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 As I had made this purchase a couple of months ago, at that time it was the WF-1000XM3, since superseded by the XM4.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.


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.


Musing #66: Hey Siri Google


Siri has never been good to me. I have seldom been able to get it to do what I want it to. For a time, since its inception, it was revolutionary. However, whereas intelligence develops with time from its infancy, this hasn't quite been the case with this artificial intelligence. On the contrary, it seems to have suffered cognitive impairment over time.

Review #53: Samsung Gear Fit2 Pro (with iOS) ★★★⯪☆

Update #4 (Oct 31, 2018):  I have come to realise that my previous optimism was unwarranted. iOS 12, as a matter of fact, still doesn't support the GF2 Pro.

My previous GF2 Pro detection on 12.0.1 came about on account of the device being already paired on iOS 11 prior to the update. However, unpairing the device caused it to no longer be detected on 12.0.1. Worst still, nothing has changed after the update to iOS 12.1.

Since iOS 11.4.1 is no longer signed by Apple, this means that my GF2 Pro is left to operate as a standalone device till the time either companies decide to do something about it, which going by the recent turn of events, might be never.

Edit: Turns out that it may be more of a Samsung software issue more than anything else. A full reset is usually a last resort and even when that didn't result in the device being detected, it seemed all was lost. However, resetting the Gear Fit2 Pro while also reinstalling the Gear Fit app did the trick as the new device setup finally popped up on the app, following which it is working as usual.

The issue seems to be a mixture of buggy Samsung software and the manner in which iOS operates. As always, it for the consumer to bear the brunt of this unholy alliance.

Musing #56: My First Smartwatch Face (McWatchFace)


The watch face has registered an average of 100 downloads a day since it was published, despite the fact that I have not publicised it anywhere else. It is simply through discovery on the Galaxy App Store and I am humbled by its popularity.

A smart life deserves a smartwatch, or perhaps it is smarter to be without one. Setting wisdom aside, I purchased my first one earlier this week - Samsung Gear Fit2 Pro. By being 1/3rd as expensive as a WiFi-only Series 3 Apple Watch, it won my wallet, if not my heart. I will reserve judgement on the device for the review, which isn't likely to materialise until I have used it extensively.

This post, then, is about a watch face, to be precise, my first creation of it. Kudos to Samsung for making available an easy-to-use designer, utilising which I was able to create the watch face in hours and survive the royal wedding. Having not found what I was looking for, I decided to create one for myself. The focus in this case was on information density and making the most of the colours on the AMOLED display without straining the battery life excessively.


The result is a crowded watch face that includes all the details that I could wish for. Besides the inclusion of all the fitness information, the icons for weather, music, settings, calendar, step count, floors and heart rate are all tapable with the date redirecting to the 'Today' view.


I was also inclined to keep the display "always-on" and hence chose a minimalist approach for this scenario. It fulfils the purpose of telling time while making it possible to keep an eye on the ever-draining battery. As per the analysis available within the designer, the current on pixel ratio is 1.5% with the minimum being below 1%.

I will mostly publish this watch face in the Samsung Galaxy App Store in the coming week, so be on the lookout for that. On the other hand, if you have some suggestions for future watch faces, then don't hesitate to leave a comment.

(Originally published on May 19, 2018)

Update #1 (May 20, 2018): The higher than expected battery drain in the "always on" mode over the past few hours made me investigate the possibilities of reducing the power consumption while still retaining this mode. A little bit of digging brought up this article which indicates that the next best thing to black is green. Effecting this change for the "always on" mode produces the following result:


The maximum 'Current on Pixel Ratio' is now 1/3rd (there's that ratio again!) of the original one. In fact due to the usage of green, this ratio now remains more or less constant and drops to 0.4% on certain occasions. Finally, I am not open to compromising the "Active" mode too much for power saving, but I have demoted the white to "seconds" which should help a bit.


Update #2 (May 22, 2018): A few more tweaks and optimisations went in to the watch face over the past couple of days and I assume that it can't get any denser than this. With the audience of one being satisfied, I have submitted the watch face to the 'Samsung Galaxy Apps' store and hope that it makes its way through to countless others. For now, I shall leave you with a cover image.

Update #3 (May 24, 2018): The watch face has been approved and is now available on the Samsung Galaxy App store. As an homage to Boaty McBoatface, I have named it as McWatchFace, so you know how to find it.

Update #4 (June 2, 2018): v1.0.2 was published earlier this week and it introduced the option of choosing the 'Distance Unit' besides squashing some bugs. I had started off with the intent of having a single watch face but a bug in Gear Watch Designer prevented me from implementing the 12/24H toggle. Moreover, since the toggle is dependent on the phone, it might be a good idea to have separate watch faces. I might revisit this idea later but for now I suppose I could move towards experimenting with the other features available in GWD.

Update #5 (June 10, 2018): v1.0.3 ushers in animation, starting with the weather icon. I have also published a YouTube video depicting the features of the watch face, as of this version.


Yours truly has also presented own self with a 'signature edition', remarkably named 'MyWatchFace'. Unfortunately, there is no means for user customisation, so this one remains in my sole possession.


Update #6 (June 12, 2018): Samsung seems to have a really inconsistent policy. While v1.0.3 of the 12-Hour version was published without any issues, the similar 24-hour variant was rejected for not supporting Chinese and Arabic.

It would  make sense if the issue was replicable but the emulator as well as my Gear Fit2 Pro show the date just fine in all languages including Chinese and Arabic. It should be mentioned that the language on the Gear Fit2 Pro mirrors that of the phone, so testing the languages implies changing the  primary language of the phone which gets ridiculous real fast.

So, to take the ridiculousness up a notch, I have submitted the same file once again as one can't resolve an issue that doesn't exist. May be I will catch a break and the watch face will pass through as-is or otherwise some minor tweak might be in order.

Update #7 (June 14, 2018): Unsurprisingly, the watch face was published as submitted and with that I have decided to bring the development of this watch face to an end. Hopefully, I will have time further down the line to create other unique watch faces, in which case they should eventually end up at the Galaxy App Store.

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.

Musing #48: Impact of Spectre/Meltdown patch (With Intel's March Microcode Update)


Spectre and Meltdown have been all over the news in the past few days. While the seriousness of the bug cannot be understated, the speculation on the performance impact of the patch, especially on older processors, has been particularly worrisome. Google and Intel have put forth some assurances, but the end result is yet to be seen.

As my desktop is equipped with the generations-old i5-3470, I have to brace for whatever performance degradation comes with the patch. Unfortunately, with ASRock having released the last BIOS update for my motherboard in 2013, one can only hope to receive an official update. For the time being, the only option is to rely on Microsoft's Windows 10 patch which only partially mitigates this issue.

Even then, it offers a first glimpse at the performance that has to be scarified in lieu of security. Intel has stated that the impact will vary based on the task and hence there is no easy way to determine the impact of the patch. I went with Cinebench R15 and CrystalDiskMark to quickly capture the impact on some everyday tasks.

As can be seen in the screenshot below, the performance impact seems to be quite significant with the post-patch score being nearly 7% lower. This is by all means a huge impact and cannot be disregarded.