IFA extras: tidbits from Europe’s big gadget gathering

BERLIN–I’ll be leaving this fair city many megabytes heavier, between my notes about the IFA electronics trade show and all the photos and videos I’ve taken. Here are some observations I had to leave out of my my reports for the Disruptive Competition Project and at Discovery News.

Rack of TVs• The “Air Command” contextual menu in Samsung’s Galaxy Note 3 strikes me as yet another example of something that looks great in a demo but will rarely see much use outside of that. You’re supposed to extract the stylus, press its button, tap the screen and then choose something off the Air Command palette that may itself open up further options: Does that sound like something you’ll want to do standing up?

• This may get me some hate mail, but Windows laptops are showing more creativity than MacBooks. The ability of more of them to convert to tablets, either by folding or detaching a screen, offers a level of utility unavailable from Apple–and since these convertible models accept touchscreen input, Windows 8 fits better on them than on my rapidly aging ThinkPad.

• But some Windows vendors have basic quality issues to address. The Toshiba convertible I inspected Wednesday visibly flexed when I pressed the plastic in front of the keyboard; when I eyed the seam between its screen bezel and the back of the lid, its backlight glowed through the gap. An Acer tablet, meanwhile, couldn’t scroll through the Windows 8 start screen without blurring noticeably.

• LED lights have the same prominence here that compact fluorescents had at CES a decade ago. (We’ve swapped out CFLs for LEDs in a few spots at home and like them a bunch.)

Sphero Revealed• The Sphero robotic ball I reviewed for Discovery the other week now has a “Revealed” version with some clear sections that let you see its innards, and its makers Orbotix will update the iOS and Android Sphero app so you can just drive the thing without the distracting game mechanics I called out in that post.

• It’s remarkable how little space 3D TVs got here, a mere three years after its big debut at CES. And not all of the 3D TV exhibits here made a good case for the technology: TCL’s demo of glasses-free viewing looked awful, as if I were watching it through wavy 1920s-vintage windows.

• I came here hoping to finally settle on my next camera, but I’m still on the fence about a few models that offer a larger sensor, a decent zoom, GPS and the ability to connect to a phone via WiFi–or which of those qualities I’ll have to sacrifice. Any thoughts on Panasonic’s ZS-30, Sony’s DSC-HX50V and RX100 Mark II and Canon’s SX280 and S120?

• Cameras have been using WiFi to connect to smartphones for a few years, but now both Sony and Panasonic are adding NFC wireless to some new models to automate that pairing process, in much the same way NFC helps two Android phones set up an Android Beam file transfer.

• Strangest neologism heard here: “Glancivity,” a noun thrown out by Samsung’s Pranav Mistry at Tuesday’s event introducing the Note 3 and the Galaxy Gear watch. This post has already run on too long to have much glancivity, right?

• Number of times my phone’s battery ran out: two. That’s pretty good, considering that one was the fault of my laptop for shutting off power to its USB port overnight.

• Number of Evernote sync conflicts: two. Also better than I expected, given the wildly fluctuating bandwidth availability. (I’ll have to whine about that later.)

Updated at 7:30 p.m. to link to Sphero’s announcement and clarify the status of this reversal.

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Where’s a conference-scheduling cabal when you need one?

The tech-and-media hive mind has not been doing the best job this year of keeping its own events straight.

Overlapping eventsTake last month. I realized only after I’d booked my travel and made arrangements with multiple editors to cover CEA’s CE Week conference in New York that it shared two days with the great Computers, Freedom & Privacy event in D.C.–and just in time for the first rounds of NSA-snooping revelations to get people chattering away at the latter event. Oops.

In September, the pan-European IFA electronics trade show in Berlin barely avoids overlapping TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco. I got a lot out of covering both last year, but this time I’d have to hop on a pre-dawn flight out of Dulles the day after returning from Berlin. No thanks.

(Disclosure: IFA covered much of the travel costs for me and a large group of U.S. journalists last year and plans to do the same this year. But if I had to self-finance either trip, I don’t know that my choice would differ: I’d have an easier time selling stories out of Berlin than in the Bay Area, surrounded by half the tech media in America. Plus, Disrupt isn’t the only big pitch conference that time of year.)

In October, the Demo conference in Santa Clara, Calif., runs through the first day of the Online News Association’s annual conference. And that has swapped last year’s San Francisco venue for one in Atlanta. I could take a red-eye after Demo wraps up and only miss a third and change of ONA–not counting time spent nodding off the afternoon of my arrival–but then I’d eat that much of the value of my registration fee. (Had my ONA panel proposal been accepted, I could go for free, but that’s neither here nor there.)

I realize these calendar constraints fall well within the realm of first-world problems, and that aside from grandstanding product launches, event organizers have to book times and places many months in advance. But if we can’t have an actual cabal to restore order to the conference universe, isn’t this the kind of market inefficiency that ambitious dot-coms should be itching to fix disrupt with some buzzword-compliant online mechanism?

All kidding aside, I do need to decide which places get a spot on my October schedule by July 15, when ONA’s early-bird pricing ends: Santa Clara, Atlanta or both. What would you do?

(7/13: Realized I had missed an opportunity to use the verb “disrupt” and take a swipe at those overblown product-launch events that tech companies, perhaps under the delusion that they are all Apple, have been staging increasingly often.)

Conference badge design best practices

I spend an unhealthy amount of my time walking around strange places with a piece of paper suspended from my neck by a lanyard, courtesy of all of the conferences on my schedule. A partial selection from the last 12 months: CES, CTIADemoGoogle I/O, IFA, Mobile World Congress, ONASXSW, Tech Policy Summit and TechCrunch Disrupt.

Conference badges

This experience bothers me more than it should, because almost everybody screws up the basic job of designing a conference badge. And it shouldn’t be that hard–these things only have to perform three functions:

  • Tell other people who we are.
  • Store relevant information we’d need to know throughout the event.
  • Give us a place to stash business cards.

And yet. At most conferences, you’ll immediately see people whose badges have anonymized their wearers by flipping around to show the reverse side. You can fix this by printing the same information on both sides of the badge (see, for instance, SXSW), but it’s easier to have the lanyard attach to both sides of the badge instead of leaving it dangling from the center (something Macworld badges got right).

The design of the front of the badge should also be easy to solve, but many events botch that job too: first name in large type, last name in smaller type, organizational affiliation. Adding your city and Twitter handle helps but isn’t always essential.

What about the back? Too many badges just leave this valuable real estate blank. At a minimum, it should list the event’s WiFi network and, if necessary, password. And if the schedule is compact enough to fit on one page, why not add that as well? But if that requires turning the badge into a booklet–like at last year’s I/O–you should think about just posting the schedule in a lot of places around the venue.

Some badges now embed NFC tags. At this year’s I/O, for instance, tapping mine with my Android phone opened up a link in the Play Store to Google’s I/O attendee app; when event staff did the same, their phones would bring up my registration information. That’s not a bad feature to have, but don’t make it mandatory to participate in some parts of the event.

Finally, what contains the badge? The multiple-pocket, wallet-esque badge holders some events provide are overkill–too big, too many spots to misplace a card or a receipt–and usually eliminate the informational utility of the reverse side. A simple clear vinyl holder should provide sufficient room to hold a bunch of business cards to hand out to other people.

Thank you for your attention to this, event planners of the world.

Comparing IFA to CES

BERLIN–I’ve been to CES 15 times and I’ve only attended IFA once, so I don’t have an enormous amount of experience with this trade show to compare it to the one that’s been welded to my calendar since 1998. But a few things jump out at me.

One is attendance. Although CES doesn’t draw as many attendees–156,153 this January, compared to 239,518 for last year’s IFA–the former convention feels more crowded. I think that’s because IFA, unlike CES, sells tickets to the public (last year, about 105,000 people) but doesn’t admit them until after two days reserved for the press and other “trade visitors.”

Another reason has to be the location. The Las Vegas Convention Center consists of three enormous halls large enough to store airplane hangars, while the Berlin Messe sprawls across 27 smaller structures. The LVCC pays for that simpler setup with perpetually gridlocked connecting passages, while this facility offers more, and more confusing, ways to get around. Some of these connections can only be described as Escher-esque.

The Berlin Messe also offers more food options with shorter lines–and beer on tap–and its bathrooms seem less disgusting than the LVCC’s.

The selection of exhibitors at IFA and CES doesn’t overlap nearly as much as I thought. While you have the same usual electronics-industry suspects–LG, Panasonic, Samsung, Sony, Toshiba but, of course, not Apple–IFA draws fewer obscure Asian manufacturers but collects far more appliance vendors.

These companies, many European-only operations that I’d never heard of until getting here, fill the lower levels of eight halls. I have never felt so inadequate about my oven, dishwasher, refrigerator, washer and dryer until now. Another, more pleasant, side effect: All of these manufacturers feel compelled to show off how well these machines work by offering snacks and beverages prepared with them, causing this part of IFA to double as a cooking show.

Far more actual news happens at CES, so that makes it more relevant overall–covering technology without going to that show borders on journalistic malpractice. (As you know, the Consumer Electronics Association pays me to blog for them, but I would have written the previous sentence anytime in the last 15 years.)

Getting to and from the show and around the city, however, is no contest: The U-Bahn shuts down the Las Vegas Monorail in every way. Berlin itself is more my kind of city, with things like walkable neighborhoods, mostly human-scale architecture and trees that can grow without constant irrigation. Yeah, Vegas has casinos–but there is one a short walk from the press center here, on the third floor of Hall 7. I think I’ll show a little more common sense than I do at most CESes and save that distraction for some other time.

(Updated 9/5 with an embedded slideshow of my Flickr set from the IFA trip, included after the jump.)

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