Review #49: Masters of Doom ★★★☆☆

It is not all doom and gloom!


This was a strange choice of book to begin a new year with but it is one of those things that pique your interest and you follow through with it. Stranger still is the fact that I never completed a level in any of the id games, let alone Doom. I do remember starting up the shareware version of Wolfenstein 3-D and the demo for Doom 3, but the session never lasted more than a few minutes. In fact, I remember returning a copy of the Quake II to a vendor stating technical issues when in fact I disliked the game. Gratuitous violence was never my thing. Yeah, I am one of those ‘story’ guys that John Carmack might have so despised. The only game I could relate to throughout the book was Deus Ex, which incidentally happens to be my best game of all time.

Review #48: PQI My Lockey Fingerprint Reader ★★★★☆


Biometrics has made device security really accessible, though it doesn't alleviate security concerns as a whole due to the limited number of publicly viewable (and accessible) body parts that each one has at their disposal. Still, it managed to revolutionise the world of mobile phones and boundaries continue to be pushed with Apple's Face ID and Samsung's Iris recognition.

Unfortunately, in spite of being embracing biometrics a long time ago, PCs never incorporated it as an integral item. Hence, most mainstream laptops and tablets continue to be bereft of this time-saving functionality. To give credit where its due, Microsoft has at least done its bit to standardise biometrics support in Windows 10 through Windows Hello. Windows Hello does not require Trusted Platform Module (TPM) support but supports TPM 1.2 and 2.0. While it was unrealistic to expect manufacturers to embrace Intel's RealSense cameras, Windows Hello has certainly led to a small uptick in the incorporation of fingerprint readers.

All of this does nothing for those who have already bought in to devices without biometrics support. This is where the PQI My Lockey comes in to the picture. In spite of wanting one, I never really had any realistic means of picking one up at a reasonable price until it was made available on AliExpress. I paid a little over $35 for it which is on par with the price at which it is listed on Amazon.com, though it seems to have been marked down to $30 for the year-end.

There are a few things that stand out about this device:
1. It is certified by FIDO (Fast IDentity Online) which ensures interoperability across platforms and systems.
2. It uses the Synaptics WBDI sensor which ensures good performance and support
3. Due its small form factor, it can be kept attached 24x7 to any laptop or tablet

On plugging the device, the first thing you notice is the appearance of the PQI Fingerprint Reader shortcut on the Desktop. However, this software is downloaded from the web, so the shortcut doesn't appear unless you are connected to the web. It requires the .Net 3.5 runtime to run, but you might as well delete it since it doesn't add anything of value to the experience. The drivers are installed automatically by Windows and the only benefit of using this software was that it kept track of which digits were being fingerprinted.


Instead, the more logical option would be to simply head over to 'Sign-in options' within Settings and add the fingerprint over there. Unlike the PQI software, Windows Hello prompts you to touch the reader at different angles which is much more helpful on practical usage. The setup using either options took a bit more time than I expected because I felt the reader was not picking up all the angles correctly, but it wasn't too much of a bother. Also, it prompts you to enter a backup pin at the end which comes in handy when recognition fails. As a side note, you are best served with using a TPM 2.0 compatible device which offers much greater crypto agility and hence lessens the risk of the data being compromised.


Once set up, the fingerprint reader is a breeze to use. It has a small LED on its front face that is normally off but switches on to a bright green on the lock screen or when you wake up your device. A successful read is indicated by a short blink before the LED switches off once again. Recognition failure is indicated with a double red LED blink and 3 consecutive fails require you to enter the PIN.

The highlight of this device is the access time of 0.15 seconds. It doesn't feel as fast as the Touch ID on the iPhone 7, but that would be nit-picking for the sake of it. If you are really up to the task, you can measure the same using the video linked below. The other performance metric is accuracy. The marketing material again boasts of 360-degree detection but I would take that with a pinch of salt. The failure rate is a bit noticeable when you access the reader at different angles but even in the worst of cases it worked 4 out of 5 times.


To conclude, it always felt awkward to have to type in the password on my tablet after using my iPhone for most of the day. The PQI fingerprint reader saves the day at a reasonable cost. As a bonus, this thing also comes in handy plugged in to a USB hub on the desktop and auto logs in to different profiles based on the saved fingerprint. The occasional detection failure prevents me from rating it a 5/5, but frankly there is no better USB fingerprint reader present in the market at this moment in time. So, by all means, mark it down as an essential piece of hardware for Windows and add it to your tech shopping list.

Review #47: Walnutt Flexible Bumper Case (iPhone) ★★★☆☆



A bump in the road!
A bumper case is a sweet compromise between using the phone as manufactured and sheathing it in a figurative armour. The RhinoShield CrashGuard has done well in this space and while price is a genuine concern when purchasing it in India, it also has its fair share of issues with its width, buttons and removal. Far cry from that is the 'Walnutt' bumper case. Going by the different brands and prices this case is sold under, it seems to be a generic case, rather than one from a specific company.

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 #44: Amazon Fire TV Stick (2nd generation) ★★★☆☆

Fire Play with Me - A comprehesive review of the 2nd generation Fire TV Stick
When Amazon priced the 2nd generation Fire TV Stick at ₹2999 for Prime Day, it took a lot of self-restraint on my part to not purchase it instinctively. I had a few good reasons for not doing so, they being:

1. My TV itself is capable of DLNA streaming courtesy of Samsung AllShare and has the Netflix app on it, even as others might not be so useful
2. A first-gen Chromecast attached to one of the HDMI ports since the time of its US release, taking care of all the remote streaming needs
3. A Raspberry Pi 2 running LibreElec (and Batocera) to take care of Kodi and retro gaming needs
4. Lastly, a Windows tablet capable of streaming every possible content either through Chromecast, Plex or HDMI

Since I have a DLNA as well as Samba server running on my router allied with a USB 3.0 external hard disk, these disparate solutions, while being less than ideal, fulfilled every local and web streaming need I had. It also meant that the Fire TV Stick had a very small niche to fill - that of even lazier consumption and hence didn't justify the price or the need. However, as you might have already guessed, something changed for this review to exist.

I had been on a trekking trip recently and it warranted that I forego of any unnecessary weight. That meant that my trustworthy Windows tablet didn't find a place in my backpack. However, on the off chance that the hotel had a reliable net connection, I carried the Chromecast with me. Luckily, the hotel did have a stable 10 Mbps connection without AP isolation which was both a boon and a course. While it meant that I could use my Chromecast freely, it also meant that everyone else on the hotel network could as well. Chromecast might make for a great party device but unfortunately a poor personal entertainment one as I had other guests interrupting my viewing out of curiosity or the ignorant hope of viewing their mobile content on their room's TV. This particular incident made a very good use case for the Fire TV Stick over the Chromecast and eventually led me to purchase one.

Of course, I wouldn't have purchased it for the listed price and the fact that it wasn't listed at the Prime day sale price of ₹2999 during the September and early October sales made the decision difficult. However, the eventual impact of purchasing this device was ₹2200 courtesy of the ₹499 cashback on the ₹3499 sale price and a ₹450 cashback for using Amazon Pay coupled with the fact that the Amazon Pay balance I used was discounted by 10% on accord of an earlier top-up offer (3499 - 499 - 450 - 350 = 2200). With the device in hand, I went on my merry way of testing it in every way I could.

Out of the box:

The Fire TV Stick aptly comes in a fiery orange box which lists some of the apps offered on the platform. My unit, purchased in early October 2017, was imported in September and manufactured in August. The inner packaging, to go along with the fire theme, was in charred black and pretty compact. It contained the Voice remote, 2 Amazonbasics AAA batteries, HDMI extender, 5V/1A charger, 5-feet MicroUSB cable and of course the Fire TV Stick (not counting the manual and information pamphlets).

In the hand:



The Stick is definitely larger than any pen drive you might have ever seen but still fits in the palm of my hand. However, as you can see in the image, it is much larger than the first-generation Chromecast, so you need to ensure that you have significant clearance at the back (or side) of your TV. It weighs in at 31g on my scale, so it shouldn't be stressing any HDMI ports while sticking out of them.

Starting it up:

As I have mentioned previously, the package comes with a 5V/1A charger and hence I initially decided to use the USB port of the same specification available at the back of my TV. However, the AFTV Stick was quick to show an 'Unsupported USB Port' message. While I am sure that I could have used the device off the USB port, I decided to plug in the charger anyway. Since the AFTV stick has 802.11ac MIMO WiFi support, it is dual band and catches the 5 GHz signal reasonably well, when compared to my iPhone. I was expecting the device to be already associated with my account like my Kindle was on first login, but that was not the case here. Curiously, the device was registered as my 2nd Fire TV Stick and I suppose it was so as I had previously paid for and then subsequently cancelled an order of the Fire TV Stick.

The OS:

It shouldn't be a surprise that the entire Fire TV OS revolved around Amazon Prime Video. In fact, that is the only app that the device comes installed with. Others like Hotstar and Netflix are added to your account in the cloud but the download has to be initiated manually. The usable storage capacity is displayed as 5.94 GB which isn't much, especially if you are considering using the video download options for offline viewing. Out of the box, the OS version was 5.2.4.2 and the Fire TV Home version (which I presume refers to the interface) was 5.7.3-20. The immediately available update changed the OS version to 5.2.6.0 and the Home version to 6.0.0.0-264. However, the underlying Android version is 5.1.1 and coupled with the 1GB of RAM made things a bit interesting as described below. Irrespective of the update, the look remained the same and consisted of the Home, Movies, TV Shows, Apps and Settings tabs.

Apps and Interface:

As I have mentioned previously, the AFTV interface revolves prominently around Prime Video. The Home tab displays the recently used apps first, followed by the installed ones and then a whole bunch of rows specific to different genres of Prime Video. Similarly, the Movies and TV Shows tabs are completely dedicated to Prime Video. The Apps tab is where you would go to explore the entire app collection while the Settings tab includes the myriad of options that Android usually offers pertaining to display, sound, connectivity, accessibility and developer options.

Fire TV's use of Android implies easy availability of streaming apps as long as they aren't tied to Google Play services. Hence, most of the third-party apps work just fine. The available apps are those available on the Indian Amazon Appstore and hence one can take a look at the options available prior to making a purchase. However, as depicted on the box and in the ads, it covers most of the prominent Indian streaming services including Hotstar, Voot, Eros Now, Gaana and Jio TV. Additionally, TV news apps like NDTV, Times Now, India Today are available along with some international ones. However, most noticeable is the lack of an official YouTube app. The Youtube.com app present on the Home screen is just the mobile website running on Chromium. As a result, it is sluggish and the quality barely exceeds 480p which can be a major deal breaker for some.

An integral part of the user experience is the use of the remote and its accompanying voice control. The remote's controls are pretty well done for navigation purposes, including the use of the playback controls to directly execute some options as against having to scroll to them. The controls work fine within the apps as well which is a big plus. Unlike other streaming devices like the Nvidia Shield which oddly include only navigation controls, the AFTV remote makes efficient use of the playback controls which is most evident when using Prime Video. The Voice control also does a good job of recognising the context of search and pops up relevant suggestions when it is unavailable to exactly determine the term being spoken. At the time of writing this review though Alexa hasn't still been enable for the AFTV Stick though I can't imagine it is too far off considering the launch of the Echo devices.

If you happen to lose or break the remote, then Amazon has already provided apps for Android and iOS which are software clones of the remote. They also contain added features like a keyboard which makes typing passwords, codes, searches must easier and the replacement Voice Remote at ₹1999 a redundant purchase. Alternately, the AFTV Stick supports HDMI-CEC, so if your TV supports it, the TV remote does a good job of navigating through the interface.

Tinkering: 

One of the true tests for any media streaming device is to see how well it handles Kodi. Since Kodi isn't officially available on the Amazon App Store, it has to be sideloaded. Luckily, Amazon has kept the ADB and Unknown Sources installation options easily accessible and that implies easy sideloading of most Android apps. I say most since apps that rely solely on the Google Play framework will not work at all. Luckily, this list is not that expansive and to a large extent includes apps from the Google stable.

The most common option to sideload apps that you will come across the web is to use the Downloader app from AFTVnews. However, this app isn't officially available on the Indian Amazon store and while there are ways to get it on board the AFTV Stick, I found the most convenient option to be the Apps2Fire app. It allows one to directly install or upload the file to the AFTV Stick. I found the install option to be a bit whimsical as it failed on multiple occasions with exceptions since it used ADB, but the uploaded APK files could be installed just fine by using ES Explorer on the device itself. In case of Kodi, my Android device, as most these days, was running the 64-bit version of Kodi from the Google Play store and the same couldn't be directly installed on the AFTV Stick since it only supports the 32-bit version. I was able to get AirPlay working on the device as well using Air Receiver but it worked well mostly for music. Screen mirroring wasn't of such great quality even at High settings and video failed to mirror completely.

The remote works remarkably well with Kodi, though that might not be the case with other sideloaded apps. Since a lot of the apps are made only for touch, I would recommend sideloading the 'Mouse Toggle' app first as it enables a mouse pointer within these apps and thus makes them accessible. Thus, I have to recommend the use of a Bluetooth mouse when using most sideloaded apps though a Bluetooth keyboard may not be as essential on account of the mobile apps.

Performance:


Before giving my subjective opinion on the performance of the device, I decided to benchmark it using Geekbench 4. For a device that essentially has the same hardware as my Galaxy S3 did 5 years ago with its low-end 1.3 GHz Mediatek MT8127 quad-core Cortex-A53 processor and Mali450 MP4 GPU, I wasn't expecting much. True to form, the CPU scored only 432 and 1072 in the single and multi-core tests respectively while the GPU scored 778 in the Compute test. For reference, my iPhone 7 had scored 3460, 5890 and 12740 in these tests previously.

Benchmarks don't determine real life performance, so I don't pay much attention to them. However, in case of the AFTV Stick, the performance (or lack thereof) is perceptible during regular usage. Of course, if your main usage is limited to only using the Prime Video or Netflix app, you wouldn't notice much as the interface is quite fluid in those cases. However, running a number of apps, especially sideloaded ones like Kodi and returning to the Home screen had an immense impact on the performance of the device. On occasions it took over 10 seconds to load the Home screen, presumably because the device was repeatedly running out of its lowly 1 GB RAM while running Android Lollipop. On one occasion, the device even rebooted, unable to cope with the demands of multiple app switching. This kind of performance issues are also evident when navigating the interface after starting an app installation. For the price point, it may be difficult to fault the device but that doesn't change the fact that that device is a bit underpowered for its interface.

Interface aside, the main concern is whether the device is able to playback efficiently. Since this is only a Full HD device and not a 4K one, it doesn't need to support H.265/HEVC content over the web since most of the HD and Full HD content is in H.264. Hence, it is no surprise that all the streaming services work fine on the device even at 1080p60. The playback interface can be a bit sluggish at times but not observably so. However, my local library does contain quite a bit of H.265 content and since the product page lists H.265 support, I decided to have a go at it using VLC and Kodi. As it turns out, H.265 support is quite limited. I started with two 10-bit HEVC videos encoded with the Main profile at 1.5 Mbps and 900 Kbps bit rate and both failed to play. While VLC was at least able to playback the audio, Kodi simply hung up. Things were far better when dealing with lower quality HEVC videos as 8-bit, 720p ones at around 800 Kbps worked just fine. On the audio side, it supports 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus support and up to 7.1 HDMI audio pass-through which is as much as you can expect for Full HD viewing.

Conclusion:

The Fire TV Stick is a good if not unremarkable piece of hardware for its price, especially during the sale, for what it offers. If you don't happen to have a Smart TV or a Chromecast, then I would recommend picking this one up immediately since it adds the most effective means of consuming the Prime Video membership. Without Prime, this device doesn't make much sense.

On the other hand, the compromises made to bring the device down to this price are quite evident. The interface can struggle at times, even going to the extent of rebooting the device under heavy load. The archaic Android version doesn't help as well though Amazon does a good job of hiding it under their Fire OS skin. However, on the first day itself, I had repeated issues of the TV switching on due to HDMI-CEC activation on the AFTV Stick even though no one was anywhere near the remote.

The compromises on hardware as well as software front don't do much to ruin the experience if you are living within the immediate ecosystem that Amazon presents you with. In fact, for its discounted price, it is a better option that Chromecast through Miracast mirroring on the AFTV Stick isn't quite as intuitive or stable. Android TV isn't much of an option since none of the devices are officially available, though it has the advantage of access to the Google Play store and the official YouTube app. The Mi Box costs nearly twice as much, isn't much more powerful but offers 4K support while the affordability of the Nvidia Shield is questionable. Apple TV on the other hand makes little sense in India without official support and exorbitant pricing.

So, what's my final opinion on the device? After much thought, I have decided to return the Fire TV Stick because it is difficult for me to live with the compromises compared to the benefits. Having said that, I would be more amenable to getting the 4K Fire TV dongle if it is released later in India and competitively priced since it is going to be future proof and the slightly higher firepower in terms of the higher clocked processor and 2 GB RAM is bound to help. I can't imagine everyone else wanting to pay a higher price, especially if a 4K TV purchase is nowhere on the horizon and for those I would recommend the 2nd generation as a great home entertainment device.

Review #43: The One Device


As a technology enthusiast, there was no escaping this book. I refer to technology rather than a company because I have never been an ardent Apple or Google fan, having only recently switched from Android to iOS. At the same, it wasn't a case of eagerness to read the book as it was the fact that I was bombarded with references to the book wherever I went, be it on podcasts or tech sites. Hence, I was able to put the book further down my reading list until I finally came across it a few days back.

Going by the book's name and the timing of its release, it would be valid to presume that it has the blessings of Apple and would offer candid insights from the who’s who of the iPhone team. However, as the book makes it clear upfront, Apple's veil of secrecy extends to the extent that no current (and some former) employee can share their story on the record. Hence, the book instead relies on the recounting by other industry stalwarts as well as anonymous Apple sources. This kind of anonymity can impact the credibility of some of the stories but in this case, it can't be helped and it certainly seems to fit the narrative. The other aspect is that one may be beguiled in to thinking that the book would only be focussed on the immediate story of the device's inception, however that is thankfully left to the eponymous last chapter of the book. As a result, the book is able to tell a much more holistic story than would have been possible if it had been focussed on the device alone.

As soon as you start reading the book, it becomes evident that the author is extending a thread from Steve Jobs' biography with his allusion to the "lone inventor" and the author admits to as much. While being repetitive, it is essential to do so because one must see past the mist of Steve Jobs to understand the significantly substantial efforts put in by thousands of others. In fact, the hard headedness of Steve meant that others had to put in far more onerous efforts to help him see the light of the day, only for him to take all the credit. At the same time, Steve paved the highway to success that few other leaders can, bogged down by the immense bureaucracy within the company.

The initial chapters of the book make it amply clear than the iPhone was a significant evolution than the revolution it was proclaimed to be. Another case of standing on the shoulders of giants. This is essentially the premise of the book as it unearths the origins of all that made the iPhone possible. It is humbling to think that century-old satire rather than science fiction accurately portrayed the state of affairs in the 21st century. Even then, the patent arts littered throughout the book indicate how ideas have to wait for years in order for technology to catch up and portray them as revolutionary.

A couple of topics that have always been associated with Apple and the iPhone are conflict mining and the state of working conditions in factories. Both these aspects are covered in detail in the chapters "Minephones", "Lion Batteries" and "Designed in California, Made in China". It is in a way mortifying to think of the people, especially children, whose livelihood depends on cheating death daily to ship the materials for the iPhone. The book is even replete with an adventure in Foxconn City, a humbling insight in to the human price of the iPhone. Of course, Apple has taken steps to ensure better working conditions but that doesn't help those who continue to work in abject conditions for other manufacturers, especially Chinese ones that have less regard for human rights.

As much as users may be pedantic over the iPhone's appearance, it is heartening to see the same level of attention being shown to its components by the author. Hence, the later chapters focus on the origins of Gorilla Glass, multi touch, image stabilization, sensors, processors, antenna, Siri and security enclave. This makes for an interesting read and again emphasizes the notion that the iPhone was more evolutionary than revolutionary as it managed to reap the benefits of miniaturization over the decades and integrate them in a rather appealing package. At the same time, it seems that the author tries a bit too hard in associating modern technology with erstwhile relics like the volvelle because it fits the narrative from his perspective. The book also captures the once prolific jailbreaking scene which has since slowed to a crawl with incremental feature and security updates in iOS. Nonetheless, it was great to hear from the various personalities involved in it as my exposure was simply limited to running the tools bearing their name.

As I have glossed over previously, those expecting an origin story of the iPhone, ought to find solace in the last chapter of the book. Of course, the build up to it is scattered across the chapters, without which you wouldn't be able to identify the characters involved. However, the emphasis once again is on the sacrifice of the unsung heroes involved in the creation of the device. While the sufferings of the designers in US might not have been at the same level as those involved in mining and assembly, there isn't denying the fact that the one device has claimed its fair share of victims along the way.

Reflecting on the book, it is apparent it was meant to be a reference on the iPhone and not so much about an iPhone. It is historic in context and therefore will stand the test of time as an accurate reflection of the iPhone's legacy on its 10th anniversary, much more than Apple's pretentious photo book. However, the book is by no means a page turner and could have benefited significantly from being tauter. While a good story has certainly been told, it hasn't been done in a particularly engaging manner. Still. this is a recommended read for anyone interested in technology and smartphones, rather than just the iPhone.