Up-and-Down Grade

I bet my size 14 would get great reception

I bet my size 14 would get great reception

I’ve had smartphones for quite some time, going all the way back to my T-Mobile Dash running Windows Mobile 6.0.  From that ‘charming’ system I moved to Android with a Samsung Moment on Sprint, and am currently using a Motorola Photon, also on Sprint.  My contract is coming up in a few months, and instead of contemplating which phone I’m going to upgrade to next, I am actually considering downgrading to a not-so-smartphone.

Why?  Three reasons:

First, like many other folks, I’m trying to cut back on expenses, and the $80 a month I currently pay for my cellphone plan (and that’s with an employee discount) is a big one that I would love to reduce. I could easily get a month-to-month talk-and-text plan from Virgin Mobile that would cost half what I’m paying now while keeping me on Sprint’s network, which has been pretty good for me overall.

Second, I’m starting to wonder if Android phones have a limited shelf life: my Samsung Moment started crapping out a few months before the end of the two year contract that I purchased it under and the pattern appears to be repeating itself with my Motorola Photon.  I think I’m done with Android at this point, and while I could get an iPhone or maybe even a Windows phone, I’m not sure I want to.  I’ve never had the latest cell phone so being a step or two behind the times isn’t a big deal to me.

Thirdly, ever since I purchased my iPad mini back in December, I have been using my phone less and less for internet stuff.  Thanks to the built-in 4G LTE modem and bigger screen I find myself reaching for it whenever I need to check my social networks or need to Google something.  While it costs $20 for 1GB of data per month, that has been more than enough for me given my limited use of video and since WiFi is more pervasive now.

While this isn’t the first time I’ve thought about downgrading to a not-so-smart phone, having the iPad this time around would make living without one much easier.  Who knows, maybe I’ll get a flip phone, or a phone with a physical keyboard…or maybe even one with a pull-out antenna! 😀


Pre-Paid, or Pre-Pain?

As my cell phone contract nears its end, I find myself metaphorically drooling over the thought of getting a new phone.  Well, okay, so maybe I’m doing a little bit of real-life drooling, too.  While the Samsung Moment I got from Sprint has been fairly reliable these past two years, it would be nice to get something new, and yes, there is some gadget-lust feeding that desire to upgrade as well.

While my desire to keep up with the virtual Joneses is strong, it is tempered by my desire to be more responsible with my finances.  I recently consolidated all my debts and am working on boosting my savings, which, of course, means cutting back on expenses.  I currently pay just under eighty bucks a month for my cell phone plan.  That isn’t bad, but it would be nice if I could get that number to drop.  I recently learned that I can an employee discount through my job.  Even then, I think I can shave even more off my cell phone bill by going with a pre-paid provider.  Doing so will come with a few caveats, but before I go over them, I should mention that I had pre-paid cell service from T-Mobile way back when because money was tight.  It was pretty good, but it was quite some time before I had a smartphone.  Now on to the issues:

The biggest one has to do with the carriers themselves.  While some of them piggyback off of the big boys (for example, Virgin Mobile uses Sprint’s network) and some are run by the big boys (Verizon and AT&T each have their own pre-paid services) others have their own networks that are not as robust as the ones the “big boys” have.  This probably won’t be a big deal when I’m at home in San Antonio, but once I go to other cities for conferences or events things just might not work!

Related to this issue are the phones that are offered by pre-paid providers.  They aren’t nearly quite as nice as the new ones the major providers carry.  From what I have seen in my research, some of them are just downright awful, as they are often made by second- and third-tier manufacturers.  Adding to this is the fact that you have to pay the full cost of a pre-paid phone up front.  That is one of the reasons that pre-paid service is less expensive, those carriers don’t subsidize the cost of their phones.  This isn’t quite as big a deal as it sounds, because the phones that I can get for free from the big boys are about as lousy as the one I have now.  If I want something better, I’m going to have to fork out some cash up front either way.

Another reason the ‘lousy phone’ thing may not be an issue is the fact that I just don’t do a whole lot with my smartphone.  For all the “OMG THOUSANDS OF APPS” available on Android, I barely have any apps installed and use less than ten on a regular basis.  Non-smartphones have gotten smarter these days, so I might be able to ditch a smartphone completely and go with a much cheaper non-smartphone plan.  If I can find a messaging phone that does Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail, that would be just about perfect.  The obvious downside is that I would probably be very limited to what I could install on that not-so-smartphone.

One final consideration is the porting of my current phone number.  I’ve had the same phone number for a few years now and have gotten pretty attached to it, so I’m a little jittery about moving to a new provider.  I get even jitterier (yes it’s a word, BTW) when I consider that a lower-cost operation may not have all of those nice people answering phones for them in customer service.  I’ve actually received good customer service the few times I’ve had to call Sprint, and shudder at the thought of talking to who knows who from who-knows-where.  That isn’t an “I hate Indian call center” thing, either.  In my AT&T debacle from earlier this year, I was actually glad to get a polite person with an accent instead of all the home-grown jerkasses I had been dealing with up to that point.  Yeah, the ‘USA-based support’ they were so proudly trumpeting was that bad.

While the thought of getting a shiny new phone with a nice big screen, new operating system and fast CPU is a pleasant one, the thought of being caught without enough money in the event of an emergency is enough to make me think over the amount of cash I’m currently shelling out for my phone service.  On the other hand, the service I have been getting has been pretty good, even in the boonies of my hometown and I’m not sure that going with someone different for the sake of saving a few bucks is the best plan in the world.  My bill should be dropping thanks to the employee discount, so I’m wondering if perhaps going pre-paid isn’t worth the trouble when things are working well as it is.

And yeah, those shiny new phones in the Sprint Store are looking pretty nice!


Will Pay For Broadband

Evening of March 1, 2011

I’m a computer nerd, and as such, I need an always-on internet connection so I can play my Xbox 360 with my friends, update this blog, and maybe even socialize with other carbon-based lifeforms on Facebook and Twitter.  Being in a bit of a cash crunch these past few months had forced me to give up the sweet sweet nectar of broadband, and now that my cashflow is positive again, I decided to get back “on the grid.”

Sadly, I, and most other folks in San Antonio are stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to high-speed internet service.  On one side is Time Warner Cable.  Their RoadRunner service is awesomesauce, but they have a bad habit of sucking folks in with a low promotional rate and then frakking them over once the promo is up.  On the other side is AT&T. Maw Bell has lower overall prices with a little bit less of the promo baloney, but the technological limitations of DSL make it slower than cable.

If you’re lucky you might be able to get Uverse from AT&T, or high speed from Grande Communications.  If you’re really lucky Verizon is in your neighborhood with some freaky-fast FIOS.

Since cutting the cord, I’d been making do with my Sprint Overdrive. It works fine, but it just wasn’t meant to be always-on.  Also, having to MacGuyver my Xbox 360 to go online using my Overdrive, my laptop and a crossover cable was a pain in the neck whenever I needed to review Xbox Live games or just wanted to check out game demos.  A recent 4G outage made this panda less than happy with Sprint, so I figured it was time to once again taste the ambrosia that is wired broadband.

I decided to go with AT&T because they were less expensive, and cutting costs is a priority right now.  They were offering what appeared to be a pretty good deal on their website, and so I decided to sign up for their best plan which was $25 a month.  Groovy pants.  I still had my old DSL modem, so I opted for the self-install.

Now, the way it worked last time (a few years ago) was that The Telephone Man did his thing outside on some unknown day and all I had to do was plug in my modem, adjust some settings, and BAM, internets!  Thus, already knowing what was supposed to happen, I eagerly dug out my modem and eagerly waited for March 1st to come.  I went to work that morning and looked forward to being ‘on the grid’ once again.

My job is answering phones so I can’t really answer my cell. I checked my voicemail during lunch and two conflicting messages there: one proclaiming my DSL installed and providing me with instructions on how to set up my modem, and a second from what appeared to be an AT&T tech that was coming to my house.  I was confused, because I didn’t think anyone was coming.  More importantly, I was not TOLD anyone was coming.  I figured the tech guy would do whatever it was he needed to do outside and all would be well.

I arrived home after work foaming at the mouth to set up my new connection.  I read the instructions that the earlier phone message directed me to and got stuck at a certain point.  The “DSL” light on my phone never turned green; instead it flashed red as I wondered what was going on.

After about a half hour of puttering around with wires and turning the modem on and off multiple times, I decided to bite the bullet and call the AT&T support line.  This had happened the last time I did a self-install, and I had been very impressed with the guys on the other side of the line before.

AT&T’s automated system is apparently based on the phone number being associated with the account, so my first call went around in circle or two before I hung up and tried again.  Note to whoever developed these stupid “talk to me” IVRs: THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH PUSHING BUTTONS.  BUTTONS WORK JUST FINE.  Having to wait for the stupid computer to figure out what I had just said only served to aggrivate me more, so I hung up, called back and just said “Operator.”

I was not inspired by what I got when the phone jockey on the other end picked up.  I could easily hear the phone reps talking very loudly to each other, and the person that picked up didn’t seem to be the sharpest knife in the drawer either.  I had a futile conversation with him as I tried to explain that this was supposed to be a self install and I didn’t know someone was supposed to be coming to my apartment.  He chose to ignore that important piece of info and told me that “if the light doesn’t turn green by tomorrow morning, call us back so we can reschedule.”  Yeah, and you’ll be off your shift by then, jerkass.

Despite being pretty bent out of shape, I didn’t feel like arguing with the guy, so I hung up.  It says something about the level of service I received that I wished I had gotten someone in India.  Sure, those folks can be hard to understand at times, but at least they’re usually polite.  The call wouldn’t bother me so much but I’ve done phone work myself (hell, I’m doing it now) so I know how not to treat customers.

I shot off a pretty angry tweet, and then had dinner and did some other things.  I figured I’d call back in the morning in the hope of getting someone that had two brain cells in their head to rub together.  Much to my surprise, I discovered later in the evening that an AT&T rep had seen my tweet and was asking if he could help:


I was genuinely shocked, because that was the last thing I was honestly expecting.  Would the power of social media succeed where traditional customer service had failed?  We shall see!


RANDOM REVIEW: Sprint Overdrive / Clear Spot 4G+

Overdrive next to a deck of playing cards

Well, as 'standard' a deck as I could find anyway...

UPDATE: My Overdrive bit the dust almost a year after this review was written, read the update here.

Smartphones may be smart and all, but in my opinion there is no substitute for having an actual computer when I need to do things on the Web.  In addition to being a huge nerd, I have two websites to take care of ( and this one) and so a smartphone doesn’t always cut it.  I like to have a full-sized keyboard and screen for when things need to Get Done.

Back when I was with T-Mobile, I used the built-in tethering that came included on my T-Mobile Dash, which ran Windows Mobile.  I thought it was odd that it wasn’t disabled, but once I started to use it, I found out why.  Tethering on 2G was dirt slow. It did work, though, and I could check my e-mail and do some very light browsing even while in the technological black hole that is my hometown of Odem, Texas.

I eventually ended up bidding T-Mobile and Windows Mobile a not-so-fond farewell and signed on with Sprint, getting a spiffy new Samsung Moment in the process.  I found an app to tether with, but it was limited and I wanted a less hacker-y solution.  A few months later, I looked into what Sprint had to offer and had two options: I could get a USB stick for my laptop for free or an Overdrive 3G/4G Mobile Hotspot for fifty dollars, both coming with the usual 2-year contract yadda yadda.  FYI, Clear Wireless also sells this device as the Clear Spot 4G+ but its ‘official’ name is the Sierra Wireless AirCard W801.

I went with the Overdrive because I was starting to go to conventions, and my experience with hotel Wi-Fi up to that point was that it was either: slow because of all the convention attendees, not there at all, or really expensive.  Fifty dollars didn’t seem like too high a price to pay for the convenience of having WiFi and the attached data plan was going to cost the same either way.  I thought it would be handy to have a connection that I could share when on the road.

The Overdrive isn’t too big, it is just a little bit wider than a standard deck of playing cards (see pic above).  There isn’t much to it: on its top are a display and the power button.  The front has a micro-USB charge port and a micro-SD card reader.  The back has a switch for enabling or muting the sound, and that’s it.  I was also hoping for a little blinking red light on top, but oh well.

Holding down the power button for a few seconds starts up the Overdrive.  After taking about a minute to boot, it attempts to connect to a network.  If I may digress for a moment: I have griped about boot times in portable devices in the past, but I’m just going to have to let it slide from here on out, because nearly every portable device short of a Nintendo DS is going to take some time to boot.  Its just something I’m going to have to live with from here on out.  Oh well.

Once it has connected to a network, the Overdrive’s display will show its SSID and WiFi password.  Once you connect to it using a computer and type ‘overdrive’ into a browser you will be taken to the device’s setup page.  There you can specify an admin password, select a WiFi security type and change the Overdrive’s SSID and password to something more memorable.  Once you have that done you are ready to go, the Overdrive’s ID and password is displayed on its screen and up to five Wi-Fi devices can be connected to it at a time. results

Broadband on the road, baby!

The Overdrive’s 4G connection works great. I have seen it go as high as six megabits/sec with a good signal, the results at right were with a 60% signal according to the Overdrive’s setup page.  While that is peanuts compared to a cable connection, for a portable connection it is great.  The Overdrive has the ability to fallback to a 3G connection if 4G is not available.  It does get a little squirrely on occasion, but not any more so than any other wireless device I’ve owned.

I have had my Overdrive for about six months so far, and I have been very happy with it.  I do have one complaint that I will address in a few paragraphs, though.  As Odem does not have 4G right now (and to be frank, I’m not holding my breath) the Overdrive’s ability to use 3G is a life-saver when visiting my parents.  I have used it at a few Texas conventions and for a few days in Los Angeles, and it has exceeded my expectations.

You can leave the Overdrive’s settings as is or use the admin password to adjust its settings.  Among other things, you can choose to not display the WiFi password on the screen, or even set the WiFi to auto-disable when it is plugged into your computer’s USB port if you don’t feel like sharing.  The Overdrive’s webpage also shows the actual signal strength as a percentage, which comes in handy when I am looking for a ‘sweet spot’ to place it.

As with many wireless devices, the fly in the Overdrive’s ointment is its battery life.  At about three hours, it isn’t terrible, but it is short enough that it will run out of power before most laptops.  It can be charged via a computer using the included USB cable, but I highly recommend packing the charger in your laptop bag.

On a technical level, the Overdrive works great: you push the button, it connects to the cellular network, and then you and up to four friends can have Internet just about anywhere you go.  While the battery life could be better, it isn’t bad enough to be a deal-breaker, but it is something to be aware of.  Another negative is that the service does not come cheap.  Clear and Sprint are currently charging about sixty dollars a month for the service which consists of unlimited 4G and 5GB of 3G data.  If you don’t mind paying for the convenience, though, you might never find yourself “off the grid” again thanks to the Overdrive!

NOTE: The author received no compensation for this review.