Last November I found myself in need of a new smart phone, having opted for a sim only contract with “Three”.
Looking for a new phone is like shopping for any new device, if you don’t do your research, your taking a gamble with anything you buy. Which is why I spent several weeks simply researching Android smart phones. My budget wouldn’t stretch to a new model from any of the main brands, such as Samsung, HTC or Sony. So I was left to choose between a 2nd hand model or at the android phones being produce in China’s Shenzhen district. Most of which are clones of popular brands, iPhones, Samsung S3’s and Galaxy Tabs to name but a few. Admittedly, not all of them are good. It has only been in the past couple of years the quality of these clones has begun to resemble anything respectable. Usually these devices require a great deal of hacking before they can be usable. Which brings me to another issue. With almost any generic droid device you buy from China, support from the manufacturer is near on non-existent. More often the only support you will find, comes from online forums and user groups. That is so long as the device you have is popular enough to have a large user base.
Choosing A Smart Phone
While eBay is a great site to see all the handsets available, it does not really offer any insight to whether a device is good are bad. Which is where Amazon really does pick up the slack and offers a good alternative. From toasters to curling tongs, Amazon has amassed a impressive collection of user reviews for almost every device available via its website.
While I was looking my eye caught sight of the Star 9920, also known as the Alps S9920. Essentially a Samsung S3 Mini clone, the S9920 boasts the following specs.
-Dual core MTK6577 1.0 GHz CPU
-512mb ram and 4Gb Rom (2.5gb usable)
-GPU PowerVR SGX 531
-4” Capacitive Touch, TFT Display, 260K colours, 800×480 resolution
-Camera 5 MP 2560×1920 (Up to 12.0MP interpolation 4000×3000)
Compared to the Samsung S3 mini which has
-CPU 1 GHz dual-core Cortex-A9
-1GB Ram, 8/16 GB Rom
-4” Display Super AMOLED capacitive touchscreen, 16M colors, 480 x 800 pixels
-Camera 5 MP, 2592×1944 pixels, autofocus, LED flash, check quality
The S9920 may not compete with the S3 mini, but for a sub £100 smart phone. The specs offer good value for money to anyone who can’t afford the real thing. As I found myself in such a situation, I decided to order one from Amazon, after reading the reviews left by previous customers. I decided to buy my device from a company called Dracotek, who appeared to have developed a good reputation for delivering on time and offering good customer support. Something I later would later come to appreciate, after my first handset arrived with a paint defect. Dracotek happily replaced the device and had another out to me within a week.
The S9920 is ready to use out the box, it comes with two sim slots, but only the full size, secondary slot is 3G compatible. I had some issues with my 3G, which I later discovered was down to my sim being old. Three kindly upgraded my sim for free and I was soon experiencing faster 3G connectivity.
The S9920 apparently comes with a stock install of ice cream sandwich 4.1.1, however there is evidence to suggest it is actually ICS 4.0, which has been hacked to report a false version. Th version number isn’t the only part of the OS to have been altered. While using the S9920, I have noted missing menu’s and features, that are stock to ICS, but appear to be missing from the install on this phone. The built in music player and camera are an improvement over the stock apps on my HTC Wildfire S and perform pretty well.
For a sub £100 phone, the camera is not too shabby. In the time I have had the S9920, I have used the camera a fair deal and found the pictures more then adequate for Facebook, I wont be replacing my digital camera anytime soon. One of my first mistakes was to ramp the settings up to 12 megapixels, BAD BAD idea! The S9920 has a 5mp lens, interpolating pictures taken at higher resolution such as 12 megapixels. This results in images that are washed out, blurry and generally pretty poor quality. Even the Apple Quicktake 150 I reviewed recently, would laugh at them. Really do not use the 12mp setting, unless you want photo’s that look like a 90’s digital camera took them.
Display & Touch Screen
The display is pretty reasonable and I would say on par with my Wildfire S. Pictures are crisp and web browsing is a pleasant experience. The touch sensitivity is a little off, which can lead to typo’s and occasional bouts of phantom screen presses. This will manifest with the phone randomly acting like a part of the screen has been pressed when it has not. Causing text to be selected or buttons to be pressed. I’m not entirely sure why this happens, but you can bet it has something to do with the screen being constructed of plastic and not glass. I’ve notice after a months use, the phantom screen touches seem to be happening more and more often.
The screen seems hypersensitive to finger grease and as there is no calibration tool in 4.1, you can’t adjust the touch screen. The only way I found to make typing easier, was by installing the Google keyboard and enabling the gesture typing feature.
WIFI & Network
Occasionally the wifi does not connect to my router straight away. I think this is more a bug then a hardware problem. Also sometimes when I make a call, on connection the sound will be distorted and garbled. This is something I have had to put up with while on the Three network, but occurring with greater frequency since I switched to the S9920. Overall both wifi and antenna functions work fine 95% of the time.
Calling and Haptic feedback glitch
Now here is a real sore spot for me, that was driving me to despair. Something I noticed when making the first few calls using the S9920, was how the handset would vibrate whenever a call connected. Tried as I might, I was unable to find any settings within the Haptic feedback menu to disable it, and the longer I used the phone, the more it annoyed me. Especially when the vibrations were being picked up by the phone’s internal microphone. Making it audible to other people during a call. I spent the first week after receiving my S9920, searching for a means of turning the vibration off, which wasn’t made any easier due to the S9920’s hacked install of ICS. Which is missing parts of the OS, including those that control the vibration and haptic feedback settings. I was beginning to feel like I was truly up the creek without a paddle, when I fell upon some software on Playstore.
This handy piece of software is freeware and was made for the very issue the S9920 was suffering with. I can’t give enough praise to the developer for making this app available on Playstore and for free no less! Vibrafix requires a rooted android phone to work and superSU privileges. Once up and running, it completely disables the vibrate function of your phone and allows you to select what notifications are permitted to use the vibrate function. If you have bought a phone from China, the benefits of rooting your device really outweigh the zero chance of warranty support you can expect from the company you bought it from. In short, it’s a no brainer in my opinion.
After selecting “On Call” from the Vibrafix menu, I made a call and sure enough no annoying vibration. Finally my woe’s where over!
Phantom screen touch
While I’m still not sure why this is happening, I’m sure it is due to the budget construction of the TFT display. There are several reviews from customers on Amazon, who have experienced faulty screens on their handsets. This fault usually occurres several weeks after purchasing the device. So whether my handset will suffer a complete TFT failure as well, I don’t know. It could be a design fault with the device, so I will have to keep an eye on it.
The S9920 has proved to be a good handset, especially for the price. For the £79 that I paid, I honestly am impressed with what I have. There is still some room for improvement. Such as the plastic screen, which is more susceptible to scratching and bending than the glass alternative.
While the stock ICS install of Android is missing some functions, it does not hinder the phone from working as intended. As I found with Vibrafix, you can often find an app on the Playstore that will fill in for the part of the OS that is missing.
Things have been a little quiet on BMv, but that isn’t to say I’ve not been busy behind the scenes tinkering away. Over the past few months I have revived a G3 iBook from the clutches of death, replaced the batteries in both a 1st Gen and 5th Gen iPod and repaired a friends Packard Bell EasyNote.
I’ve also been playing a sandbox game called “Space Engineers” which is available as alpha via the Steam network. This game is simply amazing, reducing any scifi nerd to standing in a pool of his own drool. The physics are brilliant, mirroring the real world quite well. “Space Engineers” is worth playing just to experience the collision fx, watching as your cruiser crumples and bulkheads sheer off as you plough head long into another ship or asteroid. Put simply, it is Minecraft for space nerds who have always wanted to build their own space cruiser. While still in alpha stage, we can only guess at how good it will get in the months to come. Frankly I’m salivating in eager anticipation, “Space Engineers” has the potential to be something very special.
Check out the trailer below to wet your appetite.
Over the last couple of months I have indulged in more gaming then normal, Kerbal Space Program, Euro Truck Simulator 2 and Star Trek online. Games I would highly recommend playing. I was lucky enough to nab both Kerbal and Euro Truck during the sales on Steam, money well spent in my opinion. I might sneak a review of both games here on BMV is I can tear myself away from them long enough.