How I inspect laptops at tech events

BERLIN–I’ve spent the last three days here at the IFA tech trade show poking and prodding at new laptops to see if they might be worth your money. That inspection has gotten more complicated in recent years, thanks to some new features I welcome and a few others I could do without.

The following are the traits I now look for after such obvious items as weight, screen size, if that screen is the rare Windows laptop display that doesn’t respond to touch, advertised battery life, storage, memory and overall apparent sturdiness.

Acer Swift 7 close-up

  • Screen resolution: On smaller screens, 4K resolution eats into battery life without making a meaningful difference in picture quality–from most viewing distances, you can’t even see the pixels on a 1080p laptop screen anyway.
  • USB-C charging: Now that I have a laptop and a phone that can both use the same charger, I never want to go back to needing a proprietary power cable for a computer. You shouldn’t either.
  • USB ports: Laptops that only include USB-C ports can be thinner than those with full-sized USB ports, but I’m willing to accept a little bulk to avoid having to pop in an adapter for older USB cables or peripherals.
  • Other expansion options: For people who still use standalone cameras, SD or microSD Card slots will ease data transfer. I also look for HDMI ports, which ease plugging the laptop into a TV. (Since my own laptop doesn’t have one of those: Anybody have a recommendation for a USB-C-to-HDMI cable?) And now that I’ve seen a laptop here without a headphone jack, I need to confirm that audio output’s presence too.
  • Backlit keyboard: Typing without one in a darkened hall is no fun. While I’m looking for that, I’ll also see if the trackpad is governed by Microsoft’s simple Precision Touchpad control or janky third-party software.
  • Webcam placement: Some laptops stash the webcam not at the top of the screen but below it, which leaves video callers stuck with an up-the-nostril perspective of the laptop user.
  • Windows Hello: Fingerprint-recognition sensors are cheap, while having to type in a password or PIN every time you log in imposes its own tax on your time. I’m not so doctrinaire about Windows Hello facial recognition if fingerprint recognition is there.

This list is a little involved, but on the upside I no longer have to worry about things like WiFi or serial ports. So now that you know what I fuss over when inspecting laptops at tech events like this, what else should I be looking for on each new computer?

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An occupational risk of freelancing: zero words on topic A

The European Commission socked Google with a €4.34 billion fine Wednesday over its treatment of Android device vendors, and I have had zero words published to my name about that blockbuster ruling.

It happens. When you’re not on staff and not in the newsroom as a major story breaks, you can get left aside as staff writers jump on that topic and editors scurry to get their copy posted. That collective rush to publish–and the glut of hot takes about whatever tech issue tops a day’s headlines–may then result in you not being able to sell anything about said storyline before everybody’s moved on to the next breaking topic.

So, yes, I have not opined at length over the EC’s judgment that Google abused its market power in requiring Android vendors to ship its Chrome browser and set its own search as the default if they wanted to bundle the Play Store. I haven’t even gone on radio or TV to spout off on Google getting this roughly $5 billion haircut, leaving only my initial, skeptical tweets as my comments.

I feel like I’ve put my tech-pundit status in jeopardy, especially considering the shameful lack of even unpaid broadcast exposure.

On the other hand, I should appreciate being able to think through this matter instead of having to file 800 words of first-few-hours analysis.

On the other other hand, my self-employed status also means I don’t have to crank out four posts in a day every time Apple commits news. And not being beholden to a single newsroom lets me self-assign less-obvious coverage, as long as I can find a willing client. That occupational flexibility may yet allow me to get back to Topic A in tech news this week, if I can just find the right angle to pitch to the right editor…

I finally remembered to ski

Taking a weekday off to go skiing is one of the more underrated perks of working a flexible schedule around D.C. So I enjoyed it Tuesday for the first time since 2015.

When I started freelancing, that was not the plan. Even at the Post, I was able to carve out a personal day a year for the short drive to one of the two closest ski areas, Ski Liberty (about an hour and 15 minutes away) or Whitetail (roughly an hour and 40).

But parenthood, not getting paid unless I write something and the mid-Atlantic’s increasingly chaotic winters confined my skiing in 2016 and 2017 to my neighborhood–courtesy of snow storms that left just enough accumulation for me to break out my already-trashed cross-country skis.

This season’s scant snowfall has lent no hope of even that. But last weekend, I saw that the forecast called for temperatures in the 30s Tuesday–an appointment-free day. I worked for a couple of hours that morning, grabbed my skis, boots and poles, enjoyed the unlikely driving pleasure of a traffic-free Beltway and I-270, and was on the chairlift at Liberty by noon.

Yes, the only snow in sight had been shot out of machines, and 620 feet of vertical goes by quickly. But with no lift lines in sight either, I could easily get get in seven runs an hour. It felt fantastic to realize that the years off hadn’t left me too rusty, test myself on the most difficult runs, then catch a little air coming off bumps. For a day when I would have been happy merely to avoid injuring myself or others, that was pretty great.

After three hours and change with only brief pauses to check my e-mail (of course), I headed back and once again felt spoiled by my commute. Even after sitting in some Beltway congestion, I pulled into our driveway by 5:10, leaving plenty of time to savor the pleasant soreness of this overdue workout. And to wonder what had gone wrong with my priorities the last two winters.

2017 in review: This has not been easy

This year has been lousy in a variety of ways.

On a national level, the Trump administration luxuriated in lies, cruelty, bigotry, and incompetence. We learned that even more men in power had spent decades inflicting or tolerating vile sexual harassment. And widely-distributed firearms ownership left us with another year of American carnage that featured a few mass shootings so horrifying that Congress did nothing.

On a personal level, the worst part of 2017 was the day in March when I learned of just one of those tens of thousands of gun deaths: the suicide of my old Post friend Mike Musgrove. I think about that almost every day and still don’t have good answers.

But I have had meaningful, paying work, and for that I’m grateful.

Most of that has taken place at Yahoo Finance, where I easily wrote 8,000 words on net neutrality alone.

I continue to appreciate having a widely-read place at which I can call out government and industry nonsense, and I wish I’d taken more advantage of that opportunity–the second half of the year saw me let too many weeks go by without any posts there. But 2017 also saw some overdue client diversification beyond my usual top three of Yahoo, USA Today and Wirecutter.

I’ve done more wonky writing for trade publications, which tend to offer better rates (even if they sometimes pay slower) and often wind up compensating me for the kind of research I’d need to do anyway to write knowledgeably for a consumer-focused site. This year has also brought about the reappearance of my byline in the Washington Post and the resulting, thoroughly enjoyable confusion of readers who hadn’t seen me there since 2011.

Once again, I did more than my share to prop up the travel industry. Conferences, speaking opportunities and story research took me to Las Vegas, Barcelona, Austin, New York (only once, which should have led Amtrak to e-mail to ask if I’m okay), Lisbon (twice), the Bay Area (three times), Shanghai, Paris, Berlin, Cleveland (being driven most of the way there by a semi-autonomous Cadillac was one of those “I can’t believe I’m being paid to do this” moments) and Boston.

(See after the jump for a map of all these flights.)

Tearing myself away from my family each time has not gotten any easier, but at least all of last year’s travel put me in a position to make myself more comfortable on more of these flights. As an avgeek, the upgrade I most appreciated is the one that cleared 36 hours before my trip to Shanghai in June to put me in the last seat available on the upper deck of a United 747–barely five months before the the Queen of the Skies exited United’s fleet.

Almost all of these international trips involved concerned queries from citizens of our countries about the leadership of my own. I understand where they came from but wish they weren’t necessary. Someday, that will happen–but not in 2018.

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The “hands-on area”: tech journalism at its busiest, not its finest

BERLIN–Three days into IFA, I’ve spent a disturbing amount of time at this tech trade show standing around and looking at my phone. The distractions of social media explain some of that, but I can blame more of it on the “hands-on area.”

That’s the space next to a gadget product-launch event, kept roped off until the end of the press conference or the keynote, in which the assembled tech journalists get to inspect the new hardware up close.

I enjoy the chance to pick up a just-announced gadget, see how it works, play with its apps and settings to see if any surprises emerge, and grab a few quick photos that are hopefully unblemished by glare, fingerprints or dust.

But increasingly, this requires waiting as each scribe ahead of me whips out a camera or phone not to take their own pictures, but to shoot or even livestream a video recapping the highlights of the product. Often these are not two-minute clips but four- or five-minute segments, but that’s not obvious at the start–and professional courtesy mandates that you give the other journalist a chance to finish his or her job.

Many of these video shoots are also one-person productions, which leaves me looking on in some frustration at bloggers who are literally talking into one phone about another. If only one of them would burst into song or something to liven up the scene!

Instead, an overseas show like IFA or Mobile World Congress provides the pleasure of hearing people run through the same basic script in a dozen different languages. Eventually, this may teach me how to say “the phone feels good in the hand” in German, Italian, Polish, Spanish, Hebrew and Japanese… if the news industry’s lemming-like pivot to video doesn’t first force me to start shooting these clips myself.

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2016 in review: a year of travel

This has been a trash bag of a year in so many ways, but on a personal level it could have been worse. As in, for a few weeks in the late winter I thought the overwhelming source of my income would vanish along with most of the Yahoo Tech operation.

Instead, Yahoo Finance picked me up before I’d gotten too far in exploring other possibilities. But the publicity over Yahoo’s content cutbacks wound up helping an overdue diversification of my income anyway–an editor at Consumer Reports e-mailed to ask if the news meant I’d be interested in writing for them. That led to a good series of stories, one not yet published.

2016-calendarI got another lucky break when a press-room meeting at the cable industry’s sparsely-attended INTX show yielded a string of assignments for the FierceTelecom group of sites.

These and other new clients still leave most of my income coming from a single company, but the totals aren’t as skewed as they were last year.

2016 did, however, see me do much better at finagling opportunities to speak on panels that got my travel expenses covered in the bargain. My mileage totals kept climbing as conferences and other tech events took me to places I’d hadn’t seen in 18 years (Hong Kong), 25 years (Paris), 43 years (Lisbon), or ever before (Israel), as well as my now-regular trips to Barcelona for Mobile World Congress and Berlin for IFA.

Domestically, New York was once again my most frequent travel destination, followed by Boston (now that both my brother and my mom live around there, I’m kind of obliged to find interesting tech events around the Hub). I also made my way to Austin, Denver, Las Vegas, New Orleans, and the Bay Area. Having SFO appear as a work destination only once seems like a grave dereliction of duty; I’ll try to do better.

(Read on after the jump to see all of my air travel plotted on a map of the world.)

My single favorite trip of the year: Viva Technology Paris, which brought me back to France for a second time this summer and showed that I could moderate four panels in a day. The trip also allowed enough downtime for me to take a train to the suburb of Louveciennes, knock on the door of the house my family rented a quarter-century ago, and discover that the family we’d rented the place from still lived there and was happy to let me look around.

The most challenging trip of 2016 would have to be Web Summit. Doing three panels on four hours of nightmare-level sleep is not an experience I need to repeat.

On that note, I can only hope that 2017 will bring less bad news than 2016. But I don’t know how it will turn out, only that I have work to do and good fortune to repay somehow.

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Year-end cash considerations

Yesterday, I forgot to invoice Yahoo for the last month’s worth of stories, and my stupid oversight may save me a little money next year.

That’s because the odds of payment for November’s work at Yahoo Finance arriving by Dec. 31 just got two days’ worse. And if I don’t get paid by then, I don’t owe taxes on the money until 2017.

2016-in-changeThe downside of this scenario is that my 2016 income, already assured to fall below 2015’s because I wrote less than usual in early summer, will drop even more. That potential embarrassment bugs me, but apparently not enough that I remembered to get the payment machinery in gear by Friday.

Deferring income isn’t exactly an advanced financial hack, but it is something I couldn’t do when I worked on a salary.

Tax calculations should also drive me to go on a moderate hardware-spending binge this month. My laptop and my desktop are both ancient, and replacing either now would put a nice big expense on my Schedule C.

Alas, Apple seems uninterested in shipping a new laptop in my price range, or a new desktop at any price. The Windows universe offers a few enticing options, but on closer inspection I realize that the laptops I like all omit at least one feature I’d appreciate.

More important, CES is now only a month away. And I can’t possibly make any big electronics purchases before using that event to see what the gadget industry has in store for this year–its no accident that electronics rarely land on my Christmas list.

That leaves me another way to lower my tax burden: a late-December spree of charitable donations. You may have read a lot on Twitter about #GivingTuesday this week, but for me that day comes on the last Tuesday of this month–when I know the donation will count for my 2016 taxes but won’t come due on on my credit-card bill until sometime in February. Please do the same if you’re financially able.