Saturday, April 27, 2019

Two Months with the Huawei P20 Pro Smartphone in the U.S.: Putting Performance/Availability Questions to Rest

NOTE: This is an open, work-in-progress review, which will be updated every few months throughout the life of the phone to keep track of long-term reliability. As such, the rating may continually be adjusted based on future performance. Also, many more photos will be added to this post in the very near future, including of the device itself--I've been working on writing this for over a month now and, quite frankly, it's driving me crazy to not have it posted yet. If you have any specific questions or comments about things not covered here, feel free to leave it in a comment!

PHOTO NOTES: All images taken from this phone and used in this review are completely unedited 10 MP photo files, uploaded here from my free Google Photos account. Thus, they are slightly compressed for size, but not to the extent that any loss of quality should be evident. The photos were not touched up or edited in any way before posting.


Stock image of my gorgeous phone, until I take and post actual ones. Lol.
UPDATE #1:

With the new Huawei P30 Pro smartphone having been released in most markets—and earning unanimous acclaim for its miraculous camera stystem--it seems like the worst possible time for a look at its previous iteration, right? Maybe for rich tech junkies and elitists, who want to feel like they have the latest technology and have endless means of disposable income to make it happen.

But for budget connoisseurs like ourselves, what better time to buy an “old” phone than when the new one is coming out? After all, most yearly phone updates are the equivalent of annual sports video game installments: just enough minor improvements to give people the feeling they're getting something new and improved, while jacking up the price tag as high as demand will allow. And with Huawei's (reportedly) superior Mate 20 Pro having already been released in October, that means double the price drop for the old P20 Pro, released in April, 2018, and still hailed as one of the best photography phones available. After all, the P20 Pro is the one that started the whole “let's see how many cameras we can shove into a smartphone" trend, by being the first one to feature a three-camera setup.

Although Huawei has supposedly reworked the camera system from the ground up for the P30 Pro, leading to even greater improvement in low-light photography, as well as even better zoom function (with a whopping 10x hybrid zoom feature, up from 5x here) and added a “time of flight” sensor (basically a 3-D depth sensor), the remainder of the phone is largely unchanged. And let's not forget that, even after Samsung had their latest go with the S10 lineup, the P20 Pro is still in a three-way-tie for second place in DxOMark's rankings as best smartphone camera—tied with the S10 Plus and Huawei Mate 20 Pro, and trailing only the P30 Pro and, curiously, Samsung's 5G-enabled version of the S10 phone, which somehow must have a different camera setup than the others.

In other words, now's a great time to get a jump on a phone that's still near the top of its class, and will be a capable performer for at least the next year or two. But the big question that I always heard (and wondered myself) is, how would the phone fare in America? After all, with (dubious) political pressure from Washington attempting to prevent Huawei's infiltration here, there isn't a model specifically made for the U.S. market. And with different countries and phone carriers supporting different cellular network bands, it's very possible that a phone that works well in one country can have loads of troubles working elsewhere. So can a phone that's not made with Americans in mind still work in America?

Well, I bought one, so let's find out.

AVAILABILITY/PRICING
Everyone harps on the fact that this phone is “not available in the United States”, with American publications even going so far as to say things like “The Best Phone You'll Never Buy” (Engadget), or some kind of similar hyperbolic statement. What I'm assuming they really mean, is that you can't just walk into a carrier, such as AT&T or Verizon, or head to your local Walmart, to buy one.

Just a small smattering of search results for "Huawei P20 Pro" on eBay. Does this look "banned" or "hard-to-find"?
Fair enough—and all of the above is true—but statements worded like that only help to perpetuate the complete myth that purchasing (or even selling) a Huawei device is illegal, or that they are “banned” in the United States, two fallacies that couldn't be more wrong: The only “law” against them is that federal employees cannot use a Huawei (or ZTE) device as their work phone; I couldn't even find any specific wording that would prevent them from using one as their personal device outside of work, if they so wished. It is perfectly legal to purchase, carry, sell, and otherwise use a Huawei device in America, so don't be put off by misleading statements to the contrary.

As for availability, well...if you’ve ever heard of Amazon or eBay, two small up-and-coming marketplaces that are under-the-radar to most people, then you will have no problems tracking this device down. When it was first released, the price topped $1,000 for shipments to the United States—after all, it’s a “premium” flagship device, and customs charges potentially threatened to push that cost even higher. However, as its popularity took off (they have since sold 10 million units of the entire P20 series)—and as the Mate 20 line was announced and released (of which they also sold 10 million units, proving the popularity of the company in literally every country but the U.S.)—the price started to quickly drop off into more affordable territory.

I picked mine up on my birthday (February 14th) from eBay, grabbing a global “Open Box” dual-sim version (CLT-29) in the gorgeous gradient color Twilight, for just under $600 (the cheapest new one I could find at that time was $635). I knew prices would be dropping even further if I waited another month (the P30 Pro was announced a month ago, and is on sale in most regions now), but we were going out of town in early March and I wanted to have time to get used to the camera by then. Sure enough, prices have dropped to below the $600 range for a brand new one, with open boxes and used versions obviously going for even cheaper than that.

The one thing to keep in mind, however—and perhaps the only real argument against taking a chance on purchasing one—is that, since it's not sold through official channels here, there is no warranty offered to devices purchased in the U.S. You also cannot use the pre-loaded AppGallery or Huawei Cloud apps, as they bring up an error message that they “are not available in your region”. As a counterpoint, you can find a seller that offers 30-day free returns, which would at least cover you if you received a defective device. You can also sign up for a third-party warranty through a company like Consumer Priority Service (an eBay partner), which will cover your device against water damage, accidental drops, and the like, for a monthly fee (and one-time “activation” charge).
Sure, it might not be as ideal as having a manufacturer's warranty right out of the box, but if you're that worried about it, it should help to give you some peace of mind.

DISPLAY
What a better place to start on the physical review than with the thing you’ll be looking at the most? Honestly, I always feel inexperienced when it comes to describing displays, because as long as it’s crisp and clear, and visible, then I’m fine with it: by those lenient standards, the P20 Pro passes with room to spare, offering up rich colors and a good level of detail.

Then again, I was always enamored with the basic LCD screen of the Honor 7X (a further testament to my indifference to displays, though in my defense, I came over from the $50 ZTE Maven 2) and the OLED Full HD+ offered up by the P20 Pro is equally gorgeous, and a real joy to look at. It might not be top-of-the-line in terms of specs—apparently most flagships use AMOLED displays—but unless you're going to be viewing it at weird angles or looking at it while it's pressed against your nose, the general consensus is that the differences within everyday use aren't all that noticeable.
The peak brightness is a lot stronger than it was on the Honor, so it's a little easier to see on bright days (the Honor hit its peak at 510 nits, while the P20 Pro comes in at a max of 597), but that's still a lot lower than other flagship devices; sure enough, if the sun's shining directly on my phone, even at its maximum setting, the brightness can still make it very hard to see. On the flip side, the lowest setting is a scant 4 nits, so in dark rooms you can really turn the display down without blinding yourself or those around you.

Of course, there are a variety of display modes that you can toggle with and configure—such as the popular “Always On Display”, and color profiles that “tune” the colors to a set preconfiguration—but I generally just stick to the default settings on these, and haven't really messed around with them too much.

I think my biggest problem with the display up to this point is the auto-correcting brightness feature, which uses sensors to scan for available light in a room and automatically adjusts the screen to be visible in that room. That's not such a bad idea in and of itself, but what is a problem is that even when the feature is turned off, via the display menu, it's always still on. Granted, it's not as constant and obvious as it is when the setting is actually set to “on”, but once you go through two areas of contrasting light difference (such as a bright room to a pitch-black one) you'll notice the display almost “jump” as it automatically adjusts to the new room. This is one of those annoying things that other reviewers have noticed, and also a small thing you would think would have been fixed via update by now, but one year into the phone's life cycle, and it hasn't been addressed. The “glitch” doesn't noticeably affect the battery, and it generally only happens when switching between two extreme light situations, but it's very frustrating.

AUDIO
This is another section where I'm relatively easy to please: As long as I can hear the audio output, and it sounds better than radio quality, I'm pretty much fine with it. Once again, with those simple metrics in mind, the P20 Pro easily surpasses my expectations: volume levels get much higher than they did on my Honor 7X, and the Dolby Atmos sound system ensures the audio is crisp and clear at modest levels. Once you push the volume level up to its highest settings (which get much louder than my Honor did), you do start to get some noticeable breakup/static in the audio, but that's generally true of most playback devices.

One omission that bothers me a little bit more than I thought it would is the lack of a headphone jack. Honestly, I rarely use actual headphones, but my car stereo lacks any sort of USB connection, so the 3.5mm audio cable is the only way I can connect my phone to my car stereo. Without such a connection, I'm unable to blast tunes in my car, which is definitely a bummer. It's also a little odd that the little USB-C charging hole also doubles as the speaker, so if you're charging your phone while listening to music, it can get a little muffled. This isn't something that's of particular concern to me, because I mainly charge my phone at night while I'm sleeping, but for those that charge their phones during awake hours, it's worth noting.

Overall, I'd say the audio experience is fine: It's not outstanding or “world-class” in any way, but it will get the job done for most “basic” users, who are just going to want to stream some music and watch videos online.

BATTERY
The P20 Pro comes in packing a 4,000 mAh battery. Well, what exactly does that mean for the non-tech savvy? Generally speaking, the higher the number, the longer you can expect the battery to last, though of course a variety of factors contribute to its longevity. For reference, the average smartphone had just over 3,300 mAh as of 2018, though now it’s becoming more and more commonplace to see smartphones that are pushing the 5,000 mAh range. So in terms of size, it's well above-average but nowhere near Earth-shattering. However, the battery life is a big selling point on this phone, garnering long hours of even heavy use. How does it really fare in real-world situations?

For the first couple of weeks, I honestly didn’t feel like the battery was all that it was cracked up to be, as it seemed to drop below 80% by lunchtime, with moderate use…numbers that felt roughly on par with my Honor 7X (which, for reference, has a 3,340 mAh battery). However, Huawei devices rely heavily on “AI” for a variety of features, and battery life is no exception: supposedly, the device picks up on user behavior, and adjusts itself based on that information to aggressively save battery power.

I always thought this was just a line of BS made up to help sell phones, but I honestly feel like I can see a difference. I have a bad case of “battery anxiety”, where if I drop below 50% I start to panic (I think this is an extreme response to my wife’s phoning habits, where she spends almost the entire day near empty somehow), meaning I'm used to topping up every chance I get.

Well the P20 Pro has completely changed my thinking in this regard: In fact, I've become a lot more relaxed, thanks to the phone's solid battery life. I only use it intermittently at work, and am usually around 80% by the end of my shift, without a chance to top up (whereas I’d be closer to 60% under similar use for my Honor 7X). When I get home, I do tend to use my phone a bit more, but even by the end of the night, under typical use, I'm generally hovering around the 30% mark.

To be fair, I do use a lot of recommended battery-saving features, such as having my phone sleep after 30 seconds, turning off auto-rotate, closing apps when not in use, and manually adjusting the screen’s brightness to the lowest visible setting in any given room…but those were also things I started doing out of habit on my 7X, so they really feel like they’re paying off a little more here. It's nice never having to worry about running out of juice while on the go.

BUT, nothing comes for free, and even the phone's great battery life comes at a cost: Huawei's overly-aggressive AI is known to shut off background tasks and notifications that the system deems to be “not important”. Personally, I already disable most system notifications, because I hate being interrupted by constant app messages that are little more than advertisements, such as Netflix announcing a new show they think I'd like, or Mercari reminding me that spring cleaning is a great time to sell stuff for some extra cash. No thanks. And supposedly, the AI picks up on your usage habits, attempting to block out notifications and processes on apps that you rarely use.

Nevertheless, it can be a concern to those that might rely on notifications across several apps for business reasons, where time is of the essence. In another energy-saving measure, instead of sending “push” notifications to your phone while it's off, it will wait until you sign in to your phone to send them all through at once. Again, this doesn't bother me, but for people who rely on getting messages the moment they come through, and who might not check their phones every three minutes, it can be a valid concern. As a workaround, each app has settings that can be manually controlled, giving you the option to allow certain apps to run in the background (thus enabling push notifications), but sometimes the AI gets a little overaggressive, and can still override your settings in certain situations. Also, keep in mind that the more apps you "whitelist" to constantly run in the background, the less miraculous your battery will seem, leading to more required charging time.

Speaking of that, when charging inevitably does become a necessity, the 20W fast charger that comes included with the phone will generally have it filled back up within the hour (though it will take closer to 90 minutes to fill up from zero). Even for quick top offs, I can generally get about 50% in 30 minutes with no use; a little less than that if I'm using it while charging. I must say between the long-lasting battery and quick charging capabilities, I almost feel spoiled, as I can't see a typical situation where I would ever run out. Also keep in mind that the quick charging speeds will require a compatible wall tap, so if you're just using a typical USB hub, or charging from your car, you will just be getting "typical" charge speeds, which are much, much slower (honestly not sure exactly how much slower, but probably closer to 1% for every two minutes of charge.)

In a slight bummer, it does not support wireless charging, though in another testament to the quick evolution of technology, it wasn't as much of a “required” feature on a flagship in early 2018 as it is today. Honestly, unless you're running countless apps and have the display on the brightest setting, the battery life is unbelievable, and will get you through a typical day with plenty of room to spare.

CAMERA


All right, here's the section that most everyone is going to be flocking to, and the main reason that I bought this camera to begin with: the camera. The P20 Pro was the first smartphone to feature a triple camera setup, made even stronger through its partnership with the well-known German cameramaker Leica.

As with everything these days, there is a lot of back and forth regarding the effectiveness of P20 Pro’s camera setup, which many have hailed as one of the best of 2018, if not all time, while others have dismissed it as “overrated”. Honestly, there’s a lot of truth to both camps.

On the side of the detractors: I do not believe that Huawei makes good “point and shoot” cameras overall, but they do serve the social media niche pretty well: They tend to over-rely on their own AI system, which likes to oversaturate everything with an absurd amount of color, while personal features are smoothed out to an almost “Photoshop”-level degree. Personally, I hate it, but my wife—who can frequently be found snapping photos and videos for Snapchat and Instagram on her iPhone—somehow actually enjoys the way the pictures turn out. All it takes is a quick glance on social media to know that she is far from the only person who favors that look, and that's presumably why Huawei goes overboard with it.

Many review sites also tend to use default camera settings in their tests, just to keep the comparisons between phones as even and fair as possible. After all, I would imagine most “average” consumers probably don't spend a lot of time fine-tuning the camera settings, or learning about the nuances of photography: like my wife (and this isn't meant as a criticism at all), they just want a camera they can aim at something, snap a photo, and then immediately upload to their social media site of choice with no need for editing. Fair enough.

However, for those with an interest in photography, or a willingness to learn, Huawei includes a “Pro” camera mode, which allows the user to set details like the ISO, aperture, and white balance themselves. Best of all, no experience is necessary, because the effects are shown in real-time as you adjust the meters, allowing you to see just how each setting is going to affect your shot. This lets you to achieve cool effects right from in-camera, and lets you “override” the system should you feel the default shot looks too dark or bright. Toggling off the Master AI setting—the one responsible for the automatic oversaturation of colors and processing—is also as simple as heading into the photo settings menu and flicking it to “off”. It takes about five seconds and puts you more in control of how your shots will turn out. This is the function that's going to allow you to get the most out of the P20 Pro's camera system, and also the reason many seasoned photographers even swear by this phone: in capable hands, you can get some amazing photos that just wouldn't be possible on other phones.

There are three cameras on this bad boy: a 40 MP main shooter; a 20 MP monochrome camera, that is used to capture more detail on color shots, or that can be used on its own for striking black and white images; and an underwhelming 25 MP front-facing selfie camera that is just about as disappointing as the other cameras are extraordinary. Thankfully, though, I never take selfies, so it’s not at all a dealbreaker for me; it probably would be for someone like my wife, though, who uses the front-facing camera probably just as often as she does the rear ones (which she pretty much only uses to capture photos and videos of our son).

Now, like many current smartphone cameras, the megapixel count is a bit of a misnomer: While taking 40 MP photos is possible, the default setup uses a process known as “pixel binning”, where several individual pixels are combined with neighboring ones to form one “super pixel”. This supposedly leads to quicker processing, allowing you to get virtually instantaneous photos even when taken from multiple cameras simultaneously, and better performance in lower light situations. It also cuts the actual megapixel count in fourths, meaning that most of the images you take with the P20 Pro, assuming you shoot in default mode, are actually only 10 MP. Yet they are as detailed as photos in other cameras that have even higher megapixel counts. See where numbers don't necessarily tell the whole story in mobile photography? (For comparison, the iPhone was long thought to be the king of smartphone cameras up until the later 2010s, and theirs are "only" 12 MP.)


The one feature that really drew me to the camera, however—and the one area where even most of the phone’s detractors are impressed—is its performance in low-light situations, courtesy of Night Mode. Give the phone a dark, semi-lit area, and you’re going to end up with a much brighter, surprisingly detailed shot. Give the phone only a slight spark of light—the kind that would lead to nothing but a black photo on most other phone cameras--and at the very least you'll end up with the kinds of photos that appeal to the artist in me: drab, lifeless, yet usable photos that can be edited into disturbing works of art. Night Mode works by basically taking a series of photos and layering them all on top of one another, each layer increasing the brightness thanks to the phone's 104900 max ISO setting. Keep in mind that this mode requires a long exposure of anywhere between 1-30 seconds (based on the amount of available light), and any amount of movement within the frame during that time will lead to ghostly whisps. In my experience, you can go handheld for anything around the 5-second mark assuming you can keep your hand steady: anything above that, and you're probably going to want to use a tripod.


However, like anything else, you're going to want to toy around with what works and what doesn't. If you're expecting A-grade point-and-shoot shots in any dark lighting situations using only default settings, you are most likely going to be more than just a little disappointed. My recommendation is to get acclimated to it in a variety of low-light situations so you'll get an idea of what works and what doesn't, and what situations will demand a settings override. Start with handheld in very little light (i.e. a candle in a large room, or a room with a door cracked open ever-so-slightly) on maximum ISO setting, and see what results you get. Next, try it with a tripod. Then, let a little more light in, and so on and so forth. In my experience, the automatic setting on the camera maxes out at about 6 seconds, which isn't going to result in anything useful in really dark settings; taking it on a few test runs before you find yourself in a situation where you need it can go a long way to getting you excellent results.
But as cool as the night mode is, there are a variety of other cool photography features, and one of them is the aperture mode, which at first glance looks like your standard “bokeh” effect (where only one subject is in focus while the background is gradually blurred out), which can also be achieved in “Portrait” mode. But the neat thing about this feature is that the focal point and blur levels can be edited after the picture is taken, right from within the gallery (and without the need to open any additional editing software). Simply open the photo in your phone, tap where you want the focal point to be, and adjust the slider for blur levels. One cool tip is that you can also use this mode to unblur the image entirely, allowing you to save some photos where the camera couldn't properly figure out the subject of focus.

My pick for most underrated setting--and about the only area where the P20 Pro still has a step up on almost all other cameras—is the addition of the monochrome sensor, something Huawei dropped from its flagships immediately after this one. The idea is that black and white sensors capture more details than color ones; thus, even when taking typical pictures, the P20 Pro's camera will take information from the monochrome sensor for added detail and structure.


But it can also be used on its own, to take striking black and white shots. Sure, any camera can become a “black and white” camera through the use of filters, but even the higher end ones can't quite match the richness and detail of an actual black and white camera, and the monochrome pictures the P20 Pro churn out are fantastic. I've always been a fan of the black and white color palette after seeing it put to effective use in the original Night of the Living Dead, and always just kind of equated monochrome images to darkness and horror, but in noodling around with it, I'm learning that you can make a wide variety of shots look great using the sensor. It's a very underrated aesthetic that is also perfect for budding photographers to learn the craft: by limiting the number of colors, you have to focus more on shot framing and placement to get the most out of the photo, and can also take shots that wouldn't necessarily work in color. In my opinion, it's a truly standout feature that's made even better considering it has its own “Pro” mode, as well as aperture, portrait, and “normal” modes, allowing you to take almost any shot in black and white that you could take in color.

Lastly, another fun setting to experiment with are the various other camera modes, including panorama, 3-D panorama, HDR, time lapse and light trails. The latter, which I even had on my Honor 7X, has four different settings, allowing you to best get everything from fireworks, to headlights in traffic at night, and even star systems as they move about the galaxy. Now, to get the most out of this feature, you're going to need a tripod, but the more time you're willing to put into it, the better the end results will turn out.

Unfortunately for videographers, the same attention to detail that Huawei has put into the camera system has not translated to video: There is no auto stabilization on anything above 1080p at 30fps, meaning if you want to shoot videos in 1080p at 60fps, or 4K, even the slightest hand shakes will lead to noticeably shaky video. You can obviously counter this by using a tripod for higher-quality video shoots, but that's certainly a downside for most casual users, who just want to point-and-shoot.
Additionally, it can also shoot super slow-motion video, at 920fps at 720p. This is a hit-or-miss setting, though, as the ensuing video starts playing back at normal speed, slows down at a random time in the middle, and then ends at normal speed. I tried this a couple of times, and the results were okay, but not having full control over when the slow-motion starts or ends makes it little more than a gimmick.

Honestly, Android phones overall are pretty bad at video: there's a reason Steven Soderbergh used an iPhone to shoot Unsane; even as the iPhone's are quickly losing out in the photography department to Android's, they haven't really lost much ground in the video department. Honestly, with the success of things like the GoPro and dash cams, I'm really kind of surprised that video doesn't seem to factor very highly on the features of most phones; I'm sure once companies get bored with adding as many cameras to their devices as they possibly can, we'll see a similar revolution with video.

EMUI
Much hatred is heaved at Huawei for their Android skin, known as “EMUI”, with many users calling the software a “dealbreaker”. I have to confess I have no idea the difference between Huawei’s interface, and “stock Android”, but having had the Honor 7X immediately prior (Honor being Huawei's affordable sub-brand), I more or less was familiar with EMUI, and knew the basics of what to expect and where most settings were.

Even with that knowledge, there are certainly some annoyances with the interface: Huawei phones constantly come with bloatware (unnecessary apps pre-installed on the phone), and many of them cannot be uninstalled. This means having to create a “Trash” folder to put them all in should you want to avoid running into them, an annoying “workaround” requirement that just shouldn't exist on a flagship phone in the $1000 range (as this one was upon its release). Others can be disabled, but not removed from the system, requiring the user to go into the specific app and selecting “Disable”, rather than just simply being able to uninstall it from the app drawer.

Get used to accidentally pulling up this useless feature, even if you disable it.
The phone also has a feature known as HiSearch, which can search apps, documents, and more on your phone based on keywords. It has its own app icon that allows access to it, but Huawei went one step of annoyance further by programming it to be activated by the gesture of positioning your finger in an empty area of screen, and swiping downward. The quick access menu—the one that has the flashlight, WiFi, and NFC options, among others—is activated by pulling downward from the top of the screen. Pull down even a pixel too low from the top of the screen, and you'll end up activated HiSearch instead, something I do at least a dozen times per week. Even worse: disabling the search function doesn't remove the swipe-down gesture, so even though I disabled the search functions, it still pops down for no reasons every single time.

I had heard that Huawei got its inspiration for EMUI from Apple's iOS, but I didn't believe it much from the Honor interface; having owned a few early iPhones in my day, I wasn't really reminded of Apple's operating system at all. However, now in order to close apps out you swipe up, exactly as it is on Apple devices (on my older Honor phone, closing apps was more akin to Windows, with a small “X” appearing in the corner of each window, and a simple tap of the “X” closing them down).
To close multiple windows/apps, a trash can icon appears at the bottom once you tap the “home” button with multiple apps opened: tapping the trash can closes them all. At least, it should. One thing I've noticed is that Google doesn't seem to close properly in this fashion: you have to manually go back and swipe up on the Chrome window to get it to shut down. This makes no sense to me, as the trash can function closed everything down on my Honor, so I don't understand why it's not the same way here.

Outside of these issues, I have no real major issues with EMUI, and certainly nothing that would put me off from owning another Huawei phone. The rest of the features are pretty easy to find, and most settings are highly customizable to make you comfortable in your “skin”, including gesture-based options for opening apps and navigation. I think most of the complaints lodged at any UI are from people who are simply used to a different one, and are offended at the thought of having to learn anything outside of their comfort zone. I was a fan of Apple's iOS when I had it, grew to like Honor's, and am now pretty comfortable with Huawei's; really, if you go in with an open mind, you can grow to like pretty much any of them, especially if the phone around it is solid.

OTHER FEATURES
While the phone is missing a headphone jack, it makes up for it at least partially with a rather obscure feature from the past: an IR blaster. I had no idea what this even was until I started researching the P20 Pro many months before buying one--long story short, it turns your phone into a remote control that can operate most electronic devices with an IR sensor, from televisions, to set-top boxes...even some old air conditioners!

This might be a pretty worthless, or novelty, addition for some, but between having a child, and our own forgetfulness, our remote control always seemed to turn up missing. This meant having to get up and walk five steps to the TV (no thanks), or spend hundreds of steps flipping over every cushion, searching in every toy box, or looking under the couch to find the head-scratching location where it ended up.

I wasn't sure how setting it up would be, but it's a pretty easy guess-and-check process: pick the brand of your television, and then point your phone at your television set as the app runs through all the various models for that brand. You simply press a button, and if your TV doesn't respond, it moves on to the next one, and so on and so forth, until it works. It can be a little time-consuming (I think mine was about the tenth one in, maybe a little more), but when all was said and done took less than five minutes total. And once it's set up for the first time, it's ready to go (until you get a new TV, of course)!

This has really been a great feature for us, as I almost always have my phone on-hand. It even works better than manually adjusting settings, because our TV is so old, the buttons tend to adjust the wrong setting at first--a surefire sign we probably just need to splurge on a new one. But until we do, this is a great fix that doesn't require us to hunt around for that pesky remote, or ever have to replace batteries again!

CONNECTIVITY
Here’s where everyone in the U.S.—myself included—seems to give this (and similar Chinese-made phones) pause for thought: Will it even work here? After all, the network bands are different across the world, meaning a phone that works just fine in Europe might not work fine, or even at all, elsewhere.

I was especially worried because my Honor 7X, which was officially released in the U.S., suffered GPS connectivity issues around the third or fourth month of owning it—issues that were never resolved as the months wore on. And by “issues”, I mean it would not accurately connect to Waze at all. It wasn't just a small hiccup, where it would take a minute or two and then adapt: we're talking it would take ten minutes to update my location, only to immediately drop off again. That made traveling to new places a huge hassle, as I would just have to pull up manual directions in Waze, and follow them step-by-step, with no useful functions of a GPS present.

I can’t speak for every model, as different ones have different region-specific network bands, but as long as you get the “International version” (CLT-09 or CLT-29 for single- and dual-sim, respectively), and use a GSM carrier (namely AT&T or T-Mobile, or one of their VSOM subsidiaries), you will have no problems with it. One common misconception that I’ve seen is that it doesn’t support “LTE” speeds, which isn’t true: you just have to turn that option on in the settings (for reasons unknown). I constantly get LTE speeds when out and about and, even better, my GPS works quickly and flawlessly every time (knock on wood).

Ditto for the WiFi, as connecting to saved networks is a breeze, as it should be on a flagship phone (or really, any phone these days).

Again, that doesn't necessarily mean that there won't be connection problems as the phone gets older, but the fact that it's still working great after a year's worth of phone updates certainly helps to put my mind at ease, and is a huge step up from the network issues I faced with my 7X.

Speaking of “updates”, this is another category where many people find fault with Huawei phones: they are not super quick to get the latest Google security patches. I couldn't really care less, but if you're someone who needs everything the moment it becomes available, this is not going to be the phone for you. More troublesome (and something I would have cared about) was the phone's upgrade to Android Pie, which was started in December, 2018, and gradually launched by region, with some users still complaining publicly of not having received it as of February.

At first, I was panicking a bit because, out of the box, the phone showed no updates available no matter how many times I ran the “Software Update” feature—either from within the settings or from within the HiCare app--and I was afraid I'd just invested in a $600 paperweight. However, after tinkering around with things for a few minutes, I found a way to manually download the latest update, and that kickstarted everything, with all of them automatically downloading and installing all at once.
OVERALL

CONS (-)
-The EMUI interface can be pretty annoying at times
-Lots of bloatware, some of which can't be removed
-Display a step back from most flagships in this price range
-No headphone jack
-Camera can be hit or miss on default settings
-Slow to get monthly security updates
-Video modes neglected quite a bit
-No wireless charging support
-Weak selfie camera
-No AR Lens!

PROS (+)
+Outstanding battery life
+Quick charge support
+Great collection of camera modes
+Pro camera mode gives users manual control over photos
+Monochrome sensor snaps fantastic black and white pics
+Outstanding night mode
+HDR10 Netflix compatible
+Reliable and fast GPS/WiFi connectivity
+Speedy performance even with multiple windows/apps open

No phone is perfect, and that's certainly true of Huawei's P20 Pro. However, I bought it specifically for the cameras, and even a year on, this phone does not disappoint in that category: The monochrome sensor, which hasn't been on any Huawei flagship since, takes excellent black and white photos; the low-light performance is impressive; and the 3x optical zoom helps you get a little closer to the action without sacrificing image quality. By default, Huawei's AI algorithms tend to oversaturate images in color, but many social media users may prefer this over a more “realistic” image; if you prefer more “natural” shots, the AI can be disabled, while pro mode gives users full control over aperture settings, ISO, focus, white balance, and more.

The only requirement is you will have to get used to Huawei's maligned EMUI system, which comes pre-loaded with an annoying amount of bloatware and pre-installed apps, some of which can't even be removed. The phone's aggressive battery-minded AI also tends to go to extreme lengths to save every drop of power, which can lead to problems with push notifications and the ability of some apps to run in the background, which can be a dealbreaker for those that rely on notifications.

Still, if you're willing to give it a try and don't mind having to toggle around with settings to get the most out of your phone, the P20 Pro provides an impressive flagship experience for under $600, even after a year.

And yes, even to Americans.

RATING: 8/10



Friday, April 26, 2019

Cafe Roma Chocolate Lava Cake (Dollar Tree)

Haven't seen this at any Dollar Tree in over a year, so had to steal this screen grab. (Img Credit: Markis Pea Welby)
Any time I go to Dollar Tree, I usually end up walking back and forth down their freezer section, looking for something that I wouldn't be absolutely terrified to eat. I consider myself to be very open-minded with many food stuffs, but some of those things just look too grotesque even for me. I mean, meat products, or seafood for a dollar? I'm not so sure about that—if it doesn't get you sick, it will more than likely taste like junk and be an unnecessary waste of money. I don't care if it is only a dollar, sometimes those add up.

I literally was on my fourth or fifth freezer pass (this on a return trip to the freezer: the first time I took one or two passes before deciding to move on), and was just about to head up and pay without anything, when this little guy caught my eye. He was a little difficult to see, because he was placed near the connection of two panes of freezer glass, but once I saw him, I knew I'd found something I wanted to try. I immediately grabbed him, and put him in my basket, then made a beeline for the registers, because by that time, I'd already spent way too much time and money there.

A couple days later, and just in the middle of the day, I was looking for a snack. As usual, there were precious few things in the house, but I saw this when I opened the freezer. Might as well give this a go, I thought to myself, and I proceeded to tear into it (after microwaving it, of course). Immediately, I was put-off by it, as the entire outer edge of the cake is unusually tough, and packs in very little flavor, and I was ready to toss in the towel and chalk this up as yet another Dollar Tree failure.

Only it's not, because the actual inside is a completely different beast: it's moist, very chocolatey, and if you can believe me, unusually delicious. Now, if you're expecting a rush of delicious chocolate liquid to ooze out after cutting into it (as I was), you'll be sorely disappointed, because there isn't any at all: after all, I thought that was the whole "lava" part in the product's title. But the chocolate innards have the same delectably rich taste without it, putting it pretty much on par with every other lava cake I've had (though, to be fair, haven't been many).

For $1, some of Dollar Tree's single-serve desserts are a little on the small side, and feel unjustly overpriced. Here, though, you get quite a bit of lava cake for the money; it's about the same size as any other lava cake that I've seen, so I can't knock it for that. The quick cooking time (it suggests 20-30 seconds in the microwave, but our microwave sucks and needed closer to a minute) makes it a perfect little dessert to have at any point of the day, and you can top this puppy off with ice cream and hot fudge for a sensational treat that you'd pay upwards of $8 for at virtually any restaurant!

About the only drawback is that tougher chocolate ring around the outside. I get that it's probably a cheap way to keep the inner chocolate part from collapsing, but it's still very off-putting, and not a feature I remember in any other lava cake I've ever had. It was especially noticeable toward the end, as there was only a little bit of actual lava cake left, I had to blend the bites with the “outer shell” and it noticeably affected the flavor to the negative. Dealing with it isn't that hard...either suck it up and eat the whole thing all at once, to get the worst part out of the way, or if you don't mind being wasteful, just peel it off and chuck it. But if you do that, keep in mind you're also throwing away half the cake.

I made the mistake of buying only one, and even though I look virtually every time I go, I've never seen these on the shelves again. As far as Dollar Tree desserts go, this just might be the crème de la crème: A hidden gem, one that they could probably slap some fancier packaging on, and sell for twice, or maybe even three times the price at a traditional supermarket. If you have these at your local DT, or see them anywhere else for a buck, do yourself a favor and stock up on them. I wish I would have.

Overall: 8/10. An exceptional treat for the price, especially given the store that it came from. A few of Dollar Tree's desserts I've had previously, are too small to justify the price, if not outright horrid. These, on the other hand, are fantastic, barring the weird ring of tough chocolate that surrounds it (I'm assuming maybe to keep the soft insides from collapsing, but it's more exaggerated than any other lava cake I've had). The soft, moist innards (apologies for the gross term) are rich and delightfully flavorful, while the size is pretty impressive for a buck. Note that this isn't the “molten” version, so don't expect any liquid chocolate to seep out (much to my dismay), but it honestly doesn't need it, because it's very delicious on its own. They could put it in fancier packaging and sell them for twice, maybe even three times the price at a traditional supermarket. If you see them, as I haven't since getting this once over a year ago, be sure to stock up!

Dolce Tuscano Chocolate-Dipped Bananas (Dollar Tree)

Better than one would think.
Bananas are one of my favorite things in the world, which pretty much means they’re far and away my favorite fruit (and I love me some fruit!). However, aside from chocolate-covered strawberries, I don’t want cocoa anywhere near my fruits. I know fruit and chocolate is a hugely popular combination now, but I find it to be a repulsive combination of two things that don't belong together. 

Complaining further, I can’t stand dark chocolate. Of course, that’s the kind that’s supposed to be the best for you, but I normally dislike anything that has strong notes of bitterness in its flavor profile; it is for this same reason that I despise coffee, and can’t stand beer. If you ever see me drinking either of those things, please take me to a hospital because something is seriously wrong.

So then how did I end up with a box of Dolce Tuscano Chocolate-Dipped Banana Slices after exiting a Dollar Tree store? Let’s just say, when people tell you not to go shopping on an empty stomach, listen to them. For some reason, the combination looked so delicious that I just had to try them, even though it’s clearly not something I would ever spring for. But I knew my wife would absolutely love these (she’s as much a fan of the fruit and chocolate blend, as I am against it), and they were only $1, so I figured I didn’t have much to lose. Unless these were the worst things in the world, between the two of us, there was no way they were going to waste.

Prepping these frozen treats for consumption couldn’t be easier: simply pull them out of the freezer and put them at room temperature for a mere 5-10 minutes, and you’re ready to dig right in! All it took was my first bite in to remember why I don’t like these: frozen banana. I can’t stand it. I love the soft smoothness of a ripe banana, and when you freeze it, it completely destroys the texture, giving it a hard popsicle-like consistency. I understand that’s the appeal for most, but it's just not my cup of tea.

Well, reading all the negativity in the previous paragraphs, you’re probably thinking this is the sentence where I start ripping into them, and tell you that they’re a waste of money--only, that’s not at all what I’m going to say. Because, in all honesty, I kind of liked these. All of my aforementioned complaints still apply, and I would make sure to let these sit out for twenty or thirty minutes next time (even at the risk of having melty chocolate all over the place) just to give the bananas a chance to soften up a little bit, but the chocolate coating is sweeter than most dark chocolates, and I thought they blended together well. My wife’s chief complaint is that there’s only a thin layer of chocolate on the outside, but I thought there was just the right amount.

Even more surprising are the ingredients: bananas and chocolate. That’s it. Usually products from the dollar store are stuffed with all sorts of chemicals, or “natural flavors”, or other mysterious oddities that allow manufacturers to cut costs while still delivering in the dollar price range. The fact that these are simply what they appear to be is pretty refreshing. On the value front, your $1 gets you ten medium-sized pieces…I split them with my wife and it was the perfect amount for a quick little treat. While they’re not anything I would think to get with any sort of regularity, they're great to pick up occasionally as a cheap, unique (for me) way to fill a sweet tooth…my wife is already planning on stocking up on these during the summer months as a nice way to help beat the heat!

Overall: 7/10. I wouldn’t get these frequently, but just the fact I would get them again at all is enough of a positive. I can’t stand frozen bananas, or dark chocolate, the only two things this product consists of, and yet I have to say these were pretty darn good. The dark chocolate isn’t as bitter as most darks (probably because of the cheap price point), and fits well with the sweetness of the fruit. I still don’t like the texture of a frozen banana, so I would let these sit out for twice as long next time, in the hopes that it would soften a little bit (and at the risk of having melty chocolate all over the place), but these are pretty darn good for a buck. Also of note: consists only of bananas and chocolate, without all the annoying additives that most dollar store products tend to sneak in. Definitely recommended.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Little Journey Thick & Quilted Baby Wipes (Aldi)

Great wipes at a great price!
If you read my previous review, you'd see that my wife is basically a Momzilla (like a Bridezilla, only for parents instead of a would-be spouse), and is super protective of what goes on or near his body. (Haha, I was actually just joking and sincerely hope it didn't come off that way; most mothers I know of are like that with their children.) Well, wipes are perhaps the second most important thing that will constantly be in contact with baby's skin, and so it should come as no surprise that she's just as maniacal and opinionated about brands of baby wipes—and this time, not even Little Journey is exempt from her stringent standards.

You see, she dislikes the name brand of baby stuff that starts with a “hug” and can't be bothered to try anything that pertains to that brand. Well, the packaging for Little Journey's Thick Quilted Baby Wipes compares it directly to said brand, which has automatically disqualified it from being the main baby wipe in our household. How am I reviewing it? Because we still buy them to use as “backup wipes”, either for when we run out of main ones and don't notice in time, or just to use for smaller messes and mishaps, such as juice spills. I also have a little confession to make: While my wife probably makes sure to grab the “good” ones for cleaning up baby's poopy messes, I just grab whatever's available, and have used these on his bottom on multiple occasions.

I can honestly say I prefer these to the brand we normally use (which is Comforts, a different store brand). For the most part, to me, a wipe is just a wipe: as long as it can clean up poop and other baby-related messes without ripping, and without causing breakouts, then it's fine in my book. By that criteria, almost any wipe is going to do the trick these days, unless your child has really sensitive skin or allergies to a specific ingredient. But what I like about the Little Comforts wipes are that they feel a little thicker than others, while the quilted texture actually helps with the grip, both in my hands, and with whatever it is that I'm wiping (usually a baby's ass, but sometimes various spills or other bodily fluids).

In my opinion, the texture really seems to “grab” more per swipe than flat wipes: rather than just sliding through a baby crack and potentially smearing things around, these seem to get more to “stick” to it, which means fewer passes to clean up even the tougher messes, which means fewer wipes used, which translates to an even better value. To be fair, I haven't used these for poop cleanup enough consecutive times to know if they would lead to skin rashes or breakouts--which I believe is the issue my wife had with the name brand of diaper--but in terms of actual use as a wipe, these are fantastic.

Even better is the value, with a 3-pack of 216 total wipes (72 each pack) costing just $2.99. This puts them about on par with prices from membership clubs, but without the requirement to buy boxes of 1000+ wipes at a time. (They also have individual packs for a higher cost per wipe, though the specific price escapes me at the moment.) That makes these yet another solid item in Little Journey's impressive Little Journey line, and another solid choice for parents looking to help control the excessive costs associated with having a baby. Just think: You could have bought a brand new car instead!

Overall: 8/10. Although these are our “backup wipes” due to my wife's dislike of the general name brand these are emulating, I actually find these to be better at cleaning up baby shit than the ones we normally use: they feel thicker, stronger, and the quilting honestly seems to “grip” more mess up at once than other brands, reducing both the number of wipes needed, and the total number of passes required to clean up even tough messes. And at $2.99 for 216 wipes (three 72-ct. packs), they are an excellent value. Chalk these up as another win for Little Journey! The only variable preventing me from assigning a higher score, is that I have not used these enough consecutive times on our baby to know if they would break out his skin; I don't think they would, as he hasn't seemed to have any type of reaction when I have used them, but can't say for sure. At any rate, they're great to keep on hand for backups or emergency situations.

Little Journey Small Strides Baby Diapers (Aldi)

Solid performance at a great price!
As pretty much everyone in the world knows, diapers are expensive. Even if you don't have children, your parenting friends have probably casually mentioned this to you at least a thousand times over the course of conversations that have nothing to do with babies or finances. Unfortunately, they are also completely necessary. As tempting as it might be to tape a plastic bag to your child just to save a few bucks sometimes, that's obviously not a logical (or hygienic) approach. (Can you imagine the looks on the faces of stunned parents as you whipped out a tape gun and plastic bag in the changing station of your local mall? Come to think of it, that could be a funny public skit idea...) 

Of course, there are alternatives—the main one being cloth diapers—but those require higher upfront costs and ongoing maintenance (constant washing), not to mention the learning curve of figuring out which of the half-dozen different kinds of cloth diapers will work best for you. There's a big reason disposables are the most popular kind of diaper on the market, and it's the same reason most things become popular: convenience. People are lazy, and no one wants to deal with extra loads of laundry every couple of days. At least, I know I don't. 

It shouldn't come as much of a shock that Aldi's Little Journey line, which showed up in stores literally two months before we had our little guy back in 2016 (I swear they plan their product lines around us half the time!) offer some of the most “inexpensive” diapers on the market, even besting the prices of those in some membership clubs. But as we also know, price is only half of the equation: a good price just isn't a good deal if a product sucks. So how well do Little Journey diapers perform? Let's take a look! 

Each pack comes with two styles: "Animal" (left) and "Boring" (right)
Just to reinforce parenting stereotypes, I'm pretty laid back when it comes to most aspects of parenting. My wife, on the other hand, is the polar opposite of me: This is the woman who refused to take our son ice skating at two years old because she was afraid he would fall too many times and hurt himself (actually, when you're a kid, falling and sliding on the ice is the best part anyway, and I swear kids don't feel pain when they're having fun). She's also the reason why I had to literally wait until she left the house to change his diaper for the first time when he was three months old, because she was afraid I would do it wrong. (Aww, her heart's in the right place.) Needless to say, she's also the type that has to make sure all of his clothes are carefully coordinated to match, down to the socks, any time we go out in public. 

For these reasons, I just give her free rein to decide every aspect of the products she uses on our child, from wipes, to lotions, to shampoos and soaps—and of course, diapers are included in that bunch. Thanks to a baby shower, we had quite the stash of various name brand diapers to test out, and after going through those, she bought even more brands to try, attempting to find the perfect mix of performance and value. It probably wasn't until some time after the six month mark that she even gave Little Journey diapers a try, hesitant that they would cause some kind of rash, or constant blowouts. As such, this review also blends her perspectives along with my own to give you a more accurate, thorough examination.

Let's just say after she was finally willing to give them a shot, we haven't gone back to using anything else (except for the odd “emergency situation” where they were out of stock, or whatever.)

Now that's not to say they are her favorite diaper overall, or that they are even the “best diaper” on the market...and probably not by a long shot. She prefers the more “natural” brands, that “naturally” cost twice as much (or more!) than other disposables. You know, the ones with names and packaging that look like they're trying too hard to convince you that they are worth the price increase, because piss and shit looks better in their diapers, or something. However, when cost is factored in, she finds that Little Journey offers the best balance between the two: blowouts and leaks are rare (and generally only happened when we needed to go up a size), they have never broken out his skin, and they can hold a lot (how can such a little person have so much waste?), arguably the three most important features of a diaper. Leaks have occurred a few times overnight, but not enough to where it's any sort of ongoing problem (and could also be from user error, or extra liquid intake the night before), they are very stretchy and easy to put on (as most are) and seem to be comfortable for him, as he's never complained or acted like they bother him. The light animal designs are also cute, and make them a little more “fun” than a plain diaper would be. 

If this lining doesn't scream "Comfort!", I don't know what does.
The only downside I can think of (aside from the occasional leakage) is that these don't have the color-changing “wetness indicator” strips that other brands have (though maybe that's why they're cheaper?). My wife was disappointed to learn these were without, but has easily adapted to where she no longer misses it. I mean, in the grand scheme of things, it's really kind of a pointless feature—how hard is it to tell if a diaper is full of piss or not?--but it can be nice to have in certain rushed situations and save you from wasting a diaper by changing one that doesn't really need changed.

Onto the value: Aldi offers their diapers in two case sizes: soft packs, which surprisingly come in soft packs, and club size, which are larger and come in boxes. Curiously, club packs are only offered beginning with size 3 and up through 6, though I guess from their limited-inventory standpoint that makes some sense as babies seem to grow quicker in their early years (we had to give away several packs of newborn and size 1 diapers that we had received because he outgrew them so quickly). However, the price for all soft packs (with varying numbers of diapers in each) are $4.99 in our area, while the larger club packs offer almost three times as many for $10.99—even at size 6 where you only get 60 diapers per box, that works out to just $.18 per diaper! (Keep in mind that pricing varies by region, so your stores might be more or less expensive.)

If you're a parent looking for ways to cut some costs--and unless you're a rich prick, you should be--the whole Little Journey's line offers up some great products for your little one, and at great prices to boot; their diapers are no exception. A reminder if you're still a little hesitant about having your baby soil an unknown brand of diaper, remember that you really don't have anything to lose thanks to Aldi's money-back satisfaction guarantee!

Overall: 8.5/10. They aren't perfect (what is?) but Little Journey diapers provide the best balance of performance-to-value out of any brand that we've tried (and we've tried at least a dozen): Blowouts and leakage are rare, they've never broken out our baby's skin, have cute little designs, are easy to put on and remove, and seem to be comfortable for him. They are missing the color-changing wetness indicator that many brands have, but despite being disappointed by that at first, we've learned to adapt to it and only miss it on rare occasions. They have two sizes available: soft packs, which are smaller, and club size boxes, with prices ranging from around $.10 per diaper, up to just $.23, offering incredible value compared to most other brands. If you don't have time to clip coupons or hunt for deals, these are a great go-to option, provided you have an Aldi store near you. If they can win my wife's seal of approval, then they will more than likely do the same for you!

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

An In-Depth Review of Checkout 51: Does the "Accepted Anywhere" Mobile Rebate App Really Have an Advantage Over Competitors?

WHAT IS IT? 

Checkout 51 is, much like Ibotta, a free “coupon rebate” app that offers money back when specific items are purchased. The main advantage it has over its competition is that, unlike most apps that are only accepted at specific retailers, any of the offers in Checkout51 can be redeemed anywhere—even online! But does that make it a formidable opponent to the top rebate apps? Or is it a complete waste of your time? Read on for all the sordid details!

EASE OF USE 

The main screen. Simply scroll down to see and add offers.

If you have used other rebate apps, then you probably already have a good idea of how to use Checkout 51—which, in many ways, is even simpler! All of the available offers are accessed via a single page that can be scrolled through, and adding offers is as simple as pressing the grey “+” that appears next to each one. If you want to search for a specific item, that can be done via the search bar at the top, or you can browse for deals by category. Clicking on an offer will provide you with more details, though sadly there is no “scan UPC” function to verify an item in advance; this means you'll have to carefully read through the details to make sure the size/quantity you're buying is eligible for the rebate. It's a bit of a drag, but shouldn't be a dealbreaker for most.


Watch out for store-specific offers like the ones above, which can be kind of hard to see, especially on computers.

Also, even though a big selling point is that all offers can be redeemed anywhere, keep in mind there are still items only available at certain stores. These are denoted on the main page with “Select Retailers Only” above the item name if there are multiples, or with a single store name above the item if it's only valid at one. If the offer is good at multiple stores, you will have to click into it to read the list of specific stores where the offer is valid.

SELECTION

Not sure what you're looking for? Browsing for products by category is very simple.
On its own, Checkout 51 has a solid variety of offers, spanning just about every product category from “snacks”, to “baby”, to alcohol, and almost everything in between. However, once you really break it down, there are generally only around a handful of items per category. Whereas with Ibotta you can just do your normal shopping without consulting the app first, and have at least a decent chance something you bought is on offer, a majority of the items in Checkout 51 are things most people will intentionally have to seek out, with the sole purpose of capitalizing on the offer. 

This can be a good thing: It was this app that got us to try Icelandic Provisions Skyr for the first time, which is a pretty delicious (if overpriced) semi-sweet yogurt-style treat that we otherwise probably never would have gotten. But on the other hand, if you wander from your grocery list too often, or are on a tight budget, you might find that going out of your way to add additional, unnecessary items all because you’re promised a rebate in the future just isn't worth it.

Really, that’s the mindset that powers the app: brands pay these companies to have some of their items featured, in the hopes that the small discount will be enough incentive to get people to give it a shot. So if it happens to be something you normally get, that’s just an even better bonus!

I was excited by the proposition that Checkout 51 is accepted at any store, and while that's technically the case, there's a big black mark next to that notion: Aside from the first week you sign up, and your birthday (which was a cute, unexpected touch), you are never given offers on unbranded or generic items. That means every offer is only available on brand name products, shooting big holes through the perceived benefit of being able to cash in offers anywhere. So while you can submit a receipt, for example, from Aldi, how often do they have name brand items, and what are the odds they will have the specific item, in the specific size and/or quantity required, at the specific time that Checkout 51 is offering a rebate on it? In my experience, it happened once (for Bubba Burgers), and I didn't even buy it.

Moral of the story: Unless you’re doing a lot of your shopping around this app, or happen to buy products that consistently have rebates, don’t really expect to make all that much: I started using both Ibotta and this one around the same time (summer, 2018), and as of this writing in March, 2019, I have five times more in my Ibotta account than I do here, and none of the money in Checkout 51 came from Aldi, which was the whole reason I signed up for it in the first place.

(Note: As of March, 2019, Aldi is now an approved retailer in Ibotta, giving Aldi shoppers one less reason to even try this app in the first place. However, this also happened for a brief time back in 2017, before Aldi was unceremoniously dumped from Ibotta again, so who knows if it's a permanent thing this time, or just another limited run.)

REDEEMING OFFERS 

After you select your offers, and purchase them in store, redeeming them is as simple as taking a picture of your receipt, similar to other apps of this nature. Once you submit, it can take up to 24 hours for the balance to appear in your account, though it’s typically much quicker than that. 

A photo template makes lining up and taking images of your receipt quick and painless!

One big area of difference from other rebate apps is the timeframe you have to redeem your offers: all offers reset at midnight on Thursdays, meaning all receipts must be submitted by 11:59PM every Wednesday. This is much different than the 7-day rule used by other apps, and also a drag if you tend to do your shopping on Wednesdays, as you'll have to remember to upload your receipt that day. It’s an even bigger drag if an offer you were eyeing is valid again the following week—you still can’t submit receipts from the previous week-long period.

There are also instances where offers can expire before Wednesday, though they tend to be well-communicated: Most rebates have a certain number of times they can be redeemed; ones close to hitting that threshold will have a “Very Few Left!” note right below the title on the main screen, giving you an at-a-glance warning that you’d better hurry if it’s an offer you’re planning to capitalize on. Annoyingly, items that run out of redemptions are still displayed until the weekly reset, with a note that says “0 Remaining”. They can still be added to your list (though, obviously, they can’t be redeemed) so it’s a good idea to look things over closely so you don’t get shafted. 

Uh oh, hurry! Not many redemptions left on this one!
On the flipside, knowing a specific date and time when all offers expire (outside of those expiring via redemption), is nice, and allows you to plan a little better than other apps, where they may expire out of nowhere even before the specific expiration date specified. I’ve never had an offer expire out from under me with Checkout 51, something I can’t say about its closest competitor.

As I believe I mentioned earlier, Checkout 51 also allows you to redeem offers for items that you buy online, though I don't foresee many people using this function: Unlike other rebate apps, which offer a percentage back on your purchase for specific stores, Checkout 51's online offers are still limited to the specific items it's offering rebates on for that week. So I guess if you're one of the five people in the world that buy their Pond's Face Wipes from Amazon, then you can submit that receipt to get money back! Well, assuming the packing list you receive meets the criteria: Everything must be itemized, and include a store logo, date, prices for each item, and a total. Email confirmations and PDF receipts are not accepted, probably because they're easy to fake and/or reproduce. If your packing list meets these requirements, you can snap a pic and submit it just like any other receipt.

WEBSITE 

Since this is predominantly a mobile app, you may be wondering, “What if I don't have a phone? Can I still open an account?” If I just read your mind, I'm happy to say that the answer is yes! The mobile app is hands-down the easiest and most convenient way to search for offers, as you can source them while you're in-store, take the picture of the receipt using your phone's camera, and then submit it, all from within the app, with just a few screen presses, and from anywhere that has cellular reception.

However, if you're old as shit and don't have a phone, the Checkout 51 website has the same full functionality of the mobile app, allowing you to do everything you can do on your mobile device, right from the comfort of your own computer! It's also the only way to submit Walmart e-commerce receipts, so if you do a lot of your shopping from there, you'll have to hop on the ol' comp to redeem your offers.  
Submitting online follows the same principle...attach a photo file of your receipt, and voila!
I found the website to be overly slow and glitchy when I tried using it: The first few times, it wouldn't activate the pop-up that allowed me to sign in from Google, which is how I signed up. Even once I signed in, the site constantly froze as offers were loading, leading to jerky navigation and a frustrating experience that was the exact opposite of the smooth overall experience the app provides. But if you can't get the app, or just don't want it, it's still a feasible way to submit receipts (though you'll still need a digital camera to take and upload the photo files.)

GETTING PAID

Once your account hits the $20 threshold, you can request payment—in the form of a paper check. That’s right kids, no direct deposits or Paypal payments here, which is another big drawback. As a point of reference, I only have about $14 in my account after about 9 months of use, so I can't speak as to how quickly the checks arrive, but needless to say it won't be as quick as a balance transfer to a checking account or online payment processor.

OVERALL

PROS (+)

+Easy to add offers and submit receipts
+Offers end the same time every week (Wednesday at 11:59 pm)
+Offers can be redeemed at any store
+Simple navigation as all offers are on the main screen
+Bonuses for referring friends and redeeming certain sets of offers
+$1 bonus on any treat for your birthday, which was an unexpected surprise
+Offers broken down by category for easy browsing

CONS (-)

-All items are brand-specific (i.e. no private label or produce offers)
-Far fewer offers than competing apps
-Offers that reach their redemption limit and are no longer valid still show up in results
-Payment by check only (no Paypal or gift card options)
-Website is very slow to load (maybe this one is just me)

I really wanted to like this one more than I do, but Checkout 51 is a pretty worthless app, at least for my shopping style. The lack of private label or non-brand specific items (such as produce) pretty much negates all offers for stores like Aldi, where I do a bulk of my shopping. There are also far fewer offers than other apps, virtually requiring the user to intentionally go out of their way to buy items they're offering in order to get any savings (which is kind of the point, from their perspective, but other apps have so many you can go in after shopping and generally find a couple rebates, without having to change shopping habits).

I'm sure there are people that this app will suit very well, and if you think you're one of them, then go for it! From a technical standpoint, searching, browsing, adding, and redeeming offers on the mobile app is such a simple, straightforward process that virtually anyone can do it. Personally, I just don't find much use for it, and after hitting my first $20 and cashing out, I'm honestly not sure I'll ever go back to it again.

RATING: 3/10

If you're interested in giving this app a spin (and it's completely free, so why not?), it's available on the Google Play Store for Android users, or the App Store for iOS users.