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.
Odroid X2 Android Motherboard
Not so long ago during a visit to Pimoroni, I was asked if I would like to test and review the ODROID X2 mother board; a Samsung powered quad core Arm A9 1.7Ghz micro board with 2Gb of ram, 6x USB 2.0 ports and 1xRJ-45 port.
Measuring in at only 90mmx94mm, the board is not much larger then the Raspberry Pi but to compare the two would be unfair. The ODROID costs £88 or 165,000 Korean Won compared to the RPi at less then half that. The RPi is an affordable, cheap computer platform, suitable for a whole host of low cost projects, but a desktop replacement it is not. The ODROID X2 would seem better suited as a micro PC or an in-car computer. Its quad core CPU has enough grunt to handle applications that would leave the RPi having a mental break down.
Last year I tried running a Mame emulator on my RPi with the hope of turning it in to a mini retro gaming box. My experience was less than thrilling, leading me to give up on the idea. So when the chance was offered to try another mini board with Mame, I have to admit I had some reservations. The X2 uses a micro HDMI port and a unusual .8mm power jack. Researching the specs, I ended up buying a Gemini joypad power supply and micro HDMI to HDMI adaptor from ebay. With all the parts needed to get the board working, I downloaded one of the Jellybean SDC card image files.
Up and Running
The X2 will only boot with a working OS installed on an SD card. Turn it on without one and the board will not post, sitting there, dumb to the world. To get the image on the memory card, you will need a computer with an SD card reader, so you can flash the image.
Flashing SD Cards And Booting Your OS
Ready to go SD cards can be purchased from com.odroid.com. If you did not get one when buying your X2 board, the following tutorial with guide you through preparing your own SD card.
1. First you will need an image file, found here “com.odroid.com/sigong/nf_file_board/nfile_board.php”
Choose the files appropriate to your board and follow the link to the image file.
2. When you have it downloaded, extract the file to your desktop. Insert your SD card in to your card reader and make a note of its drive letter, you will need it later.
3. Now download Win32DiskImager from “launchpad.net/win32-image-writer” and extract the file and run the program as Administrator.
4. Using Win32DiskImager, select the *.img file you extracted earlier.
5. Select the driver letter of your SD card in the device box, make sure your select the correct drive letter or you may wipe your hard drive!
6. Click “Write” and wait for the process to complete. Once the DiskImager has finished, exit the utility and remove your SD card from the reader.
7. Insert the card in to the Odroid and power on. If everything went according to plan, the board should boot up.
To write a disk image under Linux, you will need to follow the process below. Be aware I’m posting this as is. I wrote my SD card under Windows XP, so have no experience with the process below.
Copying an image to the SD Card in Linux (graphical interface)
If you are using Ubuntu and hesitate to use the terminal, you can use the ImageWriter tool (nice graphical user interface) to write the .img file to the SD card.
- Download a zipped image from this link or other mirrors
- Right click the zip file and select “Extract here”
- ATTENTION: As of this writing (15 June 2012), there is a bug in the ImageWriter program that causes it to fail if the filename of the image file or its path (i.e. all the names of any parent folders that you extract the image file into) contain any space characters. Before going any further, ensure that neither the file name of the image you’re using or the path contain any spaces (or other odd characters, for that matter). A bug has been opened for this issue: https://bugs.launchpad.net/usb-imagewriter/+bug/1013834 Once the issue is fixed, edit this page to advise people to use an updated/patched version of ImageWriter.
- Insert the SD card into your computer or connect the SD card reader with the SD card inside
- Install the ImageWriter tool from the Ubuntu Software Center
- Launch the ImageWriter tool (it needs your administrative password)
- Select the image file (example ODROID-X_31_07_2012.img) to be written to the SD card (note: because you started ImageWriter as administrator the starting point when selecting the image file is the administrator’s home folder so you need to change to your own home folder to select the image file)
- Select the target device to write the image to (your device will be something like “/dev/mmcblk0” or “/dev/sdc”)
- Click the “Write to device” button
- Wait for the process to finish and then insert the SD card in the ODROID
Mame and NEOGEO
Thankfully the hard days of finding a good emulator for Andoroid are behind us and now there are several to choose from. For the X2, I found MAME4droid and NeoDroid the pretty easy to set up and more importantly free to use.
MAME4droid was by for the easiest app to get working and the performance on the Odroid was nothing but remarkable. Street Fighter 2 playback was a steady 60fps with only the occasional drop to 30-40fps when a lot was going on. Had i not had the FPS showing in the top corner, I don’t think I honestly would have noticed. The sound was also perfect, unlike the RPi which struggles to offer good sound support. The Odroid handled it with ease and really pulled the rug from under my RPi Mame efforts. This was especially true when I came to play Bubble Bobble, which the RPi almost died trying to play with appalling FPS and stuttering audio. On the Odroid the game was silky smooth, the only thing missing was a proper joystick.
Not as easy to configure I found as MAME4droid, but from what i gather is one of the better free NeoGeo emulators out there, tho there is a paid version. One of the first hurdles I faced was actually running NeoGeo roms. The emulator seems almost allergic to some NeoGeo rom files and in other cases threw up errors regarding missing files names. Eventually I discovered what I believed to be the problem, the romset which comes with NEOdroid. Put simply, I think it is out of date and has one or two spelling errors such as when running Metal Slug, NEOdroid reports file 263-pg1.bin as missing. However a closer look of the Metal Slug archive revealed the existence of file 263-p1.bin but no 263-pg1.bin. This seems to be an on-going issue for many other online users as I found quite a number of threads on the subject. I also found a post by the author of NEOdroid, instructing users to use Mame roms with Neodroid and not NeoGeo roms. This has me a little confused, given that NEOdroid is meant to be a NeoGeo emulator. Okay I know the NeoGeo was basically an arcade unit in a console, but surely there are some differences between a real arcade cabinet and the console. I plan to try this app out a little more before writing it off, as it overall seems like a good emulator.
Eventually the Odroid will be installed in a Picade cabinet and connected to a proper joystick and hardware buttons. It will be interesting to see how well the android operating system handles the setup. So make sure you come back to see how i get on, making an android gaming cabinet.
Keep on geeking!