Saturday, February 29, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 28, 2020

UPDATED: One Year With the Huawei P20 Pro Smartphone in the U.S.: Putting Performance/Availability Questions to Rest

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

PHOTO NOTES: All images taken from this phone and used in this review are the default 10 MP photo files, uploaded here from my free Google Photos account. Thus, they are slightly compressed for size, but not to the extent that any loss of quality should be evident. The photos are unedited files, unless otherwise specified.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CAMERA

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONS (-)
-The EMUI interface can be pretty annoying at times
-Lots of bloatware, some of which can't be removed
-Display a step back from most flagships in this price range
-No headphone jack
-Camera can be hit or miss on default settings
-Slow to get monthly security updates Doesn't get security updates at all.
-Video modes neglected quite a bit
-No wireless charging support
-Weak selfie camera
-No AR Lens!
-Even on highest setting, screen doesn't get very bright in sunny outdoor settings.
-Once-outstanding night mode fairly average now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.