Welcome to IRL, an ongoing feature where we talk about the gadgets, apps and toys we're using in real life and take a second look at products that already got the formal review treatment.

IRL Mophie Juice Pack Plus for iPhone 5 and testing Solavei's MVNO

Welcome back, and happy Monday. After a week of getting hands-on with all manner of laptops, we thought we'd spare you our thoughts on Ultrabooks this time around. Tablets, too. Fortunately, we've got lots of other stuff to wax on about, from a battery-packing iPhone case to Solavei's new MVNO, which piggybacks on T-Mobile. Head on past the break to read more.

Mophie Juice Pack Plus for iPhone 5

IRL Mophie Juice Pack Plus for iPhone 5 and testing Solavei's MVNOSo I just got a new phone. The fact that my employer's parent company wasn't offering up an HTC One or Galaxy S 4 is a conversation for another post. Instead, I've called you all here today to discuss cases. I'm clumsy; I'll cop to that. I mean, I've got some redeeming qualities, too, but I'm not above accidentally dropping a handset onto the cold, hard sidewalk while perfectly sober. I did it once to an iPhone 4, and it wasn't pretty. Drop that thing on the right corner and it shatters beyond recognition. For that reason, my last handset spent most of its life cocooned inside an Otterbox -- a big, bulky thing that failed to live up to all that life threw at it.

Naturally, I needed something lined up while my iPhone 5 was still en route, so I could seamlessly transfer the thing from one box to the other, with minimal exposure to the elements. (I was grimacing as the office IT guy slid the handset across a counter to me, scuffing up the shiny back in the process.) Think of it as a sort of decompression chamber, so your phone doesn't get the bends. We had Mophie's latest model lying around the office, so that seemed like a good fit. It's a bit chunky, but not unwieldy, offering sufficient bumpers for those Achilles' corners. Also, unlike much of the current crop of rugged cases, it doesn't look like it belongs on a tool belt. The curvy, matte design isn't as elegant as the phone itself, but it's not half bad to look at.

Really, the whole battery life thing was a bit of a bonus (though if you're going to shell out $120 for it, it really ought to be a priority). That said, I can't remember the last time I made it through a full day on a single charge. Another unexpected bonus to the case: I can now charge up my phone with the far more ubiquitous micro-USB port; always nice when I'm traveling around -- which tends to be most of the time these days. Syncing, on the other hand, still requires iCloud or a Lightning cable, which in turn, demands you pull off the bottom of the case. Easier said than done. The built-in speaker holes are a nice touch too, though the sound comes out more loud than clear. Don't expect to do most of your music listening with this.

All said, the case manages to make up for several of the iPhone 5's shortcomings. Now if only it could help make Gmail my default mail app. That'll have to wait for the next generation, I guess.

-- Brian Heater

Solavei

IRL Mophie Juice Pack Plus for iPhone 5 and Solavei's MVNOIt's a bit of a jungle out there in the world of Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs), and while joining one is usually cost effective in terms of service, getting a decent handset is a whole different matter. There's also the issue that most virtual operators lack LTE support and provide coverage that's often hit-or-miss. As a result, we usually recommend MVNOs built upon AT&T and T-Mobile networks since these accept most unlocked GSM phones and offer "4G" (faux-G) HSPA+ data speeds in populous areas.

Solavei is one such virtual operator. The company uses T-Mobile's EDGE and HSPA+ network (no LTE) and partners with GSM Nation to offer a reasonable selection of AWS-capable, unlocked, unsubsidized handsets -- some older (HTC myTouch 4G and Sensation XE), some newer (Samsung Galaxy S III and iPhone 5). Of course, you're welcome to bring your own unlocked GSM phone as long as it's compatible with T-Mobile's bands (AWS support is recommended for best HSPA+ coverage, but 1900MHz works in re-farmed areas).

Service is month-to-month and contract-free -- $49 a month buys you unlimited nationwide voice, text messaging and data (though you'll get dropped to EDGE speeds after gobbling up 4GB). Additional pay-as-you-go rates are available for international calling. The schtick with Solavei is that for every three people you sign up directly, the MVNO pays you $20 (up to $20K a month, apparently), so referrals are encouraged. Of course, that's no different from businesses like Tupperware and Amway.

I've been using a Solavei device and SIM for several weeks now and it's been a mostly trouble-free experience. Network performance and coverage matches what we've seen on T-Mobile here in San Francisco, with excellent HSPA+ data speeds in most areas (and the same annoying dead zones in some parts, like the Mission District). Ditto outside the city. My demo handset, a Samsung ATIV S running Windows Phone 8, came from GSM Nation and started life as a Telus device (judging by the pre-installed apps).

All told, I tried Solavei's SIM on several phones: some unlocked, some T-Mobile-branded, some AWS-capable, some not. Most picked up the APN settings automatically, and for the rest I just set it manually using T-Mobile defaults. All in all, I'd recommend Solavei as an alternative to T-Mobile's pre-paid service with the caveat that virtual operator Straight Talk offers the same plan on the same network for only $45 per month, minus the referral program, of course. I'll leave you to decide if that last part is for you.

-- Myriam Joire