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.

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Verizon’s online tech support needs some serious work

Yesterday I logged into my Verizon account for the first time in months and got an unpleasant and embarrassing surprise: a $2.80 “router maintenance” fee for having an old router. It was unpleasant as all junk fees are, embarrassing because I’d covered this exact problem in my USA Today column.

And Verizon had even warned me about the charge. Once. A July 19 e-mail advised me to upgrade my router to avoid the fee but offered no instructions on returning the router I hadn’t used since 2012–since we don’t get Fios TV, I’ve always been able to plug in the router of my choice.

verizon-chat-safari-incompatibilityI saw on Verizon’s support site that I could have them call me back, so I plugged in my number. After a day of nobody calling, I tweeted to the @VerizonSupport account that this support option wasn’t too supportive. In a direct-message reply, a rep told me to try Verizon’s chat instead.

I hadn’t seen that as a choice on the support site earlier, and clicking that link yielded a 1990s-esque error page with the useless message “We are sorry, but a problem with your request has occurred.” Somehow, this chat doesn’t work in Safari. Memo to Verizon: Running the default Mac browser is not an edge case.

I asked why we couldn’t deal with my problem in our direct-message chat. My interlocutor’s reply: “We have to secure your account and the chat is the secure location for that.”

verizon-tech-support-chatFine. The chat link did work in Chrome, and then I was treated to thanks-for-your-patience automated messages every 30 seconds, each heralded by an annoying chime. The chimes stopped at some point, but a rep never showed up until I closed the chat window by mistake.

I tried again, and a human entered the chat right away. The rep asked for my name, phone number, address and account number–an understandable request, since I wasn’t logged into my Verizon account in Chrome, but also information that I could have given just as easily in a Twitter DM chat.

Which would have been more secure too: Chrome reports that Verizon’s chat site employs the obsolete and insecure SHA-1 algorithm.

After some back and forth to establish that I haven’t powered on this old, Verizon-issued router in years, the rep said Verizon would send a return mailer kit for the thing and, after I asked a second time, said they would also refund the two months of router-maintenance charges.

Total time to get $5.60 returned to me: about two hours. I need to rethink this particular business model.

 

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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The apps that finally pushed me past my data plan’s limit

For the first time in years, maybe ever, I maxed out the data plan on my phone. Fortunately, racking up 3.68 gigabytes of data when I’d only paid T-Mobile for 3 GB didn’t cost me anything–the leftover data from earlier months socked away in my Data Stash covered the overage, and I still have more than 5 GB in the bank.

Android data usageBut the experience did remind me that you can burn through mobile bandwidth surprisingly fast. And since I’m always asking readers who have had the same experience “what apps did you in,” I should answer the same question myself.

So here are the top 10 offenders listed in Android’s Data Usage screen:

• Twitter: 1.91 GB. This one stands out not just because it’s at the top of the list–that’s a quasi-obscene amount of data for a social network originally designed to function over SMS. Tapping that entry revealed that Twitter ate up almost half of that data, 855 megabytes, while running in the background; I guess that’s why Android has a “Restrict app background data” control.

• Chrome: 723 MB. This didn’t surprise me much, since I haven’t switched on this browser’s Data Saver option. I’m glad it’s there, though.

• Facebook: 244 MB. I expected more, considering how I spend almost as much time in this app as I do in Twitter. The developers at the social network may deserve a little more credit for keeping their app quasi-efficient in its bandwidth use.

• Android OS: 109 MB. Picture me shrugging as I realize how little this entry just told me.

• Gmail: 92.6 MB. I thought this would be higher, considering I have this app syncing three different e-mail accounts.

• Google App: 63.11 MB. This is all Google Now, right?

• Google Play services: 62.55 MB. Here we have another catchall item–this Android library does chores for a vast variety of apps on a phone.

• Vine: 55.79 MB. While Twitter’s primarily text-based app binged on bandwidth, its video-only offshoot sipped this little. Picture me once again shrugging.

• Snapchat: 53.13 MB. I don’t even use this app in any meaningful way (a fuller account of my Snapchat incompetence will require a separate post), so I don’t know how it burned through that much data.

• Flickr: 48.02 MB. This would have been vastly higher had I not set Yahoo’s photo-sharing app to upload photos only over WiFi. The Play Store accounts for a tiny share of my bandwidth for the same reason.

If you don’t mind sharing, what apps top your own phone’s data-usage screen? I realize that in iOS, you can’t get a month-by-month breakdown (the upcoming iOS 10 doesn’t fix that, to judge from the peek I got at it last month), but even the running total iOS keeps should still yield some useful insights.

Samsung’s Android versus stock Android: how six common tasks compare

I didn’t get around to reviewing Samsung’s Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 Edge after their introductions at Mobile World Congress this February, but a couple of months ago Verizon Wireless PR offered to loan me one anyway. The device had a useful cameo role in a story about mobile payments, I did my customary battery-life tests, and then I had one last chore: taking notes on the differences between Samsung’s “TouchWiz” version of Android and the stock-condition software I have on my Nexus 5X.

Galaxy S7 and Nexus 5XThese interface gaps aren’t as jarring as they used to be, thanks mainly to Samsung having an attack of sanity and no longer putting a menu button where Android’s standard recent-apps button should be. Instead, a back button occupies that space, with recent-apps’ overlapping rectangles moved to the bottom-left corner.

But some differences remain, and I should keep them in mind the next time I’m writing up a cheat sheet about how to tackle certain Android chores. Consider this post a little FYI to myself…

Enable airplane mode:
• Samsung: Swipe down from the top of the screen to show the Quick Settings bar, swipe left to reveal the “Airplane mode” button, tap that. You may see a confirmation dialog if you haven’t told the phone not to nag you about this again.
• Stock: Swipe down twice (or swipe once with two fingers) and tap “Airplane mode.”

Check data usage:
• Samsung: Swipe down to show Quick Settings, tap the gear icon, choose “Data usage” in the Settings app you just opened. Or, less obviously, swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, then tap and and hold the “Mobile data” icon.
• Stock: Swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, then tap the signal-strength icon.

View app permissions:
• Samsung: Swipe down to show Quick Settings, tap the gear icon, choose “Privacy and emergency” in the Settings app you just opened, tap “App permissions.”
• Stock: Swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, tap the gear icon, select “Apps” in the Settings app, tap the top-right gear icon, tap “App permissions.”

Pair with a Bluetooth device:
• Samsung: Swipe down, tap and hold the Bluetooth icon.
• Stock: Swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, tap the menu below the Bluetooth icon.

Check per-app battery consumption:
• Samsung: Swipe down, tap the gear icon, choose “Battery” in the Settings app.
• Stock: Swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, tap the battery icon.

See how much storage space is left:
• Samsung: Swipe down, tap the gear icon, choose “Storage” in the Settings app.
• Stock: Swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, tap the gear icon, choose “Storage & USB” in the Settings app.

Overall, I don’t see Samsung’s interface saving any time compared to Google’s. Which makes me wonder yet again why it bothers to craft such a different front end for this operating system.

I see you all have some questions about your “cable modems”

After I filed my latest USA Today column–a reminder that it’s still generally a waste of money to rent a cable modem–one of my editors said they would play up the post. He and his colleagues may have used some sort of cheat code, as the column has drawn more feedback than almost anything else I’ve written for USAT since starting this column at the end of 2011.

Old coax cable close-upAmong the 100-plus comments and 40 or so e-mails I’ve received since this piece went up Monday morning, the most common queries addressed Internet services that don’t involve any cable-television infrastructure.

AT&T’s U-verse was the most frequent subject of readers’ curiosity, followed by Verizon’s Fios and then CenturyLink’s digital-subscriber-line offering. I didn’t cover them in my cable-modem column because they all branch off the telephone evolutionary tree–AT&T and Verizon use fiber-optic lines built on top of their phone networks, while CenturyLink’s DSL relies on traditional copper phone lines. None depend on the local cable plant; all compete with it at some level.

Am I going to write back to all of these readers to explain that they’ll see my column is properly framed once they understand some first principles about telecom? No.

Many normal people just don’t classify their home Internet service by which regulated local monopoly began building out its infrastructure decades ago or how how high its wires go on a utility pole. The problem isn’t that some think of their phone and cable companies as functional equivalents, it’s that too many others can’t because only their cable operator delivers both television and high-speed broadband.

Besides, AT&T’s policies about U-verse hardware are interesting enough–especially compared to Verizon’s–to justify a follow-up column. Look for that this weekend.

The Sisyphean experience of documenting Sprint’s price plans

On Wednesday, the Wirecutter posted the latest version of its guide to the four nationwide wireless carriers. By Friday, my work needed another update.

Sprint logo from phone-recycling bagThe cause was something I should have seen coming: Sprint changing its offerings. That company, more than any other member of the big four, can’t seem to pick a channel and stay with it.

To give you a sense of how often it shakes things up, here are the rate-plan changes I’ve had to factor into this guide over the past eight months.

6/30/2015: Sprint announces $60 “All-In” unlimited-data plan.

7/29/2015: Sprint revises Family Share plans.

8/17/2015: Sprint offers $15/month iPhone lease deal, with smartphone trade-in required; without trade-in, it’s $22 a month.

9/24/2015: Sprint lowers iPhone-lease cost to $1 with iPhone 6 trade-in, leaving the regular lease rate at $22.

10/16/2015: Sprint announces impending increase to the unlimited-data rate from $60 to $70 (subscribers will get 3 GB of tethering a month instead of having to pay extra, but the press release omits that detail).

10/29/2015: Sprint announces revised individual and family plans, with service starting at 1 GB of data plus unlimited text and talk for $40 a month.

1/8/2016: Sprint quietly drops contracts–and hikes the iPhone-lease rate to $26.39, also without notice.

2/18/2016: Sprint announces new “Better Choice Plans” for individuals and families, with service starting at 1 GB of data plus unlimited text and talk for $40 a month.

2/26/2016: Sprint quietly restores contracts.

On the upside, each time the folks in Overland Park, Kans., drop a new rate plan, I can bill the Wirecutter for the required work at my usual hourly rate. So: Thank you, Sprint.