I thought I’d provide some background on how I evaluate and review products, with the goal of helping you make intelligent purchase decisions.

It’s become much more difficult to make a buying decision with so many new products being introduced each week, many of them doing new things, some claiming to be the best, and some making unsubstantial claims to gain attention. That’s why it’s so important to research a new product before you buy.

I find that many products I test often have weaknesses, hidden costs or issues that only become obvious after using them for a while. It could be the complexity of setup, a poor user interface or being underpowered.

A good example is the previous generations of Samsung Galaxy phones that had terrific specs, but had been laden with their own non-removable software that made the phone confusing and hard to use. Microsoft’s original Surface RT tablet was touted as a breakthrough product, yet was incompatible with most software, had a short battery life, was underpowered, and suffered from a poor interface.

To learn before you buy, begin with product reviews. There are both good and bad reviewers and review sites, ranging from insightful to snarky, some of the latter aiming to gain clicks through controversy, rather than providing serious analysis.

A few form opinions without even trying the product, just serving as an echo chamber based on other reviews. Gizmodo is one of those poor sites. In contrast, Engadget, The Verge, Pocket-Lint, and Re/code (now part of The Verge), each have serious reviewers and generally do a very good job.

For more specific products, I trust Digital Photography Review, Steve Huff, Reid Reviews, Ken Rockwell, and Image-Resource for camera reviews; Stereophile, InnerFidelity, and Headroom for music equipment reviews; the user reviews on apple.com and iLounge for Apple products; and Tom’s Hardware for reviews of computer equipment.

Among the national media, the Wall Street Journal has an excellent technology staff with thoughtful reviews from Joanna Stern and others. Ed Baig of USA Today, Harry McCracken of Fast Company, and Katie Bohert and Walt Mossberg of Re/code are all insightful and unbiased. The New York Times reviewer, Farhad Manjoo, can be insightful, but a little quirky. David Pogue of Yahoo is an entertaining writer, but is ethically challenged, such as when he was reprimanded for reviewing products from companies where he had business interests. And too often his egotism gets in the way of the facts.

But even the good reviews need to be judged carefully. Every reviewer has his or her own biases, weighing the importance of a product’s attributes differently from what might be important to you, and may not always understand the trade-offs.

For example, a recent review of a Motorola G Phone praised its low cost but criticized the display, stating that while it was excellent, it was not equal to an iPhone. But the iPhone is twice the price, and the reviewer never explained the trade-off of price to display resolution or how one affects the other.

The best reviews are those that don’t simply judge how many features the product has, but how suitable the product is to use and how good a balance there is among functionality, usability and cost.

I’ve always used the product before I write a review. Many companies will lend a sample for a few weeks. Those that don’t, aren’t reviewed, which affects what products I’ve covered. Apple, AT&T, Epson, Fujitsu, Canon, Garmin, Pentax, Casio, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint, Acura, Ford, GM, Hyundai, Mazda, Plantronics, Audi and others have been very supportive over the past decade.

However, Microsoft, Nikon, Sony, Fitbit, Jawbone, Google and Tesla have been unresponsive. When I’ve reviewed any of these products I had to buy it or borrow one from another reviewer.

I recommend you do the same — try before you buy. You will not have access to PR firms sending you products, but fortunately, you can buy online or in many stores. Try and return if you don’t like it.

Even more important than expert opinions are the customer reviews posted online. Reviews can tell you about a product’s longevity and the quality of support from the manufacturer. Good sources for reviews, which I often check after writing my column’s first draft, include some of the sites noted above and, most notably, Amazon.

With products becoming so complex, their longevity and ability to be repaired becomes important, but this can be difficult to determine on a new product. Few companies make specific repairs, and instead replace an entire part of the product, meaning that it’s difficult to use independent repair shops. For example, Apple replaces the complete display assembly when the iPhone 6 has just a faulty home button.

When I write a review I’ll often try contacting the company, much as a customer would. How difficult is it to reach someone for help? Does the product come with a phone number or email address? Does their website make it easy to get help? Although increasingly rare, a product with a toll-free phone number right on the product is a sign of good customer support.

What is the company’s policy on early defects? Does it replace a defective product with a brand new one or with a refurbished unit? You should not expect to buy a new product only to have to replace it with a used one a week later. If you discover a defect within the first few weeks, it’s better just to return the product and buy a new one than get a refurbished replacement.

That’s why I’d much prefer a company that stands behind its products by making it easy to get them fixed.

I would buy an Apple product before one from Dell, HP or Lenovo, as good as they are. With an Apple I can walk into one of their stores to have it fixed, often the same day. The alternative is to be without your computer or phone for a week. So look for companies with local service or a one- to two-day turnaround.

Judging a product based on where it’s made is no longer indicative of its quality. Almost all consumer electronics products are made in China. Quality varies by the specific design and the manufacturer rather than the country.

As I’ve been on the flip side, developing products for companies, I know that products are released before they are perfected, with potential for returns from a defect in the design or manufacturing. I would show a little forgiveness as long as the company sent me a replacement quickly. It usually takes a couple of months for a product to be in the hands of thousands of customers to really know its issues.

With a careful, methodical approach, you can be adept at making the right buying decisions. And if you can’t decide, do nothing. There will be something similar out a few months later. Just remember, a technology product is only useful if it does something you want done, and should never add more complications to your life.


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. (www.canary.is)


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.


The auto industry has strived to build technology into its cars to manage navigation, the phone and entertainment. Most in-car systems in use now are designed in-house or by large original equipment manufacturer suppliers to the industry, such as Denso.

The challenge for the auto companies is to advance their in-auto capabilities fast enough to match those of our smartphones, and to incorporate all their new services, such as streaming music, Internet radio, local search and much more. This opportunity has attracted Apple and Google to develop in-car systems based around their experiencs with their smartphones.

Ultimately, they want to replace the automobile’s system with their own, but that will take years. As a first step, they’re offering systems that sit on top of the car’s interface, much like an app. That leaves it to the user to choose whether to use the auto company’s built-in system or switch to an Apple or Google system.

Google’s Android Auto is the first to become available; Apple’s Car Play is coming later this summer. I’ve been trying out Android Auto on the first car to incorporate it, the Hyundai Sonata, a beautiful new model incorporating Hyundai’s next generation of sleek styling.

Android Auto is designed to work with an Android phone running Android 5.0 or later, something not all phone brands have made available. For my tests, I used a Motorola X phone supplied by Hyundai.

To set it up, download the Android Auto app on the phone, along with other apps that work with Auto, such as Play Music, Spotify, Pocket Casts and iHeartRadio.

The phone is plugged into the USB port and paired with the car’s Bluetooth. Once that’s done, the phone can be tucked away, because it’s only used for connecting to the Internet. Surprisingly, the phone is not adequately charged through this port, so the battery dies over time.

When the phone is connected by USB and Bluetooth to the car, the Android Auto icon is activated on the car’s display. Touching that icon brings up Android Auto, You can toggle between the two operating systems by touching the Auto icon on the car display.

Android Auto offers a few apps that play streaming music and Internet radio, as well as displaying Google Maps and managing your cellphone. You’ll also want to use Google’s voice interface because the buttons for making selections are severely limited on these apps, apparently in the name of safety.

In this Android Auto mode, your phone allows apps to communicate to the Internet. Most of your apps won’t appear on the car’s display, only those that are designed for Auto and meet Google’s rules for minimizing distractions — so forget email or text messages. I was surprised by how few apps are available and how limited most of them are. For example, the Google Maps phone app offers tremendous capabilities that include detailed maps of both outdoors and indoors around shopping centers, callouts for local dining and much more.  In contrast, Google Maps on the Android Auto is just a shadow of the Google Maps we know and love. There’s a minimum of detail and limited customization. And it sometimes got its directions wrong.

Navigating to a supermarket, it took me to a highway entrance ramp 50 feet from the store’s parking lot. It pales in comparison with Hyundai’s own excellent GPS system, which, for example, lets you enter whether you avoid tolls or use the HOV lane or FasTrack One nice feature is the Google dashboard screen that lists personal activities, past destinations and appointments that pop up on a scrollable list, much like Google Now on the phone. However, you cannot swipe the messages to delete them and they are so large that you can only see a few at a time. I did like the ability to listen to radio stations using the iHeartRadio app.

I found using Android Auto to be limiting and often switched to Hyundai’s own system, which also includes its own unique set of controls for Sirius/XM, climate settings, and wireless calling. So expect to be shifting back and forth much like using Windows 8 where you need to switch between two different interfaces.

Android Auto is far from a polished product. Since this is just the first generation, it will improve. The good news is that it’s all updatable on your phone.

And it’s understandable that the auto companies want to include Android Auto and Apple Car Play to give their customers a way to use their phones and an alternative to using the phones by themselves, which can be dangerous. But in this case more is less, and they are not making it easier for the customer.

Just consider it a work in progress.


I’ve been trying out a product that’s designed to improve cell service, both data and voice, in the home. It’s called the Cel-Fi Duo Signal Booster from Nextivity, a San Diego-based technology company.

I’m using the model designed for T-Mobile cellular phones. A second version is available for AT&T phones. While there are not yet models for Verizon or Sprint, the company produces models that work with 170 carriers around the world.

I began as a skeptic because I’ve tried so many products over the years that claim to boost cellular reception, but rarely did they work well enough to detect any improvement. But this product is different. It really works and its performance exceeded all expectations.

The Cel-Fi consists of two boxes that stand on end, each about the size of a small router. The concept is to locate one of the boxes, called the Network Unit, in the home where the signal strength is the strongest, and the other box, called the Coverage Unit, where the signal is the weakest.

In operation, the Network Unit searches for cellular signals from your carrier’s three nearby cellular base stations, and figures out which one is the best for noise characteristics and has the least signal loss, all in less than 20 milliseconds. It then sends that cellular signal over a wireless frequency, similar to Wi-Fi, to the Coverage Unit, which then rebroadcasts that cellular signal from the weakest area of the home.

The company notes that Cel-Fi is the only consumer booster with up to 100 decibels of gain approved by the FCC, allowing one system to cover up to 13,000 square feet, or a two-story home about 100 by 60 feet in size.

Like most wireless specs, the coverage depends on the number of walls and other construction factors that may reduce the signal’s penetration. Hey, I’d be happy if it would work over an area of 2,500 square feet.

My home is a one-story ranch with a U-shaped layout. At one end of the U is large open living room with floor-to-ceiling windows. At the other end is the master bedroom. In between are hallways and other bedrooms, a bath and my office, which gets the worst reception, probably because it’s buried in the middle of the house.

Before setting up, I walked around my home noting how many bars my phone, an iPhone 6 Plus, displayed to find the strongest and weakest areas of reception. The phone display ranged from one to three bars: three bars in the living room near the windows, just one bar in my office and one or two bars everywhere else.

Setting up was simple and straightforward. I plugged the Network Unit into an outlet on the wall next to the large windows and stood it on the floor against the baseboard, tucked behind a chair. Its own built-in display indicated four green bars.

I then plugged in the second box, the Coverage Unit, in my office where the signal was the lowest. The number 9 was displayed, indicating a strong signal was being received. The instructions ask you to find a spot that is at least 8.

I was curious to see what the cell signal measured on my phone. I repeated the walk around and found the number of bars, originally ranging from one to three, now read mostly four or five, with an occasional three. By the numbers, the improvement was very impressive.

I used the phone for several days, and the phone worked really well — no dropped or staticky calls and very clear conversations. I measured the download speed during a time when the networks were not likely to be busy, using a neat free app OpenSignal.

With the Cel-Fi active, download and upload speeds averaged about 15 Mbps. With the Cel-Fi unit disconnected, the download was about 8 to 10 Mbps and the upload with a meager 0.6 Mbps.

I also measured the signal strength on my phone to be -74 dB with Cel-Fi on and -118 dB with it off, an improvement of 44 dB.

There are also a couple of side benefits. Because of the strong signal, the phone doesn’t need to run at its maximum power; thus battery life is extended, and the phone emits less radiation.

This is a very impressive product: easy to set up, easy to use and the improvement in performance speaks for itself. The product sells for about $500, and is well worth it if you have unsatisfactory cell service at home.

Equally important: If you’ve hesitated to get rid of your landline because of marginal cellular service, now there’s less of a reason to hold back. (www.cel-fi.com).


I consider myself to be a good photographer, although sometimes I become more focused on the equipment than the results. Before vacations I often obsess about which camera to take along. Should it be my prized Leica digital rangefinder, a pocket-sized Canon or Sony, or something in between, such as a Leica D-Lux 109, slightly larger than a compact camera? Often I’m looking for something that performs well, but is not a problem carrying everywhere.

On my recent vacation to Italy with my wife and daughter, I decided to travel light and take just the D-Lux, while my wife took the Sony RX100. But something unexpected happened during the trip. I used my iPhone 6+ to take more than half the pictures.

I suspect I’m late to the party, joining the masses that are using their phones instead of separate cameras. But based on my experience on this trip, phone cameras are a viable alternative to the best of cameras. In fact, a phone camera can take comparable images and even better video in some situations, and offers several advantages over conventional equipment.

Among the other half-dozen in our group, ranging in age from 30 to 81, there was just one other camera. Everyone else used their phone cameras, both iPhones and Androids. And there’s good reason for it, particularly on a trip like this. We were all able to immediately share our experiences through our photos with each other and with friends back home.

When it came to quality, the images from the phones were usually quite good, sometimes better than we got from our expensive cameras. While smartphone cameras don’t have the large zoom lenses, wide aperture or flexibility of settings that cameras do, they have other capabilities that cameras don’t have.

They have in-camera processing, using the power of a computer to improve the original images. And because of the lens’ smaller aperture, nearly everything is in focus. When set to “HDR,” they can make images that are multiple exposures superimposed on top of one another to bring out details in the dark shadows and the overexposed areas.

The phone cameras also excel for close-up images. We all took many pictures of wine labels, as well as the food we cooked or enjoyed out at a restaurant, images that did not focus well when using the other cameras.

The lack of adjustments means there’s no fiddling with settings; you simply pick up the camera and shoot. As a result, the pictures capture what you intended, closer to the moment.

When we returned home and examined the collection of images and videos under magnification, the iPhone images held up quite well. They didn’t beat the Sony or Leica for sharpness, but for color, snappiness and capturing the moment, they compared favorably. And unless you plan to make enlargements of 8-by-10 inches or more, resolution becomes less of an issue.

But even more important than capturing the images was what we were able to do after taking them. At the end of each day, we uploaded our phone images onto the Apple iCloud to create photo albums with everyone’s pictures together.

Apple’s new sharing of albums feature means you can create an album made up of everyone’s images and accessible to all. Many posted their images directly onto Facebook or Instagram to share them with friends. Android phone users were able to upload to iCloud using an app.

This is all enabled by the phone’s built-in wireless technology that lets you upload images using Wi-Fi or the cellular. Most avoided the cell because of cost, but I used it on my T-Mobile iPhone 6+, which has free data in most of the world.

The quality of the photos and video from the in-phone cameras on both the iPhone and Android phones were good.

While there’s no zoom lens on phone cameras, a similar effect can be accomplished by zooming in on the image, which, while lowering the resolution, lets you get a perfectly composed image.

However, the limitations of the smartphone camera begin to appear in very low light, where the lens has a smaller opening than the camera’s and the tiny sensor creates camera motion, underexposed and grainy results. But that tended to happen at the end of the day, after we were full of food and had several glasses of local wine, and few of us cared!

Using a smartphone camera offers a sense of liberation from using complex equipment, allowing you to pay attention to where you are at the moment. Taking a picture becomes a quick break.

I discussed my experience with Ken Rockwell, who runs one of the most popular websites covering camera equipment (www.kenrockwell.com). What’s his favorite compact camera for traveling? His iPhone 6+.

So now when I travel, the question will not be which camera I take, but whether I take one at all.


American Express positions their card as the one never to leave home without, and that they are wherever you are around the world. But on a recent trip, they let me down just when I needed them the most.

As I boarded a plane a few weeks ago at LAX on my way to Rome, I received an urgent email from Amex asking me to call them about several recent charges to my American Express Platinum card, suggesting that my card may have been compromised.

I called Amex during a layover in Montreal and confirmed the charges were not mine. As a result, they said they would need to cancel my card and issue a new one.

They offered to send me the new card to my Rome hotel where I’d be for two days, and assured me there was plenty of time for it to reach me. I offered to visit their Rome office to pick up a card, but they said they no longer offer that service. They also assured me that my recurring monthly payments to about a dozen companies that are automatically billed to my Amex card would not be affected.

But on my last day at the hotel in Rome, I received an email from them with a DHL tracking number that took me to the DHL site saying that the card was just being shipped from the United States and its arrival date would be several days after I checked out.

I called Amex; they apologized and offered to deliver the card to me at my next hotel in Norcia, a small town in Umbria. I’d be there for a week and was assured there was more than enough time. Five days after I checked in, still no card had arrived. But Amex emailed me DHL’s new tracking number that said the replacement card would be delivered to the hotel fours days after my checkout date.

Another call to Amex; they told me that if the card didn’t arrive before I left Italy, they would send a third replacement card to me when I returned home.

The DHL tracking information proved to be incorrect, because the card arrived the next day. I called the number on the card to validate it and was assured it could now be used.

I made a charge with it that day and it worked fine. The following day I flew to London and went to pick up a rental car, but when I tried using the new card, it was rejected! A call to Amex and the agent said that card was invalidated because they were going to send me a card to my home. The new card that worked the day before could no longer be used, in spite of assurances I was given earlier.

(Just as background, I try to use a single card for all my expenses, so it’s easier to keep track of at tax season. The Amex Platinum has proved best for this. I carry a couple of other cards for backup, but use them much less often.)

I have rarely encountered an incident with such confusion and conflicting information, resulting in Amex being unable to get me a card I could use during my two weeks of travel.

The usually helpful customer service agents showed little knowledge of the replacement process and the time it would take for International delivery. Each time I called, they needed to connect me with their security department, and even on the same call, each person I spoke with asked me a slew of questions to confirm my identity.

While fraud is a big issue, Amex seemed to have shifted their balance away from providing the best customer service to protecting themselves against fraud, and that’s resulted in a less than stellar experience they are know for with this product.

I’ve used an American Express Platinum card for fifteen years. While its $450 annual cost may seem excessive, the excellent benefits actually net out at much less. Its benefits include free entrance to a network of airport clubs, payment for a Global Entry card, free Wi-Fi from Boingo and payment of up to $200 each year for airline charges such as baggage fees and seating upgrades each year.

They also do a great job in resolving merchant disputes, usually in the cardholder’s favor. But these perks are not useful if you can’t use the card for its primary purpose.

To the company’s credit, one of the customer service agents offered to credit the account for $150 for phone calls and the inconvenience of it all.

I asked American Express to comment, and they were very apologetic. They will be looking into DHL’s inaccurate tracking information and try to improve delivery reliability. They did note that overnight replacement is provided in the United States, but they need to do better outside the country.