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.

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Weekly output: online-privacy tips, Meltdown and Spectre bug fixes, CES

LAS VEGAS–My 21st CES in a row hasn’t even officially started, and I already feel tired. (That probably has something to do with getting up at 6 a.m. for an 8:20 flight out of Dulles.) I’m here through Thursday night to see where the electronics industry is headed. If you’re here too, you can heckle me when I help emcee the Last Gadget Standing competition Thursday.

USA Today privacy-tips post1/3/2018: Limit how Facebook, Google and Amazon use your private info, USA Today

You’ve seen me offer some of these privacy principles in other stories before, but this time around I could put all of them in one post.

1/4/2018: How Big Tech has left you in the dark about massive CPU flaws, Yahoo Finance

Not long after this got posted, Apple finally put up a simple, coherent explanation of the Meltdown and Spectre CPU bugs and what iOS and macOS users should do about them. If only I could take any credit for forcing their hand like that… but no, I can’t.

1/7/2018: What to expect at CES 2018, the biggest gadget show of the year, Yahoo Finance

One thing that’s never changed over the last two decades of my attending CES: seeing companies offer new reasons why I should think my current TV is inadequate.

How to get a CES PR pitch wrong

2018 is only six days old, and I have already received 725 e-mails mentioning “CES” somewhere–and that’s excluding those from colleagues at various clients.

Something about this gargantuan electronics show makes tech-PR types needier and thirstier than at any other time of the year–which, in turn, makes tech-journalism types crankier than at any other time of the year. It’s not a good look for any of us.

With that volume of pitches, any one CES PR e-mail faces dire odds. Those odds get a lot worse if the message gets some basic stuff wrong.

Undisclosed location: Proximity drives scheduling at CES, because the traffic is so awful, so I need to know where an event is at before I decide if it’s worth my time. If you don’t say where your event is at, am I supposed to think it’s at some venue miles from the Strip?

While I’m on the subject, a five-digit booth number is not that much of a help, since that could be anywhere in several square miles of convention-center space.

Unannounced time: More CES pitches than you’d think forget another Invitation 101 thing, telling me when an event is happening. Please remember to put that in the message–by which I mean in the message’s text, so mail clients can detect it and offer to add it to my calendar.

Micromanaged scheduling: The Pepcom and ShowStoppers receptions are an efficient way for smaller companies to get exposure to the press and for journalists to get dinner and a drink or three to numb the pain. I always attend them. (Disclosure: The ShowStoppers people put together my annual trip to the IFA trade show in Berlin.) I don’t mind PR pitches saying that a client will be at one of these events. I really hate requests to book an appointment at them; please don’t waste my time with them.

Breaking the laws of CES physics: Press-conference day and opening day of CES–this time around, Monday and Tuesday–are the two busiest days of the show. Coaxing journalists to some event that isn’t at the primary venue for each day (Mandalay Bay for press conferences, the Las Vegas Convention Center for opening day) is generally a doomed endeavor. PR folks reading this: I wish you good luck in convincing your clients to not try this next year.

Some of these event invitations come with an offer of a free ride to or from the LVCC. On opening day, that car will have to be of the flying variety.

Standard-issue mail #fail. CES is no better than any other time to forget about the BCC line in your e-mail and instead send a pitch to 258 people on the To: line. Somebody did that this time around, and it worked about as well as you’d expect. One recipient took the time to techsplain to the sender how he should check out the BCC option–“I heard it was rolled out at CES 1977”–and of course did so by hitting reply-all himself.

For tech journalists, this may not be the most wonderful time of the year

It’s almost the middle of December, which means I’m once again in the weeds with my CES planning, in the weeds with Christmas shopping, and in the weeds with writing stories in advance so I can maybe spend some of the holidays moderately unplugged.

All of these things have been part of my Decembers for 20 years (although working on a blog schedule has only been part of the deal for the last decade). I should have been able to get better at this, especially since I succumbed to leaning on the crutch of free Amazon Prime two-day shipping and let my wife handle the cards I’d otherwise not send out until early January. Nope!

CES, meanwhile, has kept growing in size–from 117,704 attendees in 2003 to 184,279 this January–and generally making a mockery of predictions that big tech shows no longer matter.

And because it’s 2017, there’s now the added hilarity of the Trump news cycle. Today, it’s given us the complete repeal of 2015’s net-neutrality rules. That’s been readership gold–2,678 comments on my Yahoo Finance post and counting–but it’s not exactly helping me ease into the holidays.

At least it’s not just me. Every CES-bound tech journalist has to be feeling the same crunch, and many of them have to post much more often. And as much as I hate CES PR pitches, I’m sure many of their senders tried to remind their clients that the space-time continuum still governs CES and that expecting reporters to attend an off-Strip event the first day of the show is wildly optimistic–and then the clients ignored their advice.

I do, however, have one thing extra going for me: CES doesn’t start until the second weekend of January, so I have an entire five blessed days between New Year’s Day and my getting on a plane. I plan on sleeping for as much of that time as possible.

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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Weekly output: CES recap, United fleet site, cybersecurity coverage, wireless phone plans, inauguration wireless coverage, T-Mobile One alternatives

I got a little extra publicity this week from the Columbia Journalism Review when its editors illustrated their open letter to President Trump from the White House press corps with a photo I took of the White House press briefing room. It’s been flattering to see that people actually read photo credits! I would have liked to see CJR link to the original–I believe that’s a condition of the Creative Commons non-commercial-use-allowed license under which I shared it on Flickr–but the reply I got was that their CMS doesn’t support links in photo credits.

That photo, incidentally, comes from 2014’s White House Maker Faire–exactly the sort of event I don’t expect to get invited to over the next four years.

1/17/2017: Techdirt Podcast Episode 105: The CES 2017 Post-Mortem, Techdirt

I talked with Techdirt founder Mike Masnick about my experience at this year’s show. I did the interview using a podcasting Web app I hadn’t tried before, Cast. My verdict: great UX, but that name is horrible SEO.

Screenshot of Air & Space story1/18/2017: Get to Know Your Airliner, Air & Space Magazine

I finally wrote a story for a magazine I’ve been reading on and off since high school, which is pretty great. The subject: the United Airlines Fleet Website, a remarkably useful volunteer-run database of United planes that I’ve gotten in the habit of checking before every UA flight. The story should also be in the February issue, available at newsstands in the next few days.

1/18/2017: What you should really know about every major hacking story, Yahoo Finance

I put on my media-critic hat to write this post about what too many cybersecurity pieces–and too many mass-media conversations on the subject, up to and including those started by Donald Trump–get wrong.

1/19/2017: The Best Cell Phone Plans, The Wirecutter

We decided last summer that having separate guides for the four major wireless carriers and for prepaid and resold phone plans didn’t help readers who should be considering all of their options. That also imposed extra work on me. The result: a single guide that’s much shorter and will be easier to update the next time, say, Sprint rolls out some new price plans.

1/19/2017: How carriers will keep D.C. online during Trump’s inauguration, Yahoo Finance

The real test of the big four networks came not during President Trump’s under-attended inauguration but the Women’s March on Washingtoh the next day. To judge from the experience of my wife and others, the carriers did not acquit themselves too well: Her Verizon iPhone lost data service for part of the day, and I saw friends posting on Facebook that they couldn’t get photos to upload.

1/22/2017: Am I stuck with T-Mobile’s flagship plan?, USA Today

T-Mobile’s decision to limit its postpaid offerings to the unmetered-but-not-unlimited T-Mobile One gave me an opportunity to provide a quick tutorial on the differences between postpaid, prepaid and resold services.

Weekly output: Tom Wheeler’s farewell speech, DirecTV boxes and apps

I tried to take Monday off and only partially succeeded, then got knocked down for most of the next three days by a completely-unsurprising CES cold. That event isn’t just a trade show, it’s a massively-multiplayer biological-warfare experiment.

On the upside, I managed to edit and caption enough of my CES photos to get a Flickr album started.

Screenshot of Yahoo Finance post on Tom Wheeler's farewell speech1/13/2017: Outgoing FCC chair: Don’t go backward on net neutrality, Yahoo Finance

I finally emerged from my home Friday morning to bikeshare over to Dupont and see Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler’s final address. The reporting challenge here was figuring out which sources Wheeler had cited without naming in his defense of net-neutrality regulations–one of which turned out to make a weak case for or against those open-Internet rules.

1/15/2017: No direct way to duck DirecTV’s box rental fee, USA Today

The reader e-mail I got right before CES addressed a topic I’d covered not even a year ago, but since then a Wheeler initiative to require subscription-TV providers to ship no-fee apps to watch their programming has died on the vine. And a pay-TV proposal (yes, signed on by DirecTV) to do much the same on a voluntary basis has yet to result in shipping apps. In DirecTV’s case, it hasn’t even yielded updates to add AirPlay or Chromecast video output to the AT&T-owned service’s existing apps.