Lessons learned: teaching an old dog new tricks

Michael Heiss shares four key lessons he has learned on trying out new products.

There’s an old saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, but sometimes even an old dog such as myself has to learn things even if they are not formally taught. Taking a summer break from new technology reports and analysis, perhaps this is a good time to take a step back and reflect on what we have learned and how that can teach us all a trick or two. At the very least, let’s take a fresh view of the tools and products we use to increase our productivity and how to put things together in a job.

As we all become more mobile and remote post-pandemic, we’ll all be using all sorts of products and devices that have been classified as “Work From Home” in different ways. At the same time, being able to actually get out to meet with clients and spend more time on job sites we’ll need to use different products. That long term goal is where we are focusing here.


Lesson Number One: “RTFM!”

This one seems obvious, but when we deal with products that circle our own field of work it is all too often ignored. What is RTFM? Have you ever calmly answered custom questions about seemingly obvious things, and then the minute you hang up the phone or finish the text scream out to no one in particular, “RTFM!”. For those not familiar with the acronym, it stands for “READ THE FLIPPING MANUAL!”. (Depending on your level of anger at the time, substitute the “F Word” of your choice.) Ah, but do we practice what we preach?

Over the course of my career, I’ve written more than my share of Owners Manuals and Quick Start Guides for top brands, but do I follow my own advice? Do you? It doesn’t matter if the manual is in print or, more likely, online… read it. I’ve also written a Quick Start Guide or two and can attest to the fact that they have just enough information to get you up and running and they weren’t designed to answer in depth questions.

Here’s the case in point. I recently tested the very capable Voyager Free 60UC+ from Poly, formerly Polycom but now part of HP. As the “UC” stands for “Unified Communication”, another way to describe enterprise phone systems integrated with other components, it bridges the gap between something you use for work with good performance for music when travelling or just kicking back after a hard day.

One of the cool things about this product is a display on the top of the charging case that lets you adjust volume, ANC level and more. Also available on the display is a Mute button. Tap on the top of the case and you’re muted, tap again to restore the mic. A great way to see your status without looking at the participant tiles or hunting around for the on-screen audio controls. So far so good. However, some of the features of the product didn’t seem to work properly even though the buds announced that they were connected to the laptop. What gives? The BT connection obviously worked as I heard, and was heard by, the participants.

Well, Mike, follow your own guidance: RTFM. It turns out that some of the features require you to use the supplied USB adaptor for Bluetooth. Easy enough, but you had to RTFM! As Homer Simpson would say, DOH! I did that and I got full functionality for both Zoom and Teams.

Lesson Two: “Look Before You Leap”

Here’s another one with a short lesson that some unfortunately ignore. This applies both to purchases you make for your business as well as your personal shopping. Sometimes the same product will have different options that are not clear if you glance over the order and click too fast. Sometimes that is a bad move.

As an example, the Poly earbuds just mentioned come with either a USB-A or USB-C connection for the BT Adaptor. Road warriors might want the latter for their laptops, office-bound workers might want the former for their desktop computer. You can order the unit with one or the other, but it is up to you to make certain you get the correct one for the application. Or, to be on the safe side, whichever one you order in this case, make certain that you have the proper dongle or adaptor so that, with your help, one size does fit all. Not looking closely enough might lead to an unhappy client or customer.

Lesson Two-A: “Not all cables are the same and interchangeable.”

This is a deeper version of Lesson Two. These days cables may have many markings and descriptions, or they may have few or none other than the connector type. Not looking closely at this before you leap can be embarrassing or sometimes even disastrous when something goes bad at the wrong time, on the wrong job.

A good example of this is USB cables. At this point both you and your clients are likely to have drawers full of them. They come with products and are sometimes a giveaway at trade shows. If all you want to do is have the cable connect a charger or power source to a low current device such as a streaming dongle or similar, or to charge your phone or tablet, albeit not always as quickly as you might like, the “freebie” cables are fine.

Until they aren’t.

Particularly with the EU rules mandating USB-C connections taking effect next year on December 28, 2024 you’ll see them not just as required on cameras, phones and tablets, but on other devices, as well. Even with phones and tablets, that use will increasingly include video, and at ever increasing resolution. That, in turn, requires more than a thin charging cable as I learned when testing another cool product: Xebec’s Tri-Screen 2.

It you haven’t seen it, this is a compact device the width and length of a 13-in laptop that attaches to the laptop screen with no magnets, glue, clips or fasteners. Then the magic begins, you simply pull out a 10.1-in, 1920x1200, screen from each side and, VOILA, you now have the same sort of three-screen setup as on your office desk anywhere from a client’s location, hotel room, airport lounge or waiting area, or the local coffee café. When working to complete a bid or presentation on the road, this can be a great productivity tool. The only downside was when my wife caught me using it to catch up on some things during our vacation and told me to put it all away!

Again, so far so good, but as you might expect some issues cropped up. I admit it, I’m a bit of what one might call a klutz, complicated by the lingering effects of wrist surgery so my mechanical skills aren’t what they used to be. The Xebec worked fine until one screen wouldn’t light up. Using scientific method and deduction, I switched ports and switched cables. After that it was clear that I had bent one of the USB-C connectors in a ham-first attempt to disconnect after the previous session. No problem, I’ve got a drawer full of USB-C to USB-C cables. Doesn’t everyone?

Swapped the cable and the screen still didn’t work. Nothing about that in the manual, though after this it may be added. A quick call to Xebec customer support reminded me of something I should have remembered: All cables are NOT alike. To carry the video information those skinny charging cables won’t do. “Get a properly rated cable”, I was told and damned if that simple thing was all I needed to get back to three screens.

The moral here is two-fold: First, when it comes to high bandwidth and “PD”, or power delivery, look for something that has a PD or 40Gbps rating. It’s easy enough, except when a client replaces a cable on their own and things don’t work.

Lesson Two-B: “Call before you leap”

This is somewhat on the same path as Lesson One and Lesson Two. Unfortunately, you can’t “RTFM” if the question or problem you needs resolved is not in the manual or associated product FAQs. Similarly, you can look before you leap, but what if you look and the answer is not there? It may sound silly but reach out to the manufacturer or service provider by email or, perish the thought, phone.

With products and their connections to other parts of the ecosystem getting more complex every second, what you are looking for may be something that only the internal product specialists are able to answer. Indeed, sometimes even they don’t have the answer at hand and have to investigate and get back to you.

With both the Poly and Xebec products I came across things that weren’t in the manual and the only way I could get an answer was to have them find out what was wrong. In the case of the Poly product, they actually knew what I was asking about but had to fix it first in a software update and then they said that they will update the manual. Call this “paying it forward” as I accomplished a few things. The manufacturer helped me solve the problem, and by pointing it out the issue will be solved by RTFM in the future. That will save users down the road from being puzzled by that issue.

Same for Xebec. What I was having problems with might have caused me, or your customer/client grief, but by calling them I got the answer without getting stressed. (The answer there was to not use the USB-C ports on the screens for a BT adaptor, but to use a wireless mouse. Knowing that saved everyone trouble.)


Lesson Three: “Ohm’s Law. It IS the law!”

Lesson Three-A: “Bigger isn’t always better”

Anyone who is reading this should know, or at least remember being taught, Ohm’s Law. You know, “Watts equals volts times current (amps)”. Then with a bit of algebra you can figure out if a charger will power a device, or any number of daily system design calculations.

Where these calculations come into play in real life these days is the side effect of knowing what figure to look at. A good friend of mine from my days with an audio brand used to explain the connection of current to “watts” for audio power amplifiers in his presentation by saying “There’s a reason why they are called AMPfiliers, not WATTifiers.” That is mentioned here to avoid your having a problem with battery packs.

Even though today’s mobile phones and tablets are getting bigger batteries and improving their underlying OS to improve battery life, “power users” will use just that: power. Anyone who travels or is constantly on the go probably has one in their pocket, purse or backpack “just in case” the battery runs low in the middle of that video call that runs too long when there is no place to plug in the device.

Under the “bigger is better” theorem many will look for a 10,000 mAh pack, but then perhaps get a 20,000 mAh model thinking that will work better and longer. Well, it will but only to a point. The key here is to look at the watts, not just the amps. That is the number you will see quoted when brands claim fast charging. Unlike my friend’s power amps, it IS the watts, not just the amps.

Here’s where you may fall into a trap. I recently tested two power banks, each from a major and very reputable manufacturer. Both rate their units at 20,000 mAh. Both are a bit large, but about the same size. However, despite the same current output, one was able to power my Dell XPS laptop along with the Xebec Tri-Screen, and one could not. 


The reason? Remember our pal Geog Ohm from the late 18th Century and his law.

Here, it is combination of the current and voltage that leads to the watts available. One unit can output up to 15 watts, more than enough to use each of the two ports to simultaneously keep two phones or tablets running probably longer than you can stay awake. SO what’s wrong with that?

Laptops, particularly Windows driven models, require up to 65 watts to be charged and to keep running. The second 20,000 mAh pack can keep a laptop running at 65 watts and fast charge via through a USB-A port up to 18 watts at the same time. I’ve used three different battery packs like that and can attest to their ability to power my XPS laptop AND the Xebec along with my Pixel phone at the same time.

Students, what lesson did we learn today? Watts equals volts x amps. Look closely at the packaging or web pages as those two figures should be shown somewhere. If you see 20-volt output with 3.25A output that gives you the 65 watts you need. Less on either figure and it won’t work. The same goes for AC wall chargers. The typical 5 volts at 2.5A that you might get from a small “phone charger” delivers only 12.5 watts. Great for your phone or tablet but not so great for the laptop. Perhaps I should retitle this lesson “RTFS”. Read the flipping specs. Understand what they are telling you and you’ll hopefully avoid specing or buying something that won’t meet the task at hand.

Lesson Four: “If it’s too good to be true it probably is”

A parent or teacher must have certainly told you this at some point. Today’s final lesson is to say that phrase is almost always “true”.

Where this comes to bear on our world happens when you do online research for a product needed for a job or personal use. In the world of algorithm and AI driven web searches, once you look for something you will undoubtedly be bombarded by pop up ads for products similar to what you were looking for but with brand names and retail outlets you’ve likely never heard of. Herewith a sad, but instructive story.

While researching this article I did the usual web searches for “laptop triple screen systems”. Xebec was one, but so were their fair competitors with similar products that ranged in price from $349USD to Xebec’s $499USD to as much as $699USD. As with any product where there are a number of different brands the ultimate selection is up to you, based on the individual features.

While some of the viable competitors popped up, I was amazed to see ads for products that, from the description and images, seemed to match other known brands at less than a tenth the price. On the surface, it looked tempting see something looks like a $499 product advertised for $31USD. It seemed to be too good to be true.

As it turned out, it was.

In service to Hidden Wires readers I ordered one of the bargain priced products that promised two-day shipping from our US warehouse. For $31 plus shipping how could I resist. It will come as no surprise that things went downhill very fast.

I didn’t receive the shipping notification that most internet retailers send for a week. Then, following the tracking number the shipment was from somewhere in China, leaving the airport in Shenzhen then bound to the US. So far NOT so good.

Then another week or so later I found an envelope with a strange fabric [pictured above] item from an address in Reno, Nevada that I didn’t recognize. Must be a mistake, right? After two weeks I started emailing the customer service address about this and got vague responses. Eventually they said “it” was delivered. I asked for a refund and they hedged to the point where I gave up.

Silly me, I tried the same thing from two other online popups that offered the same type of product under different names. Guess what happened. The same thing except this time I got a very poor quality USB cable from one vendor that would pass the test in Lesson Two-B. The last time I got some polyester purse.

Thus, what have we learned here, which I learned the hard way? When you look for a product with any online search, please at least beware of offers for similar items. To be sure, most internet retailers are reliable and deliver what they promise regardless of where they are located even if the brand is unfamiliar. I’ve ordered more than a few things that I discovered via popups and have mostly been satisfied.

On the other hand, particularly if you are looking for something that will go into a project bid or spec, Lesson Four could also be that on the internet with social media ads, “Buyer Beware”. More importantly, for any purchase of a product or service regardless of what it is or where comes from, “If it is too good to be true, it probably is!”. I learned that lesson here the hard way.

[Editor’s note: The some of the products mentioned or pictured in this article were provided to the author by the manufacturers for this review. That had no bearing on the opinions expressed by the author.]

Top image credit: dezy/Shutterstock.com


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