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.

Weekly output: password peril, mobile-hotspot help, Facebook’s Oversight Board

I had been holding out hope that I could return to business travel, even if just once before fall or winter, to cover America’s return to launching astronauts to space–SpaceX’s Demo-2 test flight of its Crew Dragon capsule, scheduled for May 27. I’d put in for a press pass and had a confirmed assignment from a name-brand client, and I was willing to figure out how I’d not lose money on the trip later on. But on Monday, I got the e-mail that many other journalists received, saying that NASA could not accommodate me at the Kennedy Space Center because social-distancing dictates required drastically limiting the number of press on site.

I’m not surprised and I’m not that upset. I’ve already seen three launches from the press site at KSC–the penultimate and final Space Shuttle launches and the February 2018 debut of the Falcon Heavy rocket–and that’s three more than I had any reasonable expectation of seeing 10 years ago.

5/5/2020: We still stink at passwords, and there’s really no excuse, Fast Company

I got an advance look at a study published by LastPass, the password-manager service that I used to use. The study confirmed earlier reports that people reuse way too many passwords but reported curiously high adoption of two-step verification–but did not gauge how many of us now employ password managers.

5/8/2020: All of the COVID-19 Data Upgrades That Cell Phone Carriers Are Offering, Wirecutter

I inventoried the ways that the big four wireless carriers as well as their prepaid brands and their major resellers have made it easier to share your smartphone’s bandwidth with nearby devices via its mobile-hotspot function. As you can see in the comments, it looks like I got one service’s information wrong; Google Fi has raised the limit at which it will slow down your connection, but not in a way that will lower most customers’ bills.

5/9/2020: Facebook’s Oversight Board, Al Araby

As one third of a panel discussion on this Arabic-language news network, I talked about Facebook’s new Oversight Board and its odds of changing things at the social network. My main point: While this equivalent of a Supreme Court is empowered to reverse Facebook decisions to take down or keep up content, Facebook’s automated rankings of the priority of content appear to be outside its orbit.

Weekly output: backup bandwidth for working from home, WFH advice, Twitter coronavirus rules, ISP data caps

The demolition of this spring’s business-travel schedule concluded Friday with the cancellation of the Geoint 2020 Symposium, a late-April conference in Tampa at which I was set to write up talks for the show daily as I did at last year’s event in San Antonio. This will hurt financially in a way that all of my other canceled conferences haven’t–those few days of deadline writing would have yielded a nice big check on top of the paid travel. Yet I feel like I can’t really complain when I look at how much uglier business has gotten for news organizations in just the past few weeks.

(Sorry if I’m getting you down. Please enjoy a picture of cherry blossoms, taken far from any crowds in D.C.)

3/16/2020: Working or learning from home: Telecoms give boost in bandwidth to keep us online, USA Today

I scrambled to write this Friday afternoon as telecoms began announcing moves to liberalize their data caps and other usage restrictions to accommodate all the Americans newly-forced to work or learn from home. Then I filed an update Saturday morning with news about two wireless carriers giving subscribers a lot more mobile-hotspot data.

3/18/2020: Confessions of a Work-from-Home Pro, Presidential Management Alumni Association

I still miss the Web chats I used to do for the Post, so I was happy to accept the invitation of this group for federal workers to do a group Zoom chat about the finer points of working from home. I hope I was able to help, although I don’t know if there are any great answers for people who live in small residences that don’t allow for much of a separate “work” area.

PMAA says they’ll post a recording of the session soon; when they do, I’ll add a link to it here it is.

3/20/2020: Twitter’s new coronavirus rules, Al Jazeera

The Arabic-language news network had me on via Skype to talk about Twitter’s new rules governing coronavirus disinformation. Although doing this remotely saved me a trip to the D.C. office, it also meant I struggled to hear the translator on top of the anchor; a couple of times, I had to hope I’d correctly heard his rendition of whatever she’d said in Arabic.

3/21/2020: The coronavirus might have just killed ISP data caps, Fast Company

I revisited the news I’d covered for USAT by asking several Internet providers and a few telecom analysts about the odds of now-waived data caps returning; the ISPs didn’t comment, but the analysts all agreed that they were most likely a coronavirus casualty that can’t be revived.

Updated 4/9/2020 to add a link to video of my session in PMAA’s wonderfully-named “Couchella” series. 

Weekly output: AT&T “unlimited” plans, Helium’s peer-to-peer IoT network

I spent Friday attending a tech-policy event at the Newseum’s conference space. That’s something I’ve done a great many times, but Friday’s visit looks like it might be my last ever, or at best my last for the next four years. The Newseum is closing at the end of the year before Johns Hopkins University starts a lengthy renovation of the building it bought in January, and I have no further events there on my calendar.

11/15/2019: AT&T’s latest smartphone plans offer new ways to limit ‘unlimited’ data, USA Today

My latest in an ongoing series of “here’s what’s up with your wireless carrier’s new sort-of-unlimited plans” columns unpacked recent changes at AT&T. My advice this time: When assessing unlimited-esque plans, the most important limit to assess is the threshold at which your data speeds can be “deprioritized,” followed by the cap on your use of the phone’s mobile-hotspot function.

11/15/2019: This startup wants to pay you—in cryptocurrency—to help build its network, Fast Company

It took a while for me to wrap my head around the cryptocurrency framework meant to underwrite Helium’s peer-to-peer Internet-of-Things wireless network. And then soon after the story went up, I got an e-mail from a Lime publicist asking that we remove the mention of them, because they hadn’t worked with Helium–even though Helium has repeatedly cited Lime as a partner, including a prominent mention on their site’s business page that vanished after I’d filed the post. Helium later responded that Lime had tested their tech before deciding not to pursue it… which still doesn’t square with Lime’s denial of any relationship. One thing I know for sure: I’m glad I thought to e-mail Lime while reporting the story to check up on Helium’s positioning of them. And if Lime’s reply to that message had arrived Thursday instead of Friday, this story would not have read the same.

Weekly output: hotspot data use, smart grids, 3D printing, quantum computing, Sheryl Sandberg

After clocking almost 24,000 miles in the air in a 12-day period, I’m not scheduled to fly anywhere until late July–and that time, I’m taking my family. This week’s trip was to Paris for the second installment of moderating panels at the Viva Technology conference (with a side order of meetings with local tech types set up by a PR firm hired by Business France, the government trade-promotion organization that paid for my airfare and lodging), and the flights seemed positively short after last week’s jaunt to Shanghai and back.

6/14/2017: Use a mobile hotspot? How to avoid busting data caps, USA Today

I heard from a reader who said he’d successfully dropped his residential broadband connection in favor of tethering off his phone; I worried he’d exceed his wireless plan’s cap on mobile-hotspot use, so I wrote this how-to. It ran in the paper’s print edition Friday.

6/15/2017: Smart Grids Are Getting Smarter, Viva Technology

My conversation with LO3 Energy’s Scott Kessler and Upside Energy’s Graham Oakes involved some unexpected difficulty: I woke up around 3:30 in the morning and couldn’t get back to sleep for the next two hours. I haven’t had jet lag that bad in Europe in a couple of years, but spending the previous week six time zones to the right (or 18 to the left, depending on how you look at it) could not have helped.

6/15/2017: How Industrial​ ​3D​ ​Printing Is Helping Startups Go from Zero to Factory​, Viva Technology

Having his panel with Product of Things’ Moriya Kassis and re:3D’s Samantha Snabes come almost right after the other meant I didn’t have a chance to realize my fatigue again. Afterwards, I thought I could get in a nap in the speakers’ lounge–but French president Emmanuel Macron’s visit there made that impossible. (My Yahoo writeup of the pro-startup agenda Macron talked up in his Viva Tech speech should post Monday morning.)

6/16/2017: Quantum Computing, Cryptography And Our Privacy, Viva Technology

I felt like less of a zombie for this chat with Kudelski Security’s Jean-Philippe Aumasson and Shlomi Dolev of the wonderfully-named Secret Double Octopus. And I learned a few things about quantum computing in the process, which is how a panel is supposed to work.

6/18/2017: Sheryl Sandberg has 2 useful pieces of advice for Facebook advertisers, Yahoo Finance

Facebook’s chief operating officer spoke by video to Viva Tech co-founder Maurice Lévy at the end of Friday’s sessions, which made for some rotten timing in terms of my writing the story and then deal with edits. The lesson I take from that: It’s a privilege to be able to go to Paris for work.