Thursday, September 18, 2014

Seeing the Virtues of iOS8

The Thrifty Techie has assiduously avoided Apple products.  As a vertically integrated business, Apple's  products have always been significantly more expensive than other alternatives.  Apple sold with the slogan: "It just works", which appeals to consumers who will pay for simplicity at the cost of customization.

With this in mind, Apple's announcement of the iPhone 6 and iOS 8 lit up the Thrifty Techie's mental radar.  Apple designers persisted through several iterations of the iPhone to insist that a 3.5" screen (with a retina display) was the perfect size for a cell phone.  But the market for 4" smartphones which cost for more than $300 is shrinking.  In fact,  the iPhone now only occupies 32.5% of the smartphone market.  So much was made about the iPhone 6 increasing its screen size to 4.7" and the iPhone6 Plus measuring 5.5".

A screen larger than 4.0" seems much easier to type on a virtual QWERTY capacitive keyboard.  One wonders if a 5.5" device is more a phablet which one does not pocket or clutch for prolonged period.  Nonetheless, Samsung has scored with their Note line of cellphones and Apple designers look to emulate that success.

What is more significant is Apple's emphasis on data security and personalization.  Civil libertarians should appreciate Apple's insistence that it can no longer comply with responding to government warrants because of the iOS 8 passcode feature.



The new Apple operating system is downloadable for older devices and will also work on the iPad.

This sense of personal data security should compliment the consumer acceptance of Apple Pay, an NFC powered mobile payment system.  Now Apple can concentrate on selling some reluctant retailers, like Walmart and Best Buy, into paying for the expensive infrastructure to facilitate Apple Pay.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Satirizing the Quirks of Social Media Communication

While the Internet 2.0 has greatly increased a sense of feeling connected with others on the World Wide Web, this phenomenon has caused some quirks in communications. 

Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake satirized the proliferation of hashtags through a reductio ad absurdum video using the hagtags in real life dialogues.




Since short written exchanges can be misconstrued without facial cues, many internet interlocutors choose to use emoticons.   To supplement these non-verbal cues,  entrepreneurs Paul and Douglas J. Sak  patented and sought to market new punctuation to clarify things-- the Sarcmark.






Free spirits chafed at profiting from punctuation.  A mock website "Open Sarcasm" sought to blacklist the SarcMark in favor of the temherte slaq (the inverted exclamation point) with a tongue in cheek tag line: "Sarcasmists of the World Unite!" 


But another reason that  the SarcMark has failed to catch on was the price for being smarmy.  The grammatical genius initially priced his punctuation at $1.99 for lifetime use, whereas typing ;-) was just three keystrokes and had no cost.  Brilliant!  


Communication has changed in the Internet Age.  Now, sending e-mails are too long for the digerati and may be considered passé.  Traditional types often have difficulty in adjusting to sharing in 140 characters or less.  




Short form social media like Twitter will not be the be all and end all in communicating complex thought.  But it can attract eyeballs to see something more.

h/t: Mike Keefe

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Logic Behind the Thrifty Techie Logo




The Thrifty-Techie.US logo’s background befits the frugality of the Thrifty Techie.  While the Thrifty Techie is not of Scottish descent, he was born a bargain hunter– hence the tartan backdrop.

One may wonder about the Springfield inspired silhouette.  That shadow figure represents the everyman, to whom this website is oriented. He is happy dancing to the beat of a different drummer.

The pose is a parody of Apple’s iconic ads for the i-Pod.  The MP3 player (particularly the i-Pod) marked a breakthru of digital media and handheld devices throughout society.  



Yet if you look closely at the Thrifty-Techie logo, the happy dancer is listening to music just by holding a CD. How can that be? 

The anachronistic image is intended as a surrealistic metaphor. Most tech sites cater to the digerati, who demand to know about the latest and greatest in technology.  But many people just wants to find what works for them, particularly when it’s “popularly priced”.   Kids today may consider compact disks as quaint as a Victrola. An older technology may have more value to a person than a new release which they do not understand, can not afford or requires repurchasing media in yet another format (e.g. from LPs to tapes to CDs to DRMed MP3s etc.)

While the Thrifty Techie is adept at finding a bargain, he knows that the lowest price is not always the best deal.   If people can be practically happy maximizing the utility of older technologies and minimizing their frustrations then that may be the best deal for them.

The Thrifty Techie title in the masthead is hued in a neon green in homage to "P1" phosphor, which was typical of monochromatic CRT monitors in the early days of computing.  Ironically, the everyman emanates a glowing green, but that may have something to do where that shadowy silhouette supposedly works. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

Deals for Data Hungry Cellular Consumers



Now that the proposed merger between Sprint and T-Mobile has fallen through, the underdog cellular companies are jockeying for better position in the marketplace.

It used to be that voice minutes were the pivot but now unlimited talk time is not that unusual.  The battlefield shifted to texting, in which major players would force consumers to buy bulk messages to avoid being niggled with incremental costs for individual texts.  Now the concentration is on data.

T-Mobile pushed unlimited data earlier in 2014, but this claim had caveats.  T-Mobile included 500 mb of unlimited data at 4G LTE speed, but afterwards the speed dropped down to 2G level, which was OK for slowly opening e-mails but not really adequate for Web 2.0.  Thus consumers faced adding on data packages along with base $50 for talk and text.  There are three added tiers for T-Mobile data, an extra $10 for 3GB, +$20 for 5GB and +$30 for “unlimited” data.  Add on taxes and fees, consumers could expect to pay around $71, $83 and $95 respectively for their tiered talk/text and data plans. That does not represent a lot of savings for individuals  from the so called Un-Carrier.

That being said, T-Mobile’s "data strong" drive does have a few laudable features.  These plans include mobile hotspot capabilities, which some carriers have charged extra for the privilege.  T-Mobile’s first added tier includes 3 GB of data rather than the 2.5 GB which many carriers consider “unlimited” data.  T-Mobile claims to not charge data for consumers who listen to streaming radio from services like I-Heart Radio and Pandora (and offers a deal for Rhapsody).

If one considers choosing the Magenta carrier, make sure that you have good coverage both at your home base as well as places where you anticipate hanging out.  This is especially true for data coverage.  Having a sizable 4G data plan is little consolation when one can only get 128 kbs or no wireless data coverage in remote locales.



Sprint is rolling out what it terms “disruptive pricing”along with the prospect of unlimited 4G LTE data to grow its market share.  Sprint killed the “Framily” plan but replaced it with a temporary “New Day for Data” deal which data hungry cellular customers should like.  Through September 30, 2014, Sprint will allow four lines with unlimited talk/text and 20 GB of data (plus an extra 2 GB per line until the end of 2014) for $100 a month.  Plus Sprint will pay up to $350 in termination fees.  That sounds great, but the devil is in the details.

Of course, Sprint springs a $36 per line activation charge.  It guarantees the $100 a month through the end of 2015, when it then assesses a $15 per line access fee. So in 15 months, this family plan jumps to $160 a month before taxes (or approximately $190 after taxes and fees).  Individuals can take advantage of Sprints so called disruptive pricing with a $60 come-on rate (which jumps up $15 after December 2015).  The “Framily” plan supposedly met its demise because it was too complicated for customers to comprehend.  With all of the caveats and changing fees and services, Sprint’s disruptive pricing may similarly confuse consumers.

A year ago, a Sprint family which had 1500 shared voice minutes, unlimited texting and data had a base price of $60 per line along with a $10 smart phone fee (not counting workplace discounts).  So after the introductory rate expires, the only effective difference in the plans seems to be  that  the mobile hotspot is now complimentary, but eventually consumers will pay an extra $5 a month for the plan.  Although Sprint does not force customers into  the iron clad two year contract anymore, their EasyPay option installment plan has a similar effect and has consumers paying close to full freight on their handsets, albeit in 24 monthly increments.

So if you are a seriously heavy data user and need mobile data outside of major cities, Sprint may have a deal for you--but beware as the good times only last for so long.  And good luck keeping the terms straight.

Data driven consumers may also wish to consider a Mobile Virtual Network Operator on the Sprint network called FreedomPop.  This cellular service cuts costs by marketing pre-owned handsets and devices, eschewing advertising in lieu of social media marketing and sending voice calls through LTE VOIP, which may somewhat effect sound quality.

FreedomPop now offers LTE Phones (Samsung Galaxy 4, Galaxy SIII and Victory) with unlimited talk/text and data for $19.99, but their idea of unlimited is 1 GB at 4G LTE and then governed down to 3G speeds for the remainder.  FreedomPop also has a deal for "unlimited" data on tablets. FreedomPop is selling the iPad Mini and the Galaxy 3 tab which are refurbished 7" tablets with 4G LTE which also participate in the $19.99 unlimited talk/text and governed data but with mobile hotspot enabled. The MVNO does allow customers to Bring Your Own Devices (BYOD) but their whitelist is limited to certain models and all of the devices must be compatable with Sprint’s CDMA network and not come from other MVNOs like (Sprint owned) Virgin Mobile USA and Boost Mobile.

Many of the self-selected digerati may scoff at Sprint, T-Mobile and a MVNO claiming that their data speed sucks.  Fine, then pay a premium for Verizon Wireless and have a paltry bucket of data.  AT and T also is parsimonious about doling out data and extra use really is costly.

 All consumers need to make the right choice for them.  Speed and coverage can be important factors in choosing cell providers.  But the bottom line also drives decision-making for thrifty techies.

If one does not mind buying a remanufactured device or bringing your own unlocked device from Sprint and does not need torrents of high speed data, FreedomPop should be the Thrifty Techie’s choice.   For a cell phone user who uses a lot of data in a metropolitan area, T-Mobile would be a wise choice.  T-Mobile does have a little known monthly plan which has only 100 voice minutes but unlimited texting and 5 GB of data for $30 and has mobile hotspot capabilities.  In response to Sprint's disruptive pricing, existing T-Mobile customers and those they refer can receive one year of unlimited internet.   Techies who are major data consumers should get in with Sprint’s special while they can.

It seems that there are no easy answer for data hungry cellular consumers but only trade offs.

Dealing with Cell Phone Addiction


British researchers defined nomophobia as for people who feel compulsion to check their mobile devices for 20 hours a day.  One does not have to be that obsessed to discern that they ought to disconnect to connect



Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Patching Over the Disconnect on Cell Phone Savings



After becoming fed up for a high cell phone bill, I researched strategies when issuing a Cellular Call for Change in saving on mobile telephony bills.  Granted that people have different needs and one plan does not fit all.  But while the notion of economizing on cellular charges has an abstract appeal, many are called but few choose to mitigate mobile communication costs. 

It was clear that one impediment from consumers heeding a call for cellular change was the US cycle of receiving subsidized handsets in exchange for an iron clad two year contract.  Someone was interested in upgrading their iPhone 4S to an iPhone 5.  The cellular customer would likely stay with Verizon because of their excellent coverage but she is pressed to upgrade as there is only a limited period that the “new every two” is applicable. 

Sometimes, the desire for a shiny new techno-toy overrides everything.  A nephew got tired of using his feature phone to text so he wanted to splurge on a Google Nexus 4 from T-Mobile.  But in order to satisfy this techno sweet tooth for Android Jelly Bean meant walking away from a grandfathered $25 per month pre-paid plan through Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) Virgin Mobile.  After the sugar rush from Jelly Bean, he may be surprised that not only did his monthly bill double, but he also is responsible for taxes and fees which often add an additional 20%.

Another friend who would be  inclined to economize on cellular costs feels that switching cellular providers is impossible because of the family plan.  Nights and Weekend and mobile-to-mobile minutes cut down on metered usage.  And big buckets of shared data has a mystique.  Sprint prides itself on truly unlimited data.   But how many cell phone users consistently stream Titanic on a 4" screen?  It might well be cheaper to get separate plans with an MVNO but it pays to check your usage yourself first before switching.

There is a strange bias in the cellular industry about prepaid plans, which is epitomized in a mock Apple i-phone ad.  Sprint’s Customer Retention Represenatives employed a  strange selling point when trying to break up with them as they denigrated Sprint’s own MVNOs of Virgin Mobile and Boost Mobile as being “just a prepaid plan” was supposed to be a selling point, when those MVNOs could cut my bill in half.   In response to this built up consumer bias, some prepaid cellular providers like Cricket Mobile have migrated away from branding their handsets so that others do not look scornfully at their consumers.

As I was migrating to Virgin Mobile , my beloved wife hesitated because of her love of a sliding keyboard smart-phone.  Some MVNOs like Boost Mobile and Ting (both running off of the Sprint network) allow for Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) but  that “white list” can be short list as new phones are excluded. Boost has since rescinded BYOD as it was not popular Alas, sliding keyboard smartphones have gone out of vogue so she will either have to adjust or lovingly cradle her handset for the foreseeable future.

Aside from overcoming the unwarranted bias against prepaid plans, stifling the urge to get new subsidized phones in exchange for a two year contract and feeling that a consumer NEEDS to have unlimited minutes, the wise cell phone shopper should discern what they need based upon experience and inclinations.  If you have to have coverage everyone, then pay a premium for Verizon’s excellent cellular coverage.  If you find that you unlimited data is sine qua non, then look to Sprint,

Other carriers claim that they have unlimited data but they have different understandings of the concept than a plain reading of the words. For instance, T-Mobile’s base smartphone plan touts “Unlimited Data at 4G speed”.  But in smaller print, this unlimited 4G data is only for the first half gig, after that you are governed down to 1G speed (more or less 128kbs).   For comparison purposes, think back to dial up internet, where you could surf via telephone at 54 kbs.  Today, it might work at a plodding pace for e-mails, but forget about downloading graphics much less video. 

There are some new and lesser known cell providers which might be the right choice.  Ting is a cellular phone service by Tucows using the Sprint network has a pay for what you use approach and they allow customers to have multiple devices on the same account and to use use old Sprint devices.  Another attractive feature is bundling in features like HotSpots gratis, while other carriers charge a premium (e.g. Sprint charges $19.99 for 2 GB Hotspot).  








FreedomPop is another prospective MVNO celluar provider which operates on a “Fremium” model.  When FreedomPop offers 200 voice minutes, unlimited texting and 500 MB of data for FREE. You can get unlimited calling for $7.99, unlimited calling and texts for $10.99 and for many of their handsets "all you can eat" voice, text and data for $20.00 a month. Moreover, FreedomPop will allow customers to use old Sprint phones.





 How can FreedomPop expect to charge nothing and give away their base plan?  They have found with their mobile hotspots and wireless home internet that about 40% of their customers pay for some upgrades.   FreedomPop’s calls will be made using 3G VOIP, which should have good sound quality.  FreedomPop’s Freemium model also relys upon social networking for advertising, so customers can earn more data or minutes by taking surveys or recommending friends.  FreedomPop also economizes by not having humans staffing their customer service outreach.  


Several parents in “my circle” have considered getting their tween children cell phones to keep in touch after school etc..  For techie involved parents, Kajeet might be a good provider.  Kajeet is a Sprint based no contract MVNO created especially with kids in mind with plenty of parental controls.  While Kajeet offers pay-as-you-go plans which start at $4.99, a worried parent might want to get the $24.99 plan, which includes 300 anytime minutes a month, unlimited texting along with a GPS locator.  The GPS Phone locator allows parents to find their kids at any time, as well as allowing parents to schedule e-mail updates on their childrens’ whereabouts.  Kajeet allows for BYOD but only for Sprint phones.   The fine print indicates that Kajeet adds a 10% transaction cost to all service plans supposedly to defray administrative costs. 

Another approach for kid communication might be thru a PayLo plan from Virgin Mobile, which can be as low as $20 a month for 400 minutes, but texts are 15 cents each and very expensive web access at $1.50 per MB.   The PayLo $30 plan has unlimited calling and unlimited messages but the very expensive $1.50 per MB for internet.  Frankly, it would make more sense to go with a low end Virgin Mobile plan which offers 300 voice minutes, but unlimited texts and unlimited internet (but after 2.5 GB, the user is throttled back to 3G speed).   Virgin Mobile USA does not allow customers to port their phones.  

Most of Virgin Mobile’s  non-subsidized phones are popularly priced (as they are older handsets) but they are currently offering their non-contract  i-Phone 5c and i-Phone 5s as well as the i-Phone 4s (selling for $404.99, $489.99 and $279.99 respectively). 

For those who resist joining the Apple cult and still want a stylish new phone from an MVNO cellular provider, Virgin Mobile USA will soon by selling the Sharp Aquos Crystal for $149.99, which is $100 less than thru it's corporate parent Sprint.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Why We Ought to Disconnect to Connect



The world is awash in technology and many ordinary people have succumbed to symptoms of technology addiction.  Nomophobia is a neurosis named in a study commissioned by the UK post office to examine anxieties suffered by mobile phone users. Mashable reports that 38% of college students feel compelled to check their mobile device every TEN minutes. 






This obsession with cyber space makes techno-junkies oblivious to the real world around them. Geeks will log on each morning before they brush their teeth. Stupid pedestrians cross busy streets staring at their mobile screens while being oblivious to dangerous oncoming traffic.  It is sad to see adults dining in public persistently using their cell phone "phubbing" their social company in favor of connections in the cloud.


For me, the depths of technology addition was witnessed at an amusement park where a young lady took her i-Phone into a wave pool.  She was not just wearing a waterproof neck pouch to protect her handset from water. Nor was this techno-teen taking a quick selfie to boast on social media.  This person had the intense thumb typing rhythm of a text chat while chest deep in the cresting waves.  Even this Thrifty Techie finds such behavior disordered.

A Thai cellular provider used an interesting ad  to illustrate the dangers of technology addiction with their video  "Disconnect to Connect".




As wonderful as that message is, it bears consideration how I got that message.  It was an intriguing post from a Facebook friend who I have only briefly met once  "in real life".  So in reality, I was inspired by a cyber-connection.  But to use a Doug Coupland conceit from his seminal book Generation X (1991) , it would be a mistake to rely on an internet "Air Family" as opposed to maintaining real relationships

So the Thrifty Techie is not a neo-Luddite, who spurns technology to live a simple life.  Nor it is wise for most folks to go cold turkey, since mobile phones can bring a wealth of information and connectivity.  But it is discerning what is the proper proportion of distant connectedness supplements rather than supplants your immediate circumstances and social circles.

Let me offer a few out of the box ideas on weaning oneself from nomophobia.

In my youth, I felt compelled to check the time every five minutes.  When I became aware of this tick, I wanted to break myself of the habit.  So for the better part of a year, I wore a broken watch to school every day.  This definitely stopped the compulsion  But it was humorously surreal when people would nudge me when they saw my watch and ask what time it was, and I would reflexively ask someone else.  A side benefit was that people gave me about six watches to replace my stopped wrist-watch.  In this day and age, young people rarely wear wrist watches (because they can check their phones) and many may struggling in reading an analog clock.

In retrospect, I got two things out of the social experiment.  I learned that I have an uncanny innate sense of time.  More importantly, I reinforced the notion that it is better to have a good time enjoying the moment than fretting "What time is it?".

Another inspired example of thwarting techno-addiction in order to have a good time is targeted at phubbing. When gathered together for a social meal at a restaurant, everyone should make sure that their cell phones are not muted and stack them on top of each other.  Whoever reaches for their cell phone first during the meal is then obliged to pick up the check for the table.  Assuredly, this Thrifty Techie would not be the first to draw for the bill.

If one really felt motivated to "Disconnect to Connect", one could take a week-long silent retreat.  



Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Why Don’t People Answer the Call to Cellular Phone Savings?


One of the costly monthly expenses for most households in America is their cellular phone bill.  The CTIA Wireless Association estimates that average cell phone bill was $47 in 2012 but many individuals pay double that amount.  The CTIA figures do not factor in the costs of handsets or choices for “reasonable” plans

Smart phone consumers comprise 46% of the market (including 66% of youths aged 21-30).    The CTIA figures do not factor in the costs of handsets or choices for “reasonable” plans.  So there may be a low cost plan, but if one is required to carry a data package, monthly costs precipitously increase.

Another reality is that the most of the major American cellular carriers push subsidized phones with strict two year agreements.  Few cellular consumers consider the overall costs incurred with such a subsidized cell phone contract.  Such customers are  are more concerned about getting what they perceive is the latest and greatest handset for a couple of hundred dollars down (usually 1/3rd of the actual cost) while paying a significantly higher amount in the monthly cellular bill then they might pay otherwise.  

Tero Kuittinen, an independent market analyst from Alekstra, notes: "That psychology has worked for hundreds of years, and it’s still working.”   Another factor to consider is the attachment that many people feel toward their cellular purchases.  AT and T retained gripping customers for years because it retained a monopoly on i-Phones, which had a less generous plan and cost more than other smartphones, but those in the Apple cult craved it.  It seems akin to the mentality which drives new car purchases that customers will overspend to get that “new car smell” for a durable that loses 20% immediately after purchase. 

T-Mobile took the lead among cell providers in weaning prospective customers from the subsidized cell phone model with their Simple Choice plan.  But an  alternate model which T-Mobile innovated but had more success in competitors emulating is the “Next, Edge, Jump” and “OneUp”.  These programs which are essentially cell phone installment payment plans.  Consumers lease a phone by paying a bit extra ($10-20 a month plus up to $10 for the privilege) for 20 to 24 months  but with the ability  to upgrade in six months to a year.  But if consumers do not “jump”, then they will pay significantly more as there is no subsidy underwriting the purchase. This sort of gimmick may have some appeal to digerati would constantly want to upgrade without being locked in a contract, even though they are effectively locked in a contract.

Alas, cell phone services are not fungible.  Aside from the handset cost, choice of carriers are impacted by coverage.  An inexpensive plan is worthless if one does not get range in one’s preferred calling area.  Verizon Wireless has the best coverage but people pay a premium for the extensive coverage.  But most customers may not need such extensive range.

Cost conscious consumers should know that they can cut their cellular costs in half (or more), by using Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs), pre-paid cell plans and fremium cell providers like FreedomPop. But the reality is that according to Ovum, only 23% of cellular customer have opted for such frugal mobile phone service. 

 As MNVOs and the ilk do not have the deep pockets for advertising, they have a dubious reputation.  In fact, when breaking up with Sprint to switch to one of its MVNOs Virgin Mobile to save half on cell costs, the customer service representative thought that it was a compelling argument to sneer “Well, that’s a pre-paid phone”.   As a customer who had been off his contract for over a year and did not need another handset, that was a less than convincing ploy. 

Usually, second tier cellular carriers offer less current handsets.  Even though these cell phones may only have been on the market for six months, finicky consumers turn their noses at these out of data handsets.  Sometimes, upgrades are prudent, such as switching from a 3G phone to one that also gets faster 4G or LTE coverage.  But when a new release is buggy, or simply has minor cosmetic changes, a savvy consumer should question whether the latest is really the greatest. Of course, with Apple i-Phones, a consumer can not replace the rechargable battery himself, so it may only be good for around 18 months before starts to need replacement.

Personally, I have always considered the cellular phone plan to be more important than the particular handset.  In addition, I tend to baby my cell phone, so it has less wear and tear on the unit. But my experience switching cellular carriers from a Sprint HTC Evo with a 4.3" capacitive screen to a Virgin Mobile Samsung Victory (Galaxy II) with a 4.0" but with 4G LTE has demonstrated that the slight difference in display size impacts inputting on a virtual QWERTY.  

What may drive my decision to switch cellular companies again is whether FreedomPop allows for Bring Your Own Devices with their Freemium model roll out.  I would not buy one of FreedomPop’s outdated and refurbished HTC Evo Designs for $99 (or later $149), but I would happily switch to FreedomPop to get 200 voice minutes, 500 texts and 500 MB of data for free.  FreedomPop is relying on consumers to add on to their free base.  I might get unlimited calls and texts with a half Gig of data for $10.99.  But since FreedomPop will allow for tethering (hotspots) and they charge $10 per Gig of data, my old HTC Evo might be a supplemental hotspot for months that I need it. 

In another phase of its Un-carrier campaign, T-Mobile tried to  wreck the international roaming racket. T-Mobile stopped charging more for international text for Simple Choice customers when sending to 100+ countries.  Calls to Simple Global countries aside from the US are at $0.20 a minute.  Most importantly, there is no outrageous international data roaming charges at standard speeds.   However  there are some caveats to this International Roaming largesse.

Alas, T-Mobile considers 2G (or 128 kbs) to be an ideal speed for e-mail, social media, web pages and navigation but it such speeds would be painfully slow for graphic intensive applications.  So T-Mobile also offers three speed boost plans for international travelers.  One day of higher data speed (100 MB) for $15, one week (200 MB) for $25 and two weeks (500 MB) for $50.  This would be good for international travelers keeping in touch at home but operating on a guarded basis .  Since T-Mobile allows BYOD for GSM phones, it might pay for a traveler not taking a quick jaunt overseas to pick up an old unlocked GSM phone and sticking with T-Mobile.  Or they could just use that unlocked GSM phone with local SIM cards.  

As America enters harder economic times, more consumers may try to beat the high cost of living by answering the call to cheaper cellular services.

h/t: The Joy of Tech

Monday, August 4, 2014

A Cellular Call for Change



An important aspect of living in the Twenty-First Century is mobile communications.  Many have severed their ties to landlines.  People use the internet for e-mail, entertainment, information and productivity.  And cellular telephony allows people to take their pocket computers disguised as smartphones everywhere, with the expectation that the devices can be used ubiquitously.

Although the advances in electronics allow for incredible capabilities, the reliability is not perfect and seemingly every option of cellular providers has some disadvantages.


The American mobile telephone market has been dominated by a couple of corporate carnivores spawned from the breakup of Ma Bell in 1984.  Verizon Wireless (comprised of Baby Bells Bell Atlantic and NYNEX) and AT andT Inc (which started out as Southwestern Bell, but gobbled up Bell South, AT and T, Ameritech and Pacific Bell et ali).  



The nation’s third largest cellular telephony provider is Sprint, which started to deliver long distance as part of Southern Pacific (Railroad) Communications in 1978.  Sprint grew through successful  mergers with GTE and Nextel.  The last of the big four cellular companies is T-Mobile which is a holding company for Deutsche Telekom AG.  The US Department of Justice blocked a merger with AT and T in December 2011.  T-Mobile has acquired MetroPCS.  And  Now T-Mobile is in process of acquiring MetroPCS.  The Japanese Softbank owns the majority of Sprint and is looking to also aquire T-Mobile.  

This colorful corporate history of American cellular companies can offer a bit of perspective on the carriers.  Verizon’s and AT and T’s lineage stem from Ma Bell.  It is not coincidental that Lennie Bruce once likened communism to being like a big phone company, as an all powerful Leviathan is not known to be responsive to consumers or have competitive tendencies.  Sprint has cobbled together disparate technologies (CDMA, iDEN) and is trying harder but does not have the leverage to break out of the third place showing.  T-Mobile’s European parent may influence the GSM technology (the international standard technology) and it explains why T-Mobile was the first cellular company to try to stop subsidizing handsets which required a two year contract. 

To compound confusion on choosing cellular providers, there are Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs) which are companies that do not own radio spectrum or wireless network infrastructure but still can provide service by piggybacking on other cellular network’s overcapacity. In the U.S., these are generally prepaid plans which offer more economical rates without some of the frills that customers locked in a contract have.  For example, Virgin Mobile (a wholly owned subsidiary of Sprint) can offer a generous 1200 minutes a month for $45 with unlimited 3G data (and 2.5 GB full speed 4G data) and texting.  But a similar Sprint plan costs $20 more, but includes free nights and weekend voice minutes and unlimited data and texting.

It is unwise to think that there is only one answer for everyone on choosing a cellular provider.  Cost can throttle choice.  Coverage can vary widely.  People also use their phones differently.  The best advice is to know yourself and investigate thoroughly.




So many people are seduced into being locked into a carrier with the “New Every Two” mentality.  While wear and tear and technological improvements can make this replacement cycle appealing, the shiny new “toy” comes at a cost of another two year commitment and possible changes in contractual terms.  A couple of years ago, AT and T alienated iPhone owners by altering the “all you can eat” data plans.  New customers had a cap.  Some old AT and T iPhone customers  also complained that when they wanted to upgrade that their grandfathered unlimited data plans not convey.  

One other calculus which consumers need to consider is convergence.  Cellular technology can act as a phone, a credible camera, a GPS system, a reading device, a mobile computer etc.  When calling for a cellular change, the savvy consumer will explore how his chosen plan and his handset can take advantage of convergence.  For example a usable hot spot capability can connect a laptop or a tablet making a separate device a redundant expense. 

Verizon has the best voice and data networks, but you pay a premium for that privilege and it is notorious for extras (e.g. texting and data tiers) and some hard nosed business practices.   AT and T used to have an I-Phone monopoly which has ended, but they brag that they have the largest 4G network (though AT and T is storied for complaints about coverage).   The big two’s data advantage might increase as they have leverage over low band WiFi. 

T- Mobile used to be know for their calling circle promotion.  Now they want to be considered the Simple Choice, which is an option to stop subsidizing phones in return no contracts and lower monthly costs.  But their network is spotty outside of major metropolitan areas.  Perhaps the MetroPCS will increase their network’s footprint.   

Even though Sprint completed its acquisition of Clearwire (which provided their 4G WiMax data), Sprint has declared that it will fully convert to the US standard of 4G LTE.  Which means that even the best cared old Sprint handset will need to be replaced to get 4G coverage.  But Sprint has been slow in rolling out the LTE by not making promised deadlines.

Personally, my household has been a contract customer with several of the big four cellular carriers, but we dote on the terms of the contract and will not take the phone upgrade temptation track.  As the market has changed, I am developing an openness to pre-paid models that have lower monthly costs but lack the subsidized phone.  Recently,  I was almost ready to switch, but I noticed that my chosen MVNO had a limited selection of phones which had LTE capability.   While I was willing to wait for LTE to officially arrive shortly in the District of Calamity (sic), the limited phone choice prompted me to investigate further.  

It was a good thing that I studied the details, as the only LTE phone did not provide a hotspot option, which was a deal breaker for me.  I was willing to pay $15 a month for a Hot Spot with 2.5 GB full 4G LTE, as I could drop a NetZero low capacity Hot Spot and get better service.   This plan has not been ruled out but tabled for better choices.

In the cellular industry, things can change pretty quickly.  It may be that Amazon puts out a Kindle Phone in which Amazon acts as a MVNO.  Like the Kindle, Amazon may sell their devices at near cost and bank on the ease of future purchases through Amazon to pull out the profitability.  This option is appealing as Amazon’s customer service has been top rate (unlike certain phone companies) and my prior Kindle ownerships have hooked me into their system.  But opting for Amazon would still require scrutinizing the calling plans and handsets and correlating  hem to my household’s needs. 

Choice is great but it can be confusing and requires some sacrifices.  Then again, there’s always  the  Obama phone.  





But Lifeline program is rife with abuse and Congress is considering cutting back on the program, which has tripled in size since 2009 to cost $2.2 Billion per year.   Considering President Obama’s troubles with surreptitiously seizing phone records of scores of Associated Press employees, cutting back on the Obama phones might be prudent.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Appreciating Apple Attitudes


Apple engenders an almost fanatical level of loyalty from its consumers.   ATT solidified its market position as a strong second in the US cell phone market by being the exclusive of the iPhone for years when it first came out.  But now, nearly every cellular carrier, including MVNOs like Virgin Mobile and Ting can offer their customers the iPhone without the iron clad two year contract, albeit without a handset subsidy. 

Admittedly, I have never owned an Apple product.  Not because I am a technological Luddite, but because I refuse to pay the stupid tax.

Since Apple is a vertically integrated company, meaning that they control the design and manufacturing of phones, the marketing of the handsets as well as vet any software on their devices, everything goes through Cupertino. So one pays a premium for an Apple device, the software tends to be more expensive (because it is programmed in house or needs to be customized for Apple).  Nearly all computer peripherals needed come from Cupertino.  Apple wants to care for its own products (with so called geniuses) with exclusive (and more costly) insurance and care programs.  In addition, they wanted to corner the market on media, by forcing media purchases through I-Tunes which used to lock it with DRM.  Now it just makes it extremely inconvenient to take it out of i-Tunes.  

Apple is also  currently engaged in an anti-trust trial for conspiring with five major publishers to raise the prices of e-books and undercut Amazon.    For these reasons, I consider Apple ownership as people paying the stupid tax, however I appreciate that 18% of the cell phone market will willingly pay this premium for Apple's i-Phones because of  the perception that "it just works" at practically any price.

This vertical integration allows Apple to have a uniform user experience.  So the home screens on every i-Phone will be the same.  Steve Jobs had animus against Adobe and refused to let Flash Video on Apple devices. There may have been principled reasons about battery life which inspired Job's vendetta, but Walter Issacson's biography of Steve Jobs intimates that Jobs had sour grapes about Adobe after Adobe favored Windows based video editing products.  These design decisions  may have ensured the walled garden stability of the i-Phone but this forced i-Phone users to either jail break their phones or forgo many websites that use embedded Flash video. Now the internet imbroglio is a Flash in the pan as the internet has moved away from Flash video. 

Indubitably, Apple produces or popularizes innovative products. The GUI interface was iconic (sic) in inspiring other O/S's (such as Windows). Apple may not have invented the i-Pod, but it became widespread through their product.  The i-Phone spread like wildfire amongst tech types because it was a stylish smartphone.  The SIRI interface took consumers closer to having a cyber personal assistant. But other companies have caught up and offer more economical choices with more real world flexibility than Apple offers (like replacing batteries, adding SD memory, accessing internet sites, not being forced to  buy into i-Tunes, etc..). 


It is an interesting phenomenon that those in the Apple cult not only look down upon those who refuse to join the Apple cult but they also savagely turn on Apple enthusiasts who do not have the latest and "greatest" products.



N.B.- This is a satirical advertisement
And woe be people who those who do not buy into the Book of Jobs. 




While  the parody video is a reductio ad absurdum, it typifies the mindset of many in the Apple cult, who can not appreciate that what works for them may not be alright for others.  This device devotion to the i-Phone despite better alternatives was satirized in certain scatalogical satirical videos.

Of course, the Occupy Movement activists  in 2011 exhibited quite a rarified mindset as these grungry, unlawful protesters who identified with the 98% railing against capitalism sported shiny expensive new i-Pads and i-Phones


Although Apple is a quintessentially liberal company, the powers that be in the District of Calamity (sic) gave unwarranted condemnation to Apple for  legally minimized its taxes on non-US earnings by consolidating the funds in an Irish tax haven.  It is a lamentable paradox that a taxpayer who is following the law is condemned by liberals enough, even though they were in legal compliance.  While I choose not to pay the stupid tax by buying walled garden cellular or computing technology for a premium, I am troubled by attempts to pressure Cupertino with the power of government for not paying a stupid tax of an ambiguous "their fair share"  by a Leviathan government led by showboating liberal Senate Democrats. 



Even if we use Android, Blackberry or Windows products, it would serve well for consumers and citizens to "Think Different" and  be the rebels against conforming to "Big Brother" as was intimated in the iconic Apple 1984 MacIntosh Superbowl ad.




h/t:  thejoyoftech 

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Tablet Tribulations




The HP TouchPad Fire Sale 
It seems like a time to reassess my mobile computing needs.  I have a three year old HP Touchpad, which I bought around the August 2011 HP fire sale.  I knew when I acquired the 9.7" tablet that it was “turning into a torpedo” as HP had abandoned WebOS and had a limited array of applications.  All that being said, it could be useful for awiley Thrifty Techie.  Consider that it was a great value for money, as the Touchpad's clearance price was one third of the original MSRP.  The size of the display was great.  Moreover, it had the ability to simultaneously run built upon the  elegant WebOS architecture. Although the app store was small, it included enough software to be quite useful-- so size isn't everything in an apps store.

Even to this day, the Touchpad is my go to device to make use of times when I am otherwise disposed. It is great for web browsing and playing games.  Aside from surfing to YouTube, I haven’t watched many videos on the device, though the XGA screen size is great for the immersive video experience.  The Touchstone charging station also makes it into a great digital picture frame and a good travel accessory.

But realistically, the Touchpad is long in the tooth, along with a stillborn O/S and a dwindling cost conscious counterintutive fan base for support.  While I could continue to muddle along with relying upon a HP Touchpad, it is the content creation criteria which causes me to look elsewhere.  I have a full sized bluetooth keyboard which can be paired with the charging stand to be a laptop substitute, however the three piece ensemble is not sleek mobility.  In addition, since my office productivity software (Corel Word Perfect and Microsoft Office) was not available on WebOS, I found that I was rarely using the word processing capability. When covering events, I found myself live “tweeting” more and then piecing together articles on a laptop. Some streaming websites can not be displayed on the Touchpad and peripheral devices (and tethering applications) can be perilous.

Original Amazon Kindle
I have been a long time enthusiast about the Amazon Kindle, particularly the E-Ink devices.  "Striker" the affection nickname for my  Generation 2 device  with 3G Whispernet, which has served me well since 2010.  But the battery longevity is dwindling.   While batteries for the Kindle can be acquired, I am leery about installing it myself and I can not readily convince computer geeks to do it for me.

The easy answer would be to upgrade but that is not the right answer for me.  I inherited a Kindle Generation 3 with WiFi, which is better for reading but I can not use it for internet access to text based web sites without WiFi as can be done with a Gen 2 reader.

Upgrading to a Kindle Paperwhite has drawbacks.  Now even the 3G Paperwhite only allows access to Wikipedia and the Amazon site, so I wonder why would people pay the extra $50?  Moreover, Amazon has eliminated the headphone option on their E-Ink devices along with the Text to Speech ability.  That was a deal breaker for me. There are times when I want to consume the written word, but I can’t have my eyes on the screen.  But this “read to me” capability exists in two forms for the Kindle Fire.

As a consumer reward, I was able to get my eager hands on a Kindle Fire 2.  It is the perfect size to slip into an over-sized pocket or into a briefcase.  It is a great content consuming device.  I have read books on it and utilized the text-to-speech synthesis.  I have watched some videos on it.  While the 7" screen does not give the immersive experience, the 1220x800 resolution is quite sharp.  I have listened to streaming radio on it.  Of course, I’ve played Angry Birds and other pastime games.  Despite having a few different bluetooth keyboards which could be paired with the Kindle Fire 2, the  7" screen along with the available applications fails to  make it into a productivity device. And one of the supplemental cases which combines a bluetooth keyboard with a case makes the tablet seem bulky, which defeats the purpose of mobile computing. While I definitely anticipate using the Kindle Fire HD 2, its use will likely be as a supplemental reader and a visual content consuming device.

My digital discernment is that I should have a content creation mobile device.  Even though  smartphones are getting bigger displays, I do not think that such Phablets (phone tablets), lend themselves to prolonged productivity in mobile computing.   I am not looking for a laptop replacement as I already have a Windows 7 laptop, which suits my needs and runs software which will not work in a tablet environment.  Thus I want something in between a laptop and a tablet-- a laplet.

The Toshiba Thrive 10.1" display  Android tablet laying around the household could have been a suitable solution as it allows for a dock to connect a USB keyboard and/or mouse.  However, it  is my spouse’s pride and joy thus it is unavailable to me.  So I find myself drawn to an ultraportable tablet for content creation  which is sleeker than a laptop with more mobile battery power.

By keying into content creation, it eliminates other popular mobile tablets, such as the Apple iPad and the Nexus 7.  Conceivably, I could consider an Apple Macbook Air but as a Thrifty-Techie who has never entered the Apple universe,  cost and conversion challenges would rule it out.

Then there is the ASUS Transformer series, which has a 10.1" screen which can have up to a 1920x1200 screen.  The price point becomes a consideration as it rivals laptop price without giving a hard drive, a DVD drive, or many standard USB ports.  And to the chagrin of some discriminating mobile computing shoppers, ASUS has shifted their software from Android to Windows 8.1 thus it is unappealing.  Although I would not want to be stuck with Windows 8.1 on a PC or laptop per se, due to legacy software and not optimizing the touch screen User Interface (UI), I remain open to Windows 8.1 for a tablet.

These criteria leave room for the Microsoft Surface RT.  The 10.6" 16x9 screen is large enough for immersive video viewing, but is also a good size for productivity without becoming unwieldy.  The draw of the Surface RT is to have a complimentary full suite of Office 2013 RT available (the O/S upgrade includes Windows 8.1. and Outlook).  But as an Ultraportable tablet to optimize productivity, it requires the keyboard cover.

The original price point for the Surface 32 RT was $499 with a $119 add on for the keyboard (or $699 for the 64GB with keyboard bundled)  which put it in the iPad price point, which was overpriced for the market.  But as Microsoft took a write off in 2013 on the Surface RT and is rolling out the success tablet Surface 2 and Surface 3 Pro, there are great deals on manufacturer refurbished Surface RT units.  When one can have a 64 GB unit for 1/3rd of the original MSRP through popular auction sites, it is worth considering by the Thrifty Techie.


Bill Murray on Reading Online

Bill Murray

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Surveying the Surfeit of Cheap Tablets


[This article originally ran on DCBarroco.com in anticipation of Black Friday but has been updated for the Summer of 2014.  While the prices may have passed, the advise for analyzing features is golden]

As Black Friday and Cyber Monday approaches, many merchants are highlighting inexpensive tablet computers as doorbusters or loss leaders to gin up overall Christmas holiday sales.  But before making impulse electronics purchases, it is wise to consider how you would use a tablet in mobile computing.  

It used to be that tablets were the ideal media consumption device. Tablets with 7" to 10" screens allow an individual to have an almost immersive view of videos.  Applications (a.k.a. apps) generally provided shortcuts which facilitated internet interactions.  Some tablets like the Nook and the Kindle were more e-ink reading devices which could have proto-tablet functions (checking e-mail, Wikipedia, and text based websites).  But Amazon’s Kindle Fire sought to be a loss leader which was a shopping portal doubling as an entertainment device.   Samsung’s strong showing with its Galaxy Tablets as well as the “phablet” Note series sought to tie tablets to cellular carriers.


Discern what are your mobile computing needs.  If you want a communications device with a larger screen (and you don’t mind carrying a 5.5" device in a pocket or a purse), then a “phablet” like the Samsung Note may be the best choice for you.  Many retailers will be offering enticing prices for such hybrid phone/tablets, but be prepared to be locked into a cellular carrier for a year or two.  If you want to keep having the latest and greatest devices, look into the early upgrade programs from major cellular carriers. 

Tablets sales used to be driven by Apple’s i-Pad, which came out in 2010.  The i-Pad still wins 29.6% of the tablet market while asking for a premium price that is rarely discounted.  While this writer is not purposely not part of the Apple cult, if one feels compelled to buy an Apple for its reputation of ease of use, enticing design or to keep up with the Jones’, then buy an i-Pad and sleep in on Black Friday.



As an electronics consumer, I like to get the most bang for my buck with tables and not be limited by a vertical monopoly manufacturer.   Currently I own a couple of Amazon Kindles and a WebOS HP Touchpad.  I love to read on an e-ink device like the Kindle.  Unfortunately, my Kindle 2 (with the slow but unrestricted 3G coverage) is losing its charge and computer geeks are reluctant to change out the battery.  While the Amazon Kindle Paperwhite provides even better e-ink resolution, the newer model has dropped the headphones option and the text-to-speech feature.  For my purposes. the text-to-speech ability is important for times which I want to enjoy books but can not have my eyes on the screen.  But text-to-speech is included in the Kindle Fires.

Regarding my HP Touchpad, I knew that it was a dead-end from the moment I acquired it in the HP fire-sale in the August 2011.  But WebOs is an elegant operating system and the HP Touchpad had upscale features.  Two years later, it is running fine and should be serviceable for the foreseeable future.  Alas, there are not many new WebOs applications available.  In order to use some hotspots, there are apps that are necessary and I am reluctant to make it a dual booting Android tablet.  So between an ailing e-reader and a red headed stepchild tablet, I have my eye out on the surfeit of cheap tablets.

 Some have tried to take advantage of the slow demise of the Barnes and Noble Nook by using the SD card as an Android boot.  It can work, but realize that the Nooks OS takes up nearly 3/4ths of an 8 GB e-reader.  The 16 GB Nook HD tablets (list $150) offer more storage.  But there are serious questions to the long term viability of the Nook.  So it may only be good for reconfigured use or as a stuck in time tablet. 


Having owned several Kindles over the past four years, I am entrenched in Amazon’s e-reader market.  The Amazon Kindle Fire HD has achieved around 5% market share, but it should suffice for my own  supplemental tablet/ infotainment needs.  Although a 16 GB Kindle Fire HD (list  now $169) has a 7" screen is markedly smaller than the 9.7" HP Touchpad screen, it is a more manageable size for e-reading functions.  Moreover, my mobile computing needs have not been as video oriented.  The Kindle Fire HD has Bluetooth, which should allow a wireless keyboard for productivity.  The Kindle Fire HD  does allow for hotspot connection hence  buying a 4G version is costly and unnecessary.  

For those interested in getting Black Friday bargains for the Amazon Fire, be aware that the discounts will be for the Fire HD (2nd generation) not the newer Fire HDX.



If one can live without using a tablet as a camera or a phone or having the “Mayday” feature, the HD will have most of the improvements of Kindle Fire OS 3.0 “Mojito “ (a forked version of Android).   Many of the cut rate Kindle Fires are 8 GB (which should leave around 6 GB for internal storage along with the cloud).



While most mobile computing people look to tablets as a media consumption device, some industrious individuals want to have a tablet that is a  quasi laptop without the bulk or balking at the price of a MacBook Air (list $999).  When Microsoft entered the tablet market, it tried to appeal to such customers with the Microsoft Surface RT.  The price point of the Microsoft  Surface 2  (list $449) rivals that of the i-Pad (list $499), but Microsoft throws in fully functioning version of Office and 200 GB of SkyDrive storage and plenty of cloud storage, features which generally cost extra elsewhere.



The 10.6" touch screen of the Microsoft Surface makes full use of Metro interface, but if one wishes to run old programs, it is necessary to buy a Microsoft Surface Pro (original MSRP at  $899 but Surface Pro 3 now lists at $799), which is much pricier.   The big tiles on the start screen are customizable and offer updated embedded information.  The Surface RT allows multitasking.  

The body of the Microsoft Surface RT includes a built in kick stand.  The Surface RT has micro SDSX ports allowing users to add memory.  The magnetic Touch Cover is ordinarily a $119 add on which both protects the screen and can be used as a keyboard.  While the Windows Apps store is not as robust as the Android or i-store, they claim that plenty of apps are free. 

If you have Surface appeal, it  was possible to find a Surface RT for under $200 during Black Friday sales and for similar prices on Ebay.   Invest in the cover as the keyboard cover is key, otherwise it is just an overpriced tablet running an apps limited version of Windows 8.1.

There will be plenty of Black Friday sales on Android tablets.   If Android tablets have an appeal, determine which version of OS the hardware has, as earlier versions of Android  (prior to 4.0“Jelly Bean”) are not optimized to tablet proportions. Also be aware of how much storage is on the tablet.  A $40 tablet that only boasts 4GB will barely hold one movie.  That might be good enough for kinderspiel but would quickly be condemned to the land of misfit toys for most other tablet users. 

This holiday shopping season it may be easy to acquire a tablet but take the time to choose the right tablet for you. Consumers who are content to pay premium prices for an entertainment consumption device which is touted to work out of the box should opt for an i-Pad. Busy businessmen may want the Microsoft Surface to be able to do Office work while surfing the web on their tablets.  Those who want an all in one mobile communications device should consider a “phablet” like the Samsung Galaxy Note.  Avid readers who want the functionality of a tablet should lean towards the Amazon Kindle Fire.  And there are a variety of inexpensive Android tablets which may motivate impulse shoppers.

h/t: BFAds