Category Archives: tablet

LineageOS Breathes Life Into Old Phones



Android smartphone and tablet manufacturers are notoriously bad at providing OS updates to their hardware, leaving owners without new features and vulnerable to security flaws. While several OEMs now guarantee updates for two years, most devices are still very capable well beyond this artificial obsolesence.  LineageOS, a flavour of Android built from Google’s AOSP,  continues to support devices that have been disowned by their makers.

When it comes to keeping older devices up-to-date with the latest versions of Android, some OEMs are better than others at pushing out updates. Samsung‘s well known for a lack of updates but even Google only commits to two years of updates for new features and three years for security updates. OnePlus has recently committed to a similar support schedule. Overall, that’s pretty bad when iOS 11 still supports the iPhone 5S from 2013.

My particular gripe is with the Nexus 9 from late 2014. Launched with Lollipop (5.0.1), the Nexus 9’s last update was to 7.1.1 back in 2016 and while it was never a great tablet, it has a very capable CPU in the form of the nVidia Tegra K1 which continues to cope well with today’s apps. The particular problem with the Nexus 9 is that the 7.1.1 release really wasn’t very good and the device became prone to freezing and random rebooting. I’ve previously written about my problems with the Nexus 9 on GNC and while my previous efforts did help in the short-term, the tablet was back to its old ways in a few months.

If the name LineageOS is unfamiliar, CyanogenMod might ring some bells. After Cyanogen Inc decided to closedown the CM distro, it was forked, rebranded and taken over by the community as LineageOS. It now supports nearly two hundred smartphones and tablets, with the vast majority on 7.1.2 but an increasing number on Android 8.

Converting a smartphone or tablet to LineageOS can be a little daunting and there’s always that niggling fear of bricking the device. However, there’s generally good instructions for each model and there’s an active online community. All the tools are available online for download – Android Studio or ADB Tools, LineageOS, TWRP, GApps…

After a particularly annoying day when I wanted to throw my Nexus 9 out of the window, I decided to convert the tablet from Google’s 7.1.1 to LineageOS’s take on 7.1.2. It was either that or buy a new tablet so I took the plunge….The key to a successful transition is preparation: read the instructions, download all the software and get it installed before doing anything at the command line. The Android device is going to be completely wiped so make sure everything important has been copied off.

It doesn’t take long to do the work but can be a bit nerve-wracking if you’ve never unlocked a bootloader. The worst bit is when you’ve done all the work and have rebooted the device for the last time. It can take several minutes to finalise the install and present the “Getting Started” screen.  Tense moments watching the boot animations.

The good news is that I’ve been using LineageOS for at least three months now and I’m very pleased with the change. The Nexus 9 is much more reliable than it was with stock Android. Yes, I still get the occasional random reboot but reliability is way better than the original. Weekly OTA updates keeps the 9 up-to-date with the latest patches.

And LineageOS isn’t only a port of 7.1.2: the distro has additional features not found in standard Android, including system profiles, app locking, PIN scrambling and custom button placement. Nothing strays too far from stock but there are additional benefits.

If you’ve got an older device that’s been left for dead by its manufacturer but you want to keep it alive for longer, I’d recommend you take a look at LineageOS.


Adonit Pro 3 Precision Stylus Review



Geeks over a certain age will recall that smartphones and PDAs didn’t originally have finger touch interfaces and instead of using a digit to control the device, a stylus was used to tap and poke the buttons on the screen. Partly this was a limitation of the screen size – the original Palm Pilot 1000 only had 160 x 160 pixels – and the touchscreen technology, which was resistive and needed pressure to register a touch. The stylus was perfect for this kind of interface as the narrow point could accurately and forcefully tap an individual pixel. Today’s smartphones use a capacitive technology which senses electrostatic fields and the need for a pointy objected has faded in favour of fat fingers.

This doesn’t mean that the stylus has gone away but they certainly are a rarer. On my desk today is the Adonit Pro 3 precision stylus, which is the first quality capacitive stylus I’ve ever used. Yes, I’ve had a couple of those ones with the squidgy rubber tops, typically given away as freebies, but that’s like comparing a ballpoint with a fountain pen. The Pro 3 is a quality instrument. Let’s take a closer look.

The Adonit Pro 3 comes in a simple card box and the stylus itself is a dark grey cylinder with a chunky cut-out for the pocket clip. Adonit call it black, but it’s definitely dark grey, but for something brighter, the stylus is available in silver, dark blue and rose gold. The body is all metal (aluminium) and weighs in at 18g. It’s pen size at 126 mm long and 8 mm diameter. There’s a little light texturing on the barrel where fingers rest. It’s stylish in an industrial kind of way. I like it.

To protect the tip, there’s a stylus cap which is kept in place with magnets and when removed can be stored on the bottom of the pen. The cap can be a little wobbly but it never came off accidentally. Returning to the stylus, it’s a little different from styluses of the noughties. Instead of a point, there’s a pivoting small circular disk which flattens onto the surface of the tablet and smoothly glides over the glass.

The Adonit web site and apps are very Apple-centric and I’m going to guess that you’ll probably need an iPad to get the most out of the Pro 3. I used the Pro 3 on a selection of Android and Windows touchscreen devices with a spectrum of success which varied from device to device. For me, the Pro 3 was most successful on a Pixel C, with the tablet responding positively to the vast majority of taps and draws. On a Nexus 9, it wasn’t quite as responsive, with the tablet sometimes failing to pick up the first touch in drawing apps. It worked surprisingly well with a Windows 8.1 laptop.

What lets the Pro 3 down is nothing to do with the Pro 3, but rather the lack of palm rejection on most Android and Windows apps. Simply, you can’t rest your hand on the tablet without disrupting the pen’s touch. As a result you have to hold your hand clear of the tablet screen. Apps on the iPad seem to have got this (more) sussed out.

Regardless, a clear benefit of the Pro 3 is the precision provided by the tip and the clear disk. It becomes possible to draw two lines with a millimetre between them. That’s simply impossible with a finger no matter how dainty your digits. A soft-tip stylus would be no better. I’m no artist but here’s a little doodle to show what’s possible.

If this looks like a nice stocking filler, the Adonit Pro 3 is currently GB£25.99 from Amazon.co.uk. US price is $29.99.

Thanks to Adonit for providing the Pro 3 for review.


Small Size, Small Price – RCA Mercury 7L Tablet



The RCA Mercury 7L Pro tablet is a 7″ Android tablet with budget specs and a price to match, at just GB£49. That’s about US$65 and it’s right in there as an impulse purchase. But is it a case of buying in haste, repent at leisure? Let’s take a look.

Sold by Asda in the UK, the Mercury 7L is the little sister to the Saturn 10 Pro and both carry the RCA branding: I reviewed the 10 Pro a couple of weeks ago here on GNC and I’ll confess upfront to lifting parts of the Saturn’s review: unsurprisingly, the 7L shares many of the 10 Pro’s traits. There are two other models in the line up; a 7R which has double the internal storage at 16GB and 7 Pro with a folio Bluetooth keyboard.

Taking a quick look over the tablet, the first impressions is how small it is. It’s a 7″ 1024 x 600 screen and the device is 8.25″ across the whole diagonal. For metric people, the Mercury 7 is 185 x 113.8 mm and is 12.5 mm deep and as expected, it’s all pastic. In places, it actually feels that someone thought about how it might be used but in other areas, gets it totally wrong. For example, the bezel on one side is slightly thicker and if you hold it in your right hand in landscape mode, the front-facing camera is neatly positioned to the top right, away from your thumb. Briliant….except that the same hand covers up the microphone. So close….

Quickly reviewing features, there’s a microphone, reset button (that I never had to use), microSD slot, 5V DC jack (never used), microUSB (used for charging), 3.5 mm headphone jack, power button and volume rocker. The single speaker round the back is loud. It’s not terribly clear from the website but I think microSD cards up to 128GB can be used. It’s light at 280g.

Despite the name, speed is not one of Mercury 7L’s strengths. Although equipped with a 1.3 GHz quad core processor it’s held back by the paltry 1 GB of RAM. Once apps get going, they’re fine, but starting a new app or switching between apps can be a little slow. For whatever reason, Geek Bench 4 refused to run so I can’t give a definitive comparison. Having said that Alto’s Adventure play surprisingly well (once it started).

The display could be better too but at this price, it’s in-line with expectations. 1024 x 600 on a 7″ screen is acceptable, the colours are strong and it’s reasonably bright. My only real criticism is that the viewing angle is a little narrow – it’s most noticeable when holding the tablet in portrait mode.

And as for the camera, lots of light is needed to get anything worthwhile from the one megapixel but for a bit of Skype, it’s ok.

As on the Saturn 10,  the user interface for the Mercury 7L would appear to be mainly stock Android 6.0 (June 2016 security patch) with a couple of customisations. The most obvious is the that status bar has few additional icons. Pressing the camera on the left takes a screenshot and the speaker icons control the tablet volume. It’s a smart idea to have onscreen volume controls though I would have preferred keeping the Home button centred as my muscle memory expects it in the middle.

The other change is more of a disappointment – the “Firmware update” screen is black screen with a grey “CHECK NOW”. How hard would it have been to code a screen in keeping with the rest of the OS? It’s somewhat concerning too that the most recent security update is from June 2016.

Everything else is as expected for an Android tablet with full access to Google products; Play Store, Music, Movies, Games, Maps and so on. It’s all there – the Mercury 7L is fully functional Android tablet (specs). Battery life is quoted at six hours and that’s not far from the truth.

After owning the Mercury for a couple of weeks, I think the niche for this tablet is in the portable media space. It’s fine for listening to Spotify, watching Netflix and reading ebooks on OverDrive, plus the microSD card slot gives plenty of room for media. Switching apps can be slow, so if you’re a social butterfly mixing Facebook with Twitter and Instagram, you might need some patience. Overall, it’s a budget tablet for a budget price. Understand this and you won’t be disappointed.

If the Mercury 7L is of interest, it’s available from Asda for GB£49 at time of writing. Thanks to Venturer for supplying the tablet for review.


Great Features on a Budget Tablet – RCA Saturn 10 Pro



The RCA Saturn 10 Pro tablet is a 10″ Android tablet that marries budget specs with high-end features at an astonishingly low price, GB£109. That’s about US$140. Amazingly, that price includes a detachable keyboard, but have they cut the corners in the right places, or is this true value for money? Let’s take a look.

Sold by Asda in the UK, the Saturn 10 Pro is the big brother to the Mercury 7L and both carry the RCA branding though I’m not sure if the RCA brand is as strong in the UK as it might be in the US. Eagle-eyed GNC readers will spot a great deal of similarity with the Venturer EliteWin which I reviewed previously. Unsurprisingly it’s no coincidence as the Saturn 10 Pro is produced by Venturer under the RCA brand. For those wondering what happened to RCA as a company, it was purchased and then broken up by GE in the 1980s.

Taking a quick look over the tablet, I think the design has got stronger with each iteration of the tablet. MoMA won’t be asking for an exhibit any time soon, but the Saturn Pro isn’t far off some of the other low cost tablets from a certain large on-line retailer. Mind you, it’s still quite thick at 11 mm without keyboard. Handily, most of the controls and features have been concentrated on what I perceive as the left-hand side. This is a good thing as it means there’s one unencumbered short edge which can be used to grasp the Saturn Pro in portrait mode.

Quickly reviewing features, there’s a microphone, HDMI connector, reset button (that I never had to use), microSD slot, 5V DC jack (never used), microUSB (used for charging), 3.5 mm headphone jack, power button, volume rocker and full-size USB port. The keyboard connects onto a long edge via four pogo pings with magnets keeping the tablet in place. The single speaker round the back is possibly one of the loudest I’ve ever heard on a phone or tablet.

Speed is not one of the Saturn 10’s strengths. Although equipped with a 1.3 GHz quad core processor and 32 GB of storage, it’s held back by the paltry 1 GB of RAM. In benchmarking, Geek Bench 3 gave the Saturn 387 and 1113 in the single and multicore tests respectively. For comparison a Nexus 5 from 2013 scores 859 and 1764. In real world conditions, that means Alto’s Adventure takes over 20 seconds to launch. Still, it’s playable when it gets going though the tablet sometimes stutters when there’s too much action in the games. Surfing the web and watching YouTube is fine – give it time to get the videos loaded.

The display could be better too. 1280 x 800 on a 10″ screen simply is disappointingly low and at times there’s a hint of blurriness round text in places. Look closely at the “t” in the photo – it’s not crisp. 1280 x 800 was the resolution of the original Nexus 7 in 2012, and that had a 7″ screen. The Nexus 9 is 2048 x 1536 in a 9″ screen. To be fair, most of the time it’s not noticeable but open a text-heavy magazine in Zinio and it’s quite obvious.

And as for the cameras, lots of light is needed to get anything worthwhile from the two megapixels. Stick to using the camera in your smartphone.

What’s good? The plethora of ports is definitely interesting – full-size USB, microUSB, microSD and HDMI are all handy, particularly for photos and documents. Plug in a memory stick or card, fire up Google Photos and flick through the photos. Copy between media using ES File Explorer. I’m not sure if I had a setting wrong somewhere but I didn’t seem to be able to use the microUSB port for anything other than charging. Connecting up the Saturn to my PC via USB didn’t show any additional drives.

Connecting the Saturn to a big TV via HDMI is fun. I had the tablet on holiday with me and I could take the day’s GoPro footage and check it out on the big screen in the evening with the family watching. It’s good from that point of view.

Of course, the keyboard and touchpad are a win too. The keys are small but big enough for even a fat-fingered typist like myself to touch-type without too many errors and the key action is perfect acceptable. The keyboard has a sixth row of keys for back, home, search and other functions which greatly improved the Android-with-a-keyboard experience. Turning the tablet screen off is possible with the keyboard, but it’s not possible to wake the tablet from keyboard. The touchpad is sensitive, though I found it suffered a bit from stray fingers brushing the surface and occasionally text would end up being typed in the wrong place.

On first inspection, the user interface would appear to be mainly stock Android 6.0 (June 2016 security patch) but there are a couple of customisations. The most obvious is the that status bar has few additional icons. Pressing the camera on the left takes a screenshot and the speaker icons control the tablet volume. It’s a smart idea to have onscreen volume controls though I would have preferred keeping the Home button centred.

The other change is more of a disappointment – the “Firmware update” screen is black screen with a grey “CHECK NOW”. How hard would it have been to code a screen in keeping with the rest of the OS? It’s somewhat concerning too that the most recent security update is from June 2016.

Everything else is as expected for an Android tablet with full access to Google products; Play Store, Music, Movies, Games, Maps and so on. It’s all there – the Saturn 10 Pro is fully functional Android tablet (specs). Battery life is quoted at six hours and that’s not far from the truth.

Let’s be clear, the Saturn 10 Pro is not a Pixel C but then again, you’d get three Saturn 10s for the price of one Pixel C. The Saturn 10 is a budget tablet with a great deal of functionality from a microSD slot to a full-sized USB port,  HDMI out and a keyboard. On the other hand, the tablet is slow, cameras are low-res and the screen is disappointing for a 10″ display. What’s important to you will determine if £109 is money well spent on the Saturn 10.

As an example, I wouldn’t buy one personally because I read lots of magazines on my tablet and I want a glossy hi-res screen to enjoy the features. That’s important to me, but if you want to do a bit of email on the sofa, having the keyboard might make it a killer proposition at the price. As an aside, if Venturer was able to produce a tablet that bumped the specs to the mid-range and priced it well, I think they’d have a real winner.

If the Saturn 10 Pro makes your shortlist, it’s available from Asda for GB£109 at time of writing. Video unboxing and review below.

Thanks to RCA Venturer for providing the Saturn 10 Pro for review.


iBeani Tablet Stand



iBeani is a small bean bag promoted as a tablet stand for iPads and other tablets….but it’s so much more. Tablet stand, book holder, doll recliner – if you want to rest something so you can see it better, iBeani’s your gadget of choice. Best of all, it doesn’t need batteries and doesn’t look out of place on the sofa.

The iBeani bean bag is designed to prop up a tablet or book at the perfect angle for reading or games. As a bean bag, it can sit on a flat surface or adapt to more awkward shapes, like sofas or knees. The iBeani is about 30 cm / 12″ across when squashed down and has a loop at the top for easy carrying and pocket for battery packs, mobile phones, spectacles, whatever…

The iBeani comes in a range of around 40 fabrics and there’s something for everyone. From geometric patterns to paw prints and classical art, it’s not hard to find an iBeani to suit your style. The fabric seems durable without being coarse and the bean bag is double zipped on the bottom to avoid any accidents involving small balls.

Made in Britain, the iBeani’s standard price is GB£24.99 including postage within the UK. There are a few sale items at £19.99 and a couple of more expensive ones at GB£29.99. I’m guessing that it’s the licensing of the art work that pushes the price up on those models.

iBeani is very handy. It’s infinitely adjustable and looks like a soft furnishing rather than a tablet stand. If you need to position a book or tablet “just so”, it’s ideal, and it’s great for children or older people who don’t want some convoluted stand with legs to unfold. It’s simple and it works.

Thanks to iBeani for supplying the bean bag for review. YouTube video below.

 

 


Reset With No Restore for Nexus 9 Refresh Success



My Nexus 9 tablet has been a stalwart companion since replacing my Nexus 10 back in late 2014. It’s still a good Android tablet, though it was never a great tablet, and it’s accompanied me around the world on my trips for both business and leisure. Recently, performance began to suffer with all too regular crashes and I was getting worried.

The Nexus 9 arrived with Android 5 Lollipop and has been successively upgraded through Marshmallow and now Nougat. Sadly, it’s been confirmed by Google that 7.1.1 is that last OS version that the tablet will receive, while continuing to download security patches for now. Still that’s three years of good service but it’s also three years of OS updates and app upgrades filling the tablet with cruft.

After daily, sometimes hourly frustration, I decided it was time for a factory reset and profile restore. Google makes the process straightforward enough but it’s still necessary to check that any unique files are copied off the device. Once the restore is complete, you have to dig out passwords and log back into email, social media and chat apps, often complete with two factor authentication.

It’s even more annoying when you discover the Nexus 9 is still as flaky as ever. Nooooooo…..

I really didn’t want to give up on the faithful friend. Who does when a replacement tablet is going to cost a couple of hundred quid? As a last ditch attempt, I reset the Nexus 9 but this time, didn’t reload my profile and only added apps back in as I needed them. Result….the Nexus 9 has been rock solid since then (touch wood and all those other superstitions!)

You can find the option in Settings > Backup & Reset. Turn off Automatic Restore before doing the Factory Data Reset.

There’s my tip of the day. If your Android tablet keeps freezing or rebooting, do a factory reset but don’t bother restoring your profile. Keep it clean.


Shift from Qwertyfree Helps Visually Impaired at CES



For the visually impaired, typing on a smartphone or tablet keyboard can be tricky as the small keys can be hard to pick out. The team at Qwertyfree are developing a replacement keyboard with just five keys to help those with poor vision. Todd finds out more from Craig.

The idea behind the new keyboard is that in English eight letters are used over 60% of the time so why not focus on those and make those letters the easiest to use. Called Shift (as in shifting gears on a manual transmission), the app has a four areas; up, right, down, left, with a selection of letters in each – it’s a little like the directional pad on a remote. The user swipes once to get a primary letter and then swipes again to get a secondary one, with the keyboard reading out the selected letter. So just swipe left for E, or right for N.

The new Shift keyboard should be available by the end of the quarter, though it may be Android only. No news on price.

Todd Cochrane is the host of the twice-weekly Geek News Central Podcast at GeekNewsCentral.com.

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