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: Verizon admin-fee increase, mmWave 5G smart repeaters, White House AI policy, Pixel 7 calling features, alternative social platforms, U.S.-EU privacy framework, Mark Vena podcast

In addition to the work you see below, I also spent most of Tuesday afternoon volunteering at a vaccination clinic–about a week and a half after getting my bivalent booster at the same clinic.

Screenshot of the column as seen in USAT's iPad app, where it's topped by a video explaining how C-band 5G might interfere with radar altimeters on airliners.10/3/2022: Did Verizon just raise prices? Administrative fee increase is another price hike, USA Today

Corporate executives apparently continue to believe they can cram a price hike into a fine-print fee without customers noticing. The e-mails I’ve gotten since this column ran suggest that this belief is grossly incorrect.

10/4/2022: A new pitch for mmWave: smart repeaters, Light Reading

I spent Thursday morning hearing out a variety of pitches for millimeter-wave 5G wireless broadband’s latest possibilities, then filed this report for one of my favorite trade-pub clients that included some caveats from industry experts.

10/4/2022: White House AI Bill of Rights Looks to Rein in ‘Unaccountable’ Algorithms, PCMag

I thought this would be a quick post to write, then realized that this document ran about 30,000 words.

10/6/2022: With the Pixel 7 series, Google tries again to answer the call of harried phone users, Fast Company

This story might have come out differently if I had not been forced to rely on a non-Pixel Android phone, devoid of the Pixel-only calling features I’ve gotten used to in recent years.

10/6/2022: Only 6% of US Adults Get News From Alt-Social Platforms Like Truth Social, PCMag

The Pew Research Center gave me an early look at this study… and then I still didn’t file it until after the embargo expired, because I had too many other things going on Thursday morning.

10/7/2022: Biden Executive Order Implements New Trans-Atlantic Data Privacy Safeguards, PCMag

Another executive-branch tech-policy document became another long read for me this week.

10/8/2022: S02 E37 – SmartTechCheck Podcast, Mark Vena

This week’s edition of my usual podcast (also available in video form) featured a new addition to the usual gang of tech journalists: my PCMag colleague and fellow New Jerseyan Angela Moscaritolo.

A humbling gadget-handling lesson

The past four weeks have involved four work trips that took me to events in two other countries and two other states, with travel fatigue compounded by unchacteristically bad sleep in hotel rooms and jet lag from going five time zones to the right, twice, and then three to the left–so of course the place where I would break my phone was less than a mile from my home.

On my walk to Metro to go to Saturday afternoon’s Nationals game, as a drizzle started to turn into real rain, I thought I’d check to see if the team had announced a rain delay. I grabbed my Pixel 5a, opened Twitter, checked the Nats’ Twitter feed and saw an announcement that the game would start half an hour late, and one-handed the phone back into my pocket–except the rain-slicked device slipped free and fell to the sidewalk with a sickening little splat.

A Pixel 5a's screen shows a wide-ranging web of cracks, with trees above reflected in the glass.

Cursing too loudly at myself, I picked up the phone and saw a web of cracks sparkling out from the bottom right, plus a smaller crack on the right above the power button.

First thoughts: You dumbass! You couldn’t have waited until you were in the station and out of the rain?! I mean, I had somehow never shattered a phone’s screen before; the worst I’ve done is drop my Nexus 4 years ago at just the right angle to put a crack in its glass back cover.

Second thoughts: Now what?

The phone that I bought barely 10 months ago not only looks hopelessly janky but makes any sort of onscreen interaction a trying experience. It is usable only under duress.

(Having my phone borderline offline did at least force me to experience the game much more in the moment, in between hearing my friend Anthony recount his recent experience hiking to the top of Kilimanjaro.)

Then I remembered the deal Google announced with iFixit in April to provide “genuine parts” for Pixel devices. Alas, that DIY hub’s $99.99 Pixel 5a repair kit is out of stock at the moment. And while I could obviously pay any third-party shop to fix my phone, that would probably cost more and certainly wouldn’t yield any how-to recap for me to sell somewhere afterwards.

Google no longer lists the Pixel 5a in its online store, and while the Pixel 6a that replaced it seems to be a fine phone in its own right, it lacks a headphone jack and otherwise doesn’t represent a huge advance over the 2021-vintage 5a. There’s also the upcoming, also headphone-jack-deprived Pixel 7–but as I trust I’ve made clear, I’m not a fan of buying the next high-profile phone on the day it ships.

Speaking two weeks ago at a conference hosted by the refurbished-device marketplace BackMarket reminded me that buying a refurb Pixel 5a is an option as well. But unless my phone abuse inflicted injuries beyond my 5a’s screen, I’d feel a little dirty spending a large fraction of the original device’s purchase price when it only needs that one major component replaced.

(No, the iPhone 14 is not an option. Neither is any other iPhone until Apple kills off its Lightning cable. I am so done needing proprietary charging cables.)

Fortunately, I don’t have to decide just yet. My old Pixel 3a continues to gather dust at home as a backup device, and I also still happen to have too many of the budget-priced phones I tested for CNN Underscored at the start of the year. And since it’s been a while since I’ve drunk deeply of Samsung’s flavor of Android, that makes my temporary decision for me: I’ll spend a few weeks, hopefully not more, with a Galaxy A52 A13 5G (I forgot that I’d already shipped back the A52) as my daily phone. And I will do my utmost not to drop the damn thing.