get the initial appeal of the app when it was focused on sexting disappearing messages, and I’ve been stuck in a get-off-my-lawn mentality ever since.

Snapchat’s self-inflicted wounds are part of the story too. This startup had barely been in existence for three years before having a data breach expose partial phone numbers of more than 4.5 million users, after which it accepted a 20-year settlement with the Federal Trade Commission. That’s not the sort of thing that makes me want to give an app access to my phone’s contacts list. It does not help that founder Evan Spiegel hasn’t exactly seemed like the most enlightened founder in tech.

Finally, there’s Snapchat’s cryptic interface, which expects the user to swipe in random directions to see what features might surface. When the clearest explanation of this UI comes as a diagram on page 92 of Thursday’s S-1 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, we have a serious failure of discoverability. That, too, does not make me want to spend my time figuring out this app.

As that pre-IPO disclosure to investors itself admits: “These new behaviors, such as swiping and tapping in the Snapchat application, are not always intuitive to users.”

I’m not going to delete the app from my phone or anything. It’s an important part of social media today, and I should stay at least functionally literate in it. But if you were hoping to have that be yet another instant-messaging app you can reach me on… look, don’t I have enough of those to monitor already?

Perhaps I’m wrong. If so, please don’t try to convince me otherwise in a Snapchat chat; leave a comment here instead.

 

Mail encryption has gotten less cryptic, but some usability glitches linger

I seriously underestimated you all late last year. In a Dec. 7 post about encryption, I wrote that I hadn’t gotten an encrypted e-mail from a reader in years and said I expected that streak to continue.

PGP keysIt did not. Within a week, a dozen or so readers had sent me messages encrypted with my PGP public key (under subject lines like “Have Faith!” and “Challenge Accepted”), and several others have done the same since. That’s taught me that the crypto user experience has, indeed, gotten pretty good in GPG Suite, the Pretty Good Privacy client of choice in OS X.

But at the same time, some awkward moments remain that remind me the woeful state of things in the late 1990s.

Most of the them involved getting a correspondent’s public key, without which I could not encrypt my reply. When it was attached as a file, dragging and dropping that onto the GPG Keychain app had the expected result, but when it came as a block of text in the decrypted message, I (like other users before me) wasted a few mental processor cycles looking for an import-from-clipboard command when I only had to paste that text into GPG Keychain’s window.

I should have also been able to search keyserver sites for a correspondent’s e-mail address, but those queries kept stalling out at the time. One reader did not appear to have a key listed in those databases at all, while I had to remove a subdomain from another’s e-mail address to get his key to turn up in a search.

One more reader had posted his public key on his own site, but line breaks in that block of text prevented GPG Keychain from recognizing it.

The GPGMail plug-in for OS X Mail is in general a pleasure to use. But its default practice of encrypting all drafts meant that I could no longer start a message on my computer and finish it on my phone–and one e-mail that I’d queued up in the outbox while offline went out encrypted, yielding a confused reply from that editor. I’ve since shut off that default.

It’s quite possible that the upcoming stable release of GPG Suite for OS X El Capitan will smooth over those issues. But that version was supposedly almost ready in late September, and there hasn’t been an update on that open-source project’s news page since. I suppose having to wonder about the status of a crucial software component counts as another crypto-usability glitch.