Review #52: Tale of three (make that five) 3-in-1 cables

Cables are like humans, more than one can imagine. Looks can be deceiving and it is what's inside that matters. However, one can only perceive what one can see and hence the truth lies largely concealed. Thankfully, that is where the similarities end since marketing buzzwords like "gold plated", "tinned copper", "braided nylon" wouldn't really work well as complements for humans.

My tryst for the holy grail of cables started some time back when I started off with the Flome 3-in-1 cable, which, for the record, left me thoroughly disappointed. I have resigned myself to the fact that as long as reputable brands don't get in to the game, the possibility of expecting the ultimate phone charging cable to come from no-name brands in China is as large as catching the unicorn at the end of the rainbow. However, that hasn't deterred me from trying.

Since my last look at charging cables, I have added a couple more 3-in-1 cables, one from Baseus and another from "Fake Mi". The Baseus brand has proliferated quite a bit and I had my first go at it when I purchased a tempered glass for my iPhone. As it turned out, the mention of glass for the product was an euphemism but even then, the brand gets full marks for design and half for deception. I had a good experience with Mi's 2-in-1 cable which I had received with the Mi Power Bank Pro and although there is no mention of a 3-in-1 cable on Mi China's website, I went along for the ride by placing an order for the "Fake Mi" 3-in-1 cable. In this case, it was better to judge the cable by its cover since the package was branded as "Zaofeng" but the product could easily pass off  as an official Mi one.

Along with these three "the last cable you will ever need" cables, I have roped in two "not so in name but in function" pseudo 3-in-1 cables in the form of the Mi 2-in-1 and the EasyAcc Micro USB cable. In case you are confused, then don't be, as technically any Micro USB cable can be used as a Lightning or Type-C cable with the help of adapters. Sure, you don't get the official certifications, but it can get the job done as far as charging is concerned. In this case, the adapters came from the cannibalisation of other cables. After all, all's fair in love, war and charging.

Here's the fate of the contenders after being put through the trial with an Anker PowerPort 4 charger.

It is easy to draw some quick observations/conclusions from the above.

  • As expected, none of the 3-in-1 cables are up to much good, though the Baseus one seems to be the best of the lot. The finest option yet, as far as charging goes, is to get a good quality Micro USB cable and then use adapters to switch between devices.
  • The adapter quality can affect charging as can be seen by the performance difference of the Lightning one between Flome and Zaofeng. They are available for a few cents and can be jerry-rigged to function like a 3-in-1, though I presume at some point someone will release adapters with clasps. Cannibalisation from existing cables is always an option.
  • It is not a co-incidence that the shorter cables are usually the best. You should get a cable that is only as long as you need it to be. As I had mentioned previously, the longer they are, the easier they fail.
  • While not visible in the table above, the iPhone current draw was markedly different from the Mi devices. While the Mi devices charged flat out at the same current level irrespective of usage, the iPhone switched between 0.9-1.7A  depending on how the device was being utilised. I could draw the maximum current only by recording in 4K. This indicates that the iPhone maintains a preset charging rate for the battery while utilising additional current draw from the charger for on-screen activity. I guess these benefits come through the utilisation of much more expensive power management ICs.

Musing #43: Some cables are more equal than others

Purchasing cables online is a tricky proposition. This is the reason why I have a USB voltage/current tester in my possession to ascertain a cable's mettle. I normally restrict myself to Amazon fulfilled orders so that I can return a cable should it be deemed to be unworthy of its price. However, the more esoteric products from China are rarely available locally and even if they are, the mark-up in pricing is absolutely astounding. Going by the reviews, it seems most are unaware of the source of these products.

Review #42: Philips AZ-1852/98 Soudmachine

For someone born in the 80s, the nostalgia of using a cassette player once again is far too strong, especially if you have a collection collecting dust in a cabinet. In case it's not clear already, then the only reason I bought this player was to digitize the treasure trove of memories embedded in some of the cassettes, not the songs that can be found on streaming services but the self-recorded and obscure ones. However, on the practical front, this player was intended for my parents who wish to have an easy way of re-listening to their specific choice of music which includes regional ones that can't be found in a digital format anymore.

The unit is quite compact and meant to be portable, though at 2.8 kg, it is on par with bulky laptops. It has a collapsible handle up top and support for on-the-go usage through 6 R14 cells. It also comes with a remote, though its usage is mainly limited to controlling CD tracks and the recording functions. To go in to further details, I decided to breakup this review in to various pertinent sections. Since this is first and foremost a music player, I think I should start with the sound quality.

A. Sound Quality: The sound quality is definitely not something to write home about but once you temper your expectations for the price you are paying, it is certainly decent. It will not hold a candle to any home sound system nor can it fulfil the role of a party boom box. However, it can certainly form an integral part of your home entertainment setup, especially as an input source.

The 2 x 1W RMS speaker output is certainly loud enough to fill up a decent sized room and its quality should meet the expectation of any non-discerning listener. It comes with Dynamic Bass Boost (DBB) which I presume is primarily aimed at countering Sony's Mega Bass. Its difference can certainly be felt as it significantly boosts the lower frequencies and can enliven beat heavy music. However, at the same time it boosts the volume which unfortunately may be construed as a "better effect" by most. But that is definitely not the case for all genres of music as it significantly muddies up instrumental and vocal songs. Hence, I would advise judgement when using this setting as it will depend largely on personal preference.

Fortunately, the player comes with a Headphone jack at the back, so you can plug in a speaker system of preference or keep the tunes to yourself if you so desire and enjoy a much higher quality experience.

B. Input Sources: The input source is controlled using a sliding switch and has the following options:

B1. Tape: By default, the player is in the 'Tape' mode because it also happens to be the 'Off' mode. This intertwining of functions can cause some issues which I have described later in the 'Recording/Ripping section. However, the thing to note is that the tape has its own set of mechanical controls and hence is unaffected by the controls on the remote. Although all my cassettes are now decades old, they played quite well out of the box. At a time when we are used to skipping in discrete steps of 5 or 10 seconds, it was fun to use the analogue fast-forward/rewind functions once again. The rewinding/forwarding speed is much higher than the play function, which might be desirable considering that patience is a rarer virtue these days compared to when the cassette was invented.

B2. FM: Considering the fact that most high-end phones have dropped support for FM radio, having a FM player at home feels like a novelty. Having the mediumwave (MW) and shortwave (SW) options to go along with FM would have been cool but considering that the frequency of people tuning in to radio (see what I did there!) has declined, the practicality of not having them is understandable. Depending on how you see it, the presence of the old school manual tuner can be seen as a blessing or a curse. As with the manual volume controls, the inaccessibility of switching channels using a remote might be irksome for many. On the flip side, the unit has a rather long antenna which measures about 31 inches when extended and 9 inches when retracted to fit at the back of the player. This certainly ensures unparalleled coverage within the confines of the walls of the house.

B3. USB: A music player wouldn't be one if it didn't support MP3 files, so this one supports it too. Playback for 320 Kbps files work fine and it is supposed to have support for WMA v9, but other popular file formats like AAC are not supported. This mode can also be used to playback any recorded files, but the order of playback is such that is first plays the files stored directly on the pen drive followed by the ones stored in folders. While SD cards are not supported directly, even cheap card readers work fine with the device. As far as file formats go, FAT32 is the only logical option.

B4. CD: This is the top most option on the source switch but definitely not the last accessible input source (see next). Being a digital source, like USB, it can be controlled using the remote which is mainly limited to skipping tracks and pausing/stopping.

B5. Auxiliary: This option is not present on the source switch but is visible as "AU" on the display as soon as you connect the headphone jack of a device to the 'MP3-Link' switch at the back of the unit.

C. Recording/Ripping: Since this happens to be one of the USPs of this device and also the source of much discontentment among buyers who fail to get it to work properly.

On the face of it, the recording process is the same irrespective of the source.

a. Press the 'USB Rec' to the left of the display or the 'Rec' button on the remote to start recording

b. Press the 'Stop' button to the left of the display or on the remote to stop recording

However, the major source of confusion arises because of two aspects:

a. The actual recording begins 7 secs after the press of the button when the "RIP" symbol starts blinking on the display

b. The mechanical cassette controls are independent of the digital ones used for the recording

Thus, I feel the process needs to be further elucidated:

C1. Cassette digitization: This happens to be the trickiest of all due to the fact that the cassette player works independently of the digital controls present on the player as well as the remote. The method I found to be most convenient is as follows:

a. Play (FF/RW) the cassette till the beginning of a song and press the 'Pause' button on the cassette control panel. The player allows both the Play and the Pause button to be depressed at the same time.

b. Start the recording using the 'USB Rec' button on the player or 'Rec' button the remote and wait about 6 seconds.

c. Release the 'Pause' button on the cassette controls just as the 'RIP' symbol begins to flash. This indicates that the transfer of music from the tape to the USB device has started.

d. If you don't wish to separate tracks later, then stop the recording at the end of each track using the digital 'Stop' button to the left of the display or on the remote while simultaneously pressing the 'Pause' button on the cassette control panel. You have to repeat the procedure for each track on the cassette.

e. It is important to note that the 'Tape' and 'Off' modes are one and the same as far as the source switch is concerned. Hence, allowing the tape to auto stop results in the player being switched off immediately. This causes the file being written on the USB drive to be lost. Hence, you should make it a point to use the digital 'Stop' button whenever you wish the file to be written and this should be before the tape auto stops.

C2. CD Ripping/Copying: This is the most futile feature of the device since the resulting MP3 files are of only 128 Kbps constant bit rate. This works fine for cassettes as the quality is comparable but it is an abomination as far as CDs are concerned. Moreover, the ripping is being done in real time as against the faster speeds achievable on computer CD drives. The saving grace is that the 7-sec recording lag doesn't impact CD ripping as being a digital source, the player is able to hold the playback till the recording begins.

In case you are using a MP3/WMA CD, it simply copies the files to the USB drive which is again pointless since you can copy the files much faster on a PC. Also, for some strange reason it allows the CD to be ripped to a cassette. Figure that out!

C3. Radio recording: As with the CD, you can record to a pen drive or a cassette. However, you must remember that the actual recording will start 7 seconds after you press the recording button, so capturing something as you hear it is out of the question.

To sum it up, apart from digitizing of cassettes, the recording/ripping function isn't of much use due to the low quality (128 Kbps) and the 7-sec lag to the start of a recording. The recorded files are numerically organized in sub-folders within a 'RECORD' folder on the USB drive as 'CDREC_XX' for CD Ripping, 'COPY_XX' for CD Copying and 'LINE_IN' for cassette and radio recordings.

D. Price: I have kept Price as the last parameter because I think the device is totally worth it, as long as you are not paying the MRP of INR 5199. I purchased it for INR 4799 along with a 15% cashback offer on Amazon which puts it effectively at INR 4079. At that price, this device justifies its value in memories.

Review #39: AmazonBasics USB 3.0 Extension Cable (1 meter, 3.3 feet)

The pursuit of (not) back breaking speed!
I can't imagine this cable being useful to anyone else other than the poor souls whose only option to experience USB 3.0 speeds is through the ports on the motherboard at the back of the desktop cabinet. I have had to call my gymnastic skills to action on a number of occasions, re-enacting Mission Impossible style laser grid scenarios to simply plugin USB 3.0 devices. External hard drive manufacturers must be in cahoots with cabinet and motherboard manufacturers by providing the shortest USB 3.0 cables possible and thereby exacerbating the situation.

In my case, I wouldn't blame the motherboard manufacturer for they have provided front USB 3.0 headers. But I can't for the life of me convince myself to buy a new "box" and hence the decade old cabinet with USB 2.0 front panel continues to thrive. I had alleviated this situation a few years ago by purchasing a USB 3.0 hub but, as if by design, it barely made it to the top of my table. Thus, it has been a constant tussle with gravity when using the hub. Moreover, the infatuation of laptop and tablet manufacturers to only include a single Type-A USB port ends up making the hub a travel companion and thus subject to frequent unplugging from the desktop. Thus, my decision to purchase the USB 3.0 cable materialised.

In the past, I have had really troublesome experiences purchasing cables online as well as offline since cables are difficult to judge by appearances alone. It is true that you can filter out the worst of them on the basis of the thickness of the cables and the moulding of the ports, but beyond that it is complete guesswork. Hence, AmazonBasics has become a go-to brand for me for cables as it offers a modicum of peace of mind in terms of quality. Going by the quality of other AmazonBasics products, I can expect it to be a barebones product that does the job. It is always true to the specifications even as durability remains a question mark over the long term. But that is true of any cable and Amazonbasics is best of the bunch in that regard. I imagine a rotten apple seeping through once in a while but in all other cases, there simply isn't anything better for the price you pay.

Review #34: Anker Powerport 4

Anker is a name that I first came across over 5 years ago as the most recommended option for a replacement mobile battery. Since then the brand has extended its product range to even include vacuum cleaners though my purchases included only a 4-port USB Hub and a multi angle stand. A major issue has been the availability of their products in India, even through their official distributors Yugadi Electronics, forcing me to directly import it from the US. Hence, when I found the Powerport 4 selling at an effective price of Rs. 1620 on Amazon (1800 - 10% cashback) which is in fact lower than even the US price of $26, I immediately pounced on it with my only deliberation being whether to go with the white or black variant (eventually settled on the latter). In terms of choosing the right USB charger among Anker's line-up, I feel that Powerport 4 is the optimal portable choice. The ones with the higher number of ports come with a USB power cable thereby affecting portability while the PowerPort 2 doesn't seem to be quite as cost effective.

The outer box design is simplicity at its best and reminded me of the Chromecast packaging with its combination of white and blue. The minimalism extends to the contents of the box which includes nothing more than the charger itself and a couple of information leaflets. The first thing that you notice is that the charger has quite some heft to it. On my scale it comes in at 138g compared to 33g for the iPhone 7 charger. The weight is in a way an indicator of the quality of components and I can attest to it having used Anker products in the past. While none of the ports are certified for Qualcomm's proprietary Quick Charging, they are instead labelled as Power IQ which is Anker's microcontroller based solution for mimicking itself as the official charger for the device and thereby providing the optimal current requested by the device.

A problem that one faces when using US products is the presence of flat pins as against the round pin EU standard used in India. I always select flat pin compatible surge protectors or extension boxes but the wall sockets are another story. Among the 3 plug adapters I have with me, I found only one fitting snuggly with the flat pins of the charger. In case of others, the charger was left dangling dangerously on account of its weight and I had to resort to plugging in the charger upside down in order to prevent it from sliding out. The unit LED illuminates in blue with no load or when the charging current is within the USB 3 data standard of 500 mA. Anything above 500 mA and it changes to green which is in a way an indicator of quick charging.

The charger is rated at 40W at full load with 2.4A per port. With the normal USB DC voltage of 5V, it means that the device is capable of providing a total output current of 8A across the 4 ports. With most tablets drawing around 2.4A and phones drawing around 2A, this means the charger should be able to charge all of them at full speed. I decided to test it individually for 3 devices and compare it with the performance of their respective chargers.

First comes the iPhone 7. Apple provides a charger with a very low amperage of 1A compared to other mobile devices and while the optimist would say it is to prevent battery decay, a pessimist might think it is Apple's way of pushing people to buy an iPad charger which is listed as being compatible with all iPhones. Hence, it is a foregone conclusion that the Anker charger with its ability to supply up to 2.4A is going to be faster than the default charger, but by how much is to be seen. Unfortunately, Apple removed a lot of battery APIs in iOS 10 which makes it impossible to monitor the real-time current and hence I have decided to use time as a metric instead.

iPhone 7 (5 - 80%): Anker - 58 min; iPhone charger - 81 min
So, it turns out that on an average, the Anker charger is 28.4% faster than the default charger. Since the charging current tapers off as the voltage increases, the advantage of the Anker charger reduces as the battery percentage increases which is in fact visible as the LED changes from green to blue when the percentage hits 90%. Even then it offers susbstantial time saving.

The second device is a Redmi Note 3 that doesn't support Qualcomm's Fast Charging. The supplied charger is a 2A one. In this case I am checking the average charging current over a period of 5 minutes.

Redmi Note 3 (~60%): Anker - 1392 mA; Redmi charger - 1314 mA
Again, it seems that around 60% charge, the charging profile demands around 1400 mA. Even then, th Anker charger is able to supply a bit extra though the difference is negligible.

Lastly, I had a go with the OnePlus One which is a Quick Charge 2.0 device. 

OnePlus One (~60%): Anker - 1701 mA; OPO charger - 865 mA
Since the difference is so large, I am inclined to think that the OPO charger is on its death bed and hence the comparison doesn't seem too valid. However, the charge current on the Anker is high enough to indicate that it is supplying what is demanded of it.

To conclude, empirical analysis indicates that the Anker charger is up to the task of charging any phone up to its full potential which makes it a welcome travel companion. On the other end, it is on the bulky side, weighing as much as a phone and tending to hang from the socket because of it. For its utility, the charger deserves a 5 out of 5.

Review #33: QuantumZERO 7-port USB 3.0 Hub

The hub certainly looks the part with its glossy black and white combination, even though it is apologetically plastic. It is compact enough to fit in the palm of the hand and light enough to carry around stuffed in a trouser packet. Functionally, it ticks off all the right boxes by having a separate LED for the power supply as well as individual ones for each port which light up as soon as the attached device starts drawing current. Speaking of power supply, the hub necessarily needs the included power supply to function unlike some hubs that can operate off the USB connection alone in the absence of the power supply.

One of the prominently advertised aspects of the hub is the Via VL813 chipset. VIA chipsets are popular for their excellent compatibility with different host systems and OS. The VL813 is Via's 3rd generation USB 3.0 chipset and is purported to resolve some of the power supply issues of the previous generation chipsets. However, one important thing to keep in mind is that it is a 4-port chipset, so I assume that the 6 regular ports have been daisy-chained and thus share bandwidth as well as power.

The proof is in the pudding and hence the best way to judge this hub was to compare its performance with my old Anker 4-port USB 3.0 hub that isn't externally powered. This should be a good way of judging the benefits of a powered USB hub like this one. I tested the data transfer and charging capabilities of both the hubs when not loaded as well as when fully loaded. The table below captures the read/write performance of a SSD as well as the charging of a phone capable of drawing up to 2A. The devices connected for each scenario are as follows:

1. Charging only
  • Charging phone (capable of 2A) at 76%
2. Loaded - 4 ports
  • USB 3.0 64GB SSD 
  • USB 3.0 2 TB HDD 
  • USB 3.0 2 TB HDD 
  • Charging phone (capable of 2A) at 76%
3. Loaded - 7 ports
  • USB 3.0 64GB SSD 
  • USB 3.0 2 TB HDD 
  • USB 3.0 2 TB HDD 
  • Charging phone (capable of 2A) at 76%
  • USB 2.0 pen drive 
  • USB 2.0 pen drive 
  • Scanner 

As can be seen from the table above, the performance of this powered hub is pretty much identical to that of one that isn't externally powered. The only benefit is that the dedicated charging port is capable of supplying up to 1.5A while also transferring data, provided the device meets the Battery Charging 1.2 standard. Curiously, for the same charging percentage, the charge current was higher when the hub was completely loaded with devices as compared to having no other devices connected.

To conclude. is it worth paying a premium over a hub that isn't powered? I sure think not because I returned this product, preferring to stay with my current Anker 4-port hub for data transfer, even if it means having to juggle between devices. As for my multi-USB charging needs, I opted for Anker's PowerPort 4.