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.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Area Mail Works on the Nexus 6 purchased from the Google Play store

I currently own a Nexus 6 that I purchased from the Google Play Store about a month a ago. One of the features of Android 5.0+ is that when you insert a carrier SIM card it will install carrier specific apps to your phone. I was pleasantly surprised that it installed the NTT Docomo Area Mail app for emergency alerts. I was quickly disappointed when it said that it didn't support my phone so I uninstalled the app.

With the strong earthquake that we had today I was surprised that I got an Area Mail alert even with the application not installed.  I did find that the "Cell Broadcast Alert Service" was running and had started at the exact time the earthquake started.

Comparison of a Samsung Galaxy S6 unlocked by Japan's big three carriers

As expected, Softbank Mobile announced that it will also adhere to the new guidelines and begin unlocking phones brought new to market from this month. This includes the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge. The terms are exactly like Docomo's: unlockable from 180 days after purchase until 90 days after the phone is disconnected. Unlocking within that 90-day window for an out-of-contract product will also require a trip to certain softbank stores and therefore cost ¥3,000 plus tax.

Unlocking terms by carrier

KDDI docomo Softbank
Free (¥3,000+tax in store) Free (¥3,000+tax in store) Free (¥3,000+tax in store)
Applicable to devices released from
April 23, 2015 May 1, 2015 May 29, 2015
Wait time to unlock
180 days 6 months 180 days
Unlock possible after cancel service
forever for 3 months for 90 days

Galaxy S6 Edge Comparison

Right now, the only phone that will be unlocked by all three is the S6 Edge.

KDDI docomo Softbank
Cost with MNP (without)
¥33,480 (¥55,080) ¥29,808 (¥58,968) ¥21,600 (¥53,760)
Earliest unlocking date:
October 20, 2015* Now November 25, 2015
Unlock cost
free ¥,3000 free
LTE Bands:
1, 3, 18, 26, 28 1, 9, 19, 21, "700"* 1, 3, 5
WCDMA (3G) Bands:
1 1, 5 (or 6?), ? 1, 5, 8
* The exact bands are ambiguous. docomo simply lists "700" which could be one of 12, 13, 14, or 17 or perhaps all may be covered because the frequencies are either adjacent or overlapping. Also, both KDDI and docomo list support for "800". KDDI specifically states this is band 18. I believe that docomo uses band 19. The uplink frequencies are overlapping and the downlinks are close but not adjacent.

Figuring out which bands are supported

KDDI is the only carrier clearly indicating this an in easy to understand way. Their bands are published here. Softbank's are on the product's specs page (SBM S6 Edge). Docomo's are also listed on the spec page, but only for LTE (DCM S6 Edge). To get the 3G bands is a real pain, but docomo will be required to make this more transparent once they release phones under the new guidelines.

Docomo classifies the S6 Edge as a "class 5 world wing" device, which looking up here gives contradictory information. The product pages lists LTE bands "2GHz, 1.7GHz, 1.5GHz, 800MHz, and 700MHz". However a class 5 world wing device supposedly supports LTE Band 1 (2.1GHz), Band 3 (1.8GHz) and "others" such as Bands 4, 17, 20 "etc" as well as "3G" (whatever the hell that means) and "3G850".
LTE(Band 1(2.1GHz)、Band 3(1.8GHz)、その他(Band 4、Band 17、Band 20など))および3G、3G850、GSMネットワークをご利用になれます。
I'm just guessing here, but since the most common 3G band (except in North America) is Band 1 (2100 MHz), I am guessing that "3G" refers to Band 1 and that 3G850 refers to Band 5 (Actually I'm told that what docomo calls "3G850" is actually Band 6). I also assume that it doesn't support AT&T's Band 2 (1900 MHz, aka PHS) or T-Mobile's Band 4 (1700/2100 MHz, aka AWS).

Digging ever deeper into docomo's i–mode-like labyrinth of a website confirms no support for 3G in North America.