Thursday, April 22, 2010

How to Make Aspirin if You Are Lost in the Woods

One of the last videos I helped my friend Dimitri with before he moved to Massachusetts:

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A cellphone buyer's guide

I've worked in other fields beyond IT and desktop support. I have worked for Sprint in a customer service center in the past, and during my job hunt I am currently working for Verizon Wireless on a temporary basis, with a chance to be hired if I do well enough.

I know a little something about cellphones, Blackberries, and the things that owning a wireless communication device entails. I've seen a lot of people come into the store frustrated for a variety of reasons as of late. Without further ado, I present my Cellphone Buyer's Guide:

Matt's Guide to Cellphone Purchase, 2009 Holiday Edition

The holiday season is fast approaching, and with that comes gift buying for those that are into it. I've been gradually trying to wean myself and my family off the practice, mainly due to the unneeded stress that it can add to both mind and wallet when the best parts of holiday time are free (or the cost of a few groceries- I like making chili from scratch for family).

Buying a cellphone is often like Car Buying Light- it's not quite as stressful as purchasing an automobile, but it has far more potential to irritate than, say, buying a CD or a toaster. So here are some tips I have learned from watching the sales staff and customers that will hopefully make the experience fun, or at worst, not unpleasant:

1) Do your homework, or set aside plenty of time to catch up.

First, write down what you want to do with the device. Whether you want excellent sound quality, superior battery life, a shock/water/dust resistant body, real-time email/IM/internet updating, or just something that makes calls, start by going to the carrier or carriers you are interested in and see what they have to offer.

Most, if not all of the carrier websites have plenty of data about all the phones they currently sell and a comparison tool that will allow side-by-side feature listings. Look up the name of the phone plus the word "review" and read what people have to say- both regular consumers and experts.

Go over the features of the phones that look interesting. When you are down to 2-3 phones, it's time to head to a store to try them out and get a look. Ask plenty of questions- it's the salespeople's job to answer them, and if they are any good at selling they know that being helpful and courteous now will mean business later.

If you don't want to spend time doing research online, or if you have limited Internet access, plan some time to go to the store(s) and check out the phones. Verizon has live demo units in its corporate stores and I believe Sprint's corporate stores also have them. I can't speak for third-party resellers, which brings me to the next item:

2) Know who you're dealing with.

I am not going to slander third-party resellers- in many cases they do excellent work.

However, if any of them make claims that seem a little too good to be true, always find a corporate store or call the provider's customer service line to be sure. I've heard a couple of customers say "the guy at ____ store said I could" to which the rep would reply "They are a reseller- this is a corporate store. They might have options available to them that we don't, but unfortunately we aren't able to swap out a 6 month old phone because you don't like it anymore."

The short version- whichever location you pick, do what you can to continue doing business with that particular store for the life of your phone (i.e. until you decide to change to a different device or carrier). That way, if any problems arise, the options available to you will stay consistent.

3) Expect to spend at least 30-60 minutes minimum at the store.

Unless you are just picking up an accessory or making a bill payment, expect to spend at least half an hour in the store. The fastest phone upgrade I have seen took about 20 minutes to perform from start to finish, and that customer knew exactly what he wanted, knew he had an upgrade credit, and had no other changes to make to his account.

Don't be a jerk and come into the store ten minutes before close and say you're interested in an upgrade. The people in the store have lives and families too- they are already going to be working longer hours as it is. Sooner or later there comes a time when we all have to work longer than we were supposed to in a given day, and we really don't want to. Retail workers have these days more often than many of us, and triple that during Christmas season.

If you are just making a quick bill payment or car charger purchase, then it's no problem to come in ten minutes before close. If you are looking to buy two new phones, come back the next day, or schedule an appointment- that way no one feels rushed.

4) Ask questions before signing anything.

This should be common sense. I don't want to sound like I'm discouraging anyone from ever buying a cellphone- just know what that signature on the paper means. Here are a few questions to get you started:
  • What if I don't like the phone?
  • What if service where I live and/or work is awful?
  • Do I need to have anything (like internet access) blocked to ensure I avoid unneeded charges?
  • Does that smartphone require paying extra for a data plan?
  • What options do I have in case I break or lose my phone?
Very few people sign a car loan or lease agreement without knowing the terms of the document. Treat your wireless service the same way.

5) Get over the refurbished/reconditioned hate.

I suspect this will be an unpopular topic, but seriously, it's time we think about cellphones the way we think about cars. First, the reason for bringing it up to begin with:

I highly recommend insurance, even if you have an old phone that will work in case something happens to the new one. You'll be able to get a replacement for much less, usually between $40 and $90. Insurance should be a no-brainer for new smartphone buyers since the cheapest of those devices tend to start at $400 each. I am careful with my phones and keep the old one as a backup, so I personally would not insure a basic phone whose retail cost (with no contract or plan required) is $150 or less, as the money spent on insurance over two years is just shy of that amount. Better to just save the monthly fee in a savings account- if I don't have to replace the phone, that's $144 plus a bit of interest I have waiting for a rainy day.

People buy used cars all the time. With a little research, one can buy a great car at a fraction of the car's new price. There are good and bad used cars, based on individuals and makes and models.

Most people that have ever owned more than one car have bought, or known someone that bought, a lemon. Services like Carfax exist now to minimize the chances of buying a car with major problems.

Now, imagine if all used cars had undergo a process like the Honda Certified Used program (one of the strictest in the automotive industry). That's what most refurbs go through. Most refurbished cellphones come from one of two sources- they are assembled into one good phone from multiple broken phones, or they are perfectly fine phones returned for reasons unrelated to the phone's condition.

In the former case, it's not all that different from buying a car that has had one or more parts replaced with parts from a junkyard; in the latter, phones returned because someone didn't like them are a common source (30-day no-questions-asked guarantees are a common source of these).

If it never had problems, it's basically no different from buying a week-old phone from a buddy that decided he didn't like it. If it did have issues, the phone has to undergo a series of tests to ensure that everything works in it, just like a new phone. Some of these tests are actually more thorough than the quality checks on new phones leaving the factory.

Does this mean I believe all refurbished phones will never have a problem? No- I mean that if a refurbished replacement has the same issue(s) as the new phone did, it is likely a flaw in design, not the fact that the phone is refurbished. Sometimes the phone software is buggy and needs to be fixed- a software upgrade will resolve problems like this most of the time.

Sometimes a phone is poorly designed. I once owned a Peugeot 505 compact that was a great car for the most part, but its electrical system used a lot more power than most luxury cars. I had to put a truck battery in the thing to ensure the car would start if I didn't drive it every day. I didn't blame the battery or the fact that it was used- it was a known issue with this model and year, the workaround I used was the best known fix (if memory serves, the other option was a drastic rewiring that would've cost more than the car was worth), and other than that it was fine.

One more thing- if you want to be more green, refurbished phones cost much less to build than new ones do.

In short, refurbishment is usually not an issue- some phones are just poorly designed, some are released with imperfect software, and sometimes, well, let's move to the next item.

6) Don't believe the hype.

I wanted an excuse to reference Flavor Flav, but the point is, make sure your expectations are realistic.

First off, don't settle for lousy coverage where you live for the sake of a particular phone. I know plenty of people who own the iPhone, and the one complaint they have about it is nearly universal- the coverage is bad.

The iPhone is not the be-all, end-all of smartphones anymore. Period. There's nothing wrong with owning or liking the iPhone, but do some research and try out the iPhone and some of its competitors first before you buy. There are some things the iPhone won't do (at least not without paying extra for an application) that my Windows Mobile-based phone does out of the box. For example, I can put a MicroSD card in and later, replace it with a larger one that holds more. I can also buy a replacement battery for my phone. Neither of these features are present on the iPhone. Figure out what you want the device to do first, then try, then buy.

This also applies to knowing that as awesome as these devices are, none are perfect (not even the iPhone- it took them two generations to get it right). If you want to watch TV or Youtube videos on your smartphone, sometimes there will be brief pauses while the phone caches (preloads) the show's data. If you buy a Blackberry, Android, Windows Phone, or iPhone based device, it will require more frequent recharging than a basic phone does because these phones are often doing a lot more at the same time. The more stuff you do with your phone beyond calls and texting, the more power you'll use.

Most phones are not exactly what could be considered durable. Even phones made to be water and shock resistant aren't water or shatterproof. Most folks that own the G'zone Boulder (its successor is set to be released soon) have dropped it on the ground, in a pool, in a lake, or whatever else and had no problems with them afterward. A Blackberry Storm 2 is not going to be that tough. I would recommend a case of some kind for any phone that won't fit in your pocket, and screen protectors for anything with a screen larger than 2 inches wide (and any touch-based phone, for that matter).

7) Just a little patience, yeah-eah.

OK, that's the last song reference, I promise.

Give yourself time to adjust to the new device. That's what the 30 day guarantees are for- to ensure you'll be happy with the device for the next 2 years or more. A restock fee might be obnoxious to you but it's a small price to pay for ensuring that you get a phone you like.

Have patience when at the store making your purchase, too. As I mentioned before, even a straightforward purchase where you know exactly what you want takes time to complete. If you are patient and positive, the sales rep will thank you and remember it. I've seen frustrated but otherwise kind and patient customers walk away with at least a slightly better outcome than normal policy would dictate.

I've also seen belligerent self-entitled customers who could've gotten a little slack cut for them get nothing because the rep was too frustrated to compromise. I am not saying that is the way it should be, just that I have noticed evidence that the Golden Rule sometimes has tangible benefits.

Don't forget the obvious with respect to patience- wait until after the new year to buy unless it's for a seasonal gift that has to be there on time. Wireless stores have clearance specials and deals like most retail establishments do.

If you have any questions, feel free to drop me a line as always at

Good luck, and may your next cellphone never drop a call.


Monday, July 20, 2009

How to Practice Ventriloquism

Can't embed this one, but here's another one I did.

My gut is not like that in real life- I was sticking it out for emphasis.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Another non-computer-related project

I helped my friend Dimitri with a pitch film (something of a movie trailer for industry people to get them interested in funding/working with a project).