Friday, May 23, 2014

Costco's Membership Policy is a Rip-Off, and They Defend It For Some Reason


Here's a summary of the problem that I describe below. 

If you’re a Costco member like me, sometimes you don’t shop at the big box store for months at a stretch. If your membership happens to expire during such a sabbatical, guess what happens when you renew a month or two later?
Answer: Costco automatically backdates your membership to renew on the date it expired, not on the actual date you renewed. That means you pay for membership you didn’t and couldn’t have used, because you can’t get your discount-price purchases past the cashier without a current membership. 


Here's an example:
Let's say a customer comes in to Costco and starts a membership on May 22, 2014.  Let's assume that customer lets his membership expire on May 22, 2015.  He does not enter or shop at Costco for two months.  Then that customer comes into Costco on July 21, 2015 and wants to renew his membership.

When would you think that new membership would expire?  July 21, 2016, right?  WRONG!!!  With Costco's policy, his new membership will expire on May 31, 2016 -- not July 21, 2016.  Costco effectively robs him of two months of membership.

Costco was sued about 10 years ago for a similar policy that robbed its customers of up to five months of membership dues.  They settled a class action suit and this new policy is a result.  Still a ripoff.  Costco says in justification of this ripoff policy: "The Supreme Court says that what we are doing is legal." 

********

I am frankly surprised at Costco and its membership renewal policy, which effectively cheats members out of up to two months, or 16.7%, of their membership dues.  I am surprised because Costco is generally a well-managed operation that seems to try to treat its customers right.  They are fixated on this downright deceptive policy, probably because most members won't even realize that they are being cheated.   This is likely because nearly all of Costco's profit, from a recent Wall Street Journal article, is from membership fees. 

I've been a member of Costco for over ten or fifteen years.  They have some good stuff, and they definitely have a good return policy.  I remember standing in line to return a Verizon modem and seeing the assistant manager agree to allow some guy in front of me return a really banged up paper shredder that must have been 10 years old.  I had trouble returning the Verizon modem and that's another story (I don't see why Costco won't offer its members the best deal in cell phone service and plans -- but none of their cell phone kiosks offer no-contract or prepaid plans or devices!).  I want to like Costco more.  But I don't.  Here's one reason why. 

Other forums on the web have described this problem:

http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/news/2009/07/costco-s-renewal-rip-off/index.htm

The writer describes this situation far more clearly than I have:
If you’re a Costco member like me, sometimes you don’t shop at the big box store for months at a stretch. If your membership happens to expire during such a sabbatical, guess what happens when you renew a month or two later?
Answer: Costco automatically backdates your membership to renew on the date it expired, not on the actual date you renewed. That means you pay for membership you didn’t and couldn’t have used, because you can’t get your discount-price purchases past the cashier without a current membership. 

Here's how Costco rips off its members when it comes to membership dues.  A regular member pays $55 for a 12-month membership.  Let's say a customer comes in to Costco and starts a membership on March 22, 2013 (as I did).  Let's assume that customer lets his membership expire on March 22, 2014.  Then that customer comes into Costco on May 22 and wants to renew his membership.

When would you think that new membership would expire?  May 22, 2015, right?  WRONG!!!  With Costco, if you renew your membership up to 2 months and 29 days after your initial membership expired, then your new membership will expire on March 31, 2015 -- robbing you of two months of membership.

Here's the reasoning as I understand it, and which was explained to me by a membership services representative at the Carlsbad, CA store on May 22, 2014.  In the above example, if you started a membership on March 22, 2013, then that membership expired on the last day of March, 2014.  If you renew your membership anytime before 60 days has elapsed from the time of your membership expiration date, then your new membership ONLY LASTS until March 31, 2015.  In this example, the customer would have to wait until AFTER June 1, 2014 to be consider "a new member" and for her to get the full twelve months on her membership.  Renew her membership any sooner, and she is being penalized for being an existing customer.  (I also doubt that Costco would allow you to shop with a membership that technically expired on March 22, 2014 but which they say is "not really" expired until March 31, 2014.  I have a strong feeling that if you shopped in that period, they would have forced you to renew your membership). 

This exact scenario happened to me yesterday.  I enclose my letter to Costco membership services below.  The manager and first clerk at the Carlsbad store were absolutely adamant that if I renewed my membership on May 22, then it would expire on March 31 of the following year -- NOT May 22.  When I argued that this was ridiculous and unfair, and I was being penalized for being an existing customer, they shot back, "The Supreme Court issued a ruling that we can do this!"  It was like talking to robots. 

The manager of the store didn't fully understand the policy either.  She stated that if I renewed my membership ANYTIME after June 1, 2014, then because I was an existing customer, my membership would expire on March 31 of the next year.  That was CLEARLY wrong.  I mention this because even Costco manager don't fully understand this ridiculous policy. 

What would any company that is concerned about its customers and doing the right thing do in this case?   I doubt that any company that truly cares about its customers and doing the right thing would simply say "We can do this because a bunch of customers complained and sued us, and we finally won the case in the Supreme Court."

If customers were aggravated enough by this unfair policy to take it to the Supreme Court, shouldn’t Costco reconsider its policy?

The Carlsbad Costco folks also said that this was perfectly standard with memberships -- that this was like a gym membership.  Folks, I belong to  a fitness club; and they don't do anything this deceptive.  My fitness club bills me each month, and I pay each month.  I did sign up for a year, and my gym expects me to pay each month for a year.  After that, I have no commitment and just pay month to month.   My fitness center doesn't bill me for a year in advance and then penalize me for two months of membership fees if I leave for 45 days and come back.  They would start me up on a new annual membership starting on the date I came back! 

Here's what I wrote Costco Membership Services at their Corporate Offices.  I received a lukewarm reply from a Brian D. there, also below. 


Dear Sirs:

My Costco membership number is xxxx.  I have been a member for perhaps 10 to 15 years.  My mailing address is xxxx. 

I do have a blog at norbertwu.blogspot.com that has received well over 67,000 hits.  I would love to post an item on my blog and other social media sites documenting a successful resolution of this experience with Costco that shows Costco is responsive to member’s complaints. 

I pay attention to things like membership expiration dates.  This year, my wife and I decided to let our Costco membership expire.  We called your membership department, and they told us that our membership would expire on March 22, 2014.  We were also told that if we renewed in the two months after our membership expired, our renewal date would be considered to be March 22, 2014.  We therefore purposely did not patronize Costco starting on that date and for two months after. 

Today, May 22, 2014, I went into your Carlsbad store to start up a new membership.  I asked the membership services desk to confirm that if I started up a new membership today, that my membership would extend an entire year, from today, May 22, 2014 until May 22, 2015.  The Costco agent stated that my membership would not last a full year – that because “I was already in the system” that my membership would only last until March 31, 2015.

I find this outrageous, and I told the clerk this.  She called a manager, who refused to do anything.  This manager actually contradicted the first agent, saying that even if I waited until after June 1 to become a member again, my membership would still expire on March 31, 2015.  Even your own employees do not understand this policy…and we were given misinformation by Costco staff in the first place, when we were told that our membership expired on March 22 (rather than the end of the month as is policy). 

I had planned a dinner party for May 23, 2014, and I had planned to shop at Costco for the dinner supplies.  I therefore reluctantly renewed my membership.  I am not at all happy about this or with Costco’s policy.  I see that other people on the web have complained about this same policy. 

I find it outrageous that a member who keeps track of his membership is penalized for being an existing member.  I kept track of Costco’s policy as explained to me.  Yet I am being defrauded of two months of what should be a 12-month membership. 

I ask Costco to do one of three things to resolve this issue:

1.  Cancel my membership immediately, and refund me the $55 that I paid today in membership fees.  You will see that I have not shopped at Costco since March 22, 2014 and before then – on purpose. 

2.  Extend my membership that I “renewed” today for two months or more.  My membership should expire on May 22, 2015, or later – NOT March 31, 2015. 

3.  Refund me the prorated amount that the loss of two months of membership is worth.  This should be about $9.17. 

Once again, I have a blog at norbertwu.blogspot.com that has received well over 67,000 hits.  I would love to post an item on my blog and other social media sites documenting a successful resolution of this experience with Costco that shows Costco is responsive to member’s complaints. 


Signed,

Norbert Wu


Here's the tepid response from Costco: 

Subject: Re: Membership Information or Changes [#xx]
From: "service@contactcostco.com"
Date: 5/23/14 9:47 AM

Dear Norbert,
We appreciate you taking the time to email Costco Wholesale.
Due to the frustrations you experienced and the incorrect information provided to you originally, we have
extended your membership through 5/31/15 as a one time courtesy.
We apologize for the unfortunate circumstances regarding your experience.
Thank you,
Matt B
Member Service Center
Costco Wholesale Corporation


Hey Costco -- you are ripping off your existing members, and doing the right thing should be just that -- not a begrudging "one time courtesy."

Weekly Series Number Five: My Favorite Photographs

Spotted Dolphins, Bahamas Banks. 

This is one of my favorite images, of all my favorites.  Seeing this image brings back memories of a hot, humid summer day at sea -- the sea glassy,  shallow sand banks spread out before me, while I stood on the bow of the boat the Dream Too watching a pod of dolphins swim by languidly.  Thanks to Captain Scott, Robin, and Inez Wagner for helping me get to this place several times in the 1990s.

A group of wild Atlantic spotted dolphins, Stenella frontalis, have interacted with humans in their home range for over twenty years, after their initial discovery by treasure hunters.  They will often approach swimmers in the water, and they seem to enjoy swimmers that try to match their speed and movements.  These Atlantic spotted dolphins rest on shallow sand banks during the day, after a night of hunting in deep water.  Bahama Banks.

A pair of Atlantic spotted dolphins rest on shallow sand banks during the day, after a night of hunting in deep water.  Bahama Banks. 



This image had plenty of "negative space" for magazines to use for text, so several magazines used this image on their covers.

The French, being French, liked this image, but of course they had to mess with it.  They flipped the image which was fine with me.  But then they removed all the spots on the dolphins' bodies.  This was ridiculous -- it was like removing spots from a leopard to make it look better.





Here's some text that I wrote about these dolphins several years ago.

A Special Place

There are a few very special places in the world, places where man can interact with wild animals who come to him of their own accord.  One of these magical places is the shallow sand bank that extends to the north of Grand Bahama Island.  Here, the famous spotted dolphins of the Bahamas come to humans to play, to interact.  In all the world, this is the only place where wild dolphins regularly come of their own free will to interact and play with humans.  These wild dolphins have not been fed or otherwise lured.  They are apparently drawn to humans for the sheer enjoyment of this inter-species play.  These dolphins were first discovered by treasure hunters searching for sunken Spanish galleons.  The men would take time off from their labors and play with their new friends.  Since then, these dolphins have been swimming with people for almost twenty years -- three dolphin generations!  A few scientists and boat operators, such as Captain Wayne Scott Smith of the Dream Too, have even kept track of calves from the time they were born to the time they gave birth to their own calves.   Captain Scotty is a virtual dolphin himself.  He is a self-trained naturalist and has devoted his life to studying and interacting with these dolphins, and he has identified some 200 individuals.

The dolphins rest during the day in a 20-foot-deep sand bank north of Grand Bahama Island.  The white, reflective bottom and shallow, clear water (with visibility frequently over 100 feet) make conditions often ideal for photography.  However, it can also be turbid, rough, dark, and/or rainy.  There are several boats that take passengers out to see these dolphins. 

These trips have been acclaimed by all who go as a rare privilege to swim with these beautiful animals, observe behaviors such as mating and feeding, and to come away with some fantastic photographs.  Swimming with these dolphins is exhilarating, refreshing in every sense of the word.  Since the dolphins love to play, the best way to hold their interest is to snorkel with them, twisting and turning, interacting with them at their level.  They will often approach swimmers closely, mimicking their actions.   Although the dolphins off Grand Bahama love to swim with humans, they don’t like to be touched.  They will swim closely until you put a hand out.  Mimicking a fin by extending an elbow is fine.  Sometimes the dolphins are not in the mood to accept a human intruder.  If you swim into their midst, they will move off and give you a clear signal of displeasure by expelling excrement.

There are 60 to 100 individuals in the Bahamas Banks population, but we usually see only four to twelve at a time.  These dolphins do most of their hunting at night, when they pursue squid in the deep waters off the bank.  They rest during the day in a shallow, warm, and clear sand bank.  These dolphins are the only known successful predator of the elusive razorfish, which dive headfirst into the sand to escape danger.  Dolphins, unlike other predators, use their sophisticated sonar capabilities and high intelligence to track the razorfish, then dig up and capture them with a quick snap of their beaks.

By spending time with these animals, I’ve seen activities such as mating, playing, aggression, and nursing.  Dolphins are quite passionate animals, and they spend almost as much time engaged in sex and foreplay as humans do.  When mating, the male swims upside down, directly under the female.  Up to six other males, called “helpers,” will swim with the couple, supporting them and warning off intruders.  It is an interesting spectacle.  I’ve been struck by how the helpers will swim at me, in an attempt to keep me away from the mating pair.  Most of the footage of wild dolphins shown on television is of this group.

Spotted dolphins love to play underwater.  I have seen them grab objects and pass them to and from each other at high speeds, and they will often leave that object in the water, seemingly waiting for you to join in the game.  Like many species of dolphins, they will often come up to the front of our boat and ride the pressure wave, similar to bodysurfing.  Many scientists have written papers and spent hours observing this phenomenon, only to come to the conclusion that there is no logical reason for this dolphin behavior.  It’s pretty obvious to all but the most detached observers that dolphins ride waves for fun.

Dolphins have always held a special fascination for humans.  Stories of their intelligence, their altruism, and their physical abilities abound as myths of the sea.  Carlos Eyles summarizes the human fascination with these animals:  “The dolphin embodies all that humans have discarded; all that humans have lost.  They live in large families, they play, they make love, they operate out of truth.  Their sonar can “read” an entire biophysical system in a micro-second.  When the truth is not spoken that system changes, thus they can immediately distinguish a lie from the truth.  But of course the don’t have to.  Their society works.  It has  stood the test of time for thirty million years.  “

On my last dive with the dolphins this past fall, a cold front of water from the north had brought rarely-seen visitors to the banks.  Schools of bonito (a type of tuna) and large sharks cruised through waters that had misted up from the sand, like clouds.  A large bull shark appeared out of the mist and approached me.  Knowing that this is one of the more aggressive and dangerous of all sharks, I was stuck by a surge of adrenaline as the shark approached me closer and closer.  In the meantime, the dolphins played around at the surface, hanging in the area for an unusually long time.  I fired off my final frame, made a sudden movement, and the shark turned and sped off into the distance.  The last photograph on that roll shows the shark turning away, with the dolphins cavorting in the distance, playing in the last rays of the sun.  I cannot help but wonder, each time that I look at that photograph, if the dolphins were watching over me, waiting until they were sure that the dangerous shark had passed.  Or maybe it was something else, as one scientist put it: "There are plenty of stories about dolphins pushing drowning humans in to shore to save them.  But you never hear from the humans who were pushed out to sea. "



Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Unlocked Cell Phones and Tablets, Using Them Overseas, 3G and 4G and LTE Explained (As Well As I Can Understand)

I have become semi-obssessed with things like cell phones and tablets, and using them overseas.  Part of this is because I travel a fair amount.  The other part of this is because I am a tech nerd (must be my Asian roots).  I was in Australia a couple of years ago, and it was a pleasure bringing an unlocked Pantech smartphone there, going into a mall, getting an Optus SIM card, putting it in, and within 30 minutes, having an operational local phone with a data plan for the month or two that I was there.  Having a local cell phone and being able to use the internet is a huge problem-solver when you are traveling.

I've spent hours trying to figure out what the best tablet or phone might be for my next trip and phone/tablet purchase.  I've therefore been forced to try to figure out and keep track of exactly what GSM, Edge, 3G, 4G, and LTE means.  I am writing down what I know in the hopes it will help other folks when they are deciding to buy an cell phone for use overseas.

First of all, if you want to buy a cell phone or tablet that will work both in the US and overseas, then you need to buy an UNLOCKED phone or tablet.  This means that you can take it to other countries such as Australia, and it will often work in those countries if you buy a cheap SIM card for a local carrier. This is HUGE if you travel internationally a lot. This is also a big deal if you want to switch from, say, AT&T to T-Mobile in the US.

I ONLY buy UNLOCKED tablets and phones. I have, for instance, an iPad 3 with a Verizon modem that I bought so I can use it in Australia. Turns out the the iPad 3 can use AT&T's frequency bands here in the US too, since the Verizon iPad 3 is unlocked (if you buy an AT&T iPad 3, it is locked to AT&T).

Second, the better the phone, the more frequency bands it can tune in to.   Here's what I know about frequency bands, and I welcome comments to clarify what I put down here.

In the US, the four major cellular phone carriers are Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, and T-Mobile.   Verizon and Sprint use older CDMA technology and newer LTE technology.  The older CDMA phones are always locked to Verizon or Sprint, so they can't be used overseas with another carrier, and they can't be unlocked to be used with AT&T or T-Mobile.

From an Ebay discussion: Any buyer who has ever wondered why they can't simply use a phone that was created for AT&T on a Verizon network and vice versa should know that the differences between CDMA and GSM technologies are the sole determining factor behind this. In effect, the two technologies represent different kinds of radio systems.

AT&T and T-Mobile in the US are GSM-based cell phone networks.   GSM, or Global System for Mobile, is the primary type of technology used for cell phones in the rest of the world. 

From the same Ebay discussion:
using a GSM-compliant phone also makes it much easier for a user to switch providers or networks, as all that they must do in order to make a switch is purchase a new SIM card for their device. The interchangeability of GSM cell phones, as well as the ability to easily switch between networks, makes them a much more appealing option for international travelers who plan to switch between different networks when on trips to countries that primarily use GSM technology.
This is especially important for those who take frequent trips to Europe. Europe adopted GSM technology in the 1980s and has been on this standard ever since. As the technology is required of network providers by law, users will not find access to CDMA networks in any countries within Europe. 

Verizon CDMA phones are often sold for dirt-cheap, because they can ONLY be used on the Verizon network.  As an example, the Moto G smartphone for Verizon is a great phone.  It sells for only $100 at Walmart (the Verizon version).  The Moto G phone with GSM bands sells for $199 everywhere else.  This is because Moto G phones (being Google-branded phones) are always unlocked, so you can use them on any carrier that uses GSM bands (such as AT&T and T-Mobile in the US). 

Older phones are often advertised as "quad-band GSM unlocked. " This is good.  This means that a buyer can use the phone on GSM networks in the US as well as overseas.  In the US,  GSM operates on the primary mobile communication bands 850 MHz and 1,900 MHz.  From what I understand, GSM/EDGE are considered 2G networks, suitable primarily for voice calls.  If you buy a quad-band, unlocked GSM phone, it will normally have the bands 850/900/1800/1900 MHz and will be able to work on any US GSM carrier -- eg AT&T and T-Mobile. 
  •  
  • As an example, the Moto G phone for AT&T has the following GSM bands and is described as:
  •  Quad-band GSM/GPRS/EDGE; quad-band UMTS/HSPA support.
  • We'll get to the second part in a bit.  The first part refers to: 
  • 2G NetworkGSM 850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900
  •  This means that this phone can work for voice calls on most GSM networks in the world.  

  • The second specification: quad-band UMTS/HSPA support, refers to:
  •  HSDPA 850 / 900 / 1900 / 2100  for the Moto G worldwide phone
    HSDPA 850 / 1700 / 1900 / 2100 - for T-Mobile, AT&T
  •  
  • As I understand it, and I am sure that I am grossly oversimplifying this, HSDPA and UTMS refer to 3G networks.  3G networks succeed GSM/EDGE (which are 2G networks).  They offer faster data rates.  From phonearena: This makes them especially suitable for use in modern smartphones, which require constant high-speed internet connection for many of their applications.

3G networks are fast enough to view Netflix videos.  That's plenty fast for me.  In the US, AT&T 3G phones use the following frequencies:  "3G UMTS network 850/1900MHz bands."  T-Mobile has been using the 1700 band, which few other carriers in the world use.  Therefore if you buy a T-Mobile phone or tablet that has 3G capability, it will likely have the 1700 band.  However, T-Mobile is moving more of their data/capability to the 1900 band. 

As you can see above, the Moto G worldwide phone has quad-band support, but leaves out the little-used (except in the US, for T-Mobile) 1700 band.  The Moto G phone for T-Mobile includes the 1700 band.

An excellent resource that explains these things can be found at:
http://www.gsmarena.com/network-bands.php3

So, a quick summary: if you want a cheaper, older, inexpensive smartphone or tablet that you can use in the US and in other countries, you will want to buy an UNLOCKED, quad-band GSM, and quad-band 3G phone.

The newer smartphones and tablets are using 4G network, the fourth generation of mobile phone communications standards.  From gsmarena:
4G is the fourth generation of mobile phone communications standards. It is a successor of the 3G and provides ultra-broadband internet access for mobile devices. The high data transfer rates make 4G networks suitable for use in USB wireless modems for laptops and even home internet access.
I believe that most uses of the term "4G" also means "LTE."  With 4G LTE, Verizon has gone back to using SIM cards, and it's possible to buy a smartphone or tablet that can use, for instance, either AT&T or Verizon SIM cards.  
Wikipedia has a good table showing the various bands: 
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cellular_frequencies

As you can see from the table, there are many 4G frequency bands, and they are associated with a band number to simplify things. 
Here's an example of how these 4G and LTE bands are specified and used:
A recent Ebay auction had an iPad mini  32GB WiFi +3G & 4G LTE White or Black UNLOCKED GSM 1st Generation UNLOCKED TO WORLD WIDE GSM advertised.  I researched the exact specifications of this iPad mini and here are the frequency bands that it could tune in to:
GSM/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz)
UMTS/HSPA+/DC-HSDPA (850, 900, 1900, 2100 MHz)
LTE (Bands 4 and 17) which are 1700 and 2100

This means that this iPad mini is quad-band GSM and 3G capable.  It is also 4G capable on bands 4 and 17 (1700 and 2100).  These are the bands for AT&T and T-Mobile, so this iPad mini first generation should work on AT&T and T-Mobile networks as long as it is not locked to a specific carrier (thus the wording "unlocked" in the Ebay title).  And here's a cool thing -- this iPad mini should be able to use a Verizon network SIM card also!  From the above table, Verizon also uses band 4.

(I could be wrong about T-Mobile.  In a note I have, I don't know where it came from, I see that T-Mobile uses the frequency bands: 4G LTE network AWS / 700 / 850 / 1900MHz bands. )

Here's another example. I just bought an Asus Nexus tablet for my wife (I may steal it from her when I take a trip overseas).  It was the T-Mobile 4G LTE version, but like all Google-sponsored cellular products, it is unlocked.

Here's the table of frequencies for this tablet, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nexus_7_(2nd_generation)


The second column shows the frequencies for the model made for T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon.  It seems that I could put in a SIM card (micro-SIM) from any of these three networks in this tablet and it should work.  The fourth column shows the bands that the worldwide version of this tablet offers.

This great tablet is quad-band GSM unlocked, 3G quad-band unlocked.  It offers seven different LTE bands so you can use it with three US cellular carriers, and the world version offers seven LTE bands so you can use it with many carriers around the world.  It has LTE bands 7 and 20 whereas the US version has LTE bands 13 and 17. 

Here's the description of the 2nd generation Asus Nexus tablet from the Google Play site:
Optional 4G LTE
       
        North America:
        GSM: 850/900/1800/1900 MHz
        HSPA+: 850/900/1900/1700/2100 (AWS) MHz (Bands: 1/2/4/5/8)
        LTE: 700/750/850/1700/1800/1900/2100 MHZ (Bands: 1/2/3/4/5/13/17)
       
        Europe:
        GSM: 850/900/1800/1900 MHz
        HSPA+: 850/900/1900/1700/2100 (AWS) MHz (Bands: 1/2/4/5/8)
        LTE: 800/850/1700/1800/1900/2100/2600 MHz (Bands: 1/2/3/4/5/7/20)


Engadget wrote about this:
On that particular model, ASUS managed to squeeze six LTE frequencies (bands 1, 2, 4, 5, 13 and 17), pentaband HSPA+ and quadband GSM / EDGE into its North American version, which means it will be compatible with AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile in the US, as well as a smattering of operators in other parts of the globe. This is actually a pretty huge feat, as we haven't seen a device that's compatible with both Verizon and AT&T LTE before. There's also a European option, which provides seven LTE bands (1/2/3/4/5/7/20), pentaband HSPA+ and quadband GSM / EDGE. Not too shabby.


Here's a summary:
If you want an older, inexpensive smartphone that will work both in the US and overseas, then you might want to look for a quad-band unlocked 3G and GSM smartphone or tablet.  The ones I recommend are the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 7.0-inch worldwide unlocked 3G "phablet", which is a phone AND a tablet (basically a tablet with voice-calling capability).  I see these on Amazon for about $225.  Be sure to get the unlocked world version of this phablet.  I also recommend the $199 Moto G and $129 Moto E world edition phones from Google Play. 

I understand that the Moto G, as of today, will soon be coming out with G4 LTE capability.  That's pretty cool -- all earlier versions are 3G only.

Ipads 3rd generation and above, and iPad minis first generation and above, are unlocked and can work with both Verizon and AT&T in the US (and probably T-Mobile in some places).  They can work with some overseas carriers  on LTE Bands 4 and 17.  This is a bit limited.  If I were to travel soon, I'd borrow my wife's new Asus Nexus 2nd generation and take it overseas with me instead of my iPad 3rd generation, because it covers so many more LTE bands. 

If you buy an iPad, consider buying an iPad with a Verizon modem, which have up to now been unlocked -- rather than an AT&T iPad, which have been locked so you can ONLY use it with AT&T's network and plans.

The Google-sponsored phones and tablets, such as the Asus Nexus tablets and the Moto X, G and E smartphones, are all unlocked out of the box.  They seem to be excellently made phones in nice price ranges.

I have not consider iPhones in this blog posting because I personally can't see spending over $500 for a dang phone.  


Please do your own research before buying anything based on the information in this blog posting.  I cannot guarantee that anything here is correct, and I am the first to admit that my understanding of these matters is of the "inexperienced" level.  I welcome comments that clarify this post. 

Verizon Has the Best Network in the US; Too Bad It is Greedy and Duplicitous

I posted previously why I ended buying an iPad 3rd generation with a Verizon 3G modem. 

I bought this iPad primarily because Verizon offered no-contract, no commitment, month-to-month prepaid data plans for the iPad 3rd generation.  Starting with the iPad 3rd generation, Verizon and Apple have wifi hotspot built-in as an option for iPad users.  This lets me buy Verizon data for a month on my iPad 3rd generation, and I can then access email and the internet with my laptop, by using the Verizon cellular data coming through my iPad (which then functions as a wifi hotspot). 

A second reason to buy an iPad 3rd generation with a Verizon modem is because "Verizon" iPads are unlocked.  This means that you can use iPad 3rd generations and above with other carriers, such as AT&T and T-Mobile.  You can take your iPad overseas, to Australia and Europe, buy a SIM card from a local carrier, and use your iPad in that country at that local carrier's low, prepaid rates.  You do need to check the cellular frequencies of the iPad and see if local carriers in that country operate on those same frequencies.  More on this in a future blog post. 

In my experience, Verizon has the best cellular network in the United States.  I've been able to get internet over Verizon's cellular signal in a place called Lumber City, Georgia -- which is pretty much as country as you can get these days.  I could not get Sprint service or AT&T service there.  I have a summer home on Puget Sound, and Verizon has the best signal there also. 

I was pretty happy with this arrangement until this month.  I tried to activate my Verizon account on my iPad, which I had last used back in December.  I received this message:

Sorry, we cannot activate your device because the SIM card you are using...


Naively, I tried calling the number listed for a new SIM card.  I was told by the Verizon agent that they could send me out a new SIM card, but it would cost me a $35 activation fee, and I would be locked into one of their postpaid plans.  This was BS of the highest order!  I will NEVER be locked into a cellular phone company's ridiculous two-year contracts ever again.  If I am buying a data plan for my tablet, I'll be gosh-darned if I will pay an activation fee to buy a month of data. 

Verizon's own web pages that discuss their prepaid tablet plans state the following:

No activation or reconnection fees and no overage charges. Prepaid Mobile Broadband Plans do not include Verizon Wi—Fi Access, Text Messaging or roaming. Prepaid Mobile Broadband Plan for Tablets are not available on all models.






I did some research on the Internet.  I discovered that Apple sells these iPads, promising that buyers will get Verizon data access on their iPads on a month-to-month basis.  Apple promises that buyers can stop and start their Verizon data access at any time.  However, once a buyer activates his SIM card for the first time, then if he stops using that SIM card (and thus, the Verizon data access) for over five months -- then Verizon will no longer recognize the SIM card.  The buyer is then forced to go to Verizon, who in 99% of the cases I am reading about (and which is my experience), will only sell buyers a new SIM card along with a postpaid, term plan requiring a $35 activation fee and a commitment of two years of data plan usage.  Again, this is absolutely BS and it is downright fraudulent.

Apple's website for the iPads states the following:

No contract. No long-term commitment.

When you decide to activate data service, you can choose the amount of data per month you want to buy — with no long-term contract. So if you have a business trip or vacation approaching, just sign up for the month you’ll be traveling and cancel when you get back.

This is from the web page at:
http://www.apple.com/ipad-air/ultrafast-wireless/



Here are some good links that discuss this problem:

http://macmavenconsulting.com/blog/sim-card-deactivation-on-verizon-ipads/

I love this guy.  He describes the problem that I have.  He is very detailed, and he ended up suing Apple in small claims court and winning.  He even got Apple to pay him for his trouble. 

http://macmavenconsulting.com/blog/apple-lawsuit-update/

Here are some solutions that I found on forums and which I consider reasonably fair. 

1. I think that Verizon should instantly mail you or give you a free SIM card if you ask for it, which will let you buy prepaid, no-commitment, monthly data plans at the original prices you were offered when you first purchased your iPad.  Better yet, Verizon should not burn SIM cards in my iPad in the first place! 

2.  Some iPad users have bought Verizon SIM cards for $10 or less on Amazon or Ebay.  But why should we have to do this when we purchased our iPads on the valid and reasonable assumption that we could sign up for, and cancel, Verizon cellular data service anytime we wanted to? 

3.  I personally went to an Apple Store, spoke to a genius at the Genius Bar, and he was kind enough to give me a Verizon SIM card for my iPad at no charge.  Thanks, Gabe A. at the Genius Bar in the Apple Store in Del Monte Center.  You were very helpful.

Monday, May 19, 2014

A Frustrating Experience Getting a MacBook Pro Repaired by Apple...Otherworld Computer (OWC) Support -- GREAT!

Otherworld Computer (OWC) at macsales.com -- GREAT!  Apple Support - Not So Good! 

I mentioned in a previous blog post that I've been a lifetime Mac user, starting with my first Mac (and Apple's first Mac) in 1983.


I just had a 2011 model MacBook Pro die on me.   It is perhaps the first in a long line of Macs that have failed on me. I bought my first Mac -- the original Mac -- in 1983 as a senior at Stanford. Since then, I've always had one or two Macs around my home and office. From 1990 through 2005 or so, I had a small business with as many as six staff. I went through two ImageWriter dot matrix printers, a Starmax clone made by Motorola, Performa machines, a really crappy LC550 which was a precursor to the colorful iMacs that came out in 1998, and a Powerbook 100. I still have, in my garages and elsewhere, a Powerbook 540c, Powerbook G3 (Wall Street), Titanium Powerbook, G4 MacBook Pro, and the list goes on.


I've been happy with this 2011 model MacBook Pro. I used OWC's great Data Doubler bracket, which allowed me to put in two laptop-sized hard drives in the laptop. I had to remove the SuperDrive (DVD writer/reader) to do this, but for the past six months, I've enjoyed having a lightning-fast Samsung 250Gb SSD drive along with a pretty huge 1 Tb traditional hard drive, both in my laptop. The speed of starting up my laptop, along with starting applications, was phenomenal, like having a new machine. Having such a large hard drive is pretty important to me, as I keep a huge amount of my electronic life on my laptop.  It has been a very nice arrangement. I did not have to try to coordinate changes in documents across multiple machines, since I used the one laptop for just about everything.  The only downside was that this 15" MacBook Pro was pretty heavy at 5.5 pounds.



Anyway, this 2011 model of MacBook Pro died on me, and after much testing, I was pretty sure that it was a failed graphics processor (GPU).  Various online forums said that this would be a pain to repair since the GPUs are soldered onto the logic boards, necessitating a replacement of the logic board.

I took this to the local Apple Store Genius Bar.  The guy there confirmed that there was likely a problem with the GPU and said that I could have this fixed internally for over $500 or they could send it to a “flat rate repair” place (also internal?) that would check the entire laptop over and fix everything for $310.  I said that would be fine and was happy that this could be so easy to fix, and at a relatively inexpensive cost.

Alas, and of course, this was not to be.  The Genius guy came back and said sorry, you need to put in the original DVD burner.  Evidently, by removing the DVD burner to put in an OWC Data Doubler, I had voided the warranty or something (well, it was already out of warranty, so I had done something that was not user-allowable).  Apple would not accept this for repair, flat rate or otherwise, unless I put in an OEM (original equipment) DVD burner.


It was a classic "I have good news for you -- then sorry, I was wrong and the good news I just gave you is now bad news" scenario.  Not bait and switch, but more like giving a dog a taste of a bone and then taking it back.  To his credit, the Genius Bar guy (who I won't name) said that he would not make a note that I had taken out the original DVD burner. He said that I could put in the old DVD burner, bring it back, and they would repair it.


I hate this kind of crap, where you have to do a bunch of meaningless stuff in order to get something done right. I had thrown away my original DVD burner six months ago, once I determined that my new SSD drive and hard drive were working fine. So I asked a couple of friends (thanks as always, Eric Cheng and Lloyd Chambers!) if they had any recommendations. Lloyd told me to give OWC a call. I did so, and this is one of the main points of this blog post. I reached Cynthia at OWC tech support. Man, was I impressed. Cynthia knew what was going on and suggested that I buy a used DVD burner on Ebay. She said that OWC could probably repair this, but it would probably cost more than the $310 flat rate that Apple quoted me. I thanked her and decided to go look for a used DVD burner as she suggested.

An hour later, the phone rang and Cynthia left a message. She said that she had thought about my situation some more, and suggested that I look up “GPU replace” under Ebay to find vendors with high ratings that could do this GPU repair. She stated that this should be a simple solder replacement, under $200.



I was impressed! Seriously. This is the first time in my memory that any company has actually called me back to offer a suggestion on a problem that I am having. She and OWC were not trying to sell me anything – they were just recommending a service. It was a little creepy that she captured my phone number, but I've know a long time that whenever I dial an 800 toll-free number, that the company on the other end can capture what number I am calling from. I have to give Cynthia and OWC five stars for going above and over what any other company would do.


I looked for  “GPU repair” on Ebay, and I found several vendors offering to replace bad GPUs on MacBook Pros. This tells me that this is a known, recurring problem with these units.  I usually use this laptop hooked up to a 24" monitor and wonder if the heat damaged the GPU  Seems like this has happened enough that there are vendors offering this specific solution to my problem, which is suspicious. As I wrote earlier, this is the first Mac I've had that has died on me, and I've only used it for two years. It's too bad that I've had to run through hoops to get it repaired and will have to pay $300 or more to get it repaired.

I ended up buying a used DVD burner on Ebay and putting it into my machine. I took it back to the Apple Store for their flat-rate repair.  I've waited until the machine is back and running, and in my hands, before posting my experience. 


I was not impressed with Apple Support and the repair process.  Here's an email I ended up sending to some kind of supervisor in Apple Support:

Dear Jason:

Thanks for helping me out yesterday.  I am concerned that my laptop is still in limbo, waiting my authorization.  I see no evidence that it has been approved for repair.   My case ID is: 60892dddd

If I go to the link in my email from yesterday titled: Apple Store Service Request R12219dddd:

https://getsupport.apple.com/requote.action?serialno=C2QFP328DF8X&repairid=R12219ddd&locale=en_US

Then I see the same page that gives me only the option of paying for the repair at $610 or "Have Apple return the product to you unrepaired."

I hope you recall our conversation.  I turned in this early-2011 MacBook Pro (serial xxxx) to the Apple Genius Bar at Del Monte Center in Monterey, CA  93940 on May 9.

A week earlier, I spoke to [first genius] at that Genius Bar who confirmed that the problem with my Mac (gray screen upon startup, crashes if it does startup, and six vertical bars appearing in Safe Boot Mode) was a GPU failure.  On May 2, [first genius] quoted me the price to repair this laptop would be the flat rate repair service price of $310.

I took the laptop back to consider my options, and on May 9, I delivered the laptop to [nnn] at the Genius Bar in the same store.  [second genius] (Employee 135987dddd) quoted me the same $310 flat rate repair service and assured me that this service would look at the entire laptop and would cover any other repairs needed.  He removed the hard drive and RAM from the laptop since the hard drive and RAM were non-Apple items and he did not wish to confuse the repair folks ("Repair Depot").  I asked him if this was really necessary; he pretty much ignored my question and I did not press him, assuming that he knew better.

I discussed with you why I received a new quote for $610 rather than $310.  I emailed you the Genius Bar Work Authorization which showed that $310 flat rate repair quote and also a $19.95 "portable shipping charge" which was surprisingly added without my knowledge beforehand.

You spoke to [first genius] in the Del Monte Store, and you discovered that the additional $300 fee was because Repair Depot was charging to replace the missing hard drive and RAM (which I have in my possession, and which your Apple Genius Bar staffperson removed despite my objections).  You told me that [first genius] was going to make a notation in the repair process that the RAM and hard drive had been removed by Apple Store personnel; that the RAM and hard drive did not need to be replaced as part of this repair; that I would not need to take any further action, and that the repair would proceed and be done for the $310 that I was quoted.

Jason, I hope you will follow through on this and make sure that my repair for $310, or up to 329.95 without tax as quoted is indeed approved and going through the repair process.  I am concerned that it may be stuck in the process waiting my authorization, and I have only the choice of authorizing the higher, non-valid $610 price.

I hope that you will see to it that I receive a proper email so that I can see that the work has been authorized, or make sure that I am sent a new authorization quoting the $310 rate so that I can authorize the work going forward.

Thanks for your attention to this matter.  The longer I am without my primary laptop, the harder it is to get my work done. Thanks for understanding.
--
Best,
Norb
----------------------------------------
Norbert Wu Productions
Pacific Grove, CA  93950
USA


This kind of thing went on for a while.  Jason replied, telling me that he did not see that my repair was authorized to move forward either.  He told me to call the Apple Store.  I called the Apple Store.  Of course, neither of the geniuses was available to take my call.  After some phone tag, I finally got hold of second genius, who promised that they would honor the $310 price that he had quoted me, and that I should go ahead and authorize the $610 repair.  After some more calls, phone tag, etc -- I authorized the repair.  The rest went smoothly. 

I was surprised that there was so much confusion with this repair.  I would get an email from Apple Support about the repair, talk to an Apple Support supervisor about the repair, but then the supervisor would have to talk to the Genius Bar guy who helped me.  Then the Apple Support guy would get back to me and tell me to talk to the Genius Bar guy.  Of course, that guy was never available.  The ear-splitting Muzak that this particular Apple Store used when they put my on hold was both annoying and damaging to my ears.  I recorded a clip with my iPod and may try to post it here. 

Total times that I had to explain what was going on with my laptop, and explain the repair process to Apple Store and Apple Support: eight times.  Maybe more. 
twice at Apple Store
once to Apple Support first contact
once to Apple Support supervisor
once to Apple Store second genius
followup to Apple Support supervisor
directed to Apple Store first genius
directed to Apple Store second genius
finally picked up repaired laptop at Apple Store.  Thankfully few problems picking it up and paying, finally. 

Apple Support -- not so good.  OWC support -- great.  


Sunday, May 18, 2014

Weekly Series Part 4: My Favorite Images as an Underwater Photographer


Before my San Blas experience, as an undergraduate, I had taken a marine invertebrate and then a marine ecology course at Hopkins Marine Station.  So I knew the area around Monterey offered good diving (albeit cold water).  I decided to spend the summer of 1984 diving around the Monterey Peninsula in a 10-foot Avon.  I convinced my friend Spencer Yeh to spend two months with me, diving every day in the cold but astoundingly rich waters of Monterey Bay.  I don't know how we swung it, but we rented a house together with another Hopkins student for 10 weeks, and although we were penniless and unemployed, we went out diving every day in that little Avon.  Thanks, Spencer. 

I was limited by funds to using a Nikonos IV camera with extension tubes.  Some of the macro images that I took with this setup were among the best I've ever shot.  It must have had something to do with the limitations set up by using this closeup gear.  You had to manipulate a physical framer, which was basically a thick wire showing three sides of what would be in the image, around your subject.  This forced you to ignore subjects that could move, like fish, and concentrate on finding subjects that you could put your framer around. 






Juvenile Crab in Pelagic Jelly (Pelagia colorata):

I remember taking the below image very well, even though I took it in 1986 -- almost 30 years ago.  My friend Matt Murphy and I were diving at Point Lobos State Park one day, while I was working as a "systems analyst" for Daisy Systems Inc in Silicon Valley.  Matt was a fellow engineer who also dove.  We fast became friends.  On this dive, hundreds of giant purple jellies had floated into Bluefish Cove at Point Lobos and become stranded there.  Most of these jellies had dozens of these commensal, or perhaps juvenile, crabs that lived within them.  The crabs were probably protected from predators by living with the jelly's bell.  

I clearly remember coming across these jellies and Matt very patiently handling the jellies while I photographed them.  I was limited by the frame of my Nikonos-and-extension tube combination.  Out of 36 images, this one jumped out at me on the light table.  Thanks, Matt. 



A juvenile slender crab crawls unharmed among the bell of a purple oceanic jelly.  One large jelly can harbor hundreds of these small crabs, which ride along with the jelly, then drop off in shallow waters, to develop into larger, heavily armored adults.  Monterey, California.


This image was published a bunch of times.  It was a difficult image to get just right when published.  Outside Magazine published a bunch of my images in their Exposure section when I was getting started.  That was nice, but then the photo editor lost one of my favorite and most valuable original transparencies that he requested for a cover (one of my best shark images at the time).  I never did much work for them after that.





Tuesday, May 13, 2014

These Great Diving Operations Have Space


I'm often asked about good places to dive and good operations to dive with. I can recommend the following operations that recently sent me a newsletter or email as being great diving operations:


Fiji and Tonga (humpback whales): The Nai'a is a great diving liveaboard, from all I've heard. They've invited me a few times over the years, but I've never managed to make it. Still, plenty of friends have vouched for it – so I recommend here. In a recent newsletter, they mentioned that they still have space for their Tonga humpback whale trips and their Fiji coral reef trips:


http://naia.createsend4.com/t/ViewEmail/y/5A2D36A057D8DBDA/62D62FBA4A3C4DC5D9767B6002735221




If you don't mind cold water, diving the waters of British Columbia and Alaska are special. The
abundance of marine life there is astounding. I highly recommend two operations to dive the waters around British Columbia: the Nautilus Explorer and the Swell, both liveaboards run by Mike Lever; and God's Pocket Resort, a land-based diving resort run by Bill Weeks and Annie Ceschi.


I just received a newsletter from God's Pocket announcing that they have availability to stay through the rest of 2014 and 2015.


http://godspocket.com/rates--availability/availability.21.html


My good friend Douglas Seifert is hosting a trip to God's Pocket from  August 30 - Sept 5, 2015. I hope he does not mind me mentioning this trip.


I also just received a newsletter from the Nautilus Explorer folks that they are offering 40% off (limited space) their June Alaska trips! The Swell will do her final Alaska and BC dive adventures as of this December. I have been on the Nautilus Explorer for numerous trips. I have not been on the Swell but am sure that the same great service and diving that I've always experienced on the Nautilus Explorer are available on the Swell.


https://www.nautilusbookings.com/index.php?destination=alaska&year=2014


Weekly Series: Week 3, Some of my Favorite Images

Some of my first photographs:

-->
At the age of six I wanted to become a marine biologist.  As a teenager growing up in Atlanta, I spent summers snorkeling in Florida waters and became fascinated with wildlife.  When the time came to choose a college, I went to California.  Like all naive teenagers in Georgia, I thought that California meant beaches, sun, and warm water.  I was in for quite a shock during my first encounter with the bone-chilling waters of Monterey Bay. 
Once in college, deluged with the advice of dorm mates, professors, and parents, I decided on a degree in electrical engineering rather than a major in my lifelong interest of marine biology.  I kept up my diving, however, and explored the waters of Monterey Bay after investing in a wetsuit and basic diving gear.  The electrical engineering degree was a pragmatic choice; the job situation seemed much better, and I always figured I could go back into marine biology.  The situation seemed the same after four years, and so I obtained a master’s degree in engineering and got my first steady job as a computer engineer in Silicon Valley.  The job paid well, my boss was easygoing, and the work was routine and unstressful.  Of course, I was bored.  My thoughts kept wandering to tropical breezes and coral reefs. After nine months as a corporate player, I took an extremely low-paying job as a research diver with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute one one of the San Blas Islands of Panama. 
This time I had been much more careful in my choice of dive sites.  The island is about 100 square feet of sand, and the researchers lived in bamboo and plywood huts right above the water.  Most importantly, the water is warm there, and I had all the time in the world to dive.  Prior to this trip, I never had the slightest interest in photography.  But before heading south, I bought as many books as I could find on the subject, as well as an underwater flash and Nikonos camera system with extension tubes and close-up attachment. 
For the four months that I was out in the San Blas, I only shot about ten rolls of film.  However, the photographs from those rolls have been published over and over again.  Because I was diving the reefs every day, I knew their inhabitants intimately.  I was able to return to photograph an octopus, a flamingo tongue (a snail with a spectacular shell), and a spotjaw blenny again and again over the course of my four-month stay.  This in-depth look at marine life’s habits and behaviors has become my specialty.  Being able to spend weeks working on a project rather than a few hurried weekends has made a big difference in the quality and content of my photographs. 

These images of a spotjaw blenny were among the first I ever took.  The closeup has been used as the cover for a NOVA show on coral reefs among other publications.  




A spotjaw blenny, Acanthemblemaria rivasi, peers out from its home, an abandoned worm tube in a head of brain coral.  Its large red eyes may serve to scare off predators.  Caribbean. 


Using a Nikonos IV-A camera with extension tubes was incredibly limiting.  You had to swim around with a camera that had metal framers extending from the lens.  You could only take photos of subjects that would fit within this frame area.  Despite these limitations, or maybe because of them, I ended up taking a lot of very nice macro (closeup) shots that are probably better than the ones I take today with my fancy digital SLR housed systems.  I'll post some more of my early images, taken with this ridiculously simple setup, in coming blog posts. 

Thanks for reading!


Sunday, May 11, 2014

Buying a New Apple Mac Laptop -- Some Considerations


I just had a 2011 model MacBook Pro die on me.  It is perhaps the first in a long line of Macs that have failed on me.  I bought my first Mac -- the original Mac -- in 1983 as a senior at Stanford.   Since then, I've always had one or two Macs around my home and office.  From 1990 through 2005 or so, I had a small business with as many as six staff.  I went through two ImageWriter dot matrix printers, a Starmax clone made by Motorola, Performa machines, a really crappy LC550 which was a precursor to the colorful iMacs that came out in 1998, and a Powerbook 100.  I still have, in my garages and elsewhere, a Powerbook 540c,  Powerbook G3 (Wall Street), Titanium Powerbook, G4 MacBook Pro, and the list goes on.

I've been happy with this 2011 model MacBook Pro.  I used OWC's great Data Doubler bracket, which allowed me to put in two laptop-sized hard drives in the laptop.  I had to remove the SuperDrive (DVD writer/reader) to do this, but for the past six months, I've enjoyed having a lightning-fast Samsung 250Gb SSD drive along with a pretty huge 1 Tb traditional hard drive, both in my laptop.  The speed of starting up my laptop, along with starting applications, was phenomenal, like having a new machine.  Having such a large hard drive is pretty important to me, as I keep a huge amount of my electronic life on my laptop.   I enjoyed the larger 15" screen when I was traveling, and I could do all my work on this laptop when traveling since all my files were on it (except for my giant photo and video files, which are on separate hard drives in my office).  When I was at home, I hooked this laptop up to a 25" monitor, and I had two screens to do my work on.  It has been a very nice arrangement.  I did not have to try to coordinate changes in documents across multiple machines, since I used the one laptop for just about everything.  The only downside was that this 15" MacBook Pro was pretty heavy at 5.5 pounds. 

Apple has taken my laptop for repair.  I started researching the newer laptops, thinking that I might look into buying a smaller, lighter 13-inch MacBook Pro or MacBook Air.  I was pretty disappointed to learn that Apple's new Macs are increasingly hard-wired so that the user cannot change hard drives or RAM.


Thanks to my old friend Lloyd Chambers (aka Diglloyd) who blogs about technology and photography at macperformanceguide.com, I started seriously considering buying a mid-2012 model 13" MacBook Pro.  Here's why, and here's a guide to buying new Mac laptops from a perspective of a professional photographer who travels a lot, and needs a laptop with over 1Tb of internal storage.

If you want to be able to put in a larger hard drive or larger SSD drive in your Mac laptop, then be aware that you CANNOT swap out hard drives or SSD drives on any current Mac laptop. The last Macbook Pro that allows its hard drive to be replaced (look for an SATA hard drive) is the 2012 MacBook Pro Retina.  The newer MacBook Pros have "PCIe" connected hard drives, which as of today cannot be swapped out. 
If you wish to put in two internal hard drives and/or SSDs into your MacBook Pro, then the last machines where you can do this are the mid-2012 13" MacBook Pro model, and the mid-2012 15" MacBook Pro model.  Look for Mac laptops that have a Superdrive.  The second hard drive will go into this Superdrive slot using an OWC Data Doubler. 
If you want to be able to upgrade RAM yourself after purchasing a Mac laptop, then none of the current models allow you to upgrade RAM (the RAM modules are soldered in place).  Here's what the awesome EveryMac.com site says:


The now discontinued 13-Inch "Late 2012" and "Early 2013" MacBook Pro models could not be upgraded beyond the stock 8 GB of RAM, period, either at the time of purchase or otherwise.


All current "Late 2013" MacBook Pro models -- regardless of display size -- can be upgraded to 16 GB of RAM at the time of purchase. EveryMac.com would strongly recommend upgrading to 16 GB of RAM at the time of purchase, if at all possible, to prolong the usable life of the notebook.

If having the ability to upgrade the RAM yourself after purchase is important to you, you might instead prefer to buy a traditional 13-Inch or 15-Inch "Mid-2012" MacBook Pro model -- which actually are capable of supporting 16 GB of RAM regardless of display size -- or alternately, you might even feel compelled to purchase a notebook from a company other than Apple.  


I am pretty bummed.  I placed an order for a  "Mid-2012" MacBook Pro model after doing the above research.  I am forced to buy a two-year-old machine because I wish to have internal hard drive/SSD capacity of more than 1 Tb.  Sure, I could buy a newer machine, buy tons of RAM initially, and carry around an external hard drive for all my files -- but this is not a good solution.  I've been doing just this the past two weeks -- carrying around an external hard drive for all my files and working on a temporarly laptop while Apple repairs my old laptop -- and it is a pain in the butt, especially if you are traveling a lot.  

I don't want to come off as an Apple-hater, but it really seems that Apple has forsaken the pro community -- which carried them through Apple's dark days in the late 1990s -- in favor of the mass consumer. 

They pretty much killed Final Cut Pro. I am buying a 2-year-old laptop because their new machines won't allow me to put in RAM or a second hard drive, or even put in a large SSD drive of my own. They're faster, sure, but I have a 1Tb hard drive and a 250Gb SSD drive on my 3-year-old laptop and am super happy with it, except it is heavy and does not have USB3, and just died on me.