Oooh…shiny!

By | Wednesday, February 22, 2017 at 7:59 pm

Wow, really enjoying the new phones and services so far on Verizon!  Who knew we’d ever be able to get voicemails in TEXT format and even receive faxes on our regular cell phone numbers!?!  I feel like I’ve been missing out.  Not that I use faxing a lot, but we use it at work, and I sometimes need it for personal business, so maybe it’ll come in handy.  Sure would have come in handy a few years back when I had my small business.  It’s interesting how it works:  When someone sends a fax to your cell phone number (I didn’t believe this would even work until I tried it myself) you get a voicemail that tells you there’s a fax for you.  The voicemail system gives you the option of immediately printing the fax if you’re checking your voicemail from a fax machine, or you can enter an “alternate destination”, which can be the number of ANY fax machine.  So I entered the number the fax machine I was near and in comes the fax!  Why I, of all people, am surprised by this, I don’t know.  I guess I just never conceived of a solution like this.  Could be pretty handy.  Now if it could just take that one extra step of converting that fax to a PDF and actually placing it ON my phone, now THAT would blow my mind.

Verizon also just started their “Unlimited” plan at the same time I was in the middle of switching to them.  I looked at the details though–particularly how they throttle down your speed after you hit so many Gigs of usage, and also the price bump of $40 more than their highest non-Unlimited plan (which is what we have) for our 3 lines.  I could see it being pretty popular, especially for families, but I don’t think we’ll have any problems with the 8GB+2GB+2GB+2GB we get per month (2GB bonus per line for life) without the throttling.  With that, and the unlimited full-sized photo and video storage capacity for as long as we keep using our Google Pixels, we’ll stay put for now.

Cellular Changes

By | Friday, February 17, 2017 at 7:31 pm

We recently made some major cellular changes–both with our smartphones and with our cellular provider.  Over the past few years we’ve been paying over $300/month for our 3 phones, which pretty much comes to about $100 per phone.  This is with US Cellular (herein referred to as USC).  We’ve been with them since I can remember–well over 10 years for sure.  I’ve had them since before my dad passed away in 2008, and I can remember having them as early as 2005 (formerly known as Cingular) when my dad got a big “bag phone” for his van.  I believe he went with Cingular because my cousin worked for them and hooked him up with service and a plan.

So, figuring $300+ per month might be a bit much, in January I started looking at options.  This was our situation: We had 3 phones on a family plan sharing 12GB of data per month.  Two of the phones were paid for, the third is fairly new, so we were still making payments on our bill for that one.  So I can understand our bill being slightly higher than normal with an added payment for one phone.  Our issues on this plan: We have struggled several months previously with trying to stay under 12GB of data, but that was basically because Kevin didn’t fully understand what does and doesn’t use cellular data, and how to avoid using it all.  After a few months of close calls and one month of overage we got that under control and he’s been good ever since.  Since then we all started using “3G Watchdog Pro” on all of our phones to set clear limits and monitor our usage closely.  We also have a problem with USC when I’m in Illinois.  And that’s often, for me–I work there.  And I walk there, every weekday, during lunch, and like to play Ingress as I walk.  This only uses a small amount of data, but it’s pretty critical when you’re limited to only 100MB of roaming data per month before overage charges start.  I think this very low limit might have changed at some point in the past year or two though, now that I look into it more, but roughly a couple years ago I hit that roaming limit at least twice.  I was billed for it the first time, called support and explained my situation, and they reversed the charges.  The second time I had to pay the extra changes.  USC’s coverage is horrible in Illinois, even when roaming.  Those commercials that boldly shout that they have coverage “Out here…In the middle of anywhere!”… Total BS, and they now make me angry every time I see one.

Another issue we had was space…the final frontier…seriously though, 16GB or even 32GB today is just not enough.  Apps are aplenty, and many require room for files, whether it’s for their media, files, or other data they like to store, and you also always need space for apps to “cache” data, download music and movies, TV shows, etc., etc.  So all three of us would find ourselves flushing our cache files in Android (did I mention we’re all dedicated Android fanboys?), and trying to find and cleanup anything we can on our phones just to find enough space to install a new update or make our phones start running smoother.

So, with all those concerns I started hunting for options.  After a couple weeks of looking in my spare time, my options didn’t look promising.  With all of the carriers, a 32GB Android phone (Samsung Galaxy S7) seemed like the best choice, which is sad.  Nevermind the Samsung bloatware, the 32GB just isn’t enough.  Sure, you can add a 256GB SD card, and some people even say you can install apps to the SD card (by jumping through some hoops).  Others, however, say that Samsung blocks the ability to install apps to the SD card on the S7 for some reason.  Either way it sounded like a PITA, so kept looking.  I found that there’s an Apple phone with enough memory, but that’s not an option for me.  At all.  Then last week I found that Verizon and Google offer a 128GB Google Pixel phone, which is running Nougat (Android 7–the latest version of Android), so I started looking at carriers and plans.  I finally settled on Verizon and a plan, then ran the numbers–An 8GB/month shared plan which adds 2GB per phone on the plan, so that would be 14GB per month, for $70 for the plan and $20 per month per phone.  That’s a total of $130 per month for 3 new phones, not including the cost of the phones themselves.  Nice!  So then I looked at possibly financing the 3 phones on my bill as well, which came out to about $32 per phone per month.  Added together with the monthly phone bill the total monthly payment comes to around $226… still at least $75 less that what we were current paying!  Add in all the miscellaneous fees and taxes each month as well as full insurance coverage for each phone, and we end up at around $250-$260 per month.  That sounded awesome, so after discussing it with The Warden, we decided it was a go.  Even at $260 per month, it’s still over $40 cheaper than USC, and we’re paying for three phones.  After paying them off–hopefully sooner than the 2 years–our monthly bill will even drop about $96 per month!

An awesome salesman at Verizon named “Jeff” helped me every step of the way with getting this done.  He even provided his direct cell phone #, which I used several times when we had a few snags and questions, and he made it quite an easy and stress-free experience.  All three of us are now on 128GB Google Pixels now, and enjoying them very much.

The first evening, as I started setting up the new phones, I struggled a bit with the new Pixel Launcher, then decided it wasn’t worth it, and went once again, with good old Nova Prime, which has been our launcher of choice for years, and has spanned just about every phone we’ve had.  With that in place, and knowing the interface so well, things progressed much faster from then on.  The Pixel comes with a transfer cable so you can connect it directly to your old phone during the setup process, then it transfers everything–your apps, contacts, and all data–from your old phone and onto the new one!  My 64GB Galaxy S6 was almost full, and it took the most time to transfer…9 minutes!  I was expecting hours!  Granted, some apps still downloaded from the app store, for some reason, but I was still quite impressed.  Sandy and Kevin’s phones were much easier to do, since they use far fewer apps than I do.

The porting of our existing numbers to the new phones was also quite easy, once I got through a snag with Verizon’s website.  As it turns out, you have to have an account already setup on Verizon’s website in order to work with Verizon support.  I guess this is validation that you’re a legitimate customer of theirs.  I hadn’t done that yet, due to issues I had earlier on in the process, which locked my Verizon account before it was even fully setup!  I apparently provided Verizon (Jeff) with a PIN for my account, which was to be used for just this purpose, and totally forgot about it.  As a result, support couldn’t verify me, and asked if I could go to a Verizon store with a valid photo ID to verify my identity, then they could proceed with the porting of our phone numbers to the new phones.  They apologized quite a bit, but I totally understood, and it was my fault I didn’t remember the PIN.  I recalled afterword, once the Verizon store gave me the PIN # I set, that I did give Jeff this PIN # during the ordering process.  At this point the store also did the porting of the three numbers for me with ease, and it was done.  You simply provide them with your account # with your old provider along with your PIN for THAT carrier, and that’s it.  They said it can take up to 4 hours to fully process, then you’ll get a text message on your phone telling you it’s almost done, and you just restart your phone to complete the process.  It took much less than that for us, under two hours, and the first phone–mine, go figure–only took minutes… the text message was there by the time I got from the Verizon store to my house.

More pluses for Verizon:  I’m noticing that Verizon’s website is many times better than US Cellular’s… It’s a lot faster, easier to navigate, and so far it already has less glitches with logins and providing detailed account information I need.  Very nice!  There’s even a handy graphical data widget included with the “My Verizon” app that shows me how much data I have left for the month… Awesome!  And that’s another big thing–APPS… The “bloatware” (a.k.a. crapware) I have always seen come with our cell phones when we first get them–the stuff that eats up a big chunk of that precious little storage space they usually have–is no more!!  There were 3 little apps from Verizon installed–the others were all Google’s suite of apps, and ALL of them are completely uninstallable!  That was a shocker.  Sure, now that we have plenty of space on our phones, NOW we get the benefit of not having any uninstallable, permanent bloatware to have to deal with… Better late than never I guess!  That, and the fact that Verizon seems to have full coverage everywhere I go so far–even in Illinois–are big pluses in my book!  I can even play Ingress or PoGo in Illinois freely now, without worrying about getting hit with overage fees!

So that’s where we’re at right now, enjoying our new phones along with the extra breathing room 128GB gives us.  Verizon also threw in an extra 6GB of “rollover” minutes for our first month too, I just found out, which is really nice, since I have had to use a bunch of extra data I normally wouldn’t use just setting things up again.  I did most of this over Wifi, just to be safe on data usage, but it’s nice to know we have some extra room to start out with anyway.  The new phones are working great, and we’ve even noticed much clearer-sounding conversations when we talk to people on the new phones.  How much of this is the new phones themselves and how much is Verizon we’re not exactly sure, but it’s much better, and that’s just a good thing.  So that’s about it for now.  When and if we have any issues, I’m sure I’ll bitch about it here, so you’ll know.  Stay tuned.

Good Christmas? I’m hip!

By | Tuesday, December 27, 2016 at 10:12 am

Since midday Thursday I had been in severe pain. It has something to do with my right hip or something in that general area. I had minor problems before this with might right leg going a little numb whenever I sat in my recliner for an extended period of time. To alleviate it, I would sit up or get up and move around, then the feeling would come back and I’d be fine again. No real pain, just a numbness–just an inconvenience seemingly just to keep me active and not being lazy for too long, I figured.

But Thursday, the day before my nice 4-day holiday weekend, I tried to walk for lunch. I made it about 1/4 mile when the pain started hitting me hard, and it was in BOTH hips this time. I went back to work the rest of the afternoon, and it started getting worse and worse, and spreading. By the time I got home from work, I ached all over. It was like I was getting the flu, except the pain in my hips was far greater than the other aching I had all over. I tried to lay down for awhile, but it was impossible to get comfortable, as each hip felt worse when I laid on either side or moved in the slightest.

Kevin had a doctor’s appointment the next morning and we had planned to go see Rogue One after that, but I wasn’t so sure at that point whether any of that was going to happen, the way I was feeling. I assured him that night, when he got home from work, that I’d try my best. We were both really looking forward to seeing the movie, the doctor not so much.

I took some Tylenol that night and actually managed to get a decent amount of sleep, though it was a bit rough. By morning I felt a little better. Still a lot of pain, but most of the aching was gone, then left hip felt fine again, but the right now still throbbed and was painful to stand on and just about the same to recline in my chair at home. I was kind of stuck with not being able to get comfortable at all. Very frustrating. It was a very rough time for several hours, but eventually it subsided after a couple more Tylenols and I was able to get some sleep.

The next morning was better, thank goodness, and I was shocked to be able to walking pretty good with only a little pain in the right hip & leg. The flu symptoms seemed to have almost completely disappeared. I woke up sweaty, so if it was a touch of the flu, maybe I was able to sweat it out overnight. So I figured at this point we were still on for the movie and Kevin’s doctor appointment. These went fine, and I was even a little surprised I was able to sit through the entire movie, stay awake, and enjoy myself! Being a huge Star Wars fan, I thought the movie was great!

During Kevin’s doctor appointment (we have the same doctor) the doctor asked how I was doing, so I explained my symptoms. I said I had pain and aching in my leg, but hadn’t mentioned which one. He asked “Is it your RIGHT leg?” and I said yes. How he knew which leg, I have no idea, but I should have asked. He said to let him know when I’d like to come in for an appointment myself, and he’ll probably have to schedule an MRI to see what’s going on.

The following day was Christmas Eve, and we spent most of the afternoon and evening at Matt & Anna’s. We had a good time and great food, and everything was very nice. The next day, Christmas, we spent at home, just Kevin, Sandy and I, opening presents and relaxing, then had a nice Christmas dinner that Sandy spent most of the day preparing. All in all, everything turned out very nice.

Sometime on Monday, December 26th, as I sat in my recliner with the pain and numbness coming and going a bit, I realized something. My WALLET was in my back right pocket–as it always has been since I was a teenager–and this hurt along with the rest of my right thigh and leg. Suddenly that light buld went on over my head and I hit the Interwebs in a flash. Sure enough, it’s a thing. Sciatica. Look it up for yourself. Hip Pocket Syndrome.  Why didn’t my doctor mention that possibility? I don’t know.

So I’ve removed my wallet from my back pocket, and since carrying it in the front pocket doesn’t help much either, according to the articles, I’ll stick to other options from now on. I’m so used to making sure it’s there by feeling for it though, it’s going to take some time to adjust and not panic when I realize it’s not there any more. I’ll get used to it. Now I need to focus more on exercising that leg and stretching more to try to reverse the damage. Hopefully it’s not permanent. If all goes well, and the recurrences of very bad pain and almost inability to walk at all go away, I’ll know for sure that the wallet was definitely the issue, no doubt.  I know I shouldn’t self-diagnose, but if that was the issue and it gets better now, it’ll sure be a lot cheaper than an MRI and several more doctor visits–my copays are rediculous.

Cell phone quandary

By | Tuesday, December 20, 2016 at 12:15 pm

Ok, here comes another one of those cell phone & tech complaints. Matt’s been trying to get me to switch to his provider, which offers unlimited everything for cheap. It sounds like a great plan, and I could probably even get a good deal on new phones for Sandy, Kevin and I, but there are a few hurdles I’m very concerned about. For one thing, since Kevin recently upgraded to a Samsung Galaxy S6, he’s still making payments on it, and will be for another year or so.

Another issue is with switching to new phones. Sandy and Kevin probably wouldn’t mind, but I only see Android phones with up to 32GB of space on them. These days I need at least 64GB just so I have enough space for everything I use and a little breathing room for music and videos. I looked into the 32GB Samsung Galaxy S7, and Samsung disabled Android’s ability to install apps on the SD card for some reason, which limits app installs to just the internal 32GB space. I would have to root my phone in order to be able to do this, and that would void the warranty. Why they added this limitation, I have no idea, but it renders the phone useless to me, that’s for sure. They even added the SD card slot back to the S7 model too–the S6 doesn’t have an SD slot at all–so to me, it makes absolutely no sense. You give the users back the SD slot you took away in your previous model, then you cripple it by only disabling the ability for users to install apps on it. Brilliant.

Apple’s iPhone comes in 64GB and 128GB versions, sure, but don’t even get me started on why I won’t switch to an iPhone again. Those roots are buried deep…much too deep for me to even think about trying to dig up at this point in time. I’d rather wait for a decent Android phone to come out with more memory. I even have a few hundred dollars worth of apps I had purchased back when we were an iPod family with flip phones and each carried TWO devices around with us–one as a phone and one as a media device.

So here I sit with a higher-paying plan on a different provider with a 14GB-per-month data limit for 3 phones, two of which are 64GB Samsung Galaxy S6’s. Matt argues that if I have the unlimited data plan, maybe I wouldn’t need 64GB of space. I can stream music and video all I want, any time. That’s true. Maybe I’m old-school, but I still think it’s better–and much faster–to have as much data that you use as possible stored locally for the most efficient use of that data. This is where I’m at right now, not sure what to do next, if anything. We have managed to go over the 14GB limit a couple times, which became a big headache, but the first time the extra charges were forgiven after a lot of begging to support. These days I try to monitor our usage pretty closely so I can catch it before it gets out of hand each month. Of course, the time wasted on checking this once a day is probably worth something as well, so I need to keep that in mind as well, as I sit and wait for a better Android phone to hit the market.

Playstation Now

By | Wednesday, December 7, 2016 at 5:04 am

Sony offers a new service for PS4 users called “Playstation Now”.  What it does is offer a free “streaming” library of classic PS3 games that you can run on your PS4, much like how Hulu and Netflix offer streaming movies.  You pay a monthly fee for full access, and in return you get open access to their entire library of Playstation Now titles (currently over 400 games).

Kevin and I are trying it out right now with a free 1-week trial.  So far, it seems to be pretty decent.  Another big benefit is that with this membership you also get the ability to play all of these games on a PC.  This doesn’t come without it’s own little hitches though–your PC must meet the minimum specs to run the Playstation Now software and you must connect a PS4 controller to your PC, either with a USB cable or with an adapter available for an additional fee from Sony.

I’ve been on a 7-day free trial for several days now, and I’ve tried most features as well as dozens of games.  The pricing is currently $19.99/month or $44.99 for 3 months (about $15/month).  Somehow the games really are “streamed” too.  This means they’re not installed on your PS4 or your PC, the data they use is streamed over the internet while you’re playing the game.  There may be some temporary storage on your local drive, but this appears to be removed once you exit the game you’re playing.  I have played over 40 games from Playstation Now so far, and have noticed no decrease in the free space on my PS4.

Gladly, each time you play a new game from the service, an icon for it is added to your PS4, just like any other installed game icon.  This means that in order to play that game again, you only need to open that icon and don’t have to re-open the Playstation Now application each time (unlike Hulu or Netflix).  I love this feature!  This way, I only see my favorite games on my PS4 and I can organize them any way I wish.  I chose not to mix these titles with my installed and purchased PS4 games, so I created a folder called “Playstation Now” and I put all of those games in that folder (along with an icon for Playstation Now itself, for easy access when I need it).

Sony has been pretty active with adding new games to the service, and I believe 20+ games were added just this past month.  This is quite a few more than Playstation Plus, which is currently offering 2 games per month for PS4, 2 games for PS3, and 2 games for PS Vita–their handheld game system.

When you start a game from Playstation Now, it downloads what it needs from the server, so naturally it takes a little longer to start a game.  But with today’s internet speeds, and Sony’s Internet speed requirements for subscribers to actually be able to use the service, this isn’t very long at all.  At least not for me.  I must admit, however, that I do have the top speed tier with Time Warner Cable, so I’m not sure how much of a difference that would actually make compared to other Internet Service Providers.

I do have a few concerns about the service at this point though:

  1. What will Sony do when they run out of old PS3 games to offer?  And when will this happen?  I’m not too sure developers are still developing games for the PS3, and if they are, it has to be much less than when it was Sony’s top gaming platform.
  2. One time, when trying to start a Playstation Now game, I was told that all of the servers were busy and I had to wait in a queue.  The wait time was currently 1-2 minutes.  After that wait time, the game launched.  As the service gets more and more popular, will this happen more and more and will wait times get longer and longer just to play?  Or will Sony reliably add more and more servers as needed to keep up with the volume?
  3. Did Sony choose to not allow backward compatibility on the PS4 just so they could make more money with this subscription service?  X-Box One has backward compatibility, though not 100%, but they’re improving it more all the time.  We still have our old PS3, and plan to keep it, now that we know we can’t play any of our old games on our PS4–unless we keep paying for Playstation Now–which offers many of those games, but still not all of them, though it does include many other good games we hadn’t ever played on PS3.  I guess I’d have to add up the possible cost of the entire Playstation Now library (which continues to grow all the time) and compare that with the monthly fee times how long we’ll potentially keep our PS4 to see which would save us the most money in the long run.  That’s a tough one.

Life is but a stream…So it seems like you’re actually running your game on a PS3 server somewhere at Sony, and your PS4 (or your PC) is simply serving up the screens it’s fed.  If this is the case, I don’t know how it can keep up without severe lag, but somehow it does…most of the time.  Several times during gameplay I have noticed the announced warning icon appearing in the corner of the screen.  They explain this icon each time a game is started, explaining that this means your internet connection quality (speed) has decreased, and you should save any progress you’ve made, if possible, just in case you lose your connection to the server.  Nearly every time this appeared, it disappeared again a short time later and I noticed little to no effect.  There may have been some frame loss resulting in a little jittering in image quality, but nothing else.  In one case, however, I’ve lost connection completely and the game exited on me.  A few minutes later I was able to re-launch it and pretty much picked up where I left off pretty easily.  Basically, before you subscribe, you definitely want to go with the free 1-week trial and make sure your own internet connection is reliable enough to play the games without issue.

Another key question I had with the service was whether it worked just like purchased game licenses work on the PS4.  This is where you can purchase one license for a game, install it on two PS4’s in your household, and two players (the players set a “primary” users on each other’s PS4’s) and both play that game together or separately.  I was hoping that this functionality also applied to Playstation Now, and I wasn’t disappointed.  It worked fine for Kevin and I, and we both played a long session of “ibb and obb” together (a simple, yet very interesting mind-bending puzzle game–something, it turns out, Kevin is actually better at than me!).

But so far, overall, I’m impressed.  I had no idea at all that you could stream games this way, using virtually no local hard drive space.  I had assumed this service would end up maxing out my hard drive and I’d be constantly swapping games out and installing others just to play everything.  The price seems a bit steep, but since the entire library of 400+ titles and growing weekly or monthly, I think it beats to 2-titles-per-month that Playstation Plus gives you…even though Plus gives you genuine PS4 titles that you then own a license for and have to install locally (but on the other hand, you own that license to the game, even if you stop subscribing to Playstation Plus, unlike Playstation Now where you lose access to its entire library if you stop subscribing.  At $15 per month (paying 3 months at a time) it would work for both Kevin and I on one account, so we could split the cost.  That brings it down to just $7.50 per month for each of us, which isn’t bad, in my opinion.

That’s about it.  Now let me go play some Red Dead Redemption, which I see was just added to the PSNow library…