History of Silicon Valley Indeed: Is Fry’s Electronics Dying?

As most of my readers know, Fry’s Electronics has been a mainstay in Silicon Valley culture since the mid-1980s. It’s spread around the country, from southern California to Texas and Arizona and the Midwest and probably locations I don’t even know about. There’s even one in Las Vegas.

The stores have themes, running from the Wild West theme of the Palo Alto location (the oldest continuously operating Fry’s store), to Las Vegas’s obvious Las Vegas Strip theme. The current (and third) Sunnyvale location is themed History of Silicon Valley, with an oscillator on the front, huge sepia photos of the founding people and events of Silicon Valley, and more.

But perhaps, like Halted and Weird Stuff in the past two years, this piece of Silicon Valley history may be coming to an end.

The first store opened in Sunnyvale in 1985, near the current location of Faultline Brewing (just off 101 and Lawrence Expressway). When I came to California just over 10 years later, it had moved to the “chip” themed building on Kern and Lawrence (white walls with black marks like an integrated circuit; the building is now a Sports Basement). Sometime in the late 1990s or early 2000s they built a new, enormous store at Arques and Santa Trinita, just a block or so from the Kern location. It had parking for hundreds of cars, almost a hundred cash registers, a cafe in the middle of the store, auto electronics installation bays on the side, and all in all it was a formidable experience.

I’ve never seen more than half of the registers in operation, but it’s often been crowded, and I’ve occasionally run into old friends and former colleagues… even those who had long since moved out of the area would come back like pilgrims.

Lately the parking lot has seemed impressively sparse, and fewer shoppers on most visits (except around the holidays and major TV-inducing sporting events). The shelves were usually well stocked, and things were often where you expected them.

But things keep changing.

A Sad Sunnyvale Visit

I went to Fry’s in Sunnyvale last Friday to look for a water filter cartridge. Didn’t think to check stock online first, but once I walked in, I knew I wasn’t going to find it.

The parking lot was the typical empty for a Friday afternoon, maybe a bit more. There were more old guys in the cafe than shoppers in the rest of the store. Lots and lots of empty shelves, far fewer staff than usual, felt like the last days of Orchard Supply Hardware but with fewer people and 10 times the space.

As I walked around, seeing what was left, I got the feeling that they could probably carve the store up… block off half of it and build a new entrance, for an entire second store… and still have plenty of room.

I ended up not finding my water filter cartridge. I did pick up a USB hub and a model train magazine though.

And maybe the strangest thing… As far as I can remember, for the first time in my 22+ years of going to Fry’s (since my friend Ray took me there in 1996 or maybe early 1997), there was nobody at the exit to check my receipt.

What happened to Fry’s?

There’s been a lot of media coverage of this, mostly columnists not entirely unlike me, looking at how the world has changed in the last ten years or so. You usually didn’t go to Fry’s for knowledgeable sales staff (although they’d be happy to read the box to you). Warm inviting environments were not their forte, and the “Fry’s Lending Library” (where you’d buy something to use for a day, or test out something else, before returning it) was definitely not part of their marketing, but a lot of people used that function of their stores, despite the long and drawn-out return process.

You went to Fry’s because if you needed almost anything, from a cable to a capacitor to a chair to a computer to a Coke to a charcoal grill, you could find a variety to choose from. You could pick up a magazine and a candy bar and a soda and a pack of batteries in the long check-out line. And it was almost always good for those things.

The biggest thing that happened to Fry’s was Amazon. And I’d say they started adjusting to Amazon about five years too late.

They acquired Cyberian Outpost in 2002 to build out their e-commerce business, and that went sluggishly. They started doing price-matching to local stores and online stores, but either trained their staff wrong or didn’t train them at all, which meant that even if a 4-port KVM switch was available and in stock 10 miles away, they’d try to match it to an 8-port switch and deny the match (happened to me, and I ended up taking the 10 mile trek).

As time went by, they merged outpost.com into frys.com and made it a better experience, including in-store inventory checking and in-store pickup. They’ve started doing price-matching smoothly and accurately, even to Amazon and Best Buy and Newegg. They even introduced same-day home/office delivery recently.

But the parking lots are more empty than not, the stores are hollow echoes of their past glory, and experts as well as fellow customers are having trouble seeing hope for Fry’s Electronics’s future.

Where do they go from here?

We know the Palo Alto store is closing (due to a lease not being renewed), and there are reports of low stock and low staff around the country leaving many fans and shoppers dubious.

Aside from that, spokesmen for Fry’s say they are rebalancing, restocking for the holidays, adjusting inventory, and otherwise laying in for the long haul. It is true that, from Thanksgiving night through Epiphany, Fry’s does tend to pick up in pace, so it’s entirely possible that the next month will see a restructuring and new life.

At this point, we’ll have to wait and see if Santa brings a new life to Fry’s Electronics this Christmas season.

Where can we go from here?

On the upside, two other mainstays are holding up fairly well.

After an early morning fire in April 2019 destroyed their Sunnyvale location on El Camino, Central Computer (another 1985 Silicon Valley classic) is opening a new Sunnyvale store over near where HRO (and Disk Drive Depot and Action Surplus and the original Fry’s store) used to be. Signage and social media say it should be open by the end of the year. In the meantime, they have locations in Santa Clara, San Mateo, Fremont, and San Francisco.

And after formally going out of business in January 2019 after 54 years, Halted/HSC was bought by Excess Solutions, and they’re settling in nicely at the 7th St and Alma location in San Jose. You’ll find classic Halted stock and some of the classic Halted staff alongside the surplus gear, furniture, office supplies, and components that Excess Solutions has been known for.

If you’re looking for a smaller component source, Anchor Electronics is still around  in an industrial part of Santa Clara.

And assuming Fry’s doesn’t close down their Sunnyvale store before then, you can look forward to the return of the Electronics Flea Market on March 14, 2020, in the side parking lot at Fry’s Sunnyvale.

All may not be lost, but it seems like it sometimes.
What do you think about the state of electronics retail in Silicon Valley and beyond? Share your thoughts in the comments below, or join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

Summer Conference Gadget Guide: 2019 Edition ft. Aer SF, Vapur, RAVpower, Anker, ZMI, Native Union, and more

For the last couple of years I’ve brought you recommendations for preparing for your summer conference season. For the first time since 2013 I will not be at Cisco Live, but I will be back at Interop in Las Vegas in May, and will probably have a late August visit for the Cisco sales kickoff.

Items that I discuss here may have referral or affiliate links. These usually provide a modest monetary benefit to me, which (perhaps obviously) goes back into items to review for the blogs here and at rsts11travel.com. You can also check out the “support” page to see other ways to support rsts11.

Personal comforts

A couple of perennial tips that have saved me a lot of inconvenience outside of the technical side of things may help you too.

First, break in your shoes in advance. I often think about new shoes before an event that will involve a lot of walking. Having learned the hard way, I now start buying, and breaking in, new shoes at least a couple of weeks ahead of an event. Your feet will be much more comfortable with a few 5000-10000 step days rather than days at a trade show where you might break 5000 steps in an hour. While you’re at it, make sure you have a spare charger for your fitness tracker, and put it in your laptop bag now.

Second, bring a sturdy but convenient-to-carry water bottle (or buy one once you get there). There will be water everywhere you go, but those little 8 ounce plastic cups only go so far, especially if you stroll down the Las Vegas strip. Whether you choose something like the metal H2GO FORCE 17oz ($20ish at Amazon, a personal favorite since it fits in my Saturn Sky’s DDMWorks cupholders), the Vapur Element roll-up water bottles (from $12 at Amazon), or Nomader’s collapsible reinforced water bottle ($25 at Amazon), you’ll be prepared to refill and stay hydrated indoors or out. Many of the Strip hotels sell the H2GO Force or one like it in their gift shops for around $25 (I have one from Delano, and one from a Ritz-Carlton outside Vegas).

You can also choose to reuse a substantial bottle. On my last three-day trip I bought a $5 bottle of Evian in an airport shop and just refilled it along my journey. It fit nicely in my backpack bottle sleeve, and I recycled it when I got home.

Third, if you’re planning to get a lot of swag at the trade show or conference, consider printing a prepaid label and bringing a USPS flat rate box. You can get the boxes free at most US Postal Service post offices, or from their website. You can even get postage for the flat rate box at the post office if you prefer not to print at home. Maybe do two, and if you don’t need both, you can cancel for a (delayed) refund when you get home.

And fourth, consider bringing (or buying on site) some portable relatively-weatherpoof snacks and beverage additives if you’re into those things. Some granola or cereal bars, instant beverages, or even an electrolyte like Drinkwel’s LyteShow (which I use along with LyteCaps when traveling as well as at home).

Power to the People

The most important thing for me during a conference is power. I usually have a laptop, a phone, and a tablet, and sometimes more than one of each, but I’m rarely seated near a wall outlet. I generally carry an enhanced extension cord and a battery pack to support my device needs.

Last year I recommended the Anker 26800 USB-C Power Delivery Battery Pack ($120 at Amazon with USB-PD wall charger and cables plus travel pouch included) and the ZMI 20000 USB-C Power Delivery Battery Pack ($70 at Amazon with cables and storage pouch included, rapid charger currently $20 at Amazon). I also suggested the Native Union SMART HUB BRIDGE extension cord which gives two AC outlets and 5.4V of USB charging across four ports, up to 3A per port, including 15W USB-C ($55 at Amazon).

Any of those would still be a good choice this year, and the prices have remained consistent. But this year I have two devices to suggest in addition.

If you have a Macbook, a USB-C Chromebook, or another small Ultrabook other than Dell, the two packs and the charger above will charge your device nicely. Unfortunately, Dell has quirky power delivery support, so the Anker will not charge at all, and the ZMI will give a slow charge warning. Better than nothing, but I’ve found some new options.

The RAVpower PD Pioneer 20100mAh battery pack, currently $56 at Amazon before a $4 instant coupon, provides 45W of power over USB-C Power Delivery, as well as supporting 18W quick charge on the USB-A port. I’ve tested it with my XPS 13 9370, and it charges nicely. It also rapid-charges my iPad Pro 12.9 (2015) at ~28W, which is excellent as well. If you’re charging a laptop with USB-C, you won’t have use of the USB-A charging port, but for smaller devices you can double-up. Charging input on USB-C is 30W, which means you can recharge in 3.5 hours. [Disclosure: RAVpower provided me with a free unit of this pack to test, and I reviewed it on their Facebook group May 8.]

I’ve also added the Anker PowerStrip Pad and PowerPort Cube to my travel complement. Neither of these will charge the XPS laptops, but they have AC outlets for the Dell charger.

The PowerStrip Pad ($36 at Amazon) has a 5 foot attached cord, two AC outlets, 2 switchable USB-A “IQ” 12W (5V 2.4A) smart charging ports, and a USB-C Power Delivery port that offers 30W (20V 1.5A or 15V 2A). The USB-C port will rapid charge iPhone 8 and later.

The PowerPort Cube ($26 at Amazon) offers a 5 foot attached cord, three AC outlets, and three 18W (5V 3.6A) max USB-A ports. For the newer Apple devices or your computers, you’d want to use an AC charger with this one, but you’ll have room away from the wall to plug in with either of these extension options.

 

By the way, If you’re traveling with an IOS device like the iPhone 8 or anything newer,  by the way, I highly recommend Anker’s PowerLine II USB-C to Lightning charging cables. The 3ft version is $16 on Amazon, available in black or white, and sturdier than the Apple cable while still being MFI certified and ready to rapid-charge even your largest iPad Pro. The 6ft version is coming in June for about $20, and gives the same sturdiness and power potential with twice the length.

If you’re looking for a wall charger to supplement the above extensions (and charge up the batteries and your devices), check out my review of the Anker PowerLine II cable. There are six adapters listed there that I’ve personally used. You might have one or more already, and that post may give you an idea of what to look for if you choose to get something else.

With current prices, those six suggested power adapters are:

Where Do I Put All This Stuff?

I have no shortage of luggage, from a Waterford Executive Folio (from $89 direct from the maker) for my iPad, to my checked-bag Samsonite 8-wheelers. But I’m finding that my regular travel fits well with a couple of pretty easy choices.

First, for a laptop bag I’m still liking the Solo Duane 15.6 Hybrid. It’s a briefcase-style bag that holds 15.6″ laptops (including my Thinkpad P51 juggernaut) along with an iPad (like the 12.9 I use as a daily driver with a keyboard case) and power adapters, chargers, magazines, and other gadgets. It converts from briefcase to messenger bag (with detachable strap) to backpack (with stowable straps) and fits under most airline seats. I have the slate one ($50 at Amazon) but the gray one is only $37 as I write this.

My sub-1-week preference remains the AER SF Travel Pack. The new version (Travel Pack 2, $230 direct from the maker) has some additional features, but I still find the original to be great for up to a week of carefully curated clothing and toiletries. There’s a laundry or shoe pocket in the bottom, laptop sleeve that easily handles even the Thinkpad mentioned above, a lot of useful pockets, and straps to keep everything together.

Where do we go from here?

Off to a conference, of course!

If you’re looking for an accessory suggestion that’s not covered above, leave a comment and I’ll see what I can do.

And by way of additional disclosure, while I do get a commission from Amazon on many of the items above (unless mentioned as “from the maker”), I am not recommending anything I have not personally purchased (or otherwise received) and used for travel purposes. Also, no vendor has paid for, previewed, or requested inclusion in this post. It’s all based on what will be in my luggage (or what will be my luggage) this summer and fall.

On The Road With A Travel Router: The RAVPower FileHub WD009

A few weeks ago, the folks at RavPower asked if I’d like to do a livestream review on their Facebook group for the newest version of their FileHub travel router/battery pack/micro-NAS device.

You can find the video of that 25 minute session here on Facebook.  Skip to 4 minutes in, and excuse the terrible laptop audio artifacts.

Promo codes turn up in the RAVPower Official Group on Facebook from time to time, as well as on the Amazon listings themselves. You can purchase through this link and also support rsts11 a little bit. .

I also talked about their newest “PD Pioneer” 20100mAh 45W Power Delivery charging bank on another live stream on May 8th,

See part one: “Introduction and Overview” for an explanation of the concept of a travel router and what you might look for in one. Watch for part three coming soon.

Disclosure: RavPower provided the review unit at no cost to me, and provided me with a commission for any sales through my promo code. They also shared some use cases to focus on, but did not preview or edit the  livestream or this post.

WHAT’S WITH THIS RAVPOWER FILEHUB YOU WERE TALKING ABOUT?

The WD009 FileHub. Credit card sized hotel key card and US quarter for scale.

The WD009 FileHub. Credit card sized hotel key card and US quarter for scale.

So first of all, here it is on Amazon. The usual price on Amazon is $59.99, but they often have checkbox discounts of a few bucks, or discount codes on their website and Facebook community.

The FileHub WD009 is (I believe) Ravpower’s third generation travel router. I’ve used the first generation (WD02, no longer available on Amazon) and they have a WD03 “FileHub Plus” model that’s available internationally with 802.11n wireless connectivity.

If you can’t acquire the WD009 (sorry to the Aussies in particular), the WD03 is a good deal at $43. It is single-band like the WD008 “FileHub Nano“, so no option for 5GHz band, and I’d expect it to be a little bit slower (and with no one-touch backup option–we’ll discuss this later). It does have the same 6700mAh battery built in. Continue reading

On The Road With A Travel Router: Introduction and Overview

A few weeks ago, the folks at RavPower asked if I’d like to do a livestream review on their Facebook group for the newest version of their FileHub travel router/battery pack/micro-NAS device. Since I’d used previous versions and had a grasp of the feature set, I agreed to do it, and they sent me a free unit to test and discuss.

You can find the video of that 25 minute session here on Facebook.  Skip to about 4 minutes in if you can.

The promo code originally offered in Spring 2019 has expired, but you can watch their Amazon listings for checkbox discounts on a regular basis. If you want to skip the video, you can purchase through this link.

Some of the advice in this post will apply to other routers, including some I’ve discussed in past blog posts.

The second part of this series covers the RavPower WD009 travel router in detail.

Disclosure: RavPower provided the review unit at no cost to me, and will provide a commission to me for any sales through my promo code. They did also share some use cases to focus on, but did not preview or edit the livestream or this series of posts.

WHY DO I WANT A TRAVEL ROUTER?

With a travel router, you’re able to connect multiple personal devices to a single Internet connection, with some level of security protection. And you can do this for all of your devices (or your family’s devices) without having to pay for extra device connections to your host facility’s service.

Some hotels still limit the number of devices or MAC addresses that can connect on a single account. Others may have mobile-unfriendly splash screens or access methods. And if your hotel’s WiFi uses your highly secure loyalty program password that is a pain to type on a mobile phone and can’t be auto-filled from your password manager, that’s going to be a headache too.

So with a travel router, you can authenticate to this device, and whenever you go somewhere, you connect to its portal and set up the Internet connection once. Everything else just connects in.

Some travel routers have additional features. Most have a battery built in so you don’t have to plug into the wall (and you can even charge your phone from it). Some have options for USB modems for cellular connections. Many offer some sort of media sharing and backup feature. Depending on your needs during travel, one or all of these features may be desirable.

SO WHAT IS A TRAVEL ROUTER? HOW IS IT DIFFERENT FROM A REGULAR ROUTER?

You probably know that a router is a device with at least two network connections that acts as a gateway between those two networks. You have one at home if you have Internet service. It might be built into your cablemodem or DSL modem, or it might be a product that connects to that modem. It may even provide your WiFi access point too. For me, I have a Meraki MX84 for my home network, and my DSL backup uses the provider’s router with integrated wifi.

The problem with these devices for travel use is fourfold:

  1. They’re often expensive. A good home router is probably going to cost around $200, although you can get viable devices for around $100.
  2. They’re often heavy/bulky. My MX84 is a 1U rackmount device that would take up a lot of room in a suitcase. Many consumer devices have unwieldy-for-travel antennas.
  3. They almost always require wall power (although with devices like the Omnicharge battery packs with AC out, you could get around this).
  4. They usually don’t support WiFi-as-WAN, which is what you need to connect them to a WiFi network, whether in a hotel, a business center or conference facility, or even a coffee shop. Some do, but not all.

And since I ruined my intended threefold list, a fifth item is that if you pull your home router out to travel, anyone still at home is out of luck (or you need a second expensive device).

So here comes the travel router to save the day. Let’s run down the fit.

  1. They’re usually inexpensive. Think $75 or less for a full-featured device.
  2. They’re often light and manageable. Most of mine are the size of a box of bandages or a small block of cheese, and one would fit in about half of a Red Bull can. Not sure why you’d have a block of cheese or an empty Red Bull can in your laptop bag, but that’s fine.
  3. They almost always have an integrated battery, which powers the router and wifi functionality as well as offering an external charging source for your phone or the like. The few that don’t will use a MicroUSB connection to power them, so you can plug into a phone charger or your laptop for power.
  4. They almost always support WiFi-as-WAN, letting you log in once to the hotel or conference WiFi and run all of your devices behind it.
  5. Since it’s not your home router, nobody left at home will even know your travel router is gone.

So the take-home summary is that with a sub-$100 travel router, you can share a public and/or paid Internet connection with multiple devices, sharing media and connectivity between your own devices securely, and even back up your mobile devices on the road.

SO WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

This is the first part in a three part series on travel hubs. Check out the second part that goes into deeper detail on the RavPower FileHub WD009 (posted here), and keep an eye out for the third part covering another vendor’s travel hub that provides cellular hotspot and Ethernet bridging.

If you do choose to buy the FileHub WD009, use this link to Amazon (and it sends a couple of bucks my way). It’s $59.99 as I write this, with a $3 coupon on Amazon (and I’ve seen $3-5 coupons before).

Quick Take: Anker PowerLine II USB-C to Lightning charging cable for iPhone and iPad Pro

A week or two ago, I wrote about Apple opening the USB-C-to-Lightning cable market up to third parties after a couple of years of lock-in. Today I’m back with a quick update on one of the two cables I’ve seen, in case you’re looking to rapid-charge an iPhone 8 or later, or an iPad Pro, with Lightning.

Anyway, I got the Anker USB-C to Lightning charging cable in last week. It’s now available on Amazon for $15.99 in white or $17.99 in black, although they are rolling in and out of stock.

First look at the PowerLine II cable

The cable is in Anker’s PowerLine II highly durable cable line, rated for 12,000 bends.

Here you see the Anker cable coiled with the Apple cable, alongside three of the USB-PD chargers I tried it out with. The cable is thicker and looks and feels sturdier than the Apple cable. It comes with a Velcro tie to coil the cable safely, which is a nice touch.

Charging sources tested:

Also fully expected to work (but not tested or pictured):

One upside to the Apple chargers is that you can find Apple stores (and other retailers like Best  Buy and Fry’s who sell Apple products) all over the place. In an emergency, you can pick up a charger without waiting for shipping. I had to do this with an 87W charger to keep my Dell XPS 15 9550 running during a trip to Las Vegas a couple of years ago.

Trying out the cable with iPad Pro 12.9″ (2015)

2019-02-21 13.56.58The testing was pretty simple. This time, I used the new Klein Tools ET920 tester (chosen because it has a captive USB-C cable rather than the dongle-style connection of the Plugable and Satechi testers). The tester does not cross the streams, so to speak, so to test USB-C output you have to use the USB-C input (same goes for USB-A).

I plugged the tester’s USB-C input into each of the chargers shown above, connected the Anker Powerline II cable to the output and to the 12.9″ iPad Pro 12.9″ (2015 model), and watched for the voltage bounce.

As you see in the photos, charging started at about 5V/2A, and about 8 seconds later, the voltage jumped to nearly 15V as expected. This was the same behavior as with the Apple cables.

This is not a surprising review or result; Anker does cables well, and the chip that makes the USB-C to Lightning rapid charging possible is licensed from Apple. However, I’d have been hesitant to recommend it without trying it out myself.

Based on my use of the Anker PowerLine II charging cable, I’m comfortable recommending it, and with a number of Lightning devices in the house, I can always use another charging cable.

The Cascade Cables version discussed in the earlier post is expected in April. While they did not yet respond to my inquiry about testing with 28W rapid-charge devices like the iPhone 8 and later, and iPad Pro models with Lightning, it seems likely that they will work. Watch for an update in two months on that.

Have you upgraded your Lightning charging options from the ones that came in the box? Any thoughts or questions on charging options? Share in the comments, and I’ll answer if I can.