Sunday, December 27, 2020

UPDATE: The Most Pointless App Ever Made? An In-Depth Look at 1Q (Mobile App)

UPDATE (12/27/20): For the first time in the year-plus since I used it, 1Q has become more useful than ever...but I think I might have ruined it by messing with a single setting. This review was originally published in May, 2020; updated comments are add in italics throughout the original review below.
1Q Logo

WHAT IS IT? 
“1Q” (which stands for “One Question”, in case you were wondering) is a mobile app that pays you immediately to answer single questions. That's right, you get a quarter deposited into your Paypal account right after answering one simple question. Sound stupid? It is. Sound like a waste of time? It....well, let's not throw around adjectives until we dig in depth a little bit more, shall we?

NAVIGATION
Well, there are apps that are pretty easy to navigate, and then there are ones that are virtually foolproof; 1Q falls into the latter category. Outside of the initial setup, where you have to input some personal information about yourself, the main answer page consists of one page. You open the app, and any questions that are active and available to answer are right there. There's literally nothing else to check or look into. That's it. Even your dumb grandma could get the hang of this with no problems.

This is the main screen, and pretty much the only one you'll ever need.
Of course, there are other things you can do (although, outside of referrals, none of those things are paid) and those are available from a pulldown menu at the top left side of the screen.

ANSWERING QUESTIONS

The entire basis of 1Q has you answering single questions for a quarter. Outside of that, you can refer people to sign up, which will net you another quarter per referral. Unlike other sites that offer a few ways to raise your balance, this is it; there's no need to check your dashboard or go to any other screen, because you ain't gonna find anything. On the one hand, it's kind of stupid, but on the other, its mind-numbing simplicity and complete pointlessness is, in a way, also kind of refreshing.

In order to maximize your earnings, the app strongly recommends that you enable location settings, which will supposedly net you more questions. I never do this (unless I absolutely have to), so I can't say for sure if this is true. However, your dashboard will also notify you of any questions you miss; after having the app for about a month, I successfully answered two questions, and missed one, presumably from not having location services enabled. It was about this point that I deleted the app, citing it as too pointless, even for me.

They'll send you questions via text now!
Then, about year later, things got a little more interesting.

One day, two months ago, I got a random text message from 1Q that was a multiple choice question. I was going to ignore it, figuring it was just a “reminder” that I hadn't used the app in a while, but decided to answer the question. Sure enough, I was paid a quarter. Then, a couple days later, another question came through text, and another. Moral of the story, I don't even have the app installed on my phone at all, but I've made more money in the last month than the entire previous year. Granted, that amount has only been a dollar (for an entire month plus), but for just answering questions with a single letter via text? Can't really complain too much about that.

The only downside is that you have to be pretty quick on the draw: I answered one about 45 minutes after it was sent to me (my phone was silenced) and it had already reached its response limit and was not available; according to others, this usually happens within the first 5-10 minutes they are sent out. But assuming you have your phone by you more often than not—and who doesn't these days—and can take literally ten seconds to read and answer a question, then why not? I'll continue to answer the questions as long as they keep sending them over text.

WEB APPLICATION
As can probably be expected, there is currently no PC functionality with 1Q...all questions must be answered from a mobile device. You can, however, sign up via the website, and also make changes to your personal information if you need to update that.

HOW MUCH CAN I MAKE?
I'm usually against sharing balance info, but this is what I've accrued. Over one year in.

Virtually nothing. And that's no exaggeration: over a year later after installing it, I've made a whopping $1.50. Users in other forums report similar (and sometimes even worse!) results, so expect this to be more of a rule than an exception. I always mention on any of these GPT sites that you're not going to make anything resembling a living wage, but generally you can make at least $10-20 a month with a modicum of effort. Not so here: you can probably find more money going through your couch cushions at the end of any given year. But in that scenario, you technically haven't “made” anything; you're just re-finding your own money that you lost. So I guess look at this as finding money in someone else's couch cushion. I guess that's a little more worthwhile, right?

Granted, I never enable my location settings, unless I have a need to (such as navigating through GPS), so maybe I missed out on a few. But according to my dashboard, I've only missed two, with one of them being the text I was too slow to answer. Meaning I've actually only missed one in over a year's time because I didn't have location services enabled. So really, it doesn't seem to make all that much of a difference.

UPDATE (12/27/20): 1Q really seemed to explode in the 4th quarter of 2020, as I was getting regular questions...without the app even installed. I received dozens of text surveys starting sometime around September, and up through I made an apparently fatal mistake in December (that's where greed gets you). My balance is now up to $15.50, with over $10 being made within the past three or four months. It still won't be a worthwhile amount for some, but it sure beats getting $1.50 in one year.

Now on to what might have been the "fatal" mistake: even though I was getting frequent questions through text, I decided to try reinstalling the app, which promises even more opportunities. The app claims in order to maximize your revenue, you must keep location services on at all times...something I refuse to do (not so much out of privacy concerns, but out of battery concerns...and also because it feels pointless to keep location services on all the time for something that only sends you questions once or twice in a typical week.) I figured they would send surveys over via text still, with the app functioning as kind of a backup. Nope. I missed four questions within a couple of days because I didn't have location services permanently on...and haven't received one at all, either in-app or via text, in the three weeks since.

Is it the end of the road for me? Or will the questions pick back up again in the future? Hard to say for sure, but regardless of the outcome, earning ten times what I made altogether in the first year, in just four months makes it somewhat more worthy of a recommendation. 

However, keep in mind that my results won't necessarily be indicative of others, as things like geography, age, and other demographics play a role in the questions you will receive. While that technically does mean you could earn less than the meager amount I did, it also means that if you're open to leaving location settings on at all times (which I think a lot of users - like my wife - do without realizing it), or are just in the right demographic group, you could also earn more. And since it doesn't cost a thing, and takes mere minutes to sign up, then why not?

GETTING PAID
Unlike other GPT sites, where you have to build your balance up to a certain amount (usually in the range of $3 on the low-end, but sometimes up to $30...I'm looking at you, InboxDollars) before you can claim your earnings, 1Q does it all for you, depositing a single quarter into your Paypal account almost immediately after you answer a question. That's it.

Expect this almost immediately after answering a question.
On one occasion, there was a random issue with depositing the funds, to which I received an automated message that they would retry to deposit the money the following day; sure enough, they did, without me having to follow up at all. Outside of that one time, though, the money has been deposited within five minutes. I guess, in some way, that's kind of impressive...right?

So I guess the only drawback here is that you have to have a (verified) Paypal account in order to sign up and get paid. But considering they're free, I don't see that as too much of a bad thing. And if you don't have one, or have no intention of ever getting one, then at least in this case, you aren't missing out on a whole lot.

When their referral system is active, you can get an extra quarter per person referred. Feel free to use mine!
SUPPORT
I have never needed support, and surprisingly, a quick Google search hasn't revealed any big issues with payments; the main gripes people have are the infrequency of the questions. However, should you ever need to contact them, they can be reached via email at support@1q.com, or via a contact form on their website.

OVERALL

PROS (+):
+Paid $.25 immediately (via Paypal) for every question answered.
+Referrals pay out $.25 each...not much, but better than nothing. (Feel free to use my link.)
+Questions also sent out via text...even without app installed.
+Can also donate your earnings to charity.

CONS (-):
-Payment only $.25 (down from $1 when it initially launched in 2013).
-Must keep location services on at all times in order to maximize questions.
-Must answer quickly (i.e. typically within 5-10 minutes) or they expire.
-Lack of other paid activities or opportunities for increased payouts (aside from a quarter for referrals).
-Must accept payment via Paypal (or you can donate to charity if you'd rather).

Ultimately, this app is ultra-pointless; there's really no way to refute that. I mean, what's the point of keeping an app around that only does one thing, but does it so infrequently that people forget they even have it installed? Beyond that, most questions reach their answer limit within 10 minutes, meaning you have to answer quick to even get your quarter—you'd think it was gold bullion or something up for grabs.

If you get bored, you can also answer questions for free!
And yet, there's also something almost endearing about its mind-numbing simplicity: I deleted the app after about two months back in 2019 (after going 2-for-3 in questions answered) and rarely thought about it again--until I started receiving questions via text, even without the app installed. And I still get the immediate quarter payment via Paypal, as if the app was still on my phone. In fact, I've answered more via text within the last month than all of last year combined.

Recommending this (or not) really feels more like a psychology lesson than anything else: On one hand, does anyone need a quarter that badly that they should sign up? No, not at all - even the poorest of people won't make enough to do anything using this app. On the other hand, the payouts become some of the highest in the industry when you factor in the minimal effort involved: read a short question—usually about product preferences, or something equally simple—and pick an answer. Some are even multi-question surveys, which pay you out per answer (meaning if you answer four questions in one survey, you get $1, not a quarter). Most can be done in well under a minute, but even assuming a minute average per question, you're looking at a wage equivalent to $15/hr. You may never make that figure even over the lifetime of this app, but the way I see it: why not give it a try?

Or then again, with the potential for so little up for grabs, why even waste your time trying it at all? Dammit...I give up. It's out of my hands now.

UPDATE (12/27/20): All of my previous observations technically still apply, but I went from answering 6 questions in all of 2019 (good for $1.50), to answering enough to make $14 in just four short months toward the end of 2020. Of course, keep in mind that demographics, location, and other things can play a role in how many questions you'll get, so you may get less or more. But I would consider making $15 in a few short months worth it, given how little you have to do to make it, so I'm recommending it a little bit more.

Another downside, though, is that once I re-added the app in an attempt to get more questions, I actually got fewer questions because I refuse to keep location services on at all times...and the text questions stopped altogether, too. Hopefully they'll pick up again, but that'll teach me to ruin a good thing.

RATING: 5.5/10 (+0.5)

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Elevation Keto Chocolate Almond Brownie Bar (Aldi)

 

Box of Elevation Keto Chocolate Almond Brownie Bars
Love the taste of dark chocolate and have excess money to burn? Have I got the bar for you...

I know what you're thinking: “What is keto, anyway?” And it's certainly a good question, and I'm glad you asked. Keto is another fly-by-night diet with a stupid name that people obsess over for about 20 minutes before another one comes along with a name that's even stupider. In other words, to answer your question, I have no idea, and also don't give a shit.

So it should be pretty obvious my decision to try these almond brownies from Aldi's Elevation line has absolutely nothing to do with the diet itself, and everything to do with the usual: trying something new. I've heard the name everywhere lately, seen the name everywhere lately, and while I'm not interested in dieting, I did want to see what I could expect from the taste of something that exists within the Keto universe (after all, every diet has their own signature tastes, which start with “boring” and “shitty”, and then add a few similar adjectives until it tastes “boring” and “shitty” in its own unique way).

First things first here: the packaging is a little weird. Not so much the design itself (although I admit I don't really find it engaging), but rather the pictures contained on the packaging; I can't recall a more confusing, bizarre example of a product pic in my 36 year history on Earth as a natural-born reviewer of food products. On the front, you get a picture of a clear, nutless, chocolate brownie, with additional (separate) pictures of chocolate squares and enlarged almonds to pictorially show you what it is you're getting. On the back of the packaging, however, there is a picture of what purports itself to be the actual product, featuring a square bar with chocolate drizzle, and loaded with crushed up almonds on the surface.

In reality, neither of those things are correct: the almond bits are mixed in with the batter, so that you get bites of them throughout the middle of the brownie. While you can see some of them poking through the top, none are specifically sprinkled atop the surface as the back would suggest. It's pretty weird to me that they had two chances to show us what it is we're actually getting, and curiously failed both times. (I guess they do get points for not putting “Tastes like shit!” in a large balloon anywhere on the package.)

Anyway, these suck. And they're very small for the price (another trademark of popular diets: build up the name, and then you can charge people $5 for a small “diet-approved” morsel or shot that will trick people into thinking they're doing wonders for their already world-abused bodies). In fact, that's about the closest thing to “real” the packaging manages to convey, as the teeny product picture on the back isn't all that far off from reality. I would say that it would typically be a “three-bite” brownie, or thereabouts, but that's assuming you wanted to eat them; since you'll be stalling and have to force it down, it's more a ten-bite brownie, which I guess at least makes you feel like you're getting more for your money.

The texture is chewy, and fairly grainy...not really a combination that I would consider “appetizing”, but also one that I'm fairly used to, since it's pretty standard for dieting products (you can't make specialty foods something that looks and/or tastes like real food, because then you can't give off an air of superiority, or feeling of “exclusivity” if it's like everything else). The taste, though, is where this thing bombs the most for me: I get hints of “coffee” in the palate somewhere, which is probably because the chocolate is so bitter and unsweetened that you might as well just be eating a sponge with wood shavings on it while staring at a piece of chocolate. Of course, I've stated many times before that I have a very...unrefined...palate, so any fans of “true” dark chocolate will probably like it a lot better than I do. But if you're like me, this is something that will become second-nature to skim over every future grocery trip onward.

Overall: 3/10. If it looks like a brownie, does that technically make it a brownie? Elevation throws their opinion into the mix with a resounding “no!”, offering up a bitter mess of a small rectangle that not even the package designers could decide how to accurately portray. The end result is a bitter, overpriced snack that might appeal to followers of the Keto diet, but that others are strongly advised to stay away from (lest they love the taste of dark chocolate and are made of money).

Monday, December 21, 2020

Elevation by Millville Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Protein Bar (Aldi)

Packaging for Elevation Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Protein Bar
Very, very surprising.

Well, this story starts off the same as virtually any other: I needed a snack for work, and found myself in the breakfast bar aisle/Elevation endcap. By now, I feel like I’m a little too acquainted with their line, and tend to shy away from their products lately, as our finances have taken a little hit thanks to COVID (but whose hasn’t?), and they tend to be a little on the pricier side. But mere granola bars just weren’t going to cut it, and nothing else really sounded all that good, so I bit the bullet and found both an item I’ve never tried, and one of the least expensive items they offer: a dark chocolate and peanut butter nut bar.

That sounded gross to me, but my mind was open to new experiences, and so into the cart it went. Besides, as I mentioned it was one of the least expensive items they had, and everything else either sounded gross, or was something I’ve had far too many times. That helped make the decision easier.

Now, to be fair, when I say it’s one of the least expensive items they offer, there’s a good reason for that: it may be $3.29, but there are only 4 bars inside. The bars are a really good size, bigger than some of the other Elevation protein bars I’ve had in the past, but it’s a little weird to me that they would do that. Actually, that goes across the whole line: some boxes have 4 bars, some 5, and some 6….why not just make them all uniform? Instead, it makes the whole process of deciding which ones to get rather confusing, especially to those on a budget. Sure, the "per oz." (or per bar, or whatever unit of measurement they use) on each price tag can help you decide which bars are most "affordable", but as someone who packs these for work, I like to have enough to take with me every day of the week. That means, no matter the unit cost, I still have to pay close attention to how many bars are in each box.

Wow…okay, this is easily one of my favorite Elevation bars, something I was not at all expecting. Despite my rather…strong disdain for dark chocolate (which I typically avoid), the taste is tamer compared to others I’ve had, and it strikes up a perfect chord with the peanut butter to create a flavor that is neither sweet, nor bitter. It’s just like a straight down-the-middle flavor profile. If that sounds boring, it kind of us, but with these simple ingredients, it’s somehow so addicting…once I start eating one, I have a hard time stopping. And that’s something I don't recall ever happening with anything made of dark chocolate, at least not that I can remember.

As can be expected, the texture is pretty boring and mostly dry, since it’s made up of a nut base; the chocolate drizzle on top, and layer on the bottom help to liven things up a little bit. It's actually very similar to a brittle, as pieces break off pretty easily if you're not careful, which can lead to some...sticky situations. It’s not my favorite kind of texture for…well, anything really, but it’s also not the driest or most boring bar I’ve ever had, so I guess it gets some points for that. 

Texture aside, this is a fantastic, semi-healthy bar that should appeal to a wide range of people across the spectrum. 

Overall: 8/10. Man, I was not at all expecting to like this bar at all, let alone as much as I did: it's a very straightforward, almost boring bar in theory, but it's executed perfectly, with a great mixture of peanut butter and dark chocolate that threatens to become addicting. It's really a pretty much perfect balance between the two that never veers into "bitter" territory, but also doesn't sway into "sweet" territory...it's just a straight shot down the middle in terms of flavor profile. The texture's a little weird, as it breaks apart, almost like a brittle, at the slightest hint of pressure; outside of that, it's not the driest or most boring bar I've ever had. I usually despise these types of bars, but this one caught me off guard and is one I would wholeheartedly recommend. I just wish there were more than four bars in each box.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Science By Me Rocket Blast: Film Canister Rocket (Dollar Tree)

 

Packaging for Science By Me Rocket Blast Film Canister Rocket
This is a pretty decent way to kill five minutes and three seconds of time.

Well we already took a look at Science By Me's Volcano experiment, now we turn our attention to the only other kit they offer: a film canister rocket.

Included in this $1 kit is an empty film canister, paper “fins” to make it look like a rocket ship, and some baking powder—and once again, it fails to mention the other items you'll need to get the experiment to work. In this case, you will need tape, and some “cola”, which once again is kind of vague and misleading. Does that mean it has to be an actual “cola”--which I would equate to be a dark soda—or will any soda work? I'm pretty sure, based on YouTube videos, that any soda will work, but just to be on the safe side (and because it was the only kind we had), we used name brand diet cola.

These instructions are a little better, and state to use 5ml of soda, add the included packet of baking soda, flip it upside down, put on the lid, and stand back! One quick note before I get to the results: in yet another annoying (though minor) issue, the rocket printed on the film canister is actually upside down from the way it will take off, which kind of gets confusing. So, when you put the fins on, remember that you will be flipping the container upside down before it takes off—in other words, in order to make it look more “accurate”, you'll want to put the fins on the top of the canister, as opposed to the bottom (although honestly, the fins do nothing at all except make it look more like a rocket ship, so even if you do it wrong, it won't affect the outcome whatsoever).

I have to say that, after the frustration of our little volcano experiment, this one worked as described, taking off and going probably twenty or so feet in the air before jettisoning back to Earth (it was dark and might not have been that high, but regardless, it was better than expected). It was pretty impressive, so we decided to do it again using our own baking powder...and got less than stellar results, as the canister just jumped about three feet in the air before falling back down in what felt like the non-event of the century.

Once again, the film canister can be reused over and over again, so we kept it to try again in the future. Unlike the volcano, however, we were pretty pleased with the “out of box” results of this one, easily making it our "favorite" of the two kits. It does seem pretty anti-climactic to take five minutes setting up for something that only lasts three seconds, but I guess that's more a gripe with many simple science experiments in general, and isn't really a specific fault of this one.

Overall: 6/10. Like the volcano kit we reviewed earlier, this set still doesn't mention what non-included ingredients you will need, which is kind of annoying: in this case, it's tape and cola, two things most people should have on hand (or have easy access to). Unlike the volcano kit, however, this one was more straightforward, with easy-to-follow instructions and it worked like a charm, blasting the film canister about twenty or so feet up in the air (maybe less...it was dark and kind of hard to see, but it was a pretty impressive blast) before crashing back down to Earth. It's something we never typically would have gotten, but made for a three-second bit of fun (after a five minute set up) on an otherwise boring night so hey, that's a win! The film canister is also reusable, although our encore (the thing jumped up two feet before falling down two feet from the launch spot) was much less exciting.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Science By Me Volcano Science: Exploding Volcano! (Dollar Tree)

Box packaging for Science By Me Volcano Science: Exploding Volcano! experiment
It would have been cool...if it worked properly.

One thing I really like about Dollar Tree is that the price point encourages people to try new things that they otherwise probably wouldn't. Sure, some of the stuff is complete junk, but the same can be said for things elsewhere that cost way more than a dollar, so it's still valid justification. One such example: this little science experiment from Science By Me, which is the perfect size for a stocking (and, sure enough, was on a “stocking stuffer” endcap at our local store).

The little box contains a little plastic toy volcano with a twist top that's actually pretty cute, vague instructions, and a packet of red-colored baking soda. One thing that stands out to me as a bigtime negative right off the bat: nowhere on the package does it say what other ingredients you'll need that aren't included, so I figured maybe everything was in there. Nope. For this one, you will also need malt vinegar (which we didn't have so we used white), as well as a funnel, which we thankfully did happen to have from our candlemaking days. While I suppose those are fairly common household items, I don't think I would consider either of them "essential", so it would be nice if that was stated somewhere on the package.

Another big problem: either we're morons, or there's a misprint in the instructions. It clearly states to add 50mL of vinegar to the volcano, which we started to do—only to discover that it started overflowing—and still with a ton of vinegar left to add. So we dumped some of the vinegar out, trying to leave room for the baking soda...and the whole thing erupted before we could even put the lid back on or get set up to watch it. In other words, it was a bona-fide dud. I will say that the look of the lava was pretty cool, coming out like a bright red foam, but it wasn't very cool that it didn't work as planned. (Thankfully our son didn't really care all that much...so much for family time!) (Also, for the record, and based on their other experiment, I think it's supposed to be 5ml.)

There are a couple other positives: the plastic volcano is made of pretty tough plastic and is therefore reusable, and the experiment only requires vinegar and baking soda (preferably colored red to look like lava), so it can be done again and again, assuming you have those on hand. We kept it so we can try again in the future, but I have to say that right out of the box, we were all pretty disappointed with the end results of this one. 

Overall: 3/10. It's a cool idea done in by a couple of big issues: the package failing to tell you what other ingredients you'll need that aren't included in the package (malt vinegar, which we didn't have so we used white; as well as a funnel), and a misprint in the instructions that tell you to add way too much vinegar. The included volcano is reusable, and the ingredients are easy to source, so we can do it over and over again—and will know how to do it better the next time—but we were really disappointed that an apparently simple, “fun” experiment weren't really either of those things right out of the box.



Thursday, December 10, 2020

Assured Grape Pediatric Electrolyte Oral Maintenance Solution (Dollar Tree)


Empty bottle of Assured Grape Pediatric Electrolyte Oral Maintenance Solution
Grape sucks, but there's value to be had here.

I've taken a look at Assured's pediatric solution before, in the mixed fruit variety, and was more than impressed by both the quality and price—now let's take a look at the only other flavor they have available: grape. No need for a long introduction here, so let's get right down to it.

Yep, it's grape, for better or worse. It's the typical artificial kind of flavor that's somewhat reminiscent of grape Kool-Aid, only somewhat watered down, and with a noticeable amount of sodium added. I don't hate it, but it's not one that I'd ever really go for if given the option of...pretty much any other flavor. (Curiously, all the mixed fruit ones have been unavailable for a couple weeks now at both Dollar Tree stores by me; I'm wondering if there was some kind of recall.)

Disappointing flavor aside, there's still plenty of value to be had, with each 16.9 oz. bottle retailing for...well, it's Dollar Tree, so I'll let you come up with your own conclusions on pricing. While it's in a much smaller bottle than other brands, don't let that trick you into thinking that it's a bad deal: in fact, it's quite the contrary. It takes just two bottles of Assured's version to equal the liter size on offer at other stores which, for the math disabled, equals just $2. That actually makes this one of the best overall deals at the Tree (compare, for example, Target's store brand, which is $3.59 per 33.8 oz. bottle).

As unimpressed I am by the grape (and again, most of that probably just comes down to personal preference), I would learn to like it if the mixed fruit was discontinued, or otherwise unavailable for long stretches - the savings prospect over other brands is just that good.

Overall: 8/10. I don't really care for the artificial grape taste of this one that much, but that's probably because I don't care for most grape-flavored things in general; thus, it comes down to personal preference. Why the high score then? One word: value. One 16.9 oz. bottle of Assured's version costs just $1, and it takes only two of them to equal the liter size offered by other brands. That means for just $2, you're getting the same amount of electrolyte solution as you'd get in one bottle elsewhere, which typically cost upwards of $4. That's some pretty significant savings; enough that I would learn to live with the taste of this one if it became the only option available (and it might be, as the mixed fruit ones have been out at both locations by me for a few weeks now). This is a rare case of value trumping substance.

Monday, December 7, 2020

Essence-C Vitamin C Powder Blend (Aldi)

Box packaging for Essence-C Vitamin C Powder Blend
Why does this packaging look like it was designed in the '70s?


I know the FDA won’t admit it one way or the other, but I happen to feel like the national brand “vitamin C” powder really does help the body in times of need; maybe it’s just a placebo effect, but there have been at least a couple situations where I was certain I was going to get a bad cold, or other sickness, only to have it virtually disappear within 24 hours. I’m definitely not saying it’s a cure-all for everything, nor would I take it daily as a vitamin supplement (which I think is supposed to be its main use), but for the occasional body boost, I swear it works, at least to some extent.

That being said, the national brand is expensive as hell, with most private label pharmacy brands just as high. That’s why I jumped at the chance to try Aldi’s take on it, which goes under the absolutely embarrassing moniker “Essence C”. Why? Why even have that terrible name? Why even add the unnecessary “C” at the end, which not only doesn’t match with the word before it, but makes it sound redundant? And, why such godawful packaging? It looks kinda like a throwback to vintage products from the ‘70s, but also like the designer didn’t give a shit—as much as I wanted to try it, I did hesitate a little bit just based on how…gross it looks. (And I would venture to guess I'm not the only one.)

Also a cause for relative concern was the price: I mean, sure the name brand is $2 more, but $7.79 (for the same 30-count packets as the name brand) is still a rather large upfront chunk of change to shell out…I was honestly expecting the Aldi brand to vastly undercut the “name brand” by a lot more than 25%, but hey! Savings are savings, and you won’t find the national brand (or even most store brands) for this price anywhere else, so I took the plunge.

Now, how in the hell do I review a product like this? Something that honestly serves no real provable purpose? I can’t just measure the amount of vitamin C I have in my body before and after to see if it really adds more, nor can I really prove that it did or it didn’t make my sickness go away, or improve my health in any way, shape or form…

…all I can say is it is virtually a dead ringer for the national brand in terms of appearance and taste. As expected, each box contains 30 packets of orange powder, that can be added to a variety of different drinks to give you the boost you need. Here, I just stuck to water, and made the mistake of adding a packet to a 16.9 oz. bottle—not very smart, as the rather disgusting taste has now been spread out over a much greater surface than if I’d just chucked it into a small cup. However, it’s the same “disgusting taste” as the national brand, with an almost “wooden” flavor meeting notes of orange to deliver something that just doesn’t taste good, but that is medicinal enough to at least feel like it might be doing something to improve your health. I actually don’t find the taste that repulsive, but it’s certainly not good, with a slightly bitter finish that somewhat reminds me of beer (although it isn’t quite that off-putting).

Same with the scent, which doesn’t really offer up much in the way of “orange”, but does insinuate that what you’re about to drink isn’t really going to go down all that easy.

And that brings me back to the decision to add a packet to a full bottle of water, something I am now regretting even more—the flavor is actually okay as more of a “shot” (or mixed into something like orange juice), but “spread out” in water form, it does get harder and harder to drink the longer the bottle goes on. I’m only halfway done with the bottle, and I’m not looking forward to getting any farther. 

Lesson learned.

Overall: 8.5/10. This is yet another weird review, where I can’t really prove that this product is or isn’t working with any quantifiable evidence. That being said, it looks and it tastes pretty much exactly like the name brand, while the somewhat high price point for Aldi ($7.79) also further adds a strong possibility that this is the “real thing”, only with (godawful) private label packaging (and a godawful name). It’s certainly a shame these aren’t available in Aldi stores year round, especially here in 2020, with germs and health high on everyone’s lists. At any rate, if you’re a user of the name brand, this is definitely worth scooping up and having on hand the couple of times a year it seems to be available as a special buy; it might not function the same way, but it looks and tastes every bit as shitty as the national brand, but for about 25% less, which is good enough for a recommendation in my book.

NOTE: It's also available in raspberry, which I have yet to try.

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Donut Time Frozen Glazed Donuts (Dollar Tree)

Packaging for Donut Time Frozen Glazed Donuts
What's the time? Donut Time!

Oooooh shit, these are my jam (for all you older folk, that means these are something that I like a lot)! I don't even know what company makes the frozen glazed donuts that have been around for years (and I can't seem to find them anywhere), but I have always loved them. I first tired them as a kid, many years ago, before forgetting all about them as an adult (mainly due to their apparently spotty availability). Then one day they popped up in Aldi's ad, leading me on a delicious trip down memory lane. The nostalgia didn't last long, however, because I promptly forgot all about them again soon after downing the whole package...and have never even stumbled on them since. I don't know what it is about them, but I'd put the taste on a close plan with Krispy Kreme's donuts; that's right, I said it, and I mean every word: frozen donuts have a taste that's similar to some of the most famous glazed donuts in the entire U.S., if not the world.

So, then, imagine my surprise when, of all places, I stumbled upon a package of frozen glazed donuts at Dollar Tree! Needless to say, they went in my basket without a moment's hesitation.

The donuts are rather small...if I recall correctly, they're quite a bit smaller than the "regular brand" (of which I'm not even sure what company is known for making them), but it's been so long since I've had them that it's possible my mind is just playing tricks on me. Either way, they're still a decent size for the price, especially considering six are included in each package.

The execution is—not bad, but not really what I was expecting. The glaze is appropriately very sweet, and the donut's odd out-of-the-microwave texture are actually pretty spot-on with those donuts I fell in love with all those years ago, but something is missing in the flavor department—and it seems to have something to do with the donut itself. The bread part is just very—underwhelming. Maybe it's the same with the name brand donuts, but the glaze is strong enough to cover it up; either way, the thin glaze (which admittedly is pretty good on its own and has what tastes like a powdered sugar base) is nowhere near thick or abundant enough to do that here, allowing another flavor to creep in that ruins its potential. I can't quite put my finger on what that taste is...it's kind of like a sweet bread, but with icing all over it...definitely not a taste I'd equate with a typical donut. That's kind of disappointing, because otherwise this is pretty close to the name brand.

They aren't quite gross, nor inedible, just...disappointing, and not at all what I was hoping for. For those who have never tried frozen donuts before, these might hit the spot—the price does provide some good value. On the other hand, it might also turn the inexperienced off to glazed donuts forever, without even being a good example of one. Personally, I don't think I'll ever get these again, even though it's one of the few places I can even find them. 

NOTE: If anyone else is familiar with the frozen donuts I'm talking about and knows where to find them, or if they even make them anymore, please let me know in the comments! I'm usually pretty good about researching things online and can't find any leads anywhere. The only frozen donuts I can currently find are gluten free donuts (from Katz or Kinnikinnick) and those definitely ain't it. Rich's also makes them, but they seem to be more for commercial use (i.e. bakeries decorate them themselves to pass off as their own) and not for direct-to-consumer sales. Please tell me Donut Time isn't the sole supplier of these things!

Overall: 5.5/10. Full admission: I love frozen glazed donuts. In fact, I'd put the taste nearly on par with Krispy Kreme...yeah, I said it. However, these don't quite reach the lofty heights of flavor heaven of other brands that I've had, all thanks to a light glaze that isn't enough to cover up the lackluster flavor of the plain donut underneath. The $1 asking price (for six smallish donuts) does provide some good value, though, and the weird out-of-the-microwave texture is pretty spot on with the larger brands. I probably won't ever get them again, but I'm at least not sorry that I tried them.  

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Specially Selected Sweet Mustard, Kale and Bacon Frozen Pizza (Aldi)

 

Box packaging for Specially Selected Sweet Mustard, Kale and Bacon Frozen Pizza
Don't be put off by the ingredients...this is a tasty little pizza.

My mind sometimes works in odd ways. For example, I think most people who would see a pizza in a store's advertisement consisting of sweet mustard, bacon, potatoes, kale, and mozzarella would probably sour their nose at the idea, maybe make a gagging noise out loud, vow never to try it, and move on. I pretty much did all of those things, but with one big difference: I wanted to try it.

It honestly sounded gross to me too, but I guess I'm more of an...”optimist” (at least as far as food is concerned): Unless the combination is completely disgusting (like all of those shitty “tastes like Thanksgiving dinner” novelty items, like “turkey and stuffing” potato chips, or “mashed potatoes and gravy” soda pop), I like to approach it more from a “I don't see how this could work...but let's see if it does” kind of angle. (I guess that's not really that optimistic after all, because I'm not completely ruling out the idea it could be an abject failure, but I guess my point is I'm usually willing to at least try it.)

Coloring my opinions of this one was the “sweet mustard” leadoff: I actually had a pizza from a local pizza place (that has since closed down; RIP Bono Pizza) that had (sour) mustard instead of pizza sauce, along with capers, green and white onions, tomatoes, herbs, and for the “meat”, tuna. (It was supposedly inspired by “authentic” pizzas in the Nice region of Italy, although I can neither confirm nor deny that given my lack of geographical knowledge of anything beyond a ten-mile radius of my house). I would never have tried that at a normal place, but since we had tried several of their other eighteen specialty pizzas and had yet to be disappointed, I decided to trust them...and was blown away. It was a combination of flavors that, on paper, had no chance to succeed, and yet it was not only completely edible, but good.

Obviously, a wood-fired pizza made from obviously fresh and locally sourced ingredients is completely different from a frozen pizza mass-produced in a factory setting, but the point was, from experience I knew mustard could actually be a viable pizza “sauce”. And that helped to allay my fears, at least somewhat, as I found myself actually starting to look forward to eating this one.

Well, after three weeks of waiting (couldn't do it on a night my wife was home, because she wouldn't go near it due to the bacon), I finally got that chance. Initial impressions: It looks pretty good, with loads of toppings scattered across the top; if you didn't know any better, you'd think it was just a “normal” pizza. The crust takes up about 25% of the whole thing, which seems to be par for the course with their flatbread-style pizzas, but is kind of disappointing to see nonetheless. It looks inviting overall, and despite the extra crust, I was eager to dig in.

Wow...this pizza is absolutely bursting with flavor. The mustard, which actually comes in the form of crème fraiche, tastes like a honey mustard, and goes well with the deliciously light, crunchy crust. It's very sweet—almost shockingly so—but in the context of all the other savory toppings works better than it should. It's almost addicting, begging you to take the next bite so you can re-experience the explosion of honey mustard-ish notes that dance upon the tongue; I don't usually care for mustard all that much, something makes it even more impressive.

My only complaint is that the mustard is so flavorful on its own, that virtually everything else just kind of gets lost in the shuffle. The entire pizza works overall, but I had to specifically pick out pieces of the toppings and eat them individually to see what exactly they were bringing to the table, because there was no way to really taste them given the strength of the sweet mustard. And, in all honesty, I don't even think most of the accompanying ingredients are really all that necessary: the bacon, for example, is pretty bland on its own, serving up a slight bit of smoky flavor that I didn't really detect in a typical bite; ditto that for the potatoes which, like all unseasoned potatoes, are dry and boring when taken out of context. (I will make a case for them, however, because they do add a nice bit of softness to the overall texture.)

Another (somewhat minor) gripe I have with this flatbread-style pizza line in general, is something I alluded to earlier: the crust. Don't get me wrong, it's actually light and crispy—almost like a cracker—and has a nice, buttery flavor that doesn't need accouterments (like ranch, my pizza go-to) to be edible. However, look at the borders in this poorly-lit and underdeveloped picture: there's a good three or so inches of just crust. And as good as it is, I think I'm in the majority when I say, I want pizza. No one buys pizza for the crust—I wish they would spread the toppings out a little further to make you at least feel like you're getting more. 

Too much crust.

When all is said and done, though, this is one of the better pizzas I've had from Aldi recently, and is one that I'm virtually guaranteed to get again, at some point. It's not a flavor that most people would want all the time, but it's a nice counterpoint to the standard “pepperoni” and “cheese” pizzas of the world, and a good example of mostly non-traditional ingredients (at least for us American folk) coming together to create an unexpected symphony of flavor. It's one of the more unique-tasting ways you can spend $4 at an Aldi, that's for sure.

Overall: 8/10. Don't let the weird combination of ingredients fool you: this is one tasty, one rich pizza. The sweet mustard crème fraiche lives up to its name, with a very sweet initial blend of flavor and creamy texture that immediately lets you know what you're in for. And while I don't think all the other ingredients are necessary (all the other tastes seem to get lost in the mustard's wake), they at least help to give the pizza an inviting appearance and texture. Another minor gripe is the crust: while it's actually really crispy and better than most frozen crusts, there's simply too much of it; I'd like to see the toppings spread at least a little farther to the edges. Minor issues aside, though, this is a highly recommended pizza that I'd recommend to just about anyone looking for something different.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Millville Frosted Strawberry Toaster Tarts (Aldi)

Stock image of Millville Frosted Strawberry Toaster Tarts
These are good, especially for the price.


Well, after having another brand’s pop tarts a couple weeks ago, and realizing just how much I like the strawberry version, I was kind of excited when my son had me grab some during a recent shopping trip to Aldi. While I’ve had a couple different kinds of their pop tarts, I don’t think I’ve ever had the strawberry, so it was going to be an enlightening experience, to say the least! It was also a bittersweet one: My son refused to eat them because he meant to ask for toaster strudels, not pop tarts. So I’m stuck with the whole box either way.

The first thing I noticed, besides the fact that the “sprinkles” on top seem to be paler and duller than the national brand’s, comes in the form of the filling: it, too, is very pale, almost sickly looking. Whereas the main brands feature vibrantly red filling, this one is very pale, like a light pink. I’m sure this is due to Aldi removing all of the artificial colors from their products, but I have to confess that it isn’t very appetizing.

Thankfully, though, the taste is on par with other brands, featuring that same over-the-top fake strawberry flavor to go along with a rather boring pastry. It’s a rather strong, and sweet, flavor that clearly shows this is targeted toward kids. I happen to like it, although part of that might be nostalgia; I’d venture to guess that most fans of the original will like Aldi’s version as well.

As par for the course, the icing is sloppily thrown in, and only covers about 75% of the actual top. What’s the deal with that? You’d think they’d have it set up to be a perfect science, but there’s always a few bites you have to dread because there’s no icing in the corners, and that’s where the dry pastry is least inviting. This isn’t just Aldi’s brand, but across virtually all of them that I’ve had. They need some serious recalibrating of their machines.

The last piece to this puzzle is value: as usual, Aldi delivers pretty well in that regard. Each box contains 12 total pastries, and is offered for less than the national brand (and even some store brands’) 8 count boxes: in our case, it’s $1.49 per box. That’s more pop tarts than I really need, because I tend to get sick of these rather quickly, but you can’t argue with the price.

They're not outstanding in any way, but they're a good enough knockoff (complete with artificial colors removed!) that taste slightly better considering the value proposition. If you or your family enjoy the national brand, I would think this version would win most of them over, and for a buck or so less than the name brand. That's what one would call a "win-win"!

Overall: 7.5/10. These are pretty tasty imitators of the national brand toaster tart product, though they are muted in colors, probably due to Aldi’s removal of artificial coloring in most of its products. The strawberry flavor is fake, but is in strong abundance, and tastes much better than it looks. The same downsides to the national brand apply here – namely the icing barely covers up the top, and the pastry itself is pretty dry and boring – but for fans of the national brand, this is a good knockoff for a much better price.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Essential Everyday Frosted Flakes Cereal (Various)

Pretty good and a reasonable value.

BORING STORY TIME! Everyone gather around, because I know these intros are your favorite part of this blog! We were in Cincinnati celebrating our anniversary when we stumbled on a place we'd always wanted to visit: Jungle Jim's!

For anyone not in the loop, it's a small chain of supermarkets in the Cincinnati/Kentucky area that offer a wide variety of international foods and goodies. It's marketed as more of an “experience”, with samples throughout (though of course none were available when we went because of COVID), exotic fruits you can't find just anywhere, over-the-top displays, fountains at the entrance, and even their own events center, complete with an executive chef and monorail that can drive between indoor and outdoor venues. Clearly, this isn't just a typical supermarket!

Of course, being as large as it is—not to mention all the exclusive and hard-to-find items they carry—means that they aren't really interested in being “affordable”; by going with the “experience” angle, they can mark up their prices without facing much backlash because, hey, “we have a train”! While that's all well and good (and the place is cool—we spent at least three hours there and I don't even think made it to every aisle), that can wreak havoc on people looking to grab some goods on a budget.

At first, I didn't think they had their own store brand—and as it turns out, they don't. But my investigation did lead me to discover some products they carry made by a company called Essential Everyday, which make private label versions of name brand products, and then distribute them to a variety of retailers. So while it's not Jungle Jim's “own” stuff, they still seem to be cheaper than buying the national brands (which, in some cases, isn't entirely true).

Moving onto the product itself, this is a pretty decent impostor of the national brand for the price. The flakes are pretty lightly frosted, which you can tell by looking at them...there's a light coating on the outside, kind of similar to a glaze, which appears to wash off pretty quickly after milk is added. The sweet flavor takes a little while to dissipate, but I will say, by the end of the bowl (I add a lot of milk) I was basically eating corn flakes with sweet milk instead. That's not entirely a bad thing, but I'd definitely prefer getting the sweetness from the cereal itself.

While the cereal is still crunchy, though, these are pretty good, especially for those who enjoy their cereals lightly sweetened. Once you take a bite, the sweetness takes a little bit to kick in, offering up a tasty, almost powdered sugary style taste that gives way to a finish that consists mainly of corn flakes. I would expect this more later on, as the sugary coating wears off, but it is kind of disappointing that it basically happens from the first bite.

One thing I did like a lot is that these seemed to stay crunchy longer than some other brands; even when they did get mushy (inevitable considering the amount of cereal I eat in one sitting paired up with the amount of milk I add) they didn't get as disgusting as some other knockoffs I've tried. Some just kind of wither away into an almost gelatinous glob that can almost become difficult to force down, but these at least seemed to retain some of their original structure even after they broke down.

Now comes the one variable where past Everyday Essential products have failed incredibly in my past experiences: price. Well, by “products” I mean the two other ones I've tried, but in both cases, they were priced higher than even their national brand counterparts. Here, though, the good quality of the cereal is matched up with a price point of $1.99 (per 15 oz. box), which is about a dollar under what you can expect to pay for the national brand. It's nowhere near Earth-shattering savings, but it's substantial enough to be worth it...which isn't something I can say about some of the other things they offer.

Overall: 7/10. At least there's one product from Everyday Essentials that isn't an Everyday Ripoff: this cereal is pretty close in flavor and texture to the national brand, and for about a dollar less than the comparable national brand product (which also offers 1.5 fewer ounces!) The “frosted” in the title comes in the form of a glaze that reminded me of powdered sugar; it does wash off of the flakes rather quickly after adding milk, leading to bites of mostly plain flakes in overly sweet milk, but at least the tastes are still there. It's not the best example of frosted flakes that I've ever had, but it gets the job done and for a reasonable price.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Mama Cozzi's Veggie Delight 16" Take and Bake Deli Pizza (Aldi)

An empty box of Mama Cozzi's Veggie Delight 16" Take and Bake Pizza
"Veggie Delight"? I think "Veggie Boredom" would be more appropriate...

If there's one thing you can't accuse Aldi of not carrying enough of, it's pizza: in a typical week, there seems to be at least a half-dozen new frozen varieties to try, and usually at least one or two take and bakes. And that's just via special buys; they also offer a growing selection of year 'round ones, both in frozen and refrigerated form. Hey, it's a versatile, “all-American” meal, so I guess it makes sense that it's probably the most available food product that discount chain offers.

This week, we have a “veggie delight” pizza, courtesy of Mama Cozzi. Based on its appearance, it literally looks like a “works” pizza, with all the meat picked out: whereas most of their pizzas are pretty well-covered with toppings, this one has huge gaps between small pockets of vegetables. It's like they picked off the meat, re-covered those areas with sauce and cheese, and then packaged it up and sent it out the factory door. Based on initial appearance, I have to say it looked rather disappointing, but we were hungry, and looking for something we hadn't tried before, so we gave it a shot. Besides, Aldi pizzas are usually pretty reliable, so we figured it would be better than it looked; maybe there was a different sauce, or surprise vegetable in there that would liven things up. 

Doesn't it just look boring?

Unfortunately, that isn't the case: this is one of the blandest take and bake pizzas that we've ever gotten from Aldi. I guess, in theory, that being “bland” is better than being “gross”, but...no, the more I think about it, it's not, because the end result is pretty much the same: we each only ate a couple of slices before throwing in the towel. At least if something is “gross”, it inspires some kind of passionate emotional response: it might be a seething, boiling hatred, and it might be completely negative, but in that way, it's “memorable”, so to speak. But when something is just...boring, it's not even bad enough to stir up any emotion; it's just...there. That's how this pizza made us feel: indifferent. There was no joy to be derived from eating any of it, no strong feelings of anything: we were just like robots going through the motions of obtaining nutrients—no matter how few—to sustain our body and keep us going until the next meal. 

At least there's one thing you can count on: value. Each 16” pizza (which equates to an “extra large” at most pizza chains) is just $6.49. That's definitely not a bad price at all for a pizza that could feed probably four people of average appetites, and well under what you would expect to pay from a chain.

I'm aware it could have been “livened up” with various other ingredients we might have had laying around—like pepperoni and some grated mozzarella cheese that probably could have given it some much-needed flavor—but right out of the box, this is a huge letdown. We definitely won't be grabbing this one ever again.

Overall: 4.5/10. This is a “works” pizza, just with the meat removed; while that might sound like an appetizing proposition for vegetarians, the execution is rather...boring. There are no added veggies, or boost of spices, or change in sauce to make up for the missing meat, which leaves just a very uninspiring shell of a pizza. It's like they lobotomized it, removing every ounce of its character, while replacing it with nothing. Of course, it can be livened up by adding your own ingredients—something you'll most likely need to do to get through it—but right out of the box, this is one of the blandest take and bake offerings we've ever had.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Toast'em Brown Sugar and Cinnamon Pop-Ups (Dollar Tree/Various)

NOTE: We went more into the history of this brand on our radio show! Click here to give it a listen.

A box of Toast'Ems Brown Sugar and Cinnamon Pop-Ups
Fun fact: this was actually the original toaster pastry.

It seems as though I’ve reviewed quite a few toaster pastries over the last month or so—moreso within that timeframe than the entire decade preceding it (which is kind of an interesting factoid); well, let’s just continue that trend, shall we? Today, we’ll be taking a look at a private label version of toaster pastries that are sold at Dollar Tree stores nationwide (as well as other retailers). They’re called Toast’Ems, and they have a fascinating history that I’ll force you to read through to discover, for once.

Getting down to the pastries themselves, one thing I feel is worth mentioning—mainly because I chastised another brand for the practice—is that, even though the box appears to be the exact same size as the box for the “national brand” product, there are actually two fewer pastries in here. Obviously, some costs have to be cut to hit the dollar price point, but it’s kind of a shady practice to give it the exact same size; obviously, I know that’s the point, but it’s rather shady nonetheless.

There's that all-too-familiar wrapper!

Regardless of the missing pastries, this still serves up some solid value. The reason I harped on the other brand’s missing pastries, is because that box was already more expensive than $1. In fact, if you added in the two missing pastries (based on the average per-pastry cost), it would have taken the cost of the box above even the national brand. Here, it’s more forgivable, because even factoring in the extra two, it still comes in at around $1.33 per 8 ct. box—that’s quite a bit cheaper than the $1.99 retail price of the national brand, and close to the price of Aldi’s 8 ct. boxes.

As I always mention in reviews of Dollar Tree food products, I still get nervous to try them: I’ve been burned by quite a few things that just don’t quite match up to what they promise. True, I could probably say the same about the rest of the store, but I think if I were to break it down, I’ve been far more disappointed by their food products than any other single category. Hell, I’ve probably been more let down by their food products than the rest of the store combined.

Those feelings are unwarranted, however, because these are fantastic. I’d swear it was made by the national brand, if I didn’t learn that this basically was the national brand years ago (intrigued? Keep reading…). The pastry is nice and soft, as it should be, and features a thin layer of the expected hard frosting on top; the icing only seems to take up about ¾ of the top, which is something I hate to see out of these, since the bites without icing are usually pretty dry, gross, and boring.

Dig that trademarked zig-zag pattern!

Flavorwise, though, and we’re back on track: these are very moist and delicious. The brown sugar flavor comes through in spades, but the cinnamon is definitely noticeable—everything comes together to create an appealing harmony of sweetness that goes down easy. Somewhat surprising to me is how much filling there is in the middle: I feel like this is the area where other off brands tend to skimp; here, there’s a pretty thick layer of the titular combination that somehow never becomes too sweet (at least for me). 

Sadly, this is one of those product that gets falsely perceived as an off-brand, when it was actually the first to market: Back in 1964, production began on a product called Post Country Squares, per an agreement between Schulze and Burch Biscuit Company, and General Foods (aka Post). Supposedly, Post announced the product in advance, giving those greedy slobs at Kellogg’s time to formulate a rip-off; sure enough, they rushed their own version out that same year, overtook the market, and have enjoyed tremendous success with a product that they weren’t even smart enough to create themselves.

You know, the typical American success story.

Overall: 8/10. These are fantastic toaster pastries that, despite being the first one released to market way back in 1964, had their ideas stolen by Kellogg’s, who would go on to virtually rip the idea off verbatim, and make millions doing it (isn’t capitalism grand?) So, in an ironic turn of events, these aren’t private label knockoffs after all, but rather the original toaster pastry! Having tried them, I can see where some people swear by these over the “name brand”, as the pastry is moist and there’s ample amounts of filling in the middle. There does seem to be less icing on the top, which only covers up about ¾ of the surface, but that’s just a minor quibble. In the end, these are fantastic pastries, especially for the price, from a brand that deserves to be more well known. There are many products you should be nervous to try from Dollar Tree; this definitely isn’t one of them.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Stacker2 Berry Xtra Extra Strength Energy Shot (Dollar Tree)

Stock image of Stacker2 Berry Xtra Extra Strength Energy Shot
Good value done in by poor flavor.

I’ve already written many prefaces about Stacker 2 energy shots and how they’re available in Dollar Trees nationwide, and how Dollar Tree has quite a few to choose from and how they’re hit or miss and a couple of them really suck blah blah blah, so let’s just move ahead, shall we?

This smells almost expired. It’s like the juice of a fruit – that’s not a berry, ironically – was left sitting in a basement for too long and has started to ferment. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “pungent”, but it’s not really all that inviting; it kind of smells like something that should get you drunk, instead of amped up.

You know what else isn’t all that inviting? The taste, the experience of which is actually pretty close to what the scent insinuated. Unlike most energy shots, this one isn’t very sweet at all. That in and of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because I’m sure there are many people who find the taste of most shots to be too saccharine for their palate, and who might welcome one that’s less “in your face”. Unfortunately, this one just isn’t it, because it has an incredibly medicinal taste that is just…pretty disgusting.

How anyone at Stacker 2 tried taking a sip of this and thought “Mmmm…yep, I’m definitely getting a berry flavor,” is beyond me. I’m not very good at explaining tastes, but I’d say there’s almost a “raisin” note in there somewhere—maybe not exactly raisin, but something with a similarly dry, lifeless profile. That pairs up with other unidentifiable, non-sweet, non-fruity flavors to combine something that’s truly something to behold—for all the wrong reasons.

I’ve mentioned in a previous review that some Stacker 2 products taste like their formulas have remained unchanged ever since the early 2000s, when they broke out onto the scene. I’m sure back then they were revolutionary—I still remember kids in high school getting excited over their dieting pills, because they contained high amounts of caffeine—but a lot has changed since then: energy drinks, even sugar free ones, can actually taste good. It used to be that people drank them because it amped them up, and they just learned to tolerate the flavor (or ignore it entirely) in order to gain the energy provisions, but now, there are far too many alternatives on the market. They’re like the uncle that was once so cool, but now is just a washed-up drunk, who clings to his stories of the past, and is married to a woman who looks like a drug addict, and who came straight from the trailer park. This is definitely one shining example of that theory.

On the upside, I did notice an increase in energy that’s more or less on par with other shots that I’ve tried; and the lack of sugar once again means that there is no debilitating crash afterwards. So at least it works. But as I mentioned before, there are far too many other options on the market to have to settle for something that tastes like this. I don’t care how inexpensive it is.

Overall: 3.5/10. Dollar Tree’s—and by extension, Stacker 2’s—energy offerings continue to be a hit-or-miss affair. Exhibit D: their Xtra Extra Strength Berry shot, which is a certifiable miss in almost every sense of the word. On the positive side: it works. I did notice a nice increase in energy shortly after taking a swig that matched the intensity (and length) of most other energy drinks I’ve had. So at least there’s that. Unfortunately, it smells like a fermenting fruit of unidentifiable origin, and has an equally off-putting taste to match, that not only doesn’t even come close to resembling any type of fruit—much less a berry—but that has nary a trace of sweetness whatsoever. There are far too many other options out there to have to settle for something that tastes like this.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Unbranded Battery-Operated LED Projector Light (Dollar Tree)

UPDATE (Nov. 2020): Our local store finally got in a new shipment of these: I picked up one of each design (four total). We'll have an updated review in a month or so as we see how long these manage to last!
Unopened package of Dollar Tree's Battery-Operated LED Projector Light
Cool when it works, junk when it breaks after a day.

This review doubles as both a look at the product, and a heartbreaking tale of childhood innocence lost; a tale of one three year old's sudden realization that the world can be a cold, heartless, cruel place, where happiness can be destroyed in the blink of an eye. (And yes, the titular product does play a large role in this story.)

My wife and I were “on vacation” in Cincinnati (more a weekend getaway, celebrating our anniversary), when we decided to check out the local Dollar Tree for a reason that escapes me at the moment (I'm sure to grab something we forgot to pack). The closest one to our hotel was rather large—we live within 2 miles of two small DT stores that are frequently short on inventory—so I decided to wander around a bit and see what kind of things they had that neither of our stores carried. And there, in the electronics aisle, is where I saw something that caught my eye: a small LED projector that projected the included image on a wall, ceiling, or any other surface you might have lying around. There are four images to choose from: a dinosaur scene, a starry night sky, a solar system, and fish in an aquarium. While our son would have been happy with any of them, after a little bit of deliberation, we decided on getting the “solar system” design, figuring it would be the one he would like the best.

Honestly, the product itself is kind of pointless—I expected the image to move, or do something besides just sit there, but I suppose that would require moving parts that would push it out of the dollar price point. Also something that apparently would drive up the price: including batteries. It requires 2 AAA batteries to operate, which are not included. That one wasn't a biggie for us, though, as we have a few of those lying around. 

Terrible picture, but you get the point.

The image is actually pretty clear, under the right conditions...namely complete darkness. Unlike “real” projectors, which obviously are larger and infinitely more powerful, even the smallest amount of light can render the projected image hard to see, assuming you're projecting it from a distance of about 7 feet away (roughly the distance from our floor to ceiling). If you're closer to the surface than that, the image tends to be much clearer, but also much smaller. Beyond eight or so feet (maybe a little bit longer), the image starts thinning out, becoming hard to see in even pitch black conditions. Depending on what you're going for, it can be a pretty tough balancing act trying to get a large, crisp picture, but it's possible with some noodling around (and, perhaps, a tempering of expectations).

One good thing about it, which the packaging curiously touts, is that it has “manual” functionality...that's apparently marketingspeak for an “on/off” switch. I wasn't aware that being able to turn something off and on was a special feature, but I guess anything can be considered an amenity when it only costs a dollar. 

Anyway, we showed it to our son, who immediately took a liking to it. He would pretend it was the moon, shining it all over the place, and then quickly turn it off, as apparently his version of the moon liked to hide. Then he repeated that same idea over and over again, the way kids do, forcing us to look for it in the darkness, and giggling as he turned it off to make it disappear again, leading us to feign shock at where it possibly could have gone.

His cackles and giggles were enough to keep it entertaining for longer than it should have been, but after what felt like 3 days (but was actually probably closer to 20 minutes), the “game” was finally over and the projector was set aside for a little bit, so he could rest and start the bedtime process. When he grabbed it an hour or so later to take it up to bed with him (he likes to pick one thing to sleep with, either a toy or stuffed animal, which continually rotates out), he was dismayed to discover that it wouldn't turn on.

I figured it was just out of batteries...while we only had it a total of about five days at this point (with only one days' worth of use), he did turn it off and on an awful lot, so I didn't think much of it. I replaced the batteries with a fresh set of rechargeables...nothing. Okay, so maybe the batteries weren't properly charged, so I replaced them with a fresh set of alkalines...still nothing. By now, this kid is flipping out—you'd think he was crying over the sudden loss of a family pet, or something. After about 30 minutes of inconsolable crying, my wife was finally able to gradually talk him down, under the agreement I would get him one on my way home from work the following day. (Little tidbit of unnecessary info: they were sold out at both locations by us, leading to even more sadness, though much more controlled than the previous night's tantrum.) 

Ignore the sloppy hotel room setting...the projector was placed on the floor in this image

Moral of the story: This thing died after just a single day of strong use. Now, to be fair, he did turn it off and on a large number of times within a relatively short time frame. Also, while I never actually witnessed him dropping it, or otherwise being rough with it, he is a young kid, so it's very possible that he was a little harder on it than he should have been. Still, there's nary a scratch on the outside of the product that would suggest something that could have caused a complete shutdown of the internal circuitry, so it's rather disappointing that it died so quickly.

At the end of the day, though, it is a cheap dollar product, presumably from China, and these things are unfortunately known to happen. We usually have pretty good luck with our Dollar Tree products, but a lot of these companies are pretty lax when it comes to things like quality control, so it's also possible we just got a faulty projector. I'm not ready to completely write these off, as we do intend to grab another one (or two, or three, like we should have when we saw them in-store), so I'll update the review accordingly once we manage to score one. In the meantime, though, all we have to go off of is the performance of this one, which unfortunately, was pretty dreadful.

Overall: 2/10. Long story short: this projector crapped out after a single day of use in the hands of our three year old son, who was absolutely devastated. He did turn it off and on an awful lot, and might have dropped it once or twice by accident, but he genuinely liked it, so it's not like he was carelessly flinging it around, or attempting to cause damage to it or break it. That being said, it was pretty cool while it did work, and he really liked seeing the image “attached” to the ceiling, or wall, or any other surface he would randomly place it on. Despite its quick failure, we're not quite ready to write them off completely just yet: there are often quality control issues with inexpensive Chinese tech (an unfortunate side effect of getting goods for such a cheap price), so it's very possible we got a faulty one. We plan on getting a few more as soon as we find a DT store that carries them (the two by us were both conveniently sold out), and will update this review once we see how long those last.

SIDE NOTE: These have apparently been available for quite some time, although I've never seen them in our local stores, and also have seasonal variants for Halloween and Christmas. That means they must be fairly popular, which probably wouldn't be the case if all of them broke almost instantly.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Crunchy Cravings Honey Roasted Sesame Chips (Dollar Tree)


Package of Crunchy Cravings Honey Roasted Sesame Chips
These are pretty damn spectacular.

I've been going through a sesame stick phase these past few months, and I don't know why. I've always really liked them, but outside of trail mixes, never really came across them that often; because of this, they never entered my mind as a potential candidate for snacking on their own. One day in October, I came across some honey roasted ones in a farmer's market and decided to buy them; I never even knew flavored sesame sticks existed, but I downed a whole bag within a couple of days. Two weeks later, I saw some regular ones in line at a supermarket, and didn't hesitate to buy them—within two days, that bag also met its fate.

To say that I've been obsessed with them lately might be a bit of an exaggeration, but they've been on my mind more than ever before.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I saw a bag of them inside Dollar Tree. They were going in my basket regardless, but then I noticed a couple of differences from regular sticks: they were honey roasted, like the fantastic “homemade” ones I got from the farmer's market, and they are sesame “chips”, instead of sticks. I've never seen sesame chips before, but they're pretty much exactly like you're thinking they are: instead of being long, like sticks, they are smaller and more circular, like chips. There's also the appearance of an exterior "glaze", which is obviously the honey coating, that makes them even more appealing. The switch from "stick" to "chip" seems to be a pretty unnecessary change at first glance, but one that makes them slightly more versatile: these would be perfect on salads, in soups, or virtually anywhere else small circular food objects can be placed. Or, of course, they can also be eaten “raw”, directly out of the bag, which is how I tackled them.

I wasn't sure how these would turn out, considering I did get them from Dollar Tree, but all it took was one taste to put my fears to rest: these are fantastic. They're not quite as good as the honey roasted ones I got from the farmer's market, but they aren't far off, either: the sweetness isn't overstated, instead allowing the salty sesame flavor to “lead”, before bringing up the rear with a touch of sugary goodness that still doesn't overwhelm the savory aspects. This is definitely something that I'll be using to fuel my sudden sesame stick addiction every time I'm in Dollar Tree.

Based on the clean, professional packaging (usually not a staple of dollar store products, especially foods), I'm lead to believe that this is probably a name brand item just being offered in a smaller, 2.75 oz. package. At any rate, I don't care, because they are good, and the little bag goes a long way—I got about three servings out of these, finding myself nibbling on them occasionally at random points throughout the day. (I no doubt could have downed them much quicker, but was trying to practice the lost art of willpower.)

If you're a fan of sesame sticks, these are virtually a must; even if you're not, the sweetness really adds another level to the flavor profile, thus potentially making them appealing to non-fans of the traditional snack. Worth a look if you see them in your local Dollar Tree store.

Overall: 8.5/10. Based on the attractive, clean, professional packaging, this is probably just a smaller bag version of a national brand, but no matter where it comes from, this is a great-tasting product at a great price point. The sesame flavor initially comes through front and center, before being balanced out by a nice touch of sweetness that matches the savoriness, but never overtakes it. Despite the small size, there are a good amount of “chips” in the bag, while the smaller form factor potentially makes them slightly more versatile than normal sesame sticks (I could see these being added to salads and soups, among other things, to give a little extra crunch). Hopefully, DT will keep these around a while, because this is one of the better snacks offered by the discount retailer.