A laptop aging only somewhat gracefully

My not-yet-four-year-old laptop has spent most of the last year and a half parked on a desk and plugged into a power outlet, but the HP Spectre x360 I bought in November of 2017 is still showing its age in ways that are increasingly hard to overlook.

The most obvious sign of its time is the decaying battery life. It’s not so much that I can’t count on the battery to make it past two hours; it’s more an issue that the percentage-left estimates in the taskbar seem a lot less reliable once the computer falls below 30 percent. And that if I leave this laptop in sleep mode but unplugged, the battery seems to need much less time to exhaust itself.

Photo shows my laptop with its charging cable plugged in.

HP’s hardware-diagnostics app now rates the battery’s condition as “weak,” which doesn’t make a lot of sense considering it’s only seen 380 or so charge cycles out of the 1,000 for which it’s rated. If I had a major tech conference coming up, I would be looking at prices for a new battery. But with Black Hat behind me as an event I covered remotely, it now doesn’t look like I’ll have a battery-destroying, laptop-torturing tech event on my calendar before CES 2022.

The exterior of the laptop doesn’t look too banged up in comparison–unlike my previous MacBook Air at a younger age, none of the keys have had their labels start to wear thin. The hinges that let me rotate the screen 360 degrees and turn the device into a laptop–one of the primary reasons I ditched Apple to buy a Windows laptop–remain sturdy, even if the one on the left looks a little out of alignment.

But the rubber strips on the underside that were supposed to help it stay in place on a slick surface have almost entirely peeled away, making the bottom of the laptop look decidedly janky.

At least the computer itself still seems fast enough, its 512-gigabyte solid state drive is not that close to being exhausted, and Microsoft has yet to rule it too old for any Windows 10 updates.

Four years is a good run for any laptop, so the prospect of having to buy a new one doesn’t bug me that much. But I do wish I could get some extended hands-on time with upcoming hardware from the major vendors–which I won’t get until I can travel to a battery-destroying, laptop-torturing tech event like CES.

Weekly output: space tech, Fox earnings

Not going to Las Vegas for Black Hat deprived me of some conference receptions (excluding those that got canceled on account of the resurgent pandemic) and also reminded me of a failure mode specific to virtual events. As in, a speaker’s presentation stalled out on one slide, but he didn’t realize that because he apparently didn’t check the online chat and there was no IRL audience to say “next slide!” at increasing levels of volume.
 
8/3/2021: CES and Space Tech, Clubhouse

I finally opened my mouth on the audio-room app to chat about the intersections of private space-launch firms and next year’s CES with my space-nerd pal Doug Mohney. We had exactly one person show up in the audience, which I guess means we should have led off with cryptocurrency and blockchains.

Screengrab of FierceVideo post as seen in Chrome on an Android phone.8/4/2021: Fox touts Tubi in quarterly earnings, FierceVideo

Fierce asked me to fill in to write up Fox’s quarterly earnings. I found it weirdly fascinating to hear Fox execs voice total confidence in their prospects, pandemic or not–even though some of the most-watched Fox News hosts have repeatedly questioned the utility of mass vaccination against the coronavirus. (I made sure to include that angle in the story.) I hope people who have been suggesting that an ad boycott will bring Fox to its knees will read this story or one like it and be reminded of how much money this company makes from affiliate fees collected from every pay-TV subscriber, even those who never watch a second of Fox News.

A distanced, disconnected CES

Throughout this week I’ve spent covering CES in its all-digital incarnation, the Google Photos app on my phone has kept reminding me of how far this virtual experience is from the trade show that had me flying to Las Vegas every January from 1998 through 2020.

Photo of a 2020 CES badge held in front of a screen showing a schedule of on-demand videos from CES 2021

On one hand, the app’s Memories feature has been spotlighting the things I saw at CES years ago. On the other hand, Google Photos reveals that almost all of the pictures I’ve taken this week feature my cat–and none involve any new gadgets.

The event formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show isn’t like other conferences that have had to adopt all-digital formats. (The same goes for the two other gadget shows on my calendar over the last several years, IFA and MWC.) Companies do their best to hype up their upcoming hardware, but you also get to inspect it firsthand and try to find the flaws the presenters didn’t think to mention.

That’s not an option at CES 2021, where the product presentations are even more like long-form ads than the CES press conferences of prior years. And while an online format can still allow for a live Q&A afterwards, that hasn’t been the case with the CES press events I’ve attended watched. I’ve had to e-mail PR types and wait for a response to a question I probably could have gotten answered in a few minutes were we all in the same physical space.

I don’t write that to take away anything from the people at the Consumer Technology Association who work incredibly hard to make CES happen in a normal year and then had to tear up the script in late July and write a new one from scratch. Some real-world interactions are just difficult or impossible to replicate online.

That also goes for all the unexpected connections you make at CES and the conversations you enjoy over bad food in a press room and better food at a reception or a dinner. As much as I hate tearing myself away from my family at the start of every January, the chance to catch up with old tech-nerd friends and maybe make a few new ones helps compensate for that.

Like most of the social interactions I’ve surrendered since last March, they now await at the far end of a long tether. I hope it’s not too many more months before I can pull myself back.

DVR debt, but for virtual-conference panels

For the past two months, I’ve been looking at the same five tabs left open in my Mac’s copy of Chrome. They’re all from Black Hat–as in, the security conference that happened online in early August, but which remains incomplete in my own viewing.

If this event had taken place in Las Vegas as usual, I would have watched almost all the talks I’d picked out from the schedule. That’s a core feature of traveling to spend a few days at a conference: All of the usual at-home distractions are gone, leaving you free to focus on the proceedings at hand.

Online-only events zero out my travel costs and offer the added benefit of vastly reducing the odds of my catching the novel coronavirus from a crowd of hundreds of strangers. But because they leave me in my everyday surroundings, they’re also hard to follow.

If I have a story to write off a panel–meaning a direct financial incentive–I can and will tune in for that. But for everything else at an online conference, it’s just too easy to switch my attention to whatever work or home task has to be done today and save the panel viewing for later, as if it were yet another recording on my TiVo. (Or to let my attention wander once again to Election Twitter.) It’s not as if other conference attendees will be able to note my absence!

So I still haven’t caught up with the talks at Black Hat. Or at the online-only DEF CON hacker conference that followed it. I haven’t even tried to follow the panels at this year’s online-only version of the Online News Association’s conference… mainly because I couldn’t justify spending $225 on a ticket when this conference’s usual networking benefits would be so attenuated. I feel a little bad about that, but on the other hand I also feel a little cranky about submitting a panel proposal for ONA 20 and never getting a response.

I would love to be able to return to physical-world events with schedules crowded by overlapping panel tracks that force me to choose between rooms. But there seems to be zero chance of them resuming in the next six months, even if a vaccine arrives before the end of the year in mass quantities. Web Summit, CES, SXSW: They’ll all be digital-only, happenings experienced only through a screen.

I should try harder to cultivate the habit of experiencing these virtual events in the moment, not weeks or months afterwards. Or at least I should try to catch up on the backlog of panels I’ve already accumulated. This last hour would have been great for that… except I spent it writing this post instead.

Update, 10/10/2020: It turns out none of those Black Hat panels were available for viewing anymore. Whoops! At least the tab bar in Chrome looks cleaner now, I guess.

Weekly output: smart cities, Bowie Seniors Computer Club, Twitter hack (x2)

Baseball will allegedly return Thursday with the Nationals’ home opener against the Yankees. Six months ago, I was looking forward to being on the stands on Opening Day to see the Nats hoist a World Series championship banner–and now the prospect of baseball coming back seems divorced from reality.

7/13/2020: Keeping an Eye on Privacy as Cities Get Smarter, Urban Land

I wrote this recap of smart-cities technology seen at CES month ago, but the coronavirus pandemic upended the publication schedule at the Urban Land Institute’s magazine. Note that the site will ask you to provide an e-mail address for a newsletter subscription to read this piece, but you don’t have to confirm your signup before reading.

7/16/2020: July 16 Zoom meeting, Bowie Seniors Computer Club

I got a message through the contact form here–yes, I really do read those–from one of the people running the user group that had hosted me for a talk back in 2009. I said I’d be delighted to return, even if only in video form, and I wound up spending much more time than I’d expected talking about my post-Post freelance career, the state of tech journalism, and the role of travel to tech events in my work these days.

7/16/2020: Twitter hacking, Al Jazeera

The Arabic-language news network had me on live a couple of times to talk about the previous day’s takeovers of a grab-bag of big-name Twitter accounts for no apparent purpose but broadcasting a cheap Bitcoin scam from such high-profile accounts as Apple, Uber, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Joe Biden.

Weekly output: CES recap (x2), Bezos iPhone hack, Intuit’s stewardship of Mint, VentureFuel CES panel, encrypting smartphone backups

This week has me attending two conferences in D.C. The tech-policy gathering State of the Net has been a fixture of my winters since 2006, while my introduction to the hacker convention ShmooCon did not come until last January.

1/21/2020: Industry Insights: CES Speaker Series Part 2, eMarketer

This research firm interviewed me over e-mail about this year’s CES. The last exchange in this short piece:

Q: If you could pick one thing that should stay in Vegas, forever, what would it be?

A: CES traffic. Who else would want it?

1/21/2020: Techdirt Podcast Episode 235: The CES 2020 Post-Mortem, Techdirt

I spent 44 minutes talking to Techdirt founder Mike Masnick about my impressions of the show–including my less-than-successful ride in a self-driving car and an eerily-personalized dinner hosted by HBO.

1/22/2020: Bezos iPhone hack, Al Jazeera

I talked about the deeply-strange report that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos had his iPhone hacked by a malware-loaded WhatsApp message sent by Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. As I said on the air: Who will ever again open a message from that guy?

1/23/2020: What the hell happened to Mint?, Fast Company

I have been meaning to write a piece unpacking Intuit’s apathetic stewardship of Mint for years–as the occasional rant here and on Twitter about that personal-finance app should have suggested. A mid-January ragetweet elicited an apologetic reply from one of Mint’s original developers, which led me to think I should dust off the pitch another client had rejected last year and add the promise of quotes from ex-Mint types. That got a quick thumbs-up from FC, and then I had a great half-hour conversation with Mint founder Aaron Patzer, with whom I’d last spoken when I was still at the Washington Post, not long after Intuit had bought his startup.

The post promptly blew up, getting an outsized reaction across Twitter and sparking some involved discussions at Reddit and Hacker News about possible alternatives to Mint; I’m the “robpegoraro” answering questions in each thread.

1/23/2020: The Future: From the Writers Who Cover Innovation, VentureFuel

Fred Schonenberg, founder and CEO of the consultancy that had me on a panel at CES two and a half weeks ago, wrote up the conversation I had with fellow journalists Eric Savitz and Rick Limpert. I appreciated Fred giving some prominent play to one thing I said back then: Data isn’t the new oil, it’s the new nuclear waste.

1/26/2020: Whether Apple or Google: Is there a back door into your phone’s online backups?, USA Today

A Reuters report that Apple had dropped plans to offer end-to-end encryption for iCloud backups of iPhones and iPads led to this explainer of the different levels of encryption possible with backups. Short version of the column: If you want to encrypt your phone’s data without any other party having a backup key, you’ll either have to stick to local backup of your iPhone or use an Android phone running either of the two most recent releases of Google’s mobile operating system.

Weekly output: talking CES 2020 with Mark Vena

This was one of those weeks where all of my public output involved me talking about my job instead of doing it (including one radio interview that doesn’t seem to have gotten aired and a second podcast that should get posted next week). The exception: Patreon, where I unloaded my CES 2020 notebook by writing about my observations of TiVo’s strategy, how HBO took me and my data with dinner, and my aborted ride in a self-driving car.

1/16/2020: Moor Insights & Strategy Podcast (1-13-20), Mark Vena

I joined my analyst friend Mark Vena via Skype Monday afternoon (hence the Jan. 13 reference in the title) to unpack what we learned from CES 2020. We talked about privacy on connected TVs (others call them “smart TVs,” but I’m not ready to bestow that kind of compliment), foldable phones and laptops, 5G wireless and the industry’s addition to hyping it up, and much much more.

Weekly output: OurStreets, ATSC 3.0, innovation in 2020, 5G meets retail, connected-TV privacy, Last Gadget Standing, Korean smart-city tech, best of CES

Yet another CES is in the books. It was a tiring week, but once again I got an enormous amount out of the show. And it is nice to think that less than two weeks into the year, I’ve already finished the year’s toughest business trip.

Earlier this evening, I put together a Flickr album of my pictures from the gadget show; at some point in the next few days, I will write up the more interesting bits from my notes for Patreon subscribers.

1/6/2020: This app helps pedestrians and cyclists wage war on terrible drivers, Fast Company

The second-to-last piece I filed in 2019 ran a week later–a look at an upcoming app that will help pedestrians and cyclists report bad behavior by drivers.

1/8/2020: ATSC 3.0 draws selective, if not scant, support at CES 2020, FierceVideo

Industry support for a long-awaited upgrade to broadcast-TV technology is a somewhat wonky topic compared to, say, robots bearing toilet paper, but that’s why it’s handy to have a trade-pub client that deals in wonky stuff all the time.

1/8/2020: What’s Next for Innovation in 2020?, VentureFuel

I debated fellow tech journalists Eric Savitz and Rick Limpert in a panel discussion hosted by this New York-based consultancy before a small audience of investor and founder types.

1/8/2020: 5G Meets Retail, CES

My contribution to the show’s high-tech retailing track was this talk with Nokia 5G market-development director Jason Elliott and Verizon connected-solutions managing director Arvin Singh about what 5G could do for the retail experience–in a shop and along its supply chain.

Yes, this was my second manel of CES. I should have said something about that when I was asked to join each panel but did not, and feeling strung out by December’s cognitive overload is a weak excuse.

 

1/9/2020: CES: Your smart TV is watching you. Will Samsung, LG, Vizio do more to protect privacy?, USA Today

Think of this column as a sequel to the one I wrote for USAT from Google I/O in May. Where Google showed it could speak in detail–if not as much as I’d like–about adopting such data-minimization techniques as federated learning, TV manufacturers at CES appeared to be grossly unready for that sort of privacy discussion.

1/9/2020: Last Gadget Standing, Living in Digital Times

Once again, I helped judge this competition and then introduced two contenders on stage Thursday: the Octobo connected toy and the Flic 2 programmable smart button.

1/9/2020: A Look At Korea’s Smart-City Ambitions At CES, Ubergizmo

Friends at this gadget blog asked if I could help with their coverage by writing up one set of exhibits in the Eureka Park startup space. They offered a suitable rate, so I said that would be fine.

1/9/2020: CES 2020: Our best of show, USA Today

I contributed a paragraph about Hyundai’s air-taxi venture with Uber that ended with a contrary comment from an aviation-safety professional who’s understandably skeptical about the odds of this and other attempts at urban air mobility. If you’re not in the mood to read that much, you can also hear my spoken-word rendition of this piece (recorded on a Vegas sidewalk Wednesday night) on Jefferson Graham’s Talking Tech podcast.

Updated 1/16/2020 to correct the spelling of Elliott’s last name; updated 1/29/2020 to add a YouTube embed of the panel.

CES 2020 travel-tech report: too much rebooting

My 23rd CES in a row featured an accomplishment I may never have pulled off before: I didn’t open my laptop the last day.

I got away with that because I’d filed all of the copy I owed from Las Vegas by Wednesday evening, leaving Thursday writing-free. And because I was starting to worry about having to rely on my laptop for one more day at the gadget show.

Each prior morning in Vegas, I awoke to find that my late-2017 HP Spectre x360 had crashed overnight and then failed to reboot, instead landing on a black-and-white error screen reporting that a boot device could not be found. Rebooting the laptop–sometimes more than once–allowed this computer to rediscover its solid-state drive, but I kept worrying that the condition would become terminal.

And then Friday morning, I dared to open the HP’s screen after my red-eye flight out of Vegas and had it awake normally, as it’s done every time since. I need to figure this out before I head out for MWC next month.

My HP is showings its age in other ways. The two rubber pads on the bottom have peeled off (this seems to happen a lot), and the battery life could be better.

My Google Pixel 3a, on the other hand, worked like a champ throughout my long work week as I took pictures and notes, stayed mostly on top of e-mail and tweeted out my usual snarky CES commentary. This phone didn’t crash once, and its battery lasted long enough for me not to get anxious about it–though having it recharge so quickly also helped with that.

But my Pixel 3a also briefly hijacked my Twitter account when I apparently didn’t press the phone’s power button before shoving it in my pocket after I’d tweeted my congratulations to a friend on his new job. And then I didn’t even realize this storm of pocket-tweeting had erupted until a few minutes later. Ugh.

Unlike last year, I benefited from the fortuitous overlap of an update to Wirecutter’s WiFi-hotspot guide. This let me borrow the bandwidth of the top two devices in this review, a Verizon Jetpack 8800L and an AT&T Nighthawk LTE, while also subjecting them to the harshest use possible. The 8800L also doubled as a battery pack for my phone; the Nighthawk also offers that function, but not via its USB-C port–and I forgot to pack a USB-A-to-C cable.

The Belkin travel power strip that I’ve been packing since 2012 also proved instrumental in keeping my devices charged, because there are never enough power outlets in CES press rooms. This gadget had the added advantage of not needing any firmware updates or reboots. So did the handheld storage device I used to access my notes for a panel I led Wednesday: a Field Notes notebook.

Weekly output: FOIAing for facial-recognition software

LAS VEGAS–I’m only a few hours into this year’s CES, and I’ve already had to bag one appointment. Not because I was running late, but because I tried to stay on schedule by going direct from the airport. But while the two individual vendor events I’m going to are okay with that, the CES Unveiled reception was not. Whoops.

I If you’d like to know more about my agenda for this week in Vegas, I outlined all that for Patreon subscribers earlier today.

1/4/2020: To learn how police use facial recognition, we must ask the right questions, Fast Company

A presentation a few weeks ago at the Cato Surveillance Conference in D.C. got me interested in this crowdsourcing experiment in surfacing information (do we call that “crowdsurfacing”) about police uses of facial-recognition technology by using state freedom-of-information laws. Then it took me a few more frazzled pre-holiday weeks to quiz one of the people who worked on this project, plus another week to write the thing.