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.