CES 2023 travel-tech report: a stand-in laptop and a renewed phone

For the first time since 2011, I shipped out to CES with somebody else’s laptop. The HP Spectre x360 that I’d taken to the 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2022 showed signs in November of a serious motherboard meltdown, so I took a Lenovo ThinkPad X13s loaned by the company’s PR department.

Beyond having a reliable laptop on which to work, my main objective in taking this computer to Vegas was to see if I’d notice a day-to-day difference in the ThinkPad running on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx Gen 3 instead of the usual Intel processor. The answer: less than I thought.

Hardware I took to CES 2023, shot from above: Pixel 5a and Pixel 7 smartphones, Inseego MiFi X Pro hotspots from T-Mobile and Verizon, chargers for the laptop and phones, headphones and my CES badge.

Battery life definitely seemed better, but I had neither the opportunity nor the motivation to see if the X13s would approach the “up to 28 hours” touted by Lenovo. That’s because every time I found myself sitting next to an outlet, I plugged in the laptop as CES best practices dictate.

Meanwhile, running x86-coded programs on that Qualcomm chip did not reveal any awkward incompatibility moments–even though so few Windows apps have been revised for that ARM processor architecture and therefore must run in Microsoft’s Windows 11 emulation. The uncomplicated nature of the apps I used (Chrome, Firefox, Word, Evernote, Slack and Skype) may have had something to do with that.

I had worried that the laptop only offering two USB ports, both USB-C, might require me to fish out an adapter for any USB-A devices or cables, but this was the first CES in a long time where nobody handed me a press kit on a USB flash drive. And while the X13s isn’t a convertible laptop that can be folded into a tablet, I only ever needed to use it as a standard keyboard-below-screen computer.

I also packed a review phone, a Pixel 7 Google had loaned earlier (and which I reviewed for Patreon readers last month). The 7 has better cameras than my Pixel 5a, so I used that device for most of my photography from the show. As for own Pixel 5a–now on its second life after my successful at-home replacement of the screen I’d shattered in September–it operated with pleasant reliability. Its battery life continued to impress me, although every time I found myself sitting next to an outlet, I plugged in the phone as CES best practices dictate. My one complaint with the 5a: the fingerprint sensor on the back sometimes balks at recognizing my biometrics, even after I’d tried cleaning it a few weeks ago.

On both my phone and that laptop, I stuck to past habits and took all my notes in Evernote. And for once, I didn’t have a single sync conflict between devices! I have no idea how that happened, but it did make me feel better about the subscription fee hitting my credit card the day before I flew to Vegas.

I made some room in my messenger bag for twin loaner hotspots, the T-Mobile and Verizon versions of Inseego’s MiFi Pro X 5G. T-Mobile generally offered faster 5G connectivity, but Verizon’s network sometimes reached where T-Mo’s did not. Both hotspots took far too long to boot up–easily a minute and a half before I could tether the laptop to either–and so more than once, I just used the mobile-hotspot function on the Pixel 5a.

This was also the first CES 2023 where Twitter wasn’t the obvious choice for sharing real-time observations. Instead, I alternated between that social network and Mastodon; that seems unsustainable over the long run, but since my next big trip to a tech event doesn’t happen until MWC Barcelona at the end of February, I have some time to figure that out.

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.