Monday, May 25, 2020

Millville Chocolate Puffs Cereal (Aldi)

Get ready to disappoint your kids!
I like cereal, and I like chocolate, so it would make sense that I also tend to like chocolate cereals. The only one that Aldi carries on a consistent basis that I enjoy is their version of Cocoa Pebbles, which are deliciously chocolatey and oh-so-sweet, but those can get old pretty quickly. When I saw their cocoa puffs as a Special Buy, I excitedly scooped up a box knowing that I had found a new friend.

And sure enough, it looks exactly as I expected coming out, with spherical-shaped balls of cocoa-enhanced corn enticing my taste buds even before the milk entered the bowl. What could possibly go wrong, I thought to myself as my mouth started to water, anticipating that familiarly sweet barrage of chocolatey goodness that I was preparing to cram into my mouth hole.

There is an old adage that nothing is a sure bet, and while the person that first uttered that was probably under the duress of having just lost a large sum of money, emotionally our feelings were similar: I was so sure of what I was about to eat that there was simply no possible way I would be let down. And those assured highs are the ones that give way to the lowest of lows.

The cocoa flavor, which looks to be featured in large quantities based on the brownness of each piece, is curiously absent, as is the expected blast of sweetness. There is some cocoa that hits the rear taste buds, but it's more of a bitter, darker chocolate than the sweet taste that I was expecting. I'd be fine with this if the packaging suggested a more “adult” cereal, but the poor cartoon squirrel cutely cramming these into his cheeks clearly means this is aimed at children, who will more than likely be put off by the serious lack of chocolate taste.

Another failure beyond that is the texture, or rather the immediate breakdown thereof: It looks and feels like the national brand initially, but once it even touches the slightest bit of milk, seems to immediately absorb it, going from crunchy ball, to soggy mess within a dizzyingly quick amount of time. I'll admit: when I make a bowl of cereal, half of the bowl is filled with milk (granted, I also eat three or four servings' worth at once) so the sogginess issue is going to creep into any cereal I eat. And I've grown to accept that, especially when there are other kids and other possible delays that won't always allow me to focus on eating it as fast as I would like. But even when I'm able to eat it all in one sitting, I've found that around the five bite mark, all the pieces are overly soft and much less enticing, from a textural standpoint.

To bolster my opinion on the flavor, I had my wife—who has a far more distinguished palate than mine, and who loves bitter, dark chocolates—try a small sampling without any explanation or guidance. Even her nose wrinkled as she asked, “Where's the chocolate?”, a question that immediately validated my own emptiness. It really feels closer to an evil social experiment, whereas subjects are shown, via pictures, a mouth-watering treat, given a treat that looks just like it, only to discover that the taste has been completely removed. In other words, it's like eating at Applebee's.

Overall: 3/10. Aldi cereals (under the Millville moniker) have always been hit-or-miss, something that especially extends to their Special Buy cereals, as this one is. Consider this one a big whiff: the chocolate taste is somehow virtually nonexistent, making each bite basically a tasteless ball of puffed corn. Even the milk, which you can normally count on to turn a dark shade of chocolatey brown by the end of a bowl in similar cereals, basically just turns a slightly brown shade of white. It's an Eric Andre, when it should be a Hannibal Burress. Then there's the issue of sogginess, where it seems to get mushy way quicker than other brands. Easily one of the most disappointing cereals Aldi offers.

Sunday, May 24, 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.

NOTE #2 (5/24/2020): After threatening to cut ties with Huawei for my next phone, I've since recanted...and bought a P30 Pro. Expect another ongoing in-depth review (with hopefully more pictures; I just hate taking product photos, for some unknown reason) of that one starting around the one month mark. 

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. Which I never did because I wasn't motivated enough.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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...?)

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.

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!

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.

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? After looking into Xiaomi as a possible replacement for my next Huawei phone - and, of course, after touting their business model for offering higher-end phones for mid-range prices - they completely shit the bed on the pricing for their Mi 10 Pro, putting it more in line with other flagships. Granted, it is their highest grade phone yet, but considering their well-known lack of system updates and phone support, as well as advertisements built right into their OS, there's no way I'd pay $1,000 for one.

So, I did what I had to do: and bought a Huawei P30 Pro. Not ready to live without Google services just yet, but hopefully this will buy me another year or two until they can either sort things out with the U.S. government, or until a new company rises out of their ashes to pick up where they left off. Hopefully a more in-depth review will be forthcoming.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Mama Cozzi's Hot Honey BBQ Recipe Chicken Pizza (Aldi)

A weird misfire that's a couple tweaks short of brilliance.
I'm not quite sure why, but this is one of those products that I just knew I instantly had to try the moment I saw it appear in an Aldi ad. I mean, honey and pepperoni? With a "hot" thrown in there for good measure? That just sounded like a combination so weird that it just had to work, and while I wasn't too pleased with the pretzel crust (is that still a fad?), I was willing to put that aside to give it a shot. I'm generally a fan of the sweet and sour combo, but then adding some heat to it? Sign me up!

Well, all thanks to this damn virus sweeping the nation, my wife has declared herself the lone representative from our house that's “allowed” to go to the store. Part of this is her willingness to wear a mask and gloves (which I would feel too stupid to do), but also because I've long been practicing the art of social distancing, and try not to leave the house anyway; thus, it just makes sense to do it this way, since she doesn't mind public trips. At least, until I tell her to get me the pepperoni version, and she comes home with the chicken variety. What the hell woman, you only had one job! (Haha, she actually had a full list so I don't really fault her for the oversight.)

But hey, when life gives you lemons when you request oranges, you review lemons, so here we go: The pizza is actually really thick, and looks pretty delicious, with a pretty generous amount of toppings throughout. Even though it seems like a 10” pizza or so, by appearance, it has the dough volume of at least a 12” pizza, so there's plenty more of it to go around than it initially seems. Since it's thicker, it takes a little longer than average to cook, requring 20-23 minutes (at 400 degrees) to get the job done. I might have taken it out a little early (hey, it was getting late and I was hungry!), but everything was piping hot, and there was no “doughy” feel anywhere on the crust.

One thing I did notice: the cheese falls off the pizza way too easily. I don't know if slight undercooking was to blame, but the first bite of most pieces was just barbecue sauce, because the cheese ripped right off at the slightest hint of movement. It's more a first world problem than any sort of dealbreaker, but I feel it's worth mentioning, because it did get kind of annoying. And while this can be an issue with almost any piping-hot pizza, it definitely seemed to be more pronounced here, like the cheese was put on in patches, or something.

As much as I say I dislike pretzel crusts, I actually don't think I've ever had one; I just find the idea so pointless and stupid that I've gone out of my way to avoid them. I mean, what the hell is wrong with a normal bun/brust/bread? That's an opinion that's only been strengthened here, because it's by far this pizza's weakest link. For starters, even if this were a regular crust, there's just way too much of it. I'm one of those people that always eats the end crust, but even I had to walk away from this one; it's just too bland to eat without dipping sauce or other accouterments, and it wasn't really worth the time investment of having to walk to the refrigerator to look for something that would be compatible. Furthermore, while I will say the actual pretzel flavor was less imposing overall than I thought it would be, there are pockets of added pretzel salt that just take things way overboard. And, these bites aren't confined to the edge crust, as you might expect, but rather mixed in with random bites throughout the middle of the pizza. Couldn't we get an unsalted pretzel here? It's annoying when you hit one for the first time, because it distracts from the flavor of the pizza. Thankfully, there aren't many of these - I only encountered maybe four throughout the whole thing - but it's really just kind of a dumb thing that they're there at all.

As for the heat? It's noticeable, but not really all that memorable. In fact, I completely forgot it was a thing at all until I looked at the box again. It's mildly spicy, but nothing that had me reaching for a milk jug or anything and - as typical for this kind of "mainstream" fare - dissipates pretty quickly, without leaving any "heat residue" on the tongue afterward. It's something that will probably disappoint actual fans of spicy stuff, but is light enough that it shouldn't really bother the masses.

Pretzel crust aside, this is a pretty tasty, kind of original pizza, although I am still left pondering what the pepperoni version could improve upon. The chicken are large, uniformly rectangular pieces that pretty much taste like all such frozen chicken pieces, and thus, are rather pointless and uninspiring. The cheese is tasty, and pairs up well with the standard-issue barbecue sauce, similar to the kind used in virtually all barbecue pizzas Aldi sells, with a flavor that's more sweet than tangy.

I say it's "kind of" original because, up until now, this has been a pretty straightforward BBQ chicken pizza: Alas, the surprise “star” of the show are the tomatoes, which are unexpectedly pickled; they provide a somewhat sour “twist” to the proceedings, but are exploding with taste (and juice). I'm not huge into anything pickled (including pickles themselves), but their sweet and sour profile really helps to bring all the flavors together, while giving the pizza a much-needed injection of semi-originality.

I'd say this is a pretty decent pizza on the whole, but it's not one I'm really in a rush to try again, mainly thanks to the pretzel crust and non-descript chicken pieces, which provide little outside of a spongy chicken texture. Certainly the pepperoni would fix the weirdness of the meat, so would it manage to take this idea and make it a home run? I'm hoping to get my hands on it eventually to find out...

Overall: 5/10. The pretzel crust (an idea I've always been opposed to) thankfully doesn't interfere as much in the flavor department as I was expecting, but it does provide added pockets of saltiness that are both unwarranted, and distracting. There's also way too much of it on the edges; it might be good if I had some nacho cheese to dip it in, but is so bland as-is that I didn't bother eating the edge crust...and I always eat the edge crust. Outside of that, pickled tomatoes are the star of the show, adding an unexpected flavor edge to an otherwise relatively-standard BBQ chicken pizza. It's good, but not a pizza that I'm really eager to get my hands on again anytime soon.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Vostey Men's Canvas Sneakers (

Poor lighting and rips aside, these actually look pretty good right out of the box.
NOTE: I purchased these back in January, 2020, when they retailed for $16.99. They've since made the jump to $22.99 (as of April, 2020); this review assumes a purchase price of $16.99. It's up to you to decide if they're worth the jump in price. Hint: They're not.

I never, ever buy myself shoes, instead relying on family to get some for me during Christmas or birthdays (or waiting for my wife to just break down and get me a pair once my current pair has completely fallen apart), but one day I finally relented. I was on Amazon, found some pairs for under $30 (always a good price point for me), and had a few gift cards to burn that I earned from GPT sites and receipt apps. Technically, it wasn't on my dime, but it was on my time, which is close enough; I can't recall the last time I spent money on clothing for myself in a non thrift-store setting

I actually bought two pairs of Vostey shoes - this canvas one, and a pair of leather shoes for work -because they were both highly rated, and because they fit my absurdly cheapskate-ish price point. After all, people seem to equate higher prices with higher quality, but as we have frequently found out on this blog over the years, it doesn't always have to be that way: for me, value comes down to getting more than you pay for. It might not mean that $20 pair of headphones you bought will last forever, or that they compare with similar products costing $200; it just means that those $20 headphones offer you better quality than most $20 headphones, and last longer than you expect them to. And that's kind of the mindset that always drives me when I'm looking for a good deal.

I'm not going to do my usual build-up to my opinion, I'm just going to come right out and say it: these shoes are absolute junk. They are completely worthless shoes that I would say I regret buying if the funds weren't from a gift card that I earned myself. These shoes have no "give" when putting them on, and thus the canvas seam started ripping on both pairs the second time I forced them on. No exaggeration: the second time. And yes, I used the term “forced”, but the odd thing is that the struggle only occurred when getting my feet into the shoe...once inside, my feet had plenty of breathing room inside. It's just really tight around the heel areas. I wore them a handful of times for at least two hours each time, and my feet were never sore or cramped because of being too tightly-packed into the shoe. In fact, despite the light feel, I would actually say they were pretty comfortable. Not the most comfortable pair I've ever owned, but given the price tag, way more wearable than they probably should be.

This happened within the tenth time I put them on.
Then, about the tenth or so time I put them on, one side completely gave way and ripped; almost like a sheet of paper. This, of course, renders them pretty much unusable, and of course, since I purchased them in the winter to prepare for spring and summer months, it was outside of the return window by the time this happened (although, to be fair, I probably wouldn't have bothered anyway considering they were pretty cheap and returning things can be a hassle, but this is neither here nor there). I wouldn't really give these a vote of confidence as far as quality is concerned.

Now, I understand buying apparel online certainly has drawbacks and variables that can actually hold the consumer accountable, so I'm going to try to remove the seeds of doubt as much as possible here: as I stated, I purchased two pairs of shoes from the same company within the same order. Both of them were rated “fits as expected” by at least 80% of the votes, which is all I have to go off of since I can't physically try them on in person. The leather shoes I purchased, in the exact same size (and again, from the exact same company) fit perfectly, with no struggle needed to get them on whatsoever.

Alternate view. The inside is actually pretty comfy and roomy.
I've also never needed to order “wide” shoes, or anything of the sort, from any other vendor, so if you're thinking the issue comes down to my feet being oversized, or oddly-shaped, you can just toss that idea out the window now. I'm a normal man, with normally-sized ugly feet, which shouldn't be a factor here at all. (Also, they don't offer these in wide sizes anyway.) It feels like they put an Asian-sized heel on a U.S. sized shoe...just bizarre, and something I can't say I've ever experienced from a foot holder before.

This is a shame because they look really nice, at a price that you can barely even get used shoes for. They even come in a box (which, of course, I neglected to take pictures of), which is pretty much mind-blowing for a sub-$20 shoe. (I know, I know, I've referenced the price a million times, but it really is amazing to me how companies can make money selling things for so cheaply.) While I'm no connoisseur of canvas shoes (or any shoe in general), the material didn't have any noticeable defects or appearance issues out of the box; I certainly wouldn't have thought they were a pair of $100 shoes, but the material looked decent enough to withstand a season or two of moderate use, which is pretty much all I was looking to get out of them.

But alas, it was not to be. And again, this whole situation is pretty weird because, as tempted as I am to just re-order them in the next size up, the shoe itself had plenty of room once I got my foot in there, meaning I would just have an unnecessarily larger shoe.

Overall: 1.5/10. Long story short: these completely ripped around the tenth time I put them on, which consisted of me having to force them around my heel (even though the rest fit perfectly); this clearly means they suck. However, there are a couple of positives that prevent them from earning a big goose egg: when they were on, they were actually comfortable, and the shoes actually look and feel pretty nice, with none of the glaring manufacturing flaws you'd probably expect from a $16 pair of shoes, from a visual standpoint. Again, I wouldn't have confused them for a $100 pair—the canvas certainly doesn't feel “heavy duty” or anything--but they looked good enough to get me through a year or two of moderate use. Hell, they even come in a box, which is pretty impressive at this price point. Unfortunately, I wouldn't even bother ordering these again, especially now that they've gone up in price, making this a win for the "I hate China!" crowd.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Kroger Raspberry Lemonade Drink Mix Sticks (Kroger)

A cloying combination of disgustingly sweet and raspberry.
We took a look at Kroger's peach tea drink mix sticks, and I was pleasantly surprised by how accurate the flavor was to actual peach tea—at least, as far as powdered mixes can go. With that win in mind, we look at their raspberry lemonade offering...which, unfortunately, is exactly what I was expecting.

This one falls into the standard trap of trying to deliver too much of everything: the raspberry taste is more akin to a candy than the actual fruit, while the lemonade appears in the form of a non-descript tartness that is more authentic in aftertaste than initial taste. Even the smell is overwhelmingly candy-like and, quite frankly, not all that inviting. Halving the recommended serving size (i.e. using half a stick instead of a whole one) doesn't really improve on the flavor much: although it does cut back on its sugary flavor profile, it delivers a strong lemon tartness with a really watered-down-but-still-phoney raspberry taste that serves as proof it really should have just been left out entirely. It's like someone went to make raspberry Kool-Aid, forgot that they didn't have any sugar in the house, but went ahead and used it anyway.

I would say this is a disappointment—and I guess it technically is—but it's just an inherent problem with a lot of drink mix sticks, which seem to want to cram as much sweetness and flavor into one sugarless stick as possible. I'm not sure why this seems to be a consistent problem across the board, but it is, and this is just another example of that. So I guess rather than being a huge letdown, it's more an example of a disappointing status quo.

I have to give it some props, because at $1.29 (for the standard 10-stick pack), there is some value to be had here. And, as uninspiring as it is, I would still take something like this all day over the droll flavor of regular water. However, considering I would rather drink almost anything over regular water, that compliment really isn't much of a compliment. This definitely won't be a flavor I'd be too interested to revisit ever again, unless it happens to be the only option. But considering the bountiful variety of flavors on offer at Kroger, it's a situation that I thankfully will likely never find myself in.

Overall: 4.5/10. After trying Kroger's surprisingly good peach tea mix, I had slightly higher expectations that this one would deliver a similar shock; unfortuntely, this is merely an example of a typical drink powder, wanting to cram as much sweetness and flavor as possible into a sugar free powder tube. And while it certainly succeeds in that, it's not a real appetizing or convincing combination, featuring the tanginess of lemonade, with a weak, watered-down raspberry flavor that, even at full strength, would be more akin to a candy than the actual fruit. On the upsides, at $1.29 per 10-stick pack, there's some value to be had, and it still beats the flavor of regular water. Still, not a flavor I'd be too eager to revisit at any point in the near future.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Kroger Peach Tea Drink Mix Sticks (Kroger)

This actually has a pretty accurate tea taste, at least as far as powders go.
When in self-isolation, it becomes even more crucial to stay hydrated; yet, as I've mentioned on this blog a thousand times, I hate the “taste” of water. I won't repeat the reasons why again (you can search for it on this blog and get more information than you'd care to know), but suffice to say that, unless I'm really active or super dehydrated, I literally have to force it down.

This one is actually way better than I was expecting, assuming you do the smart thing and half a serving size. (What is it with all of these manufacturers putting enough flavor/sweetness for two servings in each single serve stick? I guess I shouldn't be complaining about that, but it makes many of them almost overly aggressive in terms of taste.) And, assuming you're not against the taste of tea, which - much to my surprise thanks to the vague packaging that touts "peach" front and center while almost going out of its way to hide the "tea" part - is actually the main flavor here.

I was expecting a vague tea flavor with an overwhelmingly fake, medicinal peach taste—kinda like the “briskly” flavored canned teas that are just godawful under every single circumstance. And that expectation was only seconded after taking a whiff of the prepared water, which smells strongly like a peach candy convention gone wrong. However, that is not the case here: this is actually pretty accurate, with a brewed tea flavor standing out front and center, flanked by a somewhat realistic peach flavor that is noticeable, but doesn't call attention to itself. It's pretty obviously faked—after all, there's only so much “real” you can cram into a powder, for goodness sake—but it's certainly much closer to the real thing than I would have expected, and really helps to make things refreshing.

Even if you use the whole stick at once, none of the flavors become all that overwhelming: the tea is still the star of the show, albeit much more fakey, and while the artificiality of the peach does become more evident, it's still not as over-the-top as I was expecting. Regardless, I still wouldn't recommend it, though, because halfing a serving stick actually delivers (what I feel is) an optimal balance of flavor, giving you a refreshingly light, slightly sweetened tea taste with just a hint of peach that goes down smooth. Who says somewhat accurate flavors can't be created in a lab?

In other words, if you're a fan of peach tea, this is a decent way to hit most of the mark, without having to steep some tea bags, or keep peach nectar on hand; the $1.29 price tag (for 10 sticks) also gives it some strong value proposition, especially if you can get two servings out of each stick.

Overall: 7.5/10. This is a pretty delicious drink mix that's more “realistic” than I was expecting it to be, especially when you use only half a stick at once. The tea flavor is refreshingly light, and closer to unsweetened (although there is a touch of sugar flavor), while the peach peeks in just enough to deliver a good peach taste without reveling in its fakeyness. Even using the whole stick doesn't lead to a disgusting overload of flavors, as is usually the case, though it does add more artificiality to the proceedings. And at $1.29 (for 10 sticks), halving each stick cuts the price down to under $.10 a serving, making this a great way to enjoy refreshing tea flavor, without having to do any hard work. Definitely recommended.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Zapp's Voodoo New Orleans Kettle Style Potato Chips (Big Lots)

NOTE: We're breaking the "budget" theme for this one, but these chips are too good not to have a huge following. I picked them up at Big Lots a while back, but they slowly look like they are becoming more widely available.

Potato chip perfection?
I had no idea what I was getting myself into, when a spur-of-the-moment decision lead me to grab a bag of Zapp's Voodoo Chips from Big Lots one day. I mean, how could I? It's impossible to differentiate between the thousands of brands and products that flow in and out of a closeout store in any given year, and so all I thought I was grabbing was yet another failed product that never registered with audiences, and were thus being relegated to the shelves of Big Lots to live out the rest of their miserable, man-made existences.

I sure as hell had no way of knowing that I had stumbled on a potato chip gold mine, until I made it home and, in a state of utter curiosity, immediately pulled up the chips online. How could I have known that many people consider these the single greatest kind of potato chip ever made? How could I have possibly foreseen that individual bags of these go for as much as $7 online, to people who are actually completely willing to pay such a price for these extravagant chips?

With this in mind, it could be suggested that Zapp's is a relatively major brand, and thus exempt from review here. After all, you can find articles in many different food blogs and websites ranting and raving about how great these chips are. But I had never heard of them before, and judging from the many bags that were sitting on the shelves when I picked up my first bag, and then a similarly bountiful amount remaining when I went back four days later to grab four more, neither have many others, outside of Zapp's home state of Lousiana. Plus, as great as these chips are reputed to be, they had to have ended up at Big Lots, selling for the ridiculously low price of just $1.50 per 5 oz. bag (the same size going for $7 on Amazon), for a reason.

Anyway, as soon as I saw what I had in my hands, I immediately opened them (they were supposed to be for my lunches that week) and dug right in. Were all the reviews praising these as the greatest example of potato chips in the history of mankind true, or would these just be yet another example of massive overhype? I mean, after all, how good can a single potato chip be?

These things are absolutely fantastic. I desperately want to counterattack the claim that these are among the best chips ever made, because I've sadly had so many, that I should be able to make a list of at least three that are better. But no matter how hard I rack my brain, none spring to mind. In fact, I can't recall a single chip where the experience of eating it actually excited me: sure, part (maybe a lot) of it was just seeing what all the fuss was about, but when I eagerly shared them with co-workers, many of whom requested I buy them their own bags, that only cemented what I already knew: these things are phenomenal.

That being said, not everyone should be running out to buy them immediately: the main flavor here resembles a strong salt and vinegar chip, so if you can't stand salt and vinegar, there is a good chance that you will not like these. But the flavor obviously doesn't just end there: in fact, that's just the beginning. Underneath the main sour layer is an interesting, and unexpected, blast of something sweet that balances everything out. Many have likened these chips as a mix of “salt and vinegar and barbecue”, but I don't think that description does it much justice; I really don't get much of anything “barbecue” in the sweetness. Unfortunately, I can't really compare it to anything else, besides maybe Thai sweet chili, and even that falls well short of the actual taste. I would say a Cajun without the spice, but that's still pretty vague, and also an oxymoron. But whatever it is, it's damn good, and an absolute steal at this price; even at regular price, it's well worth it.

According to Zapp's website, these were created when an employee accidentally knocked some random spices into a vat, and supposedly, this chip was the result. Is that a true story, or merely a marketing ploy? I don't really know, and I don't really care (although, if it's true, that employee better be in an executive position by now), because regardless of how they came about, you can believe the hype: Zapp's Voodoo Chips are addicting, and provided me with a blast of excitement in the otherwise droll world of lunchtime potato chips.

Overall: 10/10. I'm hesitant to give these a ten, but I really can't recall a chip that not only impressed me, but everyone around me, in such fashion. Everyone I let sample these ended up loving them, which is pretty impressive for a junk food that most of my coworkers tend to avoid. My wife, meanwhile, also sung its praises, and we make sure to stock up on these just about whenever we see them. It's just an outstanding flavor that, despite being different, is complex enough to appeal to all types of palates, yet simple enough not to be overwhelming. If there was a holy grail of potato chips, this one would sit high atop the throne.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Deutsche Kuche Garlic Sage Spatzle (Aldi)

This one engaged in a culture war with my tastebuds...and lost.
I enjoy some of Aldi’s Deutsche Kuche products, which, for the uninitiated and uninformed, is the brand name applied to their German-made food products. However, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I’m also pretty terrified of a lot of them. Like marzipan, for example, which doesn’t look appetizing no matter how hungry I am when I go there. Or their chocolate dominoes, which I neglected to read about before digging in and discovering a soft chewy center with a flavor that should never ever pair up with chocolate. Ever.

Their garlic sage spetzle actually hit me in a weird mood: I had just started a new medication, which was affecting my appetite. And if you know anything about me, nothing affects my appetite. So here I was, walking up and down the aisles of Aldi, doing the weekly grocery shopping alone for the first time in a very long time (my wife was at home, sick), with a stomach that just wasn’t having any of anything. I basically escaped by buying things that we always buy, knowing that they would probably sound good later on in the week. And then I stumbled on the garlic and sage spatzle in the freezer. Our eyes met, and for some reason, it was one of the only things that actually sounded good, so into the cart it went.

After tossing it in the microwave for a while, I realized why this stuff hasn’t really caught on in the US…the noodles (the "spatzle" of the title) look like overgrown maggots. Sorry, but that’s really the most appropriate description I can come up with. They’re white, oversized, and even have little texture lines throughout…not the most appetizing thing I’ve ever seen, but that certainly didn’t stop me from digging in!

It’s pretty fascinating to me how the foods from different cultures taste so differently to those used to a different area, even when using the same ingredients. It’s akin to the way that a guitar can sound “middle Eastern”, or “western”, despite using the same set of notes and the same number of strings. I have to confess that, while it definitely tasted better than eating a bowlful of maggots, it’s not a flavor that really appealed to me all that much. And again, it’s something that has to do, at least partially, with culture.

Despite the inclusion of garlic, which is usually a dominant flavor in most things that its name appears in, it’s relegated to backup duty here. Really, despite eating half the container, I can’t even picture anything American that this dish really resembles, and it’s where my lack of a culinary background really becomes apparent. I’m assuming that the main flavor is sage, but wouldn’t know enough about it to either confirm or deny that. Supposedly, it’s topped off with some mozzarella cheese (finally, something I’m familiar with!), which is evident from the way the cheese “strings out” when stirring it together after cooking, but not much of the cheesiness translates into the flavor, either. Or, at least, not in the familiar way it does in most American cuisines.

The one flavor that I did clearly pick up was salt, and there seems to be quite a bit of that in here, along with an oily substance that douses everything. At first, I thought this was olive oil, but according to the packaging, it seems to be a butter sauce, which also makes sense, although again, it's not as scrumptious as one would expect judging from the name.

As I stated before, I can’t really compare the flavor to anything, which kind of leaves you on vague terms, but it’s not something that really appealed to me. I guess it kind of, sort of reminded me of a soy sauce, with some added sage and garlic? That looks stupid on paper, though, so don’t hold me to that description. I didn’t hate it at all, and there’s a decent amount of pasta in the container for $2.99, so if this is your kind of thing, or my lack of a useful flavor profile still has you teetering on the edge about whether or not to try it, it won’t really cost you a whole lot to do so. I might get it again down the road, just to be fair and give it another chance, but if the opportunity never arises, I wouldn’t be all that heartbroken over it.

Overall: 4.5/10. I think what we have here, is merely an example of cultural unfamiliarity. While I’ve enjoyed many of Aldi’s Deutche Kuche-branded products (which are German imports), some of them are just too weird for me to really get into (like their Peanut Puffs, or their bland cheese strudels). This is one of the latter items. Despite the inclusion of garlic (a strong flavor) and mozzarella cheese (one of my faves), the primary flavor is neither of them; in fact, I can’t even compare this flavor to anything, besides maybe a teriyaki sauce, only without the sweetness? Sorry for my vague terms, but this is a completely unique dish, at least to my palate, and one that seems to be a little more authentically German than a lot of the things released by the Deusche Kuche brand. I might try it again, but it will be a little ways down the road. To end it on a high-point, there’s quite a bit of food in here for $2.99 per package.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Stacker 2 Blue Raspberry Xtra Strength Energy Shot (Dollar Tree)

Not too shabby for a dollar.
Well what have we here? Yet another energy shot offering from our fine folks at Dollar Tree? Well how could I say no? I'll admit that Stacker products took a hit in my eyes thanks to their awful “soda” inspired shots, which blended the awful taste of metal with a total lack of carbonation. But after seeing some positive user reviews online, that eased me off the ledge a little bit, and into the cart it went.

The scent definitely smells like a "good" blue raspberry; come to think of it, mystery flavors that don't actually exist in real-life are a perfect match for energy shots, which almost never use real juice or colors and rely almost solely on chemical composition. I mean, think about it, does a berry energy shot actually taste like berry? Does grape taste like grape? We might be able to trick our brains into thinking it does, simply because that's what the image and text on the lable tells us it is, but if you were to put an unbranded, unlabeled shot in front of an energy drink virgin, most would fall well short of being able to positively identify it.

Anyway, short rant aside, the taste also matches the smell...somewhat. It starts off with a strong sweetness, and rather accurate flavor profile for the popular candy flavor, but the finish veers off a bit into slightly bitter territory. I suppose I should have expected that—most energy shots have that same kind of finish—but it takes what was heading toward “excellent” territory, at least for what it was, and drops it down a notch.

The plus with technology today—and the reason that I find reviewing all of these so redundant—is that pretty much any of them nowadays seem to use the same energy blend, or at least a similar enough collection of vitamins and caffeine, that all of them are going to give you a kick. This one was no exception, as it noticeably went to work rather quickly, and gave me a blast that lasted a couple of hours (I don't drink the whole bottle all at once), and sure enough, dissipated without making me feel groggy and lazy, the way sugared energy drinks do. In other words, it does the job that you're expecting it to: no more and no less.

I like to think that extra strength shots do a better job, or last longer, but I don't know that it's really all that noticeable...after all, the difference is only around 30 mg of caffeine between the two. Still, I continue to buy them over the standard strength versions, if for no other reason than they are almost always the exact same price, and it just doesn't make any sense to me to voluntarily get less of something for the same price, even if the extra probably isn't necessary.

Overall: 7/10. An average extra strength energy shot that will do what you want it to do, and with a mostly-palatable flavor that should appeal to those that generally dislike the taste of shots. First off, the smell is highly accurate to a blue raspberry candy, but the taste only half lives up to that, with an initial blue raz sweetness giving way to that pesky chemical bitterness that I should have seen coming because it's in almost all of these style of drinks, yet still disappointed me nonetheless. Still, if you need a burst of energy, this still delivers a solid kick that lasted me a couple of hours (I only take half the bottle, and sometimes even less, at a time) with no noticeable crash afterwards. Really, energy drink "technology" has improved enough to where any of them are going to get you going, it all just comes down to taste preference. This one is good, and only a dollar, if nothing all that special.