Archive | Consumer Products RSS feed for this section

Product Review: Verismo V by Starbucks

Competing with Mr. Coffee, Keurig and other home coffee machines, Starbucks launched its Verismo (pronounced vurr-izmo like ‘gizmo’ preceded by the ‘ver’ as ‘vurr’) a few years ago. Read my positive review here. This fall, the food, beverage and lifestyle company, whose innovative CEO Howard Schultz stepped down this week, introduced a new version of the machine.

Verismo V, as the new name goes, is improved.

VerismoV1

Starbucks’ Verismo V

Better yet from the consumer’s perspective, they keep a similar price range ($129-$179), though it’s currently on sale for $99, which comes with a variety pack or your choice of a box of a dozen coffee pods (a limited line compared to Keurig, which also carries Starbucks coffees, including milk-based, espresso and brewed beverages). It’s available with a milk frother, but I already own one of those.

First, the negatives, and there are a couple. The new detachable water tank, unlike the original machine’s tank, drips upon detachment, so, when you refill it with water, expect leakage on the way back to the machine (I haven’t figured out if it’s possible to stop that yet). I’m filling it without removing the container. Also, and it’s not that big of a problem, Verismo V is larger and takes up more space.

Product design enhancements outweigh the negatives, however, and make up for inconvenience. For example, the water tank, previously located in the back of the machine, goes on the side. It’s measurably larger, too, so a couple drinking a cup or two in the morning won’t have to refill the tank as often and can probably go a few days without refilling. It’s more accessible than before, too, with a simple lid, which easily fits into place. The other version’s water container was tucked into the back of the machine, which was a minor hassle.

The cup/drip tray is also removable, only it’s made of sturdier materials—especially the black metal cup holder, which is separable—and now it’s made to magnetically lock into one of two places to accommodate different cup sizes (and it’s easy to detach the parts completely to make room for a travel mug or tall glass). Rather than an indented spot for the cup as in the previous version, the new Verismo coffeemaker curves the opposite way (outwardly, not inwardly), which takes getting used to. The lever feels thicker, there are more buttons allowing more brewing choices—but not too many—on top and Verismo V is observably quieter when brewing coffee. Beverages (you can use the machine as a hot water dispenser for tea and hot chocolate, of course) are as hot as or hotter than before.

Other improvements include the ability to stop any brewing with the touch of any button and an ability—this is new—to program up to four custom dispensing settings, which Verismo V retains, so two people can have their own separate preferences pre-programmed like car seat positions. In the short time I’ve been using Verismo V, a used pod didn’t drop into the detachable container just once, so that’s still a factor, but at least the space for spent pods is larger. There’s still a small discharge of water after the rinse cycle but splatter has been reduced, so the protruding brew spout is more precise.

Verismo V by Starbucks

Verismo V by Starbucks

After set-up, here’s how Verismo works: fill the water container, power up the machine and place a cup on the tray. Wait for go signal (steady not blinking lights), pull the black metal lever down in one swift motion without a pod inserted, run a short rinse, empty the dispensed water and repeat with a cup after inserting a brewed, espresso and/or latte pod this time. Note that, unless you’re using the programmed settings, you’ll have to manually press any button to stop the brewing process or else the brewing does not stop and the cup will overfill. Verismo V still lasts a few minutes. Verismo V is a bit faster and commands are more responsive.

Starbucks offers fewer pod choices than Keurig’s line of K-cups, but limited edition blends, such as Christmas, Anniversary and others, are usually available in Verismo pods through Starbucks’ Target and in-grocery-store operations, online and Starbucks retail stores. Buying at Starbucks’ website in higher volume saves money, as pods come in boxes of 12 at about a dollar a pod (they’re not reusable).

Verismo V is for people who want to drink premium coffee at home without making a mess or spending more time, effort and energy than old-fashioned grinding, pressing and brewing. The coffeemaker comes with a good manual, which features set-up, programming, troubleshooting and cleaning and maintenance instructions, and the machine still automatically powers down after five minutes of idle time. For good, fast, convenient premium coffee at home, Verismo V remains an excellent option.


Go here to learn more about (or register your) Verismo V

Review: Starbucks App (2014)

Product Review: Verismo by Starbucks (2014)

Commentary: Starbucks’ Race Together Campaign

Starbucks Story for a Monday

Music Review: ’25’ by Adele (Target Exclusive)

Adele Album 25On Adele’s new album, 25, she howls, she bellows, she wails and I think this vocal approach is why Adele has become one of the bestselling recording artists of our time. I think Adele expresses what millions of Brits and Americans feel these days; an aching, yearning lament for lost innocence.

The songs are good, not exceptional, though some stand out. The 14 tunes on Target’s exclusive extended album version (with three bonus songs) are generally well-crafted melodies and expertly delivered, if overproduced, to accentuate Adele’s primary ability to belt out a tune. 25 is a listenable album.

It’s occasionally enjoyable as well. The songs, even as delivered, are unlikely to be remembered through the ages. Soulful Adele, like so many modern pop singers before her—from U2’s Bono and Sinead O’Connor to Alanis Morissette, Sam Smith and James Blunt, sings of longing and lament. She specializes on this album in conveying anxiety, doubt, fear, pain and guilt—which explains why this collection instantaneously broke records. She’s less tortured here than on previous efforts and, as I observed about the first single, “Hello”, there is resilience in her howling, haunting voice. Breaking voice, rising and falling with lush production from top producers, and evoking rhythm and blues, Bruce Hornsby and a range of styles, 25 has an easy, swaying quality to it. Adele co-writes with others, such as Greg Kurstin, recording the album mostly in London and also in New York, Los Angeles, Stockholm and Prague.

Though I would have preferred to have this album on streaming service through Apple Music, I do recommend Target’s special edition because the three bonus tracks include two of the album’s best songs, the plaintive and looping ballad “Can’t Let Go”—co-written with Linda Perry—and 25‘s most upbeat song, co-written by Adele with Rick Nowels, “Why Do You Love Me”, which has an undeniable, dance floor-friendly hook. This song is also the least melodramatic. Other tracks are a good balance by today’s standards, especially the solemn “Hello”. I suspect that the reason it’s selling four million copies in the first few weeks is that Adele, in voice, tune and mood, captures the tiredness and tension of balancing what one wants with what one wants to guard in the everyday onslaught of today’s darkening world.

In 25, Adele grieves for the loss of innocence while striving to hold on. As she sings in “Can’t Let Go”: “I never lied and I never faded…” Though she sings in past tense, she adds that she won’t let go. Beyond the melodrama of anguish, I think this ability to express perseverance may be what powers her phenomenal success.

Blu-Ray Review: Cinderella

cinderella_2015_blu-ray

Click to Buy

Coming to home video for the first time, the leading contender for the year’s best picture, Cinderella, debuts today on Blu-ray and other formats (read my review here). I reviewed the two-disc Blu-Ray version with digital HD/SD, Blu-ray combo pack & Disney Movies Anywhere (DMA).

The DVD features a short feature on the movie’s animals, such as horses, chickens and mice, and the animated short that preceded Cinderella during its theatrical release, Frozen Fever. The Blu-ray includes these and also the 20-minute A Fairy Tale Comes to Life with brief interviews with major cast members and director Kenneth Branagh, writer Chris Weitz and producers David Baron, Simon Kinberg and Allison Shearmur in addition to other designers and production crew. The feature is alright, though it does not sweep over the whole picture as it should. I do not think Disney appreciates this picture for its full value.

Mr. Branagh himself downplays the film, which caused some controversy among feminists when it was released, as a light and enjoyable indulgence. There is no mention here, too, of the wonderfully romantic score by Patrick Doyle (read my review of the soundtrack here) among the features. A costume bit involves classical music from The Nutcracker which isn’t used in the 105-minute Cinderella.

The best Blu-ray extra—the best of the whole package besides the movie—is the 11-minute Staging the Ball, which breaks down one of the most breathtaking scenes in Cinderella. The two leading actors, Lily James as Cinderella and Richard Madden as the Prince, comport themselves to the palace filmmaking and so does everyone else who comments on the ballroom scenes, with adoring angles, gestures and framing. Relishing details, Kenneth Branagh and company explain every aspect from lighting the candles and building the set on the James Bond lot to the gown’s 10,000 Swarovski crystals and dance rehearsals. James describes the aura as “lightness and elegance” and it is beautifully deconstructed here. An alternate opening, which forges a stronger bond between the farm animals and the girl’s family before the stepmother (Cate Blanchett) moves in, is very good. Disney restricts the rest of Mr. Branagh’s five deleted scenes to its Disney Movies Anywhere exclusive, the code for which is included on the box.

This is a movie to get lost—even become immersed—in, as Walt Disney might say, and those inclined should do so without reservation. Boys and girls alike should see it with the whole family. Cinderella is that good and that rare and unusual among today’s pictures. Its grand, romantic style is suited to its warm, intelligent script. Despite the denial and modesty with which it is presented, Cinderella is lovely, moving and magnificent all at once and its transfer to Blu-ray delights in high-definition.


Click to Buy Cinderella on Blu-Ray

Related links

Movie Review: Cinderella

Music Review: Cinderella soundtrack

Cinderella Coming this Fall to Home Entertainment

Product Review: Verismo by Starbucks

Verismo by StarbucksVerismo (a poorly named product pronounced like ‘gizmo’ preceded by the ‘ver’ as ‘vurr’; vurr-izmo) by Starbucks produces a nicely brewed cup of strong, black coffee.

Bought on sale at a Starbucks near me, and the basic model, pod-based coffeemaker periodically goes on sale for $99, it came with a box of 12 brewed or 12 espresso coffee pods. The instruction manual is well-written, including an easy set-up guide – I’m fairly low-tech and need to read things twice to catch on so I don’t press the wrong button – regular use steps and cleaning guide. I haven’t done the monthly cleaning and maintenance yet and will update accordingly. I like the fact that the machine requires a short cleaning after each idle time. In other words, it shuts down automatically after idle time and then needs a quick cleaning upon startup. This maintains the machine.

I’ve previously used a basic Keurig coffee machine, which I think clogs more easily. In my experience, Keurig customer service is awful. With Verismo, I’m taking any problems to my nearest Starbucks. So far, I’ve found (and Verismo may prove to be a hassle, too) Verismo design superior to Keurig. It’s true that Verismo has fewer pod options than the Keurig-based line of variously branded K-cups (including a wider selection of Starbucks’ own K-cups). But convenience is a plus for me and I am happy with the dark roast choices. Still, I hope they add the French Roast as a brewed pod. Verismo also offers espresso, Americano and milk pod for latte options that lack with the other machines. Tea is also possible with Verismo. Pods are pricey, of course. I buy what I like in greater volume on the Starbucks site for price breaks and I also use coupons, specials, deals and other coffee products such as Starbucks’ Via and free in-store refills with my gold card through Starbucks Rewards program.

Essentially, after initial set-up, here’s how Verismo works: fill the removable water container, turn on the machine and place a cup on the tray. Wait for go signal, pull the silver lever down in one swift motion without a pod inserted, run a short cleaning discharge, then empty the cup of dispensed water. Replace and repeat after inserting a brewed, espresso and/or latte pod this time. Prepare coffee to taste. Voila, enjoy. The whole thing takes a few minutes tops.

Brewed pods (I’ve tried Verona, Sumatra and Pike Place) require removal of a silver tab on bottom that keeps freshness until ready for brewing while espresso and milk pods are ready to drop right in. Spent pods fall into a separate, removable container upon lifting of the silver lever for next use. Empty the spent pods every so often. If it sounds complicated to new single use pod customers, then Verismo will take getting used to. The process gets easier, though. The biggest advantage besides convenience is easy clean-up. The downside so far? A small discharge of water upon lifting the lever and closing it again and a little splatter. Mostly removable parts make using the machine easier and I like the simplicity. I’ve also used Soft Brew and French press systems and I love those for really strong cups of coffee but they’re a major hassle for prep time and cleaning the used coffee grounds. In this sense, I think machines using pods are a major advancement in coffee production. I prefer Verismo to Keurig.

Taste is excellent, though not as robust as a freshly brewed cup at Starbucks, but close and equal to or better than Starbucks’ K-cups. Some Verismo users complain about coffee not being hot enough and this is not a problem for me. I don’t always accept, let alone like, what Starbucks does (as I wrote here) but Verismo is a fine entry-level product for premium coffee drinkers.

App Review: Starbucks

Starbucks2014AppThough it comes at a premium price, and there are aspects of doing business I don’t like, I choose Starbucks for a conveniently mobile cup of coffee, snack and place to meet and work. The coffee is dark, strong and brewed fresh and there are many choices of beverages. Food is convenient. Cafes are generally clean, well-kept and conducive to writing or story conferences, which makes Starbucks an attractive option. I patronize Starbucks often enough to use the mobile app for payment.

I use both Starbucks’ app on my iPhone and as part of Apple’s Passbook. After loading a dollar amount onto my Starbucks account, I walk up to the cashier, activate my app, place my order and put the device in front of a scanner and that’s it; the transaction is complete and my order has been received and paid for. I get my order after it’s made and, as they say, I’m good to go (or stay). The app calculates how much is left on my account or “card”. When I get enough gold stars for a free salad or coffee, I just inform the cashier and swipe the iPhone app. With my gold card app status, coffee refills are free and I use the app for that, too. The app, which also allows free downloads of games and songs, kept track of my favorite stores and order combinations, items and drinks.

In recent days, Starbucks upgraded the app. The interface is streamlined, though Starbucks has eliminated the personal preferences option, and a tip option is available for the first time for those customers who choose to add a tip to their Starbucks transaction.

Herein lies the app’s problem. The tip amount is pre-designated by Starbucks. There is no free choice; Starbucks provides a few amounts as tip options, starting at 50 cents, and leaves the customer no choice to decide for himself exactly what amount to tip. The lack of control gets worse. In addition to losing the ability to choose, Starbucks has applied the same presumptuous principle to its reloading feature. When the customer goes to reload a dollar amount on the app, such as $25 (the minimum amount is $10), Starbucks smuggles in an auto-reload function that presumes the user wishes to designate that amount for an automatic reload that will automatically charge to one’s credit card every so often. This sneaky feature, which is deceptive at best, is not clearly communicated or disclosed. So when one goes to add the new amount, it’s easy to mistake the auto-reload for a regular reload. One must select ‘Never’ which is not readily apparent as an option.

This is a systemic problem with today’s technology. The default technological position, such as accessing a live operator, is too often designed or intended to discourage or deprive the user free choice and control – look at Facebook – in the name of convenience or automation. As a business model, this makes no sense. Such an approach presumes the customer deficient without evidence, never a good idea unless producing an inherently deficient product, and by diminishing free choice, ultimately chases the loyal customer away. In my case, I attempted to manage the account online without success – discovering another Starbucks flaw on its Web site; the inability to deactivate auto-reload – and had to call customer service to correct the error. Starbucks did ultimately resolve the dispute. The upshot: a loyal customer was given reason to doubt and distrust trading with Starbucks. The app upgrade with the dubious feature backfired, at least as far as I’m concerned. Starbucks app users are hereby forewarned about inadvertently activating automatic reloading. As always in any trade, and especially in an increasingly anti-capitalist society, which discourages good business practices, buyer beware.