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.

Weekly output: Google’s “security hold,” how to read wireless-carrier rankings

Both posts this week had me circling back to topics I’ve covered before and learning something new, which is always nice.

7/25/2019: Locked out of your Google account? Why it can sometimes take days to get back in, USA Today

Once again, I tried to shed some light on how Google goes about resolving a forgotten password for a Google account. This time, I got the company to document a hitherto-undocumented “security hold.” Alas, much of the process here remains mysterious, and the reader in question here may have only gotten her account back so quickly because I inquired on her behalf.

7/26/2019: Why so many wireless carriers seem to have “America’s best network”, Fast Company

My work updating the Wirecutter guide to smartphone service required me to spend a lot of time with studies ranking the performance of the big four wireless carriers, so I decided to write an explainer about how these surveys get their results and how you should interpret their findings. That effort revealed a couple of finer points about these projects that I was able to add to the Wirecutter update, which should be up any day now.