Saturday, April 4, 2020

Benton's Soft Triple Chocolate Chip Cookies (Aldi)

Wonderfully, woefully average.

Fearing that their delectable “Original” Australian cookies were on their way out of permanent inventory (a fear that seems to be unfounded, as they appear to have gotten in another shipment since my previous trip), I actually picked up a pack of these hoping to find a somewhat viable cookie replacement should my preferred option dry up. Hey, as we're learning now, it never hurts to be prepared for any situation!

Excited at the prospect of potential deliciousness, I let my wife try one first immediately after getting home, and was more than a little annoyed when she contorted her face in slight—but genuine—disgust , and declared that they basically tasted like every other pre-made triple chocolate cookie. She’s a self-admitted bakery snob, though, and frequently turns her nose to everything that’s not fresh-baked. “What did she know?” I thought to myself, well aware that she actually knows a lot about making foodstuffs and has a much more refined palate than I could ever hope to achieve.

So I did what I frequently do: completely blocked out her opinion. Instead, I prepped myself for a flavor sensation that my close-minded wife was certainly missing out on...a sensation that never came because, unfortunately, she was right (at least this time). I was initially won over by the soft and chewy texture, which is almost too perfect...it's like the person who's overly sweet because they're up to no good; it's proof alone that these clearly weren't made by the loving, imperfect touch of a human being, but rather a mechanical cyborg programmed to construct the perfect cookie, every time, and the results are honestly rather off-putting.

Beyond that, my wife hit the flavor profile on the head: there’s nothing special here. She did go too far when she said she’d rather have a crunchy name brand cookie (ahoy there, maties!) as opposed to these (I wouldn’t)), but these are otherwise pedestrian cookies in every regard; a special shame given the inclusion of white chocolate chunks, which don’t seem to get featured in cookies near enough for me. Here, I figured they would provide a perfect sweet counterpoint to the strong cocoa combination of the cookie and milk chocolate chips, but instead, they just seem to get lost in the neverending sea of brown chocolates, offering little more than a pleasant aesthetical counterpoint by being the only light thing in the entire cookie. (Which sounds like a metaphorical allegory of racism, but is genuinely simply describing my preference for white chocolate to dark, or even milk, even though I'm fully aware it's technically not even “real” chocolate. Like a white woman with a large booty. Which now has brought race into it.)

Value is pretty much a wash, in my opinion: they're not too expensive, but they're also not a great deal, with each 7.4 oz. package retailing for $1.99, and consisting of eight cookies. While that might sound like a bargain, they are not full-sized cookies; they are maybe a little larger than the aforementioned “crunchy name-brand cookies”, making them around half the size of one that I would consider to be “full-size”. In other words, this has the attempted look and feel of a premium cookie, but with the pedestrian flavor and eerily-perfect “Stepford Wives”-style consistency of one that's mass-produced. No thanks.

Overall: 5/10. The price tag is decent ($1.99 per 7.4 oz. package), but these are just standard, mass-produced cookies masquerading themselves as something more noteworthy. The triple chocolate flavor is rather pedestrian through-and-through, while simultaneously coming in at about half the size of “real” ones, no less. The white chocolate chips (which is the reason I pulled the trigger on these in the first place) get lost amidst all the abundance of genuine cocoa, and provides little addition to the flavor, while the cookies themselves are almost too perfectly chewy, a sobering reminder that you're eating a mass-produced product made by robotic, automated hands, and not the loving touch of a caring human being. It's almost a perfect example of a wonderfully average product, through and through, but at a cost that insinuates you should be getting more.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

A Rising "Receipt App" With a Great Community: An In-Depth Look at Coinout (Mobile App)

WHAT IS IT?

Coinout is yet another receipt-uploading app that pays you money for uploading receipts. Like Receipt Hog, it allows you to upload virtually any itemized receipt from virtually any store; unlike Receipt Hog, which only gives you “coins” (which can then be exchanged for gift cards or Paypal cash) for certain kinds of receipts, Coinout pays you instantly in cold-hard cash. It shot to nationwide attention in 2017, when the founder appeared on the hit show “Shark Tank”, and accepted an offer of $250,000 from one of the judges; despite this, I only heard about it recently.

(A fun fact that I haven't seen mentioned in very many places: its “pitch” on Shark Tank was completely different than the finished product. Originally, it was conceived as a way to avoid receiving coins, with the basic process functioning something like this: you go to a store, pay with cash, and instead of the cashier giving you change back--which you can easily lose or forget about--you would pull up the Coinout app, the cashier at the store would scan a barcode that appeared in it, and the change you would have received would go straight into your CoinOut account. From there, you could do whatever you wanted with it: let it accrue, transfer it to your bank account, invest it elsewhere, etc. It's actually a pretty brilliant idea, and I'm curious as to why that aspect was dropped, or if that is a feature that will eventually be coming down the pike. Either way, whatever.)

INTERFACE/NAVIGATION
This is the ugly screen that you're greeted with.
Quite simply put, the interface of Coinout screams “scam” right from the outset. To be perfectly clear, it's not, but it's very unattractive...it looks like the work of a first-year design student making his (or her) first mobile application.

Honestly, if you were to download this app with no idea what it is beforehand, figuring out its point would be pretty confusing: there are vague “buttons” in the middle of the screen, a large (relatively speaking) banner offering cash back at the top, and then an option to click on “All Badges”. Clicking on any of them will give you more details, but a lot of them are the spammy type of ads found on survey sites, requiring you to get a quote on car insurance, or sign up for a service in order to receive the offered payout (which is generally around a dollar). At least all of their offers are from legitimate companies, however, instead of the shady “Sign Up For a $1,000 WalMart Gift Card”-type offers found on other survey sites (Swagbucks and InboxDollars, I'm looking at you!)

Current savings offers...ouch.
There are also buttons for “Share & Earn”, which offers $.75 for every person you refer to their service, as well as one marked “Savings”, which simply shows you a rotating selection of savings accounts that it “thinks” you may be interested in. They don't seem to actually be targeted to the user specifically so much as just randomized options that are probably just masked advertisements, though to be fair, the options do at least tend to have high percentage yields. It's a pretty weird option to have on the main page, though, because how often do people really shop and change savings accounts? It's also weird considering you often get nothing for signing up.

The only thing most people will need to know is the large button marked “Scan”--this is where (almost all of) the magic happens.

UPLOADING RECEIPTS
CoinOut utilizes a pretty standard receipt uploading template.
The upload process is very similar to other sites, with markers helping you to align the receipt to the borders. One curious thing about the app that I learned the hard way, is that there are no options to take multiple shots of the same receipt—you have one shot to take a picture of the whole thing. This is weird for longer receipts, but as a workaround, the app suggests folding the receipt so that the name of the retailer, the date, and the purchase price are all displayed. This kind of strikes me as odd, considering many receipt apps want to see the specific items purchased in order to gather details on user purchasing habits, but I'm not going to complain about its simplicity.

In-store receipts are valid 14 days from the purchase date, which is about the average length for non-specific deal apps; it also means people just starting out can make a good chunk right away by uploading whatever receipts they've accumulated the past couple of weeks, which is a good incentive to get started.

Once you're done snapping the pic, just hit the large "Submit" button, wait about five seconds, and your amount will immediately be added to your balance. Sometimes, it will ask you a simple question related to your purchase, or hit you with a full-page ad related to one of their offers, but answering the question or backing out of the ad takes an extra three seconds, and you'll see your updated total right then and there.

The lack of processing time is another oddity with the app; you could conceivably upload the same receipt 50 times, or even something resembling a receipt (like a piece of paper), and get paid each time. Obviously, I'm not at all suggesting you do that - you'll get your account terminated when you go to cash out and must verify your info - but it's just weird that they don't do all those things upfront, and in real-time, the way virtually every other app works. It gives it a kind of laid back feel that's certainly a welcome change from the norm.

REWARDS SYSTEM
First, the good: Coinout's reward system foregoes "points" or "coins" or other fake currency in favor of one that displays the actual amount of money you have in your account at any given time. Thus, you are paid in actual money for every receipt you upload.

Now, the bad/just plain weird: unlike virtually every other “receipt reward” site, CoinOut doesn't have a set rewards system, meaning the amount you make per receipt is completely randomized, ranging anywhere from $.01 on up. This means exactly what you're thinking it means: that you could conceivably make more money from a receipt for a single item from a convenience store than your $348.68 receipt from the supermarket, which is pretty dumb when you think about it. But hey, at the end of the day, all of those pennies add up, and in theory, it should all even out in the long run. There are ways to boost your balance besides receipts, which we'll touch on later, but if you're just relying just on scanning (which I do, so I'm speaking from experience here), then it's going to be a slow slog to any meaningful amount.

Receipt amounts are completely randomized.
The biggest draw that CoinOut has over the competition is that virtually any receipt from a valid retailer is eligible for cash payment. So those gas-only receipts that only get you a sweepstakes entry elsewhere? Upload them here for immediate cash payment. That receipt from a clothing store that would only be good for a "spin on the slots" in other apps? Cash here. Electronics store? Cash. Restaurant? Cash. Thrift store purchase? I'm not entirely sure on this one, but I'm sure that's valid for cash back, too. As a general rule of thumb, as long as it's printed, itemized with a total amount, legible, and has a store name, it can earn you money. The only ones that aren't accepted are the obvious: bills, movie tickets, handwritten receipts, etc. are all invalid, which really shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone.

What is rather surprising is that they even take e-receipts, unlike many of their competitors. The process for claiming them is simple, but also rather bizarre: simply forward the actual receipt (not an invoice or other vague document) to receipts@coinout.com and you're good to go. A verification email will be sent once they receive it (which is generally almost instantly) and is a nice touch that let's you know it's safely in their hands. The first time you submit one, you do have to include the mobile number attached to your CoinOut account in the body section of the email, but after that you're given the chance to fill out a form that makes every submission thereafter automatic (assuming it comes from the same email address, I presume).

E-receipts are paid out in one lump sum every Thursday, and designated, confusingly, as a "gift".
Payout for these, however, is not instant: instead, all e-receipts are processed on Wednesdays, with the money appearing in your account on Thursday morning. There are some more specific rules as to when they must be submitted by in order to be processed that week, so visit the website for full details, but in the worst-case scenario, you'll just have to wait until the following Thursday to get the cash. The same rules as the printed receipts apply: must be itemized, with date, store name, and total clearly legible, but other than that, they'll accept them from virtually anywhere.

The only catch—and it's a fairly big one—is that online receipts must be forwarded to them the day you receive them. The reasoning behind this is unclear, but considering the process is even simpler than uploading receipts, getting into the habit of immediately doing it quickly becomes second nature. I did test this theory and uploaded some receipts a day after receiving them, and they still seemed to go through, but that's something that's liable to change at any time, especially as the user base grows and their rules get more strict.

COMPUTER FUNCTIONALITY
Like an ever-increasing number of apps these days, Coinout is limited only to mobile devices, with absolutely no computer functionality whatsoever. Some sites will at least let you sign up on a computer, then force you to download the mobile app to actually use it, but you can't even sign up on a PC here, making it a poor option for those without a smartphone or tablet.

HOW MUCH CAN I MAKE?
It's going to depend on a variety of factors, such as how many receipts you upload, and what your random payout is for each one, but either way, don't expect much. After making over $1 within my first week, it took me close to a month to double that total (and on probably three times the number of receipts), so expect a slow drag that's about on par with payouts on other apps.

As can be expected, there's a daily limit to how many receipts you can submit...but like many other things with Coinout, it's very vague. At one point, it was 25 (per day!) but users on Reddit have claimed that number has been quartered down to roughly six (I can't exactly vouch for this because I rarely, if ever, get that many in a single day). And if you think you'll get a clear answer from the company themselves, their own terms simply confirm that there is a daily limit, but that it varies by day, with absolutely no numbers given for reference. So I guess just keep scanning until you don't earn anything.

For those people into referrals, you can get $.75 for every verified user you add.
For a personal, real-world example, I signed up around mid-July, 2019, and as of mid-March, 2020 (about eight months), I had just shy of $16 in my account. That equates to somewhere around $2 per month, with an estimated average of one receipt per day uploaded. In the grand scheme of things, that's pretty good compared to similar services I've signed up for, and there's a good chance if you're in a bigger household, or get way more receipts than I do, or sign up for their paid offers, that your results will be even better than mine.

Honestly, once the payments dipped down to normal levels, I was seriously tempted to drop the app. And I would have, were it not for the wide variety of supported receipts, as opposed to other ones like Receipt Hog, where certain categories only earn you entries into their sweepstakes, or spins on their slot machine, or some other pointless low-odds jackpot. It's also nice to not have to worry about cashing out “coins” or other fake methods of currency, which can sometimes be a little frustrating to remember how many points equal what, especially when the conversion rates tend to differ across the board.

NOTE: For those people into referrals, click here for my referral link. I get a one-time payment of $.75. You don't get dick.

PAID ACTIVITIES
Beyond the receipts, there are additional ways to make extra cash, with more being added on a pretty frequent basis.

They've jumped on the eBates-style bandwagon by offering cash back on purchases made through certain retailers. I always forget to do this when buying things online, so I can't compare their cash back percentages against similar apps, but they're generally around 3% or less. I can't imagine them being much better than the competition, and the selection of stores is relatively small (around twenty, with many of the stores seemingly offered on a rotating basis), so this probably wouldn't be my first choice for a cash back app, but it's there in case you're in the market for something from one of the places on offer.

Rules for their "online rebates" program.
The downside to these offers are the vague terms of each; since there's only a small square dedicated to each website, that doesn't leave a lot of room for specific notes. Hence, you'll see things like the below picture, which doesn't really give you a whole lot of specific, useful information to go off of.
"Up to 1.2%"? Okay, on what categories specifically? And what are the "excluded items"?
While receipts and rebates are about the only two constants, they do occasionally have Ibotta-style rebates for specific items, cash for completing sign-ups, a cool monthly (or is it twice a month?) trivia, and plenty of contests and sweepstakes that help to keep things fun and interesting. 

CASHING OUT

Another advantage CoinOut has over the competition are the number of ways to receive your payout—and none of them involve waiting for a paper check to arrive. You can be paid out via bank account, Paypal, or Amazon gift card. Looking over those options might not seem like much, considering there are other places that offer gift cards to dozens of different shops and vendors, but being able to transfer the money direct to your bank account is a relatively rare option among many sites. Even more amazing is that there are no minimum balances for anything except the Paypal option (which is $10): Desperately want to spend the $.57 you have in your account? Transfer away! Want a $2.18 gift card to Amazon? Do it! There really aren't many other sites that give you that kind of flexibility, which is another win in its favor.

To be perfectly honest, I have yet to cash out my winnings (saving up to hit the $20 mark), but I will definitely update this section once that happens.

COMMUNITY/SUPPORT

As is standard for me in this category, I have very little actual experience with support; I guess I'm just an easygoing guy. The only time I did contact them was after signing up to a newsletter that promised $1 payout...and receiving nothing after about a week. Support was very friendly, I submitted photographic evidence of receiving the newsletter in my email, and the money was added to my balance within 72 hours of contacting them. That's pretty solid turnaround, in my opinion.

An example of their newsletter layout; just like their app, it's ugly and simple, but the tone is positive and endearing.
As for the community, I have to confess that their newsletter is the only one I consistently read from any app. It matches the design of their website by being pretty ugly to look at, but its simplicity, straightforwardness and laid-back tone are all infectious: There are no spammy, over-the-top surveys, or other shady, questionable offers that other earning sites bombard you with. Instead, there are usually several contests running that pertain to the time period in question, and that just make the site fun. For example, for fall they had a contest where anyone that uploaded a receipt with the word “Pumpkin” in it somewhere, would automatically be entered to win some extra cash, with the winners randomly selected. For another, people were asked to submit receipts from their favorite local spot, with winners once again selected from the pool and given extra money.

They also have a Coinout Facebook page where they run more fun competitions, as well as a separate "Coinout Insiders" group - run by the founder himself, who also posts and responds to inquiries - with even more contests and chances to win, only for group members. They also seek user-submitted feedback on offers and features, and take the responses into consideration. Say what you will about the app itself, but the people behind it are certainly good at cultivating the feeling of a tight-knit community around the group's users, with newbies received just as warmly as longtime users, and no one jumped on for questions or comments. This is an area where other apps should take notice...hell, this is an area where social media in general should take notice.

What makes the contests fun is that, instead of giving a large lump sum to one winner, there are generally anywhere from 10 to 100 people selected as winners for each contest. This results in much smaller earnings (I don't think I've ever seen anyone win over $10 for one contest), but also increases the odds for everyone to win at least something. I don't know why, but I find their upfront honesty refreshing, and more encouraging to keep going long-term.

But perhaps the highlight of every newsletter is CoinOut trivia, which (I believe) is done about once a month. This is the one contest where there is no set amount given to winners, and where everyone has a chance to win: the trivia consists of about five questions, with all of them having something to do with Coinout. Anyone who gets all of them right splits the pot of money, which is generally around $500, but occasionally reaches as high as $1,000! This is a pretty fun way to potentially earn some cash, while simultaneously learning about the app and company. I've won three times, and while my highest amount was around $.40, it's still fun to do and a cool little boost...look at it this way: that's potentially ten receipts!

OVERALL
PROS (+)
+Instant payment for receipts.
+Accept e-receipts.
+Wide variety of supported receipts; perhaps the widest in the business.
+Fun community, with a supportive Facebook group and a down-to-Earth newsletter.
+Responsive support, at least for me the one time I needed them.
+A wide, ever-rotating number of ways to make extra cash.
+14-day acceptance window for paper receipts.
+Instant cash payments for receipts.

CONS (-)
-Ugly interface.
-No PC functionality (app only).
-Receipt payout amounts completely randomized.
-Limited in-store cash back offers, with sometimes vague terms to boot.
-E-receipts must inexplicably be uploaded the day you receive them to get credit.
-Very few free offers; usually low payouts on paid ones.
-Duplicated receipts are not caught by the system upon upload, and can lead to account termination when you try to cash out.

On its own, CoinOut would probably be pretty worthless; even as it stands it's going to be a slow slog for those that are uninterested in the cash-back offers they rotate out (many of which are for paid subscription services or online bank sign-ups). However, the sheer multitude of receipts accepted (virtually anything that's itemized, dated, totaled and with a store name clearly printed), and the fun laid-back community help to make this an app that's at least worth checking out.

They do dabble in all sorts of cash-back possibilities (eBates-style cash back offers for online shopping, Ibotta-style rebates on purchasing specific items, paid sign-up offers, etc.), which for some apps would come off as a clear lack of focus, but here it gives the appearance of an app that wants to cater to its users as much as possible, in an effort to keep them engaged. Whether or not it has the long-term capacity to do so remains to be seen, but it's gotten consistent use out of me for the last eight months, so that certainly has to count for something.

RATING: 7/10




Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Elevation by Millville Double Chocolate Protein Meal Bar (Aldi)

Affordable and pretty good, but beware the "meal" bar designation...

I’ve found that breakfast bars make the perfect snack for me when I’m wasting away in the mornings at work. I usually stock up on the cheap ones (dipped granola bars, etc.) but every once in a great while, I’ll turn my attention to the Elevation by Millville line, which offer up “premium” bars for a comparatively premium price tag. Wanting to get as close as I could to the line between “premium” and “value”, I eventually opted for these protein bars, simply because they were the cheapest ones that had at least 5 bars. After all, I need to get at least a week out of them!

The only other product I’ve tried in the Elevation line were the mint chocolate bars, which are absolutely phenomenal, but still make me pause for thought every time I see the $6 price tag ($1 per bar? That’s some serious shit right there.) These offer up 6 full-size bars for just $4.19, which comes out to a respectable $.70 per bar. I haven't really compared the two all that in-depth, but I am kind of wondering what else the mint bars have that these don't (besides superior flavor), that justify the nearly $2 price increase.

At any rate, these aren’t anywhere on the same plane as those flavorwise, but they are a decent bar in their own right. The chocolate flavor here is definitely more akin to “milk”, rather than dark (thank God), but isn’t too awfully sweet. Meanwhile, the bar’s “guts” are light and crispy, also akin to the mint chocolate bars that I once fell in love with. There’s a slight graininess in the finish, but nothing that’s too noticeable, and certainly not enough to be distracting.

It's a good-tasting bar, with a decent amount of protein and some other necessary vitamins (A, C, D, calcium and iron chief among them), but one thing I don't like is that this is a “meal” bar, insinuating it's meant to replace a meal. Only, it's nowhere near filling, making this come off as more of a “snack” bar. I mean, I don't personally care, because I just use it as a morning snack (which I guess technically makes it "breakfast"), but I can't see anyone being satisfied enough after eating this to be able to skip eating actual food; that whole idea is ludicrous, and a distinction that makes the whole "snack" versus "meal" bar thing a little confusing.

Overall: 7/10. A nice milk chocolate flavor with a delicious “puffy” crisped-rice style interior set the stage for this bar from the Elevation by Millville line. The flavor is pretty delicious, offering up some nice sweet milk chocolate flavor without being too sweet, the price is on point at $4.19 (for six full-size bars), making it one of the more affordable options they have to offer, and there's minimal weirdness in the texture. It's not nearly as outstanding as their mint chocolate bars (which are, to be fair, almost $2 more expensive), nor are they anywhere near filling, making their designation as a “meal bar” (as opposed to just a “snack” or “protein” bar) pretty confusing and pointless.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Benton's Caramel Delights: The Classic Australian Cookie (Aldi)

Not quite as flawless as the chocolate ones, but a delicious treat nonetheless.
I already took a look at the chocolate version, which I adored (and which a couple readers pointed out were knock-offs of a certain popular Australian cookie), and now I’ll be taking a look at the other variety on offer: caramel. Although it’s not normally something I would normally try, I have two reasons: 1.) an unknown commenter, who commented on the review for the chocolate one that I should give the caramel a shot, and 2.) Ben, another commenter who informed me that his store has run out and didn't appear to be replacing them. These, paired up with the knowledge that my own local store has a very dwindling supply, makes me fear that they might be discontinuing them in the very near future. In other words, now was the time to try them!*

As can be expected, the exterior texture (“texterior”?) of the caramel is exactly the same as they are in the chocolate version, except for the middle, where there’s a gooey ribbon of caramel waiting to ambush your mouth hole. I like the combination of caramel and chocolate, but outside of Caramello bars (which I haven’t had in years, come to think of it), I don’t really try caramel things all that often. Would these win me over? Or simply remind me of why I'm prone to avoiding the golden confectionery product?

Oh yeah, these are good. Like, really good. They don't quite reach the perfection of the chocolate ones (how could they?) but they are way better than I was expecting. The caramel flavor hits strong, and pairs up well with the chocolate to deliver an even balance of each that goes down smooth, and begs you to keep going. It was much easier for me to limit myself to just one or two of the caramels, but the melty chocolate coating and chewy caramel is a solid combination that reminded me just how good the two ingredients can be together, in the right setting.

Honestly, as much as I enjoyed these, I will sadly continue to ignore them as long as the chocolate version is on the shelves; but if I ever had a craving and had to “settle”, presumably because the chocolate ones were sold out and these were my only option, I wouldn’t be too disappointed knowing these are what I’d have in store.

Overall: 8/10. These aren’t nearly as addicting (or as flawless) as the chocolate cookies, but they are way better than I expected them to be, and an excellent reminder of what makes the chocolate/caramel combination so potently delicious. The golden confectionery oozes out in ribbons, as if desperately reaching for your tongue, while the chocolaty exterior just melts in your mouth almost immediately upon impact. The chocolate ones are so good that, honestly, I'll continue to bypass these, but as far as fallback options go, these would help to ease the pain should the chocolates ever go out of stock (God forbid).

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Whole & Simple Mediterranean Style Scrambled Egg White Bowl (Aldi)



Yay! The return of actual flavor!
I already took a look at the Salsa Verde Breakfast Bowl, and hated every goddamned minute of it, so now we turn our attention to the other variety available in the same special buy cycle - and with even lower expectations to boot.

Those lowered expectations were obviously as a direct result of the previous dish, but also because this is the one I was least excited about to begin with. And a quick glance of the ingredients reminded me of why: No meat, nothing noteworthy that would seem to bring much flavor, and the same weird “whole grain” concoction of steel cut oats, spelt, buckwheat, and red quinoa that I swear actually sucked some of the flavor out of the breakfast burrito bowl—yeah, this was not headed down a great path.

Well, would you believe me if I told you that this vegetarian option was loads better? Well, maybe “loads” is the incorrect term—it still seems like a lot of the flavor has been drained from each of the individual items, as if only to remind us that we're eating something that's considered “healthy”—but I would probably get this one again, something that can’t be said for the meat-based version at all.


What really shines through here is the “spicy tomato and roasted red pepper sauce” which adds a bit of heat with a delicious tomato-based flavor to boot. And even though the “spicy tomato” gets top billing, it's just a light dash of heat that no one but the most heat-sensitive of individuals will have problems taking. That’s a good thing, too, because that sauce is really the only thing that consistently stands out, giving your tastebuds a nice kick that the other ingredients only seem to hint at. The texture is still the same kind of “slimy” texture present in the breakfast bowl (and with the same cast of whole grains), but when it’s paired up with actual taste, would you believe that it actually becomes a lot more tolerable? Gee, imagine that.

I still feel like $2.99 is a little too much for what you get on the whole, but hey, I'm a cheapskate; either way, I definitely felt like I was getting more of my money's worth here than in the salsa verde variety, and could easily see myself grabbing this again at some point in the future.

Overall: 6.5/10. It’s not fully my cup of tea, and the $2.99 asking price is a little excessive (in my humble, cheapskated opinion), but this one delivers in the taste department. Curiously, the flavors of the individual items themselves are still muted, but the spicy tomato and red pepper sauce that covers the dish packs in a good amount of flavor, with just a touch of spice, making the whole thing easily edible. The feta cheese also packs a good textural counterpoint to the weird whole grain "oatmeal"-style consistency spread throughout. It's not the best value in Aldi stores, but it's pretty tasty and good for a quick bite on the go.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Whole & Simple Salsa Verde Breakfast Burrito Bowl (Aldi)

Just...don't.

This story begins the way almost all of mine do: I was at Aldi, and I was in a bind. This time, my grocery trip was almost done and I was about to head to the line when I suddenly remembered that I was going to need some dinner items for the nights my wife was at work. I had made a quick stop and was running low on time, so I took the lazy way out –a trademark of mine--and decided to settle for something in the special buy freezer section. After a couple of passes, I noticed these Whole & Simple bowls, and noticeably perked up a bit: a salsa verde breakfast burrito bowl? Now that sounded promising! And into the cart it went.

I’ve tried a couple Whole & Simple foods before in the past, and remembered liking them quite well, so despite the ultra-clean packaging—which seems to insinuate a food that’s too healthy to taste good—I wasn’t really all that nervous to give it a shot. Especially considering the salsa verde, which singlehandedly could provide enough flavor to carry an entire frozen entrée.


Well, my casual beliefs went unrewarded, because this somehow manages to be bland as shit. No, scratch that—shit would actually have flavor, as putrid as it might be, so this is even blander than shit. Especially for a bowl packing in a few different ingredients (including chicken sausage), and the aforementioned salsa verde, which is generally pretty strong in everything, but inexplicably is only noticed in small bursts here. And the only reason it's noticed at all is because it imbues everything with a noticeable touch of heat that's fairly welcome, if only for the reason it's the only thing that makes me feel something. In fact, the egg whites themselves just might provide the most identifiable taste, words that should never be uttered, and that tell you all you need to know about what a serious misfire this is.

The texture is also pretty weird, given the addition of actual “whole grains” at the bottom of the bowl, consisting of buckwheat, red quinoa, steel cut oats, and spelt. These seem to function as flavor removers, because any hint of possible tastiness is quelched the moment you get the grain bites, which have almost the exact same consistency of oatmeal, and the same flavor profile as water. This weird mushy consistency could easily be forgiven if it were in a more enjoyable dish; in this tasteless void of sadness, it just takes everything down a further notch.

If this is a valid example of eating healthy, then I'd rather load up on delicious taste, and die twenty years sooner.

Overall: 2/10. Given the addition of salsa verde, there is no excuse for this bowl to be as tasteless as it is; the fact that egg whites just might be the most flavorful thing in here, tells you all you need to know about just how miserable this is. The texture—think oatmeal only with no sweetness whatsoever—only manages to take things down another peg, as does the $2.99 asking price, which is reasonable on paper, but feels like a gyp when you get a dish with a similar flavor profile to water. I've never been more thankful to feel a slight touch of heat before, courtesy of the verde, but that can't come close to saving this bowl, which tastes like a life completely void of happiness.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Specially Selected Lattice Cut Aged Cheddar and Black Pepper Kettle Chips (Aldi)

These are interesting and delicious.

“What are lattice-cut chips?”, you may be wondering, just as I was before scooping them up one day at Aldi. Well, the image on the front of the packaging sums it up well: imagine a waffle fry fucking a potato chip, and you’ll pretty much be in the right ballpark.

But how does that affect the actual texture, in practice? It delivers the extra crunchiness of a kettle chip (because that’s what these technically are), but manages to be slightly unique thanks to the wavy, “grid-style” ridges. The end result is a thin chip with some small, pin-sized holes throughout. 
Honestly, I like that a bit more than most typical kettle chips, simply because there’s less chip here; this means they don’t get overly crunchy like some of the “normal”, thicker kettle chips do.

But no food product can be good if it’s lacking in taste, and I am proud to announce that these pass the flavor test with flying colors. I will say that I think there tends to be a little bit too much black pepper for my liking, which leads to the “sodium burn” typically reserved for excess salt (which there’s a decent amount of, too), but the cheese is appropriately inviting, and counterbalances the “harshness” of the pepper, for the most part. It's rather light, and also kind of veers off into a slightly sweet territory that I wasn't expecting, although that might just be a gustastory illusion courtesy of the interplay between the cheese and pepper. At any rate, I have a hard time stopping once I start eating these—which is typically a good sign of deliciousness.

That being said, as good as the flavor is, it does start to wear thin after a while, which prevents this from being an “everyday” kind of potato chip that I could eat almost all of the time, such as their ranch tortilla chips. That means these are a once-or-twice-a-year kind of a thing, which works out pretty well considering they are only available as a Special Buy a few times throughout the year. It's the perfect example of a product confined to special buy cycles that absolutely should be.

Popping in at $2.19 (per 7 oz. bag), they’re certainly a bit more expensive than their typical chips; presumably, it costs a few extra cents for them to add another angle of cutting to the chip. Still, it’s far cheaper than national brand chips in general, and since this is presented by Specially Selected, Aldi's more “premium” label, that helps to justify and explain the slight cost increase versus their other chips. At the very least, they're worth buying at least once just to give them a shot, especially if you're tired of the typical options.

Overall: 7/10. These lattice cut chips are, basically, a thin waffle fry texture in chip form, with a “grid-like” cross-cut throughout that delivers extra crunch without being so thick that they threaten to shatter teeth. The flavor here is good, with a light cheddar flavor paired up with a bit too much cracked black pepper for my liking, leading to that feeling of “sodium burn” that you get from eating overly salty snacks for too long. Once I hit that threshold, I know it's time to put them down, but they are pretty addicting before reaching that point. I wouldn't get these all the time, even if I could (on account of them being a special buy and all) but they're a great change from the norm, and at $2.19 per 7 oz. package, a reasonable value at the same time.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Trader Joe's Scalloped Potato Chips with Five Cheeses (Trader Joe's)

Dear God these are incredible.

We were at TJ's for the first time in over three years, when these caught my eye on the "What's New?" endcap (a little ironic, considering half the store was new to us since it had been so long). Even though I really like potato chips, I did hesitate grabbing them for a second, figuring that it would taste like other cheese chips, but I finally grabbed a bag, curious to see what Trader Joe's could do with such a standard item. Beyond that, they were only $2.49 for a 6 oz. bag, which isn’t an outstanding value, but still cheaper than national brands.

I decided to crack these open one of the growing number of evenings where the cupboards were virtually bare and I was being run around by our three-year-old, mostly against my will. For some reason, we always used to be great about going to the grocery store on a schedule, but lately, it seems we always find excuses not to go, no matter how bad we need things. And that’s the mindset that leads to eating chips as a dinner appetizer.

Holy hell, I did not expect the flavor explosion that immediately befell my tastebuds, nor did I expect to find what can nearly be called the perfect chip. These are excellent, from texture on down to flavor.
And let’s start with the texture, shall we? I have to be honest: I’m not exactly sure what a “scalloped” chip is, but they seem to be somewhere between a regular chip, and a kettle chip in the crunch-o-meter, which is the name of the official device used to measure the crunchiness of a potato chip. While that might sound like a gray area that doesn’t need to exist, I find that, while most regular chips are crunchy enough, some kettle chips do go a bit overboard into almost teeth-shattering levels of crunchiness, so really, the middle ground between the two is a rather wide area that should be explored.

Now the flavor: oh man, it’s very, very good. It plays things smart by sticking only to flavors that can be replicated fairly well on a chip: cheeses. Five of them, to be exact, as you can tell by reading the front of the bag. But, unlike many other cheese-flavored chips, these somehow manage not only to avoid being overwhelming (which five of anything can easily do), but also avoid tasting like excess salt. In fact, salt content seems to be slightly less than the average chip, at 6% per 1 oz. serving (assuming the default 2,000 calorie diet). Every flavor is balanced just right, so that one doesn’t overtake the other, and while I won’t lie and say that I can differentiate the taste between every kind of cheese (romano, cheddar, provolone, asiago, and parmesan, for those that might be interested), the combined effect of them is way more delicious than I ever would have expected to be possible in potato chip form. And because of this, they go down way too easy.

About the only complaint I can come up with is that the chips still manage to be a little bit greasy—pair that up with the generous amount of seasoning and you have a snack that’s every bit as messy and gross as all the rest of them—but outside of that minor quibble, this is easily one of the best-tasting potato chips I’ve ever had. I also won’t lie and say that I will frequently go out of my way to grab these (our closest Trader Joe’s, while not a super long haul, is 15 minutes away), but I’ll definitely be sure to grab a bag of these any time I’m in the store.

Here’s to hoping it won’t be another three years.

Overall: 9.5/10. They’re still greasy and messy, and the $2.49 (for 6 oz.) price tag—although reasonable—doesn’t really scream “value”, but in terms of texture and flavor, these are some of the best chips I’ve ever had. Despite blending five cheeses, it somehow manages to avoid an overload of any specific cheese, but perhaps even more shockingly, doesn't taste overwhelmingly of salt. The end result is an enticing, cohesive combination of flavors that just demands to be binged, thanks to a nice, texture that is slightly crunchier than a typical chip, but not as teeth-shattering as some kettle chips can be. Excellent, and highly recommended.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Fit & Active Mango Tropical Flavored Water Beverage (Aldi)

You're better off drinking regular water, no matter how much you hate it.
I’ve mentioned it a trillion times in previous reviews, but I hate drinking water. Hate it. So naturally, if I’m drinking a flavored water drink, I don’t really want it to taste like water. At all. That’s what I like so much about Fit & Active's lemonade version of this drink: aside from the info on the label, nothing about the taste screams “water”. It might not be the greatest lemonade you’ve ever had, but for what it is, a calorie-less water-based beverage - and for being sugar free - it has a great abundance of flavor, and even somehow manages to hit that counterbalance of tart and sweet that the fruit is known for. And it's that combination that makes it so inherently drinkable.

Fit & Active's Mango Tropical version, however, falters by presenting us with a watered-down version of a flavor that would already be a tough task to translate to a 100% juice, let alone a flavored water. The unconvincing mango flavor doesn’t hit nearly as hard as mango should (nor is it even remotely tart), while the remaining “tropical” is represented by a flavor akin to orange powdered drink mix; only, someone forgot to add any sugar, because it's weak as hell. It's further impacted by a complete lack of interplay: the lemonade, as mentioned before, has the competing tartness and sweetness working in its favor, delivering an equal amount of both. This, on the other hand, just has a weird, vaguely-tropic flavor that starts off fairly sweet, and then dissipates almost into unsatisfying nothingness. You wait, expecting there to be something to rile up your tastebuds...and then you swallow in disappointment; there are no “peak” points on the flavor scale that hit your tastebuds noticeably harder, or anything that would bring excitement: it’s just…bland. Not quite as horribly bland as real water, but way too close for comfort.

At $.69 per 33.8 oz. bottle, value is pretty strong, and the lack of sugar, calories, caffeine, and minimal sodium is a good thing (along with the 60mg of potassium per 12 oz. serving). But even factoring those into the mix, this is an underwhelming beverage that I wisely avoided (subconsciously) for all these years, and will now continue to consciously do for the rest of the foreseeable future.

Overall: 3.5/10. It starts off not good, and then somehow gets worse and worse the more you drink it. Unlike the lemonade version, which is pretty tasty, this one starts off with an weak and uninspiring flavor that just kinda…disappears, offering absolutely zero reasons to look forward to the next swig, let alone the next bottle. The $.69 retail price (for a 33.8 oz. bottle) is a great value, and the lack of caffeine, sugar, calories, and low sodium are also factors preventing this from scoring lower. But, arguably, in the end, it's all about taste, and this one falls so short on that front, that there are literally zero reasons I can think of (besides curiosity) that you should ever subject your poor tastebuds to this sloppy combination of what appears to be vague sweetness and orange powdered drink mix.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Millville Peanut Butter Chewy Dipped Granola Bars (Aldi)

Like candy in granola bar form.

I like granola bars, but I don’t often get Millville’s dipped kinds, for whatever reason; the few times I have, I’ve always stuck with what I know I’d like: chocolate chip. Well, my wife recently picked up the peanut butter variety for our 3-year-old son, and I must confess that I raided his stash to try them; after all, this isn't a kind I would ever lean toward on my own.

Now, to be fair, I don't even know why that is: I actually like the combo of peanut butter and chocolate, but for some reason, I’m always hesitant to try new things with that flavor combination. I don’t know why, but peanut butter cups are about the only thing that I’ll immediately eat without giving it a second thought—maybe because as good as things are that utilize the combination properly, they can be just as awful when it goes wrong. (And, contrary to what some may think, it can go wrong.) So I gave it a shot, expecting it to be an instantly forgettable, if not regrettable, affair.

Wow, this texture is way better than I expected…and along with it, the taste. I thought that the peanut butter would come through in the form of peanut butter chips, or even peanut butter-flavored granola—both of which I'm not crazy about in granola bars—but underneath the exterior coating of chocolate is a thin, creamy layer of the stuff. When paired up with the fully-chocolated exterior (with surprisingly soft, melty, fakey artificial chocolate), it creates a candy-style combo that easily wipes any health benefits away from the granola center. But who cares? It tastes really good and a box of the stuff (with six bars), can be had for under $2, making them an excellent-tasting snack on the go.

Meanwhile, the small nature of these bars (and they are pretty darn small, at least compared to the typical granola bar) is where the health-conscious might even find some solace: each bar is 150 calories, and so unhealthy that it can be easy to forget that there's even granola in them. What am I getting at here? That these would probably be the perfect size for someone craving the delectable combo of peanut butter and chocolate, while still maintaining at least some level of control (and while at least delivering some dietary fiber; hey, I don't care if it's only 1 gram, I'm trying to make a case for it here!).

I’m still not sure that I would ever pick these up for myself, but having tried them, I’m certainly more inclined to do so than I initially was. It’s a tasty little treat, and the small size (while off-putting to a certain degree) also ensures somewhat limited caloric and sugar intake, which can be a good thing. Contrary to my original expectations, this is a delicious bar at an all-too-affordable price.

Overall: 8/10. Aaaah shit, these are way better than I was expecting, which was a chocolate covered granola bar with peanut butter chips in them. Nope, we're talking a fully-covered chocolate bar with an actual layer of rich, tasty, creamy peanut butter directly underneath, making them more crack-like than snack-like. However, they are small, which at least moderates the sugar/caloric intake (assuming you can stop at one), and the $1.39 price tag (for six bars) is perhaps too inviting. I'm not really sure the specific market for this (it's too unhealthy for those looking for a legit granola bar product, while those just looking for a sweet treat will be off-put by the granola bar they threw in there as an afterthought), but marketing demographics be damned...these are delicious.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Millville Sweet and Salty Nut Peanut, Almond & Dark Chocolate Chunk Granola Bars (Aldi)

Dark chocolate typically ain't my thing, but these are a welcome change from the other, sweeter varieties.

One thing I feel like I've mentioned a million times before is that I pack my lunch for work four days a week. Since I've been doing it pretty consistently for so long now, I've got it down to a science: sandwich (or sometimes frozen entrée) of some sort, fruit, breakfast bar (for snack in case I get hungry before lunchtime), chips, and sometimes a beverage of some sort. Did I say science? I probably should have went with “routine”, since I just go through the motions of packing at this point, without any excitement whatsoever.

Depressing intro paragraph aside, my point was to explain that, even though I have much of it broken down by category, there are still dozens—if not hundreds—of items that fit into each one. For example, “sandwich” can mean turkey and swiss, or chicken salad, or peanut butter and jelly; likewise, there are dozens of fruits, hundreds of chips, and many different breakfast bars to keep the routine from getting too stale. And so, to switch it up a little bit, I occasionally like to try new things, if for no other reason than to break the doldrums of familiarity.

And that's how I ended up with Millville's Sweet and Salty Nut Chocolate Chunk granola bar, something that I wouldn't normally pick up, on account of my hating dark chocolate and all. But you know what? I was tired of the sweeter almond butter dipped ones, and didn't want to fork over $5 for a box of protein-packed “fancy” bars, so the decision was pretty much forced upon me, courtesy of Aldi's limited selection.

As expected, this is the flavor to get if you find the other varieties too sweet, because it definitely dials back on that front. On top of having the dark chocolate chunks throughout, the bottom is also dipped in a “chocolate flavored coating”, according to the description on the actual package, although it doesn’t state what kind. After digging into it, I can say it’s definitely more akin to dark chocolate than milk, with a semi-sweet flavor that also adds in a slight layer of “bitter”, as if it was inserted simply to remind me why I can’t stand the stuff. Thankfully, though, since only the bottom of the bar is covered, and there's a generous helping of granola and nuts, there are enough other flavors to get me through.

Even though these really aren't my cup of tea, I can appreciate them for what they are, since they fill the void left by the other two (overly, some might say) sweet varieties. The chocolate does provide a nice blast of flavor that doesn't make you feel like you're eating dessert, yet offers enough of a slightly sweet finish to also remind you that you're not eating just a boring ol' granola bar. I would imagine fans of dark chocolate would really like these, even though I'm sure it's not a high-end example of the stuff.

The texture is about the same as the national brand, which is to say that it’s soft, and perfectly chewy, which also helps to make these enticing. Meanwhile, the $1.49 retail price (for six bars) makes them all-too-affordable and provides a week's worth of work snacks for me, for a price that won't come anywhere close to breaking the bank. I couldn't get them all the time, but for a change-of-pace, these do a good job of (barely) hitting the spot.

Overall: 6/10. Again, take my opinions with a grain of salt, because dark chocolate just isn't my thing, but these do provide a nice counterpoint to the other varieties of “partially-dipped granola bars”, which are particularly sweet. Thus, I get these as a change-up from those; on those grounds, it succeeds admirably, by offering up a semi-sweet, slightly bitter dark chocolate coating atop an almond and granola bar of soft, chewy texture. I could never get these on a weekly basis (a statement true of almost anything), and I'm still not at all crazy about the taste, but fans of dark chocolate should appreciate these a lot more than I do. The $1.49 retail price (for six bars) also provides some pretty solid value.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Colorful Double-Wall "Designer" 9.5 oz. Sippy Cups (Dollar Tree)

Can't find the lid, but you get the idea. (Pic taken right before chucking it in the trash.)
Like most families with children, we're finding you can never really have enough sippy cups—if nothing else, the more you have just means the longer you can go without having to do dishes, and that's an okay issue to have in my book! Plus, a majority of the ones we got from friends and family were mostly the “semi-disposable” ones that aren't meant to be kept around forever. So while perusing the baby section at Dollar Tree and stumbling on these, I figured I'd grab one just to test out.

What initially drew me into them were the designs: There's one with a pirate theme (for all the boys), another one with a princess theme (for all the girls), and one with a friendly monster telling no one in particular that “Friends are great!” (for either or). Thanks, Cup Monster! The artwork is clear and cutesy, while the cups themselves felt surprisingly thick and sturdy. I wanted to grab a few, but didn't want to be saddled with a bunch of them in case they sucked, so I just fired a single pirate cup into my basket.

These cups, like many geared toward younger children, are “spill-proof”, via a plastic piece that fits on the underside of the lid. This prevents the liquid from coming out, unless there's a distinct sucking motion on the spout, a clever piece of engineering that has probably been prevalent for dozens of years but which I never paid attention to until having a kid of my own. This plastic piece is also easily removable, allowing for quick and easy cleanup; I always wash the plastic part by hand, while throwing the rest in the dishwasher (which probably isn't recommended...oh well), and have never had an issue with any of it.

Alternate angle with punched-up colors.
Now for the big question: How well does it perform? And that's where these cups (sometimes) lose much of their luster: The plastic piece—by far the most integral part of the whole cup—is prone to coming off at random times, no matter how hard you shove it into place. It's especially noticeable after we shook it up to mix the cup's contents, such as after adding a dash of chocolate syrup to baby's milk for a little treat. But even once we figured that out—and started mixing it before we put on the plastic piece—there's still one very concerning variable: kids are crazy. They like to flail things around and drop anything they can get their hands on...cups included. Which meant that, even if we took proper care with it, our child could still wedge it loose with an act as simple as accidentally dropping it, which isn't really a great way to instill confidence in a product. Put it this way: if your product is meant to prevent spills, and is prone to causing them, it's not very good.

We've since limited the use of these to nighttime, or during the day right before he takes his nap, when he's very tired and less apt to perform random bouts of physical insanity. This has certainly cut down on the number of problems we've had, but obviously, it's not a foolproof plan. Even more annoying is just how random the whole plastic piece issue seems to be: sometimes, he'll drop the cup and it will be perfectly fine, while other times it seems the slightest movement dislodges it, causing the drink to pour out at an alarming rate, thus leading to excessive spills. And let's not even mention how incessantly annoying it is to dig the plastic piece out from the bottom of the cup; it fits so perfectly across the bottom, that when that happens it's much easier to pour the contents out into another cup until the plastic piece falls out. Or, to be proactive, you just put the contents into a different cup to begin with to save yourself from the potential hassle.

I'm really torn though because I still like these cups a lot: even after several trips through the dishwasher (which again, I learned is not recommended), the artwork still looks great—it hasn't faded in the slightest like I would expect an inexpensive cup to do, nor has any moisture condensed between the walls—and structurally, the cup is still in great condition, with no chips or scuffs even after repeated droppings on hardwood floor. Unfortunately, all because of that dumb little piece, we've had to severely cut back on using them only a couple of times per week when we're almost certain he's too tired to mess with it, and won't be buying any more going forward.

I suppose it's technically possible that it was only one cup causing these problems, and we were just an unfortunate recipient of quality control issues (we did buy three, but all with the same design, so it would have been hard to differentiate between them). Either way, even if only one was causing the issue, odds are good that there are many more out there that will do the same. And, in my opinion, even the quality of inexpensive products should not come down to a randomized lottery.

If you bought them and had a better experience, I would be glad to hear any counterpoints you may have in the comments!

Overall: 4.5/10. This score is a shame because structurally, these cups are surprisingly sturdy and fantastic, even after repeated passes through the dishwasher (which, for the record, I don't think is recommended, something I learned far too late). Unfortunately, the plastic piece that fits under the lid—you know, the entire thing that makes a cup spill-proof—is prone to falling off with the slightest amount of movement, which then leads to frustrating mess cleanups, and an upset child. That means shaking it is certainly a no-no, as is dropping it—once again, two things that children regularly do. We still use them occasionally, mainly at bedtime when he's more calm, and that has greatly reduced the number of issues we've had with them. But what good is a baby product that is made to prevent spills, if there's also a decent chance it will cause one?

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Trader Joe's Very Green 100% Juice Smoothie (Trader Joe's)

Very, very good.
I’m a sucker for smoothies. And so, of course, when we went to Trader Joe’s for literally the first time in over three years, what else would be one of the few non-food things to catch my eye? Actually, I seemed to remember trying these at some point back when my wife (briefly) worked there, and wanted to see if my memory was even remotely accurate, which it never is. The only thing making me pause for thought: the $2.99 price tag for a 16 oz. bottle which, come to think of it, is curiously around the exact same price for a bottle of the name brand stuff…

Anyway, I haven’t compared ingredients between the two (and at this point, I probably won’t), but I’m pretty sure that’s precisely what this is. It’s a very sweet, very tasty combination of five fruits and seven vegetables that goes down smooth, without any bizarre or off-putting aftertaste, vegetable or otherwise. In other words, it's inherently drinkable, and something that's along the lines of what I would consider to be an "ideal" beverage, at least in terms of taste. (As a counterpoint, as she frequently is: my wife found this to be sickeningly sweet, and wouldn't go near the stuff, a feeling she shares with the name brand, too.)

About the only complaint I have—and it’s also something that holds true for the original product itself—is that I would consider this more a juice than an actual smoothie. It’s true that the texture is a little bit thicker than the average juice, but it's definitely not thick enough to warrant usage of the term "smoothie"--although that may just be a matter of personal preference. At any rate, no matter the texture, and even though the proposition of value is rather weak (bottles of the name brand are available in Aldi stores for $3.05, following a recent price hike), it’s still a tasty way to get some of your daily fruit and veggie servings...assuming you can handle all that sweetness.

Overall: 9/10. A delicious “smoothie” that’s actually more juice in texture, this is still a great combination of fruit and vegetable juices that is perfect for those who hate veggies: it's very sweet (sickeningly so, according to my wife), without a hint of broccoli or garlic aftertaste in sight, despite both of those ingredients appearing in the bottle. The taste is so highly reminiscent of the name brand stuff, that I’m pretty positive the same company makes it under a private label. There's really not much in the way of value here (this 16 oz. bottle: $2.99; name brand 16 oz. bottle at Aldi: $3.05 following a recent dime price hike), but who cares? It's delicious and readily available at Trader Joe's stores everywhere, and that makes it a solid win in my book.

FUN FACT: My wife was working at TJ’s when she found out she was pregnant with the thing that would turn out to be our son. She worked there long enough that I was planning on adding frequent reviews of Trader Joe’s products…how would that have affected this blog? We will never know...

Friday, February 28, 2020

UPDATED: One Year 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 was originally planned to be updated every few months over the lifespan of the phone. As such, the rating may continually be adjusted based on future performance. While it didn't happen periodically as planned, here's the update after a full year of use. New photos should also be uploaded soon, as I've still never gotten around to that. The latest update of this review was posted February, 2020. New notes appear in italics according to the section it pertains to. The article was originally published in April, 2019.

PHOTO NOTES: All images taken from this phone and used in this review are the default 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 are unedited files, unless otherwise specified.


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

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
Feb. 2020 Update: My oh my what a difference a year can make. Since this original post, the U.S.'s attack against Huawei has reached levels that, admittedly, I never expected to see (and that have been maintained without any serious evidence). As a result, Huawei/Honor phones released after August, 2019 are without Google Play services out of the box, a big drawback that has greatly affected the sales of their devices, which, let's be honest here, was the U.S.'s tactic all along. 

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
Feb. 2020 Update: The battery life continues to impress me—I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t even charge my phone in between overnight charges during a typical day, and I still have somewhere around 30% left when I go to bed at night. Right out of the box, this is slightly less impressive, but the fact that the battery has held up this solidly after a year? That’s pretty incredible.

One drawback, though: The 20W wired "quick charger" that came with the device (and was probably aftermarket - it was an open box phone, after all) just suddenly stopped quick charging after about six months, despite using the included (and officially branded) Huawei wall tap that was included in the box. I immediately ordered another one online (that said it was OEM), only to have it quick charge for about two days before reverting back to "normal" charging speeds. I can't say for sure where the issue lies - my guess is in the cheap cords that I used, unknowingly at first - but having to charge a $600 phone at the same slow pace as my $200 Honor 7X just feels like a very frustrating first-world problem. Especially since it rarely affects me, given the long battery life.

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

Feb. 2020 Update: Although my interest in photography has waned a little bit, and the intervening year since its release has seen every other major smartphone maker doubling, tripling, and quadrupling their camera setups, the P20 Pro is still a capable shooter. The camera app still runs smoothly, with little in the way of delays or hiccups, and the shots are overall still crisp. 

With other companies working hard to up their camera game, the low-light feature that initially drew me to it (and that was revelatory upon its release) has aged rather poorly, with a tripod (and a still subject) virtually required for every shot I seem to want to take. Still, you gotta give it to Huawei for inspiring other manufacturers to give it their all instead of offering minor updates from iteration to iteration.


The complete lack of an included AR Lens function is also something that continues to bother me. I was hoping that a future update would “correct” it, but considering I don’t get any updates at all (see above paragraph), that hope is completely thrown out the window. This is another fact I completely overlooked somehow when initially researching it, wrongfully assuming it was an included option on all Huawei devices considering both the Mate 20 Pro (Huawei’s other flagship line) had it, and even my $200, then-year-old Honor 7X included it right out of the box. While I probably wouldn’t use it as much as I want to now that I don’t have it, it was still a fun setting to mess around with every once in a while.

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 pretty much worthless

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. 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. (Maybe a future device with two or more video cameras on it...?)

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
Feb. 2020 Update: Despite extensive research on this phone before purchasing, there's apparently one common issue that I overlooked: Since I’m based in the U.S., this phone doesn’t receive any OTA (over-the-air) updates. This is a curious thing, since I was able to update it from Android 8.1 to 9 right out of the box (remember, I purchased it almost a year to the month after its initial release). Since then, absolutely nothing, even though version 9.1 rolled out months ago, and Android 10 is currently making its rounds as we speak. Thus, my phone is stuck on an outdated version of Android, and on security patches from April, 2019.

I have to admit that I personally don’t really care about the lack of updates, or even about the lack of security patches, from an actual update perspective—all they generally are, are some refreshed options, reorganized settings, maybe some new wallpaper, and a couple minor gesture updates—but it’s all about principle: when you pay $600 for a phone, you expect to be able to keep that phone for a few years. And with this one keeping me back in the stone ages (at least as far as EMUI versions are concerned), I’m about ready to pack things up and move on. And that's a shame, because Huawei makes some amazing devices.

On the upside, the GPS still works brilliantly. I use Waze five days a week going to and from work and have probably had a total of about ten minutes worth of dropout in the past year, which leads me to believe it was an app or service-related issue.

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 Doesn't get security updates at all.
-Video modes neglected quite a bit
-No wireless charging support
-Weak selfie camera
-No AR Lens!
-Even on highest setting, screen doesn't get very bright in sunny outdoor settings.
-Once-outstanding night mode fairly average now.

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
+HDR10 Netflix compatible
+Reliable and fast GPS/WiFi connectivity
+Speedy performance even with multiple windows/apps open

Feb. 2020 Update: Two years after its release, and a year after I purchased it, the P20 Pro continues to excel in the battery department, with reliable Wifi and cellular connections. The device itself also performs well in every day use, with maybe some slight lagging with multiple apps open (or one large one), but not something that I notice in every day life. Unfortunately, technological advances have rendered the cameras merely average (aside from the dedicated monochrome sensor that still hasn't made an appearance in any other flagship device since), and a lack of updates in the U.S. have rendered it a shadow of its former self. For $600, I have to admit I expected a lot more after-purchase support, and have been left empty-handed; with Huawei's ongoing dispute with the U.S. government only getting tighter, I'll sadly have to look elsewhere for my next phone.

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.

RATING: 6/10 (-2 from initial review)

WHERE TO NEXT? Xiaomi looks poised to take Huawei's crown as the Chinese smartphone leader, delivering near-flagship specs for mid-level prices; that's probably where I will look when it's time to buy a new device next year. It will be interesting to see how Huawei plays their cards: while they have the China market pretty much on lockdown, thanks to Google services never being pre-installed there to begin with, sales are slumping just about everywhere else. Will they continue to try to hold on, in the hopes that the U.S. and China can make an agreement that will positively impact them? Or will they eventually find another Chinese phone manufacturer to share their tech with?