Musing #73: Raspberry Pi 4B - SD Card vs SSD



Earlier this year, I bid finally bid adieu to my Raspberry Pi 2 in favour of the Raspberry Pi 4B. The RPi 4B certainly opens up new horizons with its additional power, though I don't suppose it is a desktop replacement as some marketing material would have you believe. I couldn't care less about that aspect as it is meant to be more of a hobbyist product, though I did switch over to MATE desktop environment from the kiddish-looking LXDE environment that the Raspberry Pi OS comes with by default.

What I was looking for most is the general increase in performance and with the BCM2836 SoC in the Pi 2 v1.1 not supporting USB boot, this was the first time I could boot off the USB. I immediately jumped on to the 64-bit beta back in May along with the EEPROM update that allowed booting off a USB drive.

I already had a Sandisk X110 M.2 SSD with me from an older tablet and a M.2 to USB enclosure. Unfortunately, I quickly realised that the enclosure was not up to the task as even loading the boot files failed repeatedly. It seems the controller on a cheap enclosure isn't really that good (who would have thought?), so it meant getting another one instead. I went with a ORICO one this time, not expecting it to be great but at least better than the one I had since it cost 3 times as much. Sure enough, it did the job.

So how fast is the SSD over the SD card? Unsurprisingly, it is quite significant. The lower power of the processor on the Pi gives a better idea of the difference made by SSD alone, though with it being limited to a shared 5 Gbps interface, the full extent wouldn't be evident if you plug in another USB 3 device or wastefully plug in a NVMe SSD instead of a NGFF one.

Long story short, unless you need your Pi to occupy as much less space as possible, it makes sense to boot off a SSD instead of a SD card. Also, if you have a good case, like the Argon One I picked up recently, it is possible to overclock it to the maximum 2.147 GHz without voiding the warranty and still keep the temperatures lower than the stock frequency without cooling. All this does tempt me to give the Pi a go as a daily driver, but for now there are many other creative uses for the device that take precedence. Until next time, Godspeed!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 #59: JBL Xtreme ★★★★½


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Review #58: Yeelight Smart LED and Motion Sensor Nightlight ★★★★★

With the purchase process detailed out previously, this post moves on to the products that constituted the buying experience. I had made a reference to Yeelight in the earlier post, though it was bereft of any specifics. Now, I can reveal the products to be the Yeelight Smart LED Bulb (Colour) and the Motion Sensor Rechargeable Nightlight.

1. Yeelight Smart LED Bulb (Colour)
Philips Hue has been the trendsetter in the category of wireless lighting for eons but it would be best to call it an aspirational piece of equipment after factoring in the cost of the setup also involving the Bridge. For anyone looking at wireless lighting with nothing more than inquisitiveness, there is no better option than the Yeelight Smart LED Bulb.

Musing #67: Valley of the Boom


I will admit that I am a sucker for tech docudramas and find it cringe-worthy when it goes too far off the rails. It is one of the reasons that I could never appreciate Halt and Catch Fire to the extent that a tech aficionado ought to. On the other hand, Pirates of Silicon Valley was far more watchable despite its inaccuracies. Hence, when I came to know of 'Valley of the Boom', I had to give it a go. At the time of writing, only two of the six episodes have been made available on the NatGeo website and while it is not fair to review a series in parts, it is certainly worth musing over.

Musing #66: Hey Siri Google


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

Musing #56: My First Smartwatch Face (McWatchFace)


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

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

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


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


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

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

(Originally published on May 19, 2018)

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


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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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