Not the best time for a laptop to break, not the worst time either

Not even a day after arriving in Hawaii last week for Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Summit, my laptop started showing signs of homesickness: When I opened my aging HP Spectre x360 before the Tuesday-afternoon keynote that led off this conference’s agenda, it would not wake up—or shut down or restart, no matter how long I pressed the power button.

I gave up, shoved the laptop in my bag, grabbed my phone and took my notes on that much smaller screen. Afterwards, I took the laptop out of my bag and it was scorching hot. Holding down the power button one more time finally got it to shut down and restart, after which the computer treated me to a new failure mode: The display snapped into a crazed checkerboard of randomly colored pixels. Then it kept doing that through successive restarts, sometimes with the screen locking into colorful horizontal streaks.

HP Spectre with its screen showing rows of lines filled with randomly-colored pixels.

I retreated to my room to try to work the problem. And after two more cycles of rebooting and having the display go nuts, the laptop seemed to snap out of it, while its hardware diagnostic tools don’t report anything amiss.

Alas, the HP hilarity resumed the next morning when the laptop worked in my room but then refused to wake up for the interviews I had booked with T-Mobile and Verizon network executives. I recorded each on my phone instead, hoping that I could avoid finding some novel way to screw that up.

After my laptop didn’t recover from its stupor back in my hotel room, I sent an apologetic e-mail to my editor at Light Reading asking if he could deal with my filing the two lengthy stories he’d assigned from those interviews after I got home. He could, writing back “It happens to the best of us.”

(Reminder: Qualcomm paid for my airfare and lodging, an arrangement approved in advance by my editor at that telecom-news site.)

I managed to write two more shorter stories from the event without my laptop. The easy one involved a PC borrowed from Qualcomm for a couple of hours Thursday—a Lenovo Thinkpad x13s featuring the Snapdragon 8cx chip introduced at last year’s summit, Qualcomm’s venture into laptop processors having become of more than academic interest over the week.

The hard one was a 500-ish word post that I wrote in the Google Docs app on this phone Friday morning, an experience that left me wanting to ice my thumb afterwards.

On the first of two flights home, the laptop worked again for long enough to allow me to transcribe all of one interview and part of another—and then lapsed into its coma until I came home. Then it resumed working properly as if nothing had happened, or as if it really had been homesick.

But while it’s a relief to have my laptop back, it’s also time I got on with replacing this 2017 purchase. The malfunction that mysteriously went away can return just as mysteriously, and in any case computer design has advanced a bit over the last five years. On the other hand, I hate having to make major electronics purchases barely a month before CES, when I should get a good perspective on what’s coming over the next several months.

My answer: continuing my overdue evaluation of Windows on non-x86 platforms by borrowing a review unit of that Lenovo Thinkpad x13s. I may not always be lucky in my gadget ownership, but when things go wrong I do try to be resourceful.

The other shocking secret about my latest laptop purchase

To judge from the 840 comments on Monday’s Yahoo Finance post about my first laptop purchase in a few years, the fact that this computer runs Windows 10 surprised many readers.

Another aspect of this acquisition may be even more shocking: I bought this computer in person, not remotely.

HP laptop keyboard

Over some 28 years of computer use, I had somehow avoided procuring every prior laptop or desktop in a store. My first two Macs came via Georgetown’s student-discount ordering, I bought a Power Computing Mac clone either over the phone or at the company’s site (too long ago for me to remember for sure), and I’d purchased three iMacs, one MacBook Air and a Lenovo ThinkPad online.

I had planned on ordering an HP Spectre x360 through my iMac’s browser, but HP’s site listed the new version as back-ordered. Finding a reseller at Amazon that had the 2017 model, not last year’s, quickly got me lost. Best Buy listed the latest version online–with the lure of credit towards a future purchase through its rewards program–but the profusion of different model numbers made me want to inspect the hardware in person to make sure I’d get the features I had in mind.

At about that time, I recalled that D.C.’s sales tax is fractionally lower than the rate in Northern Virginia, 5.75 percent versus 6 percent. And since that retailer’s site said this computer was on display at its Columbia Heights location on a day when I already had to be in D.C. for a conference and would be departing for Web Summit the next evening, why not stop by?

The exact set of options I wanted came in a configuration with more memory and storage than I’d normally buy, of which the store only had one unit in stock. But after taking a moment to contemplate the time I spend on laptops, I rationalized the added expense and handed over a credit card. So it was done: I walked out with a box in a bag that I lugged around that afternoon, and then I began a trip the next night with a newly-purchased laptop for the first time in five years.

One part of my work, however, remains incomplete: finding a home for a 2012 MacBook Air with a broken T key and a “Service Battery” alert. Any ideas?

Weekly output: HP and ink, cybersecurity, journalism and biz-school PR, unlimited data, EMV chip cards

Once again, the Nationals are headed to the postseason. Since our last two bouts of October baseball ended badly–the excruciating game 5 of the 2012 NLDS still haunts me–and the team has gotten whacked with injuries lately, I’m not super-optimistic about this one. Fortunately, I have the election to distract me by providing an alternate source of stress.

9/26/2016: How HP’s decision to reject some ink cartridges reflects a much bigger problem, Yahoo Finance

First I thought this post would be a great opportunity to use a still image of the printer-execution scene from “Office Space,” then I realized there was a good point to be made about the risks of using automatic security updates to deal with business-model problems. Two days later, HP confessed that it “should have done a better job of communicating” about the software update that disabled some third-party ink cartridges and said it would provide an optional patch to disable the offending feature.

9/27/2016: Here’s the cybersecurity debate Clinton and Trump should have had, Yahoo Finance

I wrote a quick recap of the cybersecurity issues that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump could have gone over during Monday’s debate. Will these topics get a reasoned discussion during the two other debates? I’m going to say no.

bam-media-panels9/29/2016: Media Panel, Business Access Media

My role in this conference for business-school PR and communications types was to speak briefly about what I cover, then answer questions from attendees. As the one freelancer speaking, I could offer a different perspective than my fellow panelists, all full-time staff: Economist finance editor Tom Easton, the BBC’s Anthony Zurcher, CNN national correspondent Ryan Nobles and Marketplace Radio education reporter Amy Scott.

(Zurcher and I not only went to Georgetown, the conference venue, but worked together at the Georgetown Voice. You can imagine my disappointment that nobody in the audience asked “how did you all get into journalism?”)

10/2/2016: Why you may be able to finally ditch that old unlimited plan, USA Today

Right after my editor asked me to revisit this question, I had two different people show per-app data usage details on their iPhones that had not been reset since 2013, making them useless for getting a sense of how much data they should get. Apple, please fix that feature so the count resets once a month.

10/2/2016: Why the chip card isn’t the disaster everybody says it is, Yahoo Finance

I don’t know if I’m going to convince anybody with this, but the small extra wait to have an EMV chip-card payment read–far less time than I lose to checkout lines–doesn’t bother me much. I do, however, appreciate being able to pay with plastic overseas without getting funny looks or (most of the time) having my card rejected by a ticket-vending machine.

Weekly output: post-TWC Comcast, airport lounges, Windows 7 PCs

I’m off to Chicago Tuesday morning for the cable-industry conference formerly known as just the Cable Show and now branded as the Internet & Television Expo, “INTX” for short. It’ll be my first visit to this gathering since the 2012 edition in Boston, and recent news developments in the pay-TV business should make it an interesting event.

4/28/2015: What Comcast Giving Up on Time Warner Cable Could Mean for You, Yahoo Tech

Comcast giving up on its ambitions of buying Time Warner Cable gave me an excuse to suggest a few things it might want to do now that it won’t spend the next year in a post-merger food coma.

redesign Amex lounge post4/29/2015: redesign | travel: Amex tries to reinvent the airport lounge, redesign | mobile

My pal Rocky Agrawal launched this site this week as a marketplace to connect professionals with potential clients (see VentureBeat’s writeup). A few months back, he’d asked if I’d like to write about American Express’s attempt to get into the airport-lounge business; as a fan of making travel more comfortable, I had no problem taking on that gig and cashing that check. And if, in keeping with redesign’s ambitions, this post connects me to more travel writing, that would be okay.

I had meant to do my usual social-media marketing for this post when it appeared, but Wednesday ran away from me as the days sometimes do, and Thursday and Friday were just as bad.

5/3/2015: Windows 7 still a safe alternative to Windows 8, USA Today

It had been two years and change since I’d answered about the same question in my USAT column. But since then, Windows 7 has exited “mainstream support,” which gave me a chance to explain Microsoft’s support-lifecycle policy. Big surprise: How many commenters have testified that they’d rather use Windows 8 than Win 7.