Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Cut your smartphone costs the dumbphone way!

Twice a year Apple releases a new smartphone. And like clockwork, my wife goes to a Docomo shop, asks about the phone and about smartphone plans, then gives it up when she realizes how much it'd cost.

This time I happened to go with her. I've had the Docomo "Xi" LTE service for some years now. But at 7500 yen a month — 90 000 yen every year — it's really too expensive, especially as I use only a fraction of the monthly 7GB I get. I decided to ask about their newer plans, see if I could lower my bill a bit.

This is a long(winded) post. Here, fortify yourself with a
holiday picture of Cat relaxing on a south-Asian island
far away from the bustle of the internets.
I could not. Their newer plans have lower data caps all right, but the monthly cost isn't much lower. I'd still pay well over 6000 yen each month for just 2-3GB. Now, virtual carriers — phone companies that lease network space from Docomo especially — have surged in popularity lately. If you only use data they can be very compelling. IIJmio offers 3GB for only 900 yen a month. 3GB is more than I use every month, what with wifi available at home, work and also often at cafes and other places.

But I need voice calling. My wife and I rely heavily on free calls to each other. We call each other over a hundred times each month, often several minutes each time. With a typical virtual carrier voice plan I'd end up saving nothing. The unlimited family calls are not optional.

As I looked around the Docomo shop, an idea struck me. I asked the clerk at the store, then verified everything in detail at home. A few days later I went to Bic Camera in Namba and came home with this:

The Sharp SH-07F. Neat color. Sturdy and reliable.
Say hi to the Sharp SH-07F. A flip-phone. A garakei. A FOMA handset. A. Dumb. Phone. I got it with my new Docomo contract. No data plan, no email, no i-Mode, no nothing; just a plain FOMA voice-only contract.

Have I gone into early senility? Have I perhaps turned hipster? Will I start wearing bow ties and go back to typewriters? Not at all. What caught my eye was just how cheap a FOMA voice-only contract is. I realized I could keep just my phone number with Docomo, then use a data-only sim with my smartphone.

Voice-only FOMA plans are really cheap: 970 yen per month — 1050 yen with billing charges — gives you phone service and unlimited free calls between family members. The IIJmio voice plan adds about 600 yen a month for voice, so the FOMA plan is only 400 yen more. Even with the IIJmio family discount, the FOMA plan pays for itself if I call my wife for as little as 20 minutes a month, and we use many times that amount.

So how to do this? In brief you cancel your existing smartphone Docomo contract, apply for a voice-only FOMA contract, get yourself a flip-phone, and get a separate IIJmio/Bic Camera data-only SIM contract. I'll summarise these points below.

Capybara cares not for the stresses of a digital
existence. Capybara prefers a relaxed analog lifestyle.
First, you will want to do this at Bic Camera or a similar store, not a Docomo shop. The handsets are cheaper than at the mobile shops, and you get their 10% point discount on everything as well.

Get out of your contract: 

I had a Docomo contract, but I had bought my phone separately (overseas), so I had no handset contract with them. Had I had to buy off my phone from them, things would have gotten expensive very fast. I've also had my contract for more than 8 years so I didn't have to pay a cancellation charge.

If you don't have a Docomo contract, but decide you want to use Docomo for voice, you can MNP your number to them and possibly save more money than I did by getting an almost 100% rebate on the handset.

Get the flip phone: 

I got the Sharp above. It's new, it's cheap and it's pretty good. In a Docomo shop the phone sells for 34k yen. At Bic it's listed at 31k, or 27k yen with the 10% point discount. If you don't have a FOMA charger you need to get one as well, as it's not included in the box. They cost a few hundred yen if you need a new one.

But you don't have to get a new phone; Plenty of shops in Den-den town and Akihabara sell used and new old-stock FOMA handsets cheaply. Another option is a dual-SIM smartphone, where you can use a separate voice SIM and data SIM at once. Bic sells a few unlocked models for about the same price as the flip-phone.

Get the FOMA contract: 

The longest part of the process, it took me about 45 minutes in total. A total of 3000 yen in handling charges, and the old and new contract overlapped for one month (effectively adding another 2000 yen). But it was mostly straightforward(1). The final monthly cost of the FOMA voice-only plan with free family calls is 1050 yen, all included.

Is Crab a lowly crustacean or a superhero in disguise?
His friends debate endlessly. Only Crab knows for sure.

Get the Bic SIM contract:

Bic SIM is IIJmio under another name. You need a Japanese credit/debit card in order to apply. The actual application is all online; you can't complete the application in store. You can either order a SIM card when you apply, or you can buy the SIM card at Bic beforehand, then apply at home.

The application and SIM card costs a total of 3100 yen. You get a flat envelope with a SIM card and instructions. Once you get home, you pick a plan, enter the SIM number information and register. A few minutes after registration, the SIM card comes alive.

The data plans are priced at 300 yen per 1GB/month, with plans at 3GB, 5GB and 10GB for 900, 1500 and 3000 yen per month. You can add voice for another 600 yen per month, but then the application process is more involved, and as I wrote above, actually more expensive for us.

When you choose a plan, focus on your average need, not your peaks. Unused data rolls over to the next month, and the data is used up in order from oldest to newest, so in practice it carries over longer. If you don't use your limit on average, you'll eventually have twice your paid capacity available each month.

I don't use anywhere near 3GB a normal month, so for November I have 3GB + 2.4GB from the previous month, for a total of 5.4GB. I'm unlikely to use up those 2.4GB, so from next month I'll have a full 6GB available if I suddenly need to tether my computer or something like that. Very nice.

Also, if you need extra you can buy more capacity ("coupons") online or through prepaid cards, good for up to three months. And you still have a low-speed (200kbit/s) connection even if you use up all your capacity.

One tip: The registration site does not accept a space in the first-name field of the credit card holder. If you, like me, use your first and middle name on your card, that's a problem. But it seems that while you can use a middle name on your credit card, the standard only recognizes the first name. Enter just your first and last name and the site and the card company will both accept it.

If you don't have a smartphone, Bic and IIJmio sells a range of decent unlocked Android phones. A modern mid-range device is plenty good enough today. And some of those phones are dual-SIM capable: you could skip the flip-phone, use the Docomo and IIJmio SIMs in the same smartphone, and have both voice and data, just like with a regular Docomo smartphone plan, but without the smartphone plan prices.

Frog has no time for your antics. Frog expects another
fly any minute now. So many flies, so little time.

All in all, it took about two hours to complete the switch. The cost:

One-time costs:

Phone:27 000 yen
Docomo charges: 3000 yen
IIJmio charges: 3100 yen
Total one-time cost:  34 000 yen

Monthly costs:

Previous Plan:7500 yen/month
Cheapest similar Plan: ~6500 yen/month
IIJmio Data: 900+38 = 938 yen/month
Docomo FOMA: 934+2+114 = 1050 yen/month
Total monthly cost: 1988 yen/month

I save 4500-5500 yen every month. That is less than one-third of what I used to pay — for almost exact same service, on the exact same physical network.

I repay the cost of switching in 7 months, and save a total of 75 000-100 000 yen for the two-year duration of the voice contract. I can think of a lot of things I'd rather do with 100k yen than giving it to Docomo for no good reason. A trip to Bali? A new computer? A lifetime supply of toilet paper(2)? The possibilities are endless!

Dog realizes he's living a dog's life. And life for Dog is good.
Dog is content, although if you happened to have a tasty
snack it would really hit the spot right about now.

About that Phone

Finally, a few words about the new flip-phone itself. It's been ten years since I last bought a flip-phone, and technological progress has improved them along with everything else. This is a better phone than any other I've had.

The Sharp is light, but it feels solid and well built. I'm not worried about dropping it. It's "water and dust resistant", which means I'm not concerned about rain, but I'd certainly not rinse it under the tap or anything. The keyboard is better than any on-screen keyboard, but the direction pad feels a little imprecise, so you can press it on the edge and not get a solid response. The shutter/Silent-mode button on the edge is a bit too responsive, on the other hand; I've accidentally set the phone to silent mode a couple of times and missed a call as a result.

The software is standard FOMA. You need to spend half an hour cleaning it up, figure out how to reduce power use, turn off notifications, disable extra software and get rid of animated "concierge" characters, but once done it's a decently usable interface. I still want to disable the "silent mode" side button, and perhaps set a one-button call to my wife but it's mostly OK now.

When I use it, what hits me is just how good a phone this is. The sound is loud, clear and free of distortion. Your voice also comes through to the other side much clearer than with a smartphone. The phone is very comfortable to hold for long periods, and you can hold it with your shoulder for temporary "hands-free" use, something you just can't with a smartphone. The speaker phone function is also good, clear and distortion-free.

Battery technology has improved the past decade and it shows. I tested how long I could go without recharging. With an average of three calls a day and no travel, I managed a full 12 days of use. On a business trip — where train travel and frequent calls home sucks a lot of battery power — a four-day trip was no problem, but I wouldn't want to push it much beyond that.

I'm happy with this phone. It's a better phone than the smartphone was, and the sturdiness and long battery life makes for a very dependable device. I worry less about my smartphone battery now, since I know I always have a way to get in touch. This is a cheaper setup, and a more reliable one. Win-win.

Shortly after I switched, my wife actually bought an IIJmio SIM and an unlocked Android Huawei phone from Bic Camera for herself. It seems a decent phone, she's quite happy with it, and it sees a lot more use than her tablet nowadays. She keeps her FOMA handset so now we both have voice on Docomo and data on IIJmio.

Seagull supplements fishing income with successful modelling
side job. Seagull's fans keep up with her acting career
on Twitter. Tweeting really seems to come naturally to her.

#1 Even after I refused all data service twice, and even confirmed there was no data service of any kind in my new contract, Docomo still added a monthly 500 yen charge for a "U standard plan" that is only usable with a smartphone. I had to visit the store, paper contract in hand, and have them strike the thing from my plan and repay the money. Be careful and confirm everything afterwards whenever you deal with Docomo.

#2 A 12-pack toilet paper can be had for about 340 yen. 100000/340*12 = 3529 rolls. A roll might last one person about 7 days (see here and here), so 3529*7/365 = 68 years. Assuming you're old enough to appreciate a longwinded post about smartphone plans, that should cover your expected lifetime quite nicely.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

SIM card vending machines coming to Narita Airport

Man, have we ever came a long way. (It only took five years.)

U-Next Inc. announced (PDF) they have installed SIM card vending machines at all three Narita Airport terminals. These are stocked with prepaid SIMs using their "U-mobile" data service. The SIM cards will go on sale from September 16th (tomorrow). The vending machines are located in the arrival lobbies of Terminals 1 and 2, and at the entrance of the main building of Terminal 3 (the new LCC terminal).

There is a 7-day and 15-day version for ¥2,000 and ¥3,500, respectively. Normal, micro, and nano SIMs are available.

The SIMs are from NTT Docomo and support LTE. The SIMs from the vending machines are data-only. LTE bands are all over the place, so your phone may or may not get LTE. Don't count on it. If your phone is from North America, unless it's an iPhone, it probably won't work at all. The rest of the world should be fine for at least 3G.

Each of these SIMs is limited to 200 MB/day, after which speed drops to 200 Kbps until 11:59 pm.  Maximum speed is stated to be 225/50 Mbps down/up, but you won't get anywhere near that speed, even with LTE. No word if tethering is allowed, but at 200 MB/day, I assume it is. I wouldn't recommend tethering with this product.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Japanese carrier damage replacement services are a good idea

Old busted summer 2013 Xperia A and the Yellow Pouch by which it will return to docomo next its replacement – winter 2014 Xperia Z3.
If you tend to be careless with your android phone, or if you are like me and prefer to customize the OS – that is, void the warranty – then it is a very good idea to invest in the replacement delivery service offered by your carrier. This is contrary to the typical advice you may have heard regarding supplemental insurance often pushed by big-box electronic retailers (especially in the US).

One huge difference is that, even if you pay what may appear to be the full price of a phone or tablet, up front at the time of purchase, it is still highly likely you received a large subsidy. In the case that your phone is rendered inoperable due to an incident not covered by warranty (bricked, destroyed, lost), then you will have to pay back the remainder of the subsidy when replacing the device through the carrier. (Otherwise you will have to either pay the full, unsubsidized, ridiculously high price for another carrier-branded phone, or get another one via different means.)

Unlike traditional electronics, the complicated stream by which android updates flow from Google, through the maker, and eventually to the carrier motivates many to purposely void their manufacturer warranty. If the carrier decides not to push an update for a particular model, many people hack the phone and update it themselves. This opens the potential to have repair work of completely unrelated hardware failures denied due to the unauthorized software modifications.

Conversely, how many times have you purchased a subsidized washing machine and how times have you felt compelled to hack said washing machine?

Having a phone replaced

I recently had to replace my docomo Xperia A SO-04E. (This is actually my second time to use the replacement service, as earthquakes are not covered by manufacturer warranty.) A several centimeter-wide strip of touch screen along the left edge of the screen ceased to function. In portrait mode the "Q", "A", shift, and num keys were inaccessible. In normal landscape rotation, the entire bottom row of the keyboard was useless, so I was rotating the phone around in 360˚ circles just to type a freaking sentence. Very annoying.

I went to a docomo store, and to my surprise, found out that the phone was still (technically) under warranty. It was just over two years old but had a three year warranty. I was advised that it was probably best to use the replacement service because under warranty, they would just fix the screen and not replace the swollen battery pack or the missing water-resistant USB cover. It was actually my intention to use the replacement service because I have modified the OS and voided the warranty anyway.

Also entering into my thinking was that there just isn't anything out there now that is very compelling, so I didn't mind to continue to use the same model of phone.

The replacement service costs ¥380/month (unfortunately for summer 2014 and newer models the price increased to ¥500). Over two years and a couple of month, I estimate to have spent about ¥10,000 in total monthly payments. The standard replacement fee is ¥5,000, but I was only charged ¥4,500 (and paid half of that in docomo points).

So I figure I paid under ¥15,000 for a new replacement of a two-year old phone. At the time of writing indicates that this is well below the ¥19,000 - ¥24,000 range for a used Xperia A. Even considering the now-higher monthly cost of the replacement service (¥500), it would still have been a better value than hunting down a second hand replacement (that may or may not be of questionable quality). I spent about 10 minutes on the phone answering questions and agreeing to the terms and conditions of the service, then within 24 hours a new phone was delivered to my door.

Getting Lucky

The Xperia A was not very popular in my opinion. Docomo hyped the hell out of it, but I doesn't appear to have sold well (as evidenced by it being completely abandoned and never updated beyond what was initially promised). I believe it is running Android 4.2. As such, and also given that Nicholas destroyed his Xperia A several times over the last two years, there just weren't any left to serve as a new replacement to mine. Lucky me.

So for less than ¥15,000, the next morning at 10 am, the post office delivered a brand new Xperia Z3 (SO-01G). Improvements over the Xperia A include VoLTE and Android 5. The Z3 is a winter 2014 phone that is still on sale. Upgrading to the Z3 would cost me ¥32,400 AND require me to change to the new, shitty (more money for less) data plan with the unneeded unlimited calling plan for more money than I care to pay each month. The monthly subsidy of ¥54,432 shown in the screenshot below is not available users of the original Xi 7GB data and per-minute calling plan, meaning upgrading to the Z3 would cost a stupid amount of money (¥86,832).

However, since I was just invoking the replacement service, my data/calling plan remains unchanged, and my monthly replacement service fees remains based on the Xperia A, costing the same ¥380 instead of the new ¥500 monthly price. I had paid to have the Xperia A unlocked (what a nightmare that was), so this one arrived unlocked and with a new nano SIM (Xperia A uses a micro SIM).

So, yeah, carrier damage replacement services are a good idea.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Google Maps station departure information is currently broken and inaccurate

About two years ago, both the mobile and desktop versions of Google Maps were gutted, with many of the best features removed and replaced with a pretty UI (and not much else). Since then, functionality has slowly been added back to the point where it is close to being as good an app as it previously was. At this point, I wouldn't be surprised if Google Maps is the most popular transit app among visitors to Japan (though there is always apple maps), which is currently a problem because it is serving inaccurate information in some instances.

Previously, it was very easy to determine which train to take by tapping on a station and getting the departure times and destinations. Now, the information initially presented is limited, ambiguous, and often inaccurate. Right now, I do not recommend attempting to pull departure information from the Google Maps android app. As far as I can tell, though, point-to-point transit directions provided by Google Maps are correct.

Here are some current issues in Tokyo.
  • Destinations are no longer displayed. Instead the general vicinity of the destination is shown as an indication of direction (e.g., inbound to or outbound from Tokyo).
  • Directions are incorrectly displayed as outbound when they are actually inbound (and vice versa).
  • The term for is misused in place of via – meaning a random station along the train's route is displayed as the terminal, final station.
  • Departures were previously sorted by direction but are now lumped together.
  • Type of service (local, rapid, express, etc.) is no longer indicated
Let's take a close look at some of these issues.

From the left, we have the initial screen presented with departure information for Tsukuba Express Asaskusa Station. The Tsukuba Express is a relatively new line that runs between Akihabara and Tsukuba. At least it used to. Now, apparently, it runs from Asakusa to Kita Senju, which is a measly two stops away.

Tapping deeper, we find that the 10:43 departure "for Kita Senju" is actually running the opposite direction for Akihabara. The 10:46 departure runs via Kita Senju for Tsukuba. In Japanese, the wording is slightly different, "Kita Senju area" (北千住方面). (Yes, this can also be "direction", but I'd suggest 北千住経由つくば行き) . Two entire prefectures (Saitama and Chiba) separate Kita Senju from Tsukuba, which is in a third prefecture, Ibaraki.

I Wouldn't consider Kita Senju, located not so far outside of the Yamanote Line to be in the area of Ibaraki, would you? (Though I guess the Ibaraki Airport is supposedly serving Tokyo.)

Next, let's examine the condition of the Sobu Line as seen from Suidobashi Station, near Tokyo Dome.

Each train is shown as going in the exact opposite direction than it really is. The 10:27 "for Shinjuku" actually departed Nakano at 10:08, already passed though Shinjuku at 10:15, and will depart Suidobashi at 10:27, heading for somewhere in Chiba. Same goes for the 10:30 "for" Nishifuna. It already passed there about 30 minute ago inbound towards Suidobashi and onward to western Tokyo. This is of course assuming that anything listed here is actually correct.

Below is the actual route of the 10:27 departure from Suidobashi. Rather than traveling west, it goes east arriving in Nishifuna at 10:59.