Bandwidth battles in China

SHANGHAI–Crowded gadget trade shows like CES and Mobile World Congress usually entail connectivity complaints. But when you put the gadget show in China, you level up the complexity, thanks to the need to run a Virtual Private Network app to preserve access to U.S. sites blocked by China’s Internet filters.

In theory–and in every PR pitch from a VPN service advertising itself as the surefire way to stop your ISP from tracking your online activity–that should add no difficulty to getting online. You connect, the VPN app automatically sets up an encrypted link to the VPN firm’s servers, and then you browse as usual.

PIA VPN exit-server menu

The reality that I’ve seen at CES Asia this week while using the Private Internet Access Windows and Android apps has been a good deal less elegant.

  • Often, the PIA app will connect automatically to the best available server (don’t be like me by wasting selecting a particular U.S. server when the app usually gets this right) to provide a usable link to the outside world. But it’s never clear how long that link will stay up; you don’t want to start a long VoIP call or Skype conference in this situation.
  • On other occasions, the app has gotten stuck negotiating the VPN connection–and occasionally then falls into a loop in which it waits increasingly longer to retry the setup. Telling it to restart that process works sometimes; in others, I’ve had to quit the app. For whatever reason, this has been more of a problem on my laptop than on my phone.
  • The WiFi itself has been exceedingly spotty whether I’ve used my hotel WiFi, the Skyroam Solis international-roaming hotspot I took (a review loaner that I really, really need to send back), the press-room WiFi or, worst of all, the show-floor WiFi. Each time one of those connections drop, the VPN app has to negotiate a new connection.

If you were going to say “you’re using the wrong VPN app”: Maybe I am! I signed up for PIA last year when the excellent digital-policy-news site Techdirt offered a discounted two-year subscription; since then, my client Wirecutter has endorsed a competing service, IVPN (although I can’t reach that site at the moment). Since I don’t have any other trips to China coming up, I will wait to reassess things when my current subscription runs out next April.

Also, it’s not just me; my friend and former Yahoo Tech colleague Dan Tynan has been running into the same wonkiness.

To compound the weirdness, I’ve also found that some connectivity here seems to route around the Great Firewall without VPN help. That was true of the press-room WiFi Thursday, for instance, and I’ve also had other journalists attending CES Asia report that having a U.S. phone roam here–free on Sprint and T-Mobile, a surcharge on AT&T or Verizon–yielded an unfettered connection.

At the same time, using a VPN connection occasionally left the CES Asia site unreachable. I have no idea why that is so.

What I do know is that I’ll very much appreciate being able to break out my laptop somewhere over the Pacific in a few hours and pay for an unblocked connection–then land in a country where that’s the default condition.

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The wrong kind of practice with power and bandwidth management

After a week of having to worry about electricity and connectivity, I’ve spent today doing the same thing–but worse.

Tree down on wiresToday’s villains are not Mobile World Congress venues with inconsistent power-outlet placement and WiFi dead zones, but moving air molecules and a tree that wasn’t as solidly rooted as we thought.

Sometime before 6 a.m., the hurricane-force winds that have descended on the Northeast knocked over the large spruce tree in our front yard that had withstood the derecho and Sandy, and which an arborist last August had said only needed fertilizer and some treatment to curb mites.

Things could have been worse. The tree didn’t fall onto the front porch or our car, and it avoided smashing a neighbor’s vehicle on the street–because after its tumbling trunk snapped the power lines, the telecom wires below them held and broke its fall.

But that left me starting the workday with one fully charged laptop and another on its last 22 percent of a charge, a phone that was down to 75% from early-morning checks of the weather and news, an iPad at 20%, a loaner AT&T hotspot (for an upcoming update to the Wirecutter LTE-hotspots guide) below half a charge, and a few mostly-drained external chargers.

Windows 10 battery-life gaugeThinking that I should stick around our house to answer any questions from workers restoring power, I made it until around 3 p.m.

First I set the HP laptop that I had fortuitously remembered to plug in last night to the most conservative power settings Windows offered. I turned on the AT&T hotspot and signed the laptop and iPad onto its WiFi. Then I plugged the hotspot and my usual phone charger into the USB ports of the MacBook Air that had been mostly collecting dust since November’s laptop upgrade, but which could still serve as a backup charger.

After running down the Air, I dusted off two higher-capacity Mophie chargers that had shown up unbidden from different PR firms. They had next to no electricity left, because I’d stashed them in my home office’s closet after deciding to give them away to readers someday. But each trickled a little more of a charge into my phone and the hotspot, and the larger of the two also had a power outlet that afforded my laptop a little more time.

All of this let me limp along and get a column researched and partially written by around 3–with the last bit of work done in Google Docs’ offline mode after the hotspot died. By then, three things were apparent: My laptop would not make it another 30 minutes, nobody would show up to restore electricity while the winds were still hitting 50 mph, and I should have thought to recharge all of my gadgets last night at the first reports of a coming storm.

So I retreated to the same still-online neighbor’s house that my wife and our daughter had adjourned to Friday morning. We’ll sleep there tonight as our now-dead tree twists on wires in the wind and our house stays dark and cold. I would like to see all these things change Saturday.

Last-minute MWC advice

Having to spend a week in Barcelona at Mobile World Congress ranks as one of the easier problems to manage in the tech industry. I mean, would you rather go to CES?

But if you’re new to MWC, as I was only five years ago, the wireless industry’s global gathering can have its confusing moments. If so, the following advice may help you navigate your way around this trade show.

Fira Gran Via: MWC’s primary venue is a set of eight large halls that you can traverse much faster than the Las Vegas Convention Center, thanks to the overhead passages–most with moving walkways–that knit the Fira together. To get there, take the train: The L9 Sud Metro stops at the Europa | Fira and Fira stations, to the north and south of the Fira, while frequent commuter-rail trains from Espanya also stop at Europa | Fira.

Power and bandwidth: In addition to a plug adapter (you already have that in your bag, right?), you should also pack your laptop’s charger’s extension cord if it came with one. Distance from an outlet has nothing to do with that; a laptop power brick plugged into a plug adapter plugged into a wall outlet can easily fall out, but the extension cord will distribute that weight away from the outlet.

I hope you won’t show up to MWC with a locked phone that will prevent you from popping in a cheap prepaid SIM. But if your locked device is on Sprint or T-Mobile, you at least get free, slow and adequate roaming.

Eating and dining: Barcelona is one of the world’s great cities to eat and drink. Unfortunately, the press room in the Fira does not provide lunch, so you’ll have to forage elsewhere on the show floor (FYI, Ericsson’s exhibit in Hall 2 has offered a great free lunch the last few years). The press room does, however, offer an apparently inexhaustible supply of coffee from a bank of Nespresso machines, and plates of cookies occasionally show up there too.

Remember that dinner happens late in Spain, so don’t turn down a late-afternoon snack.

Getting around: Your MWC registration comes with a transit pass good Monday through Thursday; don’t just use it to commute to the Fira. Railfan tip: Because the L9 Sud line is automated, standing in the front of the train lets you enjoy the view of the tunnel ahead. Cheapskate tip: That line is also the most cost-effective way to and from the airport.

If you normally rely on Apple Maps, set it aside for the duration of MWC. This app still doesn’t offer transit directions in Barcelona–two and a half years after Apple bragged about adding transit navigation, which itself came nearly eight years after Google integrated the same in its own maps.

Barcelona has a not-undeserved reputation for pickpocketing. Don’t leave your wallet in an exposed and open pocket, and hang on to your bag or purse.

Other details:

If you’ve never seen Whit Stillman’s 1994 indie classic Barcelona, try to fix that before you depart. It’s not available on Netflix and Amazon’s free streaming, but you can rent it on Amazon, Google, iTunes and Vudu.

If you have some free time–by which I mean, if being six to nine time zones ahead of your editors gives you unsupervised time–try to spend some of it visiting architect Antoni Gaudí’s masterpieces. The Casa Milà apartment building and the Sagrada Família basilica aren’t as far out of your way from MWC as Park Güell; they all have a kind of magic about them.

On your way home, if you have mid-tier or higher status on American, Delta or United or have a Priority Pass membership, you’re eligible to visit the Sala VIP Miro lounge at BCN, upstairs to the left and downstairs after passport control for non-EU flights. Nobody will mistake it for a Lufthansa Senator Lounge, but it works for a pre-departure snack and a drink or two before a long day spent over the Atlantic.

Updated 3/1/2018 to correct and expand lounge-access directions.

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.

Ban the panel prep call

Tuesday morning had me moderating a panel discussion, which made the workweek nothing out of the ordinary: I’ve done 20 or so panels so far this year.

I enjoy the exercise–when you only have to ask interesting questions, call out any departures from the truth, throw in the occasional joke and try to end things on time, you’ve got the easiest job of anybody on the stage. But there’s one part I resent: the inevitable request by the event organizers that everybody get on a conference call first to discuss the panel.

If it’s just going to be me interviewing another person and we’re in the same time zone, this need not be too bad. But more often, you have four or five people with widely varying schedules.

That leads to a flurry of e-mails in which the panelists or their PR reps try to pick out a mutually agreeable time–instead of, you know, using the e-mail thread to discuss the panel itself.

The con call itself is likely to run on some 1990s phone-based system, not any sort of online app that would make it easy to tell who’s talking (pro tip: when on a con call, play up whatever regional accent you have). Using a text-based collaboration tool like Slack that would let people on planes or an Amtrak Quiet Car get in on the conversation never seems to come up.

Last month, the only time the organizers offered for the prep call was 5 p.m. on a Friday when I had to get to Dulles Airport for a flight later that night. I replied that this wouldn’t work and suggested we “use e-mail the way God intended,” then wrote up an outline of the talk as I would have needed to do even if I’d hacked out time for a con call. The panel went just fine.

So if you ask me to dial into a con-call service to talk about what we’ll talk about on a panel and I suddenly get cranky, please understand that I’m just trying to act as if we’re doing business in the 21st century.

Early impressions from a late Pixel adopter

Not that many people have bought either of Google’s two Pixel phones–as little as one million as of June, per Ars Technica’s estimate–and I bought my Pixel later than most.

And Wednesday, Google will introduce the replacements for the Pixel and Pixel XL, so this will be one of my less relevant reviews ever. But I still think it worthwhile to write down my three-months-in impressions… just in case I hate the phone later on.

But so far, I don’t. For something that I thought would be an interim advance over my now-dead Nexus 5X, the Pixel has impressed me.

The most pleasant surprise has been battery life that frees me from having to look for a charger on normal days–reading, I’m not at CES or some other phone-battery-destroying event, but I still leave the house and do my usual poor job of avoiding social media. I realize that sounds like thin gruel, but it also represents progress.

The camera has been an unexpected delight, easily the best I’ve used on a phone and more than good enough for me to leave my “real” Canon in my bag at the IFA trade show two months ago. Seriously low-light indoor exposures can still flummox it, but for the vast majority of my shots it delivers great results. The HDR function does some particularly amazing work with fireworks and illuminated structures at night. But judge for yourself: Have a look at my Flickr and Instagram feeds.

My major gripe with this phone is a weird one: It seems too easy to unlock. As in, the positioning of its fingerprint sensor seems to catch my finger more than the 5X’s sensor did when I slip it into a pocket.

So far, I have only pocket-texted one person–“App eye, meàl,” the message began before sliding into complete incoherence–but that was embarrassing enough to get me to try to grab the Pixel by its sides when pocketing it. And to change its “Automatically lock” screen setting from five seconds post-sleep to immediately.

If the rumors are true, the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL Google will introduce Wednesday won’t feature expandable storage but will drop the headphone jack. If so, that will make me feel pretty good about taking Google on its offer of a full refund on my bootlooped 5X and applying that to a Pixel.
But it will also leave me profoundly uneasy over what my next Android phone will look like. I don’t want an uncompromised Android configuration to be a deeply compromised choice of outputs.

Re-reading my first iPhone review: I was right about the AT&T problem

A decade ago today, Apple’s first iPhone went on sale and the Internet lost its collective mind for the first of many times.

My review of this device had to wait for another six days, on account of Apple PR only providing me with a review unit at the iPhone’s retail arrival and it being a simpler time before gadget-unboxing videos were a thing.

Ten years later, that write-up isn’t too embarrassing to revisit… if you read the right paragraphs.

This isn’t among them:

Other gadgets in this category function as extensions of business products: office e-mail servers for the BlackBerry, Microsoft’s Outlook personal-information manager for Windows Mobile devices. But the iPhone’s ancestry stretches back to Apple’s iTunes software and iPod music player — things people use for fun.

Yes, I complemented iTunes. Didn’t I say it was a simpler time?

This didn’t age well either:

But you can’t replace the battery yourself when it wears out. The company suggests that will take years; after 400 recharges, an iPhone battery should retain 80 percent of its original capacity.

In my defense, at the time I’d been using a Palm Treo 650 for two years or so and didn’t think it too obsolete compared to other phones available on Verizon then. Who knew walking around with a 1.5-year-old phone could so soon invite device shaming?

I was right to call out the “barely-faster-than-dialup” AT&T data service available. But sometimes I wonder about that when I travel overseas and see that T-Mobile’s free EDGE roaming remains good enough for recreational use.

The bits I wrote that hold up best address AT&T’s tight-fisted treatment of the iPhone:

The iPhone also comes locked to prevent use with other wireless services. If you travel overseas, you can’t duck AT&T’s roaming fees — 59 cents to $4.99 a minute — by replacing the iPhone’s removable subscriber identity module card with another carrier’s card.

My review also noted the lack of multimedia-messaging support, although I had no idea that AT&T would make its subscribers wait months after others to be able to send picture messages. Likewise, I would not have guessed that Apple would take until 2011 to bring the iPhone to another carrier.

The most embarrassing part of my first iPhone review isn’t in the story at all. That would be the whiny, do-you-know-who-I-am voice-mail I left with somebody at Apple PR after realizing that I’d have to wait to get review hardware after the likes of Walt Mossberg. Lordy, I hope there aren’t tapes.