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Monday, March 21, 2011

A month with Virgin Mobile

I left at&t last month after several years, and with some trepidation I went with Virgin Mobile, mainly because someone else did the research, and it appeared to be the least sucky of the options. Here's my experience to date.

The phone

The phone I picked is an Android (LG Optimus V). It appears to do about everything the iPhone did, and it does so equally poorly, though with one exception. It will place a call. A clear call, and do so without needing the speaker phone. The sad thing is that now after being burned by the iPhone, I don't make all that many calls anymore. We'll see if that changes.

And Skype makes those calls freely. With video.

The Android apps are comparable to what is available on the iPhone. Facebook and Twitter perform as you'd expect. Evernote is a godsend. The Google Blogger app is useless, which astounds me. The web browser blows, but that's true for every phone I've seen when you really attempt to browse. The Urbanspoon app does not play nicely with the virtual keyboard, and I've about stopped using it. The few other applications rarely get launched.

Oh yes, there's a Virgin Mobile app, or at least an icon, through which I'm supposed to be able to check my account, and even pay my bill. It launches the browser, linking directly to the primary, not mobile, website. Talk about absolutely useless.

Bear in mind that phone apps are not something I will pay for any more, primarily because the phones, and much more the phone data networks, are not ready to support the claims in any real sense. (And of course, I did watch a gal watching a basketball game on her phone today. Go figure. The gods of Sprint smiled upon her.)

The Swype text entry application is a generally nice feature when it works. However, it's learning all the time, and my fingers are, apparently, gifted at confusing its algorithm.

Emails don't always go anywhere, and they go nowhere with no warning. This is especially true when emailing a picture from the gallery, but not always. Often, simple replies fall off the earth. This will be a HUGE problem for me one of these days.

The real problem with the Optimus would be exactly the real problem with the iPhone, that being battery life. However, I try to limit myself now a lot, a whole lot, and with the longer power cable from another device, I can keep the phone plugged in by the couch or bed. To my knowledge, no phone has a battery that can withstand the use it would receive if the owner believed the TV ads.

Bear in mind that what we call phones now are more computer than anything else, and that means a reboot is often the cure for whatever is not working. That is certainly the case with the Optimus. I should get in the habit of cutting it off at night when it recharges, but I haven't, and that leaves me remembering at some point during the day to reboot. Usually, I've needed two or three reboots per day. I suspect if I never touched data, no reboot would ever be required.

The network

Virgin Mobile runs on a subset of the Sprint network. I've not traveled far, and I've not explored the limits. However, I spend most of my time on WiFi, and that means it's easy to forget just where the data are coming from because the phone is working. My evening walks suggest that that the network slows substantially in Raleigh between 4 and 6 PM on weekdays. Then again, maybe Facebook and Twitter do maintenance then.

And then there was today, the first month anniversary of my time with Virgin Mobile. Last Friday, I paid for another month of unlimited access, and today my phone stopped working. Lovely. The support person says I have to call each month even when I pay online. That just plain does not make sense to me.

I also won't be doing that routinely, I'm sure. There is something here that I do not understand, and I asked that question plainly on the phone, twice, and by email once, but there was no explanation. This could have been a language barrier. It could have been Skype and some background noise. Who knows? If that's really the case, and a call is necessary each month, I anticipate changing my allegiance by the time summer gets here.

Then again, perhaps I can arrange my travel schedule to accommodate a loss of phone service for a day once a month. On the dark side, I'd suggest that opens up 1/30th of the bandwidth, but surely no organization does (much) of that and stays in business. I just have to believe I have missed a stitch in understanding how the account works.

Now, I do need to give the devil his due. The Optimus cost less than a quarter what the iPhone 3GS cost. The monthly fee from Virgin Mobile is about a quarter what I was paying for at&t to irritate me, though on paper Virgin gives me the universe (unlimited everything). However, we both know the reality of that marketing and advertisement hyperbole. In addition, the email with attachments that at&t needed 45 minutes to upload is, usually, gone in a very few moments with Virgin Mobile, and the attachments are bigger now. MMSs also flash out in about a fifth the time they needed on the iPhone with at&t.

What this means is that when Virgin Mobile disappoints me those half dozen times a day, the price I pay for the blood pressure spike is far less. We'll see later just where my limits really are.

To this end, I believe the question boils down to who blows chunks less, and how do you feel about the price you pay for the lack of reliability that you know you'll experience in some manner. Every carrier and, probably, every phone presents unique challenges for which customer service will apologize and the carrier will do nothing about because they balance their books on the backs of our patience.

It's a very strange way to build an enterprise.

22 March

Note: Lil tells me that she did the automatic renewal on the website, and she did not have to call. I'll do that when (1) I've decided to keep the service, and (2) I've decided which plan I need.

Note: So today, I go for lunch. No data. I am a mile from the airport, and that might be too far in the boonies. Back in the office, I called customer service. The Indian fellow is quite pleasant, but substantially unknowledgeably. He's following a script. Of course, I type a few numbers wrong, but we finally get it straightened out, especially after I reminded him that the contract ended yesterday, not today. After taking me through some steps where I reentered numbers that were already in the phone, it rebooted. Then he told me it would be a few hours before it was usable again. At this rate, I do not see our association lasting much longer, and I suspect they'll be glad to be rid of me. They sure are acting like it.

Note: At about 4:30 EDT, I noticed that data was not working (again) unless I was connected to WiFi. After a Skype call to customer service and speaking with two different people, I now have an escalated ticket. What that means remains a mystery to me. I am trying desperately to keep my cool on the phone because I know it's not anything the rep has done or can do. They are worker bees just as I am. While we were on the Skype call, I was surfing the competition. I'm thinking data is a big ruse, and I need to stick with voice and a little texting. We'll see.

Note: After the call, I tweeted a question to @VMUCare to ask if data in this area was out of service. About an hour later, they tweeted back with an email address. I sent a message to this address. Last night's email through the website remains unanswered.

Note: 7:30 and still no service. No call back. No response to either email. The Twitter account is also slow, and when something does come along, it's not particularly useful. Stuff like call this or email that. At 7:35, someone took me off hold and hung up. I'm on Skype, so the phone bill is on them, and I call back. It's now 7:40. This could go on a while.

Note: At 7:45, a customer service guy tells me that it's one of two things. It might be a network outage. They've been having those all day. It might be a problem with my phone, and that could take three days to resolve. I swear this is about the silliest mess I've experienced since BellSouth shut down our DSL for week. Too bad Clear doesn't do cell phones. Maybe they do VOIP through a hotspot? I'm feeling desperate here. meanwhile, Lil reported that she did lose service of all kinds for a day when her month rolled over, but that cycling the power got her back to working.

Note: At 8:30, I receive an auto-response to my email regarding the veracity of what the customer service man said about taking three days to get the phone to working again. Meanwhile, I stumbled upon a series of communications indicating that Virgin Mobile throttles back data after the first month. Although I do not know that to be true, it wouldn't surprise me, and experience suggests that at&t did the very same thing. In neither care is there any offer to charge less for offering less service.

Note: At 9:08, I turned off WiFi to check data access. It worked. I'll sleep on the problem tonight. I can change companies easy enough. I just lose the $60 I paid for the second month in addition to the price of the phone. This is not huge money as these things go, but there are better ways I could spend the $200. However, there's piece of mind to consider.

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