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.

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For tech journalists, this may not be the most wonderful time of the year

It’s almost the middle of December, which means I’m once again in the weeds with my CES planning, in the weeds with Christmas shopping, and in the weeds with writing stories in advance so I can maybe spend some of the holidays moderately unplugged.

All of these things have been part of my Decembers for 20 years (although working on a blog schedule has only been part of the deal for the last decade). I should have been able to get better at this, especially since I succumbed to leaning on the crutch of free Amazon Prime two-day shipping and let my wife handle the cards I’d otherwise not send out until early January. Nope!

CES, meanwhile, has kept growing in size–from 117,704 attendees in 2003 to 184,279 this January–and generally making a mockery of predictions that big tech shows no longer matter.

And because it’s 2017, there’s now the added hilarity of the Trump news cycle. Today, it’s given us the complete repeal of 2015’s net-neutrality rules. That’s been readership gold–2,678 comments on my Yahoo Finance post and counting–but it’s not exactly helping me ease into the holidays.

At least it’s not just me. Every CES-bound tech journalist has to be feeling the same crunch, and many of them have to post much more often. And as much as I hate CES PR pitches, I’m sure many of their senders tried to remind their clients that the space-time continuum still governs CES and that expecting reporters to attend an off-Strip event the first day of the show is wildly optimistic–and then the clients ignored their advice.

I do, however, have one thing extra going for me: CES doesn’t start until the second weekend of January, so I have an entire five blessed days between New Year’s Day and my getting on a plane. I plan on sleeping for as much of that time as possible.

The other shocking secret about my latest laptop purchase

To judge from the 840 comments on Monday’s Yahoo Finance post about my first laptop purchase in a few years, the fact that this computer runs Windows 10 surprised many readers.

Another aspect of this acquisition may be even more shocking: I bought this computer in person, not remotely.

HP laptop keyboard

Over some 28 years of computer use, I had somehow avoided procuring every prior laptop or desktop in a store. My first two Macs came via Georgetown’s student-discount ordering, I bought a Power Computing Mac clone either over the phone or at the company’s site (too long ago for me to remember for sure), and I’d purchased three iMacs, one MacBook Air and a Lenovo ThinkPad online.

I had planned on ordering an HP Spectre x360 through my iMac’s browser, but HP’s site listed the new version as back-ordered. Finding a reseller at Amazon that had the 2017 model, not last year’s, quickly got me lost. Best Buy listed the latest version online–with the lure of credit towards a future purchase through its rewards program–but the profusion of different model numbers made me want to inspect the hardware in person to make sure I’d get the features I had in mind.

At about that time, I recalled that D.C.’s sales tax is fractionally lower than the rate in Northern Virginia, 5.75 percent versus 6 percent. And since that retailer’s site said this computer was on display at its Columbia Heights location on a day when I already had to be in D.C. for a conference and would be departing for Web Summit the next evening, why not stop by?

The exact set of options I wanted came in a configuration with more memory and storage than I’d normally buy, of which the store only had one unit in stock. But after taking a moment to contemplate the time I spend on laptops, I rationalized the added expense and handed over a credit card. So it was done: I walked out with a box in a bag that I lugged around that afternoon, and then I began a trip the next night with a newly-purchased laptop for the first time in five years.

One part of my work, however, remains incomplete: finding a home for a 2012 MacBook Air with a broken T key and a “Service Battery” alert. Any ideas?

My Apple problem

I spent a little time checking out Apple’s new MacBook Pro today, and from my cursory inspection in an Apple Store I can confirm that it’s a very nice computer. It’s also an $1,800-and-up computer, and I am not an $1,800-and-up shopper in this category of hardware.

macbook-air-touchbar-closeupI’m more of a $1,000-ish guy, and Apple doesn’t seem to want such a small sum of money. At that price, the company has nothing new to offer–the MacBook Air saw its last update 621 days ago. But Apple continues to price that model as if it were new.

(I’m not counting the single-port MacBook, because a computer that makes me choose between recharging itself and recharging my phone will never work for CES.)

While Apple neglects the more-affordable end of its laptop lineup, Windows vendors have been doing some interesting work. Many Windows laptops include not just touchscreens but the ability to fold up the laptop into a tablet for easy economy-class use.

And some Windows laptops also include Windows Hello biometric login–like the TouchID authentication on the MacBook Pro, except you don’t have to pay $1,800 for it.

All this means that my next laptop is far more likely to be something like a Lenovo Yoga 910 or an HP Spectre x360 than a Mac. That feels weird–I’ve been buying Macs as a primary computer for over two decades--but to ignore what’s happening on the other side of the fence would make me less a shopper than a supplicant.

The other weird thing is, what I think I’d miss most from the Mac is a feature that’s seen little attention from Apple over the past few years: Services. That little menu you see in each app and when you right-click items in the Finder saves me an enormous amount of time each occasion it provides a two-click word count or image resizing. If only Apple would know this exists…

Meanwhile, Windows 10 suffers the embarrassing defect of not allowing separate time zones in its calendar app. Microsoft, too, shows no signs of being aware that this problem exists.

So if I get a Windows machine, how much will I regret it? If I get another MacBook Air, how much of a chump will I feel like for throwing even more money in Apple’s direction?

 

Technology hasn’t upped my gift-giving game much

Between the advent of cloud-synchronized note-taking apps and the everyday logistics miracles performed by online retailers, remembering good ideas for Christmas presents and turning those thoughts into wrapped packages placed under the right tree in plenty of time should have stopped being a problem years ago.

2015 wrapping paperAnd yet my last holiday delivery arrived in the late afternoon of Dec. 24–and I made my last two gift purchases, one digital and one analog, at about the same time.

I can’t blame that on a lack of tools. I’ve had a frequently-updated “Gift ideas” note in Evernote since March of 2010–and I had a similar note in the memo-pad apps on various Palm phones and handheld organizers for most of the decade before. I’ve been able to lean on the time-condensing crutch of Amazon Prime since 2011, but by then I’d long since acquired a sense of logistical entitlement from the two-day shipping of such Web-retail pioneers as Cyberian Outpost.

But instead of letting me compile a thoughtful shopping list of gifts and fulfill that comfortably ahead of time, technology has only enabled and optimized my procrastination instincts.

It doesn’t help to have CES planning devour a large chunk of my mental processor cycles every December. But who am I kidding? If I didn’t have the annual gadget pilgrimage to eat my brain, I’m sure I’d find some other reason to leave present procurement until the last few days.