Here are updates on two products I’ve reviewed before: the Chevy Volt and Apple Watch.

Chevy Volt

Here’s my update on the 2013 Chevy Volt I bought nearly two years ago. I’ve driven 12,800 miles and just took it in for its scheduled free maintenance — still no cost for any service.

The car continues to perform well with no real mechanical or electrical issues. There are no rattles or creaks and the Volt runs just as it did when new. The brakes are over 80 percent of new, and the paint and trim are pristine with no sign of fading.

The rubber air dam at the front bottom of the car has become partially torn from running into a few curbs while parking. It’s been a recurring issue with other owners as well. The air dam is $300 to replace, but the dealer recommended just cutting the damaged part off and not replacing it.

I’ve averaged 114 miles per gallon driving a combination of battery (70 percent) and gasoline power (30 percent). My trips have been mostly less than 50 miles a day with several trips to Los Angeles and Orange County. For those trips, the trade off — and benefit — of the Volt is being able to drive in the HOV lanes.

As I earlier reported, I’ve encountered a small error on the information display: The pie chart showing the miles driven on electricity and gas for each trip sometimes erroneously shows 0.2 miles driven on gas when I start from a fully charged car.

GM tells me they continue to be baffled by this. I’ve lived with it, but I expect better follow-up from the company.

A freeze of the console, which I noted in the most recent report, has not reoccurred, but I experienced one strange event. When I got into the car it didn’t detect my key and asked me to insert it into a “key pocket” to start.

This required a call to OnStar to find out what it meant, because the manual made no mention of this. The key pocket turned out to be a small hole under the rubber mat in a dashboard storage compartment that allowed the car to better detect the key.

Apparently, the key fob’s battery was low.

I continue to get close to 40 miles per charge. The capacity has slightly increased over the past few months, perhaps because of warmer weather.

To sum up my experience, I find the Volt to be a terrific automobile. It’s been reliable and is still fun to drive. My dealer experience has been excellent (Weseloh Chevrolet in Carlsbad), providing quick service and a loaner car when needed.

The Volt is advanced yet practical, and affordable yet well-equipped.

A 2015 Volt fully loaded with forward-collision alert, rear camera, navigation, leather seats, lane-departure warning, cruise control, back-up camera and keyless entry costs about $39,000.

Federal and state rebates of up to $9,000 are available.

Chevy has announced that an all-new second-generation Volt is coming in January with a much sleeker body style and a 50-miles-per-charge capability.

Apple Watch

I’ve been using an Apple Watch for the past month on loan to me from Apple. It’s the stainless model with a mesh strap, selling for $649.

I’ve used it much more extensively than my earlier sample, a $349 aluminum model with rubber strap that I had for only a few days. Both models perform exactly the same.

My assessment is not all that different from earlier: It’s a well-executed, attractive watch, but there’s no compelling reason to buy and wear it … yet.

This time around I had more time to learn how to use it, and more time led to a better experience. Because its learning curve is steeper than with other Apple products, you really need a week or two to become comfortable with it and learn its features.

You need time to figure out which way to swipe the screen to access other functions, as it’s not at all intuitive.

In addition, settings for the watch are scattered among three places: on the watch itself, on the watch App on your phone, and in your iPhone settings.

I’ve had to use Google many times to figure things out. Apple does not include adequate instructions and assumes you’ll use the Web to get answers. This is a product that needs an instruction book.

This time I’ve been using the watch for many new things. I’ve set alarms and timers on it, and answered and declined calls by touching a button on the display. I’ve been alerted to appointments and viewed my schedule each day.

I’ve used it to navigate just by speaking my destination into the speaker. Its Siri function generally worked well.

I still find it difficult to check the time without an arm shake and find its health-monitoring functions to be less than comprehensive. It doesn’t record steps or calories like other devices, but it does remind me to get up and walk every hour, which is good when I’m glued to my computer. It’s also sent reminders when I’ve been in a movie theater or driving at 60 mph on Interstate 5.

The true test is whether you automatically wear it every day. I didn’t at first, but now I wear it more often. I’ve gotten to like screening calls, getting reminders and alarms for appointments, and initiating calls.

When the iPad and iPhone first were introduced, each had more compelling uses for them, whether it was reading a book or making a call. And each was a self-contained product, not dependent on another.

With the Watch, there’s no compelling app, but more of a series of little things it does with your iPhone. As you learn more about these features, the accumulation may get you to a point where you find it’s something you will use every day — but that time will take about a month.

I think the Watch will be a formidable product over time as new apps are developed for it, and as Apple continues to add new capabilities. If you’re tempted, buy the aluminum model, which is almost half the price and does just what the more expensive models do.


We’ve seen some astounding developments in consumer technology since I began writing this column 12½ years ago, but also have had to put up with many of the issues that are associated with these advancements. This week I take a look at some of the important developments in consumer tech, both good and bad.

Among all the technologies I’ve covered, the smartphone, in particular the iPhone, ranks among the top consumer tech product of the decade. Literally a computer in your pocket, it wasn’t until cellphones were freed from the constraints of the cellular companies that they became what they are today.

Remember when Verizon charged to send an image, assessed a monthly charge for providing directions, and charged for each text we sent? And who would have thought making calls would become one of the least important functions?

Tablets were another huge hit, the first device that brought computer technology to a much wider age group, from 2-year-old children to 80-year-olds. You’d be hard-pressed to find a toddler that doesn’t have that finger and thumb zooming motion down pat.

If the iPhone is the best hardware of the past decade, then Facebook and Google Search are the best software products.

Who would have thought Facebook could do so much to enhance people’s relationships all over the world, create an efficient way to find lost friends, contact existing friends, and stay close to others?

Google Search is an amazing capability that allows anyone to check any fact in a few seconds, saving huge amounts of time to research it.

One of the biggest phenomena in recent years is replacing old, inefficient and expensive services with new ones that shake up conventional models by using the Internet and smartphone apps. Uber and Airbnb are good examples. Both have filled needs that weren’t being met or have made vast improvements to old models.

The government’s GPS satellite technology, originally created for the military, combined with personal navigation devices and Google Maps, eliminated the need for planning routes and putting an end to family squabbles about which way to turn.

But with all of this new technology, there’s a cost: privacy. Just about every company can learn who we are, where we live and what we do. They know our likes, dislikes, friends, political views and almost what we think. There are not only companies that want to sell us things, but Internet outlaws who want to steal our identity, credit cards and personal information to sell.

Because of the services we accept in exchange for giving up our privacy, we’ve been followed on the Internet, in the car and soon in the home. Google didn’t pay $3.2 billion for a thermostat company to help us manage our home temperature; they bought it to put a gadget in our home to track us and listen to us — all with the intention of offering us this dubious convenience in exchange for better targeting their advertising.

We’ve been bombarded with advertising everywhere we go, ostensibly matched to our interests and buying intentions — all in the name of making advertising more effective. But this targeting is far from ideal, as it is unable to discern what we intend to buy from what we actually bought, serving us the same ads wherever we go.

And the firewall that once existed between advertiser and editorial content has been compromised to such an extent that it’s hard to know what articles are accurate or created to get more clicks. Anyone can write about anything, and it’s incumbent on us to better understand the integrity of the sources.

Technology is responsible for a number of annoyances, including the unceasing flood of robocalls and junk faxes. Phone companies could end them in a moment, but they intend to get out of the landline business so have ignored one of the great annoyances of our time.

Another negative is the barrage of nastiness that permeates online forums from the Wall Street Journal to the Huffington Post to gadget blogs to any forum where people can express their views. They’re filled with venom and hatred, mostly from a vocal minority that has no manners or common decency.

The division between work time and playtime has been eroded with products such as smartphones that intrude on dinner conversations, and make it more difficult to disconnect from the pressures of work. No better example is Amazon’s expectations from its employees, whose 7days/24 hours culture was covered in Sunday’s New York Times. If only half of it were true, it’s damning.

On the other hand, we’re at the precipice of some amazing advancements that will continue to improve our lives. Self-driving cars are coming. The technology exists and it’s mostly a matter of setting regulations and putting all the existing pieces of technology together in the car. Fuel-efficient cars, including electric and hybrid, are here and continue to gain in popularity.

We can look forward to the demise of cable TV as we know it. Instead of being forced to pay hundreds a month for stations we never watch, we will be able to buy programming a la carte from an assortment of suppliers, including Apple, Netflix, Amazon, HBO, ESPN and many others.

This is going to force broadband suppliers to improve their speeds or face new competition. Long overdue, the United States is 20th in the world in broadband speed, behind Latvia, Uruguay and Luxembourg.

We’ll see more and more of us working from home because it’s working so well for companies such as Google, Facebook, Intuit and other enlightened employers. The American work ethic and productivity is so high that many of these companies are discovering economic benefits to providing this flexibility. About 20 percent of us do it now and that’s expected to more than double over the next decade.

Yes, the positives still outweigh the negatives, particularly if we become more discerning about managing our priorities, about what we buy and read. Even a techie like me is finding out that I don’t need every new gadget that comes along. Gadgets are fleeting, but personal relationships endure a lifetime.


I’m pleased to announce that the following column was selected as Column of the Year by the San Diego Society of Journalists:

Why can’t the US build consumer electronic products?

I recently returned from a short trip to Shenzhen, the large Chinese city less than an hour’s drive north of Hong Kong. When anyone wonders why we don’t build consumer electronic products in the United States, the one-word answer is Shenzhen.

When I first traveled to this city more than 30 years ago, I’d walk out of the train station and see locals hawking live chickens and the sidewalks filled with homeless people. I’d get into a cab that was usually filthy, both inside and out, and pray for my life while the driver navigated gravel roads full of ruts while his head was sticking out his window because the windshield was covered with mud. At that time, the area was full of factories making cheap consumer goods. Now Shenzhen is a large modern city comparable to Shanghai or even Hong Kong.

But as I was reminded on this trip, Shenzhen has turned into the world capital of consumer electronics manufacturing. Shenzhen is to the making of these products as Silicon Valley is to designing them.

In fact, there’s a practical bond between the two areas, evident each day at breakfast at any one of the dozens of internationally branded hotels, such as the Sheraton, Shangi-La, Hyatt, Hilton, Four Seasons, St. Regis and Westin.

At breakfast you see tables full of young American engineers and project managers from Apple, Google, HP, GoPro, Amazon and dozens of smaller startups beginning their day of heading into the factories to solve problems to get their products into production. For many, it’s a constant shuttle between San Francisco and Hong Kong airports, as often as twice a month for some.

An employee monitors machinery that adheres components to smartphone circuit boards in a manufacturing facility at ZTE Corp.’s headquarters in Shenzhen, China. Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

After a few visits, it’s certainly not much fun to make the 15-hour flight, especially crunched up in an economy seat. But in spite of that, making the trip is the best way to take your product from an idea to manufacturing with the best chance for success — not just for large companies, but even for entrepreneurs with an idea.

Shenzhen companies thrive on building new products, and there are usually companies skilled in your area, so you can find an experienced team for not much cost, because they want to fill their factories.

Shenzhen looks much like any other large modern city, but with a population of 10.35 million, everything is in large scale. It has the largest library in the world and the largest city hall. Beneath the appearance of a buzzing metropolis full of skyscrapers and clogged highways, is a network of thousands of companies focused on supporting the world’s thirst for the next smartphone, HD TV or gizmo you didn’t know you needed until you read about it.

These companies are housed in factories scattered within a two-hour radius that vary from nondescript cement structures to sprawling office parks that look like ones you might see in Japan or Taiwan. Depending on what they produce, they can be as clean as an automated Japanese factory or something resembling a sweatshop from the 1930s.
Occasionally, but not often, there will be a factory producing low-cost components that barely skirt the laws of tolerable working conditions, but that’s the exception rather than the rule when it comes to technology products.

But what this network in Shenzhen — supported by huge factories in other cities such as Shanghai — does better than anywhere else in the world, is build huge volumes of the components that go into consumer electronic products: lithium-ion batteries, LCD displays, touch screens, motors, electrical components, switches, plastic moldings, printed circuit boards, semiconductors, packaging, antennas, speakers, microphones, leather, plastic and other assorted materials. And for each component, there are scores of companies in intense competition that keep the prices down and advance the technology.

There’s one human characteristic that’s also important, and it’s not labor costs, although that is a secondary factor. It’s the attitude of the people who work in this industry. They have a high work ethic and can-do attitude that gets things accomplished without any fear of failing or thinking something can’t be done — even when sometimes it can’t. Whether companies are thriving or struggling, they will rarely turn away new business, and most have an insatiable thirst to try new things so they can learn and grow.

Now, it’s not all rosy. Every company has strengths and weaknesses, A teams and C teams, smart and not so. Interest in taking on your product can wane if sales don’t meet expectation or if a bigger customer comes along. It’s often painful to get things done with junior people. But in the end, there’s no better alternative. As to copying your product, it’s not a big issue, and when it occurs, it’s usually by other companies that become aware of it once the product goes on sale.

I’m often asked why we can’t make these products in the United States. When it comes to a high-volume consumer electronic product that contains a variety of components, building it in the United States is just not practical or often even possible, while still maintaining the cost, quality and fast time to market. And even if it were, we don’t have the same attitude of taking quick action and being responsive.

When Motorola tried building its smartphone in a plant in Texas, the company needed to import the parts from China. There are virtually no companies in the United States that make batteries, displays, speakers, semiconductor chips and wire for mass-produced products. While there may be companies building some of these components in low volume for the military, few are competitively priced.

The United States does build printed circuit board assemblies (PCBAs), partly because it’s a highly automated process using assembly machines and components available worldwide. But you still need to take those PCBAs and combine them with the touch screens, the lithium-ion batteries and the tiny motors and speakers. To import these efficiently you must send them by boat; that takes a couple of weeks and ties up lots of dollars in inventory costs.

But more importantly, suppose that when the displays arrive, they have a defect. What do you do? If you were building the product in Shenzhen, you would call the company that’s an hour away and they will have engineers in your factory in a few hours to fix the problem. Try that from the United States and you would likely shut down your assembly line for several weeks.

Multiply this by the hundreds of parts and processes that go into your product that comes from China. Not only is it inefficient, but it’s also just not practical to build these kinds of products in the United States. And even if a company were to try, it could not compete with its competitors on many dimensions. A perhaps cruel, but accurate, analogy is trying to build an automobile in the Arctic from parts made in Detroit.


I’ve been trying out two products that perform completely different functions yet have many similar elements. They represent the new wave of products called the Internet of Things, devices that use a wireless connection to the cloud to provide services in the home.


Echo is a clever product developed by Amazon that falls into the category of “I didn’t know I needed it until I heard about it.” It’s a black cylinder, 3¼ inches in diameter by 9¼ inches tall that sits anywhere on a counter, desk or table, and responds to voice commands. Think of it as a stand-alone Siri-like device. Address it by name, Alexa, and it lights up ready to respond to your command.

Echo is easy to install. Simply plug it in and download the Android or iPhone app, which will take you through the connection steps. Yes, it’s similar to Siri, but it can do more.

For example, request it to play a specific radio station or stream music from your favorite artist. Just say “Alexa, play radio station KGO 810.” You can ask it to create a shopping or to-do list and add items to them at any time.

Like Siri, you can ask for a weather forecast, the time, or your location. Unlike Siri, it can’t dial a phone number since it’s not part of a phone.

You can ask it for directions or traffic conditions, much like an audio version of Google search. You can even ask it for the news, a baseball score or dozens of other things. The app maintains a log of what you’ve asked for and displays the lists you’ve created on its accompanying app for iOS or Android.

The hardware is well done. It’s a solidly built cylinder with a futuristic lighted ring around the top that shows it’s listening, and also turns to adjust the volume. It has several direction-sensitive microphones that can hear a command from an adjacent room easily.

And it has a powerful built-in speaker that’s great for speech, although not that great for music.

Echo has the potential to do even more as its software is upgraded. For example, it could turn on lights, set an alarm or detect an intrusion; or order products from Amazon, as many had conjectured. Much like Google’s acquisition of the Nest Thermostat and Dropcam cameras, Echo could be the beginnings of a hub to manage a variety of services throughout your home, as well as potentially more onerous activities.

The Echo sells for $180 from Amazon, and while it’s not yet a must-have, it’s certainly one of the most fun devices out there that is useful and has the potential to do more.


Several companies are trying to redefine home security systems by replacing all of the window and door sensors with a motion-detecting camera, which provides alerts to your smartphone rather than to an expensive monitoring service.

Canary is one of those products, and I’ve been trying it out for a month. It’s a small cylinder that sits on a counter or mounts on a wall; it contains a 1080p night-vision video camera with a wide-angle lens. It’s able to detect motion, then alert you with a text message, and let you see what’s going on using an app on your iPhone or Android phone.

You can view what the camera sees, and pan and enlarge it up to three times. Canary also contains a loud siren you can activate from your phone, ostensibly to surprise an intruder. It works by connecting to your home Wi-Fi and stores video on the company’s cloud once it detects motion.

Canary also measures temperature, humidity and air quality. You can watch video live or go back and view later should it detect questionable activity.

Canary is designed to learn the patterns and identify normal activity, such as your dog or a family member, to avoid alerting you too frequently. The device is designed to use these patterns to know when you’re away so it can activate the monitoring or go to an unarmed state when you are home.

The learning feature did not learn so well though, as I continued to get alerts several times a day when my wife was at home.

The product has evolved over the past several months with frequent updates to its apps, based on user reviews. Issues have included too many alerts, a lack of learning and failing to rest after a power outage.

I liked the product. The camera is excellent and Canary accurately detected motion.

However, it’s not a substitute for a conventional alarm system that monitors windows and doors, because Canary only detects an intruder after he or she has entered your home.

But it’s a good supplement and useful for monitoring your home or apartment when you are away. We sure could have used this when we lived in Massachusetts and a pipe froze while we were on vacation and flooded the whole house.

Canary costs $249. The company provides limited free access to your recorded video and has several monthly plans to store additional footage on the cloud for a longer period of time. (


Printers can produce a love-hate relationship. We love the utility they provide and their low cost. But we hate the high cost of ink cartridges, sometimes priced at more than the printer itself.

Epson WF-4630

I’ve been using the Epson Multi-Function Printer WF-4630 for about four months. The all-in-one inkjet printer scans, faxes, copies and prints, both single and double-sided.

It’s one of the best home-office printers I’ve ever used. It addresses many of the objections of past printers, including being hard to set up, paper jams, low-capacity paper trays and the high cost of ink.

The WF-4630 paper tray holds 250 sheets of paper compared with others that hold just 50. Epson rates the cost per page at 1.6 cents for black-and-white and 8.2 cents for color, significantly lower than many other printers, including Epson’s older models.

The printer is fast and quiet, and the quality of the printing is excellent.

The printer has what Epson calls PrecisionCore technology, which uses four sets of nozzles (actually on a microchip) to create more dots, resulting in faster printing and higher resolution.

The WF-4630 is also durable, with a 30,000-page monthly duty cycle. In four months, I experienced one paper jam that could have been user error — the result of the paper not being properly stacked.

There’s also a rear tray for holding 80 sheets of a different-size paper or envelopes. You can also stack up to 35 pages in the automatic document feeder for copying, scanning or faxing. And there’s a choice of printing on one or two sides of the paper.

It handles paper sizes up to legal size.

I’ve been using it primarily to print Word, PowerPoint and other documents from my computers, and photos from an iPhone and computer. Text quality is as good as a laser printer and charts, tables and graphs are colorful and uniform.

Photos are also very good.

The printer was simple to set up and connect to my Wi-Fi home network. It can also be set up with a USB or Ethernet connection. It has a large 3½-inch color display for accessing many of its settings and providing status messages.

The printer is 13.5 inches tall by 18.1 inches wide by 16.6 inches deep and weighs 31½ pounds.

It is available for $199, making it a very good buy for all that it provides. Now if could just eliminate the junk faxes that keep showing up.

Epson SC-P600

While Epson makes some of the best, small office printers, such as the WF-4630, it’s also the acknowledged leader of large-format printers used by photographers and printing companies.

Epson lent me its latest large-format printer, the SC-P600 color inkjet, designed to print at the highest possible quality on paper up to 13 inches wide. It’s typically used for making prints up to 13 inches by 19 inches, but also can print on a paper roll of 13 inches up to 129 inches long, perfect for panoramas, banners and posters.

The P600 is designed to produce professional-quality photos, artwork, prints and graphics. It uses nine cartridges of pigment-based ink: yellow, vivid light magenta, light cyan, vivid magenta, cyan, very light black, light black, photo black and matte black, all of which are fade-proof.

The printer is black with a 2.7-inch display and measures 24 inches wide by 14 inches deep by 9 inches tall (with the trays closed). Like the WF-4630, setup was easy, aided by the 2.7-inch display. You simply download and install the software and configure it for the way you want to connect.

In my week of use, I did a variety of printing: large photos, diagrams and artwork. I had recently created a 20-inch by 30-inch watercolor painting/poster.

I tried making 13-by-19-inch copies of it by photographing it outdoors and sending the file to Costco, one of the well-rated consumer photo labs.

The results were just fair. Colors were muddy, and there was an overall gray cast to the background.

I tried the P600 and printed directly on both Epson watercolor paper and photo paper. The results were best on the watercolor paper, nearly an identical copy of my original. Prints on photo paper were better than Costco’s, but not as good as the watercolor paper.

I also tried printing a large poster of a family tree that my wife was working on that included small photos. Again the results were excellent.

Last, I printed several of photographs at 8 by 10 inches and 11 by 17 inches on a variety of photo paper, performing color correction using Adobe Lightroom. Results were terrific and reminded me of when I used a darkroom — but this is much less work with better results.

This printer is ideal for an advanced or professional photographer or an artist, as well as for a small printing business. Many artists use watercolor paper and an Epson printer such as this model or its predecessors to make commercial prints of their paintings.

The P600 costs $799. Ink refills are costly at $31.99 for each of nine colors, but their capacity is huge, and I barely moved the needle after printing dozens of prints. The superb quality from this Epson printer is why printing companies charge as much as $50 for a print using this printer, compared with a few dollars by doing it yourself.