Throwback Thursday: I’m walking around in 2017 with a phone from 2013

PARIS–I’m having an unusual week of smartphone use: I’m not unlocking my device with my fingerprints and I’m not posting any pictures. That’s because I’m not using the Nexus 5X I’d been carrying around since late 2015.

On my walk home from Metro late Friday after a very long day, night and day of travel back from Shanghai, my Nexus 5X rebooted by itself. That’s become a depressingly common occurrence lately–but this time, my phone wouldn’t get past the initial Google logo.

I spent the next 48 hours reading up on this “bootloop” issue (see, for example, this Reddit thread and this post from a user who spent far more time fighting the problem than I have) and trying to revive the phone. Putting the phone in the fridge or freezer let me boot the device, unlock it and run it long enough to stage some manual backups in two apps, but I got no further. It seemed clear I was facing a hardware failure, not a software issue.

The tech-support call I requested Sunday led to a remarkably quick resolution: After I told the rep that two other troubleshooting options in the Android bootloader hadn’t worked, he said Google would make a one-time exception and replace my out-of-warranty phone with a refurbished 5X for free.

Good! But I needed some kind of mobile device for my trip to the Viva Technology Paris conference. Enter the Nexus 4 that I’d never gotten around to selling, donating or recycling after retiring it a year and a half ago. I dusted it off, charged it up, wedged my 5X’s micro-SIM card inside the frame of an old prepaid SIM (the kind that lets you push a micro-SIM out of a surrounding bracket), popped that into the N4, and began restoring and updating the old phone’s apps.

Five days in, it’s working… more or less. Having to trace an unlock pattern on the screen every time I wake it is a pain, while constant interactions with the phone have also reminded me that part of its touchscreen no longer detects my fingers. The camera is clearly inferior, the lack of storage space bugs me even more than it did three and a half years ago, and the battery life is also pretty bad.

On the other hand, not having LTE doesn’t matter at the moment, since T-Mobile’s free international roaming only allows 2G speeds anyway. And the touchscreen has–so far-refrained from relapses into the digitizer freakouts that marred its last few months of service. So for the basics of Web browsing, text-only tweeting, checking my e-mail, getting Google Maps directions and taking notes in Evernote, my antique Android suffices.

The problem I now have: The refurb Nexus 5X that was supposed to have shipped on Monday and arrived at my home by now hasn’t gone anywhere. I have a query into Google about the status of that; stay tuned for a future post that will relate how soon I was able to set aside my fossil of a phone. I’d just as soon not have to buy a new Pixel phone when that model is due for its own update, but that’s not entirely up to me anymore.

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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?

I tried targeting you all with a Facebook ad. It didn’t work well.

Last Sunday, I finally saw something new on Facebook: an invitation to run an ad campaign on the social network and pay for the whole thing with a $30 coupon. Since other people’s money is one of my preferred payment methods–and since I’d been meaning to see what the Facebook ad mechanism looks like from the inside–I accepted the offer.

I couldn’t choose a post to promote, as the coupon was limited to the post I wrote here about money-losing prompts at ATMs and credit-card readers overseas that had become unexpectedly popular when shared automatically to my public page. But I could pick who would see the ad, as identified in a few different ways. In case you’ve wondered just what Facebook advertisers can know about you, here are the options I saw:

• Target people who like your page, people who like your page as well as those people’s friends, or people you choose through targeting. I picked the last, in the interest of science.

• Reach people at a region or at an address. The default was the District. I could have picked an address, but since I’m not promoting a business at a fixed location I didn’t see the point. But with this post’s travel-centric focus, I should have picked Dulles Airport–right?

• Choose interests (as expressed by people on Facebook in things like Likes). For this post, I selected “Air travel,” “Europe,” “credit cards,” and “personal finance.”

• Pick an age range and a gender.

• Pick a duration and a total budget for the ad campaign.

I could have gone deeper into some of these options, but since I was navigating this dialog on my phone during our daughter’s dance class, I didn’t have unlimited time. I submitted the ad, got an e-mail saying it was under review for compliance with Facebook’s ad standards, and got a second e-mail 16 minutes later saying the ad passed.

Three days later, Facebook sent me a summary. Their $30 had brought the Facebook share of my post here to another 2,516 people, of which 56 had clicked on the link and one had left a comment on my page.

This report also informed me that the ad’s audience was 95% male, which is both confusing and unsettling. Maybe I should have targeted only women, considering that my page’s audience already skews so heavily male? Age-wise, the ad found its biggest audience among the 25-34 demographic. I’m not clear about that either.

What I do know is that my WordAds ad revenue here doesn’t support spending $30 to reel in 56 views, so I doubt I’ll be running this experiment with my own money anytime soon.

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?

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.

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.

 

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.