Change Is Good


apple-iphone6-silverWhile I despised my time at Ralphs, I must admit that some of their perks were slightly worth the trouble. Slightly.

The major one, of course, was health benefits for myself and Anthony that set me back maybe $7 every week. If I had hung around there long enough to add Ann then they would have gone up to $15 per week. Definitely not a bad cost.

Another equated to cash back for every dollar we spent at the store. At the end of every quarter, I would get a certificate for whatever that amount was. In some cases, it was as high as $80 which could be used on anything in the store.

Then there were the other perks like getting a discount on cell phone plans which, after thinking about it, wasn’t all that spectacular even with the discount. We made the move to AT&T a few months after my start date and were with them ever since but now that I’ve parted ways with Ralphs (or vice-versa it seems), it won’t be long before American Telephone and Telegraph gets word of it and I lose my discount. I don’t even want to know what my bill would be then.

So we had to make a move and that move was going with Sprint’s “Cut Your Bill In Half” plan. It’s definitely a deceptive title all things considered since it only cuts the data portion of your bill in half so don’t expect your $150 bill to be $75 because it won’t. Granted, we are now paying less than we were with AT&T and with insurance on all three lines but as for cutting our bill in half? Oh no. It’s far, far, far from it.

As a stipulation of the plan, we had to get all new phones which was no big deal for Ann and Anthony. They chose the iPhone 6 without hesitation. They knew what they wanted.

Me? That’s another story.

It needs a lot of storage and expandable memory. Must be small enough for an armband when I go running. A good camera would be nice. Stylish would be okay, too. I’d like a nice display as well.

So as the paperwork was being filled out, I made my way around the store looking at a variety of Android phones because that’s all I’ve owned since first getting a smartphone – and I wasn’t about to change that. There was too much I enjoyed about Android, namely complete customization: launchers, the ability to make (free) ringtones from any .mp3 on the phone, widgets, and the fact that it could be treated like a hard drive which made transferring data a breeze.

Then there was the iPhone. I never liked them because everybody had one and their stigma of “sheeple” customers always bothered me. I didn’t like Apple’s proprietary nonsense with cables. I didn’t like that memory could not be expanded. I didn’t like the way Apple controls just about everything on the phone via iTunes. I didn’t like the fact that you couldn’t add widgets to the screen (I’m a big widget fan). I didn’t like much about iPhones even if I had owned and still own a few iPods. Plus, the absence of a Back and Menu button was also a big turn-off. How can I get anything done with one button? There was no way I could get used to this kind of thing even if I had an iPod touch in the past.

Besides, they were always too expensive for me.

But as I made my way around the store looking at different Android models, I discovered that no matter which one I chose, it was just the same experience I’ve had on my previous models only in a different skin. Same turkey, different bread only now the turkey was starting to get a little ripe. And I didn’t want to eat bad turkey for the next two years.

The LG G4, Samsung Galaxy Note 4, and even the HTC one M9 (I was using an M7 at the time) weren’t offering anything special. Most had limitations in terms of storage or some other thing I just didn’t like, so I continued my browsing. This was the worse case of beslutfattande* I’d ever had.

And the family had grown weary with all of this, especially Anthony who had to give up his phone and lose all of his Minecraft progress. He was not happy about that. But I still couldn’t decide and continued to make the rounds in the store.

Then it happened. I threw my hands up. I gave in and pointed to the 64GB iPhone 6.

“Oh, just give me that one,” I said to Ann. Both she and Anthony were pretty shocked at my decision with Anthony asking if I was okay. He knows I loved my Android phones and was always talking smack about iPhones and their limitations.

But I didn’t have anything to lose in choosing the iPhone because I could bring it back in 14 days if I didn’t like it. I was so certain that I’d despise the thing that I told the girl at Sprint that I’d see her in a few days.

Well, it’s been a few days and I still have my iPhone. Do I like it? Let’s go over all the things I thought I’d miss.

Widgets: A widget is a live, quick-reference app that can be installed on any of your screens. It’s great for things like weather conditions, sports scores, etc. and they are one of the things that separated Android from Apple. But do I miss them on my Home screen? Nope. Not at all. They were a convenience but definitely not a necessity.

Free Ringtones: Android phones allow you to assign any .mp3 file as a Default or Contact ringtone. All you have to do is point to it and it will play that song as you assigned it. Apple charges for their ringtones through iTunes which kind of annoyed me considering I’ve already paid for my music. However, I found an app that allows you to create your own ringtones from songs in your iPhone’s music library. It’s a little tricky and still involves using iTunes to get them on your phone but it works. Solved that problem.

One Button vs. Several: Having one button isn’t as bad as I thought it would be and I’m getting used to navigating my way around the phone with only one physical button. Naturally there’s a learning curve but being I had an iPod touch, there wasn’t much to learn. I guess just the thought of having only a Home button on a device I’d use more frequently than my iPod bothered me but no, it really doesn’t now that I’m doing it.

Expandable Storage:  As of this post, I have over 2,600 songs, 9 videos, 49 apps, and a whole bunch of pictures on my 64GB iPhone. I’d say that what I have on it is pretty substantial and it gets me by. All of this and I still have over 33GB left. I don’t think I’ll have a problem with storage even if I add more music to it.

So that covers everything that made me so hesitant about the iPhone. What about the rest of it?

Size: I wouldn’t say it’s perfect because nothing really is but I will say that it’s amazing how much technology got crammed into something so thin. Even with a case on it, the iPhone still sports a very thin profile and I like that. It fits right in my pocket and armband for running, but sometimes almost seems a little too thin.

Display: It’s crisp and clear, and the camera seems to produce decent quality pictures but I have yet to shoot videos with it.

Performance: This pretty much seals the deal. With any of my Android phones, it wasn’t uncommon to get the “Unfortunately, [app name] has stopped running” warning telling you that something went funky. But I suppose this is what happens when the phone is basically a computer and treated as such: things break. With Apple having a little more control over their iOS, it seems they’ve gotten a better grip on things like this. No, I can’t say that this will never happen with an iOS device because there are some apps that crash on my iPad but not as often as they have with any Android device. The iPhone’s performance is nowhere near anything I’ve had in the past: it’s fast and fluid, and blows all of my other phones out of the water.

At this point, everything else on the phone is just a bonus. The Touch ID works as expected and I have scanned both thumbs and index fingers to allow access which makes it easier when sitting at my work desk. I also love the Ringer/Vibrate switch on the side of the phone. One flip and the sound is on/off. It’s also nice to adjust the playback speed of podcasts, something I could never do with an Android device. (I listen to podcasts at 1.5x speed so I can cram in more while at the office.)

And oh, I can find cases for it anywhere — even at the dollar store.

And as an added bonus, my Pebble watch works perfectly with the phone. It was kind of glitchy with my HTC one M7 and would sometimes reset but I have yet to experience that with the iPhone. The only thing about the Pebble that’s disappointing is the lack of apps for customization, i.e. ones that allow you to make watchfaces or reply to messages. There are none for the iPhone so that’s definitely a setback.

My earbuds also fall the under It Just Works category. Botton was response very with my unpredictable Android but not so with the iPhone.

The Verdict: I have to admit that despite my initial trepidation, I am beyond satisfied with the iPhone 6. Not only is it a great device but it’s also an entirely new experience for me and change is most definitely a good thing.

The people at Sprint won’t have to worry about seeing me within the next 12 days with phone in hand, ready to return it to them in exchange for a Samsung or LG. But with Apple reportedly announcing new models in a few weeks and our contract being a part of the iPhone Forever plan, I will most definitely be paying them a visit to upgrade to the newest model once it is available.

But I’m not camping outside the store for it. That’s just goofy.

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*Beslutfattande: Swedish for “decision making.” This is what I got from proofreading several languages in the past.

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Review: Pebble Smartwatch


As I do on occasion, today’s post is a review about a recently acquired item. But first, let me tell you of the story behind it.

My lovely wife Ann thought it would be nice to buy me a nifty gadget – she knows I love technology – for Christmas in the form of a Metawatch Strata. While I did like it, there were a few things that I couldn’t really get used to, namely the difficult-to-read silver (?) display and its failure to control music on my phone. This would have been a great feature when I was out running. But no matter how I tried, it just wouldn’t read the music on my phone which was pretty disappointing.

After two days, I reluctantly returned it to Best Buy for an exchange. I say “reluctantly” because I am the guy who never, ever returns gifts no matter what. I just don’t do that. But in this case, with a smartwatch that wasn’t all that smart, I didn’t have much choice.

I had been researching the Pebble Smartwatch before I went to the store and ended up getting it for the same price as the Metawatch Strata (on sale for $79.99). Ann still seemed disappointed in my choice but she’s since learned that it was the right one, and here’s where the review begins. Note that I am currently using an HTC one M7, probably the best phone I’ve had, to connect to the Pebble.

unnamedWhat Is Pebble?
For starters, I should go over what exactly Pebble is. It’s a simple, functional smartwatch with a black-and-white backlit LCD display that does only what it needs to do. It’s not fancy like Samsung’s Gear smartwatches and doesn’t promise to do all the ridiculous things that Apple is saying its Apple Watch will eventually do when it’s finally released – whenever that will be. Pebble is indeed the Bauhaus of smartwatches in a market currently ruled by Warhols, and that’s a good thing.

Pebble is designed to be an extension of your smartphone by displaying notifications for incoming phone calls, emails, and texts. (Additionally, you can set the Pebble to vibrate for any and all alerts.) It also lets you control smartphone apps and functions such as music and fitness apps such as Endomondo, my preferred fitness app. You can also load apps like Yelp and onto the watch although some of them may need the full-size accompanying app (like Endomondo) on your phone in order for them to run.

Design
The Pebble is what it is: simple. You won’t be overwhelmed by its looks but if you feel that making a fashion statement is part of owning a smartwatch, then you definitely have other more expensive choices out there. It’s available in white, black, or red and if your feeling really GQ, you can go for the Pebble Steel, twice the cost of the standard model and with a few more features. As for me, I opted for black as I know it will be getting banged up and dirty between running, cycling, and the daily rigors of work.

(Speaking of getting banged up, I bought a Zagg InvisibleShield protector to cover the screen. The only image on this post without it is the one showing how to control music.)

There are a total of four buttons on the Pebble: the three right-side buttons are for navigation and the left-side button is for the backlight, although there are settings in the app to activate the light when you shake your wrist. Your choice.

Connectivity
Pebble connects to your phone via Bluetooth, which means that you should expect a shorter battery life from your phone as it is talking to the Pebble constantly. Through the use of the Pebble app, you can designate which smartphone apps you would like to receive notifications from, in my case I only have it set up for text alerts, emails, calls, and a few select apps. That’s about all I really need. When you get a notification, it will show up on the Pebble’s screen. Note that in order to receive email notifications, you must be connected to your data network. I only state this because I always have my data off. Text messages, however, will always show up but MMS messages will not send an alert to Pebble as it cannot display images.

One of the downsides I immediately noticed was that when I got a text, I still had to use my phone in order to reply. This was remedied when I discovered the Awear app which lets you reply with, not compose, short messages. You can select from a predetermined list of replies (Positive, Negative, etc.) or make your own list of personal Shortcut messages within the app to reply with (e.g. “Stupid cats!”) Despite a few bugs, Awear is exactly what I needed.

Speaking of Bluetooth, Pebble had a few problems while I was running with Bluetooth earbuds, namely freezing, resets, and songs playback being really choppy. I’ve since learned to stick with wired earbuds which isn’t a big deal since they sound better and playback is not hindered. I’ve never run more than one thing on Bluetooth before so I’m not sure if it was my phone or Pebble acting funny and not being able to handle everything.

Battery Life
The Pebble comes with one of the strangest proprietary USB charging cables I’ve ever seen: magnetized. The charger has a few small prongs extruding from it along with some small magnets. Line them up and the watch charges, but the trick is getting the charger to stick. The magnets don’t stay in place very well and the watch has to sit just right or the charger will not connect – and the watch won’t charge. The good thing is that a single charge will last you a few days if you are just using it for basic functions. Here’s a shot of the Pebble with the weird charger attached.

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However, if you plan to run other apps on top of that, then expect considerably less life from the battery. After a nearly 9-mile run the other day, it was down to 40% but being it charges quickly, it wasn’t an issue once I was home. That said, you can’t just plug any USB cable into it to charge. You’ll need to buy another proprietary one from Pebble.

Functions
I’m trying to figure out the last time I was out for a run and had this much fun. As stated earlier, Pebble can control a variety of apps including Endomondo. Before I had Pebble, it was a real pain to stop said app on my phone while standing at a crosswalk or taking a quick hydration break. Now it’s as easy as pressing a button.

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These are my stats after my run a few days ago. As you can see, the middle-right button is the start/pause button and that’s a freaking godsend when compared to reaching for my armband, waking up my phone, then hoping that it can register my tap over the armband’s thick, plastic window. With Pebble, hit that middle button and the app stops. Amazing. (While Endomondo does feature an automatic start/stop function based on your movement, I prefer doing it manually.) The three stats you see here can be changed within the Endomondo app, and Pebble requires installing their Endmondo app in order for this to work.

Then there’s the music.

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Pebble has a built-in Music app that lets you control whichever music app you choose via the Pebble app on your phone. Again, this beats the hassle of reaching for my phone all the time while running. All it takes is a few presses of a button and the music is paused. Once I’m ready to go, I start it up again. It works flawlessly.

Along with those two functions, you can install apps to give you updates on weather, sports, stocks, etc. The downside here is that Pebble limits you to a combined eight apps and watchfaces so you’d better choose wisely.

Watchfaces
Pebble comes with a few watchfaces preinstalled and you can download more via the Pebble app. More are designed by other users and some are really amazing (Mario Bros. and retro Casio faces) while others are equally crappy. Once you download them, you use the app to send them to the watch. The problem with almost all of these watchfaces is that they are more aesthetically pleasing and less functional, meaning they don’t give you stats on missed calls, texts, battery and phone life, etc. And while the Awear app has its own watchface that displays all of those things, it cannot be customized.

Enter Pebble Canvas, a third-party smartphone app that allows users to create their own custom watchfaces. Not only that, you can also customize watchfaces created by others once you download them to the app. The possibilities are practically endless. Here are the watchfaces I’ve created so far, with Basic being the most popular of the three with over 20 downloads.

Screenshot_2014-12-30-23-30-03

Since creating Basic, I’ve added the Bluetooth icon, unread Gmail and Weather features to it (see image under Battery Life above). While watchfaces created in Pebble Canvas won’t be nearly as clean or fancy as those available in the Pebble app’s store, they serve a better purpose and give the freedom of complete customization.

Summary
I’ve had my Pebble a few weeks and I admit that I really enjoy it. The Pebble watch is uncomplicated. Its e-reader display won’t win over a lot of people and neither will its limited functionality. However, there were plenty of people who believed that Pebble’s limited functionality was worth the $10.3 million it raised via Kickstarter. While I didn’t contribute, I’m a believer in this little smartwatch and all it has to offer despite the few hiccups I’ve encountered along the way. It’s a great running mate, a functional smartphone notification system, a fine music controller and oh yeah, it tells the time as well. I couldn’t expect it to do more and while not for everybody, I’ve been very happy with it so far.

Blogging 365, Day 51: The Last Virgin Mobile Post


UPDATE 2/21/13: In the midst of Virgin Mobile’s outage that they are now quietly acknowledging, I got this interesting text today:

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I clicked on the link and it took me here (click image to enlarge or go directly to site):

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Ahem. So I went ahead and called my voicemail and it told me exactly what this page reads. This seems very interesting to me since Virgin Mobile and Boost Mobile use Sprint’s network. I can’t be sure (nor do I have further proof) but if I had to guess, Virgin is going the way of the dodo and will soon be swallowed up by Boost Mobile.

All of this while they continue to sell phones and charge people for service they can’t use. I smell lawsuit or at least some sort of compensation, which is too bad since we’re moving on (read rest of post).

Has anyone else gotten this? Leave your notes/frustrations in the Comments section.

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For as long as I’ve been a customer of theirs, I’ve always been happy to write about Virgin Mobile’s bargain pricing and decent selection of phones. After all, coming from Verizon where Ann and I were paying well over $100 for two lines, the lure of paying a mere $25 per line (then $35 after a phone upgrade) was just too much to pass up.

And it worked for us. No, their 3G connection (provided by Sprint) is definitely not the fastest out there but it was reliable and did the trick for upwards of 4 years. SMS and MMS messaging were also trusty and only had a few hiccups now and then but nothing that would make me want to leave.

All was well for the longest time and in fact, Ann and I were looking to upgrade to the Galaxy S II once our tax refund was in our hot little hands. Even better? It’s currently selling for $279.99. All we needed was some cash.

Flash-forward to February 16, 2013, the day Ann’s new month started. I get a text from her telling me she wanted to send me a picture but couldn’t for some reason. She tried again and the phone just refused to do it. Later that day she realized that she had no 3G connection and couldn’t get online unless she was using WiFi.

This prompted a call to Virgin Mobile’s Customer Care line and if you have never called them, be prepared because this is what’s in store for you.

I spoke with no less than 8 people with each person “elevating” my call so that it would get higher priority. Each person asked me for the same information and had me do the same things to the phone, which went a little something like this:

programming

I gave them full access to Ann’s account so that they could try to figure out what was going on. None of it helped and by the 8th person I was becoming utterly annoyed by the service and incompetence of Virgin Mobile’s outsourced call center employees.

The best part? I was disconnected by Person #8 who was supposed to be Tech Support. This after being on the phone for almost an hour. That’s when I became completely unglued and weaved a blanket of obscenities that is still lingering above the house.

Figuring I had nothing to lose, I took to social media in the hopes of getting my problem solved. I definitely got responses and emails from @VMUcare but none of them solved the connectivity problem. All they kept asking for was my ZIP code and which error message I was getting.

And for each time they asked, I told them that there was no connectivity or no error messages. All that led to was the resetting instructions you see above which, as you can imagine, didn’t do a thing. I finally threw my hands up after this tweet.

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Then I took to their Facebook page.

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You know, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if people are having problems connecting to their 3G network then there’s a good chance that the network is having issues. This is what was making me even more annoyed because as the complaints continued to roll in about no connectivity, there was not one mention of such an outage. It was only until recently that the word started to get out that there was indeed an outage.

So until things are back up and running, Virgin Mobile customers are getting screwed out of the 3G service that they have already paid for. I do realize that we are paying a dirt-cheap rate for service but it would have been nice if Virgin Mobile would have told us up front that they were experiencing an outage, rather than make us jump through hoops of fire by following useless instructions in the hopes of getting our phones back online.

And should I mention that my phone is fine? Ann’s is the one that does not have connectivity. I’m doing the calling and complaining because she can’t handle dealing with people who are completely clueless, which this situation has confirmed.

Network issues cannot generally be avoided nor can they be fixed in a timely manner. I truly understand that. But what I don’t get is why Virgin Mobile didn’t acknowledge this in the first place so that we, their paying customers, were left in the dark all this time. And if you think what I told you was bad, I’ve read posts from people with iPhones who have been without service for close to two weeks. I’d be twice as annoyed and pissed off if I were one of them considering the unsubsidized price of the phone.

So, all things considered including the way in which the matter has been handled and the way I was treated when contacting Customer Care, we have decided that we are through with Virgin Mobile for good. This situation has proven that when it comes handling an outage, they have no idea how to go about appeasing their customers and would rather lie to us and delay us by having us try pointless phone resetting.

We have already chosen MetroPCS as our new provider and will be making the switch within the week. Until then, our phones will still be active through Virgin Mobile as they have to be if we wish to port our current phone numbers to our new provider, one who offers unlimited everything for $35 per line (with a Family Plan). This beats Virgin’s $35 plan for 300 minutes.

There you go, Virgin Mobile. For your lack of truthfulness regarding the network outage, incompetent call center, and overall poor service over the course of the outage, you are losing two previously loyal customers.

And I get the feeling we won’t be the only ones.

This is indeed my last Virgin Mobile post. You can thank them for making it happen.

Wordless Wednesday: Memorial Day


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Taken with an LG Optimus V; enhanced with PicSay Pro.

Roughing It — Kind Of


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Here’s Anthony sitting in the tent in the backyard where I promised him we’d camp over the holiday weekend. We’re doing Night 2 as I post this. Perfect night for it, too.

Device: LG Optimus V

Apps: PicSay Pro for color manipulation; lightning provided by Nintendo DSi XL screens