And I Feel Fine…

October 23, 2008

There’s a lot of buzz in the pseudo-scientific community about the possibility of the world coming to an end on the final day of the Mayan calendar, which happens to fall on the Winter Solstice, 2012. A Friday. Wouldn’t you know it.

For those who might glean some sort of mystical self-righteousness from assuming that the universe is disposed towards a base-ten number system, and who see portent and disaster in the arrangement of digits in the date 12/21/12, I offer the following advice; get over yourselves. I know for a fact that the hubbub over the 2012 thing is so much manufactured tripe, because I’ve got the most dire harbinger of Armageddonous calamity right here on my desk, and it’s got nothing whatsoever to do with the Maya, Y2K, or the approach of Apophis in 2029.

It is the Samsung Sway, and surely it foretells the End of Days.

The Sway is a slick little slider from Verizon, a company with which, thanks to our rancorous parting back in early 2003, I thought I’d do business again only when it began to rain frogs amidst widespread wailing and gnashing of teeth. I said some things, they said some things, they got the dishes, and I got the dog, but in the end it all turned out okay; they recently sent a spiffy arrangement of 1900 MHz antennae atop a long-stemmed tower about a mile away, which was the finest gesture of apology I’ve ever received. So we’re good, Verizon and me, and I finally know what Peaches and Herb were talking about all those years ago.

As I’ve noted in previous posts, the CDMA technology used by Verizon, Sprint, and various MVNOs and regional carriers in the US is unquestionably superior to its GSM counterpart when viewed from the business perspective. It offers much higher call capacity per channel than GSM, which allows carriers to service a greater number of users with less equipment, and the very fact that such a complex system could even be engineered to work reliably is truly one of the technological marvels of the 20th century. That said, from the consumer’s standpoint, I’ve always preferred the flexibility of GSM and the SIM card, which allowed me to switch phones at my leisure.

So for a provider and a handset manufacturer to lure me away from the world of instantaneous SIM-swapping would have required some seriously potent mojo, which the aforementioned tower and now the Sway have provided in big, sloppy buckets. The fact that I was willing to switch providers, pay the ETFs on three phones, and hop off the Happy Handset Museum-Go-Round speaks Tolkienesque volumes about how poor the previous service was in my neck of the woods; AT&T was the most reliable provider, and that’s stretching the word “reliable” to its vermicelli-thin limit. Having to move the phone around the house to find a signal strong enough to simply send a text message got rather old in a hurry.

Verizon offers a wide selection of impressive hardware, from the LG Dare to the new Motorola Krave and the unique switch-flip Samsung Juke, but the Sway won me over with a simple yet elegant form factor, a startlingly crisp QVGA screen, and clear sound. Strictly as a bonus, it’s got the most customizable menus that I’ve seen on a Verizon handset, including options for list, grid, and tabbed views, and five separate color schemes for each. The keys are constructed of a flat, brushed metallic material that offers superior tactile feedback and solid, creak-free construction. It lacks EVDO (high-speed data) and a 2.5mm headset jack, but it’s got a 2.0 megapixel camera and a microSD slot on the outside of the phone, not buried beneath the battery.

The phone that I returned in order to get the Sway, the Motorizr Z6tv, had a bad case of rattles and a sticky clear key, along with a smaller screen and a much less customizable interface. Not a bad phone, really, but if you’re going to live with something for the length of a contract, it’s important to get something you like. Also, the shiny bastard was a fingerprint nightmare, which drives me absolutely crazy. 

So the world didn’t come to an end as I picked up the Sway, slid the face up and down a few times, played with the keys and tested the call quality before deciding that this was the phone for me, but I think it might have shuddered a little. Not only is the Sway on a network I never thought I’d use again, it’s based on a technology that I swore off only months ago in favor of versatility over function, from a company whose handsets have traditionally given me a headache with their arbitrary design decisions and spotty reception. I no longer have to seek the signal hotspot simply to make a call or send a message, and the effect is a startling feeling of normalcy. 

It’s strange that no one is interviewing any Maya scholars to interpret the meaning of the end of their calendar – all the doomsaying has so far come from professional doom mongers – but what can you expect from a society where mysticism and fear are prized above reason, logic, and knowledge.  I don’t know what phone I’ll be using on Friday, December 21st, 2012, but I’ll wager it’ll get better reception than the metaphorical radio o’ willful ignorance from which some people glean their entire philosophy.


Good Morning, America, How Are You?

May 7, 2008

How often do things work out exactly as planned? I originally envisioned this blog as a kind of prepaid cellular service guide, a place where prospective prepaid consumers could handily glean all the pertinent facts and foibles of various pay-as-you-go providers, including comparisons and specific phone reviews, all while being mildly entertained in the process. Kind of like the Branson, Missouri of prepaid sites. Minus the Tom Jones impersonators and Kenny Rogers.

But the truth is that there are already dozens, if not hundreds, of sites with much more comprehensive information than I could ever hope to collect and collate and present in a coherently fantastic fashion. And frankly the thought of collecting and collating and presenting all that data fills me with a kind of greasy, unnameable dread, so much as to pose a dire threat to my sixteen-year sine vomito record. And as far as personal bodily ejecta records go, that’s one I’d like to hold on to, so I’m not taking any chances.

Thus the inevitable gap between imagination and creative reality grows a little wider, but then again I don’t have to sing “What’s New Pussycat” in front of sixteen hundred swooning early-generation Baby Boomers clad in skin-tight, lime green polyester pants suits. All in all, a fair trade-off. Sometimes life is sweet.

But when a particularly good deal warps into our sector and opens hailing frequencies, I’m bound by my original prepaid prime directive to let you know about it. Please read…on. Can’t find…witty…segue. Losing…all…cognitive ability.

T-Mobile To Go’s recent addition of a pay-per-day option offers three distinct benefits; unlimited 7pm-7am night calling, unlimited T-Mobile-to-T-Mobile calling, and a ten-cents-per-minute rate on regular calls, all for $1 per day, charged only on days which the phone is used for voice calls. This instantly catapults T-Mobile To Go past the likes of AT&T’s GoPhone, Verizon’s InPulse, Virgin Mobile, Boost, and Tracfone, issuing to these competitors a hearty, venti-sized, 1900Mhz Deutsche Telekom finger from its perch high atop the prepaid value obelisk.

For some, the per-day plan holds no attraction. Those who’ve attained Gold Rewards status on T-Mobile’s previous lone prepaid option appreciate the one-year, $10 renewal feature, which is understandable. (After adding $100 to their prepaid accounts, T-Mobile’s pay-per-minute customers can extend their service by one year simply by adding a $10 prepaid card, giving them just-to-have-it cell service for about .83 cents per month after the initial $100.)

With the pay-per-day plan, service is good for 90 days, regardless of the refill amount added. This equates to a just-to-have-it yearly cost of about $40, or $3.33 per month, with four 90-day $10 refill cards added over the course of twelve months. Still an awesome deal, even for the low-use customer.

There are, of course, some drawbacks. For the longest time, until about two days ago, I was T-Mobile’s biggest detractor, as their RF coverage is blatantly poor in many places, including where I live. Their prepaid phone selection is ho-hum; the Nokia 2610 that I used to activate my per-day service has been a pleasant surprise thus far, but the rest of the over-the-counter retail lineup is comprised solely of Samsung handsets. We’ve been down the proverbially foreboding Samsung-GSM alley before, so unless you can throw your Samsung GSM phone out the nearest window and bounce it off a tower stanchion, I’d think twice about slipping your SIM into one of those sinister contraptions.

Another drawback is the somewhat expensive texting rates of .10 cents for each message sent, and .05 cents for each received. While not at bad as GoPhone’s extortionate per-use messaging cost of .15 cents for each message sent or received (AT&T offers messaging bundles for much lower rates, which may be purchased every month only by calling customer service and hacking through a thicket of fifteen tedious prompts), I’d like to see a more economical texting option, even if it includes a higher per-day rate for unlimited texts.

Some might bemoan the lack of unlimited weekends, but considering that the $1 per day charge buys unlimited any-number calling fully half the time, from 7pm to 7am, there’s little to complain about here. The closest equivalent plan if used every day on GoPhone Pay-As-You-Go would cost over $50 per month, with $20 for 3000 night and weekend minutes and the $1 per day access charge. Verizon’s InPulse offers a $1 per day plan that features unlimited mobile-to-mobile, .10 cents per message in or out, and .10 cents per minute all the time. Not completely horrible, unless you don’t know anyone else with Verizon.

If you live in a strong coverage area, along with all other factors considered, T-Mobile has made a bold move that demands the heavy-use prepaid consumer’s serious consideration. Along with their recent 3G rollout in New York City, it makes me wonder what else they might have up their sleeves.

Whatever it might be, it’s gotta be better than lime green polyester pants suits.


A Muse to Death

May 2, 2008

You might recall a previous entry in which I furiously scribbled my distaste for things that don’t work as advertised. Let me amend this to note that it’s especially maddening if said deficiency is beyond my ability to influence or affect, frustrating me almost past the utilization of coherent and indelible word structure usements.

To prove that the Tiny Gods o’ Technoware have a cock walloping sense of humor, they have bestowed upon me a phone which underscores the suckliciousness of things that don’t work properly. The Samsung U706, or the Muse, as it’s called on a network that shall remain nameless but which still makes me want to slip hot daggers into my eyes, not only underscores this principle but smacks it in the chops and scrawls nasty things about its mother on various bathroom walls.

Buying a phone is a little like buying a car; you never really know if you’re going to like it until you’ve lived with it for a while, as some of the most brain-liquefying tendencies often don’t show up until after several days or weeks together. Occasionally you run into a phone that seems to have all its geese on a leash; solid construction, good sound, impressive features, strong reception, and then you get it home only to discover that hey, it’s the fucking Devil.

Not an imp. Not some peon necromancer with misguided aspirations. Not even a mildly ambitious yet cautiously circumspect Tourette’s-afflicted Balrog.

The fucking Devil. In your phone. Grrr. Argh.

This time I can’t even blame the phone. The Samsung Muse, a CDMA handset, seems like a pretty solid customer; CDMA being where Samsung shines and all. This time the fault likes squarely on the shoulders of BubbaNet, the brain-dead twits who threw an old TV antenna across a chain-link fence and called it a wireless network, and to whom I keep giving money because I’m something of a brain-dead twit myself. Why can’t I quit you, BubbaNet? Man.

See, for whatever reason, my Muse won’t receive off-network text messages. This means that if you use AT&T, or Sprint, or T-Mobile, or Verizon, or Claro, or Orange, or Vodafone, or any network in the world other than BubbaNet, I won’t get your text. You’ll get mine, but I won’t get yours unless you possess the same pissing-on-your-own-forehead consumer judgment that I do. I know this because I spent the better part of an hour on the phone with tech support; the first tech I spoke to was dumber than peas, a guy who wanted to get me off the phone as quickly as possible and who succeeded thanks to his Star Wars: A New Hope Bullshit Re-Release Special Edition Death Star explosion of indifference, complete with shockwave ring. The second, a woman, listened to my problem, understood it, was very polite and personable, and thoroughly investigated the myriad possibilities before uttering those dreaded words:

Trouble ticket.

Insert Charlie Brown’s cry of dismay here at the temerity of those football-yanking weasels. “Trouble ticket” is corporate tech-supportese for “we’re going to ignore your problem until you go away.” It means that they’ve bought my trouble a friggin’ ticket on the next space shuttle, and they’re going to launch that bastard into deep, deep space where no one will ever see it again unless they have a revolving line of credit at Breeb’lak’s House of Anal Probes. Nothing, and by nothing I mean nothing in the history of the world, has ever been resolved once a trouble ticket has been opened.

Tower of Pisa? Trouble ticket. Still open.

Liberty Bell? You guessed it.

Great Sphinx? Probably the first.

It’s not that tech support was uniformly useless; the second person I talked to was very willing, very eager to solve my problem, though she was effectively stymied by BubbaNet’s policy of not actually providing any kind of useful service whatsoever. She didn’t attribute my difficulties to user error, or to the “other networks” (all of which work fine with each other, yet somehow it’s their fault when they can’t communicate with BubbaNet’s System o’ Shittiness). First tech, I’m looking at you, here. Dickface.

So now I wait. I wait for a call that won’t come. I wait like some pathetic, acne-cratered unwashed slob waits for that first fumbling encounter with a girl he didn’t meet at a family get-together, and then I go grumbling back, complete with cartoon cloud overhead, to BubbaNet’s local brick-and-mortar cesspit and try to finagle some sort of resolution to this ass-bending conundrum.

Maybe next time I’ll just pay someone to kick me in the crotch.

Updated on May 2, later; The kind but clueless folks at BubbaNet’s retail store managed to resolve my text messaging issue after I suggested changing the phone number, which was in turn suggested to me last night by Almost Helpful Tech #2. It seems that the problem was in their recent deployment of of new local exchanges that completely befuddled every network but their own. And I, of course, had received one of the new numbers. Not anymore.

Still no callback on the phantom trouble ticket that’s floating around out in the ether. Maybe I’ll hear from them by the time the current technology goes obsolete, but I’m not holding my breath.


Bad Bad Donkeys

April 16, 2008

It’s inevitable; crack open a hundred oysters, you’ll probably find a couple of pearls. Poke around a little, though, and you’re bound to also find some crap.

I’ve owned a lot of phones. It is, dare I say, a mild obsession, and I’ve stopped trying to understand it or overcome it. Like running water, I attempt to gracefully flow around my strongest urges and regroup, unscathed, on the other side once the divisive influence passes. Most of the time I do okay. Most of the time.

Every once in a while, though, I get scathed. Hard. Last week’s sojourn into the Land of Sony-Ericssonia was harrowing, what with the rebellion and all, but my misguided apprehension was put decisively to rest by the realization that the W580 is one of the best phones I’ve used in the last two years. Yesterday, however, I embarked on the Tax Refund Phone Acquisition Tour, Phase II, and got waylaid like a passing Krispy Kreme deliveryman outside fat camp.

As noted a few posts ago, Samsung and LG have their CDMA web-footed waterfowl in a proper column. Their GSM handsets, however, gobble moldy poo.

What do these companies have against me customizing my phone to fit the things that I want to do? Exactly why, on the Samsung A737 and A707 (more popularly known as the Sync), can’t I save my text messages directly to the phone instead of the SIM? Why can’t I assign a message tone outside the predetermined selection of message tones, like, say, oh, from the memory card? (Possible with Samsung, though not LG.) Why can’t I customize the 4-way toggle to function in ways that I see fit? Why can’t I turn off the data connection when I know that I’m not going to use it, in order to prolong battery life? Why can’t I get a decent signal outside a metropolitan area, and why-oh-freakin’-why can’t LG produce a GSM phone with an earpiece that doesn’t make the person on the other end sound as though they’re gargling ferrets?

So yeah, I bought the stupid Sync, running through my self-determined allotment of phone expenditures from my tax refund. The first one’s screen was DOA out of the box, so I swapped it for another one. That was my first mistake. My second, and probably larger, was replacing the second Samsung with an LG CU575.

As I learned over the past twenty-four hours, the CU in LG’s nomenclature should be followed by “but not hear you.” In a service area in which most Nokias, virtually all Motorolas, and now the W580 perform just swell, the CU575’s radio has the attention span of Nipper on a Mountain Dew-Mochalatta cocktail; once it loses its signal you might as well pack up the sandwiches, fold up the blanket, and put an ad in the classifieds, because that puppy ain’t coming back on his own.

As bad as the CU575 was in terms of reception, its sound quality was worse; I feasted on an appetizer of braised static followed by roast distortion medallions with hollandaise dropouts. Afterward, apple-glazed noise rounded out an experience that can only be described as robustly inadequate. The CU575 did easily outperform the Samsung, though, as the Sync was unable to hold a signal long enough to even test its call quality.

The Sync also took longer than average to receive text messages, even after altering the message center from the default national number to an East Coast center. Didn’t make a difference; text messages took nearly two minutes to arrive, another area in which the CU575 outperformed the Sync, as its incoming texts arrived without delay. The Sync had a better screen than the LG, but came saddled with Samsung’s monkey shit interface, so you’d better be a huge fan of orange and black. It’s worth noting that the Hue from Alltel offers three different color schemes, so perhaps the blame for the Halloween UI should rest squarely with AT&T. The much newer A737 slider shares most of the same faults with the Sync, including the color scheme, though it seems to have marginally better reception in low-signal areas. For what it’s worth.

Samsung and LG make some of the best CDMA handsets out there (the Hue and the Scoop come immediately to mind), but once they step into the GSM arena they get pummeled like critical analysis at an Obama rally.

It’ll be a long time before I take a chance on those two unproven GSM entities again. For the moment, at least, I’m sticking with the familiar.


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.


LG Whiz

March 26, 2008

kayleefluffy_reference.jpgWhen it comes to innovation, the American mobile handset industry sits somewhere between Australopithecus and George “The Animal” Steele in the evolutionary metaphor. Sure, Qualcomm invented CDMA (sheh-sheh, Cap’n) but that’s an air interface technology and generally not likely to make consumers quiver in their knickers over the next slinky bit of hardware to come wriggling out of the pipe.

This is why, lately, I’ve cozied up to LG and Samsung. My very first cell phone was a Samsung SCH-1500 on Sprint prepaid, and though I can’t say that the experience approximated anything other than jamming an eight-inch serving fork into my groin, I do have a fondness for nostalgia. (To be fair, the 1500’s problems had more to do with Sprint’s then-spotty coverage in South Florida than anything else.) If I could, I’d project myself way back to the halcyon days of 1998 and revisit the Radio Shack in the Galleria Mall and gleefully bitchslap the nattering douchenozzle who pitched me a dual-band phone for use on a single-band network, unabashedly touting its dual-bandedness as a feature. But whatever. If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have thought the XFL was a great investment opportunity.

Where the Korean handset manufacturers shine is in their delivery of equipment that appeals to more than just headstrong practicality. The new LG Flare for Virgin Mobile (also of Sprint, as its mild-mannered alter ego, the LX-160) will set you back a scant $30, yet it’s as visually and aesthetically appealing as it is functional; from the thin silver band that traces its way around the front of the flip, to the tight rubbery keypad, to the vibrant screen and the smoky window that obscures the external display when not in use, the Flare is hardly pretentious, yet manages to please simply through thoughtful design and flawless implementation.

The Samsung Hue, otherwise known as the SCH-R500, is a mid-range handset that effortlessly pulls off every trick that leaves the V3a and its CDMA predecessors (the V3c and the V3m) writhing on the concrete like Nancy Kerrigan. A dynamite main screen, a legible and useful external screen, clear voice, no glaring glitches, and once again, an appealing design that indicates it might have, at some point during its development, come in contact with at least one phone-using human being. Too bad mine is tied to one particularly slack-jawed, mumbling-to-itself-on-the-subway network which shall remain nameless. (Cough-NotCricket-cough).

Ahem.

Which is not to say that Korean phones have always been without their share of problems. Reception issues come immediately to mind, more specifically among their GSM offerings, but even these have seemingly gone the way of good movies and common sense, which proves that many people are willing to trade at least a couple of degrees of functionality for a tighter hinge, an intuitive interface, and a pretty face.

And speaking of pretty faces, William “George the Animal” Myers has a master’s degree from Central Michigan University. Not just another hairy back, that guy.