Weekly output: IFA oddities, Windows laptop trends

PORTLAND–I’m nearing the end of one work trip, after which I’ll get to spend a whole 40 or so hours at home before heading out for a second. No, I’m not heading to the Bay Area for Apple’s new-iPhone event Wednesday (I haven’t gotten an invitation to one of those occasions since 2010, which is fine); I will instead spend that afternoon flying to Austin for the Online News Association’s conference.

Like XOXO here, ONA is an event that has me paying for the conference badge. In a few days, I will try to write why I think it sometimes worthwhile to put this kind of dent in my business model.

Yahoo Finance IFA-oddities post9/4/2018: The weirdest, most interesting, and most unavailable gadgets from IFA 2018, Yahoo Finance

This illustrated recap of the oddest hardware I saw at IFA, including a robot dog and a “Solar Cow,” ran a couple of days after my return from that gadget show in Berlin. This sort of listicle has become a staple of my tech-trade-show coverage, because the gadget industry doesn’t seem to be getting any less weird. And after I’ve filed a few thousand words from a faraway city, stringing together a post from 200-word chunks feels exponentially easier.

9/7/2018: Laptops get thinner, lighter, more secure – and, in one case, audio-hostile, USA Today

This overview of laptop-design trends seen at IFA–most of which I like, one of which I absolutely hate–took a few more days to appear online. I can’t say that any of these changes made me feel bad about my almost-year-old laptop… which is fine! Most people should not buy a new computer every year.

 

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Technology from a toddler’s perspective: “What’s an iPod?”

As I was working in my office earlier today, our almost four-and-a-half-year-old walked over  and picked up a worn old pair of white headphones from my desk drawer. “These are for travel,” she said. “They’re for my iPod,” I corrected.

Old iPodI should have predicted my daughter’s response: “What’s an iPod?”

Of course she wouldn’t know what one was. My iPod nano stopped working before she arrived, and my wife’s did not survive a trip through the washing machine a few months after our daughter’s birth (see also, parent brain).

My iPod was still collecting dust on my desk (don’t ask), so I handed it to my daughter. She picked it up, spun the click wheel a few times and said she’d written me a note. Somewhere, an Apple engineer reading this is laughing, because that was an interface possibility the company considered when it was designing the iPhone.

Seeing my daughter’s expectations of technology play out amounts to a constant source of amusement. While I’ve yet to see her swiping a printed page as if it were an iPad’s screen, she does assume that any computer’s display will respond to touch–resulting in a Microsoft-commercial moment when she tapped my MacBook Air’s screen and nothing happened.

My digital kid also treats streaming video as a given, which led to some upset moments on a plane when we had to explain that no, the Netflix app on mommy’s iPad wouldn’t be able to play Thomas the Tank Engine videos. I imagine that having to wait for a Christmas special to air on broadcast TV can be confusing for her as well: why can’t we just watch now?

And because our daughter has never known our living room to have a stereo system separate from the TV, I should have expected her to insist on playing her CDs through my mom’s DVD player and TV over Thanksgiving. The CD player and the better speakers one room away? No interest.

It all takes me back to the wonderful essay Berkeley economics professor Brad DeLong wrote for TidBITS in 1995 about how his five-year-old had internalized the day’s computing possibilities well enough to pretend to be a help system: “If you want to play with dinosaur toys, click over here.” For all I know, DeLong’s son now writes some of the code that has been programming my daughter’s perspective on technology.

And yet: I must admit that our little one also knows what VHS is like. We had neglected to rid of one old VCR collecting dust under a TV upstairs–because who wants one these days?–and then a friend of my wife’s offered a set of kid-friendly movies on videotape. That’s how in 2014, I have become reacquainted with the joys of rewinding and fast-forwarding.

Side effect of reviewing gadgets: a largely gadget-free Christmas

Since I see so much gadget coverage timed for the holiday season–and have contributed a fair amount of it in the past–I have to assume that normal people give and get gadgets around the holidays.

Present ornament

But I am not normal! I understand why I rarely get the output of the electronics industry as a present; if a friend worked as a chef, I’d feel intimidated trying to buy kitchen gadgets or cookbooks. And as a freelancer, anything that I could use on the job should come out of my budget so it can land as an expense on my Schedule C at tax time.

But I also rarely buy myself gadgets as presents, even when there’d be no reasonable work connection. For that I blame the advent of CES: Knowing that I’m going to get a peek at the next six months to a year of the electronic industry’s handiwork two weeks after Christmas makes me leery of any non-trivial gadget purchases in the month before.

So what do you get for friends or family in the same disreputable profession that still acknowledges their professional interest? Cheap and non-obvious accessories can work. One of the better gadget-related gifts I ever got was a tiny, silicone smartphone stand that attaches to the phone’s back with a suction cup. It’s helped me stage more than a few phone pictures–and as a bonus, our toddler enjoys sticking it on my forehead.

Of you can try to make your gadget-reviewing pal’s business travel a little more pleasant: Figure out what airline he or she flies most often and buy a day pass to its lounges.

Edited 12/14/2013 to remove a stray sentence fragment.

IFA extras: tidbits from Europe’s big gadget gathering

BERLIN–I’ll be leaving this fair city many megabytes heavier, between my notes about the IFA electronics trade show and all the photos and videos I’ve taken. Here are some observations I had to leave out of my my reports for the Disruptive Competition Project and at Discovery News.

Rack of TVs• The “Air Command” contextual menu in Samsung’s Galaxy Note 3 strikes me as yet another example of something that looks great in a demo but will rarely see much use outside of that. You’re supposed to extract the stylus, press its button, tap the screen and then choose something off the Air Command palette that may itself open up further options: Does that sound like something you’ll want to do standing up?

• This may get me some hate mail, but Windows laptops are showing more creativity than MacBooks. The ability of more of them to convert to tablets, either by folding or detaching a screen, offers a level of utility unavailable from Apple–and since these convertible models accept touchscreen input, Windows 8 fits better on them than on my rapidly aging ThinkPad.

• But some Windows vendors have basic quality issues to address. The Toshiba convertible I inspected Wednesday visibly flexed when I pressed the plastic in front of the keyboard; when I eyed the seam between its screen bezel and the back of the lid, its backlight glowed through the gap. An Acer tablet, meanwhile, couldn’t scroll through the Windows 8 start screen without blurring noticeably.

• LED lights have the same prominence here that compact fluorescents had at CES a decade ago. (We’ve swapped out CFLs for LEDs in a few spots at home and like them a bunch.)

Sphero Revealed• The Sphero robotic ball I reviewed for Discovery the other week now has a “Revealed” version with some clear sections that let you see its innards, and its makers Orbotix will update the iOS and Android Sphero app so you can just drive the thing without the distracting game mechanics I called out in that post.

• It’s remarkable how little space 3D TVs got here, a mere three years after its big debut at CES. And not all of the 3D TV exhibits here made a good case for the technology: TCL’s demo of glasses-free viewing looked awful, as if I were watching it through wavy 1920s-vintage windows.

• I came here hoping to finally settle on my next camera, but I’m still on the fence about a few models that offer a larger sensor, a decent zoom, GPS and the ability to connect to a phone via WiFi–or which of those qualities I’ll have to sacrifice. Any thoughts on Panasonic’s ZS-30, Sony’s DSC-HX50V and RX100 Mark II and Canon’s SX280 and S120?

• Cameras have been using WiFi to connect to smartphones for a few years, but now both Sony and Panasonic are adding NFC wireless to some new models to automate that pairing process, in much the same way NFC helps two Android phones set up an Android Beam file transfer.

• Strangest neologism heard here: “Glancivity,” a noun thrown out by Samsung’s Pranav Mistry at Tuesday’s event introducing the Note 3 and the Galaxy Gear watch. This post has already run on too long to have much glancivity, right?

• Number of times my phone’s battery ran out: two. That’s pretty good, considering that one was the fault of my laptop for shutting off power to its USB port overnight.

• Number of Evernote sync conflicts: two. Also better than I expected, given the wildly fluctuating bandwidth availability. (I’ll have to whine about that later.)

Updated at 7:30 p.m. to link to Sphero’s announcement and clarify the status of this reversal.

Taking gadget-porn photos

One of the lesser-known joys of my work is the chance to take pictures of the gadgets I review. It gives me a chance to exercise whatever photographic talents I may possess, and it frees my editors from running the same PR-provided shots or stock images that every other site can get.

But it’s taken me a while to acquire some basic competence at this weird art form.

The most difficult part of the exercise–still–is keeping dust and reflections out of a shot. In the sort of close-up photos often required for gadget photography, grains of dust can look as big as cookie crumbs–except when you’re looking at the viewfinder or screen of a camera while taking the shot. Likewise, the glossy screens on almost every portable gadget are frighteningly efficient at reflecting overhead lights, nearby windows, any decor on the walls, and the camera itself.

I deal with dust by taking a microfiber cloth, the kind you get for free with a new pair of glasses, to the device I want to photograph–even if it looks pristine. Then I repeat the exercise. As for reflections, you can avoid some of them by angling the device’s screen in just the right direction. But it’s easier to prop up a large sheet of posterboard in a position where its expanse of white will be reflected on the screen. In rare cases, you can use a reflection for artistic purposes.

Posterboard also makes for a decent backdrop, but it doesn’t exactly add any excitement to the composition. Instead, sometimes I’ll hold a phone in front of an expanse of wall or window and let the shallow depth of field provided by a macro focus blur out that  scenery.

Not often enough, I will think of a background that’s both more interesting and actually relevant to the subject–like when I parked an Apple TV and a Roku receiver on top of a page of TV listings. Putting a digital device next to a comparable analog object can yield interesting results too.

Or I can shoot so tightly that you can’t see anything else but a detail on the back or the screen of a device. The trick is to ensure that only the relevant plastic or pixels is left in focus to command a viewer’s attention; it would help if more cameras included the tap-to-focus feature offered by some smartphones.

You don’t need much of a camera for this sort of photography. Anything with a decent macro-focus mode and optical image stabilization (to compensate for the longer exposure times needed for indoor shots) should work. That allows for most point-and-shoot cameras–I’ve taken most of the shots linked to here with the cheap Canon I bought in 2007–but I’ve gotten decent results with some phones and tablets too.

Whatever the model, don’t even think of using the flash. You will quadruple your dust and reflection problems and make the device look too pale. You want to avoid that kind of sloppy result whether you’re trying to provide an accurate illustration in a gadget review or you just want a non-ugly photo for eBay–which is where I started picking up on some of these lessons.

If you have other tips or suggestions, I’ll take them in the comments.