Streaming-TV sites still need some design work

This year’s version of the “what regional sports networks will shut up and take a cord-cutting baseball fan’s money” story was not like the last three. I wrote it much later in the year, it’s at Forbes instead of Yahoo, and it finally brings good news for Washington Nationals fans.

But the process of researching which streaming services carry which baseball RSNs was as annoying as ever, thanks to these companies not fixing the user-interface problems that gummed up last year’s work.

AT&T TV Now: The channel-finder page of the streaming service formerly known as DirecTV Now requires third-party cookies for reasons unexplained, ensuring it will break in Safari and Firefox. You can search by Zip code but then often must choose a county inside that Zip, a detail no other streaming service requests. AT&T also has yet to update this site to include the four sports networks (for the Nats, Orioles, Rockies, and Pirates) that it just added, much less the Seattle RSN it soon will offer.

This site does, however, get one thing very right that its rivals don’t: It inventories the teams featured on its available regional sports networks.

FuboTV: This sports-oriented streaming service has a simple channel-lookup page that you may not know exists, as neither its home page nor its support site seem to point visitors to it. Too bad, because it’s a model of simplicity: Type in a Zip code, and it lists the local channels first, identifying both broadcasters and regional sports networks with a blue “Local” tag. Fubo also lists the RSNs it carries nationwide in a tech-support story that seems to be regularly updated, but neither that nor the channel-finder associate networks with their core teams.

Hulu + Live TV: You can’t miss the channel-lookup interface here, since it’s waiting behind a “View Channels In Your Area” link on this service’s live-TV page. Plug in a Zip code and you get a clean listing of channel icons, with “Live Local Channels” at the top. Unfortunately, they’re all shown only as icons, without any pop-up text to identify the more cluttered graphics among them, and it’s up to you to remember which RSN features which sports franchise.

Sling TV: Sling charges just $30 for the basic service (one good reason why I’m a subscriber) and apparently isn’t too concerned about getting people to buy up to a higher tier to watch pro sports. Seeing what regional sports networks you might get that way requires clicking around a support site that keeps pointing you to a now-useless “Game Finder” page (well, useless unless you had not learned that the coronavirus pandemic has made a mess of every pro sports league’s schedule). The link you actually want, “Finding Your Game On A Regional Sports Network,” clarifies that Sling only carries three such networks, the Comcast RSNs in the Bay Area and Washington, what I like to think of as the Other Bay Area. 

YouTube TV: Google’s streaming service doesn’t make you search hard for a channel lookup–the form is right on its home page and is automatically populated with the Zip code for what Google thinks is your location. Click the big blue “Submit” button or type in a different Zip code before confirming that, and you get an improved version of Hulu’s interface that labels channel logos with their names. But as at everywhere but AT&T TV Now, you still have to look up which RSN carries which teams.

I would like to think that these sites will do better and ease the 2021 version of this work. But in case they don’t, I finally took the time to crate a spreadsheet (the Forbes post features a cleaner, searchable version) that I can update whenever these services add or drop a channel. I hope there’s more of the former happening than the latter, so that when I’m looking at the prospect of a 162-game Nats season next spring I won’t be limited to one service carrying those games.

How I got Amazon Prime almost for free

Last summer, my appetite for quantifying my finances intersected with my food-procurement habits to yield a math exercise: How much of my Amazon Prime membership was I chipping away with these discounts at Whole Foods?

The Seattle retail leviathan’s 2017 purchase of the Austin-based grocery chain consolidated a large portion of my annual consumer spend at one company. It also gave me a new set of benefits for the Amazon Prime membership my wife and I have had since 2011: an extra 10% off sale items except beer and wine, plus some Prime-only deals.

(Personal-finance FYI: Amazon also touts getting 5% cash back at Whole Foods on its credit card, but the American Express Blue Cash Preferred offers 6% back on all grocery stores. That higher rate combined with Amex Offers for rebates at designated merchants easily erases the card’s $95 annual fee and returns more money than I’d get from Amazon’s card.)

So on my way out of Whole Foods, I created a new Google Docs spreadsheet on my phone and jotted down the Prime savings called out on my receipt. Then I did the same thing after subsequent visits. If Whole Foods and Amazon were going to track my shopping habits (which I assume they could from seeing the same credit card even if I didn’t scan in the QR code in the Amazon app at the checkout), I ought to do likewise.

Aside from $10-and-change savings during last July’s Prime Day promotion and again on roses for Valentine’s Day, most of these 41 transactions yielded $4 or less in Prime discounts. But after a year, they added up to $118.14, just 86 cents less than the $119 Prime annual fee.

To answer the obvious question: No, I did not step up my Whole Foods visits because of this tie-in. That place does happen to be the closest almost-full-spectrum grocery store to my home, but there’s a Trader Joe’s barely further away that trades a smaller selection for cheaper pricing on staples like milk and flour. And thanks to this dorky habit of mine, I can tell that I’ve shifted more of my business from WF to TJ’s the past few months.

How not to order online for in-store pickup

As a student of online retail, I’m occupationally obliged to try a newly-touted shopping option from a big-name retailer. And as one of the least efficient Home Depot shoppers ever born, I’ll do a lot to avoid walking up and down aisles for an hour to find a particular widget.

So when I realized I had an intersection of limited time for shopping with a growing to-do list of home repairs, I decided to take Home Depot up on its invitation to let the employees at the nearest location grab the items on my shopping list. I’d pay in advance, and then I could pick up my purchases on the way back from another errand I already had on my schedule.

Of course, none of that happened as I’d hoped.

The promised same-day pickup came and went, which I’d accepted upfront as a risk given the generalized logistical hell of life in the novel-coronavirus pandemic.

But after 48 hours with no update on what Home Depot had done with my money, I thought I should try to get an update. Texting the number on my e-mailed receipt, however, yielded this disheartening and unexplained auto-reply: “To support the high volume of help requests resulting from COVID-19, we have temporarily suspended messaging services.”

I tried calling next. After spending 25 minutes on hold, most of that featuring recorded reminders that I could order online and pick up in store, the call dropped. I also tried calling the store directly; after 11 minutes on hold, that call also went into the bit bucket. I tweeted my annoyance at this display of botched customer relationship management and moved on for the day.

Two days later, I must have been in a mood for more punishment, since I tried calling the Home Depot customer-service line again. This time, I only had to sit through 17 minutes of hold music before my call got dumped.

My tweet about this latest fascinating development drew the attention of one of Bernie Sanders’ more devout fans, and I spent the next few hours getting roasted for my alleged selfish disregard for the plight of Home Depot’s workers.

I thought I’d been pretty clear in trying to complain about a broken CRM stack that took customers’ money and offered no hint about when they’d get the items they’d tried to purchase. But I have been on Twitter way too long to be surprised to see context crumble there.

The next morning, Home Depot e-mailed to say that my same-day pickup was ready, a good five days after I’d clicked a purchase button. My receipt of this message was my cue to remember one item that I’d forgotten to put on this order, a short stretch of water hose to replace the leaking connector on a hose reel.

And then I waited until the next afternoon to stop by Home Depot’s Seven Corners location to pick up my purchases. On arriving there, I realized that the window-screen repair kit I’d ordered did not include the screen itself, just the frame. I could have known that in advance by, you know, reading the kit’s description online–but instead I had to spend a little more time meandering around the place.

Anyway, here’s the important part of the story: The employees in this store were great, as usual.

Here’s why I have trouble buying things quickly online

Like many of you, I’ve been doing a fair amount of online shopping. But I’ve probably been much slower at it than most of you.

Not “slower” in the sense of taking forever to pick one product over another (although my indecision-making there is considerable), but in the sense of deciding how I’ll pay for it and which third-party site I should click through before making the purchase.

Picking a credit card is the easier part even if I’m not buying stuff for my job (work expenses go on a separate card to ease my accounting). Most of the time, the 2% cash-back rebate on the Citi Double Cash Mastercard makes it the obvious choice. It’s been an even easier call when Citi’s offered extra cash back in promotions with various merchants.

But other card issuers have their own extra incentives. American Express and Chase offer extra cash back and do so much more often, but you have to sign up for each such offer on their sites or in their mobile apps. So I need to consult both before any purchase–and then hope the merchant in question doesn’t drop one of these deals the week after my purchase.

(Note that Amex and Chase also have tiered cash and points rewards for categories outside of online retail; a proper discussion of them would require a separate post.)

Not too many years ago, my shopping decisions would have ended there. But then I had to start considering shopping portals, the points-for-purchases sites most frequent-travel programs provide for members. By itself, a mile or a point for a dollar spent somewhere is barely worth thinking about. But that incremental addition does deserve your time if you’re nearing an award-redemption threshold or have miles or points that will expire without new activity in your account.

These portals don’t all offer the same rate or each offer the same rate over time. To verify which one offers the most return, I use a site called Cashback Monitor that tracks these deals and lets you set up a custom page with your favorites. (For more details, see this concise how-to by One Mile At A Time’s Tiffany Funk.) JetBlue consistently offers some of the best earn rates; fortunately, TrueBlue points have not seem the same deflation as other frequent-flyer currencies in recent years.

You may find no future-travel benefit for a potential purchase. Best Buy, Target and Walmart recently seem to have dropped out, while I can’t remember seeing any travel incentives for Amazon. In those cases, I’ll go to one last site before starting a purchase: my client Wirecutter, which often tells me what to buy and makes a decent chunk of its money off affiliate payments from Amazon and other retailers. If I can’t treat myself to a little kickback on a purchase, helping one of my favorite clients seems like a decent fallback.

Ugh, Washington Gas is the worst at customer experience

We got a message on our home phone yesterday from Washington Gas, and even by voicemail standards of annoyingness it was unhelpful: “We value you as a customer. Please contact us for an important message.”

Right, I’m going to listen to a voicemail and call a company back in 2019 to get a message that it could just put in my account online. Unfortunately, that is not at all out of character for how the D.C. area’s gas utility operates. Even when its customer site hasn’t been in the grip of a relaunch meltdown that left me unable to login for weeks, it’s mainly functioned as an exhibit of how not to run a payment portal.

The single biggest failing here comes if you choose to pay your bill via credit card–as you absolutely should, since there’s no surcharge compared to a bank deposit and you can make 2 percent cash back on each payment via a Citi Double Cash card. (I will set aside for now the fact that we’ve just had to get this card replaced for the third time in four years after some joker tried to make yet another fraudulent purchase on our number.) But clicking the button to pay via credit yields a dialog from the previous century: “A popup blocker is currently enabled. Please switch this to disable for Credit Card payment to function.”

Fortunately, you can disable pop-up blocking for a specific site in Chrome and Safari. Doing so will allow the Washington Gas page to launch a full-screen page from a service called Kubra EZ-Pay. EZ, this experience is not so much: It breaks the entry of your credit-card across two screens, which seems to stop Google Pay from auto-filling the second one, then asks for a phone number and e-mail when neither should be necessary in this transaction.

It’s all a pain, yet I keep taking this payment option because I don’t want to give Washington Gas the satisfaction of knowing that I gave up a 2 percent return because of its janky user interface. The only problem is that because I can’t automate a credit-card payment, I sometimes forget about this bill… which is what I suspect that call was about, not that the Washington Gas payment portal had any message of its own following up on the call.

We finally got an Amazon Echo

More than four years after I first tried out an Amazon Echo, there’s now one in our house. Even by my late-adopter habits, that’s an exceptionally long time for us to pick up on a tech trend.

But waiting so many years did allow us to get an Echo at a good price: $0.00. Late last year, Verizon added a free Echo to its menu of promotions to new and renewing Fios subscribers, and the company (also the parent firm of my client Yahoo Finance) included us in this offer even though we only pay it for Internet access.

(Even weirder, this free Echo came on top of being offered a lower rate for a faster connection. I guess I should see that as belated compensation for us missing out on other new-customer incentives Verizon’s offered since our fiber-optic connection went live nine years ago today.)

We got the code to redeem for a free second-generation Echo a couple of weeks after our speed upgrade went through, I waited a week to cash it in, and our new voice-controlled gadget arrived Friday. I promptly found a spot for this cybernetic cylinder in our kitchen.

So far, I’ve set up our Echo with only a few skills: it can play Pandora Internet radio, read the news from WAMU and can control our Philips Hue lightbulbs. (The Echo’s role as a smart-home hub is the use case that I utterly ignored in the first-look post I wrote for Yahoo Tech.) I’ve already determined that the Alexa app does not make for a great grocery-list manager, so I’m now going to see if Todoist can better handle that role. And I’ve changed one setting from the default: Because we have an eight-year-old at home, purchasing by voice is off.

There’s a lot to learn, but at least I’m no longer quite so illiterate at such a major tech platform. I just hope I can keep up with our kid, who already talks to Alexa far more than my wife and I combined.

For tech journalists, this may not be the most wonderful time of the year

It’s almost the middle of December, which means I’m once again in the weeds with my CES planning, in the weeds with Christmas shopping, and in the weeds with writing stories in advance so I can maybe spend some of the holidays moderately unplugged.

All of these things have been part of my Decembers for 20 years (although working on a blog schedule has only been part of the deal for the last decade). I should have been able to get better at this, especially since I succumbed to leaning on the crutch of free Amazon Prime two-day shipping and let my wife handle the cards I’d otherwise not send out until early January. Nope!

CES, meanwhile, has kept growing in size–from 117,704 attendees in 2003 to 184,279 this January–and generally making a mockery of predictions that big tech shows no longer matter.

And because it’s 2017, there’s now the added hilarity of the Trump news cycle. Today, it’s given us the complete repeal of 2015’s net-neutrality rules. That’s been readership gold–2,678 comments on my Yahoo Finance post and counting–but it’s not exactly helping me ease into the holidays.

At least it’s not just me. Every CES-bound tech journalist has to be feeling the same crunch, and many of them have to post much more often. And as much as I hate CES PR pitches, I’m sure many of their senders tried to remind their clients that the space-time continuum still governs CES and that expecting reporters to attend an off-Strip event the first day of the show is wildly optimistic–and then the clients ignored their advice.

I do, however, have one thing extra going for me: CES doesn’t start until the second weekend of January, so I have an entire five blessed days between New Year’s Day and my getting on a plane. I plan on sleeping for as much of that time as possible.

The other shocking secret about my latest laptop purchase

To judge from the 840 comments on Monday’s Yahoo Finance post about my first laptop purchase in a few years, the fact that this computer runs Windows 10 surprised many readers.

Another aspect of this acquisition may be even more shocking: I bought this computer in person, not remotely.

HP laptop keyboard

Over some 28 years of computer use, I had somehow avoided procuring every prior laptop or desktop in a store. My first two Macs came via Georgetown’s student-discount ordering, I bought a Power Computing Mac clone either over the phone or at the company’s site (too long ago for me to remember for sure), and I’d purchased three iMacs, one MacBook Air and a Lenovo ThinkPad online.

I had planned on ordering an HP Spectre x360 through my iMac’s browser, but HP’s site listed the new version as back-ordered. Finding a reseller at Amazon that had the 2017 model, not last year’s, quickly got me lost. Best Buy listed the latest version online–with the lure of credit towards a future purchase through its rewards program–but the profusion of different model numbers made me want to inspect the hardware in person to make sure I’d get the features I had in mind.

At about that time, I recalled that D.C.’s sales tax is fractionally lower than the rate in Northern Virginia, 5.75 percent versus 6 percent. And since that retailer’s site said this computer was on display at its Columbia Heights location on a day when I already had to be in D.C. for a conference and would be departing for Web Summit the next evening, why not stop by?

The exact set of options I wanted came in a configuration with more memory and storage than I’d normally buy, of which the store only had one unit in stock. But after taking a moment to contemplate the time I spend on laptops, I rationalized the added expense and handed over a credit card. So it was done: I walked out with a box in a bag that I lugged around that afternoon, and then I began a trip the next night with a newly-purchased laptop for the first time in five years.

One part of my work, however, remains incomplete: finding a home for a 2012 MacBook Air with a broken T key and a “Service Battery” alert. Any ideas?

My Apple problem

I spent a little time checking out Apple’s new MacBook Pro today, and from my cursory inspection in an Apple Store I can confirm that it’s a very nice computer. It’s also an $1,800-and-up computer, and I am not an $1,800-and-up shopper in this category of hardware.

macbook-air-touchbar-closeupI’m more of a $1,000-ish guy, and Apple doesn’t seem to want such a small sum of money. At that price, the company has nothing new to offer–the MacBook Air saw its last update 621 days ago. But Apple continues to price that model as if it were new.

(I’m not counting the single-port MacBook, because a computer that makes me choose between recharging itself and recharging my phone will never work for CES.)

While Apple neglects the more-affordable end of its laptop lineup, Windows vendors have been doing some interesting work. Many Windows laptops include not just touchscreens but the ability to fold up the laptop into a tablet for easy economy-class use.

And some Windows laptops also include Windows Hello biometric login–like the TouchID authentication on the MacBook Pro, except you don’t have to pay $1,800 for it.

All this means that my next laptop is far more likely to be something like a Lenovo Yoga 910 or an HP Spectre x360 than a Mac. That feels weird–I’ve been buying Macs as a primary computer for over two decades--but to ignore what’s happening on the other side of the fence would make me less a shopper than a supplicant.

The other weird thing is, what I think I’d miss most from the Mac is a feature that’s seen little attention from Apple over the past few years: Services. That little menu you see in each app and when you right-click items in the Finder saves me an enormous amount of time each occasion it provides a two-click word count or image resizing. If only Apple would know this exists…

Meanwhile, Windows 10 suffers the embarrassing defect of not allowing separate time zones in its calendar app. Microsoft, too, shows no signs of being aware that this problem exists.

So if I get a Windows machine, how much will I regret it? If I get another MacBook Air, how much of a chump will I feel like for throwing even more money in Apple’s direction?

 

Technology hasn’t upped my gift-giving game much

Between the advent of cloud-synchronized note-taking apps and the everyday logistics miracles performed by online retailers, remembering good ideas for Christmas presents and turning those thoughts into wrapped packages placed under the right tree in plenty of time should have stopped being a problem years ago.

2015 wrapping paperAnd yet my last holiday delivery arrived in the late afternoon of Dec. 24–and I made my last two gift purchases, one digital and one analog, at about the same time.

I can’t blame that on a lack of tools. I’ve had a frequently-updated “Gift ideas” note in Evernote since March of 2010–and I had a similar note in the memo-pad apps on various Palm phones and handheld organizers for most of the decade before. I’ve been able to lean on the time-condensing crutch of Amazon Prime since 2011, but by then I’d long since acquired a sense of logistical entitlement from the two-day shipping of such Web-retail pioneers as Cyberian Outpost.

But instead of letting me compile a thoughtful shopping list of gifts and fulfill that comfortably ahead of time, technology has only enabled and optimized my procrastination instincts.

It doesn’t help to have CES planning devour a large chunk of my mental processor cycles every December. But who am I kidding? If I didn’t have the annual gadget pilgrimage to eat my brain, I’m sure I’d find some other reason to leave present procurement until the last few days.