Saturday, February 16, 2019

A Year with the Honor 7X Smartphone: Look Outside of Apple and Samsung to Stretch Your Phone Dollars Farther

We’re going to go in an opposite direction than normal for this one, and take a look at a budget smartphone that purports to have a lot of features that should cost twice as much. That phone is the Honor 7X, one of the few rare phones released stateside from Huawei, the second largest cell phone manufacturer in the world (only behind Samsung). This isn't some fly-by-night review, though...I've owned it for almost a full year, and purchased it solely for personal use, so this is a completely uninfluenced look at whether or not this phone, and similar offerings from Chinese companies like Xiaomi, can pack useful, high-end tech, within a budget price range.

A quick little backstory: I was “raised” on hand-me-down iPhones, and was satisfied considering I didn’t have to pay for them. Then one day I broke mine, and as a temporary replacement while I was waiting for another hand-me-down iPhone to come my way, I got a ZTE Maven. It was absolutely awful, with a camera that couldn’t have been more than 5 MP and storage space so small I literally couldn’t put any apps on it (it was 8GB), but it was my first experience with the Android interface, and I eventually grew to like it.

After using that phone for almost six months, and still with no promised iPhone in sight, I finally just decided to pull the trigger on purchasing my own…and that’s when I learned just how expensive iPhones really are. With Apple out of the way as a potential option, I settled on finding a solid budget Android phone, one that would mix some good mid-to-high-end features for a not so high end price. After obsessively researching companies and offerings for a couple weeks, Honor lead the pack to become the top candidate.

PRICE 
Same price as it was a year ago when I bought it. (source: HiHonor USA website)
The Honor 7X cost me a mere $199… and that was at full price. Sometimes, if you hit it just right (such as during the holidays), you can get one for about $20 off that price, but they don't tend to drop much further than the $179 range brand new. Used ones in good condition tend to go for about $125, on average, but can sometimes be had for around $100, which would be a great deal for a solid backup phone. Either way, even the new price of $200 is a steal for a phone that purports to have as many features as this one does. 

I purchased the red version, which was a limited edition in time for Valentine’s Day (my birthday!) but I believe it has since become a standard option. Inside the box comes the phone, charger, and a nice surprise that I’m shocked other phone companies aren’t onboard with: a phone case. It’s a cheap, simple one that’s little more than clear silicone, but I’ve dropped my phone quite a few times with no repercussions, so it gets the job done. And if a $200 phone can include one, I’m sure higher end models from other companies could, too.

SPECS & FEATURES 
A highlight of the basic features (source: HiHonor USA website)
Out of the box (assuming, of course, you bought it new), the Honor 7X comes with Android 7.0 Nougat OS, though an upgrade has taken it up to 8.0 Oreo. (After reportedly being left off the list of Honor devices to receive Android version 9.0, known as “Pie”, word on the street is it will be receiving it after all, sometime later in 2019.) I might be in the minority, because I couldn't really care less what version it's running, as long as it's a functioning phone, but I know a lot of people want the latest updates as quickly as they are available.

It has an aluminum chassis that looks great, and feels both weighty and premium in hand. It definitely doesn't feel "rugged", so you won't get the impression you can drop it with no case and still be fine, but the matte finish is fingerprint-resistant and looks sleek. The smooth service does make it pretty slick, though, so be sure to handle with caution. The screen is clearly scratch-resistant, as I have nary a scratch on there despite several drops over the past 12 months.

Especially in red, this phone is pretty sharp in appearance, and easy to maintain.
Also a topic of...well, hatred...for a lot of people is Honor's EMUI interface, which apparently sucks. I have to be completely honest: I have no goddamn idea how EMUI differs from "stock Android", which is something that every phone-obsessed douchebag seems to prefer. All I know is, navigating around the phone is a fairly straightforward process, so I can't imagine how much difference there can be; either way, there are enough complaints from other users online that it's worth mentioning for all you d-bags out there who have to complain about things just because you hear other people complain about them.

The phone features a 5.93”, Full HD+, bezel-less display, which provides some vibrant colors. FHD+ was never top of the line back in early 2018, when this was released to the U.S., but it's got some rather vivid colors for such a cheap phone. It also has a 3.5mm headphone jack, an option that current manufacturers seem eager to completely remove from their phones, but must do with hesitancy considering it's a hugely popular feature.

Charging is done via a standard microUSB cable, with no quick charging capabilities available. Again, while faster charging is becoming more and more commonplace, even a year on it's still not a required feature on phones in this price range. It takes about two and a half hours to charge the phone from 0 to 100%, which admittedly can be an agonizing amount of time: however, I take advantage of as many power-saving features as possible (low brightness, no auto-rotate, etc.) and generally have at least 30% left after moderate use at the end of the day, so it should be enough power for all but the most power-hungry of users. (In fact, the only time I ran out of battery was after leaving it in my car overnight--which was at a repair shop.)

The dual camera setup has a 16 MP main snapper, along with an 8MP front-facing camera for selfies. It also has a third “camera”, which is actually just a 2 MP depth sensor that helps with background blurring for the “bokeh” selfie effects. Honestly, I was initially excited with the results from this phone, after having come from the 5 MP ZTE Maven, but after a year, I'd say the camera department is where this phone has probably aged the worst. But we'll dig more in-depth on that statement a little later.

Ignore the fingerprints: This has a pretty sharp display.
While up until now the features have been pretty standard, the Honor 7X does have a couple of pretty amazing technological feats going for it, in that it has both a fingerprint sensor, and facial recognition technology. While both of these methods are now almost standard security features in most every handset here in 2019, the fact they made it onto a $200 device a year ago is rather stunning. The fingerprint sensor is located in the back, and is amazingly quick—the phone unlocks almost the moment your finger touches it (assuming it's a good read, of course). Setting this feature up is surprisingly straightforward, with the sensor taking scans of your fingerprint from several angles until it has the whole print. You can store two fingerprints at any time, allowing either someone else to access your phone or, if you're lonely, giving you the option of using another finger, should one of them suddenly fall off.

Random close-up of the fingerprint sensor.
On a weird note, as cool as I thought it was when it was added the phone, I never used the facial recognition software, so I can't speak as to how accurate it is, but I would venture to say the fingerprint is a more secure method for unlocking, which is why I've always stuck with that (though keep in mind that a pin is also an unlocking option, and still required after rebooting your phone). Since there is no 3D sensor, this feature is executed using a two-dimensional map of your face, and even points out as you're setting it up that it can be unlocked by people who resemble you...eh, no thanks. Even though it's becoming very common, facial unlock just feels so gimmicky that I can't see myself relying on it anytime soon.

The biggest drawback is that—at least in the U.S. market—this phone is only available in a 3GB memory/32GB storage version. In a completely nonsensical move, Huawei (the parent company of Honor) announced a 4GB/64GB version under a completely different name (Huawei Mate SE), a couple of months after announcing this one. Having different names is dumb enough, but at the very least, couldn't they have announced/released them at the same time? Of course, by this time I had already ordered my 7X, but I probably would have splurged the extra $50 to get the extra memory and storage. Still, at the very least the 7X has upgradeable storage via MicroUSD, so adding another 32GB of storage was a relatively quick and inexpensive fix.

DISPLAY
One of the default lock screen choices, which shows off the beautiful, crisp display.
The screen is where I constantly fall in love with this phone all over again. It has a large, 18:9 screen, much larger than my wife’s iPhone, and makes the most out of it, with crisp colors and sharp resolution thanks to the Full High Definition Plus display. The screen extends almost all the way across the face, save for a bar housing the camera and speakers on top, and one with the logo and brand on the bottom, maximizing its visual space, and making it look like a more expensive phone.

It won’t win any awards, but for the price range, it's more than serviceable. And especially after following this from a strictly budget-minded phone in the ZTE Maven 2, the difference is night and day. The screen is easy to see indoors, even on the lowest setting, and at peak brightness, it's pretty strong. I will say it doesn't seem to get as bright as other phones, so if it's really sunny outside it can still be kind of hard to see through the glare even with the setting maxed out, but most of the time there are no problems.

The quality on video playback and photos is perfect for the average user. Again, I'm not sure that the LCD display is going to win over those accustomed to flagship-level handsets, but the colors are strong and accurate, and probably sharper than need be for all the boring things I tend to use it for, like checking emails, or social media a thousand times a day.

Overall, even today it's a pretty solid screen for its budget range, and more than sufficient for everyday use.

BATTERY 

Any budget phone is going to have to cut corners in a few places to make things affordable, and battery life is where the Honor takes a hit…or maybe even a few, depending on your usage. The battery itself is actually pretty fine, coming in at a respectable 3340 mAh, and lasts me a full day, even after a year of use (though, to be fair, I have the screen set to sleep after 15 seconds of inactivity, keep the screen on the lowest light settings I can, and close out of all apps after I’m done using them). Of course, given how often you are on it, or what you’re using it for (i.e. lots of videos or gaming), your mileage may vary, so keep that in mind, but for simple tasks, this will have you covered.

Where it might take the biggest hit, however, is in the charging department: The Honor 7X only has one charging option, and that’s via the standard Micro-USB charger. That means there is no support for wireless charging (understandable, given the price point and metal casing), nor any kind of “speedier” charge. In layman’s terms, it’s going to take you about 2.5 hours to get from 0-100%. TWO AND A HALF. Honestly, this doesn’t bother me all that much on a personal level, because I usually top off my power once or twice throughout the day, as needed, and fully charge it overnight while I’m sleeping. But for people like my wife, who always seems to be near empty on her iPhone no matter how many times she charges it, this could be a fatal flaw.

CAMERA 

The camera performs pretty well in normal lighting conditions.
On paper, the Honor 7X has a good camera, with a 16MP rear-facing camera, and a more modest 8MP camera for taking selfies. There is also a third “camera”…which is actually just a 2MP image sensor, that helps out with the “bokeh” selfie effects that this camera can generate. In reality, however, the camera isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be: It’s godawful in low-light situations, leading to many a nightmarish image as a result of someone moving in the dark. Flash, of course, can help, but there are instances when flash isn’t much of an option (such as taking photos of a sleeping child), so it would be nicer to have better low-light images by default. Again, for a phone in this price range, I can't really complain, considering we're just now starting to see improved night modes even on flagship phones, but it still renders it pretty much useless after the sun goes down.

One common complaint I've seen about this phone is that there is noticeable lag when opening, or switching between apps, especially after prolonged use. This is true, but overall just an expected quirk of a budget phone. After all, who cares if Ibotta takes ten seconds to fully load? That's not really much of an issue to me. However, the camera is where I really started to take notice: It takes a solid 3-5 seconds to pull up the camera program, and sometimes another 3-5 seconds to switch between camera modes. Normally this isn’t a big deal, but when you have a child and want to take a video of something stupid he’s doing to laugh at later, time is of the essence; usually, by the time the camera even loads, the moment is over and I’ve missed it. I've got to be honest: While I still enjoy the phone overall, and based on performance could get another year or two out of it, the camera is the main reason that I started to contemplate upgrading.

However, where it may disappoint in quality, the Honor 7X at least partially redeems itself with a wide variety of shooting modes, such as AR Mode, which are Snapchat-style effects that you can add to your photo and videos. Many of them are Asian-themed to appeal to that demographic (it is, after all, a Chinese-made phone), but they are still fun to toggle around with, especially if you’re sick of all the American Snapchat filters. What better way to catch your friends off guard than by uploading a video of you and a friend in kabuki masks while ethnic music clangs in the background? 

Built-in editing tools give you some cool effects on the fly.
The other fun effect to mess around with is light painting, which, as the name suggests, takes moving patterns of light and turns them into beautiful “paintings”. The best way to figure these out is to experiment with them, as there are 4 different options based on what kind of lights you’re working with, but they are all fun and generally yield very interesting results. For example, using “Light Graffiti” mode to shoot a 4th of July fireworks display left me with explosive streams of colorful light all across the screen. There are also special modes for capturing car tail and headlights from far away at night, and another for capturing the trail of the stars on a clear night sky, presumably via the "time lapse" option.

Even beyond these, there are a myriad of other photography features, such as slo-mo filming (which some reviews have said is not an included feature, but it is), panoramic photos, document scanning, color filters, HDR…it's an impressive roundup of features for such an inexpensive phone, and the only area where it won over my wife, if only for a short while (she used it to take one selfie, and about one hour later I had to beg for my phone back). 

Assuming your subject gives you time to mess with the settings, Pro Photo mode can give you some pretty detailed shots.
To help offset the issues with snapping photos on the fly, there is a pro photo setting which allows you to adjust the aperture, change the color temperature, auto-focus, etc. manually. I’m no professional, but messing around with the settings is fun, and can yield some photographs that the point-and-shoot camera couldn't have gotten by default. Adjusting each setting is done via slider, and all the results are shown in real-time, allowing you to see exactly how that setting will affect the end result. That helps make it accessible even for people that aren’t pros, but that have a little bit of patience, and can even be a helpful learning tool for those interested in entering the field. 

There are some pretty wild and unique settings to explore for the wannabe photographer.
Lest you think we've run out of things to do photography-wise, head to the main menu where you can enable some interesting special features, such as having the camera automatically snap photos when the subject is smiling, or when the decibel level around it hits a certain threshold, or when the subject says "cheese". These might not be things that you'll use in everyday life, and might even walk the line between interesting and creepy, but they're fun things to noodle around with when you have nothing better to do, and odd features that still aren't commonplace on every phone (at least not to my knowledge, though they continue to be features in most Huawei phones). 

There is also a pro setting for video, but the options are much more limited, and I haven’t really gotten around to checking it out. By default, the maximum resolution is 1080p, so it won't appeal to those who require crisp, professional videos, and the weaknesses of the camera seem even more heightened here: many of the videos I take turn out very grainy, again mainly due to poor lighting. They're acceptable (barely) to have just as keepsakes of memories, but for any professional application the video recorder won't even come close to getting the job done.

PERFORMANCE 

Performance has stayed pretty solid after a year, though as stated earlier there is noticeable lag when opening or switching between apps. Again, I would imagine this would be expected coming from a budget electronics item that most people keep on 24/7, so I don't see it as the Earth-shattering issue some online reviewers make it out to be. A lot of it also probably has to do with the relatively-weak 3 GB of memory, which can be sapped up rather quickly if there are a lot of programs simultaneously running, and definitely not a sufficient amount for gamers or chronic multi-taskers.

What is a pretty big drag, and one that will no doubt be a dealbreaker for some, is the GPS: it frequently has troubles connecting. This means if you travel to unfamiliar places a lot, and need a phone that can tell you how to get to where you’re going, this isn’t going to be a very reliable option. Even worse is that this function worked perfectly fine when I first bought it, and then seemed to “lose” the functionality after three or four months. I use Waze as my navigational app, and oftentimes, it won't be able to “find” the address I initially put in (even if it's a place I always go), and then even when it does, it constantly freezes and gets an error message about losing GPS signal. Sometimes, it even thinks I'm somewhere way far away from where I actually am, and can take several minutes to find the correct location—only to drop signal again almost immediately. It's rather frustrating to not be able to rely on something that's standard technology at any price point these days.

Get used to seeing this if you use GPS.
A quick search online has revealed many others who have encountered this same problem. As a workaround, I just pull up the GPS directions manually as a backup, so I can follow along step by step as I’m driving, but it certainly eliminates much of the reason for having GPS to begin with, requiring me to constantly look at the phone to make sure I'm on the right path. Thankfully, I don't often go to unfamiliar places, so while it's certainly an annoyance, it's not a huge problem for me; for others, it will be inexcusable.

Aside from these issues, it performs very well for day-to-day duties, and the battery--which can also degrade after many months of being charged and drained daily--still lasts me an entire day. Like I said earlier, if I didn't want a better camera, I wouldn't hesitate to rely on this phone for another year; physically, it's more than capable.

One thing worth noting that I nearly forgot: Like all Huawei products, the Honor 7X will only work with GSM carriers, like AT&T or T-Mobile, or any MVNO that utilizes these networks. They will not work with CDMA brands like Sprint or Verizon. This is because GSM is the main technology worldwide, with Europe going so far as to mandate its use way back in 1987. This means America is one of the few places worldwide that still use CDMA, making it pretty obvious why an international company--especially one with such little reach in the U.S.--would stick to focusing on GSM bands. (As can be expected, supported "bands"--which are basically frequencies--vary from country to country, so even international GSM phones may not have full functionality here. Since the Honor 7X was officially released in the U.S., it is optimized to work on the bands most widely used in America. However, this is why some international phones may not work well here, despite also using GSM technology.)

AVAILABILITY, OR: WHY THE U.S. IS REALLY AGAINST HUAWEI

Unfortunately, Honor devices aren't widely available in the United States, mainly because of the U.S. government's ongoing attack on their parent company, Huawei, in which they have accused the Chinese corporation of espionage, theft, and have even labeled them a threat to national security. It doesn't take an economic scholar to realize the political reasoning behind this...it's certainly more than curious that this bombshell was suddenly dropped as Huawei overtook American darling Apple as the second largest smartphone maker in the world. It also doesn't take a genius to realize that other countries who are starting to question Huawei's “intentions”—countries who have done business with them for years, with no issues or public safety concerns—are doing so at the very strict urging of Washington.

It's all because China continues to be at the forefront of technological advances, leaving everyone else to play catch-up...and the United States doesn't like to be second-best (or worse) at anything. Doesn't it strike anyone as odd that they are calling Huawei a “national security threat” yet have only charged them with stealing information on a T-Mobile robot, and going around U.S. sanctions by allegedly shipping things to Iran? It doesn't strike anyone as odd that they are leveling accusations that their devices are potentially being used to spy on people—while ignoring the fact that corporations like Google, as well as the American government themselves, have been spying on its own citizens for years? And even if Huawei did steal tech secrets from T-Mobile (back in 2012, mind you), isn't that what every other company does? Someone makes a smartphone with innovative features, and everyone else scrambles to copy and one-up them...that's just the nature of the beast.

Random image: Light painting of 4th of July fireworks.
Is anyone dumb enough to think U.S. corporations aren't doing these same things? Also seemingly lost in this whole debacle is the fact that, despite making rival smartphones, Huawei and Google are actually longtime partners in technology (Huawei made Google's flagship Nexus 6P phone several years back, and even now is testing Google's new Fuschia OS on some of their new 2019 phones), so why aren't any of the same concerns being projected onto Google, a company known to track users without consent? It's simple: The U.S. knows what crimes Google is guilty of, and are actively trying to protect them, much in the same way China is no doubt covering for the actions of their own tech giant.

But of course, the spin here is that the U.S. is doing it because it cares for its citizens, or something, while China is Communist, and evil, and hell-bent on world destruction. Or something. And also of course, people gobble it up with zest, eager at the chance to hate something they would otherwise know, or care, nothing about. All you have to do is toss words out like "privacy" and "violation" and "China" and "Communism", and you have the recipe to whip almost any American citizen into an uncontrollable frenzy, without any real evidence or context needed (you can get a similar response by just mentioning "Russia").

This pressure was actually felt shortly after the Honor 7X dropped: AT&T had actually formed an agreement with Huawei to carry some of their phones (such as the then-new Honor View 10) for purchase in-store, the same way you can waltz into a phone store and by an iPhone, or Samsung. However, pressure from the U.S. government forced them to drop that plan, effectively shutting them out from the eyes of the American public, who might actually realize just how much they are overpaying for their smartphone, when a rival Chinese company can offer the same specs as widely available flagships for $300 less.

Exploring the AR lens can be both fun and terrifying at the same time.
In short, the 7X is one of only three Honor phones available in the U.S., with none having been released after the Honor View 10 in March, 2018. This is a far cry from the ten or so that seem to have been released internationally since then. Even fewer devices bearing the Huawei name have ever been released here, though global versions that are compatible with U.S. carriers can be purchased online (a note: no Huawei devices are compatible with CDMA carriers like Sprint or Verizon; they should work with GSM carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile, though that might depend on your location since they are not configured to support U.S. bands). 

It really speaks to their overall quality and reputation abroad that Huawei was able to become the #2 manufacturer of smartphones (with aggressive plans to overtake Samsung as #1 as early as 2020) without any sales support in the U.S. whatsoever. Did America really think merely banning them from sale in the U.S. was going to stop their meteoric rise in the smartphone ranks? I think they were betting on it, and when that failed to slow down Huawei's momentum (along with sales of Apple's new X-series of phones bombing worldwide), they were forced to take more desperate measures, by dredging up some half-baked accusations and spinning it into anti-Chinese propaganda.

Hmm...could this graphic hold a clue as to why Huawei, who leads the world in 5G technology, was targeted? (Source: CNN)
In the end, their only “actual” crime seems to be running afoul of the U.S., by daring to be successful without American “approval”. Don't get me wrong, I'm not a Huawei-, or Chinese-, or Communist-sympathizer by any stretch of the imagination: I would certainly not want to live there, and I'm not necessarily doubting that Huawei hasn't engaged in “shady” practices to get as far as they have. But what I do doubt are the severity of the accusations: I would venture to bet, especially based on the rather flimsy “charges” that the U.S. has uncovered after virtually hyping them up to be terrorists, that anything they have done would just be considered “business as usual” if an American company did it.

OVERALL 

Phew! Now let's back to the phone, shall we? Overall, I would venture to say that, in many respects, the Honor 7X has not aged very well, just in the 12 or so short months it's been available in the U.S.: The GPS functions are incredibly unreliable, the cameras aren't nearly up to par with other budget phones that have since been released (including a couple of Honor's own later offerings), and there are no options for fast charging. Huawei's decision to release the same phone, only with better specs, under a completely different brand and product name (Huawei Mate SE is exactly the Honor 7X, only with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage space, as opposed to the 7X's 3/32GB setup) is also a curious misstep that didn't do it any favors.

However, while some areas have seen leaps in technological advances, this is still a device that offers great bang for the buck, and a plethora of advanced features, all for under $200...there just isn't an “American-approved” phone that can offer this sort of value. The display is nice and crisp, the battery life will last most users a full day on a single charge, and the fact that Honor includes a clear plastic case with all of their phones is also a nice touch (it may be cheap, but I've dropped my phone at least a dozen times at all sorts of angles, with nary a scratch to show for it). The camera, while underwhelming by point-and-shoot default, does have an excellent variety of modes to help bring out your creative juices, assuming you have some time to noodle around with options.

My next phone: Huawei P20 Pro in Twilight.
Though my excitement for the Honor 7X has waned a bit since the original purchase, I have to give Honor (and Huawei) credit for opening my eyes to what phones can be. That might sound corny, but I have never had an interest in shelling out more than $200 for a phone, believing anything more than that is an outright waste. One year later, and I'm already looking to upgrade to a phone that costs three times as much, and following news on all the latest Huawei releases. Why? Why not when you can get just as much phone as the main flagships—and in some instances, even more—for a fraction of the price? Why not when all the overhyped, "American-approved" options basically just put last year's phone in a brand new outer shell, and then up the price $300?

Give me innovation and competition any day of the year, and those are two qualities Huawei packs in spades.

RATING: 7/10

Saturday, February 9, 2019

From Budget Food Review to The Budget Reviews: Blog Title and Focus Update

Greetings all! It doesn't feel like it, but Budget Food Review is nearing its 10 year anniversary (mainly because it's been an off-and-on project for basically the entire time). As many of you may know, doing the same thing over and over--even off an on--can get tiresome after a short while, and ten years is certainly longer than a short while. With that in mind, I now present to you....The Budget Reviews (which is more or less a tentative title, by the way)!

To breathe new life--and to renew interest--in the format, we are broadening our focus a little bit to include many other items and products outside of discount grocery stores, from apps, to electronics, and many things in between. The main point of this blog has always been about finding diamonds in the rough while maintaining a small budget, and that won't change in the slightest. However, forcing myself to write about the weird German cookies I just bought from Aldi isn't as exciting as it once was, so this will allow the blog to continue on.

Don't get me wrong, my interests change on a whim, so there will still be food and product reviews from discount grocers. But with technological advances there are also so many other things flying under the radar that budget-conscious shoppers might not know about, that I feel it's my duty to help spread the word! As with the previous iteration, I am still not affiliated or endorsed by any of the things I review, so this decision is purely out of maintaining self-interest, rather than for monetary gain. It will still have the same flavor and award-winning dryness you've come to expect from me over the years.

As you can probably tell, the new focus is underway, with reviews of Instacart and Ibotta already up, and many more to follow. I hope those of you who started reading for the discount store food reviews will continue to stick around, but this broadened scope can also open the door for others to find out about products and services they might not know about. Thank you all for your continued support, and I look forward to starting this new chapter in the life of Budget Food Review!

Sincerely,

Aaron

Saving Money with Ibotta: A Long-Winded Essay on the Pros and Cons of the Digital Coupon App

UPDATE (3/21): Ibotta has quietly added Aldi to its list of accepted stores! This has happened before in the past, before being unceremoniously dumped from its roster, so it's best to treat this like a limited-time offer, and load up on the rebates while you can. As long as this is the case, I'm upping my final rating to 6.5/10.

Well isn't this a review out of left field? Instead of looking at specific grocery items from discount grocers today, we're going to change it up a little bit, and take a look at a mobile app that can help you save some money at almost any grocery store that you shop (with the exception of Aldi, so let's get that out of the way right now). It's called Ibotta, and if you have never heard of it and consider yourself a savvy shopper...well then you're about to get even savvier. After all, there are other ways to help you maintain your budget than just buying off-brands every single time you shop!

Like everything in life, Ibotta isn't for everyone. Is it right for you? Clear an hour out of your schedule and let's have a look see, shall we?

NAVIGATION

The main app screen.

Navigating Ibotta is pretty easy once you get the hang of it, although it can sometimes be daunting at first. You can search by store, allowing you to see all of the available item offers in said store, or search for a specific product that you're looking for. Once a store is selected, the app has all of the offers separated by categories, making it easy to find, for example, baby products, or offers on alcohol. 

Adding an item is as easy as clicking “add”, which adds it to your product queue, allowing you to redeem it later. Keep in mind that you can add as many products as you like, but I'm pretty sure there are no ways to remove an item from your list once it's added; if you don't end up buying it on that trip, it will keep popping up and up until you either do buy it, or until the offer expires. This isn't a big deal, but just a heads up that if you add a lot of stuff that you don't intend to buy, you'll end up having a long list of items to scroll through, in order to add the ones you did purchase.

The handy little template for uploading receipts.
Uploading receipts is an easy process, accomplished using your phone's camera. Just make sure you get the store logo, and shopping date clearly captured; no worries if the receipt is long, as you can keep taking pictures of extra sections until you reach the bottom of the receipt. Once you have done this, you may be required to scan the UPC barcode of the items, which again is done using the camera: simply line up the scan bar with the item, and it will automatically verify the purchase, assuming it's the right size and price. (In case you have doubts in-store about whether or not you're selecting the right item, you can also scan the barcode to check, near the bottom of each item page.)

The barcode function can also be used in advance to verify if an item you're eyeing is part of an Ibotta offer, which eliminates the hassle of buying the wrong item, and only finding out after you've purchased it. Make sure to take advantage of this in-store so you don't get saddled with something you can't get anything back for.

Not sure if you're selecting the right item/size? Scan the barcode!
It might sound like a lot of steps, but it becomes much more fluid once you use it a couple of times.

EASE OF USE

As I've said before, the act of navigating Ibotta is pretty straightforward from the outset, with simple ways to search or browse for specific items or categories. However, there is more to life than convenience, and so it should come as no surprise when I say that Ibotta is far from perfect; chances are good for those that use it often that you will run into a problem at some point. And chances are also good that that problem will arise from not paying attention or reading the fine print in close enough detail.

Beware of multi-purchase requirements, like on this Skyr. You must by five of that item to get the $2 cash reward.

For example, some of the items require you to purchase multiples of the same item in order to get the offer. These were clearly denoted with a “x2” (with the number being however many you have to buy) in the item's image, but now merely have a "Must Buy __" caption below it. If you buy fewer than the required amount, you won't get anything back. Other offers require you to purchase two different things (such as a beer and specific brand of potato chip) in order to receive the cash back, so just make sure you're getting both of the items mentioned and you shouldn't have a problem.

However, the one area where it's easier to get burned is if you search for a specific product, without a store “attached”. You see, there are several offers that are only available at certain stores, even if the item is widely available everywhere; if you just do a search without first selecting your store, it will populate with all deals available, even if your store isn't one of them. For example, if you just search for your favorite brand of ice cream, it might pop up with an enticing offer. In a hurry, or just being unfamiliar with the app, you buy it from your favorite store, and go to activate it...only to discover that it's not valid at the store that you bought it from. No money back for you! These items aren't obvious from the search results, either, instead requiring you to click into the item and scroll to the bottom, where it lists everywhere that offer is accepted.
Perfect example of a general search with no store "attached". Note the 2 similar offers...some stores will qualify for the top offer, some for the bottom, and some for neither. Make sure to fill in the store first before searching for store-relevant results.
There have also been a couple times where I've had offers expire, out of nowhere. In theory, every item nearing its end should have a countdown timer, that notifies you how many days, or hours, are left. One time I bought an item with a few hours left, only to discover—after purchasing it—that it was no longer valid. No warning, no explanation, no nothing. I've also had other items, even with no noted expiration date, do the same thing. This thankfully doesn't seem to happen too frequently, but it's happened enough to be quite annoying, especially when you buy something specifically for the cash back.

Also, some of the deals require you to answer a question before you can “add” it for redemption. Most of these are obvious, just little survey-style samples of how old you are, your gender, etc. However, sometimes they look like advertisements, and aren't so obvious: One time I had to write to support because I was attempting to claim a deal, and all that would pop up was an ad for that item, listing off four highlights of said product, with no way to advance forward. As it turned out, that “ad” was actually asking me what four highlights of that product were, so I was supposed to manually select each answer, thus allowing me to move forward. Maybe I'm the only idiot that ever got “stuck” there, but I still feel it's worth noting.
Overall, it's pretty easy and straightforward to navigate, but there's definitely a learning curve when it comes to understanding all the nuances of the app, and chances are it's probably going to cost you a few dollars in lost deals before you fully get the hang of it.

SELECTION
In this case, “selection” means the variety of offers on display...and quite frankly, in this regard, Ibotta cannot be touched. They have almost every major grocery store chain, both nationwide and regional, covered, meaning no matter where you shop (unless it's a small, local, family-owned grocer) chances are Ibotta will have deals for it.

There are also a large number of online retailers, though the process for redemption is stupid.

Their deals even extend to online retailers, where they offer (a la “eBates”), a percentage of your order total back when you make an online purchase. Most of these offers are in the 2-4% range, but every so often (especially around the holidays) they can get boosted up to as much as 10% back, which is a very generous return on things you're already going to buy anyway. The only catch is, you must go into Ibotta and click on the “Shop” button for the store specific to the deal you want—unlike eBates (or even Ibotta's own in-store functionality), you cannot enter an e-receipt after the fact, to get your reward. Also, if you close out of it at any time, or are otherwise disconnected, you have to go back into Ibotta, and start all over from scratch, making this a pretty worthless option when compared to other services that allow you to submit receipts after the fact.

From an in-store perspective, each store has dozens of deals easily categorized and accessible...chances are good that you're going to find something that you want or need. While most of the offers are for specific brands and/or sized products, I love that they do throw in several unbranded items, too. These offers will have a generic photo and say, for example, “Any single-serve orange juice”. This allows you to buy any single serving bottle of any brand orange juice—even store brands!--while giving you the reward.

No specific stores in mind? Ibotta makes it easy to search for stores by category.
While it's true that a vast majority of national chains are included, it's worth a gentle reminder that Aldi is not one of them; this is probably due to them not carrying many national brand items that the app focuses on (though they could still keep them up for the unbranded items—Dollar Tree is in here, for God's sake). So if you're like me, and do a lot of shopping at the German chain, don't even bother checking out the app beforehand.

GETTING PAID
Once you upload a receipt, assuming there are no problems, you can expect the money to go into your account within 24 hours. Honestly, I haven't really paid attention to whether or not this is true, as I just tend to upload receipts, let the money accrue, and forget about it, but it's always there when I check the next time, so we'll just assume it's true.

The money is stored in your Ibotta account until you choose to cash out, which you can do with any amount over $20. Money can then be transferred to a Venmo or Paypal account or, if you don't have either one of those (or just prefer not to use them), you can also have the balance transferred to a gift card. Honestly, I've not even used this feature yet, so I can't comment on how well it works, but reviews across the board say it's a legit process, so I'm not expecting there to be any problems.

Earn some extra cash with bonuses.
Obviously, accruing cash depends on how much shopping you do at “approved” retailers (and how much time you invest in scanning deals beforehand), but as a general rule, we've had the app for about 8 months, and have close to $70 in it. That's not a bad amount, considering we only do about 50% of our total grocery shopping at Kroger, which is where almost that whole total came from.

While we're on the topic of accruing money, Ibotta also gives you the chance to earn extra through “bonuses”. Typically, they work like this: they give you a checklist of five or six deals to complete, usually linked by theme, and once you complete them, you get an extra boost in cash. I have never even tried to do this, because we typically don't need or want even half of the things that are listed, but for those that have larger families, or that throw parties and like to have lots of different products on hand, this could really boost your savings up quicker.

Loading up on free offers not only gets you free stuff, but can help you earn bonuses quicker.
The only bonus we've ever gotten was the $10 sign up bonus, which I highly recommend. For that one, you must bring your account up to $10 within the first thirty days you sign up, and they'll give you an extra $10. It might sound like a lot (we've certainly never come close to $10 within thirty days since), but they generally have some high value rebates (such as $4 back on a $4 jar of mayo) that can help you get there a little quicker. 

For those of you who have large friend groups and don't mind being an annoying little twat, you can also get a $5 bonus for every friend you refer to the app, though I'm sure a large checklist of stipulations apply. (I never play these “refer-a-friend” games.)

IS IT RIGHT FOR YOU?

Most everyone likes saving money, so you're probably thinking, “Who wouldn't this be for?” Well, while it certainly saves time over clipping paper coupons, there is still quite a bit of premeditated research that must go in to purchases if you really want to get the most out of it. Sure, you can always just do your normal shopping without first consulting the app, and just pray that some of your purchases qualify after the fact, but even though Ibotta has a lot of offers, it's still just a small percentage of what a typical grocery store carries: In other words, there's a good chance you won't be saving much.

Random leftover image to help break up the text.
You can also try looking up offers while you're at the store, but in my experience, wifi can be pretty spotty at some supermarkets, which generally just leads to a lot of frustration waiting for offers and pages to load. Not to mention the annoyance of having to find some uncrowded area to park your cart to stay out of everyone's way if you're going during busy times, and this generally isn't a recommended approach.

But if you have some time to sit down and compare the offers to your list, you can both save a good amount of money, and buy some things that you wouldn't normally try, just to take advantage of some offers (hey, if I'm going to get a $4 item for free, I'll give it a shot!). Ditto that if you're willing to go out of your way and shop elsewhere to get even bigger savings. (Pro tip: I've noticed Walmart seems to have more “free after rebate” offers, and a larger quantity of “exclusive” offers; if you can handle the circus-grade clientele and bleak atmosphere, that might help you reach bonuses even quicker.)

It's a great app for the right person, and a good app for the average one.

RATING: 6/10

Saturday, February 2, 2019

My First Experience with Instacart: Is It (And Other Grocery Delivery Services) Worth It?

Is this piece-of-shit service worth your time and money?

I’ve always avoided the whole idea of grocery delivery, even though it seems to be gaining traction—every supermarket these days offers some sort of delivery program—mainly because it just sounded so expensive. You’re either roped into an annual “contract” through a yearly subscription cost (usually around $99), or you pay a higher monthly charge, on top of higher prices on many items, service charges, tips to the driver, and a delivery charge (if no monthly fee, or if your order is under a certain threshold). I mean, I get that it’s all about convenience and not about savings, but depending on what you buy, that can take up a rather large percentage of the original grocery costs. At what point is the trade-off for convenience just not worth it?

A clean, enticing ad for Instacart delivery, from Aldi.

And yet, I found myself actually contemplating using the service when we were almost out of diapers one cold, wintry evening. Neither of us really felt like leaving the warm comfort of home just to grab some, and to complicate matters, I had to work first thing in the morning, which meant in order for my wife to grab some herself the next morning, she would have to pack baby up and take him with her. I think even those without kids can accurately imagine the hassle of having to bundle up and strap a toddler into a car just to run down the street to grab a couple of things—it ain’t worth it. So when I saw Aldi had finally spread its Instacart delivery service to Ohio (and 5,000 additional zip codes nationwide), I thought this would be a perfect time to see what the service was all about.

And what I learned is that there are a LOT of variables at play that are going to affect your overall experience.

The “push” to actually use Instacart came from a promo code (ALDILOVE if you want to try it out for yourself; no idea if/when it expires), which gives users $10 off of their first THREE orders from Aldi, with free delivery added on the first one. I figured that wasn’t a bad deal—at the very least that money would help offset some of the markups and additional charges, and so I began the process to find enough items to meet the $35 minimum order requirement.

Browsing for stuff is pretty simple; there is also a search bar for quick location of specific items.

Finding items in the program is pretty easy, thanks to the search bar at the top of the screen. Know what you’re looking for? Type it in, and marvel as all pertinent results pop up, while adding the items to your cart is as easy as one (maybe two) mouse clicks. If you don’t have a specific item in mind and need to browse, say, laundry stuff, all the departments are grouped together, so you can easily browse all items offered within a specific category. Note that this information pertains to the website only—they do have an app for those on the go, but since I was just testing the service out, I did not download it.

One thing I am wondering is just how accurate Aldi’s inventory counts are, considering their “special buy” business model. When we used their service, it was late November, and I did notice some holiday candies that popped up—clearly part of their seasonal inventory—but I didn’t see if they were a part of that week's ad, or a previous week. I would imagine it would be kind of hard for the inventory to keep track of their Special Buy items, since they are added weekly and not replenished once sold out, and can’t seem to find a specific answer on it. If anyone has any more knowledge on this topic, I’d be glad to hear it in the comments!

I knew through extensive previous research that there were markups on certain items, but I was shocked to discover that there were also many that had no such markup. I sadly know far too many prices at Aldi, so picking out the ones that had a few extra coins attached was pretty easy for me; I’m sure it’s a lot harder to spot if you’re ordering from a more traditional supermarket, where prices tend to fluctuate more. The most glaring markup came from something we desperately needed: milk. I haven’t seen it cost more than $2 at Aldi in over a year, yet it was $2.69 in Instacart. Since we were also going to run out of that by morning, I had to pull the trigger with disgust—from what I could tell, though, the other items that had additional markups seemed to be around $.20 to $.30 each. 


Once I hit the threshold and was satisfied with my order, I was taken to a “substitution screen”: Based on specific counts in that store’s inventory, it lets you know which items could possibly be sold out or hard-to-find, and lets you auto-approve certain substitutions, preventing your shopper from having to contact you during the trip. By default, similar items are recommended, but you can either add your own substitution, or skip it if you just want to be contacted in the event of an outage. It's a nice feature, considering you already will be getting a dozen messages from your shopper, so any you can eliminate is one less annoyance to deal with. From there, I placed my order, and scheduled it to be delivered the following morning between 10-11 a.m., the earliest window for delivery. 

Breakdown of costs for a quick order, not including delivery. Note that it's already $5 more...

The following morning, the day of the scheduled delivery, we ran into problems right out of the gates: We received a message from Instacart that the shopper would be running late, and instead of the window we had chosen (10-11 am), it was going to be delivered between 11:15-11:45 instead. Normally that wouldn’t have been such a big deal—after all, we’re looking at a minimum that’s just 15 minutes longer than originally anticipated—but considering my wife used our last diaper earlier that morning, time was of the essence. In fact, we were hoping it would be delivered closer to the beginning part of the window (10 am) rather than later, making it more than just a slight annoyance. On one hand, yes, it was our fault for losing track of our supplies; on the other, isn't this a system that's based entirely around convenience?

Later on, my wife received the first of a million messages from Instacart/the shopper: We had put cinnamon French toast sticks in our order, and I had auto-approved regular ones if they were out. Apparently, they were also out of our backup option, because the shopper contacted her to ask if a substitution for blueberry pancakes and sausage on a stick would be okay. That’s a rather odd suggestion, but I guess she felt our hearts were set on some sort of frozen breakfast food. But by the time my wife logged in and went to respond not five minutes after receiving the request, we were informed that it was too late to review the substitution, because the shopper was already checking out. Okay, so apparently you can’t do anything while waiting for your order because you have to drop what you’re doing and respond immediately to any and all questions…wait, where’s the convenience again?

Also, the shopper went ahead and substituted the pancakes on a stick…which was $3 more than our original requested item. And all within five minutes of the initial request. I mean, we ate them, but what if it was something that we didn’t like, or even worse, were allergic to? I’d almost rather she just left it off entirely, but then I suppose people would get upset with that, so its one of those “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” kinda things from the shoppers’ perspective.

The delivery finally came around 11:30, a half-hour later than the tail end of our originally requested hour-long window. Since I was still at work, my wife said the lady who delivered it was really nice, but there was an odd mixup concerning the grocery bags. The shopper brought them in the large, reusable Aldi totes, mentioning something about them being out of regular bags (?), and then hovered around after handing the groceries over, as if waiting to get her bags back. My wife, taking care of a baby and whining dog, and hating the idea of being rushed to empty groceries, made it pretty clear that wasn’t going to happen, at which point the lady kindly said she could just get more, and left. I know the shopper didn’t mean anything by it, and handled the situation well enough to prevent it from escalating, but forcing someone to unload groceries while you wait so you can keep the same bags seems a little…dumb? Rude? Awkward? If there isn't a way for Instacart to add the cost of normal bags into the order total (and Lord knows their system allows the addition of many types of fees already), then that's something they should really look at implementing.

So, would we use the service again? After all, we do get two additional $10 discounts (off a $35 minimum purchase) which, in theory, can work out to some pretty decent savings. However, after using it, I physically hate the service even more than I initially hated the thought of it, which is a lot. Sure, it’s a great service for rich people, who have loads of expendable income, but for the average Joe, I don’t feel like the tradeoff is even close to worth it. I won't say I'd “never” use it again, simply because kids, and—well, life in general—can be pretty unpredictable, and you never know when you'll run into a situation where it could come in handy, but I can say I'd certainly never, ever use it to replace a normal shopping trip.

On top of the additional markup on random items--which Instacart estimates to be somewhere around 15%, but which online users have found to be closer to 25%, or even more (depending on the items in the order, and store location), there is also a service fee of an additional 5% (which, for our $45 order, was a little under $2.50; this is basically a donation to the service, as none of it goes to your driver) , a recommended tip of 5% (which all goes to the driver and can be adjusted accordingly in either direction; we kept it at default which basically doubles the service charge) and, while our deal offered us free delivery, there would also normally be another $3.99 minimum charge for delivery. And keep in mind that, while the other fees are shown as you check out, the markup costs on individual items are never specifically revealed. In this case, we probably paid around $10 extra in markups (by saving $10 on groceries and receiving free delivery), but adding in the delivery charge would have put us around $15, or 33% of the original tab. Oh, and it gets even better: They charge a higher delivery fee for delivery during peak times, so your charge could double and go up to $7.99 if you order, say, New Year's week.

Delivery costs during peak times double.

Yet, somehow, even with all those fees, the company still can’t afford to pay its workers all that much, with average pay-per-hour reportedly hovering around the $15/hr mark (of course, the website touts that shoppers can make upwards of $25 an hour, though by virtually all actual accounts, maintaining that mark is virtually impossible). That’s not a terrible wage in and of itself, but considering the beating you’re putting on your own car, most of that money will probably just end up going to fixing it when it dies. Oh, and there are no additional benefits for its shoppers: No gas discounts, no medical care options, no 401k, no nothing.

Really, these delivery companies all seem to be knee-jerk reactions to taking advantage of a fad before it dies down. Now, I don't think grocery delivery itself is a fad—a growing number of people are either lazy, or legitimately busy, and eliminating a trip to the market can potentially free up an hour or two of free time—but the current business models of said services just don't seem to be very sustainable. Once the grocery stores themselves start offering delivery, complete with their own associates in their own branded vehicles, then we might be looking at a service worth using. Until then, these services all just feel like pop-up cash grabs, targeting the rich and those that value the convenience, without taking the time to research the downsides. Hell, Instacart has even received substantial press for hiding additional fees in the past, an issue that they've supposedly resolved. But if we've learned anything from business culture, that just means they've learned to hide them a little bit better.

I'm not naive enough to think what's best for me is what's best for everyone: there are no doubt many scenarios where Instacart can be a legitimate time/life-saver. But for the average Joe who just hates going to the grocery store and is living paycheck to paycheck--you're better of dragging your ass off the couch and going yourself.