Ballroom Blitz

January 13, 2009

blitz1I much prefer when phone manufacturers and carriers assign a name to a phone, rather than just a boring alphanumeric nomenclature. Who wouldn’t rather have a Sway than a U650, or a Chocolate instead of a VX8500? How many Storms would Verizon have moved if the first touchscreen Blackberry was called the 9530? And if the iPhone were called the iM2GA4U…well, it wouldn’t have mattered, because all of the trend-hopping, numbnutted doucheknobs would have gobbled them up anyway.

Just kidding, iPhoners. I love every one of you. Seriously. Have fun with those MMS.

So when a phone called the Blitz bursts – or rather sashays – onto the market with a saucy wink and a come-hither waggle of the eyebrows, sometimes an avowed hetero like myself can’t help succumbing to curiosity. What’s the big deal, anyway? Penis shmenis, we’re all people, right?

The TXT8010 Blitz is built by Pantech for UTStarcom (now PCD, formerly Audiovox), and is sold by Verizon. It’s another upright qwerty slider, like the Motorola Hint and the Samsung Propel, with a full qwerty keyboard nestled beneath a large, landscape-oriented screen. The Blitz is thicker than most phones (or phone books, these days), but it takes up relatively little area thanks to its slider form factor. It weighs about as much as teacup chihuahua, but it won’t crap on the floor or hump your Barbie Dream House furniture, and I’ve yet to see it shake itself into a semi-coma.

The Blitz comes in two colors, depending on where you get it; Verizon stores carry only the Fisher-Price Blue version, which I used for a few days before returning it in tactile disgust. Thanks to its high-gloss paint job, the blue Blitz holds on to every microgram of finger oil and random environmental detritus like dust and hair, covering it in a layer of slimy belligerence that would make Willy Cicci beam with fraternal pride. The silver version – exclusive to Best Buy – is virtually spooge-proof, sporting an entirely different surface feel with a semi-gloss finish that not only hides fingerprints, but grants them safe conduct back to their homeland. The silver Blitz also has better earpiece quality than the blue one that I used for three days; callers sound more natural, and less like they’re stuck in a deep, deep hole.

Professor Xavier’s most bitter failure went on to hit number 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1975

Professor Xavier’s most bitter failure went on to hit number 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1975

Where the Blitz absolutely Baby-Jane-bitch-slaps the Motorola Hint isn’t with its mediocre screen or unwieldy heft, but in its button design and placement. The Hint’s keys are a collection of unforgiving slashes and minuscule squares, but the Blitz doesn’t mess around; it thrusts its large, thumb-friendly top-slider buttons in your face and dares you to press one – go ahead, just one – while its keyboard is well-shaped and amenable to even the thickest digits diddling its Ps and Qs. The result is a phone that might not turn any heads with its design, but which is a pure joy to navigate; it never sacrifices function to form, a rare attribute in anything these days.

Unlike the Samsung Sway, which requires a convoluted system of pulleys, hydraulics, and group prayer to slide the damn thing open without flipping it across the room, the Blitz’s slide mechanism is smoother than butta and easier to manipulate than the presidential election in a banana republic. The phone’s overall thickness seems to help here, as the rear (or lower) half provides ample purchase to grasp while sliding the front upwards.

Standard reception is top-shelf, but the Blitz lacks high-speed data access for those of you who routinely groove in the EVDO lane. The camera is average; pictures show severe compression artifacts on the phone’s small screen, but that problem disappears once they’re moved to a better display venue, where they’re clear and colorful enough for day-to-day snapshots. The phone also supports microSD cards up to 4GB, and will automatically collate any music already on the card into Verizon’s My Music folder. As usual, imported sounds cannot be used as ringtones or alerts, though any picture may be set as the Blitz’s wallpaper.

For anyone looking at a qwerty slider for heavy-duty messaging, the Blitz is a tough customer; it won’t blow you away with its multimedia capabilities, but it provides excellent call quality, seamless UI navigation, quick and accurate text messaging, and it won’t set you back two hundred clams, pre-rebate, like the Motorola Krave or the Samsung Glyde. The Blitz is not nearly as feature-rich as either the Krave or the Glyde, but in the arena of closed-loop, technological oneupmanship, sometimes that’s okay.

Sometimes a phone is, after all, just a phone.


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.

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.

La Donna T-Mobilé

May 15, 2008

Fewer than six weeks after signing up for a two-year contract plan with AT&T, I learned last night that Verizon has installed a soon-to-be-operational tower less than a mile away. They’re coming to the area with their Broadband PCS B-block holdings in MTA037, Submarket 3, which were acquired in FCC Auction 4 back in nineteen-ninety-friggin’-five. Who knew?

Being the unrepentant mobile geek that I am, for the last two years I’ve been drooling over a particular plot of land less than an eighth of a mile from where they eventually constructed the new PCS antenna, thinking it would make a great spot for a privately owned tower that could be leased to most, if not all, of the major carriers in the area. As previously noted, the closest tower is six miles from here, which in the words of Sister Teresa, my high school guidance counselor, sucks fermented llama balls.

To be certain, this is a sparsely populated region, and the probable ROI of installing equipment to serve fewer than 5000 people offers little appeal, even to me. The low population density coupled with the shorter range of the 1900 MHz frequencies makes me wonder just who Verizon is targeting with their new service, as Alltel is already deeply ensconced in the area as the carrier of choice for those living on the fringe (literally and metaphorically), and none of Verizon’s plans can compete with Alltel’s MyCircle offerings.

My first reaction to the Verizon news ran something along the lines of “hot diggety rhubarb crap,” but after careful scrutiny of their plans and service, my initial ebullience has waned somewhat to a lukewarm “meh,” with light-to-moderate “who-gives-a-shit” forming later in the day.

See, I’ve uncovered a secret.

Well, sure, not a real secret. Anyone can find out about it if they look in the right places, but it might as well be a secret to three out of the four big wireless companies. Rather, two of the three big companies if we don’t count Sprint, and with their recent sun-as-black-as-sackcloth tribulation, I’m not sure we should. All the more reason for those clowns to pay attention.

Wi-fi, baby.

T-Mobile’s HotSpot@Home service allows customers to make calls over wi-fi, using either a specialized T-Mobile-branded router optimized for voice communication, or any off-the-shelf wireless router. Those on select two-year plans can opt to pay a $10 monthly fee for unlimited wi-fi calling from any open hotspot in the country, but anyone with a T-Mobile wi-fi-capable phone can use the service with their existing plan. Even those of us on prepaid.

When I first caught wind of this gig after it launched in the middle of last year, I raised a skeptical eyebrow and scoffed so hard I took out a condor in the Sonomas. We’ve all heard nightmare stories about VOIP quality and reliability, and now they want to charge me extra to connect to their shitty, poorly deployed network using my own router? I provide the connection and T-Mobile charges me to use it. Sure. Thanks, but no. I’ll call you. Or not.

After they changed their prepaid plans to allow unlimited nights and mobile-to-mobile for a dollar a day, I signed up. Not long after that, I tried the Samsung Katalyst on my home router using the pay-per-day plan, and it just works. It works hard. Like Scrubbing Bubbles on Red Bull and crystal meth.

Voice quality is clear, with very little compression noise, and the wi-fi connection is reliable. The phone does lose the network from time to time, but it seems to pick it up again in short order and maintains a minimum of 2 wi-fi signal bars anywhere in my house. Basically it’s like having a tower in the living room.

Are you listening, Sprint? A company with similar infrastructure liabilities (1900 MHz) found a way to overcome its most glaring shortcoming, a lack of adequate coverage, and turn it into what amounts to its most attractive feature. People aren’t fleeing Sprint in panicked droves because of the lack of a lightning-fast data network, but because of poor service. As far as the paying customer goes, “service” means coverage footprint, call quality/reliability, and selection of handsets. Anything else is incidental; if people are satisfied with those three things, you’re golden. With everything else being equal, the handset is of utmost importance, as it’s the end-user’s only daily physical representation of your service. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to evade the damaging association that a bad phone can wreak upon your network, whether fully justified or through simple consumer ignorance. And there’s no shortage of either bad handsets or ignorant consumers, believe me.

The call quality on the Katalyst is top-shelf, whether on PCS or wi-fi. T-Mobile coverage is now supremely adequate, and their MyFaves plans can be trumped only by Alltel’s MyCircle. T-Mobile offers a total of twelve free, no-rebate-required phones on their website. Sprint advertises exactly one free phone, the Sanyo SCP-3200, and their plan structure is confusing, at best. Having their voice plans listed in mutant sibling Nextel’s sandbox o’ poop and razorblades doesn’t help customers figure out what they want, either.

Part of Sprint’s trouble might be identity; when I look at their logo, I don’t know what the hell to think. Are they a phone company? A walkie-talkie company? A wireless company? Are they Sprint or are they Nextel? Why is all their stuff yellow and black? To me, yellow and black says “DANGER! FLEE!” and it might have a similar subconscious effect on others, as well.

With their HotSpot@Home service, T-Mobile has solidified its standing in the wireless industry as a provider that wants your money, sure, but they’re not too picky about how you access their network. Versatility, mission clarity, and perception of value are vital elements of success in any business, and now T-Mobile has each of those things stockpiled like illicit corned beef sandwiches during a national delicatessen emergency.

Certain other providers might want to peek over the fence to see what’s going on, before they’re remembered in the same breath with names like Omnipoint and Powertel, both of which are now part of Deutsche Telekom. And Deutsche Telekom is also the parent company of…

Anyone care to take a guess? Anyone?