Man, Apple really didn’t want me to use their new iPhone Upgrade program…

If you follow Apple news, you’d know that in addition to announcing new iPhones a couple weeks ago, Apple also announced a new way to purchase them — an Apple-branded upgrade program where you can upgrade your phone every year and never have to pay full price for one.  The program is similar to programs that the carriers offer, where you pay a monthly installment for your phone, and after a certain amount of time, you can simply trade in your current phone for a new one, even if you haven’t paid it off yet.

The Apple plan doesn’t really save you that much money on a month-to-month basis, but it does offer other perks — Applecare is included and the phone is unlocked (so it’ll work with just about any carrier anywhere).  Those were enough of an incentive for me to give it a try, so I made an appointment for Friday at 8am at the Apple store nearest me, so I could get a phone with the plan (the upgrade program isn’t offered online).

I encountered just one problem:  Apple really didn’t want me to use the program.

Did I fail the credit check?  I don’t know.  I never even got that far.

When I made the reservation to buy the phone in person, the confirmation email made sure to say that I needed to bring my carrier info, two forms of ID with the same full name on both (credit card could be one), and my old phone (if I wanted to trade it in).  That’s all it told me I need to have.

I showed up with all items in hand, only having to wait in line for a few minutes (seriously, if you ever want to buy an Apple product in person, use their reservation system).

I entered the store and met my sales rep.  He already knew the model I had reserved and just wanted to know how I would pay for it — through my carrier, through the upgrade program, or just buy it outright.

“Through the Apple upgrade program please,” I said.

And after spending the next twenty minutes trying to enter my info to get me approved for the program, it never came close to happening.

The problem?  The address on my driver’s license didn’t match the address on my credit card, and I kept getting kicked out of the system.

I get it.  Apple is super-concerned about fraud.  But there are plenty of legit reasons for those two addresses not to match.  You could’ve moved recently.  You could prefer your bills get sent not to your home.  You could have a PO Box or a mailbox at a neighborhood postal center (which are way more secure than most home mailboxes).  You could be using a business credit card that, naturally, won’t bill to your home address.

What’s weird is that this appears to be an Apple-only rule.  Apple partners with a third-party bank to offer the “interest-free loan” for the phone (which is basically what the program is), and I could see the software that the Apple sales rep used to submit the loan application.  The app never actually asks for the address off the driver’s license.  In fact, the software specifically asks for the address from the credit card, but the sales rep was instructed that he had to use the address off the license.  For many people who’d want to use the upgrade program — people Apple would love to retain as customers — this technicality makes the program a non-starter.

Oh well.  I wound up using the upgrade program offered by my carrier.  And you know what “perk” they offer that Apple can’t?  For my next phone, I don’t have to upgrade to an iPhone.

Your move, Apple.

Redbox Instant by Verizon: Full of potential, light on everything else

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First, a quick primer on the service…

  • It’s not Redbox Instant. It’s Redbox Instant by Verizon. I stress this because, well, apparently it’s a big deal to Verizon that they get referenced as much as Redbox (even if it makes for clunky headlines).
  • If you’ve never heard of Redbox Instant by Verizon, it’s basically a direct competitor to Netflix, offered by Redbox. And Verizon.
  • Just like Netflix, you have the option to instantly stream content (of mostly older movies) right to your web browser or mobile device, and just like Netflix there’s also an option to get physical discs for newer releases.
  • Unlike Netflix, those discs aren’t mailed to you. You pick them up from one of their many kiosks at grocery stores, 7-11s, and the like.
  • The service is still in beta, and there’s a bit of a waiting period to sign up for it.
  • The default plan costs $8/month.
  • The default subscription comes with unlimited streaming of movies Netflix-style to your computer or mobile device AND up to four physical DVDs from their kiosks per month.
  • In addition to their subscription plan, they also offer iTunes-style digital downloads of movies for rent and/or purchase.
  • Xbox users will have direct access to Redbox Instant LONG before Sony or Nintendo consoles (if they ever get support for it).
  • The ability to stream content to your TV is currently very limited (see below).
  • If you want your monthly subscription to cover Blu-Ray discs (in addition to standard DVDs) from their kiosks, it will cost $9/month.
  • If you don’t care about physical DVDs or Blu-Rays at all, the subscription goes down to $6/month.

Okay, now that that’s all out of the way, how’s the actual experience?

First off, the sign-up process is very buggy. I got my authorization code to sign up for the free trial about a month ago, but it wouldn’t let me actually sign up.  I tried again a few days ago and it was still very buggy — particularly text entry — but at least it worked. If you decide to sign up for it, be prepared to switch web browsers at least once and be very patient.

Content-aside, on the right device, you’d be hard pressed to find any ground-breaking differences between this and Netflix.  The Netflix mobile app is geared more towards guessing what you want to watch. Redbox Instant steers you more towards its newest/featured releases. Both apps make it relatively easy to search for what you want.  Redbox Instant even allows you to search both their streaming catalog and their kiosks at the same time.

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Netflix has the more robust library, but that’s no surprise at this point. I won’t even try to break down which movies could be found on which service because that’s constantly changing, though it should be noted that Redbox Instant isn’t even trying to compete with Netflix for TV shows.  There isn’t a single episode of a single series to be found on Redbox Instant (or at their Kiosks, for that matter).

So if you don’t care about TV shows, and you like a single subscription for both streaming and physical discs, Redbox Instant (by Verizon) may be right for you.  Just one caveat; You’ll notice I used the qualifier “on the right device” up above.

On the right device — like a newer iPhone or iPad (and I’m assuming Android devices, too) — the experience is on par with Netflix (save for the smaller library).

But what’s it like on the wrong device?

On the wrong device it’s practically unusable.

And to make matters worse, that “wrong device” is your TV, which in my opinion is the most important device for movie watching.

Netflix makes streaming to a TV super-easy. You can do it via any number of smart TVs or blu-ray players. You can do it from any game console. You can do it from this and this and this. And this. Oh, and this, too.

Redbox Instant simply can’t compete in this area. They just signed an exclusive agreement with Xbox, so forget about using your PS3 or Wii for the time being. Only three Samsung Blu-Ray players are currently able to access Redbox Instant, and they’re all from 2011. (My top-of-the-line Samsung Blu-Ray player from 2012 isn’t compatible.) And the list of compatible TVs is pretty anemic (again, only certain Samsung models).

I really wish they were more open about compatible devices BEFORE you sign up for the service.

On their FAQ page they recommend hooking up your computer or mobile device to your TV using an HDMI cable. How quaint. Honestly, this isn’t a terrible suggestion, especially if you already have such a set-up (it’s a great way to get Hulu on your TV for free, by the way). But it’s far from ideal having to keep your computer running while you watch TV, not to mention the whole “now I have an extra cable to deal with” thing. And depending on your TV/computer/mobile device, the experience will greatly vary.  A typical set-up will involve Company X’s hardware running Company Y’s software hooked up to Company Z’s television, which is not a formula for seamless connectivity.

For example, this is what it looked like when I hooked my third generation iPad up to my TV via an HDMI cable and hit play on the Redbox Instant app:

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See how much black there is around the image from the movie? This isn’t an aspect ratio thing. The letterboxed image is the same aspect ratio as the TV. It just doesn’t fill it. To make the image fit I have to use the TV’s “zoom” function. The end result is a movie resolution that’s only a fraction of what it should be. Most movie apps for the iPad know how to properly send content over HDMI. Redbox Instant isn’t one of them.

Redbox Instant’s FAQ also recommends that owners of Apple TVs use Airplay mirroring (if they also have a iPhone, iPad, or newer Mac laptop) to push content to your TV. Airplay mirroring, in general, is great. If you own an Apple TV and you aren’t using Airplay mirroring to connect your iOS device to your TV, you’re missing out on one of Apple’s coolest features. But Redbox Instant somehow manages to even mess Airplay up. When mirroring via Airplay, the image still doesn’t fill the screen. An iPhone 5 works better than the iPad because the screen has a more cinematic native resolution, but it still has a thick border around all sides.

Netflix, it should be noted, has no such issues with Airplay. The image fits the screen beautifully. But, then again, you don’t need Airplay to push Netflix content to your television because Netflix is already baked into Apple TVs.

CONCLUSION

This is where I should remind you that the service is still in beta and that the number of compatible devices will surely grow, but since it’s a PAID beta (after the first month), a certain amount of usability should be expected. And until I can watch high quality content directly on my TV, it’s not worth my 8 bucks.

The only way I can see spending 8 bucks per month for this service is if:

a) You live near a Redbox kiosk and really like the idea of a combo disc/streaming service.

and

b) You have a 2011 Samsung Blu-Ray player or TV, an Xbox 360 (with its own Xbox live subscription) or a computer already hooked up to your HDTV.  Or you don’t care about any of that and you just want to watch movies on your tablet/laptop.

If you’re not both A and B, then this isn’t the service for you right now.  Wait a few months — if not longer — before trying it. No point in wasting the 1 month free trial only to discover on day 1 it’s not practical for you.

I’m in group A, but not in group B.  So I’ll be canceling my subscription when the trial ends.  I haven’t written off the service, though. I’d totally consider signing up again, I just hope they’re working as hard on getting it on more devices as they are on getting it more content. Content, oddly enough, is pretty decent considering how young the service is.

I still have three weeks left on my free trial, though. So if anything changes in that time, I’ll update this review.

Note: If you decide to give it a try, hang onto the authorization code they email you. You need it for every device you want to activate.

UPDATE MARCH 7th:  

My free trial is up and I cancelled the subscription.  Nothing I’ve mentioned above has been addressed, and I have no interest in paying full price for a very, very beta product.