How I inspect laptops at tech events

BERLIN–I’ve spent the last three days here at the IFA tech trade show poking and prodding at new laptops to see if they might be worth your money. That inspection has gotten more complicated in recent years, thanks to some new features I welcome and a few others I could do without.

The following are the traits I now look for after such obvious items as weight, screen size, if that screen is the rare Windows laptop display that doesn’t respond to touch, advertised battery life, storage, memory and overall apparent sturdiness.

Acer Swift 7 close-up

  • Screen resolution: On smaller screens, 4K resolution eats into battery life without making a meaningful difference in picture quality–from most viewing distances, you can’t even see the pixels on a 1080p laptop screen anyway.
  • USB-C charging: Now that I have a laptop and a phone that can both use the same charger, I never want to go back to needing a proprietary power cable for a computer. You shouldn’t either.
  • USB ports: Laptops that only include USB-C ports can be thinner than those with full-sized USB ports, but I’m willing to accept a little bulk to avoid having to pop in an adapter for older USB cables or peripherals.
  • Other expansion options: For people who still use standalone cameras, SD or microSD Card slots will ease data transfer. I also look for HDMI ports, which ease plugging the laptop into a TV. (Since my own laptop doesn’t have one of those: Anybody have a recommendation for a USB-C-to-HDMI cable?) And now that I’ve seen a laptop here without a headphone jack, I need to confirm that audio output’s presence too.
  • Backlit keyboard: Typing without one in a darkened hall is no fun. While I’m looking for that, I’ll also see if the trackpad is governed by Microsoft’s simple Precision Touchpad control or janky third-party software.
  • Webcam placement: Some laptops stash the webcam not at the top of the screen but below it, which leaves video callers stuck with an up-the-nostril perspective of the laptop user.
  • Windows Hello: Fingerprint-recognition sensors are cheap, while having to type in a password or PIN every time you log in imposes its own tax on your time. I’m not so doctrinaire about Windows Hello facial recognition if fingerprint recognition is there.

This list is a little involved, but on the upside I no longer have to worry about things like WiFi or serial ports. So now that you know what I fuss over when inspecting laptops at tech events like this, what else should I be looking for on each new computer?

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CES 2015 travel-tech report: less battery angst, more about bandwidth

One of my post-CES traditions, besides waiting for the din of slot machines to fade from my head, is critiquing how various gadgets and apps helped me cover the show. See, for instance, my 2012, 2013 and 2014 recaps.

CES 2015 gadgetsThis year, I once again leaned on my 2012 MacBook Air, paired with the Nexus 4 I bought last spring. I took all my notes on each in Evernote, and for once I didn’t have any sync conflicts; maybe the app was happy that I finally signed up for Evernote Premium?

Battery life on both the laptop and the phone has declined a bit as they’ve aged, but I had much less angst over that than I’d feared. Some credit for that goes to my having to step away from the show floor for an hour or so each day to write, which gave me a chance to plug in everything. Some also goes to the compact external phone charger WAMU gave me when I was on the Kojo Nnamdi Show in December. I have no idea who made that device, but it’s a great piece of hardware, including a micro-USB cable long enough to allow you to easily tuck it and a charging phone into a jacket pocket.

I remembered to pack my Belkin travel power strip this time; the two USB ports on the top helped charge devices overnight, while the extra outlets allowed me to not be a jerk when taking the last available wall outlet. See that flat contraption to the right of the power strip? It’s a Charge Card, a USB cable that’s been designed to fold flat and fit in a wallet. I picked up one from the vendor at CES a few years ago and remembered to bring it this time.

My primary source of bandwidth was not hotel or convention WiFi but LTE from the AT&T and Verizon mobile hotspots I’ve been reviewing for a future story. Most of the time, they worked great (their battery life makes them a much better choice than a phone for extended tethering), but the overwhelming amount of WiFi traffic sometimes prevented my Mac from connecting to either.

I shot a decent amount of pictures and video clips on my phone for quick sharing from the show floor, but for anything I wanted to publish I switched to the compact Canon 330 HS model I bought just before last year’s show. I’d picked out that model in particular for its ability to geotag photos using a companion phone app–but I never used that feature during the show. Why? I spent almost all of my time in only a few locations, while that Android app does too much damage to my phone’s battery if left running full-time.

I took a new gadget to the show, the Moto 360 smartwatch I reviewed in September. The experience strengthened my conviction that the idea here is sound–it really does help to have an external, wearable display for the most important notifications coming up on your phone–but the implementation needs work. In particular, charging should neither have to be a nightly routine nor require an ungainly cradle like the 360’s.

The other good reason to bring a smartwatch to a trade show: having its step counter inform you of how many miles you’ve walked. I peaked on Thursday with 25,308 steps.

The other new item I brought doesn’t count as a gadget, owing to its complete lack of electronics: a caliper that I bought after reading too many Apple Watch stories that offered only vague guesses about the device’s thickness. I used that cheap Home Depot purchase to check the thickness of a few smart watches and one absurdly thin HDTV.