A Consumer Rant

There’s nothing like Christmas to bring out consumer angst. Here are a few encounters from the past few days that have really been pissing me off:

1

As far back as I can remember, and until I turned 30ish, most retailers would allow you to exchange items. If you bought something that was damaged, or in the wrong size or color, you just went to the customer service desk, and they’d swap it out for you. But sometime in the past 10 years, most big retailers decided to simply have the customer service desk refund your money and let you pick out a new item, resulting in multiple transactions on your credit\debit card (the original purchase, the refund, and the new purchase).

This works out OK for most things, but it sucks for large purchases… and gifts. If you buy an $800 HDTV with a debit card and get it home and find out that it doesn’t work, the retailer’s “new” policies mean that $1600 is now tied up on your debit card, at least for a few days until the refund goes through.

That sucks, but what really sucks if when you get a gift.

My parents gave me an external hard drive for Christmas. I didn’t open it until I got back home, where I found the drive’s back cover warped. The circuit board where you plug in the power adapter and USB cable was also misaligned, and while it probably could have worked, I’m not trusting my data to a drive that looked like it had some rough handling in transit.

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Thanks, Panthers!

Check out this map:

thanks_panthers

The people in red get to watch the Vikings take on the Packers this Sunday. That should be a hell of a game – Brett Farve returning to play at Lambeau Field, two well-matched teams going at it… and the line is the home team by 3.

The people in blue – me – instead get to watch the Carolina Panthers travel to Arizona to take on the Cardinals. That game should be a bloodbath – in fact, I’m surprised that the line is only 9. Me? I think the final score will be 34-6 for the home team. But I’ll get to see the Panthers – in all their crappy glory – instead of a game that, you know, people actually want to watch.

Bastards!

Oh, and John Fox said today that Jake Delhomme is still, somehow, the Panthers’ starting quarterback (check out this great article on SportingNews.com that asks what Jake has to do to get benched).

Should I go ahead and get season tickets for next year when Cowher takes over?

The Revolt Against TWC Begins…

Last year, Time Warner Cable’s RoadRunner division began testing “consumption based” Internet service in Beaumont, Texas. In corporate-speak, “consumption based” is a polite euphemism for “capped bandwidth”. In Beaumont, new TWC customers were given a paltry cap of 40GB a month. TWC has since rolled their “test” out to several other markets, and has also played with the caps, in some cases making them as small as 5GB/month.

5GB/month might be fine for older couples that use the Internet mainly for surfing a few web pages and emailing pictures of their grandkids. But for “digital families” that use streaming video services like Hulu or Netflix, that back up their computers using an online service like Mozy, that use a non-cable company telephone service like Vonage, that have kids that use Xbox Live or some other gaming service, that use VPN or RDP to connect to their corporate networks… well, metered bandwidth simply won’t work.

It might be one thing if TWC was offering a reasonable pricing package for these wimpy Internet plans. After all, it is only fair for grandma and grandpa to pay $9.99/month for using a mere 1GB of bandwidth, right? Wrong. From the looks of things, TWC appears to be prepared to offer a super-crippled 5GB/month plan for a tiny discount (say, $29.99/month) while at the same time, they want to jack up the prices for heavy users to $150/month (or more).

Let me also point out that Comcast – perhaps the most reviled company in America – has had bandwidth caps for some time now… and their cap is 250GB/month. TWC hasn’t mentioned what their “final cap” might be, but consider this: if TWC and Comcast both charge $44.95 a month for high speed Internet, and if TWC goes with a 40GB/month cap, Comcast customers will pay 18¢ per GB per month, while TWC customers will pay $1.12 per GB per month… for the exact same product.

So… why is TWC doing this? There are two reasons.

First, Time Warner (and other cable companies) initially “oversold” their broadband capacity. It costs a lot of money to run fiber optic cables and set up an Internet infrastructure. The only way TWC (and the others) could make it cost effective was to have far more customers than the network could support. Back in 1997, when web pages were small and bandwidth-intensive services like YouTube, Hulu and Bittorrent didn’t exist, this was an easy bet. But now that many people use their Internet connections 24\7 for one reason or another, TWC’s networks are groaning under the weight of all that traffic. By putting caps in place, TWC is hoping to coax (or force) people to stop using so much damn bandwidth, thus bringing their network back under control.

Secondly, Time Warner is rolling out a bunch of new services, and they want you to use them instead of a third-party. If you currently have Vonage or VoiceEclipse phone service, TWC wants to put a bandwidth cap in place to scare you into using their service. If you currently use Hulu to watch TV shows you might have missed, TWC wants to put a bandwidth cap in place to scare you into renting one of their DVRs. If you currently use Netflix’s new streaming service, TWC wants to put a bandwidth cap in place to scare you into using their Video On Demand service instead. Like most of life’s big questions, this all comes down to money, and this is as naked a money grab as every there was.

Thankfully, people are starting to take notice. New York Congressman Eric Massa (of Rochester, the site of TWC’s 5GB/month test) is mad as hell about it, and is looking into creating legislation that would ban bandwidth caps. Ars Technica has been on this story for a while, and just today published this piece, taking TWC to task for their half-truths and lies.

For my part, I can only say this: TWC, if you bring such caps to the Gastonia, NC market, here’s one customer that will switch over to AT&T’s U-Verse so fast it will rip a hole in spacetime!

iPod Shuffle Update

Last week I wrote a nasty missve about the new iPod Shuffle. Much of what I said was based on incomplete information. Sadly, fresher information is actually making me like the new Shuffle less, not more.

I noted (as an update in the comments) that Apple will be making an adapter available for third-party microphones. What’s news is that adapters must now be chipped. That’s right – to use a different pair of headphones or to hook a Shuffle up to computer or car speakers, you now have to buy an Apple-approved accessory that has an Apple-approved chip inside. So your days of buying $1.99 iPod adapters off eBay are gone.

Third-party “Apple approved” headphones are now appearing, with the average price being $49. The latest estimates for the price of an adapter alone are in the $19 – $29, with $29 looking more realistic with every passing day. There again, why shell out $79 for the new Shuffle if you’re going to have to pay $49 for additional headphones? Why not just buy a Nano that doesn’t have that stupid requirement?

Also, word is that the new Shuffle’s battery actually has less capacity than the 1G or 2G Shuffles. Apple’s official specs for the 2G Shuffle were 12 hours per change, although 18 hours was actually more common in practice. Apple says the new Shuffle only gets 10 hours, and early reviews have indicated that it struggles to meet even that low standard.

Lastly, the new Shuffles simply don’t represent a good value. Paying the “iPod tax” was OK when the 1GB Shuffle was $48 and the 2GB was $68. But it’s just silly to pay $80 for a 4GB media player in this day and age (to say nothing about the now- needed accessories). You can buy a 4GB USB stick for $10 almost anywhere, and if it’s a flash-based player your after, there any dozens of other fish in that sea.

The new iPod Shuffle is STUPID

This is Apple’s newest iPod Shuffle:

ipod_4g_shuffleIt certainly looks sexy, and the fact that it comes with 4GB of storage is pretty cool too. But wait… where’s the “click wheel” that older iPod Shuffles come with?

I’ll tell you – it doesn’t exist any more. Apple has moved the Shuffle’s controls to a tiny controller embedded in the headphone cord. So you can no longer use a Shuffle with some other brand of headphones, nor can you hook it up to your computer speakers for a party, nor can you hook it up to a cassette adapter to listen in your car. You can only listen to it using Apple’s headphones, period.

To make matters worse, Apple is now proudly announcing that the new Shuffle is “the only mp3 player that talks to you”. It comes with a feature called VoiceOver that can say aloud the name of the song and the artist – just hold down the controller on the headphone cord, and it’ll give you the info. Putting aside the fact that this isn’t the first mp3 player that can do that, it’s just a stupid feature that no one asked for. Plus, the actual voices the Shuffle uses… well, they sound like “robot voices” from a bad 80s German electropop band. If you want your mp3 player’s voice to sound like something off of a Kraftwerk album, Apple has you covered. If you’re looking for one of those voices that’s almost indistinguishable from a human voice… oh, how disappointed you’ll be! I also can’t wait to hear how it deals with non-English artists! I can hear it how: “El Chai-ah-yow-choe by Tie-toe Puh-en-Tee-tee”

You can also use VoiceOver to switch playlists, a first for the Shuffle. Multiple playlists for the Shuffle is pretty cool, and a feature that’s been lacking for some time. But again, using VoiceOver to do this is the wrong execution of the right idea.

I dunno. Maybe if I played with one of the new Shuffles I’d like it. But as it stands now, it looks like the next generation of iPod Shuffles are going to be a giant bucket of fail! I guess when my Shuffle dies, I’ll either pray that old versions are still being sold… or just get a Sansa Clip.

Read more about it at Engadget here (be sure to watch the video and also check out the thrashing it gets in the reader comments!)

It’s GWINNETT, dammit!

I spent the first 24 years of my life living in Gwinnett County, Georgia. When I was born, Gwinnett had a population of 72,349. At the time, much of the county resembled Mayberry from The Andy Griffith Show. Everyone knew almost everyone else, and there was a sense of “community” there that I haven’t really felt since.

During the 1980s, however, Gwinnett experienced massive growth. The county frequently placed at or near the top of “America’s fastest growing counties” lists. The county grew so much that the 2010 census estimates its population at 808,167. More people live in Gwinnett County than within the city limits of San Francisco, Memphis, Charlotte, Baltimore, Boston or Seattle. Hell, the Gwinnett school system – the largest in Georgia – has more students (159,258) than Dayton, Ohio (155,461), Springfield, Missouri (154,777) or Salem, Oregon (151,913) have residents. The Gwinnett Arena, originally considered a boondoggle by many area residents, has hosted concerts by Bruce Springsteen, The Who, Depeche Mode, Snow Patrol, Bon Jovi and more. The county has their own East Coast Hockey League team (the Gwinnett Gladiators) and in January of this year, the Atlanta Braves announced that they were moving their AAA club from Richmond (population: 200,123) to Gwinnett.

Gwinnett is big. It’s for real. So why the hell do people still misspell it? To this day, I’ll see “Gwinet”, “Gwinnet”, “Gwinett”, “Gwinnet” or “Gwinnette” on websites and blogs. Just the other day, I was looking at a band’s page on MySpace, only to find that they were playing the “Arena at Gwinnette Center” soon. And it drove me nuts!

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Time Warner Navigator: Still Sucks

Back in April, I wrote this hyperbolic review of the new Time Warner “Navigator” software that the cable giant is rolling out to all their DVRs. The upgrade had only just happened at the time, and it seemed like a giant step backwards from Passport, the previous software. But a few months have passed now. Maybe I’ve calmed down a bit. Maybe Time Warner has rolled out some updates and fixes for it… Or maybe it still sucks.

Here’s a calmer, more reasoned list of my beefs with Navigator. Time Warner needs to address these issues as quickly as possible… especially since AT&T’s U-Verse just rolled into town:

Boot time sucks: It took the old Passport software around four minutes to boot. Navigator takes just over nine minutes to fully boot. Since I have the same problem on my computer with XP vs. Vista, I can only conclude that Time Warner’s programmers are taking a cue from Microsoft on how to make your software worse, not better. Obviously, rebooting your DVR is not something you do every day… but when Navigator was new and crashed a lot, waiting almost ten minutes instead of four for the TV to come back was (and still is) infuriating.   

Search still sucks: As I mentioned in the original review, Navigator took away “keyword search”, so you can no longer search for “Kate Winslet” and find movies or chat show appearances featuring the actress. As much as that sucks, I could deal with that. But something that really does suck is that Navigator, for some unknown reason, allows multiple entries for the same program. For example, if you want to see who’s going to be on David Letterman this week, you could search for “David Letterman”. You might get three hits. If you click on the first result, you’ll get a submenu that lists Monday and Tuesday’s episodes, and you’ll have to navigate to the second entry to see Wednesday’s episode, then navigate to the third entry to see Thursday and Friday’s episodes. Passport would have a single entry for The Late Show With David Letterman, and all episodes would be listed in a submenu off that single category. So Navigator, for no good reason, makes things harder, not easier. And that’s assuming it works: just the other day I searched for Whatever, Martha!. The show never appeared in the results window, even as I typed more and more of the title. By the time I had fully typed out “Whatever”, I just scrolled down to find the show.

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Best Buy is the Devil!

If you know me at all, you know how much I hate Best Buy.

It all started with the simple stuff: their Duluth, Georgia store used to have a single cashier for all 40 people waiting in line, so it took you longer to actually check out than it did to listen to the CD you just purchased. Then they started pushing their replacement plans for almost anything (I once had a cashier try to sell me a $6 replacement plan for a $20 CD player!). Then they started with the magazine subscriptions (in several instances, cashiers felt so pressured by management to sell subscriptions that they signed up customers for them anyway, even though they declined). Then Best Buy bought Geek Squad and customers reported being charged hundreds of dollars to fix computer issues that would take me (at most) five minutes. Oh, and let’s not forget Geek Squad employees peeking on female customers in the shower, rifling through customer’s personal desks, and copying their personal data to websites and thumb drives. And then there were the amusing stories, like the guy that tried to pay for a car stereo installation (which was supposed to have been free) with 32 $2 bills and was arrested because the cashier thought they were counterfeits!

But this story… well, it just takes the damn cake. A Consumerist reader from Charlotte, NC took his father to “the newest” Best Buy in town (is that Northlake Mall? Any Charlotteans out there that can verify this?). At the store, he saw a demonstration of Best Buy’s optional (but heavily pushed) “TV calibration service”. Robert reported that one TV looked beautiful, while the other was soft and grainy. It took him a second, but he figured it out: the “calibrated” TV was showing ESPN HD while the “non calibrated” TV was showing a stretched version of ESPN SD! And the reason it took Robert some time to figure it out was because Best Buy had helpfully placed a box advertising their “Black Tie TV Protection Plan” over the lower right side of the SD TV screen, so that customers wouldn’t be able to see the “ESPN” or “ESPN HD” logos! Classy!

When Robert complained to an employee, said employee not only saw nothing amiss with the display, he helpfully added that their calibration service would “decrease power consumption on my TV by 30%”… which is, of course, a flat-out lie.

Look folks, there is such a thing as calibrating your TV. It’s not, strictly speaking, necessary, but it *will* make your TV look slightly better. But don’t pay Best Buy $299 to do it – you can do it yourself with a special “calibration DVD” (available from Amazon for only $22.65 here).

Read the whole sad story here.

It’s not just me!

For years, I’ve thought that the media had a liberal bias. Of course, everyone just said I was “crazy” or imagining it all. And then Fox News came into being, and so the liberals started screaming about their biased coverage. Sooooo… it’s OK to think that Fox News is a hyperbolic right-wing mouthpiece, yet also think that CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, the New York Times and the Washington Post are paragons of totally impartial and completely objective journalism, and that anyone that disagrees with that is crazy? Yeah, that makes sense.

However, thanks to this year’s election, I can finally prove that it’s not just me: here are two editorials by professional journalists (one from Orson Scott Card here and the other by Michael S. Malone here) that are disgusted not only with the media bias of the 2008 election, but also other incidents.

Malone in particular is pretty peeved about the coverage of the Lebanon War from a couple of years ago. And he’s got a point. Mainstream media sources couldn’t stop reporting on every single thing the IDF did, while at the same time they deliberately chose to ignore the torrent of missiles launched by Hezbollah into northern Israel. Some poor Palestinian kid falls off his bike and CNN can’t get cameras there fast enough to document “Israel’s brutality”, yet hundreds of Israelis are killed by missiles fired from civilian areas in Lebanon and CNN can’t be bothered.

But yeah, the media’s not biased. Not at all.

Tony Kornheiser Must Die!

Have you ever played that “game” where you sit around with a bunch of friends and talk about who you’d kill if you could get away with it? OK, so it’s more “drunken rambling” than an actual game… but still, I think every group of friends has, one boozy night in a bar, sat around and talked about people they’d shoot in the head if they knew they could get away with it. And last night, my friends, I found the person I’d kill: Tony Kornheiser.

Tony KornholeTony Kornheiser (detractors predictably call him Tony Kornhole) is a sportswriter and ESPN talk show host. Worse yet, he’s been a member of the Monday Night Football crew since 2006. And he’s one of the most annoying people on the face of the earth.

I was watching the Steelers squeak by the Ravens on MNF last night. Mike Tirico was doing his usual great job calling the game. Jaws occasionally hit us up with his incredible football wisdom. And Tony was there with his lame non sequitors and random “observations”.

Who the hell is this guy, really? And how does he have a job on Monday Night Football? I mean, I never ever thought I’d ever utter the phrase “Bring back Dan Dierdorf!”, but here we are. Tony has made me that way. Tony Kornhole is so fucking annoying that I don’t want him fired from MNF… I don’t want his vocal cords removed and his hands chopped off so he can longer communicate with the outside world… no, I want him dead, so he a) cannot create little Kornholes that might one day follow in his father’s annoying footsteps; and b) Kornhole would not be able to communicate using a complex system of foot taps or eye blinks.

Now, you might be saying to yourself, “gee, that’s kind of harsh. I mean, with all the strife in the world, why not kill someone more meaningful, like Richard Gere or our current president?”. Well, you’d have a point. In the greater scheme of things, Tony Kornhole is pretty insignificant. And he really doesn’t ever say anything controversial, like “I don’t think Michael Vick did anything wrong”. It’s not like he’s the Rush Limbaugh of the sports world or anything. He’s just… annoying. I don’t know how much ESPN is paying Kornhole, but if all they wanted was someone to say inane things like “The Bears treat offense as if it’s bubonic plague”, they coulda hired me for far less money!

Amusingly, for someone that’s gone through life as a critic, Kornhole just can’t seem to take any criticism himself. When Stephen Rodrick wrote an article for Slate asking why Tony was allowed to argue aimlessly on television, and also asking why Kornhole’s Washington Post column “was being used to plug side projects rather than gather news from cited sources”, Kornhole called on Slate, and The Washington Post, to fire him. When Paul Farhi wrote in The Washington Post that Kornheiser had “emphasized the obvious, played third fiddle, and was reminiscent of Dennis Miller ‘in a bad way'”, Kornheiser called Farhi a “two-bit weasel slug”. Nice! So you can sit there an criticise others, but not take it yourself, Tony? What a jackass!

Enough rambling for today… I just… hate Tony Kornheiser in a way that I’ve never hated a broadcaster before. Well, any human being, really. Tony must die!