Musing #72: R.I.P. A50

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

1. Rooting the device (optional)

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

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

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

2. Installing Island and making it device admin

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

3. Installing Greenify

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

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

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

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

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

8. Loss

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

9. Conclusion

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

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

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

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


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

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

Super Slow-Mo Mode:

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

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

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

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


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

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

Night Mode:

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

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


Review #61: Samsung Galaxy A50 (May 2019)


Being an early adopter of devices is a huge risk because you don't often know what you are getting into. In some cases, it is less of a risk because the company has a good track record and the device is a flagship one. However, that may not be true of mid-range devices, especially when the company doesn't quite have a track record of providing long-term, timely updates even for flagship devices.

It has been two and a half years since I switched from Android to iOS and the fact that I am still holding on to my first iPhone is a testament to the device continuing to meet my expectations. However, circumstances necessitated the move to a multi-SIM, consumption oriented device and for that, there are no shortage of options in the Android ecosystem that provide bang for the buck. Thus, for all the horrors in the world, I am now cohabiting with two mobile devices that are capable of going thermonuclear.

Musing #70: Early days (of review)

It would be in good humour to pull a fast one on the 1st of April but keeping in line with what's in vogue with tech giants this season, I have refrained from doing the same; though you can always refer to my ode to this occasion from 3 years ago. This might however leave you wondering about the image accompanying this post.

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 #47: Walnutt Flexible Bumper Case (iPhone) ★★★☆☆



A bump in the road!
A bumper case is a sweet compromise between using the phone as manufactured and sheathing it in a figurative armour. The RhinoShield CrashGuard has done well in this space and while price is a genuine concern when purchasing it in India, it also has its fair share of issues with its width, buttons and removal. Far cry from that is the 'Walnutt' bumper case. Going by the different brands and prices this case is sold under, it seems to be a generic case, rather than one from a specific company.

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.

Review #10: Sony SBH54 Bluetooth Headset (October 2017 update) ★★★☆☆

Good design, let down terribly by software and connectivity
Update #6 (Oct 30, 2017): For the first time in a long time, an update is not about the latest firmware. I recently got my hands on the Fiio BTR1, so stay tuned for that review later in the week. However, over the course of testing that device, I revisited the SBH54 and finally checked its codec support. Sony only lists support for the A2DP v1.2 profile, so the exact codec support isn't clear and I can't believe that I didn't test for it until now. Guess it's better late than never.

1. SBH54 has AAC support, so Apple Music and local AAC files are directly transmitted to the SBH54 without re-encoding.
2. The device doesn't support the optional MP3 codec, so direct decoding of it fails. Since the SBH54 also lacks aptX support, MP3 files are re-encoded to SBC prior to transmission.
3. Similar to MP3, Spotify streams in Ogg Vorbis are re-encoded to the much inferior SBC prior to transmission to the SBH54.
There you have it. The complete list of codec support includes the optional AAC in addition to the mandatory SBC. I assume that Sony also didn't include support for its proprietary ATRAC codec, but even if it did, it's redundant and doesn't have any practical usage. So, AAC (Apple Music) files are the best way to go on the SBH54 as they are played back natively, to the best of the device's ability. Meanwhile, if your MP3 collection and Spotify didn't sound so good on the SBH54, then you know why.

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.

Sundry #10: Claiming AmazonBasics warranty

I have been an Amazon convert for quite some time now. It is true that Prime delivery can be flaky, but the customer service offered is unparalleled. There hasn't been a single situation where I haven't received the appropriate redressal, be it refund, replacement or compensation. Although it is a money-losing endeavour, offering Prime membership at ₹499/year along with Prime Video has definitely been a masterstroke and can be written off as marketing cost. The allegiance to Amazon has come at the expense of Flipkart, which certainly offered a similar level of service when it had money to burn but has fallen by the wayside as far as I am concerned, even though it might still have a higher GMV. Then, there is the review aspect, which appeals to me personally and is a great mess at Flipkart.

I speak of service as I recently decided to avail the 1-year warranty for an AmazonBasics product. The product involved is the 10-feet MicroUSB cable. To quote what I had mentioned in my review:
The primary concern is that the longer they are, the easier they fail.
Sure enough, it did. By fail, I mean that I can't use it for the primary purpose of charging since its charging ability has diminished significantly. Charging times have increased by a factor of 5 and the problem is easily visible when using with the Raspberry Pi where the under-voltage icon is a constant presence. The moral of the story is to avoid purchasing cables any longer than necessary.

I continue to digress, so I shall finally arrive to the point. Most people don't bother with the warranty of a product, especially cables since they are far too disposable. However, most AmazonBasics products come with a 1-year limited warranty and I decided to put it to the test. Claiming the same in India involves making contact with Cloudtail service using phone or email:
1800-419-0416 | cloudtail@blubirch.com

I chose the email route and had to send a photo of the product along with the invoice. However, don't expect a response as rapid as the ones you get from Amazon Customer Service. In my case, I had to send a reminder a week later and sure enough it worked wonders. Within minutes, I was issue a gift certificate with the same value as the purchase price of the product. Now that's what I call service, even for a basic product. It might have to do with the fact that the cable itself is no longer in stock, since all AmazonBasics products are direct Chinese imports. So, your experience may vary, but rest assured resolution is always around the corner.

Would it make sense to buy the same product again...I think not. If you are really inclined to 10-feet of convenience, then I would recommend the Anker PowerLine, even though it comes at a premium. Note that the recommendation isn't based on my personal experience with the product, but rather with the brand. Till now, it has never failed to deliver.

Review #43: The One Device


As a technology enthusiast, there was no escaping this book. I refer to technology rather than a company because I have never been an ardent Apple or Google fan, having only recently switched from Android to iOS. At the same, it wasn't a case of eagerness to read the book as it was the fact that I was bombarded with references to the book wherever I went, be it on podcasts or tech sites. Hence, I was able to put the book further down my reading list until I finally came across it a few days back.

Going by the book's name and the timing of its release, it would be valid to presume that it has the blessings of Apple and would offer candid insights from the who’s who of the iPhone team. However, as the book makes it clear upfront, Apple's veil of secrecy extends to the extent that no current (and some former) employee can share their story on the record. Hence, the book instead relies on the recounting by other industry stalwarts as well as anonymous Apple sources. This kind of anonymity can impact the credibility of some of the stories but in this case, it can't be helped and it certainly seems to fit the narrative. The other aspect is that one may be beguiled in to thinking that the book would only be focussed on the immediate story of the device's inception, however that is thankfully left to the eponymous last chapter of the book. As a result, the book is able to tell a much more holistic story than would have been possible if it had been focussed on the device alone.

As soon as you start reading the book, it becomes evident that the author is extending a thread from Steve Jobs' biography with his allusion to the "lone inventor" and the author admits to as much. While being repetitive, it is essential to do so because one must see past the mist of Steve Jobs to understand the significantly substantial efforts put in by thousands of others. In fact, the hard headedness of Steve meant that others had to put in far more onerous efforts to help him see the light of the day, only for him to take all the credit. At the same time, Steve paved the highway to success that few other leaders can, bogged down by the immense bureaucracy within the company.

The initial chapters of the book make it amply clear than the iPhone was a significant evolution than the revolution it was proclaimed to be. Another case of standing on the shoulders of giants. This is essentially the premise of the book as it unearths the origins of all that made the iPhone possible. It is humbling to think that century-old satire rather than science fiction accurately portrayed the state of affairs in the 21st century. Even then, the patent arts littered throughout the book indicate how ideas have to wait for years in order for technology to catch up and portray them as revolutionary.

A couple of topics that have always been associated with Apple and the iPhone are conflict mining and the state of working conditions in factories. Both these aspects are covered in detail in the chapters "Minephones", "Lion Batteries" and "Designed in California, Made in China". It is in a way mortifying to think of the people, especially children, whose livelihood depends on cheating death daily to ship the materials for the iPhone. The book is even replete with an adventure in Foxconn City, a humbling insight in to the human price of the iPhone. Of course, Apple has taken steps to ensure better working conditions but that doesn't help those who continue to work in abject conditions for other manufacturers, especially Chinese ones that have less regard for human rights.

As much as users may be pedantic over the iPhone's appearance, it is heartening to see the same level of attention being shown to its components by the author. Hence, the later chapters focus on the origins of Gorilla Glass, multi touch, image stabilization, sensors, processors, antenna, Siri and security enclave. This makes for an interesting read and again emphasizes the notion that the iPhone was more evolutionary than revolutionary as it managed to reap the benefits of miniaturization over the decades and integrate them in a rather appealing package. At the same time, it seems that the author tries a bit too hard in associating modern technology with erstwhile relics like the volvelle because it fits the narrative from his perspective. The book also captures the once prolific jailbreaking scene which has since slowed to a crawl with incremental feature and security updates in iOS. Nonetheless, it was great to hear from the various personalities involved in it as my exposure was simply limited to running the tools bearing their name.

As I have glossed over previously, those expecting an origin story of the iPhone, ought to find solace in the last chapter of the book. Of course, the build up to it is scattered across the chapters, without which you wouldn't be able to identify the characters involved. However, the emphasis once again is on the sacrifice of the unsung heroes involved in the creation of the device. While the sufferings of the designers in US might not have been at the same level as those involved in mining and assembly, there isn't denying the fact that the one device has claimed its fair share of victims along the way.

Reflecting on the book, it is apparent it was meant to be a reference on the iPhone and not so much about an iPhone. It is historic in context and therefore will stand the test of time as an accurate reflection of the iPhone's legacy on its 10th anniversary, much more than Apple's pretentious photo book. However, the book is by no means a page turner and could have benefited significantly from being tauter. While a good story has certainly been told, it hasn't been done in a particularly engaging manner. Still. this is a recommended read for anyone interested in technology and smartphones, rather than just the iPhone.

Musing #34: Shifting of personal music collection to Apple Music


Switching back to iOS 10.3.2 from the iOS 11 beta and having to go through my music library to download the tracks once again made me realize that my personal music collection isn't as well sorted as it should be. I had never committed myself to using Apple Music as my one stop music solution, having dabbled across other streaming service providers in the past. However, I finally bit the bullet as I found it to be the most convenient option for accessing my entire collection on the iPhone.

I should add that switching to Apple Music for all your music needs isn't the most seamless thing one can experience in the Apple ecosystem. One can also argue about the audio quality at 256 Kbps AAC, but that is subject to personal preference and doesn't perturb me too much. So, what does the experience of jumping with both feet in to Apple Music entail?

1. Tagging your offline collection

Irrespective of whether you use Apple Music, it is always a great idea to properly tag and organize all your personal music files. In the past, I have used MediaMonkey and MusicBee on the basis of their interfaces and they just about got the job done.

However, I found MusicBrainz Picard to be the best solution when tagging en masse. The scraper managed to match nearly 95% of my collection. For the unmatched ones, you can manually search for similar files or lookup online using the browser. In my case, I couldn't get the web tagging to work seamlessly, but that didn't matter much as the built-in search worked just fine.

The best thing is that you can easily choose the fields to be updated, including the artwork. Manual editing of the most obscure tracks is also pretty straightforward, though it requires additional effort on one's part. The benefit of this exercise is a well organized local collection that is easily accessible and recognizable across devices.

2. To the iCloud the music shall go

iTunes allows you to manually add up to 100,000 of your songs to the iCloud Music Library and access them on any device which accepts your Apple ID. The first thing you should know is that the files are converted to 256 Kbps AAC irrespective of your audio quality, something that may not be entirely desirable. Secondly, the upload process just doesn't work the way it should.

On Windows, I had multiple upload failures which was not easily detectable on iTunes since it didn't explicitly prompt about it. The failures are evident on rummaging through the 'Recently Added' list and finding out the ones with the "exclamation cloud" icons. I managed to re-upload some of these after multiple attempts, even as there was no obvious reason for the upload failure to begin with. Moreover, the synchronization on the iPhone manifested itself only when I toggled the 'iCloud Music Library' option from the Settings. Even then, there were a few files which hadn't uploaded to the cloud, evident by them being greyed out on the iPhone.

This entire process was certainly an exercise in frustration, but unfortunately the worst was yet to come.

3. iTunes Match - When reality doesn't meet expectations

Apple Music matches each uploaded track on the basis of its fingerprint and replaces it with an equivalent track from its catalogue. The point to keep in mind though is that all these replacement files are loaded with DRM that lock the files to your account and subscription. In my case, I have certain old tracks of suspect quality, so I didn't mind this exercise as I had a backup of my original files. Ideally, it is a good solution to ensuring consistent audio quality and would have been acceptable if it worked as it should, except that it doesn't.

The most egregious aspect is that the replacement track, although the same in name, can end up being a vastly different variant. I had many of my edits and remixes being replaced by completely unrelated versions which is infuriating to say the least. This meant combing through the collection once again and finding the right variant. How a 3-minute track can be replaced by a 7-minute extended version when in fact the original 3-minute variant is present on Apple Music is simply beyond me.

As you can determine by the above description, shifting your entire music collection to Apple Music isn't for the faint hearted. Apparently, Apple will allow FLAC to be used as well from the iCloud Drive which would be another disjointed process added to the mix. If you care for your music like I do, you might think it worthwhile to invest a substantial amount of time in this process, otherwise I can't really recommend it.

While accessibility and affordability are prime drivers for subscribing to such services, the flip side is that the more you use it for music discovery, the more you lock yourself in. You limit your exposure to music within the selected ecosystem and there is no easy means to migrate to another service. A time shall come when, for better or for worse,  you shall no longer have an offline music library and you wouldn't have to worry about uploading and conversion at all. But whether it makes your music experience any richer is highly debatable.

Musing #33: iOS 11 - First Look


It is that time of the year again when Apple provides its first peek at non-iPhone hardware and of course, the next version of iOS. As a first time iPhone user with the iPhone 7, this happens to be my first major OS update and hence I couldn't resist trying out the first beta. A forewarning though - this release is absolutely deserving of the "beta" tag and there are bugs all over the place that should be enough of a deterrent to not use it as a daily driver.

1.  The first boot to the lock screen immediately gives a glimpse of the new design language. I prefer this translucent button look over the outlined circles in iOS 10 and the reversion to the signal bars is a welcome change. However, for some reason, I had Bluetooth enabled on my first boot, the first indication of a bug.

2. Diving straight in to one of the major changes in iOS 11 - the Control Centre. The full screen control centre, with its default setting, looks rather bland with all the empty space at the top. Moreover, some of the controls are counter intuitive. For example, the Bluetooth control cannot be used to switch it on but only gets activated when a device is connected and the volume control only affects media playback rather than the ringer volume, even when no media is present.
The benefits of 3D Touch has always been arguable, but here it expands the controls further. The ability to quickly toggle off mobile data is much welcome.
The Control Centre is finally customizable, but it only impacts the bottom row of controls. If you want to go overboard with it, this is how it looks. Obviously, Apple has a lot of work to do here.

3. A focus on simplification - the iMessage shortcut bar. It is good riddance too as the previous interface was very poor for discovery. The shortcut bar appears by itself on the opening of an existing message even if it is not an iMessage. Recalling it with the keyboard open takes some effort as you have to make sure it is an iMessage and then click on the App Store icon. So, there are few things to be sorted here as well.


4. The dialler follows the new design language as well but with the backspace button at the bottom, next to the Call button. I think that is a more practical placement in terms of making correction to an entered number.

5. The new App Store design is interesting to say the least but it requires quite a lot of scrolling and has very little information density. Funnily enough, while Apple showcased the new Safari feature of blocking the annoying autoplay videos, it has embraced the same in the App Store. The second screenshot here is actually a gameplay video that auto plays on scrolling, though thankfully the video is muted by default, much like Steam.

6. The notification shade is now a replica of the lock screen. I would rather have it not hiding my notifications because that is precisely the reason I am swiping down.

7. I can seldom get Siri to understand my needs, but it was worth a try. Although Siri speaks "Chinese" and not Hindi, the point is moot for there is no support for translation from "Indian English".

8. Apple hasn't re-embraced skeuomorphism, but the calculator is a hark back to the days of old with its colour scheme.

9. Finally, the all new Files app. It is barely functional at the moment and doesn't even find a place in the Settings menu, but a file manager is certainly welcome even if it is limited in functionality compared to other OS.

10. Lastly, the benefits of HEVC should be quite apparent, especially when shooting in high resolution. However, I went with shooting slo-mo at 720p/240 FPS and the resulting video on iOS 11 simply wouldn't play back on any other device. Curiously, considering the same subject and settings, the video size for the 10-sec clip was higher at 61 MB on iOS 11, compared to 48 MB on iOS 10. I assume it is just another quirk since normal videos have been reported to be of half the size and playable with any H.265 compatible media player.