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...

Thursday, February 27, 2020

The Closest Thing to a "Fun" Survey Site? An In-Depth Look at Crowdtap


WHAT IS IT?
Crowdtap is a site (and mobile app) that pays you for your opinions on a wide variety of topics. But, before you start groaning and dismissing it as "just another survey site", it is worth noting that this one works a little differently: rather than locking you into 20-minute questionnaires that only pay out a quarter, the surveys here are short, often only one or two questions, and rarely more than 10. Once you complete them, you are “paid out” in points, which you can then redeem for cold hard...uh...gift cards.

SITE SETUP/NAVIGATION
The minimalist main dashboard.
There’s no denying that Crowdtap stands out from the crowd in the visual department, by offering up a survey site that not only seems modern, but also borders on the fun! This is in sharp contrast to the mostly boring, entirely text-based surveys that other sites constantly peddle.

Having a small number of tasks also makes the site stand out in yet another way: simplicity. Virtually any activity that’s available to you pops up on your main dashboard in the form of "tiles", and can be accessed with the click of the mouse. Once you complete your task, if there are others assigned to you in the queue, you will automatically be taken directly to the next one, until you either stop, or run out of things to do. It doesn’t get any easier than that! (You can also skip any that you aren't interested in by either clicking the "skip" option, or the "x" in the upper right hand corner of the survey.)

The only reason you’d have to click outside of the main screen is to do infrequent things like setting up your profile for the first time, or contacting support—besides that it's pretty much a masterpiece in minimalism.

MOBILE APP
The mobile app is somehow even more minimalist than the PC version...
Like most survey sites in general, Crowdtap does offer a mobile app that they released pretty recently (July, 2019). When they first released the app, there was obviously a push from their marketing team to get people to use it, and I gave it a shot in August. It was a very simple tile-based interface, just like the desktop version, but it was lacking a lot of activity (i.e. half the surveys I got on PC never posted to the app, making me feel like I missed out on a lot of points).

Just for the sake of this review I gave it another shot, and discovered that it was greatly improved. There were still a couple tasks that never posted to the app, but it was much quicker, and the points updated immediately. I'm not a huge fan of the information-less tiles, which don't give you a point indicator at a glance like the desktop version does, but the mystery also makes it look a little more fun...almost like a game show. I still won't keep the app on my phone (the mobile website version works just fine), but for those that are on the go and still want to bank some points, it's much improved, for sure.

PAYMENT STRUCTURE AND REWARDS
As cool as Crowdtap is, it does suffer from one of my least favorite reward types: points. Why can't more places just show you how much each activity is worth in actual monetary value, rather than forcing you to remember their point-to-dollar ratios? In this case, 1,000 points equals $5—while that might not sound like much (and it really isn't), the points do accrue pretty quickly during peak times, assuming you're constantly checking in.

A sampling of available gift cards.
As for the rewards, some people may be disappointed to find (as I initially was) that direct payment, either via Paypal or check, is not one of the options. Instead, you can choose from gift cards to a variety of popular retailers, chief among them Amazon, Walmart, and Target, with other retailers, charities and even a couple of subscription services (Hulu and Apple Music) offering cards for redemption.

While the number of options clearly won't match a huge site like Swagbucks, there's enough variety that just about everyone should be able to find something that they can put those hard-earned points towards; if nothing else, you can always just hand them out as gifts for birthdays and/or holidays!

PAID ACTIVITIES
Unlike some sites of its ilk, Crowdtap does not offer dozens upon dozens of meaningless activities in exchange for mere pennies. Instead, it essentially offers up two different tasks in exchange for either a small amount of points, or your time: surveys, and samples.

Visual representation of all available activities; some (like the photo) I've never actually seen.
But, as alluded to earlier, these surveys are not like those found on virtually every other survey site. No, these are often short and to the point, to the extent that many only consist of one or two questions. And each type of survey is color-coded, so you can start to tell at a glance which options are available to you. Many of the single questions have an orange-ish background, and are worth 3 points. Ones that pay more are usually blue in color, and will show you the point value on the upper right hand corner of the tile. If I see these pop up in my dashboard, I head for these first, just to make sure someone doesn’t swoop in and take it out from under me when I’m working on another task.

There are also "Grids" which just have you order a grouping of options based on your preference, and even a focus group, where you answer questions that are posted to a public forum (along with the answers of other users) and then you interact with other users in that forum.

One amazing thing is that there are no disqualifications. Even if you’re not the target demographic for a question being asked, you will bank the full amount of points without having to progress any further in the survey, which actually makes getting “disqualified” in a survey an even more lucrative investment than finishing it! (In my experience, though, not “qualifying” for a full survey is pretty rare, happening only a couple times out of well over 200 surveys). My guess is that they monitor your responses and profile answers pretty closely to make sure they are consistently matching up; they wouldn't stay in business long paying out full points for repeated DQ's, so don't go in expecting to use this as a tactic for quickly earning money, lest you want to find your account terminated.

Less common are “samples”, which offer you the chance to receive free product in exchange for completing a set series of tasks related to it (such as giving them feedback, taking photos, etc.). These you have to apply for, with a limited number of available “slots” available for any given one. I'm honestly not sure how these work, because I've never been accepted into one (out of only three or so attempts); I've heard that they paid out points in the past, but now am lead to believe that receiving the free product (which is of the full size variety) is the payment. If anyone has any experience with this, please let me know in the comments; likewise, if I'm ever accepted, I'll update this to let you know how the process goes.

Recently, started offering “third-party” surveys to “high-quality” members once their own selection of surveys run out. However, these are the kinds of typical surveys found on sites like InboxDollars
and Swagbucks, and so I try to avoid these like the plague. For those that may be interested, though, they at least give you an average completion time for each one, along with the point value, so you can measure which ones may be worth a shot; however, since these are literally the same ones being offered elsewhere, keep in mind that you can be disqualified, which offers no reimbursement whatsoever.

HOW MUCH CAN I MAKE?
Even though Crowdtap offers higher payouts than the industry average, it’s still not going to be anywhere near what a full-time job would pay. With what I would consider “steady use” (I check the site as much as I can throughout the day at work, and then tend to check even more when I get bored at home), I made enough points for at least $10 every week without fail when I was first starting out, which was good for about $40-50 a month. Now that I've migrated to other GPT sites, thus limiting my attention here, that number has dropped to about $10 a month.

Considering there are a limited amount of offers, I can't see even more dedicated people making much more than that, although the recent addition of third-party surveys could be more lucrative for people unopposed to trying those.

One other note: available activity does seem to die down quite a bit on weekends, so don't expect to make a whole lot then. Although it might just be a case of more people using the site and completing the tasks that much quicker, from what I can tell, they just don't seem to post a lot of activities; this may change as the site continues to grow.

CASHING OUT
Cashing out in CrowdTap can be a somewhat surreal, somewhat frustrating experience. It's a legit service, so don't take that statement the wrong way, but it's hit-or-miss as to whether or not you'll get a gift card, and even when you can expect it. Once you redeem your balance, you're notified it can take up to 48 hours before you receive your reward; having cashed out at least a dozen times, I can say I've experienced every single possibility, from receiving a gift card after five days, to receiving the gift card within minutes, to not receiving one at all.

Don't worry: if you don't receive your gift card, your balance will automatically be reimbursed back to your account, at which point you'll just have to try again. It's just some extra money for me, so I don't mind waiting, but keep this in mind if you're trying to get one for a deadline—such as someone's birthday—because you might not get it within the stated timeframe.

Now onto the surreal: I've also been reimbursed points and been sent a working gift card. Multiple times (I'd say around three). And on balances upwards of $20, each time. To be fair, I contacted them the first time and informed them of the problem (mainly because I wanted to cover my own hide, but also because I actually like them and want to see them succeed) and was told that there was an issue with the gift card I received and that it wasn't valid. So I double-checked the balance and voila! Fully loaded and ready for redemption! I was still able to request another one, which also worked. Even when Crowdtap screws up it's somehow to the user's benefit! How can you not like these guys?

COMMUNITY/SUPPORT
Crowdtap support header.
I used their support a couple of times in the past, and was satisfied both times; to be fair, though, I have never contacted them out of anger or frustration (that's when the level of support can really be measured). The first time was after I redeemed my balance for a gift card, and then had the balance reimbursed a couple of days later without receiving one. I was notified that it was a glitch in the system and that I could go ahead and request another one. The second time was after receiving my gift card AND having my redeemed points returned to me, at which point the customer service rep told me that there was an issue with the gift card and that it wasn't properly loaded. (I checked later, and it was.) Both times they got back to me within 24 hours (on weekdays), which is definitely an acceptable timeframe.

Self-service support.
Of course, as with pretty much any GPT site, the internet is rife with stories of people who were banned “for no reason”, and who are unable to get in touch with anyone to fix it. However, unlike most GPT sites, in many of these instances, the banned people seem genuinely saddened to be kicked out, rather than livid at the company—that's a welcome change from the norm, where banned members go to any review or social media site they can and rant about the injustice for five paragraphs (hey, not judging; having been banned from Swagbucks in the past, I completely understand the frustration).

As seems to be the standard these days, support is offered through a FAQ, with the option to submit a ticket easily available should none of the canned questions apply to you. Support is offered through Zendesk - another standard - but one thing I can't stand is that you have to sign up separately from the Crowdtap app. Why do all these sites make you set up a support-specific email and password combo? It'd be nice if all that was already integrated into the original website, but maybe current technology just isn't there yet.

OVERALL:
PROS (+)
+Easily the most fun and aesthetically pleasing of all survey sites that I've tried.
+Points can add up moderately fast.
+Good variety of gift cards to choose from; there's something here for just about everyone.
+Can exit surveys and continue them at a later time, unlike most similar GPT sites.
+Updated mobile app allows you to efficiently get points on the go.

CONS (-)
-Redemption system hit-or-miss (you will get reimbursed if your gift card can't be redeemed)
-Limited amount of surveys and questionnaires, especially over weekends.
-Lack of other activities besides answering questions still gets old after a while.
-No Paypal, check, or other "cold hard cash" options.

While its minimalist design and straightforward focus makes it fun for longer than other similar sites, its many limitations still ultimately keep it from being anything more. These are often shorter surveys than you'll find elsewhere, but repeated answering of questions is literally all you will do here; unsurprisingly, it got a little old for me after a few months.

Even those with tons of time on their hands won't make much here, thanks to reduced activity on weekends, but I was making about $10 a week in gift cards at my peak. Since my available time has been reduced a great deal lately, that number has dwindled down to about $10 every month, but I still check it out from time-to-time to see how things are going. It's worth checking out as a replacement for boredom or as a supplement to other GPT's.

RATING: 6.5/10

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Specially Selected Truffle Mac & Cheese Bites (Aldi)

Overwhelming.
I'm a fan of fried mac n' cheese, but those flavors usually don't translate very well to frozen varieties...case in point, Aldi's own Appetito's brand bites which, as you can tell from my review, leave a lot to be desired, despite an alluringly-affordable price tag.

Even though I look at the ads every week, I'm pretty sure Specially Selected's Truffle Macaroni and Cheese Balls snuck under my radar, until I happened to see them inside the freezer at Aldi during a quick shopping trip. They also offer a mushroom arancini variety, and while those would probably be good, my wife isn't too keen on mushrooms; and from the way I had to rummage through a couple layers of bags to find this truffle kind, it seems she's not the only one to feel that way. (I took that as a sign that I made the right choice.)

Prepwork is simple: toss these onto a baking sheet, and cook for 12 minutes at 425 degrees—that's it. There's no flipping required (though you probably could at the midway point), and the breaded spheres come out nice and hot, with the exterior getting enticingly crispy. A bag of eight medium-sized bites retails for $2.99, which is kind of high, but the texture certainly works in its favor: these could be served as an appetizer in a restaurant, where it would no doubt cost $8 or $9 for a similar-sized serving. Besides, you can usually expect a higher price for their "Specially Selected" line, which at least are made to look more premium than many of their other lines. At any rate, we were certainly eager to dig in.

In a word, this flavor is...intense. It starts off innocently enough, with the crunchy outer layer giving way to what you think is going to be a light cheddar flavor—until what I presume to be the “truffle” kicks in, offering up a complete garlic-style kick in the tastebuds. Seriously, my wife and I were caught completely off guard the first bite...it's like an assault in your mouth!

Once the shock dies down, and the flavor becomes expected...it's really not quite as great. It's almost too much flavor, and this is coming from someone who's typically a big fan of garlic flavor profiles. The truffle flavor overwhelms everything else to where it essentially becomes “truffle balls”, with the macaroni only providing texture, and little else. What makes this even more of a bummer, is that the taste before the truffle comes in and attempts to obliterate your tongue and surrounding areas, actually hints at something that could be good on its own. The cheese is a little light, but with a boost of some added cheeses rather than the overload that we get, it could have been a pretty tasty little treat.

Overall: 3.5/10. In a word, “overwhelming”, and not in a good way. They cook up nice and crisp in the oven, with an appealing crispy texture on the outside that gives way to a soft, creamy texture on the inside. But the flavor—which starts, innocently enough, with the mild taste of cheese—suddenly explodes into an excessively garlic-like taste that overwhelms everything, and forcefully becomes the center of attention. As a single-bite tapas at an upscale restaurant, something like this could work, as a powerful one-and-done statement; an assault on the tastebuds that's over as quickly as it began. But when there's eight or nine in a bag, once that initial shock wears off and the strong taste becomes expected, it quickly grows tiresome, and we both found ourselves unwilling to grab another one.

On a random note specifically for this product, but one that could work in a variety of different frozen products: That'd be neat if one or two of them tasted strong, with the remainder just tasting like normal mac and cheese bites. The juxtaposition between the strong ones, along with the “weaker” ones, could create an entirely unexpected flavor profile typically missing from boring frozen foods.