Saturday, June 22, 2013

High variability in phone price between Docomo shops

Docomo advertises the Xperia A as costing ¥78,120. While this is in fact the price set by Docomo, the actual total cost varies by ¥3,000 to ¥4,000 between various Docomo shops. On top of this, the full price is often not actually shown on the displays. I recently visited three different Docomo shops to compare differences in price.

Most of the shops fail to:
  1. Indicate the cost of the down payment (atama-kin 頭金).
  2. Explain that the displayed total price requires signing up for "add-on" services.
Only one shop properly displayed this information. On the bottom of the price display (red stripe) is the following:
The price displayed is when adding the specified options.
And, at the top the cost of the down payment is shown is (¥3,150 reduced from ¥10,500).

This is where the variations between shops arise. Some shops are lowering the downpayment to zero, others to about ¥1,000. The down payment is the shop's revenue. The shops are also receiving money from Docomo for getting people to sign up for the option services.

Of course the option services are totally unnecessary and would cost you a lot of money each month, but because there is no early termination fee, they can be immediately cancelled. Most are also free for the first month. In total, signing up and immediately canceling would cost about ¥800.

The graph below shows the variations between the three shops. Yes, ¥90,000 for a phone is just stupid. If you shop around, you can get this phone for about a total of ¥25,000 which is much more reasonable. The graph doesn't include the approximate ¥800 cost of the option services.

HOWEVER, you cannot just pay ¥25,000 up front in be done with it. The cost after subsidy must be paid in installments. You either pay the full price upfront and get the subsidy as a discount off your bill every month, or you pay about ¥1,000 each month for the phone. Those are the only options.

Why would Docomo want to essentially give interest free loans? Simply to condition people to pay a certain amount on their bill each month.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Japanese mobile plans among the least expensive worldwide

Yes, the title is sarcasm.

While trying to find the time to work on a new post, I recalled a wired article from 2010 that made me chuckle (both then and now). The article is flawed because it compares the costs of the least expensive plans available between the US and other countries, thus citing Japan as an example of a country were people pay very little for mobile service.

Neither the original "think" tank study, nor the wired article, account for the fact that people in Japan use their mobile phones very differently than in the US. The least expensive Japanese plans are designed for people who rarely make phone calls and never send text messages, while the US plans (from the time when the article's data would have been collected) are for people who only make calls and send text.

Apples and oranges. A random sampling of Japanese mobile monthly invoices from around 2009 or 2010 would show the total amount to be well in excess of $18/month. Japanese carriers work very hard to maintain a bottom line above a particular threshold. People must be accustomed to seeing moderately high monthly cost of service, but I'm getting ahead into the post I'm working on.

The approximate $10 plan shown for Japan would get about 15 minutes of outgoing calls, with anything over than costing nearly $1/minute. Use it like an American and you'd be paying hundreds of dollars per month.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Sony Xperia A (SO-04E) Review

I have been using my Galaxy S2 (SC-02C) for about two years and although it has treated me well it has been showing its age. Docomo will not update it past Android 4.0.4 and even though 3rd party dev's have ported CM 10.1 to it I was looking to get a new phone.

When Google announced the Nexus4 I was very excited for a Japanese release since it was a good looking device and fairly inexpensive but my excitement turned to annoyance when despite there being a product page in Japanese a Japan release never came. Google IO came and went without any new release announcements and Docomo announced their summer line up so I decided to make a choice.

My number one choice would have been the HTC One, but AU is the only one who will be carrying that phone, so I narrowed my focus to the Samsung Galaxy S4 and the Sony Xperia A. The GS4 has better specs, a huge 5" 1080P screen and a modest battery. The Xperia A has slightly lower specs, a 4.6" 720P screen, and a waterproof case. I chose the Sony primarily because of the size and form factor, it fits much better in my hand and has much better ergonomics, plus the water-resistant case will really come in handy for those times I get caught in the rain while playing Ingress. My second consideration was that the smaller and lower resolution screen should be much more power efficient than a larger higher resolution one and I can't imagine you can tell much difference on such a small screen.


  • Size: 10.5mm thick, 131mm wide, 67mm heigh
  • Weight: 141g
  • Continuous standby time: 3G: about 420 hours / LTE about 390 hours / GSM: about 360 hours
  • Continuous talk time: 3G: about 630 minutes / GSM: about 570 minutes
  • Charging time: About 160 minutes
  • Battery Capacity: 2300mAh
  • Display: 4.6 inches / Maximum simultaneous color depth 16,777,216 colors / Resolution 720×1280 
  • Band/s: GSM850, GSM900,GSM1800,GSM1900, UMTS_BC1, UMTSBC5,UMTS_BC6, UMTS_BC19,LTE_BC1, LTE_BC19, LTE_BC21
  • OS: Android 4.1 (Android 4.2 slated for July or August)
  • Processor: APQ8064 1.5GHz (quad-core)
  • Storage: 32GB
  • RAM: 2GB
  • NOTV, 1Seg, NFC / Felicia
  • Water resistant
  • Battery life
  • Great ergonomics / form factor
  • 13MP camera
  • Sony TV integration
  • Sony provides alternative applications and launchers
  • Removable battery
  • MicroSD card slot
  • Playstation Mobile
  • The best touchscreen keyboard I have ever used 
  • Great build quality
  • Loud speaker
  • Native SIP support in the dialer
  • Not running the latest version of Android
  • Docomo Pallet UI is terrible
  • Water resistant port covers can be a pain to open
  • The screen is a dust magnet 
  • Locked bootloader
  • Limited 3rd party dev support
  • Microphone placement 
The Xperia A ships with Android 4.1 and although this is not the latest version they have said that they will update to 4.2 sometime in July or August. Also unlike some Xperia devices this phone does not have an unlockable bootloader and since this is a Japanese variant of the Xperia ZR there will most likely be little to no 3rd party developer support. 

 I can't speak too much for the Docomo software because I went through and disabled or uninstalled as much of it as I could. (The feature in Android 4.0+ that allows disabling preinstalled system apps is intact, although some Docomo apps can't be disabled) The Sony software is actually quite nice though. They include their own keyboard, launcher, lock screen, gallery, camera, and music player. The launcher is much nicer than the Docomo Palet UI but I quickly switched to Nova launcher so that I could have a closer to stock look and feel. Sony has included both a Japanese (Pobox Touch) and international keyboard and I have to say that they are the best keyboards I have ever used, the international one includes swpe input features but the Japanese one doesn't.

I was very surprised and pleased to find that the dialer natively supports SIP accounts and the call quality over WIFI was very good.  I use this feature extensively for work so I was happy to find it included.

Hardware & Design
After using the Xperia A for about 1 week I can say that this is a great phone, I admit that it wasn't the phone I was waiting for but I am very happy to own it. It has a great form factor that sits well in your hand and is overall very aesthetically pleasing. My one complaint about the hardware design is that the microphone is on the bottom right corner of the phone, and I tend to place my pinky finger right over it when making calls. I will have to train myself not to put my finger there. This phone also has a notification light along the bottom that can change colors depending on what you are viewing on the screen or what type of notification it is alerting you to.

The screen is only 720P but it should use much less power than the 1080P screen on the Galaxy S4 and I think you would be hard pressed to tell the difference on such a small screen. I have noticed that when viewed at just the right light and angle that you can see some vertical lines on the screen that seem to be a side effect of the waterproofing, though you wouldn't notice it unless you are looking for it, and you can't even see it 99% of the time. The screen also tends to attract dust rather than fingerprints, the dust is easily wiped off though.

The built in light sensor is much better than the one on my Galaxy S2 and I rarely have trouble viewing the screen. There is also a backlight toggle that helps viewing in bright light situations. 

The phone comes with a 13MP camera and a dedicated hardware button that when held will launch the camera app even if the phone is locked. The camera takes excellent pictures in both low and bright light but the UI could use a little work. On more than one occasion I pressed the video record button rather than the button to take a picture. 

Once I disabled or removed as much of the Docomo bloatware I can say that this phone gets pretty good battery life and can easily last a whole day. With only email (Gmail and Exchange) and Google Hangouts set for push notifications the phone will use about 1% per hour when idle. I still have yet to completely run the battery down to 0%. I will probably pick up an extra battery pack for those Ingress heavy days but I am very happy with the performance so far.

Signal and GPS (GNSS Location based)
My last phone was the Samsung Galaxy S2 and I tended to get terrible reception and on at least half of my commute the data connection was unusable. The GPS on the Galaxy S2 was also hit or miss and used WIFI positioning pretty heavily.

The Xperia A uses Docomo's LTE network and I have found that I have LTE coverage around 75% of the time durring my day to day activities. While I still do have some dead spots on my commute the phone is able to recover from them much more quickly and actually displays when I have no connection rather than thinking it does and continually trying to send data when there is no connection. The only exception being when there has been a train delay and everyone is overwhelming the cell towers. 

This phone is a dual-constellation GPS/GLONASS device. GPS tends to be pretty spot on with very little GPS wander but I have not used it around really tall buildings downtown yet. According to Wikipedia "devices that can use GLONASS and GPS satellites together, provide greatly improved coverage in urban canyons and giving a very fast time to fix due to over 50 satellites being available. In indoor, urban canyon or mountainous areas, accuracy can be greatly improved over using GPS alone."

Buy, try, or no buy?
If you are looking for something that you can flash the latest ROM on and hack on you are probably better off going with the Galaxy S4 since its hardware is very similar to the international version and will have better 3rd party developer support. If you are looking for a water-resistant phone that has great hardware, removable battery, microSD card slot then you should consider this phone. 

If Google offered a Docomo variant of HTC One in the Google Play Store I would have a tough decision but if I had a choice between this and a Docomo compatible version of the Nexus4 I would have to say I would still choose the Xperia A.