CES 2022 travel-tech report: a new phone and a renewed laptop

Uncharacteristically light attendance at CES this week allowed me to pack uncharacteristically light. With so many tech-news sites canceling plans to send journalists to the Consumer Technology Association’s annual gathering, I knew I wouldn’t need my traditional CES accessory of a travel power strip to free up outlets in any crowded press room.

I also opted not to pack any of the WiFi hotspots I had sitting on my desk from the last update of Wirecutter’s guide to same. Even in the likely event of the show’s WiFi being its usual inadequate self, I figured I had sufficient backup bandwidth in the form of the new Pixel 5a in my pocket, the expanded mobile-hotspot quota on my account, and the T-Mobile 5G network my previous phone couldn’t use.

Photo shows my HP Spectre x360 laptop sitting on the wood floor of my home office, on top of which sit my CES badge, the laptop's charger, a USB-C cable to charge the phone, a USB-to-Ethernet adapter, headphones and my Pixel 5a phone.

My other smart move before heading out to Vegas was replacing my late-2017 HP laptop’s battery with an aftermarket unit, a bit of laptop surgery I did in October. All of this helped make CES much less of a gadget-abuse scenario in my return to covering it in-person after last year’s distanced, digital-only conference.

The Google Pixel 5a, the only new device in my messenger bag, acquitted itself especially well. On a good day, its battery can run well into the next afternoon, and even at CES–where I did rely frequently on the phone’s mobile-hotspot feature to get my laptop online–I never saw this Android device’s battery get into the under-33% state that would get me nervous. My charging the phone at lunch happened out of habit, not necessity.

I also quickly grew to appreciate how the 5a’s wide-angle lens helped capture some of the bigger exhibits on and off the show floor. The sole quibble I can think of: The phone reported that it restarted overnight Friday morning, and I’d like to know what caused that crash.

My HP Spectre x360, meanwhile, was one of the oldest items in my bag but felt much newer with that replacement battery. It was nice to sit down to watch a panel and not need a spot next to a power outlet. And for whatever reason, this computer ran much more reliably than it had at CES two years ago, without any mysterious reboots sometimes interrupted by boot-device-not-found errors.

Lower CES attendance, estimated by CTA Friday at “well over 40,000,” did not banish CES bandwidth struggles. My laptop did not always connect to conference WiFi networks–have I mentioned that Windows 10’s “Can’t connect to this network” is not a helpful error message?–but all three press rooms had abundant Ethernet cables. The $10 and change I spent on a USB-to-Ethernet adapter in 2012 has turned out to be an exceptional deal.

As before, I took all of my notes in Evernote, but this time the app generated a few note conflicts when I switched from phone to laptop and back. If I could click or tap a “sync now” button before each device switch, I would–but Evernote removed that bit of UI out of a belief that its automatic sync is now reliable enough to make it obsolete.

The other app I leaned on heavily during my time at CES was the conference’s own mobile app. I hadn’t bothered with that in previous years, but learning that CTA had hired Web Summit to provide this event’s digital platform made me want to try it. Unsurprisingly, the CES app looks and works like the Web Summit and Collision apps, so I didn’t have much to figure out.

As at those other conferences, I leaned on this app to manage my schedule while ignoring in-app connection requests in favor of the kind of networking impossible at last year’s CES: masked-face-to-masked-face conversations that ended with an exchange of business cards.

A laptop aging only somewhat gracefully

My not-yet-four-year-old laptop has spent most of the last year and a half parked on a desk and plugged into a power outlet, but the HP Spectre x360 I bought in November of 2017 is still showing its age in ways that are increasingly hard to overlook.

The most obvious sign of its time is the decaying battery life. It’s not so much that I can’t count on the battery to make it past two hours; it’s more an issue that the percentage-left estimates in the taskbar seem a lot less reliable once the computer falls below 30 percent. And that if I leave this laptop in sleep mode but unplugged, the battery seems to need much less time to exhaust itself.

Photo shows my laptop with its charging cable plugged in.

HP’s hardware-diagnostics app now rates the battery’s condition as “weak,” which doesn’t make a lot of sense considering it’s only seen 380 or so charge cycles out of the 1,000 for which it’s rated. If I had a major tech conference coming up, I would be looking at prices for a new battery. But with Black Hat behind me as an event I covered remotely, it now doesn’t look like I’ll have a battery-destroying, laptop-torturing tech event on my calendar before CES 2022.

The exterior of the laptop doesn’t look too banged up in comparison–unlike my previous MacBook Air at a younger age, none of the keys have had their labels start to wear thin. The hinges that let me rotate the screen 360 degrees and turn the device into a laptop–one of the primary reasons I ditched Apple to buy a Windows laptop–remain sturdy, even if the one on the left looks a little out of alignment.

But the rubber strips on the underside that were supposed to help it stay in place on a slick surface have almost entirely peeled away, making the bottom of the laptop look decidedly janky.

At least the computer itself still seems fast enough, its 512-gigabyte solid state drive is not that close to being exhausted, and Microsoft has yet to rule it too old for any Windows 10 updates.

Four years is a good run for any laptop, so the prospect of having to buy a new one doesn’t bug me that much. But I do wish I could get some extended hands-on time with upcoming hardware from the major vendors–which I won’t get until I can travel to a battery-destroying, laptop-torturing tech event like CES.

My $5 solution to woeful webcams on my laptop and desktop

It’s only taken me seven months of fumbling iteration, but I think I’ve finally found a video-conferencing setup that doesn’t leave me yearning for an upgrade to my hardware right after a video call.

That’s taken a while. Back when All This started, I thought the iSight camera on my aging iMac could suffice. But while it delivers fine footage for its 720p resolution, having it attached to a computer essentially fixed in place left me with bad lighting–when I face the screen, daylight only hits one side of my face.

My HP Spectre x360 laptop (at almost three years old it also now must be considered “aging”) features a 1080p camera and is no problem to move, even if I can only elevate it by parking it atop a stack of books. But while I knew its video could look a little washed out, I didn’t realize how bad its white balance could get until I saw it turn a dark-blue shirt bright purple. Next!

I did a few panels with a thoroughly janky setup: my iPad mini 5, propped upright between the keyboard and screen on my laptop. That tablet has a much better camera, but that excuse for a tripod limits my options for positioning it. And pressing the iPad into service as an expensive webcam meant I couldn’t use it to read my notes for a talk.

Installing the Zoom app on my phone solved the positioning issues–I have a tripod and a phone-clamp attachment–and let me easily address any producer’s request to move the camera just a bit up or town. But the Pixel 3a’s front camera is nowhere as good as its back camera, and its microphone can’t match the USB mic that I can plug into my desktop or laptop.

I finally got around to researching apps that could let my laptop or desktop borrow my phone’s camera–meaning, the higher-quality one on its back–as their own. I followed Whitson Gordon’s advice in PCMag to use Dev47AppsDroidCam, a duo of Android and Windows apps that can communicate via WiFi or USB. Getting rid of the ads in the Android app and enabling a high-definition option requires its $4.99 Pro version, an expense I gladly paid.

DroidCam’s Android and Windows halves aren’t much to look at, and the Windows app was fussy to set up. But once the two devices are paired, the software just works, reliably adding DroidCam as an input option in Zoom. 

Optimizing this setup required configuring the phone and laptop to link via USB to reduce the risks of overloading a WiFi network or introducing some lag in my video, which in turn entailed some entry-level Android tinkering to enable Developer Options and then USB Debugging. And now I have a video-conferencing setup that lets me position my best camera wherever an event producer wants, use a desktop USB microphone for the best sound quality, and keep my iPad free for consulting notes.

Things would be easier still with the Wirecutter-endorsed Logitech C920S webcam. But that gadget must have key components made out of unobtainium, considering its perpetually out-of-stock status.

I thought I’d finally broken through when Best Buy’s site reported it last week as available for delivery today to my nearest store, so I eagerly punched in my order. But as today ground on without a pickup notice from that retailer, I knew what was coming: a “Rob, there’s a delay with your order” e-mail sent at 6:22 p.m. 

Update, 10/5/2020: To my pleasant surprise, the Logitech webcam was available for pickup on Friday. Video quality on it seems to be great, so I’m sure some other malfunction will arise on my next video call.  

Recommended Precision Touchpad settings

I’ve yet to ease into a new computer without having to fuss with some of the default settings, and the HP Spectre x360 laptop sitting on this desk has fit right into the pattern.

Most of the tweaking has involved its touchpad, because I’ve always found the defaults in Windows to be too jumpy. (I’ve said the same about some Mac touchpad defaults.) But after a few days of clicking around the stock Synaptics software, I realized I should first dump that for drivers supporting Microsoft’s more elegant Precision Touchpad software.

The directions I found on Reddit (embedded here after the jump) worked, and then I could easily shut off the touch behaviors I couldn’t stand.

  • “Touchpad sensitivity”: I changed this from the default “Medium” to “Low” because, again, jumpy touchpads bother me. I may try turning it back off to see if disabling the following two options made the standard sensitivity acceptable.
  • “Tap with a single finger to single-click”: This is the one setting I change on every laptop. If I want to click, I’m more than happy to press down so the touchpad makes an audible click; having it treat a stray touch as a click leaves me randomly dumping the cursor into documents and windows and feeling generally stabby as a result.
  • “Press the lower right corner of the touchpad to right-click”: I disabled this because it’s easier for me to remember to tap with two fingers to right-click than to keep track of which side of this invisible line I’m about to tap.

I hope this advice–which should also work on any other laptop running Microsoft’s Precision Touchpad software–makes for a more pleasant laptop computing experience. If you have other suggested settings changes, please share them in the comments.

Continue reading

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?