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 As I had made this purchase a couple of months ago, at that time it was the WF-1000XM3, since superseded by the XM4.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


Review #65: Asus TUF Gaming A15 Laptop (Ryzen 7 4800H | RTX 2060) ★★★★✭

 Team Red + Team Green - A killer combination!


Introduction:

Ever since Y2K, when AMD stole the limelight for a bit with breaking the 1 GHz barrier and releasing AMD64, AMD as a company failed to impress on me the need to purchase their products. I had opted for Intel just prior to the Athlon breakthrough and every upgrade cycle of 4-5 years led me to opt for Intel. Hence, I was simply enthralled at switching to Team Red after nearly two decades of being stuck with Team Blue. My GPU always has been Team Green but with the integrated Vega 7, there is a dash of Red over there as well.

The Choice:

During the holiday sale 2020, it was between this and the Acer Predator Helios 300 for the princely sum of "not quite" one lakh INR. I could see the reviews racking up for the Core i7 variant on Flipkart and I had even purchased the same but cancelled it as soon as I came across this Renoir masterpiece. It helped that Amazon also offered a much higher exchange price for an old laptop that was lying around, compared to Flipkart.

To put it straight, the Helios 300 has only one thing going for it compared to this one and that is the screen. On the flip side, this comes with a monster CPU, DDR4-3200, a 2000+ Mbps 1 TB SSD from Western Digital, a large 90 Wh battery, lighter weight, higher travel keyboard and about as good a cooling solution as the Helios. It also looks more professional than the Helios, so you can use it in formal environments without having people snickering at you. So overall, it is a win for the A15 over the Helios 300.

Display:

To address the elephant in the room, Asus gimped on the screen, using a Panda panel that has only about 65% sRGB colour gamut and >20 ms response time with quite some screen flex. It pales (no pun intended) in comparison to the 90% sRGB panel with 3ms response time on the Helios, but that is about it. I still managed to get popping colours out of it by increasing the saturation on Radeon Software and calibrating the display from within Windows. Sure, it throws accuracy out of the window in favour of something eye-pleasing but I am not looking to do any colour-work on it and even otherwise, I am looking to connect it to my 120 Hz 4K TV at home for gaming. I am unsure about it, but with the HDMI or DisplayPort output being driven by Vega, it should also support FreeSync directly compared to laptops having output routed through the Intel GPU.

Hardware:


The primary reason for getting this laptop is the Ryzen 4000 series. The 4800H puts the Core i7 to shame. I ran Cinebench after updating the system and without any tweaks. It registered nearly 500 on the single core and 4386 on the multi core, that even the Core i9-9980HK can't touch in most laptops, due to it being a blast furnace rather than a processor. The 4800H did not even touch 80 degrees on the Cinebench multi-core test. It did go past 90 on Firestrike but it never thermally throttled whereas the under-volted 9980HK in my earlier laptop hit 100 degrees within seconds and throttled like it was being asphyxiated.

The RTX 2060 is also the 2020 "refresh" variant with the 1.25V GDDR6 and higher TDP. It passed 15,000 on Firestrike on the first run but with the CPU running much cooler, it opens up the possibility of over-clocking the GPU farther than you can on an Intel machine.

Among other points, the machine ran without much noise on the benchmarks, but I expect it to reach whirring heights with demanding games, something that is to be expected of most gaming laptops. I haven’t checked the battery life and probably never will over the life of the laptop, as I always used it plugged, but the 90 Wh battery with the 4800H will provide a longer battery life than any Intel gaming laptop. The lonely USB 2.0 port on the right-hand side is a bit of a let-down but I have my fingerprint reader permanently plugged in so that I can use Windows Hello. Not having TB3 is also disappointing but I can’t see myself needing it over the lifespan of the laptop as DLSS will most probably help with higher resolutions in the near future.

Tweaking:

As expected, the UEFI on the laptop is barebone. AMD also doesn't support Ryzen Master on laptops, leaving it to OEMs to decide on the thermal envelope. That leaves Ryzen Controller as a tool of choice as it has experimental 4000-series support but with it currently being limited to STAPM settings, it is more likely to be needed to extract more performance rather than to lower temperatures, and thus is not the need of the hour.

However, as I mentioned previously, there is light at the end of the tunnel in terms of extracting more performance from the GPU. As the following 3DMark screenshots indicate, the GPU is able to provide 6-7% more performance using Auto-Overclock at the loss of less than 1% CPU performance. The GPU temperatures too are similar, though the CPU temperature does go up by 4-5 degrees at idle and 2-3% degrees at full load, but still does not throttle.

Warranty:

The unit received from Amazon was manufactured just 2 weeks before as per the warranty registration date. It can be changed to the invoice date by providing Asus with the invoice and a photo of the laptop serial number. An additional year of warranty, after using the 10% off code provided with the laptop, costs about $35 which is quite respectable.

Conclusion:

To sum it up, at the sale price, you can only go wrong with a gaming laptop if you choose Intel. Asus got most things right apart from the screen which is gut-wrenching but not a deal breaker, especially if you use a monitor or TV. In this case, it is what’s inside that counts and this thing is as TUF as it gets.

P.S.: It comes with a huge 16A plug that would probably go well with a microwave in the kitchen. Thankfully, the power adapter has a standard connector as a desktop PSU, so I was able to connect a 16A cable with the regular sized plug. You can also probably get away with a lower amperage cable but it is best to get a 16A one if you can.

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



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

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

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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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



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

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


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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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


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

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

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


Review #62: Anne Pro II ★★★★✬


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

Package:

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


Setup:

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

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


Product:

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Lighting:

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

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

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

Software:

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


Price:

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

Conclusion:

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

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

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.

Review #60: Logitech MX Anywhere 2S ★★★★☆

Prologue:

For a lot of people, a mouse is what you need to simply move the cursor on the screen, everything else being inconsequential. For numerous years, I subscribed to the same school of thought and economised my mice expenses. Such a thought would be sacrilege to a gamer, though thankfully I don't count myself as one. However, that doesn't imply that I ignored the DPI, sensor and button customizations when making a mouse purchase.

While I had given up on office mice a long time ago, I couldn't help but put up the pretence of buying a gaming mouse. As a result, I purchased my first adjustable DPI mouse in the form of the Logitech G90 a few years ago, something a gamer would not be caught dead with. It only had 3 adjustable settings but it went up to 2500 DPI with a polling rate of 500/s which seemed plenty enough for almost everything I did. Unfortunately, the mouse met its demise prematurely in a quirky manner wherein the sensor went dead with the device still being detected and buttons still being functional.

Purchase:

For my next purchase, I needed to go a step further. This could have meant getting a higher DPI wired mouse, but I found better value in going wireless. Due to my setup, my mouse wire often tangled with the keyboard tray and I wouldn't have any more of it. I had a "wireless" mouse in the form of the Logitech M557 Bluetooth mouse which helped me realise the limitations of a low (1000) DPI mouse with a dodgy sensor. The best of both worlds would be getting a high(-ish) DPI wireless mouse and so began my scouting.

Despite my failure rate with Logitech, I wasn't ready to switch camp just yet. Razer has a range of fugly, high DPI wireless mice with a worse failure rate and no local customer support, so it wasn't as if I was spoilt for choice. I had set my mind on not spending more than INR 3500 (USD 50) and this narrowed the field to the point that nothing caught my eye. Raising the bar a bit led me to the concerned product but at 5k INR (USD 70), it seemed a bit much compared to its US pricing of $50.

However, there is an e-tail world beyond Amazon and Flipkart which led me to check Croma and surprisingly, the product was listed for less than INR 3000 (USD 40). Well, to be clear, the listing wasn't for the Anywhere 2S but rather for the Anywhere 2. I called the local store to check the availability of the product and was rather pleased to hear them confirm that the product is indeed the Anywhere 2S. I can only put it down to a product listing error considering the price difference and the fact that it is no longer available on Croma.

Packaging:
As far as packaging goes, it is a case of keeping it simple and elegant, the black-green theme of the box goes well with the box image depicting the blackish-grey mouse with its green power LED. Flipping the magnetically locked box open brings in to the spotlight the thing that you spend your hard cash on.
Apart from the product and documents, the packaging contains a Micro-USB cable which I don't see the use for considering its persisting ubiquity after all these years and a 2.4 GHz Logitech Unifying Receiver (technically transreceiver). The older versions of the "Nano USB" receiver were susceptible to MouseJack, but the one that comes with this mouse (C-U0012) is supposedly safe.

Features:

The reason for selecting the mouse was its versatility. In addition to the Logitech Unifying receiver, it also works with Bluetooth thereby offering universal functionality across devices and operating systems. On Windows 10, using the receiver was as simple as plugging it in, following which the Logitech Options software was automatically downloaded and installed by Windows, offering a pretty seamless experience. Bluetooth pairing is simple too, requiring a press of the button at the bottom to switch to one of the three available slots, each accompanied by a LED. Irrespective of the receiver, it does the job to the effect that wires wouldn't be missed.


The ability to pair and switch between three devices is by far the most utilitarian feature of the mouse as wireless mice tend to be used with multiple devices, in my case with my desktop, laptop and Fire TV. The state of each slot can be deciphered with the LED behaviour, the currently used one doesn't blink, the other occupied ones blink slowly whereas the unoccupied one blinks rapidly. Any occupied slot can be paired again by long pressing the button. The LEDs switch off when the device is in use, thereby preserving battery.

Battery:

Speaking of battery, the battery life is stated as 70 days. I have used it for 45 days now and the battery status is at level 2 out of 3, termed as "Good" within Logitech Options. Low battery life is (supposedly) indicated with a blinking of the green LED on the front face which also doubles up to indicate charging status and completion. I presume it will exceed the stated battery life of 70 days but the only way to know for sure would be to let the battery drain out completely. When it does, charging shouldn't be bother as it doesn't take hours to do a complete charge using the integrated Micro-USB port while a minute of charge provides enough charge to last for 2 hours. Unfortunately, the Micro-USB port cannot be used to convert the mouse in to a wired one which would have been a great addition to the feature set.

Tracking:

While marketing teams tend to generate buzzwords with the sole intention of swaying customers, it seems that they have managed to resist departing the realms of reality with the term 'darkfield laser tracking' as the mouse does uses dark field illumination. This allows for tracking on glass and I can attest to its ability after seeing my optical M557 mouse fail miserably on a glass surface. Even if you are not one to go to extreme surfaces, the 2S does a great job of tracking on mouse pads, a necessity for any mouse warrior.

Software:

This mouse is supported by the Logitech Options software which extends the utility and customization of the mouse. As I mentioned previously, it was auto-installed on Windows and I assume the same for Mac. Unfortunately, those are the only two platforms supported, so it works like any other mouse when paired with other platforms. The ubiquity of Bluetooth implies that the product will have universal support and the only time one is likely to be caught out is when accessing the UEFI on a PC with an unsupported motherboard.

The main benefit of the software is the button customization. While each button can be assigned a distinct function, the button on the face of the mouse acts like a gesture button, combining the button press with the mouse movement direction to provide a total of 5 functions. Unfortunately for me, the customized gestures stopped working after a few reboots and Logitech Options kept on crashing when the gesture button was selected from within the software. This hasn't yet been resolved even after multiple Logitech Options updates, so I assume it is not a priority. In the meantime, I am using the gesture button only for showing/hiding the desktop.

Another irritant for some people would be that the scroll wheel doesn't click. It moves left/right to provide two additional "buttons" but clicking the wheel changes the scroll resistance which some people might end up invoking inadvertently. This doesn't bother me so much as I have assigned the top side button to the middle click function and find it convenient to use for applications and games.


Lastly, one of the key features of the mouse - adjustable DPI is inexplicably made accessible in a manner that beggars belief. While other mice have a button dedicated for this function, in case of the MX series, it can only be accessed by assigning the "Change Pointer Speed" function to one of the buttons which can be a bit misleading. However, for intents and purposes, it seems to refer to DPI adjustment as the function toggles between two sensitivity values on click which can be adjusted on the fly. Moreover, there are 76 steps between the minimum and maximum values which fits in well with the 200 to 4000 DPI range of the mouse in increments of 50 DPI. I prefer to use the mouse at around 1000-1200 DPI for normal use and anywhere between 1600-3000 DPI for gaming and it works admirably for either use cases.

Conclusion:

What's in a mouse? A lot, if you care for it. Even if you don't, the Anywhere 2S is a great wireless option for anybody. If you don't harbour pro-gamer aspirations and have a job to do in front of the PC, then this mouse tackles work and leisure admirably in equal measure.

Review #56: Xgimi Z6 Polar ★★★★½

Update #1 (March 1, 2019):

In my video review, I had stated the audio to be just about good enough, despite the Harman Kardon branding. In fact, I would still recommend getting an external speaker for the best experience. However, if that is not possible, then the wizardry mentioned subsequently will enable you to get the most out of the Z6 speakers.


As it turns out, Xgimi has a hidden "Design Menu" within GMUI which can be accessed, at least in the case of Z6, by long-pressing the "right" direction key on the 'System Information' screen. The "hidden" menu pops up on the left as seen in the above image. At this point, I should make it clear that the 'Audio' settings that I am discussing is listed under 'Non-standard options', so there is no guarantee that it wouldn't damage the device. Hence, caution is advised.

Within the 'Audio' menu, there is a "prescale" option that goes from '0x00' to '0xff' in Hex, or "00" to "255" if you prefer Base 10. My rather rusty knowledge of electronics from eons ago helps me recollect the use of a prescaler in a microcontroller to determine which oscillator pulse triggers an interrupt. How the prescale value specifically impacts the audio in this case is beyond me.

But impact the audio it does. The default value is set at '0x01' and on changing it downwards, I could immediately perceive an increase in volume while incrementing it didn't seem to have much of an impact. Thus, it was time to note down some observations. I changed the value to 2 levels from default in either direction and then to various quarter levels (25%, 50%, 75%) to gauge the impact.

Prescale Value
Decimal Notation
Max dB
Avg dB
Comments
0x00
0
96
86
-
0x01 (Default)
1
88
76
-
0x02
2
90
76
-
0x03
3
88
77
-
0x3f
63
93
82
-
0x7f
127
95
86
-
0xbf
191
95
88
Moderate distortion
0xff
255
95
89
Extreme distortion

If I don't go by the values alone, then I would say '0xff' seems the loudest, probably because it is also extremely harsh to listen to. Practically, '0x00' and '0x7f' are the best values for this option. They are nearly identical in volume, but I found the sound from '0x7f' to be livelier, probably because it adds the right amount of "harshness" that becomes unbearable at the higher values.

It is miles away from the quality I get from the JBL Xtreme, but in terms of loudness, it makes the Z6 much more suitable for a small room.


Original Article (December 18, 2018):

My previous post on the Z6 alluded to the upcoming review but it was around that time I decided to embrace the video format over written words, not that you are spared reading, as the video is littered with text overlays.

It also provided me an opportunity to try out various non-linear editing systems (NLE) and I eventually settled on Lightworks. Considering it took me a few hours to come up with this output, I can't recommend it enough, simply for its lack of a learning curve, though I expect mastery of it to take ages. The video itself is a farrago of poorly shot video, PowerPoint slides and images, so make of it what you may.

The down side to using the free version is that export is limited to 720p but I am sure you can live with that. With that (again), I will let the video to do the talking, especially as I haven't done any.