Wednesday, August 27, 2014

An insider's Guide to working with AT&T Wireless (Or A Phone of One's Own, Part 3)

Have you read the story of how many times I got conflicting information about procuring a new phone through AT&T? Are you thinking about using my advice on buying a new phone from someone other than AT&T but not sure if that's the right choice for you? Are you as confused as I was by AT&T in general, but specifically about the differences between AT&T Next and the traditional  system of wireless contracts? Then read on for a crash course.

In the past, getting a new phone every two years was as simple as renewing your contract and saying thank you. Maybe if you were into newfangled technology, you'd have to pay a bit for your fancy-schmancy handset, but you got a hefty discount as long as you renewed the contract. This is still possible, but AT&T is moving away from this system. Nowadays, most everyone is using a fancy-schmancy phone, and it's not economical for AT&T (and, from what I hear, other carriers as well) to continue offering them for next to nothing. So they are encouraging all their customers to switch to the new AT&T Next plan, where you buy your own phone (still at a discount, but a smaller one than you would get with the new contract), but in exchange, you pay a lower per-line monthly access fee (if you're using the Mobile Share Value billing plan). Although I didn't believe it at first, you actually save money in the long run by going with AT&T Next (because if you choose the new-phone-with-contract option, you lose that discount on your access fee). If you're as skeptical as I was, check out this handy calculator that they have created for you.

Now, here are a few caveats. They kept specifying that this pricing system applies to the Mobile Share Value Plan. If there are still other plans available, and if you're on one, I don't know whether it's still going to be cheaper to use the AT&T Next purchasing option. But since that's the plan I'm on, I'm telling you how it is for me! The other caveat: AT&T also allows you to bring your own device. If you are willing to do the extra research and the shopping around, you can almost certainly get the same phone for less if you buy it from another retailer. That's what I chose to do (the phone that I chose isn't even available through AT&T), and in my next post, I'll share more tips for how to shop for phones in the great wide world beyond the AT&T store.

What is a Mobile Share Value plan? Well, I don't know exactly. What I do know is that while before, my line was allotted a certain number of gigabytes of data all to itself, now everyone on my family plan is sharing all the data in one big pool (cue the "MOM! Billy's hogging all the data!")

If you are going to put on your gauntlets and do business with AT&T Customer Service or visit a retail store, I strongly encourage you to do four things first:
  1. Make sure you are an authorized retail user. If you're on a family plan, only the account holder has permission to actually make changes to the account. But an authorized retail user, such as Yours Truly (I'd like to thank my dad for making this possible!) can buy a phone and renew his or her contract and things like that. This is a must for those who are geographically separated from the account holder by 500 miles or thereabouts. You will need to get the account holder to add you as a user, but once you have, your life will be easier by at least 5-fold.
  2. Make sure you have the last four digits of the account holder's social security number. Even if you're an authorized user, they won't allow you access to account details without additional proof of authorization. For example, I could not get the refund on my ill-advised SIM card purchase until I provided these magic numbers.
  3. If you're going to visit an AT&T store, make an appointment first. When I arrived for mine on a Sunday afternoon, I was the only one with an appointment, which automatically put me ahead of the 7 walk-ins on the waiting list. Even so, I had to stand around waiting for a good 10 minutes, and then someone messed around with the wait list and accidentally removed my name before I was called, just adding to the annoyingly long wait and obliging me to have a loud conversation with my boyfriend about what had happened to my name until an employee noticed I'd been skipped over. This leads me to my 4th point.
  4. Be ready to be proactive.* There are some very stupid people working for AT&T. All sorts of accidents happen and all sorts of misinformation are dispensed like candy. Everything you get told, check and double-check. It's a hassle, but it's better than getting billed too much, which seems to be the usual result of these miscommunications.
And lastly, before you put on those gauntlets, be aware of the distinction between AT&T and an AT&T Authorized Retailer. This is a tricky one, because AT&T authorized retailers are apparently allowed to have huge signs with the AT&T logo (albeit with the words "authorized retailer" next to the logo). They can look just like an AT&T store, but they can apparently charge you 20$ for a SIM card which a company store would give you for free. Who knows what insidious other ways they may be different!? So be cautious when shopping; visit an Authorized Retailer at your own risk, and be sure to double check on any of the fees before you hand over your credit card.

Following these steps to success, I am pretty sure that you can navigate the morass of confusion and have a happy (OK, OK, I'll settle for semi-functional) relationship with your cellular service provider!

*Some people would argue that my strategy for getting service in point #3 would be better classified as passive-aggressive, not proactive, to which I have to agree, if it had been an actual strategy. To my credit, at the time, I was just trying to figure out what had occurred and not actually opening a conscious bid for attention. It just happened that the issue did get resolved without my having to actually approach anyone—phew! Another win for the avoidant person in me!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

How to buy and bring your own phone to AT&T
(Or, A Phone of One's Own, Part 2)

Last post, I recounted the story of how I finally weaned myself off carrier-subsidized cell phones and took the plunge into the free market. If you're looking to buy a phone through the non-traditional route as I did, look no further! Or considering how much flying by the seat of my pants I've been doing, maybe, you should look a little further, but start here at least!

Last things first

Because I think this was what my dad wanted to know when he requested the details of my experience, I will first share what I had to do to make my newly purchased phone work once I received it. In theory, this should have been easy. The phone was already unlocked to work with any carrier and even already charged! I should have just been able to put my old SIM card in the new phone and begin making calls (this worked consistently when I kept switching back and forth between the iPhone 3G and the 3GS). Unfortunately, I hit a road block this time. Apparently, SIM cards come in too many sizes. I'd already learned this when I had to get a new SIM to switch from the iPhone 3G (standard SIM) to the iPhone 4 (Micro SIM). With the new Droid Mini, I had to downsize again to a Nano SIM. Which necessitated a visit to the AT&T store to get my SIM card replaced. Once that was done, it was smooth sailing. My new phone worked like a charm!

So the moral of that story is that actually getting a phone to work with your network is probably the easy part. 
Now, let me give you some helpful pointers I learned along the way about the hard part: buying a phone in the first place. Then, because this turns out to be a lot to digest at once, I'll follow up with one last post on understanding the mysterious beast that is AT&T. Now let's get shopping!

Know what you want

For me, my priorities in getting a new phone shifted a lot over the month or so that I was searching for one. Originally I really just wanted a small Android phone that worked fast and had a good battery (preferably replaceable). Then I realized, I really needed a half-decent camera for those spontaneous Unfashion pics I might need to take at work. While shopping, I found a number of phones that take microSD storage cards, which I thought sounded like a nifty way to transfer music and files from my phone to the computer and other devices...until I realized that most of the SD cards are buried under batteries and back panels and aren't really intended to be swapped in and out all the time. So that went off my priority list again, and I settled for a phone with an average battery just because it was cheaper. But all that aside, whatever your priorities are, you can probably use phonearena.com to help you find them. This site has a detailed advanced search feature and a nifty tool that'll let you compare the actual sizes of different handsets. Their staff reviews are also really thorough, though reviews of old phones do not really reflect how they compare to modern phones. Once you know what it is you're looking for, it's time to consider the things you might not even know you're looking for.

Carrier-locked vs. Unlocked

Some phones can only be used with certain carriers. When you buy a phone directly from a carrier, it is usually locked to work on their network alone. For example, you cannot pop your AT&T SIM card into a T-Mobile phone and expect it to work unless the phone is unlocked first. Now, you can unlock almost any phone, sometimes for free, but usually for a cost that can vary quite wildly. So if you're shopping for a new phone, I recommend buying one that's either already unlocked (this is different from jailbroken, by the way) or is keyed to the carrier you are going to use. I hear that they have just passed some law that makes it legal (read: easier) to unlock your phone at any time, so if you're planning to sell your phone, I'd recommend getting it unlocked first, because that way you can sell it for more money, since there will be a higher demand for it! 

CDMA vs. GSM

It's an alphabet soup out there in the phone-buying world, and the first acronyms you'll probably run accross are CDMA and GSM. Apparently, not only can phones be deliberately locked to a specific network, but different carriers use completely different technologies to provide cellular service. Carriers that take SIM cards use GSM bands, and carriers that don't take them use CDMA—or something like that. Some phones are set up for both services, but others are not. If you use a GSM carrier and buy a CDMA phone, you will not get far. In most listings on eBay (where I bought my phone), the band will be listed in the specifications, so pay close attention to that. Theoretically, you can also use specific band version numbers to find out whether your phone supports 3G or 4G data, but that wasn't a huge priority to me, so I didn't investigate it much.

So far so good? Here's just a little example to confuse you all over again. Verizon is traditionally a CDMA carrier, and AT&T is GSM. You would think this would mean that, as an AT&T customer, I should have steered clear of Verizon phones. However, being the renegade I am (or just the pennypincher who will take any risk to save a few bucks), I bought a Verizon phone, because the seller had stated clearly that it was unlocked and would work on AT&T's network. When I brought it to the AT&T store for activation, the salesman got a very worried expression on his face. But he installed the SIM card anyway, and, voila! It worked. This just goes to show you, nothing is for certain in this world!

Bad ESN or IMEI

Here come some more meaningless letters! I don't know what they stand for, but apparently if a person's phone is lost or stolen, or if it is linked to a contract that hasn't been paid, it can be reported by the carrier as having a bad ESN or IMEI, and it won't work. Not only that, but you could be potentially breaking the law by using it! If you see a phone for sale with any mention of a "Bad" ESN or IMEI in the listing, just keep on scrolling. I think it might be possible to get these phones to work outside of the US, but here in the States, it's better to be safe and legal than sorry.

Woohoo! You've just learned in 5 minutes what it took me several days of phone shopping to begin to understand. Now you should be ready to explore that handset market with confidence. And, if you aren't already comatose from information overload, stay tuned for my next post, which I hope will clarify some of the murky waters surrounding everyone's favorite carrier (or at least, the one I'm currently using, AT&T Wireless!)

Monday, August 25, 2014

A phone of one's own

I've had a cell phone since I was gifted a stylish Motorola StarTAC when I turned 16 in 1999.

Thus began my long relationship with cell phones: I've gotten 1 as a gift, 5 as hand-me-downs or on extended loan, 3 free with a contract, and 1 at a discount with a contract. I've gone through 10 handsets and been a phone-carrying mobile user for 15 years, yet never, in all that time, have I had to actually buy a phone from a retailer! 

But all that changed this summer. 

I lost my HTC One X in Indonesia in June. I was actually not very disappointed, because I'd been annoyed with the size and battery life of that phone pretty much ever since I'd gotten it, and I'd just been biding my time until I could renew my contract (which I estimated to be sometime in June) and get a smaller phone. However, upon my return to the States, I learned that, not only was there no such thing as a small smartphone any more, but AT&T had changed their pricing and would no longer be providing free or heavily discounted phones to users who renew their contract. I wasn't keen to spend full price on a brand-new phone, especially on some giant phone on some dumb installment plan, so I started shopping around. At first, I was gung-ho to find a new phone that would suit me, but I soon learned that good phones are not cheap, and there weren't even any phones out there that I considered good enough to be worth the price. 

So I switched from using my backup antique iPhone 3G to using my boyfriend's slightly less old iPhone 3GS, and contented myself with that until something better should come around

Then I broke his screen and the drama started afresh. After a few days, I repaired the screen for 63 dollars, but within a few more days, I stopped picking up a signal (I must have damaged the antenna too—what a waste of 63 dollars!), so I switched back to my antique iPhone. Then after a couple weeks of cursing my phone's existence, I got a Micro-SIM card for 25 dollars and switched to my boyfriend's slightly newer iPhone 4, learned it really was still possible to get a discounted phone by renewing your contract and that I'd overpaid for the SIM card (what a waste of 25 dollars!) and that I still don't like iPhones no matter how new they are, got a courtesy refund on the SIM card, learned it would be cost-ineffective to the others on my family plan to get an upgraded phone by renewing my contract, and started shopping again for new phones that would suit me. 

This time I lowered my standards and resigned myself to paying around 200 dollars for a phone that I might like slightly more than the HTC One X or the iPhone 4. Yesterday, I finally took the plunge. I have returned to my Motorola roots and bought myself a used DROID Mini on eBay (for 148 dollars, including charging accessories).

Yes, this is a long story, and it is really only the introduction to my true purpose: sharing the lessons I've learned from this phone buying adventure. When I told my dad my plans for buying an aftermarket handset, he asked me to provide a narration of what I needed to do, since he has a friend who needs to buy a new phone. And that made me realize, what with AT&T's new pricing structure, there are probably lots of first-time phone-buyers out there who are just as bewildered by this whole process as I was. 

So here I am to save the day! For the past month and a half, phones have consumed my thoughts. In my next post, I will share all those thoughts with you! Soon we will all be experts on navigating the seamy underworld that is basically any marketplace beyond your carrier's friendly neighborhood store.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Pet Peeves

If you were reading my blog about 5 months ago, you were introduced to the unholy terror known to those who love him (do such people really exist?) as Jack Jack (I shortened his name to Jack in the last post), the dog with no control over his bodily functions or his compulsion to frolic in the trash. In those 5 months, he has not seemed to learn anything.

Several times a week, I come home to garbage strewn through the house, poop on the floor, knicknacks knocked off the shelves, sometimes broken (he climbs like a cat, but he's a lot less graceful about it), and, always, a cowering, quivering dog somewhere in the vicinity of ground zero.

Jack Jack cringing in anticipation of his tongue-lashing
Jack Jack begging for mercy
His terror of being yelled at trumps his excitement to see me, so he no longer approaches me eagerly and pees on my shoes, but that same terror usually causes him to pee wherever he is currently located (usually on the couch) instead. This is not an improvement.

I have become quite irritated by this whole state of affairs. After all, it was Al's decision (without any consultation with me) to bring the dog into my house, yet it is I (being the first one home every day) who always has to deal with the messy consequences. So after months of getting progressively angrier every time I found a mess, now when there's a disaster in the house upon my arrival, I've taken to calling my boyfriend home from whatever he's doing (usually hitting the gym) to clean up after his dog.

I don't think anyone would be much surprised to hear me say that I'm not feeling particularly charitable to the canine species at present, but I've just recently realized it's not just dogs that are a thorn in my side; it's dog owners—or maybe more specifically, dog walkers.

Allow me to explain. Every day, I ride my bike to work. I don't like to waste time, so I travel as fast as I can pedal for the entire trip. My speed is not usually a problem to other people. The trail that takes me most of the way to the office is a nice wide paved route with a yellow dividing line. When I pass other bikers or pedestrians, they generally let me by without complaint. But the dog-walking-crowd—they're just a whole breed apart.

The only times I've ever taken any flak while riding my bike, it's always been from some high-strung woman walking a dog. Once I passed a dog-walker from behind (on the opposite side of the dividing line) and got screamed at: "You're supposed to WARN people when you pass them!" Another time, I came down a hill right where the bike trail intersects a street, and a dog-walker approaching the trail from my left yelled at me: "Slow down!"

Call me insensitive, but I don't feel remotely guilty about either of these incidents. I was riding my bike on a bike trail. Yes, it's open to pedestrians as well, but if you're going to be walking on it, you should expect to encounter a few bikes, most likely doing what bikes do—which is move faster than you and your dog can do on foot. I don't get all bent out of shape and start shouting when I have to brake because somebody's dog is taking up the whole trail, even though it's clearly divided into two lanes; and I think it's reasonable to expect dog walkers not to act hysterical because a biker comes near them moving fast.

To be fair, this has only happened two times, but one bad experience can color your opinions forever! And right now, because of these two incidents, my opinion of dog-walking-ladies is that they are a bunch of overreacting ninnies.

So to recap, and so as not to let my rant go to waste, a moral! The lesson every dog owner can take away from this post is: if you want to own a dog, then be prepared to accept the consequences of owning a dog. Don't move your dog into someone else's home and then expect them to clean up after it all the time. And if you don't feel comfortable walking your dog around people on bikes, then don't walk your dog where there are people on bikes! That's easy!

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Chocolate Chip Cookie from Epcot Center

Shortly after my macaroni lunch at Epcot Center, I picked up a chocolate chip cookie at the Norway Pavilion.

By this time I was no longer hungry, but I couldn't resist the temptation to get a Giant Cookie at such an exotic locale. So I did, wrapping it in a napkin, folding part of the paper plate over it, stuffing it in my purse, and hoping for the best. I carried it around with me for the rest of the day, through Mexico, FutureWorld, and the land of Imagination...dragging it along on my ferry ride to the Magic Kingdom...shoving it into my suitcase for my trip back to DC...and keeping it in a drawer at home for a couple more days.

This is what it looked like when I finally ate it.

Having survived that much abuse, my Norway cookie shouldn't be faulted for not being at its peak of deliciousness, but...the taste didn't do much for me. There was something slightly chemical about it. Maybe it absorbed too many fumes from my sunscreen. I'll give it the benefit of a doubt.

Texture, similarly, was acceptable, but not exceptional.

The white medallion at the center, probably this cookie's one point of distinction, didn't really do anything to enhance, being a bit soft and not having any noticeable flavor.

Unsurprisingly for a cookie bought at an amusement park, it was kind of pricey (but could have been worse), weighing in at 100 grams (give or take; it's hard to accurately weigh a cookie which has lost a portion of its mass in your purse) and costing $2.59, or 2.6¢ per gram.
All in all, another run-of-the-mill Giant Cookie to scratch off my list.

The Bottom Line:

Taste:2 out of 5 stars
Texture:3 out of 5 stars
Price:2 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Nudel Gratin from Epcot Center

 
Whilst visiting Disney World's Epcot Center last weekend, I had the singular experience of buying both a Giant Cookie and a Macaroni in the same day!
 
The cookie review is coming soon! Read on to find out what I thought of the macaroni!
 
But before you begin, you should know that, at the time I consumed this pasta dish, I was participating in a little thing they call "Drink Around the World" which is something boozers like to do at Epcot Center, because it is the only Disney Park that serves alcohol. To play this game, you buy an alcoholic beverage at every international pavilion in the park. And then if you're hardcore, you get pictures with the staff of every pavilion and/or make them sign your T-shirt or mug or whatever else you have custom designed for the purpose. There are 11 pavilions in the park. I myself, not being capable of consuming 11 alcoholic drinks in a day, and not a fan of asking strangers for favors, was sort of half-heartedly drinking around the world, which is to say I got a drink when it struck my fancy and had a few sips of my boyfriend's drink when it didn't. Despite my determined moderation, I was still fairly intoxicated by the time I ate my macaroni. This means, of course, that my judgment, as far as the quality of my food, may not have been 100% accurate.

But that said, I rather enjoyed it. The flavor was good, the top was pretty crusty, and I was able to eat the whole thing. The texture was a little different from other macaronis I have known, being somewhat mushy and wet, rather like an overly eggy quiche, but hey! It was vegetarian food in an amusement park—I won't complain.

The macaroni was purchased at the Germany pavilion and was called by the decidedly German name of "nudel gratin". It appeared to be baked and came in a rectangular shape, which I have to say is a first for my macaroni reviews.

Rating

On the whole, I rate it 1 happy noodle for satisfying my hunger (and thirst for the unusual) and 1 sad noodle for the rather unappetizing texture.
 
1 happy noodle 1 sad noodle

The Mood Noodle rating system is not based on a fixed scale, but is a much more subjective system based on what makes me happy and what makes me sad.
Any number of happy noodles and comparatively few sad noodles constitute a good rating.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Au Bon Pain Chocolate Chip Cookies

When I opened my free lunch at the Drupal conference I mentioned in my other blog, I was delighted to find a Giant Cookie gracing my lunchbox.

While I reserved judgment (and consumption) until after I could verify its weight and whether it was indeed large enough to qualify as a Giant Cookie, my eating companions all proclaimed this to be a very good cookie. And now that I have eaten one (or 2, or 3...) I have to agree.

It was crispy on the edges, top, and bottom, but delightfully soft on the inside. Rather like a sandwich cookie, only better. The taste was yummy, rich and chocolatey, something you'll never get from an average Oreo.

Because these cookies came in a catered box lunch, I can't accurately rate their price, but they were 75g each, and I wouldn't mind paying at least 2¢ a gram for them.

The Bottom Line

Taste:4 out of 5 stars
Texture:4 out of 5 stars