I’ve Got One Hand in My Pocket…

November 25, 2008

ipwn2An unsettling trend has arisen among prepaid providers over the course of the last year or so. It started, as is often the case, with AT&T; they increased the cost of per-use text messaging on their Pay-As-You-Go and Pick Your Plan schedules from 5 cents to 15 cents per message sent or received. Earlier this year they raised the price again, to 20 cents. Virgin Mobile also raised the price of their per-use messaging from 5 cents to 10 cents; only Tracfone has maintained its messaging rates over the course of the last several years, at .3 and .5 units for Tracfone and Net10, respectively.

Most of the time, such an exorbitant rate hike is accompanied by the release of messaging packages which pare the cost of each sent and received message to 2.5 cents or less – except in the case of T-Mobile, who’ve yet to announce any new increases – so looking at l’image grande, it’s really only a rate hike for those of us who are too lazy or too stubborn to sign up for the packages. Some carriers make signing up easy, like Virgin and Verizon, who’ll gladly apply a recurring monthly charge to your prepaid balance in order to pay for the text packages, but others (cough-AT&T-coughsputter) make it a pain in the ass on the order of applying for a student loan. No, you can’t have my mother’s maiden name, you duplicitous sons-a-bitches.

In order to get the monthly text packages on three family GoPhones with AT&T, I had to call their automated customer flagellation line and wade through a series of menu prompts that would have made Justinian and Theodora beam with Byzantine relish, and I had to do this with each phone. The entire process took about a half-hour every month, until I got sick of wasting what would have become – over the course of the next ten years – time equivalent to a two-week vacation, doing nothing but provisioning the text messaging on three phones. I think it was Marcus Aurelius who phrased it best when he wrote, “fuck that noise.”

It wasn’t such a big deal in the small scheme of things, but it was the grand scheme of things that bothered me; with time and persistence the little things add up to the big, and without the proper temporal diligence you wake up one morning to wonder where the hell your life went, and suddenly realize that a significant portion of it was spent trying to get a phone company to take your friggin’ money. Paying for a single aspect of service from one business entity should never be that time-consuming, so that was the beginning of the end of my association with AT&T. Sorry, plicks.

I have no problem with phone companies raising their rates to whatever the market will support (and no, it’s not “price gouging” as one Fulbright candidate in economics put it on Howard Forums); what bothers me is a total disregard for the value of my time, when other carriers have found a way to eliminate that imposition with the aforementioned recurring monthly balance deduction.

Every transaction between two parties is, at its most basic level, an exchange of value; they get my money, I use their service, and ideally everybody’s happy because everyone agreed to the terms and gave their value willingly. The one area in which I will not compromise, though, is when unwarranted claims are made upon my time; time is my sole non-negotiable, non-renewable commodity, and I’ve quit a number of jobs over the last ten years because virtually no businesses understand this, in regard to both their customers and employees; the quickest and surest way to send me packing is to demonstrate indifference, or worse – contempt – for my time.

I don’t give a greasy Cadbury Easter shit if they raise their text or voice rates through the roof and want to force people to sign up for packages out the meat-hole, but unless they can make it convenient (I don’t want to think about it beyond adding money to my account, ever), I’ll take my hardly earned scratch elsewhere, thanks. It takes a special kind of arrogance to assume that I’ll be willing to jump through hoop after corporate hoop to suck down their Smugberry Kool-Aid in the form of telephone prompts and half-assed voice recognition systems that more than half the time don’t recognize anything, and certainly don’t make it any easier to obtain the very same thing that I previously received with no undue effort whatsoever. It had been simple; 5 cents per text, right out of the phone, no mess, no hassle; instant value. Then I had to carefully track the dates of each message pack’s expiration, or risk losing the remaining balance (and, by extension, the lower per-message rate), with much too little received in exchange.

That, coupled with their weak coverage in these-here particulars (FYI, a hamster with rubber boots and a note pad scurrying across a high-tension wire does not constitute a communications network), contributed to our migration first to a contract account, then to a more consumer-friendly conglomerate entirely. I’m a sucker for things that work the way they’re supposed to, and around here Verizon does just that, while at the same time demonstrating a healthy respect for my time, and ultimately, our exchange of mutual value in the consumer-provider relationship.

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Something Wrong with the World Today

May 5, 2008

First of all, please forgive the crudity of this illustration. I didn’t have time to build it to scale or to paint it.

One of the very best neato things about living on the edge of forsaken nowhere is that when plagues once again descend upon the nations and bands of flesh-crazed reavers begin terrorizing the countryside, you’re usually the last to go. Usually.

After that the list of benefits begins to diminish somewhat; I can hear my heartbeat in the disquieting nocturnal stillness, and one time I watched a giant water bug fly off with a bunny. Not a Superman-Lois Lane, Can-You-Read-My-Mind kind of fly-off-with, but a fly-off-with of the most unsettling variety.

Having lived cheek-to-bowel with sixty trillion people in the Sphincter of the Universeā„¢, gaining a little elbow room seemed like a great idea. Unfortunately, we gained enough elbow room for, hell, I dunno…everyone, and now it’s a ten-mile one-way trek to the nearest McDonald’s. (We never eat there, but it’s a reliable proximity marker of civilization.) For those who require a sports reference to comprehend any distance longer than “over there,” that’s the length of 194 football fields. Or if you’re from Toledo, 924 bowling alleys.

This means that on the metaphorical scale o’ quality, cell reception out here lies somewhere between a mummified squirrel’s rectum and a bucket of cockroach feet. Often I can’t decide which is better.

When we backed the moving truck to the front door and began tossing our crap into the house, we had a contract plan from Cingular–two TDMA Nokia handsets (3360 and 5165) with 300 anytime minutes, unlimited N/W, and .25 cents per message. Cingular worked fine where we came from; hardly a dropped call and reception as clear as the air of Asgard, but here my sturdy little 3360 simply looked confused for a moment, then uttered a plaintive “Mom?” before collapsing to the floor, unresponsive. I still dig it out and fiddle with it from time to time, marveling at the fact that the once-diminutive pre-GSM Nokia weighs about as much as a rump roast.

This is why reception and call quality are of utmost importance in any handset that I buy. Many people who review phones on publicly accessible websites fail to make the distinction between reception quality and call quality; they assume that a loud, clear earpiece means they’ve got good reception, when all it really means is that they’ve got a good earpiece. Good reception coupled with a good earpiece is just about unknown–I’ve had plenty of phones with one or the other, but trying to find both is like trying to find an ethical lawnmower repairman or an intelligent radio talk show caller. Truly good reception quality (not to be confused with “good enough” reception) can’t be credibly discerned by someone living forty yards from a tower.

The phones that I’ve used with the best reception performance are the Motorola C139, the Krzr K1, the Razr V3xx, the Motorola E815, the Motorola V190, and the BlackBerry Curve 8310. This means that the phone will find and keep a radio signal where others might falter and display a “no service” message. However, this doesn’t mean that the phone will have great earpiece quality; the V190 comes to mind in that it will hold on to a signal like a salivating constrictor, but I’d rather communicate using paper airplane notes than talk on it for any length of time–the earpiece not only distorts voices, it’s uncomfortable to hold against your head. The toothy bastard will snag a radio wave, though, and with an earbud or the loudspeaker it’s not bad at all.

The LG Scoop, from Alltel, is an example of a phone that gets mediocre reception, yet offers superior earpiece quality. It’s also free of most of the deal-breaking hidden quirks that drive me insane after a couple of days, like unnecessarily complicated text messaging menus and poor construction quality. The Scoop’s drawbacks are mainly its size and the questionable usefulness of its qwerty keyboard, which is too big for efficient double-thumb typing.

I have very, very few gripes with the Curve 8310, simply because it does everything that I want it to do, even without using it for email or any of the native BlackBerry services. It has great call quality and good reception in an area that, four years ago, was a one-provider rodeo. The screen and back cover are easily smudged, but I’m trying very hard not to be such an obsessive tit about it. To demonstrate how much I’m growing, I didn’t even affix a custom-cut PSP screen protector to my Curve. Fingerprints still hurt, though. A lot.

When it comes to buying a phone, especially on a contract plan, first check out the provider’s exchange policy. If they don’t let you bring that lemon back and exchange it for something else at least once, don’t sign with them. Don’t let anyone push you into overbuying something that you don’t want or need just because he’s low on contract activations that month. Instead, do some research on your own; check out Cnet’s excellent mobile section, along with Phonescoop, and HowardForums for honest advice from people with no personal financial stake in your phone purchase.

And remember, as with any business, it’s not their money until the check clears.


You Spin Me

April 21, 2008

I like things a certain way. Those close to me might tell you that I like them my way, but they’re all on crack anyway, so pay no attention to them. Especially if they ask to borrow money.

I’m not hard to please, specifically, as much as I prefer that things function as advertised. That’s all. Nothing drives me so thoroughly shitting-in-the-water-fountain insane as an item that’s supposed to perform a particular task or work in a particular fashion, but doesn’t. Picture if you will:

A bathroom door that doesn’t completely latch. A toilet tank arm-float-thing that doesn’t shut off the water. An ice maker that won’t. A cat that doesn’t chase and gleefully eviscerate crawling things. A phone that creaks and rattles and in general makes more noise than a busload of crickets.

Since I now possess all five pieces to the Amulet of Eye-Gouging Annoyance +6 as outlined above, I’ve earned the right to gripe, and I suppose that I’ll finally have to admit that I am, as someone dear once told me, a giant fussy prick. (Right again, mom.)

Okay, but only about the things that matter. I can live with the door, and the ice maker, for now. And the toilet tank float. So we flibber the arm a few times, and the water shuts off, big deal. And I can even live with the cat, who is easily as squeamish about Southern insects as I am; where I grew up an earwig was a big deal, here they’ve got bugs bigger than a chicken leg. Seriously. Where I draw the line, though, deeply and emphatically with the toe of my generic, unused running shoe, is at a phone that exhibits more neurotic personality tics than I do.

That’s right. This town ain’t big enough, yadda yadda yadda, and I was here first. So the Sony-Ericsson Z750 is gonna have to skedaddle. Probably. Maybe.

Crap.

It gets better reception than any AT&T handset that I’ve used save the Krzr, and signal strength is at a premium around here. The earpiece quality is second to none. The keypad is large and slick and lends itself well to text messaging, and the screen is vivid and clear. Most of the time. More on that later.

The plastic used in the housing feels flimsy and cheap, and pressing the function buttons above the keypad causes it to creak and moan. Admittedly, this probably would bother only a handful of obsessively neurotic wackjobs around the world, but recall an earlier reference to “giant fussy prick” and comprehend, would you kindly. The external OLED display is useless even in late twilight, as it simply can’t be seen under anything stronger than moderate indoor lighting, and the internal screen, though pretty, automatically grows dimmer under low-light conditions. There’s no way to change this.

Regardless of whether it’s a phone or a meddling politician, I don’t want shit thinking for me. This is the reason I’ve sworn off (okay, mostly sworn off) Samsung and LG; I want a phone and its function to change to serve my needs, not the other way around. If I want to assign the right soft key to opening the Happytime Kool-Aid Bunnyfart folder on my phone, instead of the AT&T MediaNet MoneySink garbage that I’ll never use, so what? What’s the big deal? When the Z750 abandoned some of the more endearing versatility of its older sibling, the W580, in exchange for the less flexible UI design of its peninsular cousins, I balked. Loudly. Like the balkers of yore. Old school.

It’s impossible to turn off the data connection on the Z750. Prolly got somethin’ to do with their high-falutin’ 3G fancypants HSDPAWCDMAUMTS bunk. The center button on the 4-way toggle is assigned to open MediaNet instead of the menu. Again, no way to change it; the button is defiantly emblazoned with the AT&T MediaNet logo, as if daring you to even try to reassign it. It scoffs at your silly, willful individualism. Now go away.

With only one exchange permitted per transaction, I find myself waffling like Mrs. Butterworth over here. A different Z750 could conceivably lack the construction flaws that plagued (mildly infected) the one I bought, but that won’t address the design deficiencies in the UI.

For a mid-range phone, the Z750 is a solid performer with an oddly rigid yet flaky personality and questionable build. Frankly, the damn thing makes me want to speak harshly to an old lady without immediate pause or apology but perhaps with tinges of regret later on which might initially be mistaken for indigestion.


Whey of the Samurai

March 26, 2008

samurai.jpgWhen it comes to technology, the Japanese sure know their stuff. This is why, when shopping for a new phone, I always take a look at the newest offerings from Nokia.

A few days ago I signed up for a contract plan with AT&T and came away with a spiffy new N75 for $50. After taking it home and fiddling with it for the better part of a day (six hours), I returned it and opted for a Samsung slider that gets slightly better reception than two Dixie cups tied together with bakery string. I knew this about Samsung, though, so I take this one on the chin and move on. At least it was free. Or closer to $2400 if you consider the cost of the contract over two years, but whatever.

The difference between Samsung’s CDMA handsets and their GSM handsets is like the difference between cannoli and dog shit. (For those of you in Tifton, cannoli are better.) I don’t know what the problem is, but any Samsung phone on AT&T or T-Mobile is bound to exhibit more charmingly antisocial personality quirks than Ed Gein at a church potluck; it’s not that they’re bad phones, specifically, but certain design choices leave me shaking my head and wondering with more than idle curiosity exactly why the ham salad tastes a little funny.

For instance; the A737 is the third consecutive Samsung handset that I’ve used on AT&T in which it is impossible, after thorough scrutiny of all documentation and phone menus, to save incoming text messages directly to the phone. All incoming texts are saved to the SIM, which has an average capacity of about 30 messages, making it necessary to move each individual message to the phone one at a time. My initial response to this is to chuckle a little, then seek out an irresistibly cuddly little woodland creature and step on his adorable little head.

Why? Why do they torment me with delectable CDMA morsels of Ghirardellian temptation like the Hue, which is only available ’round these parts on the Lenny Small of wireless networks? Why do seemingly capable phones like the A737 and the Sync begin to shake and piss on themselves as soon as they’re mated to a GSM provider? It seems as though certain manufacturers shine like Van Eyck when dabbling in one particular air interface medium, yet go all Van Gogh on your ass when working in the other.

Which brings me back, in a roundabout way, to the Nokia N75.

Nokia knows GSM like Oprah knows Ho-Hos, so it’s no surprise that the N75 is generally well-regarded by industry mavens. My biggest problem with it is that it’s larger than I like a phone to be, meaning you could use the thing to paddle your way across the Styx in case Phlegyas is on vacation in warmer climes (cough-Florida-wheeze) that week.

One of the more annoying facets of the N75’s design is that it’s covered with chromed buttons and keys, which collect fingerprints like Mr. Moose collected ping pong balls. I’m one of those ambulatory antiques who thinks that shiny things with fingerprints all over them look like, you know, shit, and I’d prefer not to publicly doucherize myself by wiping down my phone every fifteen seconds with a microfiber cloth. If it hadn’t been for its ungainly heft and cheesy, blinged-out keys, along with the odd rubbery skin that covers the outside, and a UI that’s slower than Paris Hilton completing the Sunday NYT Crossword, the N75 and I would have been a perfect match. It’s too bad that these things so often don’t work out, but like Captain McCluskey, the N75 hadda go. It was just business. Nothing personal.

Its replacement, the Samsung A737, is capable enough, though not without considerable shortcomings. It’s impossible to select a different color scheme for the UI, so unless you’re a big fan of Halloween or the Cincinnati Bengals, you might be disappointed. The phone automatically engages the keylock every time the slide is closed, whether you want it to or not, which must be manually removed by either a button combination or sliding the phone open. There’s no way to change this, and it’s as annoying as providing room and board to an alligator. In your pants.

There’s the previously mentioned text-to-SIM problem. There’s also no way to change the packet data connection without contacting Samsung’s customer service. And, as usual, the signal strength isn’t the best.

Just a little bit o’ control over my own communications experience would go a long way towards drawing me fully into the Samsung GSM compound, spotty RF reception and all.

I’ll even bring my own Krazy Straw.