Friday, February 14, 2014

Kotas Reviews Straight Talk Wireless

So, I bought a smartphone recently (and reviewed it here). Because AT&T wanted to almost double my already outrageous phone bill ($110/month after taxes and fees for two feature phones, set number of minutes, unlimited texts, and NO DATA AT ALL), my wife and I discussed switching providers. After a LOT of research, we went with Straight Talk Wireless. This is my review of the process and the service.

First off, Straight Talk is an MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator) that operates on both the AT&T and T-Mobile networks. What is an MVNO? Essentially they are third parties that purchase network access to a mobile service provider that actually owns and maintains a network, then resells that access to customers for a profit. They are almost all in the prepaid cell phone market, and they compete with the big guys mostly on price of service, and boy is the price nice.

My wife and I have modest phone needs. It should, above all, make phone calls in the places where we travel, and be able to send and receive text messages. The data is a nice thing, but we've not really used it in the past because it cost us an extra $3 every time we accidentally hit the wrong button on the phone. I finally got sick of it, and looked into the cost of actually getting a data plan and a couple of smart phones. Yeah, AT&T wanted to charge us $150/month for two smart phones, 4GB of shared data, with unlimited talk and texts...before taxes and fees, which, of course, I couldn't know. It DID include a subsidy for the new phones, so we could one of the “latest and greatest” phones for approx. $200 each. Still, DAT MONTHLY BILL.

Looking at Straight Talk, the bargain offered seemed almost unbelievable. $45/month per phone for unlimited talk, texts, and data? Outrageous! That’s $90/month for two phones before taxes and fees! But, of course, I had to buy unlocked phones AND get SIM cards and otherwise fiddle. Looking around, a pair of new phones would cost between $800-$1200. That’s a LOT of money, but the monthly bill would be much, MUCH lower. I did the math, and decided that yes, it would be worth it. I bought two Nexus 5s and ordered a couple of AT&T SIM cards from Straight Talk, along with a couple of “prepaid” cards. Eventually, they arrived, and it was time to start our journey down that MVNO road.


According to the website, it should be as simple as “slap in the SIM card, check to make sure it’s working, and make sure the settings are right.” Oh, but I wanted to port my number, is that cool? “Sure!” said the website. Yeah, not so much! In order to port the number, you have to fill out a bunch of information about your current account (which should be active) along with the usual stuff like your name, address, etc. The process itself seems straight forward, but the forms to enter the data are all slightly off in their wording, so I was constantly second-guessing myself and double and triple checking to make sure I entered the information correctly. Finally, everything was in, and I clicked “Submit”. Then waited the recommended 8-10 hours for everything to go through. Would it work? Spoilers: NO.

Somewhere along the line, something screwed up. It might have been me, it might have been some mysterious timeout on the site, or possibly swamp gas. All I know is, my old phone worked fine, and my account showed the new SIM card as being “unactivated”. Hokay, I’ll just try again. Success! Everything seemed to go through just fine! Wait, why isn't my number showing on the account? To make a long story short, something had gone awry and I contacted their technical support. The first try was a complete failure, and resulted in me being “transferred” to another group...where the phone told me “We have too many calls, try again later.” and hung up. Uh, what? After a few hours, I eventually got through to a tech. This resulted in the current SIM being deactivated and them sending me a replacement SIM card.

Many days later, I went through this process a second time, finding out that THIS time I did screw up the data entry, but in THIS case, I finally got an error message and a help desk case. After plodding my way through the menus, I finally got to a low level tech. To be fair, this time I was quickly escalated to their next level and DIDN'T disconnect me, and 30 minutes later I was the proud owner of a brand new functioning smartphone.

The activation of my wife’s phone took 30 minutes and required no human interaction, since I had already learned all the ins and outs of their weird setup process. I suspect if I hadn't wanted to transfer an out of state phone number that this process would have been much smoother, but at NO point did anyone warn me this might be tricky. Still, kudos to that second level tech. He knocked it out of the park, and if you don’t care about getting a new number it is ridiculously simple.


Our Straight Talk SIMs use the AT&T network and in the month I have used them, I have had zero problems. Data speeds are relatively consistent, texts both SMS and MMS go through without issue, and phone clarity has been rock solid. I haven’t strayed too far outside of major urban and suburban areas, but I was able to get reasonable data rates even out at Red Top Mountain, at least in most areas. The ability to look up the cost of a 7 foot Gummi Python in the middle of the woods is awesome! My wife has yet to complain about signal strength or data speed. To be fair, in the decade or so that we used AT&T for wireless service, I think we called them once maybe. This was actually a major factor in why we went with Straight Talk. The AT&T network is a known quantity. In short, the service is very good, well within our “usual” use cases.

We went with the $45/month plan that includes unlimited talk, texts and in theory, data. They recently added LTE 4G service to Straight Talk, so it seems like an unbelievable deal! And you know what? It IS unbelievable, for the reasons you might think. There is a soft cap on the data. Currently, if I exceed 2GB of usage, my data speed slows from LTE 4G down to 2G until the next billing cycle, so it’s “unlimited” in the sense that if I exceed I’m not cut off entirely or charged a premium for it, but it isn't what I would call truly unlimited. Lucky for me, I simply do not use enough data to worry about it but a heavy data user might need a more robust plan...which Straight Talk doesn't offer. There are also plenty of Internet Horror Stories about people getting nasty emails when they start to get close to their data caps, but I've heard just as many “I use a ton all the time, never get anything” stories so maybe they've improved their service over the years. It is a little shady that the soft cap, while mentioned, is relegated to an * item in their advertising, but every other company does something like that (except T-Mobile, which is very upfront about it).

Customer Experience

Paying $101/month after taxes and fees is great. Really, really great. It is prepaid service, so I pay upfront for 30 days of service, but you know what? It’s still great. I don’t have to fiddle with bills, or worry about if this months bill will be wildly different from last month’s because I clicked a button I wasn't supposed to. The taxes and fees actually make sense and are consistent on my statement. It is remarkably simple in that respect and I am super happy.

The web site experience is what I would call stilted. They've recently redesigned it, but it’s still sort of chunky in both presentation and navigation. There are a lot of options but I don’t really use them, because I signed up for their Auto-Refill option, which charges my credit card every month without me having to do anything. I get notices and emails about it, so it is never a surprise. If you know what you are doing during setup, the website is also super quick, which is pleasant.

Of course, there are a few spines on the rose. Big ones. With additional tiny spines around additional tiny roses. It’s a bit dicey is what I’m saying. The customer service department is clearly a call center in some foreign country. They speak pretty reasonable English, but the turns of phrase are unfamiliar and honestly I would be happier if they just owned it rather than pathetically trying to pretend that “no really, we’re totally in North America.” It’s kind of insulting really, and is a total crap shoot in terms of what kind of service you will get. I ended up calling 4 times: 3 during the setup process and once because I did something dumb. Two of those times were awful experiences. I was either hung up on, or told horribly bad information. The other two were “mixed to amazing”. When I got the replacement SIM, I was told that my previously activated “scratch card” for service would be preserved and carry over when I got the new SIM. Yeah, that was a total lie, though the new SIM fixed all the other problems, so that was $50 down the drain. The stellar call was the tech support guy who identified the problem in setup, immediately escalated me to second level, and I got the awesome tier two dude.

One of the bad calls deserves a special call out. I did something dumb while exploring my new phone and deleted the number for my voice mail. I tried to fix it using the instructions on the website, but failed horribly, so I called in. The guy I got was just awful, telling me he couldn't give the information, and that I would need a new SIM card. I cursed and hung up. In desperation, I tried their “help chat” feature. This? This was amazingly good. I got connected, explained the problem, and in 5 minutes had everything working the way it was supposed to. Kudos to that person too. Overall, I hope I never have to speak with anyone there ever again, and so far, so good. And seriously, that monthly bill is so nice.


In conclusion, on the FACE Rating System, Straight Talk Wireless gets a tentative two smiley faces. I love the price and the quality of the phone/data service. I am not so crazy about the customer service experience, but I don’t feel I will have to USE those options much or ever, so it should be fine. For me, this was a great choice since I’m pretty tech savvy enough to know how to slap a SIM card in a phone, and pick and purchase my own phone without issue. For anyone with heavy data usage OR a need to have excellent customer service available frequently, you might be better served elsewhere, but for everyone else I recommend trying it out. Bonus, it’s not a monthly contract so if you hate it, you can go elsewhere without any problems!

Kotas Reviews The Nexus 5

In 2014, I finally got off my duff and joined the fantastical world of 2007 by purchasing a smartphone for myself and my lovely wife. In order to eliminate any possible barriers to support, we both got the same phone. AT&T has been our cell provider for over a decade, but they wanted to charge my my first born child for data service, so we kicked them to the curb and went with an MVNO (which I will review in a future post). What does all this mean? That we needed to buy an unlocked phone.

Holy Geez have you seen how much those things cost? The phone I originally lusted after, the Moto X by Motorola, retailed for $600 unlocked at the time of my purchase. What was a cost-conscious-yet-tech-loving purchaser to to? After some cursory research (Read: “Hey Internet, what should I buy?”) I ultimately went with the Nexus 5, 32GB edition for $400. This is my review.

First Impressions

The box this came in is remarkably similar to the Nexus 7 (2013) box, which is honestly a pretty good sum up of everything about this phone in general. It comes with the phone itself, a wall charger and cable, and finally the SIM tray ejection tool, which is like a blunted pin with a large round handle.

The phone itself feels good in the hand, light but sturdy-feeling. The soft touch plastic on the back allows for a nice solid grip, and it fits the hand well with the slight curve of the back. The front of the phone is mostly taken up by the screen, and the bezel along the edge is very, very tiny. For $400, it looks good and feels good. It is also not too big for me. I was worried that the current trend of “BIGGER PHONES. ALWAYS.” that it would be oversized, but I could easily manipulate this with one hand, and I didn’t feel self conscious holding it up to my ear to use it as a phone.

After some transfer number shenanigans, I popped a fresh micro-SIM card in, and the phone sprang to life. My very first impression of the device actually on? DAT SCREEN. Seriously, the screen is absolutely beautiful. But, we all know that first impressions are not often a good indicator of overall happiness. Let’s explore further!

Initial Setup

The initial setup is the standard guided process for Google’s Nexus 7, but with a few “phone centric” bits. It still really wants a wi-fi network, though since I have two-factor authentication it went a little weird, as I couldn’t see the text I got to input the code at first. All in all, it mostly just worked.


The big to-do about the Nexus 5 is that it comes with Android 4.4 a.k.a. KitKat. What can I say about KitKat? I’ll tell you. I kind of love it. Since I’ve already sold my soul to Google I turned on Google Now and all that crap and you know what? it’s pretty neat to have my phone tell me how long my commute will be in the morning...even if it tells me 2 hours earlier than I need or my personal favorite, 2 hours LATER. There are 2 initial home screens, with a 3rd added with Google Now. However, there are actually “unlimited (-ish)” screens available if you want them, created by dragging icons past your last screen. I generally only use 2 or so screens, so this isn’t a big deal for me, but it is a nice feature.

The speed of this phone is evident in the general usage cases. Screen transitions are smooth and crisp, and apps open very, very quickly (with a few exceptions for apps that have to call back to a server). Things just work, and that is very important in a phone. Not all is 100% rosy though. The new dialer app is pretty, and once you get used to it it is very nice, but getting to a straight numberpad involves an extra step that can throw people off. The alarm app is also buried in a “clock” app that isn’t on the home screen, and it uses a radial menu for time selection instead of punching the time into a number bad. This seems very “different for the sake of different” but it is perfectly usable.

Widgets are no longer selected from the “all apps” screen, but instead by “tap and hold” on a home page, and then selecting the widget option from the screen. You can also set the wallpaper here, though there aren’t a lot of good stock options. Lucky for me, I like the default one. It doesn’t take too long to get used to, but it is different from earlier versions.

The much touted voice commands for Google Now are mostly a novelty, though I’ve had great success with using them to set ad-hoc alarms and for calling people w/o having to tap. It’s not 100% perfect, of course. Background noise can make it too sensitive or not sensitive enough, but for the most part? Voice searching and doing minor things works pretty well. Google’s voice recognition has really come a long way. If you don’t have a source of data though, the accuracy drops.


All the usual Google Apps are there, which I would expect given that this phone is touted as the “pure Android/Google experience”. Not having to delete/move/ignore some sort of dumb reskinning for things was a huge factor in my decision to purchase a Nexus device, and it was nice to have my phone set up the way I wanted to with little effort. Special notice goes out to the Google Keyboard, which has incorporated a “swype-esque” gesture typing and speech-to-text modes that have come in handy on several occasions. The apps are pretty good is what I’m saying...with one exception.

The camera app is kind of bleah. Oh, it takes pictures well enough, but making any sort of adjustment to things is a hefty chore. It LOOKS kind of slick, but it isn’t very usable. I am used to being able to “touch hover” over an item to see what it is, since I am not a huge photography person. This app pretty much throws all that into the garbage so it’s a “guess and hope” sort of affair until you memorize all the symbols. I’ve accidentally turned on or off (or set to some crazy value) a number of options when I was simply trying to figure out what that option was. My solution? Turn on HDR+ and stop trying to change things. Sure, I give up a lot of control over my pictures, but it’s worth the lack of hassle. This should not be the case with a camera app.


This thing is packed with mostly top-tier hardware and it really shows. The standout winner? The screen. It is simply gorgeous and everything on it is clear and sharp. The internals back it up nicely with no stutter, skips, or other problems outside of the occasional app problem (that is usually the app’s fault, not the hardware). It is just a joy to use. The wi-fi connectivity is very good, and I can even get a bar of wireless from several feet outside my house. There is only one speaker for media (calls have a much tinier speaker near the top of the phone) but it is surprisingly loud. Calls sound excellent, and my mother reports a lot less crackle and static during our phone conversations.

The camera hardware is pretty solid, though it lives in the “mid-range” area of phone cameras. The software doesn't really take advantage of the thing, but the HDR+ mode is good at keeping things looking decent. Am I going to take an award-winning shot with it? Doubtful, but the best camera is the one you have with you right?

For some, a big downside is the lack of an SD card slot. That’s right, there isn’t anything resembling user-upgradable storage on this thing. This is one reason why I spent the extra $50 for the 32GB edition, rather than the 16GB edition. I don’t have a lot of music or anything, but I am taking a lot more pictures these days. I don’t expect to run out of space any time soon, but it’s nice to have it there if I want it.

Battery life is, again, in the mid-range for this class of phone. I’ve gotten a full 36 hours out of it in one go, but that was with minimal usage. With light browsing, notifications, and so forth, it generally gets down to 50% charged over the course of a typical day. If I’m playing a lot of media (podcasts are a new thing, and I enjoy them), keeping the screen on, or making a lot of phone calls the battery drains much quicker, but I still get about 14-16 hours out of it before it yells at me. I get a day’s work out of it no problem, but more than that and I’m pushing it. I did buy a battery backup device just in case.


How did I ever live without a smart phone? Seriously, why did I not buy one of these years ago? I’m pretty darn happy with the Nexus 5 as a phone and as a networked device. The ability to pull out the phone and check email, in the middle of a state park or at a restaurant or wherever is truly a life-changing experience, however simple it may seem. This phone does everything I want it to do, albeit imperfectly in a few cases. For the price though? It is a bargain. $400 gets you a lot of phone these days, especially with the recent price drop of the Moto X, but the pure Google Experience (and robust history of quick software updates) make the Nexus 5 an excellent choice if you are looking for an Android phone. On the FACE Rating System I give this phone 3 smiley faces. It would have gotten 4, but the camera app is kind of “bleah” and the battery life could be better. Truly an excellent piece of hardware.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Kotas Reviews the District 12 Chocolate Bar

Welcome to Day 6 of the Hunger Reviews! Today we wrap up our sojourn into the freakish world of designer candy movie tie-ins with the final bar I was able to get my hands on. Will it tantalize? Will it enrapture? Will it be fucking boring as shit instead? Let's find out!

Reuse of mix-ins? FOR SHAME WILD OPHELIA!

Well, the label is on par with almost all of the other labels, so I can't really complain too much. This is Yet Another Salted Chocolate Bar and it shows nothing like the creativity shown in the last chocolate bar I tried. Salt and Milk Chocolate eh? Well, they failed miserably the last time they tried to salt chocolate, let's find out if this will be pleasure or poison.

My money is on poison.

The bar is still that same, stupid, boring pattern with not a single outstanding thing to show that this is different from any other chocolate bar. It smells of milk chocolate and...that's pretty much it. Guess what? It tastes like milk chocolate and that's pretty much it. If the salt adds anything to this bar, I certainly couldn't tell. The texture was at least smooth and not gritty like the other salted chocolate bar, so it has that going for it. This might very well be the single most boring piece of fancy chocolate I've ever consumed. It is certainly not worth $5, and I'm not even sure it was worth the $2.50 I paid for it, but it IS a step above Ye Olde Hershey's. 

On the FACE Rating System, this bar gets 0 faces on sheer dullness. I can't hate it, because there are no outstanding features to hate, but I can't like it for the same reason. You'd be better off just buying one of those giant Cadbury bars and actually enjoying yourself. 

So ends the Hunger Reviews with 6 bars competing and only 2 showing anything like promise. The average FACE Rating for all of these is 0 faces, and I cannot recommend people bother picking them up, at least at their full price. You might hit up the District 5 and District 10 bars for reasonably tasty and/or interesting choices, but the others? Meh to AUUUUUUGH.