Weekly output: Fastest Mobile Networks, Mark Vena podcast, streaming-video deals

The first item on this list doesn’t contain a single word written by me.

Screenshot of the Fastest Mobile Networks package as seen in Firefox on a Windows 10 laptop 8/24/2021: Fastest Mobile Networks 2021, PCMag

After years of citing PCMag’s drive testing in my work at Wirecutter and elsewhere, I contributed to it. I picked the test locations and did the driving for half of Baltimore, all of D.C., Raleigh, and Charlotte, and half of Atlanta–plus hundreds of miles, mostly on rural byways, between those cities.

8/25/2021: S01 E07 – SmartTechCheck Podcast by Parks Associates, Mark Vena

I joined my analyst friend’s podcast yet again; my major contribution was explaining my drive-testing work to listeners (or, for those who get the podcast via YouTube, viewers).

8/29/2021: Want to save on your streaming bill? Check your credit card reward, mobile carrier offers, USA Today

If you sign up for any of my Patreon tiers, you’ve been getting cheat sheets from me about which digital services offer cash-back offers through credit cards. This column walks USAT readers through this money-saving option and option and also notes the streaming freebies available on some wireless plans.

Post-road-trip reflections

Ever since fleeing my rural upbringings for college in D.C., I have taken pride in how little I rely on driving to get around–to the point that I didn’t buy my first car until I was 26. But over the last week and change, I clocked 1,117 miles in a rented vehicle and did not hate it.

Getting paid for the time I spent behind the wheel as part of PCMag’s upcoming Fastest Mobile Networks report made a difference. But having each day’s drive be a one-off proposition instead of the latest iteration of a dreadful commute made its own difference. The first multiple-day road trip I’ve had in about 25 years took me to some interesting places, away from home and around the District.

Photo shows a black Chevy Spark with Hawaii plates, with the High Museum of Art across the street and midtown Atlanta buildings in the background

To start, having to stop and test the wireless carriers’ performance at multiple places scattered around each city on my itinerary–Baltimore, D.C., Raleigh and its Triangle neighbors, Charlotte, and Atlanta–allowed me to indulge my interest in transportation and development just by looking around.

All of these cities feature beautiful neighborhoods I wish I’d had time to walk around on this trip, and all made some dreadful mistakes decades ago with urban highways. (Spoiler alert: They often shoved them through Black people’s homes.) Some now seem to be making amends for those auto-centric excesses with bike lanes, light-rail lines and streetcars, sights that delighted my Greater Greater Washington-reading heart.

After months of having all three meals almost exclusively at home, I also had the challenge of getting breakfast, lunch and dinner without falling back on chain restaurants. All the mandatory test stops often got in the way of this and led me to atrocious lunch times after 2 p.m., but I did meet that challenge and now have a short list of places to return to. I’m not sure when I’ll next have a chance to get lunch at Fat Matt’s Rib Shack in Atlanta or NoDa Bodega in Charlotte, among others, but Open Crumb in Anacostia is only a few blocks off a bike trail I’m overdue to return to.

PCMag’s instructions for this drive testing encouraged avoiding Interstates between cities in favor of smaller, more rural roads that might expose the limits of the carriers’ networks, and that changed up the journey a little more. The four- or two-lane roads I found ate up more of my time but also relieved me of the sight of other cars’ brake lights–and often, of other cars at all. Large swaths of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia remain forests with only the occasional town of a few intersections to change up the scenery.

(As a native New Jerseyan and now Northern Virginia resident, I did wonder how often I’d see Confederate battle flags on these rural stretches. I only spotted four such displays, which is more than I’d like but much less than I’d feared.)

All of this driving in not-straight lines and my own lack of experience with the drive-testing routine, however, left little time for me to play tourist or even meet people along the way. My late departure for Raleigh barely allowed the minutes for a detour through Richmond to see Monument Avenue devoid of most of its Confederacy whitewashing; I wrapped up my testing around the Triangle in time to go to a Durham Bulls game last Friday; I made sufficiently good time between Charlotte and Atlanta to get a quick lunch in Athens, Ga., and gawk at the remains of the trestle pictured on the back cover of R.E.M.’s Murmur; that was about it. I finally met a friend for dinner Monday night in Atlanta–better yet, it was at his house and he cooked.

Since coming home Tuesday night, I have yet to open the door of our car, much less take it anywhere. That’s been a pleasure, but I have to admit I won’t mind the next chance to drive somewhere on an indirect, inefficient route if it’s part of a reasonably well-paying freelance gig.

Road trips, now and way back then

CHARLOTTE, N.C.–I’m in the middle of my first multiple-day road trip since… um… 1996. Things about motoring around the U.S. have changed just a bit for me since that trip from Los Angeles to D.C., much less the 1992 trek from Sacramento to the District that was my first cross-country drive.

The biggest differences are that I’m doing this trip solo instead of with a college friend–and that instead of having a room in a group house or apartment awaiting at the end of the trip, I am looking forward to seeing my wife and almost 11-year-old daughter again.

Then comes the fact that this road trip is for work instead of fun, or what passes for fun when you’re in your twenties. I’m spending a week as one of the test drivers for PCMag’s Fastest Mobile Networks project, taking a rental car and six specially configured test phones to locations picked in a series of cities.

Photo shows my rental car with the door open, six test phones sitting on the passenger seat, and a row of storefronts in the Little Five Points neighborhood of Raleigh.

This freelance gig on wheels started with a train–I boarded Amtrak Tuesday for the first time since February 2020 for a short ride to BWI to pick up this car Tuesday, after which I met the previous driver in Baltimore to get the test phones and spend the afternoon driving around Charm City. I devoted Wednesday to driving around D.C., went from home to Raleigh, N.C. Thursday; spent all of Friday on the roads of the Triangle; and had a considerably shorter day of driving Saturday to reach here. My tour of the southeast wraps up in Atlanta Tuesday, after which I fly home.

The vehicle in question, a Chevrolet Spark, isn’t much bigger than the Toyotas involved in 1992 and 1997. But it’s as new as rental cars get, versus the 1977 Corolla with a four-speed manual transmission that made it across the U.S. in 1992 or the 1986 Tercel with a crack in the windshield that did the same in 1996. And it has such modern conveniences as air conditioning, power windows and a backup camera.

And instead of driving entirely offline–taking old cars across deserts with neither GPS nor the ability to communicate must seem bizarre to my kid–I have a smartphone to navigate and keep me in touch via calls, text messages, e-mail, multiple social networks, and the Slack channel PCMag set up for this test. Plus the six test smartphones that spend each day on the passenger seat running their automated tests, as seen in the photo above taken in Raleigh Friday morning.

(I wrote a more detailed explanation of the testing process for Patreon readers Friday.)

But in one respect, the technology of road trips may have backslid a bit from the 1990s. Those old cars lacked CD players but did include tape decks, while this Chevy is like many new cars in not including any playback hardware for prerecorded music. I can plug in a flash drive or pair my phone via Bluetooth, but I have yet to get around to cobbling together a road-trip-relevant playlist on my phone or copying one to a flash drive. Instead, I have instead relied on a more traditional soundtrack source: the radio. And since I had an excellent college-rock station to keep me entertained around Raleigh, that hasn’t been so bad.

7/22/2021: Updated to fix a couple of inaccuracies I only realized when checking this post against old photo albums.

Weekly output: local ISPs, augmented reality, Toronto and Lisbon’s mayors, TVision, Senate Commerce vs. tech CEOs

I’m looking at a four-day workweek at my day job–plus a 16-hour day Tuesday as a poll worker for Arlington. Wish me luck! More important, wish all of us luck.

10/26/2020: Local Internet Service Providers, U.S. News & World Report

I wrote guides to the major choices for Internet access (using data from BroadbandNow) in 10 markets: Fairbanks, Alaska; Chandler, Ariz.; Colorado Springs and Denver, Colo.; Chicago, Ill.; Cary and Charlotte, N.C.; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Dallas and El Paso, Tex. (The first of these got posted back on Oct. 16, but the last two didn’t land until Tuesday, and it’s simpler to cover them in one entry.) Putting this together enlightened me beyond expectations about the state of broadband across the U.S.; for instance, I hadn’t realized how strict data caps could get until seeing what Alaska’s dominant cable provider inflicts on its customers.

10/26/2020: AR is finally infiltrating everyday tasks such as Google search, Fast Company

Writing this post on the state of augmented-reality interfaces allowed me to revisit a topic I’d covered for the Washington Post almost 11 years ago. It’s too bad Yelp scrapped the Monocle AR interface I wrote about then.

10/27/2020: Panel: Leading the city of the future, City Summit

This Web Summit side event had me interview Lisbon mayor Fernando Medina and Toronto mayor John Tory about how their cities–hosts of the Web Summit and Collision conferences, also places I sorely miss visiting this year–have responded to the novel-coronavirus pandemic.

10/27/2020: T-Mobile Launches TVision To Help You Fire Cable (Or Satellite) TV, Forbes

I walked readers through T-Mobile’s entry into streaming TV, which offers some surprisingly aggressive pricing but also requires some compromises in its channel selections that may prove non-trivial obstacles.

10/29/2020: The Best And Worst Moments In The Senate’s Grilling Of Social-Media CEOs, Forbes

The Senate Commerce Committee’s interrogation of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey featured many cringe-inducing if not disgraceful sound bites, but it also afforded some non-garbage-fire moments. I particularly enjoyed writing the last sentence, even if it cost me some time poking around Federal Election Commission filings.