Poetry #15: Ashes and ember


The flames that shine the brightest

May not last the longest

But the radiance is seldom forgotten

By all those who are beholden

 

You touched the lives of many

In every nook and cranny

With the smile of a thousand suns

That even time cannot outrun

 

Thank you for all the moments

That will stay treasured and golden

There was so much more to say

If only you were to stay

 

A goodbye that wasn’t due

If only this wasn’t true

Shweta, we shall forever remember

Beyond the ashes and ember


Review #64: Samsung Galaxy Buds+ (4-month review) ★★★★✬



I left my previous post in a bit of a cliff-hanger but then things have changed a lot since then. One would imagine being stuck at home would offer better opportunities to engage in one's passion but quite the opposite turns out to be true. 2020 hasn't been an easy ride and no one could have seen what's coming, but that's the story of life, our life.

To pick up from where I left off nearly 4 months ago, I did pick up an alternative in the week following my previous post and the choice is reflected in the title of the post. You might recollect that it was a balance between price and quality for me and in that essence, the Buds+ hit it out of the park, provided you pick it up at the right price.

While even the renewed Jabra Elite 75t was priced at 10.3k INR ($138), I picked up the brand-new Buds+ at 8.5k INR ($114) and it is now priced even lower at 8.2k INR ($110). Granted you will have to find the means to pick it up from Samsung's corporate portal rather than the consumer one, but at that price, you can easily see why it makes a really compelling option. It is rare to have electronic items priced lower in India than in US, so it is good on Samsung to offer it at such a competitive price, albeit hidden from most consumers.


I picked up the blue variant simply on account of it not existing in the previous version. I am not particularly picky about colours, but this shade turns out to be quite "cool". There are new colour variants being released all the time, so you may have a personal preference but at release, this one was the only option if you didn't want to go with the non-colour black and white options.

The packaging is pretty standard by now for most true wireless earbuds but Samsung gets most of it right, starting with the USB Type-C support for the case. Speaking of the case, it is much smaller than what you might get with competitors and light at about 39g which was possible simply because Samsung managed to pack incredible battery life within the earbuds itself as against having multiple recharges provided by the case. 


There are 3 sizes of tips provided along with hooks and a Type-C cable. I had to go with the largest tips eventually to get a good fit and passive isolation, but it gets the job done. It may support one of the Comply foam tips if you prefer those, but I couldn't use my MA650 Wireless tips even though they were a much better fit, for the reason that the buds wouldn't fit in the case with those attached. A real bummer! Apart from the tips, the wingtips offer the extension required to lock the buds in place. I can see this to be a godsend for some people but it never worked for me. I get a snug fit in my right ear and a loose one in my left which irritates me to no end, but I guess you can't change your ears to suit devices and I wouldn't like to know about it if it's possible. Thankfully, the buds themselves are quite light at little over 6g as otherwise it would have been a hard time walking or running with them.


Going back to the point on battery life, the Buds+ boasts 11 hours of device battery life. That is a tall claim and one that I am inclined to believe based on anecdotal evidence as it is nigh impossible to have a 11-hour listening session. However, I went through a complete workday having the buds in ear or lying about and finished the day with 55% battery life with office calls and some music thrown in. The battery capacity figures are indicated above, and basic maths would indicate that the case offers a bit over a single charge, hence Samsung's claims of 22 hours listening time in total. 


The case itself has a multi-coloured charging indicator inside for the buds on the inside and the case on the outside which does a good job of indicating if the buds are being charged as well as the battery life of the case itself going from green to orange to red. Wireless charging support would also come in handy in case of emergencies if your phone happens to support the same which sadly isn't the case for my 7T.


One thing that has been consistent is Samsung's rate of updating the software which is good to see. The above screenshot on the left indicates the first update I downloaded straight out of the box and the second one indicates the latest update which happens to be the fourth one in 3 months since purchase, so a decent clip. A lot of the initial updates were focused on ambient noise and the latest ones have moved more towards stability. Even so, features have been added with time and the latest one is the seamless device connection, or at least the option to toggle it off which would come in handy when devices are fighting to take control over your buds, as is the case with Windows.


The "Labs" section is another one to access experimental features that Samsung feels is not ready for prime time. However, I found the edge double to be most useful, not for taping on the edge for volume control but rather the base of my ear and it works surprisingly well. The detection is done using the accelerometer, so it doesn't matter how you activate it. This gives rise to the possibility that some people might activate it by sudden ear movements, but it has been pretty flawless and convenient for me.



Continuing with the app interface, the above image is of the main page of the app and it gives an overview of all the available settings. The most visible change has been to the battery indicator where I have observed the battery life indicator being switched from displaying the individual level to a combined one. It is obvious that both buds may not have the same life based on connectivity and usage, so the individual bud display was better in that sense but I am pretty sure that a lot of people would have complained about the asymmetrical battery life as being a device issue and hence now we are probably looking at lower of the two battery lives which limits information as far as single bud usage is concerned. Unlike the 75t which uses a master-slave (leader-follower?) combination, the Buds+ is capable of being used independently and hence it is odder still that Samsung moved to a combined battery life indicator.

Apart from that there is a simple 6 preset equaliser present and I would have instead preferred at least a 5-band equaliser that is provided by Jabra. This limits the tweaking ability and I would assume a lot of people would go for the Bass boost option because this set is far from being as bass heavy as the Jabra Elite 75t. The other options are unlikely to be used much apart from probably the Touchpad one.


One might have expected more customization from a section dedicated to the Touchpad but only the touch and hold option is customizable out of which 'Ambient sound' is a must-have. Rest of the controls are pretty intuitive and doesn't take much time to getting used to. The Lock touchpad comes in handy when dozing off and I admit to making use of it a couple of times to good effect. Overall, having a capacitive touchpad is better than having to press physical buttons and +1 (see what I did there?) to Samsung for that.

I believe I have covered everything apart from the audio until now and a lot of people would chastise me for beating around the bush. However, sometimes it is best to keep the best for the last. To prevent any confusion, I am not talking about the audio being the best in its category but rather the best aspect of the device itself. It really holds up well for what it is. By that, I would like to clarify that it isn't at the same level as the Jabra Elite 75t but close to it. It can't punch bass to the same extent as the 75t and it has a smaller soundstage but otherwise the clarity is quite good. I am putting this in perspective of my use case which is using this on the move and in such instances, the higher audio quality doesn't matter much as I would altogether put down wireless buds if I am to enjoy the audio. Also, Samsung has significantly improved the microphone quality from its previous iteration by including 3 sets of it and it also does a good job when using the 'Ambient Noise' feature which I believe is a must-have for any TWS earbuds. On the flip side, the microphones are too sensitive and pick up the ambience to a great extent which is a shame as the passive isolation from the earbuds is quite good and the wearer is oblivious to the noise others complain about, unless 'Ambient Noise' is enabled in calls and even then you cannot do anything about it rather than apologise to the listener.

To address the elephant in the room, the Buds+ don't have any kind of aptX support. You will have to rely on AAC for most devices and that isn't a great option for Android. While the audio quality is still decent, the latency is atrocious for apps that are not tuned to synchronise the video as per the latency. Also, Windows does not support AAC and it means falling back on SBC which makes things even worse. Samsung's variable audio codec might be a good alternative to aptX but with it being limited to only Samsung devices, it isn't going to be a smooth ride for those who wish to use the Buds+ for everything. However, my use cases mainly involve music and watching video on apps that are designed to synchronise the video with the audio, so it hasn't been much of an issue. Also, while Spotify might sound poor with AAC and SBC, my music collection is mainly in FLAC and the AAC stream of it gets the job done when on the move.

To round it off, getting 90-95% of the performance of the 75t at just above 50% of the cost is too good to pass. You will lose the water and dust protection with the Buds+ only being classified as IPX2 and the audio quality is again a notch down from the 75t, but something that isn't going to be an issue when on the move. The battery life is phenomenal, and the look, feel and fit are much better than the 75t. It boils down to your use case and if it is about having a great set of wireless buds on the move, then this fits the bill perfectly. If you are someone transfixed with audio quality and active noise cancellation, this one isn't going to float your boat. But for the value conscious, there simply isn't a better option from a reputed company that cares to update its device beyond the initial purchase.

Review #63: Jabra Elite 75t True Wireless Earbuds (Amazon Renewed) ★★★★☆



This is the first time I purchased an Amazon Renewed product and trying out this service was at the back of my mind for quite some time. However, the primary reason was my lack of conviction in keeping the product and I didn't wish to create another open-box product just for the sake of it. The hesitation was borne out of the fact that I wasn't sure of the switch to True Wireless earbuds, with my RHA MA650 having served me well for over 2 years for my primary use case, which happens to be commute and office dreariness.

The item was priced at a 20% discount to the MRP of INR 14,999 which still seems a high price to pay considering the fact that you don't really know the condition of the product. With some bank discounts, I spent about 10.3k on the product, which was more palatable, but ideally the price should be around this mark anyway prior to any bank discounts.

The box was in fairly good condition but the signs of it being already being unboxed were pretty visible with the top cover being ripped off and the bottom being sealed with a fresh line of tape. Inside, all the contents were present as expected, though I later heard from the person doing the return pick-up that a lot of people tend to nick off the Type C cable, which does reduce my faith in humanity a bit. While the alternate tips were still sealed, the applied tips didn't look completely pristine and I took the precaution of cleaning them with rubbing alcohol. I am not sure about the reconditing checks touted on the Amazon website considering this and the fact that the buds were already on and displaying the low battery indicator on unboxing. The carry case had about 40% charge and in all it seems that the buds were at least used for a few days prior to return.


Coming to the product itself, the buds are quite light at about 5.5g each and didn't weigh heavy on the ear. The fit was quite good and the passive noise isolation was excellent, especially with music playing in the background. However, what takes the cake is the Hearthrough mode which allows ambient sound to stream in without much lag and is a godsend when walking around busy streets. It goes well with music at medium volume and made me realise that this is a feature I cannot do without on any true wireless earbuds.

Coming to the audio quality, the immediate thing that hits you is the bass. These earbuds are bass heavy by default but there is a way around it as the companion Jabra Sound+ app allows you to set a 5-band equaliser and turning down the base was my personal preference. Apart from that, the mids and the highs do well though I wouldn't say they were any better than the much cheaper MA650 wireless earphones I have been using on commute. That said, the quality is good for its size but then the sound stage is quite poor and is perhaps expected. The mics though are pretty good as borne by the passthrough and the call quality was more than passable. The battery life on the other hand wasn't exceptional and it would not be possible to go through a day without putting it in the case for charging when not using it.

At the end of the day (literally), I returned the earbuds primarily because it didn't seem to be worth its price in terms of audio quality. The convenience of it was undoubtedly remarkable but then that would apply to nearly all true wireless earbuds. I am not looking at ultimate sound quality because my use case for this is limited to commute, office and exercising. I prefer over-the-ear wired cans to this at my home when I really want to enjoy the music. My first experience of TWS earbuds has indicated that there is a specific use case for it, and I am certainly intent on picking up a pair soon, provided there is a better balance between the feature-set and the price.


Tutorial #23: Taming the beast (Dell XPS 7590 Core i9)


One of the significant purchases I made over the past 6 months is the Dell XPS 7590 with Intel's Coffee Lake Core i9-9980HK, Samsung's 32 GB DDR4-2667 RAM, Toshiba's 1 TB SSD, Nvidia's GTX 1650 and the crème de la crème that is the 4K OLED panel made by Samsung. But before you get any ideas, this is not a device that I would have otherwise purchased but for the fact that I found a single piece listed on Amazon 2 days prior to its official launch of the device at a price that was lesser than the 2019 Acer Helios 300. The risk was worth it as it came sealed with a valid 12-month Premium Plus support from Dell. There are instances in one's life where one doesn't mind getting lucky and this was certainly one of those.

Normally, I would be prompt in reviewing devices within the first few weeks of purchase. However, in this case I think I am too biased towards the device to perhaps put up a worthwhile review. Hence, I thought it better to post a tutorial that would be of some assistance to fellow users. One thing that I am certain of is that the hardware has outgrown the XPS chassis design over the years and the Core i9 pushes things a bit too far in terms of what the chassis is capable of handling thermally. Hence, I went on an optimisation quest with the intention of lowering the temperatures and increasing the overall efficiency of the device. I will own up to the fact that I don't intend to use the device on battery at all unless I am forced to but for that eventuality I decided to find a compromise which would at least provide stock performance at lower battery consumption as against higher performance when operating directly on AC.

The tool of choice in this case for the CPU is Throttlestop which offers significantly more tweaking potential than Intel's Extreme Tuning utility. As for the GPU, the mainstream tool to use is MSI Afterburner. However, in case of this GPU, I found that the temperature limit setting on MSI AB was locked for some reason even after unlocking all the advanced options and the Auto Overclocker resulted in far too frequent game crashes. Hence, I instead went ahead with Asus GPU Tweak II which allowed the GPU temperature target to be set upfront. By default, this is set to 75 Celsius and I instead bumped it to the stock value of GTX 1650 which is 87 Celsius. However, the idea in general is to still not exceed 75 Celsius during most strenuous tasks but to provide the headroom to exceed that if needed.

With this background, in the interest of time, I have decided to simply post the screenshots of the various screens from the tools since further elaboration on each parameter can be found on their respective forums. In case of the GPU, I eventually stuck with simply pushing up the clocks by 10% as undervolting using the frequency curve resulted in far too many instability issues. Is this the most optimum setting possible, most probably not. However, I believe this is the best setting I could identify with trial and error, as attested by the 88 unexpected reboots on record. I could certainly push the clocks and voltages quite a bit more but in general it led to instability and I am certainly no fan of BSODs. Another point to note is that while Asus GPU Tweak II can be set to start on reboot, Throttlestop requires additional effort in setting up the task scheduler which is what I have indicated below.

Starting Throttlestop on Login:

Throttlestop settings for AC profile:

Throttlestop settings for Battery profile:

Now to focus on the fruits of the labour or the pudding so to say. I am not a fan of benchmarks in general but in this case, I needed something to comparatively measure the impact of the changes and a few basic benchmarks provide the easiest reference in this case. Note that I ran all the benchmarks with only the discrete GPU enabled with the overclock settings, so it represents the worst possible scenario in case of thermals.

UserBenchmark:
This might not be the first benchmark utility that springs to mind but for the fact that it allows comparative analysis for similar hardware components and is of considerably short duration. In this case, the CPU came up at 97th percentile and the GPU at 100% percentile which, considering the fact that is mostly going up against much bulkier gaming laptops with much better thermals, is noteworthy. Overall, the CPU efficiency is excellent with the tweaks providing higher performance at lower power. The discrete GPU however doesn't scale up in terms of efficiency and while it is possible to get more performance out of it, it comes at a significant cost in terms of power and heat.

Cinebench:
Cinebench really pushes the CPU and is thus a good test of its ultimate performance. A sequence of 2 consecutive runs also pushes the CPU to its thermal limits. Not surprisingly then, the 1st run score of 3684 is more than 20% better than stock and even the 2nd consecutive run scores better than the stock settings with lower average temperatures.

Heaven:
This benchmark was run at the Extreme preset. As I have already mentioned previously, pushing the GPU doesn't really yield huge benefits in this constrained form factor as the any performance benefits come with equally higher power consumption and heat generation. However, as can be seen in the results, a 3% performance boost in Heaven comes with lower CPU temperatures and the GPU power consumption is lower even though it hasn't been undervolted. So, a win-win overall.

Lastly, how do these modifications fare with a modern game. I happen to have Hitman 2 installed at present, so I thought I'd give it a go with the in-built benchmarks which I frankly didn't find to be entirely consistent across different runs. But I believe it should give at least give an idea of what the laptop is now capable of, even though it is not meant to be a gaming laptop.
I set all the details to the maximum possible apart from lowering it a notch to 'High' for 'Level of Detail', 'SSAO' and 'Shadow Quality', besides turning 'Motion Blur' to 'Off'. The Mumbai benchmark produced a score of 70.95 FPS with CPU averaging at 79C and the GPU at 70C. The more demanding Miami benchmark chewed out 54.04 FPS with CPU/GPU temperatures averaging at 78C/69C respectively. A more than serviceable gaming machine if I may say so.

Sundry #14: 2020


I am alive, thank you for (not) asking. A single month hadn't passed by without a post until October of last year. The hiatus was brought about not due to a writer's block but it was simply a case of life any my arch nemesis time speeding by me. Anyway, can't wait to get going again as there are no shortage of topics to write about, just time.

You might have already observed a few minor changes if you have visited the site before. As the first change in this new decade, I have decided to drop ads from the blog, simply because I haven't earned a cent from them since their inclusion, on account of never crossing the minimum threshold. I suppose I was only filling up Google's coffers, so it makes sense to drop them altogether in favour of a better experience.

Also, since I post in dribs and drabs, I thought it would be good to have somthing that self-updates and thus, the news widget. Now you can be informed in more ways than one, though I suppose that really wouldn't be the reason to visit this blog.

I suppose I shall now take your leave and probably conjure up a topic worth reading over the next few days.

Musing #72: R.I.P. A50

Over the past few months, I had made multiple posts on the Samsung Galaxy A50, be it a short review, initial analysis of the super slow-mo or a guide about making the most of the mid-range hardware. Unfortunately, all average (good-ish?) things come to an end and in this case in ended with my A50 being lost. The driver of the vehicle in which the phone was left behind gave me some hope in picking up my call, but what followed left me with a little less faith in humanity.

However, life goes on and move on I have. At the same time, I have no emotional attachment to any material possession, so this post is not an eulogy on the A50 but rather a short post on what can be done to make the most of the situation where the phone is lost.

Samsung puts a fair amount of bloatware on its phones but one piece of software that is genuinely useful is "Find My Mobile". This feature is markedly better than what is offered by Google and there are several options for dealing with the lost device besides simply tracking it like erasing the device, ringing it, retrieving recent calls/messages and extending the battery life. Unfortunately, my trust in the driver led me to not immediately open the tracker which in turn ensured that the device was never again switched on with my account activated.


With the horse having bolted from the barn, there can be some solace found in rendering the device useless, well, as a phone at least. The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) in India launched the Central Equipment Identity Register (CEIR) earlier this month which is supposed to make the blocking of the lost phone as easy as snapping of fingers.

Unfortunately, as with any government initiative, things sound much better on paper and on websites than in reality. I went through the process of lodging a police complaint at the place where the phone was lost with the expectation of making the most of this lifeline afforded by the DoT in terms of being able to take some action on the lost device. As it turns out, while the website correctly verifies the IMEI using the dedicated tool, the form itself fails to submit with the error stating the absence of data for the IMEI. A really shoddy implementation by C-DOT backed by an equally appalling lack of response on social media. I would still give them the benefit of the doubt considering it has been launched as a pilot project, but hope they would be inclined to fix the website eventually.

Even every misfortune is worth the experience and I would say this is a lesson well learnt. A bit more practicality over trust in humanity might have saved the day. Hopefully, this post would equip you to better handle such a scenario in a far better manner than I did. See you until my next mobile adventure.

Tutorial #22: Optimal performance from the Samsung Galaxy A50 (or any mid-range device)


The demands from the hardware have arisen significantly with every passing year, which is only made worse by manufacturer-specific UIs adding an extra layer of cruft. While hardware capabilities increase demonstrably every year, the software demands more than negate the gains and ensure that even last year's flagship is not a safe bet anymore. However, not everyone needs the latest flagship device or wants to spend a small fortune for the extra processing power.

As I touched upon previously, my primary reason for getting the A50 was the large OLED screen. With gaming on the mobile out of the picture, all I really wanted was to not have a horrible user experience which becomes part and parcel of any mid-range device over time. Mi devices are most offending in that respect with MIUI but Samsung hasn't won itself any honors by bundling lots of promoted apps, some uninstallable, coupled with a Samsung Pay Mini card that interferes with the gesture system.

While adb commands offer a fair degree of control over the device, I prefer to root the device when possible to be able to customise it just that bit better with lesser hassles. The Samsung A50 has perhaps the unintended benefit of being able to boot into the rooted as well as the unrooted system at any point of time which kind of ensure the best of both worlds, if you are not looking to use rooted apps all the time.

With this, I present a step-by-step guide to setting up the device to run like it does when brand new, only better because of the uninstallation of all the bloatware. While it wouldn't make any of games run any faster than what the hardware allows it to, what it does is ensure that the phone is running optimally at any point of time, so no memory-hogs or sudden slow-downs or battery-drains.

1. Rooting the device (optional)

First the disclaimer. Rooting the A50 trips the Knox bit, so you are immediately foregoing device warranty as well as the ability to use any Knox-secured apps like Secure folder and Samsung Pass, though you can still run some Samsung apps like Pay Mini and Health.

For this, I will simply point you to John Wu's excellent tutorial. It has worked with every firmware released till date and allows you to upgrade to every new release while retaining your data, the downside being that you will have to download the entire firmware to do so as OTAs are no-go.

Also, as I mentioned previously, the peculiar partitioning and button combination allows one to boot in to either the rooted or the unrooted system. I personally prefer optimising the system in root mode but don't run it as daily driver as it has issues with WiFi disconnections and random reboots. However, the changes are carried over just fine to the unrooted system which is rock stable and has not rebooted randomly on me till date.

2. Installing Island and making it device admin

Island makes use of the 'Android for Work' feature to create a separate work profile for which it, and consequently you, are the admin. It can be made the device admin without root access provided you delete all other user accounts and make it the admin using adb commands. There is also the option of God Mode which essentially allows Island to control the Mainland apps.

3. Installing Greenify

However, Island by itself doesn't have a background service and it utilises Greenify for that purpose, unsurprisingly from the same developer. While Greenify can normally hibernate apps using Android Doze, the integration with Island takes it to the next level.

4. Deep Hibernation
The easiest way to ensure that apps undergo deep hibernation is to select the 'Auto-freeze with Greenify' option from within Island. This directly adds the app to the "Hibernation list" in Greenify with the 'Deep Hibernation (by Island)' option enabled. Alternately, one can manually add the app within Greenify and then select the same hibernation option.

5. Create 'Unfreeze' shortcut
Subsequent to selecting an app for Deep Hibernation within Island as mentioned in the previous step, it is a good idea to immediately select the 'Create Unfreeze & Launch Shortcut' option which does what it says. It allows you to directly launch the hibernated app but requires you to maintain the shortcut on the homescreen, iOS-style.

6. Create Hibernation Shortcut
Lastly, I would suggest selecting the 'Create Hibernation Shortcut' from the Greenify menu. This places a "Hibernate" shortcut on the home screen, selecting which immediately freezes all the apps for which 'Deep Hibernation (by Island)' has been selected while also queuing up for normal hibernation any other apps you might have selected within Greenify.

7. Profit
The screenshot above indicates my app drawer post-hibernation and as you can see, the "all-time" enabled apps don't even cover a single drawer page (the folders only contain about 4 apps each). At the end of the day, you really don't need Maps or Uber running all the time in the background and tracking your location while draining the battery. Another illustration is the immediate memory consumption which in this example goes from 951 MB free to 1.2 GB free, just by hibernating the currently running apps. The interface fluidity and memory consumption is certainly much better by having only a limited number of running apps at any point of time.
The other benefit is that you can run dual instances of nearly every app, independently within Mainland and Island. A tip over here - it is recommended to create a separate folder (or tab) within your launcher in which you can retain the Island apps that you wouldn't like to be frozen like the duplicates of Play Store or VPN apps. It simply makes the launcher look cleaner and perhaps helps prevent confusion in case the padlock symbol against the Island app icons doesn't work for you.

8. Loss

The only downside I have seen is that the apps don't come up for update on the Play Store unless they are enabled, so be sure to check the Play Store for updates every now and then. Also, as I mentioned previously, the hibernated apps altogether disappear from the launcher and don't reappear within the folder you might have assigned to them, as they are effectively seen as new apps by the launcher on every "unhibernation", though the app data is retained. Hence, the recommendation to create the unfreeze shortcuts on the home screen.

9. Conclusion

There can be some paranoia over having an app become the device admin, especially coming from China. However, I have previously interacted with the app developer over email and have found him to be polite while immediately addressing the issues reported by me.

If you simply want the benefits of an independent work profile, you can use the Test DPC app which allows you full control over the work profile as an admin. You can also use the open-source equivalent of Island known as Shelter.

However, neither of the apps integrate with Greenify like Island and neither are able to create a work profile when the Knox bit is tripped. Hence, in my case, it is the only feasible option to keep rogue Android apps in check. In case you feel differently or have any queries, feel free to drop a comment below and I shall do my best to address the same.

Review #62: Anne Pro II ★★★★✬


This is my first instance of writing a review of a product while using it to write the review. Having said so, this is the best experience I have had yet of the process of typing it out. Considering that I have been resigned to membrane keyboard until now and this happens to be my first mechanical keyboard, I would mostly like to recount my experience of using it rather than draw comparisons that I am ill-equipped to do.

Package:

Disregarding the fact that I received the product in a beaten-up box, the item itself was well packaged and the accessories included a red-themed Type-C cable along with a keycap puller and blank CMYK PBT keycaps to allow for some customisation. A good package for a budget keyboard.


Setup:

The first time around, the keyboard simply didn't power up due to the orientation of the cable which was extremely odd considering it came with a Type-C cable. However, I am pleased to inform that the issue has since been resolved with a firmware update, which is one of the positives of having a smart keyboard. Another quirk I encountered, that still exists, is that the keyboard would work properly only with some and not all the USB 2.0 ports on my motherboard.

Considering the bugs I encountered with the shipped firmware, I would recommend making the software setup part of the initial keyboard setup. The Obinslab Starter software for Linux, Mac and Windows can be downloaded from here. The firmware section is divided in to 3 distinct sections - Application Processor, Light Processor and Bluetooth processor. Mine came shipped with v2.06 for the first two and v0.06 for the latter. At the time of writing, the last firmware update was released on May 20, 2019 whose versioning is at 2.09 for Application/Light Processor and 1.00 for the Bluetooth Processor.


Product:

The first and foremost question about any mechanical keyboard is about the switches being used. Since I was looking specifically for a general-purpose keyboard, I had long decided to go with Brown switches rather than Red or Blue. The next logical question is about the brand and as ridiculous as it may sound, I decided to go with the default Gateron switches based on price alone. The preference for Cherry MX switches and its clones varies on an individual basis, so for my first mechanical keyboard, I chose to keep it simple, especially as I didn't have the means of comparing them. For those inquisitive, the Kailh variant commanded a premium of a little over 10% while the Cherry MX were dearer by 25%.

The first thing that hits you on picking up the keyboard is its weight. It comes it at about 630g which feels comparable for a keyboard of this size. Prior to this, I was using the Apple Wireless Keyboard, so you can ascertain where I am coming from. That is another reason why the 60% layout didn't come as much of a shock to me than would have been the case had I been using a full-layout keyboard. For the record, I was using a G105, a feeble attempt at getting a gaming keyboard, prior to switching to the Apple keyboard simply because it wouldn't fit in my new keyboard tray. So, size mattered to me a lot in making the purchase decision.

Having said so, the keyboard doesn't feel cramped by any means. I am not a professional typist, but my typing speed on 10fastfingers went up by about 10% on my first attempt compared to membrane keyboards. The beauty of the keyboard however is in its software which provides 3 levels of modifiers (FN1, FN2, TAP) to effectively quadruple the number of keys while being able to customise it in every conceivable manner. The keycaps are made from 1.2mm thick double-shot PBT plastic which is not meant to fade away with usage, but I will let time be a testament to that.


Lastly, there is the sound of the keys clacking. The sound of the keys are about as light as the force required to actuate them. They are not too disturbing and in a manner quite pleasant to listen to.
Bluetooth:

My idea behind getting this keyboard was to also be able to use it with the increasing range of devices capable of working with Bluetooth keyboards, ranging from mobiles to projectors. The Anne Pro II comes with Bluetooth 4.0 and supports pairing with 4 devices which is huge plus in my opinion. Pairing can be invoked by long-pressing the first 4 number keys along with FN2 while short-pressing the same key combo engages that specific pairing. I couldn't find any means of exiting the pairing process prematurely which can be a bummer if you happen to engage it erroneously.

Thoughtfully, the Anne Pro II contains a Bluetooth switch on the back which should be useful in conserving the 1900 mAh battery that the keyboard comes with. However, even with the latest firmware, I encountered a bug where Windows failed to detect the keyboard in wired mode until the Bluetooth switch was turned off, which I hope is fixed in a future update.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the keyboard requires a Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy dongle. So, if you happen to have an old BL 4.0 non-LE dongle like I have, then using the keyboard with the desktop in wireless mode is a no-go. Another limitation of using the keyboard in Bluetooth mode is that the animated lighting effects like Rainbow are not supported, presumably to conserve battery life.

Lighting:

A major draw of the keyboard is its customisable backlighting. The keyboard features the following hardware combination to play with the lighting effects.

FN2 + 9 = Switch Light Effect
FN2 + 0 = Turn Backlight On/Off
FN2 + - = Reduce Backlight Brightness
FN2 + + = Increase Backlight Brightness

I found the Rainbow effect to be the most pleasing among the stock options, though further customisation can be done through the 'Light' section of Obinslab Starter.

Software:

I have already covered the 'Firmware Upgrade', 'Layout', 'Light' sections in earlier parts of the review which is where most of the action is. However, apart from those sections, you can also access 'General Information' about the keyboard and set up 'Macros' which can be extremely powerful depending on your use case.


Price:

The decision to get this keyboard would depend a lot on the price you can get it for. It is normally listed at $80 and at that price, it may not be as much value for money as you might expect it to be. I managed to snag it for $66 during an AliExpress sale and that price seems to be more befitting of the product. So, it might make sense to hold out for a sale whenever possible to make this more of a value purchase.

Conclusion:

The Anne Pro II is an ideal beginner's mechanical keyboard after factoring in the price, features and portability. Cheaper keyboards come with no-name brand switches while comparable ones come at a significant premium. If nothing else, the keyboard is pure value for money and preferable to purchasing portable, membrane-based Bluetooth keyboards.

P.S.: Till the time the default browser fonts start supporting the half-star, I have decided to improvise with the 'Black Center White Star' as a proxy for it.

Musing #71: Samsung Galaxy A50 Super Slow-Mo and Night Mode


A little over 24 hours ago, Samsung introduced the Super Slow-Mo and Night modes to the Galaxy A50. While Samsung does an impressive job with camera improvements on flagship devices, I had my expectations pared down for the A50.

With all reviews down and dusted for the device at the time of its launch, it is unlikely that anyone other that someone who owns the device would test these features on a short notice. Hence, here I am with this post.

Super Slow-Mo Mode:

The A50 had a Slow Motion mode since launch. That mode recorded 720p video at 240 frames per second and played it back at the same rate. Hence, the super slow-mo mode was a bit of a mystery since there was no official mention of what it comprises of.

The super slow-mo mode in the S9 managed to do 960 FPS for 0.2 seconds. It seemed unlikely that Samsung would push a mid-range device that far even though it has quite a capable chipset. The marketing material mentioned the Exynos 9610 as being capable of recording Full HD at 480 FPS but was unlikely to happen.

The best way to find out what a new mode does is to test it out. Since there is nothing better than watching a (digital) stopwatch in slow motion, that's what I did. The process of recording itself gave no indication to what was actually happening since it would take over 2 secs for the camera to start saving after initiation of recording, with the saving process itself taking longer.

Normally checking the metadata would sort things out, but in this case the output was clasified as a 8m 33s, 30 FPS video; nothing abnormal about it but for the fact that it was supposed to be a super slow motion video. Thankfully, this is where the rather vapid stopwatch came to the rescue.


As can be seen in the video, the actual super slow motion part of the video lasts for about 0.4s, from 0.69s to 1.09s. The video itself  contains 250 frames, so to accommodate 0.4s of super slow motion implies that the recording rate was 480 FPS as it constitutes 192 frames (480 x 0.4). The remaining 58 frames are created courtesy of normal 30 FPS recording preceding and following the super slow-mo part of the recording.

It's great having super slow motion video but to have it at 720p when the chipset is capable of 1080p is a let down. But then, considering the struggles of the sensor to capture light even at 720p, it seems that a 1080p clip might end up being downright unusable. That Samsung has even bothered to add this mode to this device is a huge plus since few would have expected it.

Night Mode:

The clamour for Camera2 API for the A50 has been incessant, if for nothing else, than the ability to use Google's incredible Night Mode. However, it is unlikely that Samsung would ever accede to that demand. Instead, A50 owners get Samsung's take on the Night Mode which was always likely to be somewhat credible rather than incredible.

As always, in matters of camera, it is more apt to let the images do the talking. The rather compressed collage below gives an indication of how the various camera modes deal with extremely low light. It wouldn't take a detective to find out which one is which, so I'd rather take the easy way out of not labelling any of the images. However, for the purpose of verification and lack of astonishment, I have uploaded the original images with rather curt labels at this link.