How I inspect laptops at tech events

BERLIN–I’ve spent the last three days here at the IFA tech trade show poking and prodding at new laptops to see if they might be worth your money. That inspection has gotten more complicated in recent years, thanks to some new features I welcome and a few others I could do without.

The following are the traits I now look for after such obvious items as weight, screen size, if that screen is the rare Windows laptop display that doesn’t respond to touch, advertised battery life, storage, memory and overall apparent sturdiness.

Acer Swift 7 close-up

  • Screen resolution: On smaller screens, 4K resolution eats into battery life without making a meaningful difference in picture quality–from most viewing distances, you can’t even see the pixels on a 1080p laptop screen anyway.
  • USB-C charging: Now that I have a laptop and a phone that can both use the same charger, I never want to go back to needing a proprietary power cable for a computer. You shouldn’t either.
  • USB ports: Laptops that only include USB-C ports can be thinner than those with full-sized USB ports, but I’m willing to accept a little bulk to avoid having to pop in an adapter for older USB cables or peripherals.
  • Other expansion options: For people who still use standalone cameras, SD or microSD Card slots will ease data transfer. I also look for HDMI ports, which ease plugging the laptop into a TV. (Since my own laptop doesn’t have one of those: Anybody have a recommendation for a USB-C-to-HDMI cable?) And now that I’ve seen a laptop here without a headphone jack, I need to confirm that audio output’s presence too.
  • Backlit keyboard: Typing without one in a darkened hall is no fun. While I’m looking for that, I’ll also see if the trackpad is governed by Microsoft’s simple Precision Touchpad control or janky third-party software.
  • Webcam placement: Some laptops stash the webcam not at the top of the screen but below it, which leaves video callers stuck with an up-the-nostril perspective of the laptop user.
  • Windows Hello: Fingerprint-recognition sensors are cheap, while having to type in a password or PIN every time you log in imposes its own tax on your time. I’m not so doctrinaire about Windows Hello facial recognition if fingerprint recognition is there.

This list is a little involved, but on the upside I no longer have to worry about things like WiFi or serial ports. So now that you know what I fuss over when inspecting laptops at tech events like this, what else should I be looking for on each new computer?

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Weekly output: Alexis Ohanian, Snapchat, fitness gadgets, Mac webcam

As I type this, I’m on my way to my 17th CES in a row. My laptop and phone have advanced a great deal since 1998, that’s for sure.

DisCo Ohanian interview

1/2/2014: Reddit’s Alexis Ohanian: Current IP Laws Aren’t Much Of A Friend to Startups, Disruptive Competition Project

My final contribution at DisCo was an interview with Reddit’s founder, who’s since become both an investor and activist on many tech-policy issues. We talked about how a balanced intellectual-property system helped make Reddit possible–and how the same system doesn’t always offer much help for small companies whose own IP has been infringed.

1/2/2014: Snapchat experienced a security breach, WTOP

I talked to D.C.’s news-radio station about Snapchat’s inexcusably lax approach to security and how it’s harder to change a compromised phone number than a password.

1/3/2014: New fitness gadgets, Fox 5 News

WTTG’s Sarah Simmons quizzed me on what activity-tracking gadgets like the Jawbone Up and the FitBit can do to help you track your exercise–and how they’re at risk of being made obsolete by tools built into smartphones.

1/4/2014: Q&A: How can I re-install my laptop’s webcam?, USA Today

The column recounts how resetting my MacBook Air’s System Management Controller cured it of an inability to see its own webcam… except that when I opened the laptop this morning, the problem had returned. Either I didn’t do the SMC reset correctly, or this Mac has a deeper ailment. Either way, I hope I don’t have to Skype or FaceTime from this machine this week.

On Sulia, I inventoried the memes I ignored on Twitter this year (“Duck Dynasty” should have been on that list too, as I’ve never watched the show, have no interest in watching it and don’t care who’s on it), wondered why Google Now’s estimate of my cycling mileage in December missed my Capital Bikeshare rides, whined about Chrome asking for saved passwords on every restart (and then updated that post to share a fix), endorsed a great little Mac plug-in called “WordService” that adds editing tools to just about every other app, and teed off on Snapchat for its arrogant refusal to apologize.