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 #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 #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.

Review #51: Amazon Fire TV (Gen 3 - 4K HDR) ★★★★☆


Normally, whenever I get a new device, the instinct is to analyse it in depth. Unfortunately, certain constraints prevent me from doing so with the Fire TV 4K, primary of them being that I have no 4K display devices at present. However, a lot of thought had gone in to purchasing this device for a 1080p non-HDR TV, even though it is not officially available in India. So, I would like to share these thoughts along with the experience of setting it up so as to get the most out of it. Thus, this article will straddle the line between a tutorial and a review, but I have decided to classify it as the latter since this article, while being instructional, is still appraising the product.

Review #50: RHA MA650 Wireless Earphones ★★★★☆

When wireless doesn't mean getting less! 


Bluetooth headsets have always been a matter of convenience for me rather than a technological evolution over wired headsets. For a long time, I preferred to use wired headsets whenever possible and took recourse to Bluetooth headsets when on the move. However, the abysmal performance of Bluetooth plug-in headsets like SBH54 and the Fiio BTR1 left me extremely disappointed and finally set me on course to finding a standalone wireless earphone.

Review #46: Fiio BTR1 (Bluetooth Amplifier with AK4376 DAC) ★★★☆☆ (Updated!)

A small device with big sound on a budget.
The removal of the headphone jack on phones is a recent phenomenon but I have been dilly-dallying with clip-on, stereo Bluetooth headsets for quite some time. The excuse for doing so was convenience, at the expense of sound quality. Without putting so much as a thought, I went with Sony in those days and hence my initial experience revolved around the MW-600 and SBH54. However, while the MW-600 was a solid device for its time, the SBH54 was a huge disappointment. Hence, Sony was never in consideration for my next device.

With the iPhone 7 being my primary device, I gave some thought to using a lightning connector device prior to considering other Bluetooth choices. The 1More Triple Driver was certainly at the top of the list but the price premium for the lightning version put it beyond the price range I was looking at. Another option was to go for a 3.5mm adapter and the i1 turned out to be the most prominent among the limited options available, but it didn't take much to understand that it didn't really offer a better value proposition compared to Apple's adapter. However, it was this visit to the Fiio site for the i1 that put me on course to the BTR1.

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

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

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

Review #29: TP-Link TL-WN823N USB WiFi Adapter (A Pi perspective)

The Raspberry Pi is always a moving target in terms of projects as you may have read previously. The dumb Ethernet is sometimes the best option for the Pi as it doesn't require any configuration at all. I preferred this option as well when the Pi was sitting close to my router and was interfaced with the PC monitor but its use as a media centre meant the proximity changed towards the living room TV. Samsung's TV WiFi adapter proved useful in this regard as it had dual band support and was based on the common Realtek RTL8188 chipset which has wide support across Linux distributions. However, the TV gained its smartness after a long time as the Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and iPlayer apps were finally put to good use. This meant the search for a new USB WiFi adapter for the Pi.

The intention was to purchase the fastest budget adapter and the TP-Link TL-WN823N popped up at the top since it was priced lower than comparable N150 adapters. The one available on Amazon is the v2 variant with the RTL8192EU chipset. Initially, I simply replaced the Samsung adapter with this one when using OSMC and it worked fine. However, later on when I booted to Rapbian, it didn't indicate the presence of a wireless interface. It was then that I realized that most of the information on the web about the compatibility of this adapter with Linux is based on the 3.x kernels and there is no out of the box support with any 4.x kernels.

It was easy enough to load the drivers on Raspbian using the information available on the Pi forums and it worked flawlessly. However, other distributions like LibreELEC or Lakka were a different ball game as they used different kernels. In case of LibreELEC, the 8192eu drivers are already present but don't work with this adapter even after adding the device ID. In case of Ubuntu, there seem to be driver packages available but I haven't tested the same. Even then, it will require patching with every kernel update and isn't the "just works" solution that most would be looking for.

Thus, it seems best to stick with the well proven chipsets from the past. A N150 adapter is still faster than the 100 Mbps Ethernet port and much faster than the reading/writing speeds of most SD cards, so you are not giving up much. Sometimes, it is better to just take a step back to move forwards.