Review #67: Sony WF-H800 (h.ear) Truly Wireless Headphones ★★★★✯

 The one that got away

When one thinks of Sony True Wireless earbuds, it usually sways towards its flagship devices. As I had made this purchase a couple of months ago, at that time it was the WF-1000XM3, since superseded by the XM4. Sony being Sony, there are even more intuitive alphanumeric codes that comprise the product range. There is the WF-XB700 for those who adore the Extra Bass that comes with the poorer audio quality at the lower price range and then there is the WF-SP800N for those who still can't afford the flagship device but crave ANC, again at the expense of sound quality.

At the time of purchase, I was not interested at all in Sony's range of TWS buds. The XM3 did pique my interest but the size, weight was a huge deterrent in addition to the fact that I am not much of a fan of active noise cancellation. And then came the WF-H800.

You can't blame me for not being aware of this as it seems that it had a limited release only in Asia. Moreover, in India, it is exclusive to Flipkart and only available in black which unfortunately also reduces a lot of the fanfare associated with this model as it is available in pretty interesting shades. But then, you take it as it comes.

At this point, I should introduce the reason for going for a new pair of TWS buds. If you can recollect, you would know that I had posted quite a glowing review of the Samsung Galaxy Buds+ after 4 months of ownership. Turns out it takes even more time to form an informed opinion. Even now, I would give it a 4 out of 5, specifically based on the lower price it is selling for presently. However, it was close to a year of ownership that I had enough of the device. 

The most egregious of the issues with the Buds+ was the fact that one of the buds simply chose to play dead. After a few months of ownership, the left buds started draining much faster than the right to the point where it would reach near-zero while the other one was at around 40%. Slight differences in battery life in terms of pairing and usage is acceptable but this one was anything but slight. This came to a head one day when the left bud simply refused to work and appeared disconnected within the app. Dropping it into the case simply lit up the LED as green indicating it was completely charged. It was only after rummaging through the Samsung forums that I came to know of the solution which was to keep dropping the dead bud into the case till it started kicking again with 1% charge. Samsung's tryst with software is nothing new but yet again, it indicates a lack of finish. This battery issue was coupled with the already irritating ambient noise pickup during calls, poor Bluetooth range and the poor fit which resulted in the buds popping out while walking.

Long story short, I was looking for a new set of buds that first and foremost were light and had a good fit. I didn't know how the H800 would fare when I purchased it but the weight figure was where I placed my trust. Luckily, I wasn't disappointed. If there is anything I adore about these buds, it would be the weight and fit. It is just about as perfect as it can get. Of course, this came at the expense of not having an IP rating (which didn't make it any worse than the Buds+) and the ambient noise feature. I do miss the latter to an extent but it is not a deal breaker because my outdoor ventures with the buds have reduced considerably over the past year and at the same time, wearing these buds outdoors is no different from the wired and neck buds I used in the past when walking on the street. As long as you keep the volume down outdoors, which you should, it doesn't really matter as the ambient noise seeping through is enough to have a complete awareness of the surroundings.

The other headline feature missing from these buds is of course ANC. As I mentioned previously, I am not a fan of it and generally don't need it either. One thing that the H800 does well is turn up to 11 and it absolutely annihilates any ambient noise. I am absolutely at ease with the passive noise isolation that this thing provides.

Besides the fit, the H800 has a few other things going its way with the design. The first one is the inclusion of sensors to auto-pause on removal. This is mighty convenient to quickly get into any conversation that requires your attention and then proceed from where you left off as soon as you are done with the distraction. This feature is often left out at the lower price range and it is good to see it included. The other feature, which I initially thought of as a price-saving measure, but which completely changed my outlook was the inclusion of physical buttons. The Buds+ had the capacitive touch pads which were a nuisance on multiple occasions, mainly when lying down, as head movements would engage the controls inadvertently, not to say you had to push the buds into the ear for the controls. You could lock the controls but then that required management from within the app. On the other hand, I couldn't love the physical buttons enough. They are springy, never miss a touch and also work with non-conductive gloves. The downward location also means that there is little risk of dislocating the buds or conversely pushing them further into the ear. The button customization is a bit limited but does its job with my favoured approach being to assign playback control to the right and volume control to the left.

The other part of the hardware is the case. The case is certainly quite compact but at the same time holds just one complete charge of the buds. It is thoughtfully rounded which indicates that it is to be kept in the pocket rather than the table which is quite practical. On the whole, a total of 16 hours of usage is not a bad price to pay for the all-around lightness and compactness. Also, the case has a red LED indicating the charging process which switches off when fully charged. Unlike the Buds+, the LED indicators for the buds are present on the buds itself which also assists with the pairing process, so yet again, a thoughtful inclusion.

Before moving to the sound, a word on the range. After the struggles with the Buds+, I was pleasantly surprised with the range I could get with the H800. The app has a setting to prioritize sound quality or connectivity. I, of course, always prioritize sound quality but even then it has twice the range of the Buds+ and I can use it across two rooms which is all I can ask for when moving around the house. All in all, the connectivity is extremely solid. It doesn't have multipoint connectivity but switching between iOS, Android and Windows has been anything but difficult as it just requires the device to be selected from the list of paired devices.

And now, for something different. I am of course, speaking of the sound quality. This is where the H800 differentiates itself from the other cheaper options as it doesn't compromise on the sound quality like the others. It makes little sense to compare it directly with the XM3 as it is certainly not XM3 without ANC. But at the same time, it has a distinct sound signature while retaining the quality. By that, I am implying that the sound is clear, full with good separation that makes everything sound really great, certainly better than the Buds+ I used before. Thankfully, the app also includes an equalizer that can be synced with the cloud across devices. Tuning may differ but you can see mine below. It indicates how I perceive the sound to be. While this one doesn't have the "Extra Bass" tagline associated with it, it is still quite punchy for me and hence I have set it flat whereas I feel more of the energy of the song when I raise the mids. The treble is quite strong too but not as overpowering as the bass in my perspective. Overall, it is quite likely that you will love the sound signature out of the box.

It also comes with the other bells and whistles that Sony offers in its higher end devices like DSEE HX and 360 Reality Audio. The former might be useful for upscaling the audio but I have my music encoded to AAC on my mobile devices at the setting used by iOS and thus I feel it adds nothing to the music but at the same time I save battery life by keeping it off. Speaking of AAC, that is the only codec supported along with the default SBC. Works a treat with iOS. Android users might be a bit miffed but quite a bit of the blame has to go to Android's AAC support, though I don't have any issues in using it with my Android tablet. The latter is more of a novelty and the included demo sounds great while the ear shape analysis is quite easy to conduct. However, with limited support by third-party services, it is unlikely that this feature will be of much use, especially considering that Dolby Atmos is more mainstream.

Amidst the discussion on sound quality, usually the microphone quality gets left behind. This one doesn't set the cats amongst the pigeons in any way. It doesn't belie any expectations either. It is what I would "call" on-par with its competitors. The third microphone on the Buds+ just made life more difficult by teleporting me to the middle of the street even when I was at my home. In that respect, the H800 simply presents a broken form of me, something that would fail voice recognition tests but will probably work with humans desperate to hear my voice.

To conclude, it is a bit unfortunate that this pair of buds is lost between the more mainstream options. It probably didn't help that Sony priced this on par with the XM3 at launch. However, I purchased it for the equivalent of $90 when the XM3 was priced at double of that. In such a scenario, it presents a great proposition if you are someone focused on audio quality at the expense of features like ANC and ambient noise. At the same time, Sony does a great job with the connectivity as well as the firmware/software which is often overlooked when making a purchase. At the end of it all, it's a Sony.


Tutorial #26: Debloating Samsung Galaxy (Tab S5e)

 

The Samsung Galaxy Tab S5e is a great everyday tablet as I previously mentioned in my review apart from the fact that it isn't so out of the box. The reason behind this is Samsung's bloated One UI which takes a toll on the hardware, especially one with a mid-range SoC. However, this issue is easily fixed if you are okay with tinkering with your device and voiding the warranty.

This tutorial is a means to that end and lists the process I follow in getting my S5e working as fast as a custom ROM, and I can attest to that having also tried Lineage OS on this device. The good thing is that Samsung has stepped up its game in terms of updates. This doesn't imply you will always get the latest updates for your region, but there is a way around it and that is by flashing the firmware manually which in the case of this device can be tracked over here. However, I would recommend downloading the firmware itself at full speed from Samsung using tools like Frija or Samsung Firmware Downloader.

The other thing to note is that you will need to root your device to access it at the lowest level and I wouldn't describe that process in detail since it is already well-documented. However, what I would like to clarify is that although rooting along with unlocking the bootloader permanently trips Knox on the device and thus renders it useless for any functionality utilising Knox (like Mobile Device Management by corporates), the device itself can still be operated without root and will thus run enterprise apps managed by Microsoft's Intune Portal.

The first thing I do towards speeding up the device is to flash Multidisabler. Hit up the link to read more about it but be aware of what it does. On the whole, it has the largest impact on speed since it disables file-based encryption, besides addressing some hijinks resulting out of rooting the device.

The next important file to flash is the BluetoothLibraryPatcher. Samsung devices stop retaining paired devices when rooted and this comes in real handy, especially if you are using wireless earbuds and fitness trackers. Although you could use the Magisk module, I flash it using TWRP as I don't use Magisk for day-to-day stuff.

Now we come to the meat of changes, moving from generic to specific changes. This is simply about deleting apps that you won't be using at all and hence, by definition, this is a personal list. I have listed the apps which I have observed as being unessential to my need, but your needs may differ and thus will require some experimentation on your part. You could delete these apps using a file manager with root access or create a script to this effect.

These systems apps are essentially distributed across two partitions - system/app/ and system/priv-app/ and may vary depending on the region. In my case, I always use the latest release from any region and thus the list may be cumulative in that regard. As of writing this, it is based on the UK release as it was the first to receive Android 11. The ones highlighted in "cream" indicate new additions to Android 11 whereas the Android 10 apps that are no longer in 11 are highlighted in "red". I have kept them in the list for posterity but will remove them in the near future once I am convinced I don't have any reason to ever go back to Android 10. With that, I present you with THE LIST.



As an end note, I would like to state that you don't need root after the completion of the above process in terms of debloating. You can of course use continue to using root for other apps but that is not an option for me as I run some enterprise apps on my device that don't work with SafetyNet failure. If for some reason, you cannot boot to the un-rooted system after completing this process, then remember that it is possible to do so by booting into the recovery and selecting 'Reboot to system'. This boots the un-rooted system and should you need to boot into root again, you can do using the key combination listed above on the Magisk readme page.

With this, you now have a un-rooted system that is completely debloated, passes the SafetyNet and is just as fast as a custom ROM.

Review #66: 6 months with Samsung Galaxy Tab S5e ★★★★★

 


Foreword:

The original review was written back in October, about a month after purchase and I have kept it as-is since it still rings true. However, over the past 6 months, with the Covid restrictions, I ended up using my tablet a lot more than my phone and I am still amazed by the value this tablet presents. Probably, that is the reason that Samsung didn't push the tablet hard enough and it is difficult to purchase one in favour of S6 Lite or the S7.

The aspect ratio and colour gamut of the screen lends itself really well to watching videos on it which happens to be a primary use case. However, I will admit that I use the tablet a lot more for reading rather than watching stuff and for that the narrowness of the tablet is an impediment. However, it still does the job and all the reading apps work really well on it, so I cannot complain too much as I knew it was going to be a compromise between watching and reading stuff on the tablet.

Also, I had the opportunity to try Lineage OS on this tablet and did so recently as well with the release of Lineage OS 18.1. While it does the job, the open-source OS still has issues when using proprietary blobs and this is most evident when using the speakers. LOS simply kills the speakers which is a USP for this device. Additionally, the HDMI output on LOS leaves much to be desired in terms of quality and speed. 

In fact, I found Samsung DeX to be surprisingly usable as a desktop interface. My laptop is overkill for simply reading stuff and the tablet with DeX ends up being a great laptop alternative when browsing the web. I have it paired with my Logitech K780 keyboard and MX Anywhere 2S mouse, both of which work really well with the resized desktop apps on DeX. This is not something I thought I would use, but having used it, I prefer having it as an option.

Speaking of DeX, I find that the One UI actually adds value to this tablet through the addition of features like the side bar and slow/limited battery charging options which are genuinely useful. Unfortunately, it comes with a lot of cruft as well, especially due to Knox and as a result I usually go about debloating the OS after every update. But that is for another post as I would like to share how I go about the same.

Lastly, a word about the Spigen Fold cover that I use with this tablet. While it was relatively costly, I found that it has held up really well with all the abuse and the stand aspect of it still works well. It also slots in snugly within the channel on my K780, making typing a chore-free experience on the tablet. In short, Samsung's book cover isn't really a necessity for its exaggerated price tag.

And that's a wrap as far as this device is concerned. It is also good that Samsung has included this device in its new update strategy, so at least security updates can be expected over a 4-year time period since its release. New releases will be less forthcoming but Android 11 is expected to be released for this device in June 2021 and to be frank, I don't think it will matter much as I don't expect One UI to change much, which happens to be the primary differentiator now considering that Android has matured as a platform. Thus, if you can grab hold of one, then by all means go for it, if it fits your budget and use case.

Original Review:

Does it make sense to get a tablet, and an Android one at that? This is a very loaded question and the answer, as always, is that it depends.

I only ever had one tablet before and that was the iPad 3. Back then, the iPad certainly offered a lot more in terms of screen estate, resolution and app experience that you couldn't get on a phone. However, once the novelty wore off, I couldn't really find much use for it apart from reading magazines. It remained stowed away for years until recently when I found that it still works reasonably well (with wonky battery life) and promptly turned it in to a living room clock with weather and news (for which if you are interested, it only consumes 6 Watt).

However, during the lockdown, I found myself using screens a lot more and when unwinding, it usually didn't make sense to take a laptop to bed or to watch or read something on a phone screen. This got me interested in getting a tablet again but I wasn't going to go gung-ho about it and spend a fortune. As a result, I couldn't see myself getting the Galaxy Tab S6 or S7 since it was going to be overkill for my use case.

My use case, if that interests you, was to have something that I could hold easily while in bed and also use for daily reading of newspapers and much more. In short, nothing requiring heavy processing like games. This naturally eliminated the need to have a flagship processor or a refresh rate of over 60 Hz. To be frank, I use a OnePlus 7T with a 90 Hz display and find statements like "can't go back to 60 Hz' to be grossly exaggerated. It may make a difference in games but it is certainly not a deal-breaker as far as scrolling the interface is concerned.

Essentially, among the current mass-market devices, only the S6 Lite and the recently launched iPad 8th Gen fell in to the frame of things. Both of these were priced lower than this device but the S5e offered something that the others didn't. This was of course the great 2K OLED screen along with the 4-speaker setup tuned by AKG. And there you have it, the two features that made this tablet. I would assume some people would have quibbles about the middling Snapdragon 670 and 4 GB RAM, but frankly, they don't matter for reading or watching stuff on the tablet. That is also the reason I am not going to post benchmarks or comment about the camera quality. Every device category is not supposed to be judged by the same metric, but rather by the use case and in this instance, the S5e is not only fit for the purpose, but exceeds it for the price.

In conclusion, if you need a tablet to do something that you cannot do on a phone or a PC, then the S5e is bang for your buck and I wouldn't recommend anything else. True, it wouldn't match up to tablet apps on iOS but I use an iPhone for the iOS benefits and this tablet is there to be tinkered with, and tinker with it you can. It pays to not have all your eggs in one basket, though Apple would suggest otherwise. If you believe that everything has its purpose, then the S5e truly serves as a great tablet for its price and use case.


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.

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 #59: JBL Xtreme ★★★★½


My review of the Xgimi Z6 Polar mentioned my disappointment with the in-built Harman Kardon speakers, especially when in pursuit of the home theatre experience. Since then, I was on the lookout for options that would fill this specific void.

It was natural to first consider a sound bar. Here, I was looking at two extremes in terms of (limited) budget as well as sound quality. At one end of the spectrum was the Mi Soundbar. For the price of INR 4999 (USD 70), one can't go wrong, going by the spec sheet. However, it would be unfair to expect it to be anything apart from middling in terms of quality. At the other end of the budgetary spectrum, I was enamoured by the Yamaha YAS-108 selling for INR 18500 (USD 260). It would be my choice (along with the YAS-207, budget permitting), if I ever decide to go with a sound bar. However, an infrequently used projector setup and the awkward option of mounting a speaker below the projection screen led me to look for something more versatile...and portable.

Portability inevitably means switching focus to a category of speakers that one would casually term as "Bluetooth speakers". To make it clear upfront, I have never been a fan of Bluetooth codecs and iffy connectivity, but sometimes it is worth the convenience. In this case, the concern is somewhat alleviated by the fact there is also an Aux-In input present in most cases, though one has to forego advanced digital connectivity options like S/PDIF and HDMI-ARC. It is human to want everything in everything even though compromise is imminent.

With this frame of mind, I headed over to Amazon and as it happened, a Bose banner occupied the front page. The Soundlink Mini II became the object of my focus on account of its stellar reviews. However, the age of the product, accentuated by its archaic Bluetooth version of 3.0, a pretty lowish battery life by today's standard (10 hours) combined and a not-so-lowish price of INR 13000 (USD 183) stressed my little grey cells a bit more than I wished for. Also, keeping algorithmic trickery aside, there is no beating the quality constraints put forth by the physical dimensions of the product. This made me yearn for the Soundlink III, but unfortunately it isn't sold locally and the other products from the Bose range didn't fit my bill.

Venturing to other brands then, I came across my eventual purchase - the JBL Xtreme. In fact, it wasn't so straightforward as I went through numerous other options from Harman Kardon (Onyx Studio), Ultimate Ears (Megaboom), Marshall (Kilburn) and Sony (XB41). The focus in most cases seemed to be on waterproofing (as a poolside speaker), raucous lighting and mega-bass, all of which I was not particularly attuned to. NFC is another feature that gets mentioned a lot, but I can't see myself pairing devices to a speaker so frequently so as to necessitate its presence.

It was a review of the Soundlink III that led me to the JBL Xtreme as it was listed as an equivalent, if not a better option in the same price range. In case you are going by looks, then you wouldn't find anything distinguishable about the Xtreme compared to its smaller and cheaper siblings - Flip and Charge. In fact, it would be completely wrong to form your opinion about a brand based on a product alone, especially a cheaper one. Sound quality doesn't scale linearly with price and it is always a tight rope walk finding a balance between the two. In this case, I can only assure you that size does matter.

Even settling on the Xtreme wasn't without further complications. Considering the price I mentioned previously for the Mini II, one can only imagine a Soundlink III to come close to the USD 300 mark in INR, if it was sold locally. This meant I was staring at the outer realms of my budget. Luckily, with the JBL Xtreme 2 picking up the mantle in this price category, the Xtreme was relegated to a lower price tier, though still commanding a price of INR 15000 (USD 211). This brought me to my second consideration - whether the price difference to the Xtreme 2 is worth it. From the reviews I read, the difference in sound quality between the two is largely imperceptible and the main draw for it, as you can guess, is waterproofing. Pfft.

Would I have spent even INR 15000 on the Xtreme? Possibly no. The real clincher was that I managed to get it for INR 10800 (USD 152). It was quite a matter of luck, patience and persistence. I happened to find a single unit of Xtreme listed separately on Flipkart at the aforementioned low price and correctly postulated it to be an open box item, considering it had a delivery time of 11 days as against 2 days for one listed at the normal price. Listing an open-box product as a new one is deceitful, but it worked in my favour as I was able to avail of the 10-day replacement policy, but not without considerable haggling.

I mentioned the word "portable" previously in relation to Bluetooth speakers. In the case of the Xtreme, I'd rather use the word mentioned on the box - "transportable". It weighs over 2 kg, so calling it portable would be a stretch by any means. Conscious of this, JBL has thrown in a shoulder strap, though I suppose someone from the design team had a good laugh at it. However, having a multi-instrument, vocal Dholak hanging from the shoulder isn't as ludicrous as it may seem.

All that heft must account for something and in the case of the Xtreme, it does so in the form of 2 x 65mm woofers, 2 x 35mm tweeters and two thumping passive radiators with a rated power of 2 x 20W (Bi-amp). With specs, comes power consumption and in the case of the Xtreme, JBL provided an ample 37Wh (10000 mAh at 3.7V) Lithium-Ion battery which is rated to be good enough for 15 hours. On my first complete run on battery, I got about 15h 25m over Auxiliary and 2h 15m over Bluetooth, totalling a run time of 17h 40m. Of course, the battery life depends a lot on the volume, content as well as Bluetooth usage, so my figures are simply empirical. The battery also works as a power bank and the Xtreme features two USB-A ports that can cumulatively output 2A (1x2A or 2x1A) in addition to the charging, aux-in and a service port.


The Xtreme comes with a round-pin charger rated at 57W (19V 3A) which is an awful lot for a battery powered device. However, it ensures that the device gets fully charged within 3 hours (though the specs mention 3.5 hours). To my amusement, I found that the charger works with my Z6, so in effect I now have a charger redundancy, which is always appreciated, to a point. The battery life is indicated with the help of 5 LEDs on the front which is pretty vague and the device could have done with a battery percentage callout. Lastly, despite its age, it comes with Bluetooth 4.1 on board which is any time better than what's onboard with the similarly old Soundlink Mini II.

Moving on to the most pertinent aspect of the device, the sound. The thing that hits you in the face (specifically the ears) on your first playback is the bass (along with the vigorously vibrating radiators). If your first track happens to be a vocal one like mine was, then you would be justified in harbouring some doubts. However, even with overpowering bass, the width of the soundstage becomes evident and it is able to reproduce sound pleasantly across the spectrum. The bass tends to eat in to the mids for tracks that have even a modicum of it, though the treble is unblemished. This helps it as a party (and home theatre) speaker but not as a music one.

Thankfully, pressing the 'Bluetooth' and 'Volume -' buttons simultaneously for 10 seconds significantly flattens the frequency response and brings any vocal or instrumental track to life. What it actually does and why it isn't documented in the manual is beyond me. There are 30 volume steps present on the device itself when used independently but it links up to the phone volume levels on pairing. The speaker is plenty loud to fill up any mid to large sized room, though oddly, the volume over Aux is significantly lower than over Bluetooth. There is no official mention of any other codec support and going by the fact that Android always defaults to SBC on selection of any other codec, it seems that's the only supported codec. While I couldn't bear SBC on cheap Bluetooth headphones in the past, the sheer quality of the speaker makes it less of an issue, and one can always switch to good old Aux. Lastly, there is the 'JBL Connect' button to pair up additional compatible JBL devices with the Xtreme but I find no use for it in a home setting.

The app support for this device is pretty barebone. The 'JBL Music' app on iOS simply lists the songs from Apple Music and mentions AirPlay support. The "AirPlay" option is nothing more than the native iOS selection of a Bluetooth receiver, so is of no practical use. Having said that, playback of the same track on Apple Music is much better than Spotify, though it is mostly due to the impact of transcoding from AAC compared to Ogg Vorbis. The 'JBL Connect' app is a tad more useful in the sense that it is supposed to provide firmware update notifications, though I didn't get any and it is unlikely I ever will, considering the age of the product.

To conclude, if you can get the device for less than $160, then there is simply no better option available. Sound doesn't degrade with age (of the speaker, unfortunately not of the listener), so it still holds up well against the $300 Xtreme 2 in terms of quality but beats it in terms of value for money. In short, for a discounted price, the Xtreme is highly recommended.

Musing #57: Steam Link on Fire TV


The release (or lack of it) of the Steam Link app caused a lot of brouhaha in the past month. While it it is meant for mobile devices, it undeniably adds a lot of value to the Fire TV and for that matter to all Android devices. It is a must-have that would have certainly made it to my list of  'The Essentials' were it available back then. It is not officially available on Amazon, so your best bet is to sideload it.

As I mentioned previously in my review of the AFTV3, the Ethernet adapter doesn't make a whole lot of sense as it is limited to 100 Mbps. However, it would be more than enough in this case as Steam Link requires a maximum of 30 Mbps for streaming. Unfortunately, I had to rely on the 5 GHz WiFi network (Steam Link doesn't support 2.4 GHz) with the TV being 25 metres away from the router, separated by a wall. This issue is compounded by the fact the 5 GHz receiver on the AFTV3 is exceptionally weak.

After playing with the settings, the only way I could get Steam Link working on the AFTV3 over such a long distance was by switching the 5 GHz channel bandwidth to 20 MHz. This significantly reduces the throughput but is a necessity for my current setup which I hope to change soon. Over the 20 MHz channel and at a distance of 25 metres, Steam Link works unimpeded in the 'Balanced' mode which uses 15 Mbps. I was even able to get the 'Beautiful' mode, requiring 30 Mbps, to work over the 20 MHz channel but it was inconsistent. On the other hand, it worked exceptionally well over the 40 MHz channel as can be seen below, but the AFTV3 was unable to sustain the signal over the distance, resulting in frequent disconnections. Nonetheless, this is an issue that can be easily resolved through some rearrangement.


Steam makes it quite evident that the software is in beta and that AFTV is not officially tested.


 However, as long as the network is up to it, the AFTV is more than capable of streaming.


Inability of the network to stream properly is indicated with the frame loss and network variance.


Setting up Steam Link is extremely easy as it essentially requires pairing the TV with the host PC using a PIN.


Additionally, the Steam Client on PC requested the installation of additional audio drivers once the setup was done, but I presume this might depend on the setup. I had sold my Xiaomi Bluetooth controller a few months back so I didn't have a controller to pair with Steam. However, I did have my Apple Wireless Keyboard and Logitech M557 paired to AFTV which ought to have done the job. 


While the keyboard worked fine with the Big Picture mode, v1.1.3 of Steam Link that I installed initially didn't support the mouse which was subsequently rectified in v1.1.4, indicating that Valve is actively paying attention to user feedback. At present, the lag isn't too bad, but the mouse controls are too sensitive which I presume is due to the fact that the tuning has been done as per analog controllers. It might make sense to pick up the Xbox One S or Steam controller for universal compatibility.

With the initial impression being quite good, one can only hope for Steam Link to work seamlessly once it comes out of beta. Perhaps the Steam Sale will become a lot more attractive for AFTV owners.

Review #52: Tale of three (make that five) 3-in-1 cables


Cables are like humans, more than one can imagine. Looks can be deceiving and it is what's inside that matters. However, one can only perceive what one can see and hence the truth lies largely concealed. Thankfully, that is where the similarities end since marketing buzzwords like "gold plated", "tinned copper", "braided nylon" wouldn't really work well as complements for humans.

My tryst for the holy grail of cables started some time back when I started off with the Flome 3-in-1 cable, which, for the record, left me thoroughly disappointed. I have resigned myself to the fact that as long as reputable brands don't get in to the game, the possibility of expecting the ultimate phone charging cable to come from no-name brands in China is as large as catching the unicorn at the end of the rainbow. However, that hasn't deterred me from trying.

Since my last look at charging cables, I have added a couple more 3-in-1 cables, one from Baseus and another from "Fake Mi". The Baseus brand has proliferated quite a bit and I had my first go at it when I purchased a tempered glass for my iPhone. As it turned out, the mention of glass for the product was an euphemism but even then, the brand gets full marks for design and half for deception. I had a good experience with Mi's 2-in-1 cable which I had received with the Mi Power Bank Pro and although there is no mention of a 3-in-1 cable on Mi China's website, I went along for the ride by placing an order for the "Fake Mi" 3-in-1 cable. In this case, it was better to judge the cable by its cover since the package was branded as "Zaofeng" but the product could easily pass off  as an official Mi one.

Along with these three "the last cable you will ever need" cables, I have roped in two "not so in name but in function" pseudo 3-in-1 cables in the form of the Mi 2-in-1 and the EasyAcc Micro USB cable. In case you are confused, then don't be, as technically any Micro USB cable can be used as a Lightning or Type-C cable with the help of adapters. Sure, you don't get the official certifications, but it can get the job done as far as charging is concerned. In this case, the adapters came from the cannibalisation of other cables. After all, all's fair in love, war and charging.

Here's the fate of the contenders after being put through the trial with an Anker PowerPort 4 charger.


It is easy to draw some quick observations/conclusions from the above.

  • As expected, none of the 3-in-1 cables are up to much good, though the Baseus one seems to be the best of the lot. The finest option yet, as far as charging goes, is to get a good quality Micro USB cable and then use adapters to switch between devices.
  • The adapter quality can affect charging as can be seen by the performance difference of the Lightning one between Flome and Zaofeng. They are available for a few cents and can be jerry-rigged to function like a 3-in-1, though I presume at some point someone will release adapters with clasps. Cannibalisation from existing cables is always an option.
  • It is not a co-incidence that the shorter cables are usually the best. You should get a cable that is only as long as you need it to be. As I had mentioned previously, the longer they are, the easier they fail.
  • While not visible in the table above, the iPhone current draw was markedly different from the Mi devices. While the Mi devices charged flat out at the same current level irrespective of usage, the iPhone switched between 0.9-1.7A  depending on how the device was being utilised. I could draw the maximum current only by recording in 4K. This indicates that the iPhone maintains a preset charging rate for the battery while utilising additional current draw from the charger for on-screen activity. I guess these benefits come through the utilisation of much more expensive power management ICs.

Review #51: Amazon Fire TV (Gen 3 - 4K HDR) ★★★★☆


Normally, whenever I get a new device, the instinct is to analyse it in depth. Unfortunately, certain constraints prevent me from doing so with the Fire TV 4K, primary of them being that I have no 4K display devices at present. However, a lot of thought had gone in to purchasing this device for a 1080p non-HDR TV, even though it is not officially available in India. So, I would like to share these thoughts along with the experience of setting it up so as to get the most out of it. Thus, this article will straddle the line between a tutorial and a review, but I have decided to classify it as the latter since this article, while being instructional, is still appraising the product.

Review #50: RHA MA650 Wireless Earphones ★★★★☆

When wireless doesn't mean getting less! 


Bluetooth headsets have always been a matter of convenience for me rather than a technological evolution over wired headsets. For a long time, I preferred to use wired headsets whenever possible and took recourse to Bluetooth headsets when on the move. However, the abysmal performance of Bluetooth plug-in headsets like SBH54 and the Fiio BTR1 left me extremely disappointed and finally set me on course to finding a standalone wireless earphone.

Review #45: Mi A1 (Updated with Oreo impressions) ★★★★☆

An A1 Choice


The Android One programme was launched in 2014 with the intention of being the entry point for budget conscious users. Perhaps it was the choice of hardware or OEMs that ultimately made it a stillborn venture. On the other end of the spectrum, the Pixel hasn't quite turned out to be the iPhone killer that Google might have envisaged. However, Google isn't one to take things lying down and hence we now have the reinvigorated Android One programme. This time Google has taken a much more hands-off approach, with this being no more than a branding exercise and the entire onus of the device specification as well as updates following squarely on the shoulders of the OEM.

For an OEM like Xiaomi that is well entrenched in MIUI, it certainly came as a surprise when it was mentioned as the first partner of the new avatar of Android One. At the same time, it seemed a logical choice considering the stranglehold that various Mi devices now have at the budget segment of the market. I had already "upgraded" the Redmi Note 3 of one of my family members to LineageOS to make the device more usable and while getting another Mi device, it was a toss-up between getting a Redmi Note 4 and flashing it with LineageOS or getting the Mi A1 with stock android on board. Ultimately, the novelty of the dual camera setup as well as a manufacturer supported implementation of stock Android justified the premium.

While the review is focussed on the Mi A1, I found it a good idea to compare it with the other phones I have at my disposal which is the Redmi Note 3 and the iPhone 7. The Note 3 should be a good comparison coming from the same stable but based on a year-old higher performance chipset while the iPhone 7 acts like a good benchmark.

Musing #43: Some cables are more equal than others

Purchasing cables online is a tricky proposition. This is the reason why I have a USB voltage/current tester in my possession to ascertain a cable's mettle. I normally restrict myself to Amazon fulfilled orders so that I can return a cable should it be deemed to be unworthy of its price. However, the more esoteric products from China are rarely available locally and even if they are, the mark-up in pricing is absolutely astounding. Going by the reviews, it seems most are unaware of the source of these products.

Review #46: Fiio BTR1 (Bluetooth Amplifier with AK4376 DAC) ★★★☆☆ (Updated!)

A small device with big sound on a budget.
The removal of the headphone jack on phones is a recent phenomenon but I have been dilly-dallying with clip-on, stereo Bluetooth headsets for quite some time. The excuse for doing so was convenience, at the expense of sound quality. Without putting so much as a thought, I went with Sony in those days and hence my initial experience revolved around the MW-600 and SBH54. However, while the MW-600 was a solid device for its time, the SBH54 was a huge disappointment. Hence, Sony was never in consideration for my next device.

With the iPhone 7 being my primary device, I gave some thought to using a lightning connector device prior to considering other Bluetooth choices. The 1More Triple Driver was certainly at the top of the list but the price premium for the lightning version put it beyond the price range I was looking at. Another option was to go for a 3.5mm adapter and the i1 turned out to be the most prominent among the limited options available, but it didn't take much to understand that it didn't really offer a better value proposition compared to Apple's adapter. However, it was this visit to the Fiio site for the i1 that put me on course to the BTR1.

Tutorial #18: Unlocking the bootloader on Redmi Note 3

As I had mentioned in my review of the Redmi Note 3, it was good value for money. However, MIUI proved to be a hindrance for the target user because of which I had switched the device to LineageOS while not rooting it and keeping the bootloader locked. However, with the phone now back in my hands, it was time to break the shackles for good.

To Xiaomi's credit, they have an official process in place for unlocking the bootloader. However, it has its quirks and more often than not following the official guide results in the process being stuck at 50% due to incompatibilities. This was the case with my first attempt and hence I decided to proceed with it unofficially.

As always, I headed to XDA to quickly gather the process for this device. However, the process seems to be a bit outdated and perhaps a bit difficult to follow for the uninitiated, so I have listed the steps undertaken by me. There could be other ROM versions or files you can use but I have mainly picked up the ones from the XDA thread linked above which you might visit in case you need visual reference.

Note: Prior to starting with the flashing process or even after flashing the MIUI ROM in Step 4, make sure you have the 'OEM unlocking' option selected under Developer Options, without which the fastboot unlocking will fail.

Step 1: Download and extract/install the following:
1. MIUI Global ROM v7.2.5.0 (You will have to extract the file twice to get the folder contents)
2. Mi Flash Tool (Official MI tool to flash ROMs - used v2017.7.20.0 at the time of writing)
3. Unlocked emmc_appsboot file (Primary file needed to unlock bootloader)
4. EDL Fastboot (To enter emergency download mode)
5. Minimal ADB and Fastboot (Installs necessary ADB and fastboot drivers)
5. TWRP Recovery (Gateway to flashing anything on the device)

Step 2:
Browse to the 'images' folder within the extract ROM folder (kenzo_global_images_V7.2.5.0.LHOMIDA_20160129.0000.14_5.1_global) and replace the emmc_appsboot.mbn file in that folder with the downloaded one.


Step 3:
After installing the Minimal ADB and Fastboot drivers, connect the phone and run 'edl.cmd' from within the extracted 'fastboot_edl' folder to boot the phone to the emergency download (EDL) mode. If you don't, then the Mi Flash tool may give a 'tz error'. This mode can be recognised by the flashing red LED on the device.


Step 4:
Run the Mi Flash tool using 'XiaoMiFlash.exe' and select the folder containing the extracted ROM files (kenzo_global_images_V7.2.5.0.LHOMIDA_20160129.0000.14_5.1_global). Clicking on 'Refresh' should list the device and then subsequently, click on 'Flash'. The process will take 4-5 minutes to complete after which you will be able to see the 'success' status.

Step 5:
Boot the phone to the normal fastboot mode using the Volume Down + Power button. Open a command prompt window and browse to the 'Minimal ADB and Fastboot' folder. Here, execute the following command:
fastboot oem device-info
It should indicate 'Device unlocked: false', following which execute the command:
fastboot oem unlock-go
Running the 'fastboot oem device-info' command once again should now indicate 'Device unlocked: true'. That's it, your device now has an unlocked bootloader.

Step 6:
While not part of the bootloader unlocking process, a follow-up step should be to flash the TWRP recovery which opens a whole window of opportunities. This can be done by copying the 'twrp-3.1.1-0-kenzo' (latest file at the time of writing) to the 'Minimal ADB and Fastboot' folder and running the following command from the cmd window:
fastboot flash recovery twrp-3.1.1-0-kenzo.img
Following this, you will have complete freedom to tinker with the device in any way you deem apt. Oreo, anyone?

Review #44: Amazon Fire TV Stick (2nd generation) ★★★☆☆

Fire Play with Me - A comprehesive review of the 2nd generation Fire TV Stick
When Amazon priced the 2nd generation Fire TV Stick at ₹2999 for Prime Day, it took a lot of self-restraint on my part to not purchase it instinctively. I had a few good reasons for not doing so, they being:

1. My TV itself is capable of DLNA streaming courtesy of Samsung AllShare and has the Netflix app on it, even as others might not be so useful
2. A first-gen Chromecast attached to one of the HDMI ports since the time of its US release, taking care of all the remote streaming needs
3. A Raspberry Pi 2 running LibreElec (and Batocera) to take care of Kodi and retro gaming needs
4. Lastly, a Windows tablet capable of streaming every possible content either through Chromecast, Plex or HDMI

Since I have a DLNA as well as Samba server running on my router allied with a USB 3.0 external hard disk, these disparate solutions, while being less than ideal, fulfilled every local and web streaming need I had. It also meant that the Fire TV Stick had a very small niche to fill - that of even lazier consumption and hence didn't justify the price or the need. However, as you might have already guessed, something changed for this review to exist.

I had been on a trekking trip recently and it warranted that I forego of any unnecessary weight. That meant that my trustworthy Windows tablet didn't find a place in my backpack. However, on the off chance that the hotel had a reliable net connection, I carried the Chromecast with me. Luckily, the hotel did have a stable 10 Mbps connection without AP isolation which was both a boon and a course. While it meant that I could use my Chromecast freely, it also meant that everyone else on the hotel network could as well. Chromecast might make for a great party device but unfortunately a poor personal entertainment one as I had other guests interrupting my viewing out of curiosity or the ignorant hope of viewing their mobile content on their room's TV. This particular incident made a very good use case for the Fire TV Stick over the Chromecast and eventually led me to purchase one.

Of course, I wouldn't have purchased it for the listed price and the fact that it wasn't listed at the Prime day sale price of ₹2999 during the September and early October sales made the decision difficult. However, the eventual impact of purchasing this device was ₹2200 courtesy of the ₹499 cashback on the ₹3499 sale price and a ₹450 cashback for using Amazon Pay coupled with the fact that the Amazon Pay balance I used was discounted by 10% on accord of an earlier top-up offer (3499 - 499 - 450 - 350 = 2200). With the device in hand, I went on my merry way of testing it in every way I could.

Out of the box:

The Fire TV Stick aptly comes in a fiery orange box which lists some of the apps offered on the platform. My unit, purchased in early October 2017, was imported in September and manufactured in August. The inner packaging, to go along with the fire theme, was in charred black and pretty compact. It contained the Voice remote, 2 Amazonbasics AAA batteries, HDMI extender, 5V/1A charger, 5-feet MicroUSB cable and of course the Fire TV Stick (not counting the manual and information pamphlets).

In the hand:



The Stick is definitely larger than any pen drive you might have ever seen but still fits in the palm of my hand. However, as you can see in the image, it is much larger than the first-generation Chromecast, so you need to ensure that you have significant clearance at the back (or side) of your TV. It weighs in at 31g on my scale, so it shouldn't be stressing any HDMI ports while sticking out of them.

Starting it up:

As I have mentioned previously, the package comes with a 5V/1A charger and hence I initially decided to use the USB port of the same specification available at the back of my TV. However, the AFTV Stick was quick to show an 'Unsupported USB Port' message. While I am sure that I could have used the device off the USB port, I decided to plug in the charger anyway. Since the AFTV stick has 802.11ac MIMO WiFi support, it is dual band and catches the 5 GHz signal reasonably well, when compared to my iPhone. I was expecting the device to be already associated with my account like my Kindle was on first login, but that was not the case here. Curiously, the device was registered as my 2nd Fire TV Stick and I suppose it was so as I had previously paid for and then subsequently cancelled an order of the Fire TV Stick.

The OS:

It shouldn't be a surprise that the entire Fire TV OS revolved around Amazon Prime Video. In fact, that is the only app that the device comes installed with. Others like Hotstar and Netflix are added to your account in the cloud but the download has to be initiated manually. The usable storage capacity is displayed as 5.94 GB which isn't much, especially if you are considering using the video download options for offline viewing. Out of the box, the OS version was 5.2.4.2 and the Fire TV Home version (which I presume refers to the interface) was 5.7.3-20. The immediately available update changed the OS version to 5.2.6.0 and the Home version to 6.0.0.0-264. However, the underlying Android version is 5.1.1 and coupled with the 1GB of RAM made things a bit interesting as described below. Irrespective of the update, the look remained the same and consisted of the Home, Movies, TV Shows, Apps and Settings tabs.

Apps and Interface:

As I have mentioned previously, the AFTV interface revolves prominently around Prime Video. The Home tab displays the recently used apps first, followed by the installed ones and then a whole bunch of rows specific to different genres of Prime Video. Similarly, the Movies and TV Shows tabs are completely dedicated to Prime Video. The Apps tab is where you would go to explore the entire app collection while the Settings tab includes the myriad of options that Android usually offers pertaining to display, sound, connectivity, accessibility and developer options.

Fire TV's use of Android implies easy availability of streaming apps as long as they aren't tied to Google Play services. Hence, most of the third-party apps work just fine. The available apps are those available on the Indian Amazon Appstore and hence one can take a look at the options available prior to making a purchase. However, as depicted on the box and in the ads, it covers most of the prominent Indian streaming services including Hotstar, Voot, Eros Now, Gaana and Jio TV. Additionally, TV news apps like NDTV, Times Now, India Today are available along with some international ones. However, most noticeable is the lack of an official YouTube app. The Youtube.com app present on the Home screen is just the mobile website running on Chromium. As a result, it is sluggish and the quality barely exceeds 480p which can be a major deal breaker for some.

An integral part of the user experience is the use of the remote and its accompanying voice control. The remote's controls are pretty well done for navigation purposes, including the use of the playback controls to directly execute some options as against having to scroll to them. The controls work fine within the apps as well which is a big plus. Unlike other streaming devices like the Nvidia Shield which oddly include only navigation controls, the AFTV remote makes efficient use of the playback controls which is most evident when using Prime Video. The Voice control also does a good job of recognising the context of search and pops up relevant suggestions when it is unavailable to exactly determine the term being spoken. At the time of writing this review though Alexa hasn't still been enable for the AFTV Stick though I can't imagine it is too far off considering the launch of the Echo devices.

If you happen to lose or break the remote, then Amazon has already provided apps for Android and iOS which are software clones of the remote. They also contain added features like a keyboard which makes typing passwords, codes, searches must easier and the replacement Voice Remote at ₹1999 a redundant purchase. Alternately, the AFTV Stick supports HDMI-CEC, so if your TV supports it, the TV remote does a good job of navigating through the interface.

Tinkering: 

One of the true tests for any media streaming device is to see how well it handles Kodi. Since Kodi isn't officially available on the Amazon App Store, it has to be sideloaded. Luckily, Amazon has kept the ADB and Unknown Sources installation options easily accessible and that implies easy sideloading of most Android apps. I say most since apps that rely solely on the Google Play framework will not work at all. Luckily, this list is not that expansive and to a large extent includes apps from the Google stable.

The most common option to sideload apps that you will come across the web is to use the Downloader app from AFTVnews. However, this app isn't officially available on the Indian Amazon store and while there are ways to get it on board the AFTV Stick, I found the most convenient option to be the Apps2Fire app. It allows one to directly install or upload the file to the AFTV Stick. I found the install option to be a bit whimsical as it failed on multiple occasions with exceptions since it used ADB, but the uploaded APK files could be installed just fine by using ES Explorer on the device itself. In case of Kodi, my Android device, as most these days, was running the 64-bit version of Kodi from the Google Play store and the same couldn't be directly installed on the AFTV Stick since it only supports the 32-bit version. I was able to get AirPlay working on the device as well using Air Receiver but it worked well mostly for music. Screen mirroring wasn't of such great quality even at High settings and video failed to mirror completely.

The remote works remarkably well with Kodi, though that might not be the case with other sideloaded apps. Since a lot of the apps are made only for touch, I would recommend sideloading the 'Mouse Toggle' app first as it enables a mouse pointer within these apps and thus makes them accessible. Thus, I have to recommend the use of a Bluetooth mouse when using most sideloaded apps though a Bluetooth keyboard may not be as essential on account of the mobile apps.

Performance:


Before giving my subjective opinion on the performance of the device, I decided to benchmark it using Geekbench 4. For a device that essentially has the same hardware as my Galaxy S3 did 5 years ago with its low-end 1.3 GHz Mediatek MT8127 quad-core Cortex-A53 processor and Mali450 MP4 GPU, I wasn't expecting much. True to form, the CPU scored only 432 and 1072 in the single and multi-core tests respectively while the GPU scored 778 in the Compute test. For reference, my iPhone 7 had scored 3460, 5890 and 12740 in these tests previously.

Benchmarks don't determine real life performance, so I don't pay much attention to them. However, in case of the AFTV Stick, the performance (or lack thereof) is perceptible during regular usage. Of course, if your main usage is limited to only using the Prime Video or Netflix app, you wouldn't notice much as the interface is quite fluid in those cases. However, running a number of apps, especially sideloaded ones like Kodi and returning to the Home screen had an immense impact on the performance of the device. On occasions it took over 10 seconds to load the Home screen, presumably because the device was repeatedly running out of its lowly 1 GB RAM while running Android Lollipop. On one occasion, the device even rebooted, unable to cope with the demands of multiple app switching. This kind of performance issues are also evident when navigating the interface after starting an app installation. For the price point, it may be difficult to fault the device but that doesn't change the fact that that device is a bit underpowered for its interface.

Interface aside, the main concern is whether the device is able to playback efficiently. Since this is only a Full HD device and not a 4K one, it doesn't need to support H.265/HEVC content over the web since most of the HD and Full HD content is in H.264. Hence, it is no surprise that all the streaming services work fine on the device even at 1080p60. The playback interface can be a bit sluggish at times but not observably so. However, my local library does contain quite a bit of H.265 content and since the product page lists H.265 support, I decided to have a go at it using VLC and Kodi. As it turns out, H.265 support is quite limited. I started with two 10-bit HEVC videos encoded with the Main profile at 1.5 Mbps and 900 Kbps bit rate and both failed to play. While VLC was at least able to playback the audio, Kodi simply hung up. Things were far better when dealing with lower quality HEVC videos as 8-bit, 720p ones at around 800 Kbps worked just fine. On the audio side, it supports 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus support and up to 7.1 HDMI audio pass-through which is as much as you can expect for Full HD viewing.

Conclusion:

The Fire TV Stick is a good if not unremarkable piece of hardware for its price, especially during the sale, for what it offers. If you don't happen to have a Smart TV or a Chromecast, then I would recommend picking this one up immediately since it adds the most effective means of consuming the Prime Video membership. Without Prime, this device doesn't make much sense.

On the other hand, the compromises made to bring the device down to this price are quite evident. The interface can struggle at times, even going to the extent of rebooting the device under heavy load. The archaic Android version doesn't help as well though Amazon does a good job of hiding it under their Fire OS skin. However, on the first day itself, I had repeated issues of the TV switching on due to HDMI-CEC activation on the AFTV Stick even though no one was anywhere near the remote.

The compromises on hardware as well as software front don't do much to ruin the experience if you are living within the immediate ecosystem that Amazon presents you with. In fact, for its discounted price, it is a better option that Chromecast through Miracast mirroring on the AFTV Stick isn't quite as intuitive or stable. Android TV isn't much of an option since none of the devices are officially available, though it has the advantage of access to the Google Play store and the official YouTube app. The Mi Box costs nearly twice as much, isn't much more powerful but offers 4K support while the affordability of the Nvidia Shield is questionable. Apple TV on the other hand makes little sense in India without official support and exorbitant pricing.

So, what's my final opinion on the device? After much thought, I have decided to return the Fire TV Stick because it is difficult for me to live with the compromises compared to the benefits. Having said that, I would be more amenable to getting the 4K Fire TV dongle if it is released later in India and competitively priced since it is going to be future proof and the slightly higher firepower in terms of the higher clocked processor and 2 GB RAM is bound to help. I can't imagine everyone else wanting to pay a higher price, especially if a 4K TV purchase is nowhere on the horizon and for those I would recommend the 2nd generation as a great home entertainment device.