I finally left Virgin Mobile!

Ah, the ZTE Max XL… the phone they should have named the “ZTE Max RD”, ‘cos you need to reboot it daily! Gather ‘round children, and let me tell you the story of the phone that was so bad it finally made me quit Virgin Mobile!

I got the ZTE Max XL last Christmas. And it seemed pretty awesome at the time – a Qualcomm Snapdragon 435 octa-core processor, a 6” 1080×1920 screen, a 13 MP camera, a 3990 mAh battery, a fingerprint sensor on the back, all wrapped up in some Nougat 7.1 deliciousness! And the thing was only $125 on Virgin’s site! Sounds killer, right? What’s not to like?

ZTE Max XL
(pic via Virgin Mobile)

Well, plenty.

For one thing, the screen is glitchy. Do you remember when a VGA cable would get loose or start to die, and if you brushed against it with your foot, you’d get weird streaks or other artifacts on the screen for a second or two? Yeah, the ZTE Max would often do that when playing YouTube videos, or when I’d play my slot machine games. It wasn’t especially bad – maybe 1 or 2 very short glitches during 30 minutes of game play or video watching – but it was certainly enough to make me worry.

And speaking of “worry”, the entire time I owned this phone I worried constantly about the battery. I’ve never owned a device that ate battery quite like this phone. After charging overnight on my nightstand, I’d wake up, unplug it and spend 15 minutes or so checking my email, catching up on headlines, and seeing what was going on with Reddit. And it wasn’t uncommon for that short usage to drain the phone to 92% or so. Yes, the phone used 8% of a charge just by using Outlook for Android, Google News and Weather and Relay for Reddit for 15 minutes. But that’s better than what I got doing chores: I like listening to music while doing dishes, and 35 minutes of Spotify + Bluetooth headphones could easily eat 20% of a charge. It got to the point where I’d eat dinner and let the phone charge back up to 100%. Then I’d do the dishes, only to watch the battery drain from 100% to 79% in a mere 35-45 minutes. It also didn’t help that the phone had the battery percentage RIGHT THERE on the notification bar, with no obvious way to disable that feature. It was almost like it was taunting me: “You want to listen to the new Sylvan Esso album? Hahaha! That’ll cost you 10% of this charge!”

You might have noticed I said “Outlook for Android” in the previous paragraph. That’s because almost anything Google-related on the ZTE Max did not work once the phone reached a certain amount of uptime.

I noticed this almost immediately – the native Gmail app would simply stop syncing with Google’s servers. I’d wake up in the morning and my inbox would be exactly the same as when I went to bed. I’d have to manually refresh the app to get new mail, and even then it only worked half the time. I’d have to reboot the phone to get it syncing again. And still, it might only work for an hour or two before syncing would stop. Outlook for Android – though not without its own problems – at least handled the basic task of “push email”. And, for the record, Outlook for Android has some nice features, like the ability to choose what swiping left or right does to messages, and it has a built-in calendar that’s “good enough” that I could uninstall the Google Calendar app.

But that’s just one way Google services failed on the ZTE Max XL. For some reason, Play apps simply would not update once the phone had been on for a certain amount of time. You’d check the app store (I don’t think the ZTE ever once actually notified me that there were updates) and you’d be given a list of updates, just like you’d expect. But if you tapped “Update All”, the first app in the list would change to “Downloading…” and that was it. Four hours later, you’d check the phone, and that first app was still downloading. Oh, I tried all the obvious fixes – killing and restarting Play Store, killing and restarting Google Play Services, clearing cache, clearing cache + data on both apps – but the only thing that actually worked was to reboot the phone: once the home screen came up, you’d see the apps start updating in the notification bar. Even then, though, the phone was ridiculously show. I have a Nexbox (an Android TV box), and one day I updated both devices at the same time. I was amused to find that the Nexbox was able to update 8 apps (including Spotify) in less time than it took the ZTE to update just Spotify on my phone.

But that’s not all. I’ve tried a dozen news apps over the years, but the one I keep going back to is Google’s “News and Weather” app. For all its flaws, it’s the app that works for me. Only, it didn’t always work on the ZTE Max. I guess it’s somehow related to the other Google issues, but often News and Weather would simply stop updating, and the only way to fix it was to – you guessed it – reboot the damn phone. Sure, you could kill the app, but that wouldn’t help. You could delete cache, but that didn’t help, either. You could delete data, but then you’d have an app that still wouldn’t update, only it had lost all my location and news preferences.

And then there was the issue of getting multiple text messages. This is a known problem with the phone – you can find many people complaining about it online, even in ZTE’s community forum. It’s also mentioned in several Amazon reviews. It didn’t always happen, but when it did it was annoying as all get out. I have my Amazon account set up to text me when orders are delivered. One night, I got SEVEN identical text messages letting me know that an order had arrived. And, for maximum annoyance, they just didn’t come one after the other: the first came as expected. Another came 47 minutes later. The next one came in 24 minutes after that. The next one came in 82 minutes after that. And so on. I guess I should consider myself lucky: some people reported getting the same text message 20-30 times!

But none of this was as frustrating as the 3 times the ZTE Max didn’t even work as a phone. Smartphones are just small computers, right? Like all computers, apps can get hung up or develop memory leaks and whatnot, so that the whole system slows down and gets “laggy”. I assume the “phone” part of Android is simply another app on the phone, albeit one with high system priority, which is why a phone call can interrupt other tasks, like watching YouTube videos or listening to Spotify. Except, there were 3 times when the phone was so slow that the “phone app” didn’t work as designed. A friend called, but none of the buttons worked. I couldn’t answer him in time. After a couple minutes the phone seemed to regain composure, so I tried calling him back. But the “phone” app just froze… only to try and call him after I’d given up and put the phone down. Insane. While I’m here, I guess I should also mention that the alarm clock would sometimes go off 10 minutes late, I guess ‘cos the phone got hung up on something else.

All this would be one thing if Virgin Mobile’s Sprint-based service was great. But it wasn’t. It’s gotten better – when I first joined Virgin Mobile in 2009, I could not get any service at all – no voice, no text, no data, literally “No Service” – in my suburban Charlotte town’s downtown district. Now I could at least get voice service – and sometimes even data! – downtown. But I still got limited service at my local CVS and Chick-fil-A, despite that fact that both are located within sight of a major interstate. The missus and I often go to trivia at a popular restaurant in a nearby town… which is located in – you guessed it – another Sprint dead zone. And since Sprint uses such a high frequency (which has a tough time penetrating buildings) I almost always had very limited (or no) service in big box stores. I can’t even begin to guess at how many times I looked wistfully at people talking on their phones inside Walmart – almost every time I needed to call the missus for clarification on a Walmart trip, she told me that I was “breaking up” and that she “couldn’t understand me”. Or I’d finish my shopping and leave Walmart, only to get halfway home and receive a text message she’d sent 25 minutes earlier asking me to pick up some milk while I was there.

For all my bitching, Virgin Mobile was pretty good to me. I rarely had problems with the service at home – there’s a Sprint tower located almost directly across the Catawba River from my house. And I almost never had trouble inside the Charlotte city limits… it’s just too bad that I don’t go to Charlotte often enough to make it worthwhile. And I love that Virgin added Spotify to their “data-free music“ plan, meaning I could listen to Spotify via LTE all day long and not have it count towards my data cap. I’ll certainly miss THAT… but I won’t miss much else.

I found an identical plan (sans data-free music) from Total Wireless, a Verizon-based MVNO owned by the Tracfone\Straight Talk\Net10\SIMPLE Mobile\Walmart Family empire. And I got myself a Samsung Galaxy J7 Sky Pro. It’s older. It has Marshmallow. It can’t begin to compete, spec-wise, with the ZTE. But you know what? It’s been off the charger for five hours, I’ve used it for a half hour… and it still shows 100% charge! Amen to that.

EDIT: it just dawned on me that I didn’t even mention the specific reason why I ditched the Max XL! On Monday afternoon (3 days ago), I got an “Invalid SIM” error on the phone. I rebooted it and it worked for 5 minutes before the “Invalid SIM” message returned. I reseated the SIM and restarted the phone, but again got an “Invalid SIM” error within 5 minutes. I got in touch with Virgin’s tech support via Twitter, and they said they could order me a new SIM and it would be there “in a few days”. My GF got a Straight Talk Samsung J7 Sky Pro via a Black Friday sale last year, and she’s repeatedly mentioned its “awesome battery life”. So I checked Amazon and found a Total Wireless version for the same price she paid on Black Friday, available with free Prime Same Day. I was already weary of Virgin, and not having a phone for “a few days” while waiting for a new SIM was just… not an option, since Amazon could fix the whole damn problem in less than 12 hours.

NICE SERVICE: USPS Informed Delivery

To me, one of the “genius” things about technology is when it fixes a problem you didn’t even know you had. Several years ago, my cable company started offering an Android app that lets you schedule DVR recordings remotely. That might sound kinda pointless at first, but I never realized how often I’d be outside my home – at a family gathering, or at the pub with friends – and someone would mention a show they thought we might be interested in. With the app, I can just whip out my phone, and with a few taps set up a recording. Or – and I know this has happened to most guys at least a few times – you’d be out running  few errands with the missus before a big football game… the one that she promised you’d be home in time to watch. But you’re running behind, and there’s no way you’ll make it home before kickoff. No worries – just use the app to record the game, and marital bliss continues!

Well, there’s a free service from the United States Post Office that’s the same level of genius: it’s called Informed Delivery. Once you sign up for the service, you’ll start receiving daily emails that contain scans of the mail that will be delivered to your home that day (if you don’t want emails, you can log in to the USPS site, or use the Android or iOS app). Here’s a screen cap from their website:

USPS Informed Delivery
(click to enlarge)

Informed Delivery also automatically keeps track of packages headed to your home, and you can use the service to leave directions for the driver (“leave at neighbor’s house”, if you’ll be out of town, for example). You can also use it to reschedule delivery of any missed packages.

There are a few caveats, though. Informed Delivery only tracks “letter-sized” items; it only scans larger items like magazines and catalogs if the sender pays extra for it (and few do). It also only scans mail with your name on it (letters addressed to “Resident” or “Occupant” aren’t scanned). It also doesn’t scan the weekly bundles of ads, like the Red Plum ads we get every week. And while package tracking is automatic, it’s only for packages with a USPS tracking number or Indicia ID; packages from overseas, for instance, aren’t tracked. On the plus side, creating an Informed Delivery account also creates a regular USPS account in your name too, so if you’ve been meaning to set up a USPS account to buy stamps or set up online shipping, you now have one more reason to do so.

In any case, Informed Delivery won’t change your life, but it does make things just a tiny bit easier. For one thing, I live in a townhome that has a “community mailbox”. If I don’t get the daily email from the USPS, I know there’s no mail, so no need to walk to the mailbox. And there have been times (when I had a horrible cold, for one) where I saw that that day’s mail was mostly junk, so skipped getting it that day. And there was one time recently where my missus was looking for something important in the mail, and it was late… to the point where she was thinking of calling the company. I saw what looked like the item in my daily USPS email and forwarded it to her – she was relieved that the item had arrived, and wouldn’t have to spend an hour on hold with the company.

Lastly, let me address (hah!) one thing. I learned about Informed Delivery from one of the message boards I frequent. It seemed like half the posters thought the idea was cool, while the other half thought it was crazy to opt into, since “Homeland Security will know what mail I’m getting!”

Well, first of all, if you’re the type of person who would be of interest to Homeland Security, they’re probably already looking at your mail anyway. Secondly, while I don’t know this for a fact, I’d be surprised if the USPS wasn’t already scanning the mail anyway. The USPS has been scanning the mail for ages – you didn’t think the post office sorted 506 million pieces of mail every day by hand, did you? In other words, I think with Informed Delivery you’re just getting access to the scanned images they already use internally; it’s not like they’re only scanning the mail of Informed Delivery users.

At least, I’m 99.2% sure that’s the case.

Moving Pidgin’s Settings

I’m thinking about buying a new desktop computer during the upcoming Black Friday sales. Because of this, I’ve been thinking about moving my data from one computer to another. Most of my really important things are already backed up to an external hard drive every morning, or are kept in my OneDrive folder (or both).

One exception to this are my Pidgin logs and settings. Pidgin is a multi-protocol chat application. I use it to connect to private instant messaging servers I’ve set up at my client sites, so employees can message me when they need help. I often refer to Pidgin’s chat logs for billing purposes, or for troubleshooting, or even for covering my butt when things go sideways. Thing is, though, all of Pidgin’s settings (including the logs) are contained in an AppData folder; that location is hardcoded in the app and can’t be changed. But you can use symlinks to move the folder wherever you want:

1) Completely shut down Pidgin.

2) Go to C:\Users\[username]\AppData\Roaming and cut the .purple folder (substituting the appropriate username, obviously).

3) Paste the .purple folder wherever you’d like. I used a “Pidgin” folder I created in my Documents folder. So Documents > Pidgin > .purple.

4) Open an elevated command-prompt, type the following command on one line, replacing username with your username, and press ENTER when you’re sure it’s been entered correctly:

mklink /D "C:\Users\username\AppData\Roaming\.purple" "C:\Users\username\OneDrive\Documents\Pidgin\.purple"

The above command (mklink) creates (/D) a symlink in my AppData\Roaming folder called .purple, which points to a folder (also called .purple) in a folder called Pidgin in my Documents folder. Exit the command-prompt when done.

After running this command, all of your Pidgin settings and chat logs will be in your documents folder, but Pidgin will think they’re still in the original location. In my case, the Pidgin data files also be copied to my OneDrive cloud. Since you can create a link anywhere on your drive you want, you could just as easily create a link in your Dropbox or Google Drive folders instead.

The “Random Command Prompt Flash” Issue

If you’re using Windows 10 and Office 365, you might have noticed a strange issue: for the past six weeks or so, some users have reported command-prompt windows popping up for a fraction of a second, seemingly at random. This issue may affect computers running Windows 7 or 8.x and\or Office 2016, but so far I have only seen the issue on computers running Windows 10 and Office 365.

I noticed the issue on my own computer a couple weeks ago, after the latest Office 365 update. But the random command-prompt pop-ups didn’t happen immediately after the update, so I failed to connect the two. At first, I thought it might be some kind of malware, so ran scans using multiple products… which came back clean. I checked Event Viewer, but there were no obvious issues there. I looked at Task Scheduler, but nothing appeared to be amiss there, either.

Stumped, I downloaded and installed Open Broadcaster Software (OBS), an open source video capture tool. I closed all open apps, except for a single Chrome window, which I left open on a maximized nearly blank page. I set OBS to record my screen for two hours and walked away. I returned later and played the video back on my second monitor in VLC, with the playback speed cranked up to 4x. Sure enough, I eventually saw the command-prompt flash:

Office Handler window

If you can’t make out what title bar says, it’s

C:\Program Files (x86)\Microsoft Office\root\Office16\officebackgroundtaskhandler.exe

If you’re having this issue, you should be able to make the pop-up happen any time you want to by opening Task Scheduler and going to Library > Microsoft > Office, right-clicking on

OfficeBackgroundTaskHandlerRegistration

and choosing “Run”.

I don’t know how to “fix” this issue, and I assume Microsoft will address it in an upcoming Office 365 update. However, there is a workaround to prevent that damn command-prompt window from popping-up: right-click on the task and choose “Properties”. Click the “Change User or Group” button and change the user from “Users” to “System”. It’s not the most elegant solution (especially from a security perspective), but it works.

Outlook 2016’s “Unsafe Rules”

Microsoft Outlook has a robust system of rules that you can use to move, copy, delete (or alert you) when you receive an email based on a number of conditions.

One option I use quite a bit is “when I receive an email with x in the subject line, run a script”. Here’s why: I have an app that downloads files to a specific folder that cannot be changed. When the downloads are complete, I want to move those file(s) to a shared network folder. So I have Outlook set up to where if I send an email to myself with a certain string of letters and numbers, a script runs that moves the file(s) from one folder to the other (I often want to do this while away from the computer, hence the need for the Outlook rule and script).

However, it would appear that December’s updates for Office 365 removed the “run a script” option from the rules, along with a couple other “unsafe rules”. Thankfully, it appears that Microsoft didn’t remove the options, it just hid them. If, like me, you use the “run a script” option, here’s how you can re-enable it:

  1. Close Outlook, if running.
  2. Open Regedit.
  3. Navigate to HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Office\16.0\Outlook\Security 
  4. Right-click on an empty space in the right pane and choose New > DWORD Value. Name the new value EnableUnsafeClientMailRules and set its value to 1.
  5. Close Regedit; open Outlook.

At this point, go to the “Rules & Alerts” applet. You should see that the “(error)” message next to any existing “run a script” rules is gone, although you might have to check the box to actually enable the rule again.

A Virgin Mobile Tip

Whether you’re considering becoming a Virgin Mobile customer, or if you’re an existing customer looking to upgrade your phone, consider looking at Virgin Mobile phones on Amazon first.

I bought a Samsung Galaxy Ring back in 2014. I hated it: it locked up, rebooted, and stock apps crashed all the time. Virgin Mobile replaced it four times, but after the last time I said enough was enough.

I bought an LG Tribute ($79.99 on Virgin’s site) as a temporary fix until I could switch carriers, or until Virgin got some better phones. But I ended up liking the Tribute. It had an awful camera and a mere 4GB of space, of which only 1.1GB was available to the user. But other than that, the phone just worked. It never once locked-up or rebooted, and was generally everything you could hope for in a $79.99 Android phone.

But then my girlfriend accidentally dropped it in a parking lot, creating a huge crack in the screen. She offered to buy me a new one, so I thought I’d check Amazon to see if they had a better deal. They did: $39.95!

I got the upgrade bug in December 2015 and saw that Virgin had the LG Stylo. But it was $199… not super expensive, but a bit too much for an impulse buy, especially at Christmas. I checked Amazon and saw that it was $109.99. Toss in a $25 Amazon gift card I’d gotten and the total dropped to $85.99 – 58% less than Virgin was selling it for.

A couple weeks ago I was running some errands and the Stylo’s screen starting acting weird. It was “wavy”, like an LCD monitor with a bad capacitor. Amazon to the rescue again: the LG Stylo 2 – $179.99 on Virgin Mobile’s site – was only $69.95 at Amazon! That’s 61% less than Virgin Mobile’s price! (Virgin has since put the phone on Black Friday sale for $129.99 while Amazon has raised their price to $99, so it’s not nearly the deal it once was.)

If you’re wondering, all the phones I’ve purchased from Amazon have been brand new in sealed Virgin retail packaging. Virgin does have refurbished phones they send as warranty replacements. These come in generic white boxes with no graphics. The Amazon phones are not refurbs.

Also, these kind of deals don’t last long, so you have to move quickly. These deals mostly apply to Virgin’s middle-of-the-road ($129-$249) phones. You won’t see Virgin Mobile iPhones or Samsung Galaxy S phones with such discounts. You can find Virgin’s low-end phones on Amazon, but there won’t be much of a discount: the Alcatel DAWN is currently on sale for $39.99 on Virgin’s site but $74.80 at Amazon (a slight discount off Virgin’s regular $79.99 price).

Exporting LG’s Quick Memos

Many LG phones come with Quick Memo, a pre-installed note taking app. It’s not as good as OneNote or Evernote, but since it can’t be uninstalled, I thought I’d give it a try rather than waste precious storage space on duplicate apps. Come to find out, it handles my basic note-taking needs pretty well.

One downside, however, is that there’s no Quick Memo app for Windows. Thus, you can long-press on a note to share it with yourself (or others) via Gmail, but once you save the attachment, there’s no way to open it on your desktop or laptop. Nice.

However, after futzing with a sample file for a while, I found that the exported LQM files are just zip files, and can be opened with most compression apps. I’m a big fan of WinRAR, so here’s what a note looks like when opened in that app:

Quick Memo

As you might guess, any audio or video files saved in a memo will be located in their respective folders. Image files are saved in the “Images” folder, while text (or drawings) captured by stylus input will be saved in the “Drawings” folder:

Quick Memo Drawing

If you’d like, you can right-click an LQM file in Windows and choose Open With > WinRAR and check the “Always use this app to open these files” box to have Windows always use WinRAR (or WinZip or 7-Zip) to open the Quick Memo files.