Monday, December 22, 2014

LG G Flex as Music Player / Neutron App / GOgroove BlueGate RMT Bluetooth Remote Review

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So I got a LG G Flex from one of the super Bestbuy deals for $200. Since the price is decent for a relatively new device with good spec, I gave LG another chance. My last LG phone - LG L9 only lasted 7 months, which forced to buy a replacement phone - SONY Xperia ION. The L9, while being only a low end device at the time, performed pretty well if not dead…
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The SONY Xperia ION while performed OK, spec looked good on paper, felt really old. It was first released with Android 2.3x Gingerbread, therefore the app partition is only 1.97GB, it started filled up quickly after installing only a few apps. It was a constantly battle to move apps to SD cards and deleting apps to release space, so I was never happy with this aspect. Another thing is no matter which ROM I tried, the dialer is always so slow to launch for some reason. Lastly the battery life is NOT that great, it can last for a day outside (8-10 hours) if I remember to charge it fully. I certainly would not be comfortable leaving home if the battery is 70% or below. I always carry a 2600mah portable battery though…
The G Flex is a speed monster compare to all the devices I’ve used so far. Coupled with a 6in screen, it really feels like a computer in the palm of hand now. The curved screen is really awesome, the landscape mode works best for the curve. It made me actually want a bigger TV with curved screen. It came with 4.2.2, I upgraded the ROM to 4.4.2 v20b by using LG firmware tool. (This is an AT&T brand G Flex D950, I don’t have AT&T, therefore I don’t get any OTA updates, the latest is v20f pushed over in September I believe). Then rooted the device using Stump Root with Brute force. Everything worked fine. After upgrading to 4.4.2, the device appears to be smoother. I also installed the G2 Exposed to get rid of the cell vendor on the left of the status bar. One feature I liked the best is the wireless storage, it makes the phone as a network place after activating. It worked sort of like the feature in PlayBook. Another great feature is quickmemo, which is essentially a screen capture with doodling capability. This feature was available on the L9. The battery life is pretty good. I get about 1.5 day of usage on average. The screen on time is not that great though, I get about 3.5 to 4 hours of usage on average. So it’s great for standby, about 1% drop in battery per hour. But if you start using the phone, the battery drops quite fast. But still, I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable leaving home even if the battery drops below 50%. The only bad thing is that it’s picky about the USB charging cable when using with a portable charger, the same cable used with Xperia ION with fast charging would receive a slow charging warning on this smartphone. But I only have to use a portable charger twice so far.
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I don’t have issue with G Flex being a 6in Phablet, it fits my cargo pocket fine. But I preferred putting it in my shirt’s pocket. It fits there OK while you definitely feel the weight. But it’s a tradeoff I’m willing to bear. This time I decided to not get a screen protector, but get a case instead. I chose the official quick window cover. It provides protection to the screen and add a way to power on/off the screen. The double tap works great already without the case, but the case is even easier for locking/unlocking screen. The other thing I’m battling with is the lack of MicroSD card slot. You only get about 24GB available user space from the built-in 32GB storage. Being natively 4.2 Android, it gives unified storage so all 24GB is treated as a big partition. I’m happy with this aspect. 24GB is more than enough to put all the apps, books, and photos. But it’s not enough for any music or video storage.
For this problem, there are three options that I know of:
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1. USB OTG. You could choose a traditional USB OTG cable, or modern USB drive with built-in OTG port, or maybe a Meenova card reader. This is certainly the most stable and versatile solution. All files are accessible locally. You can use any app of your choice. The biggest disadvantage is the draining of battery though. The USB drives would constantly draw power. Also it would be pretty inconvenient if you attach the USB drive all the time.
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So I grabbed a 64GB Patriot USB OTG drive, it has a micro USB on one side for Android, and another full USB side for PC. The capacity is on par with my mciroSD card used in the Xperia ION. So I was able to keep all data in it.
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2. Apps that have SMB or UPNP/DLNA capability built-in. I recommend Neutron Music Player. This is like Poweramp on steroids. As long as you can get past the UI, especially the settings, it is a very powerful app that can stream all types of music on your PC or NAS. It supports all the format (lossless formats obscure as TAK, TTA) that I can dream of and cue sheets. 
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The SMB works very well, now I can stream hundreds Hi-Res, lossless music on my NAS. There is no buffering, no lag, everything works just the way it meant to be. It’s well worth the price tag IMO.
ES file explorer is another viable solution if you don’t want to spend that much on one app. It lacks systematic music management like Neutron though. The best that you can do is to use playlist to manage music from folders. The streaming performance is almost as good as Neutron. But you don’t get additional function such EQ, pre-amp, gain, crossfade, normalization, sleep timer etc.
3. Wifi Route. The main difficulty for the Wifi is that you need apps that can manage the files. Unlike USB OTG, your files are not accessed as if you are locally. To get them appear locally, the only option would be to use something such as CIFS mounting to mount the folder as a local folder. But you need a CIFS kernel or CIFS.ko module which there is none for G Flex at the moment.
I have options 1 and 2. I prefer option 2 for the easy of setup. When I got the phone, I didn’t intend it to be a music player. But I think the audio playback through the audio port is decent enough. The biggest advantage for Android is that I don’t need to process most of the audio file. This compliments my SONY NW-M505 walkman which plays MP3 and WAV only. My setup also includes the FiiO E17 portable amp. It definitely helps with filtering out some background noise. And apparently this guy agrees with my opinion, G Flex (starting at 2:15 mark) is ranked the no.5 on top of the 5 smartphone (no iphone) category.
Note in my setup that the FiiO E17 is hooked up to the G Flex via standard 3.5mm. FiiO is set as AUX input. So the processing is still done on the smartphone’s internal component, The FiiO is merely amplifies the signal. I could only hope that G Flex would someday get the Android L update so that I can use the USB connection. Android 5.0 is reported to support USB DAC natively with some limitations:
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And lastly, the setup wouldn’t be complete without some kind of remote control capability. Smartphones are NOT built like walkman which features hardware controls for music. So I got the GOgroove BlueGATE RMT bluetooth controller.
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At $24.99, this is a pretty steep priced bluetooth device with very limited usage. But it’s still cheaper than the $34.99 Satechi brand I tried last year. That one was only available to iOS or Android, while this GOgroove has a switch that can handle BOTH systems.
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The overall build quality on the remote is pretty decent, the front side has some uncleaned finish for some reason, but a fine file should clean up the finish. The buttons are a bit stiff, but they do respond well. The non symmetrical placement of the play/pause button feels odd, makes the volume up/down keys smaller. I guess they do it to make it a bit easier for blind operation, but the plastic feel of buttons make it not that easy to distinguish which button is which without looking. But after a while, you’ll get used to it.
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The bluetooth remote is a Bluetooth 3.0 HID device powered by an AAA battery. GOgroove claims that it can last upto 12 hours. There is a big catch not mentioned on Amazon or other vendor though: the device will enter sleep mode and disconnect Bluetooth connection after 3 minutes! To re-establish the connection, just press any key. My experiment is that the audio control buttons automatically registers after re-connection. So if the connection is lost, after pressing the play button once, it will re-connect AND issue the play/pause command. But for the bottom camera and voice key, pressing once after entering sleep mode only re-connects, you have to press these two keys again to issue proper command. This could be a deal breaker for some. And every time the Bluetooth connects, the Android system will display a notification, the notification will cause a flicker in some app, while completely quit in some apps. In Moon reader, the notification will quit the book you are reading, and send you back to the bookshelf for some reason… This shouldn’t be a huge deal though since if you’re using the smartphone, you get easy control, almost have no need for remote control anyways.
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The second problem it has is that the remote is registered as a Bluetooth keyboard. By default, Android will disable on-screen software keyboard. It makes sense when you are using a fully functional keyboard. But this remote is NOT a functioning keyboard, so you’ll be forced to turn off hardware keyboard every time it reconnects! To turn off the keyboard, just use the dropdown menu, select “choose input method”, then select the input method you use.
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And again, the 3 minute auto sleep feature really hinders the usage of this remote. So it’s pretty much impossible to use the smartphone while listening to music if you so wanted to use the remote control.
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Finally some good news is that the keys do work fairly well. Some keys perform two functions depend long press or short press. Long press the camera button for 6 seconds launches the default camera button. But unfortunately it stops there, the camera button only works for the default camera app. I’ve tried it with other apps such as Playmemories, and the camera button never responded.
So in conclusion is that this Bluetooth remote is a good build quality one, but it has some flaws that you have to fight through. I finally decided to keep it after two weeks of trial.
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And to end this post, I had to post some sad news that the included SONY MDR-NC31SP noise cancelling earbud from the NW-M505 Walkman was destroyed in the washer machine. I forgot to take the earbud out… And to replace it, it would cost $37 for the long version. seems the only place that I could find to have the original short version. Of course, the newly released SONY NW-A16/A17 (sold in Japan only) would include one of these. But I don’t think I’m ready for another Walkman for such a short time. I’ll wait and see if the Hi-Res audio SONY’s been pushing will take off or not while slowly collecting those.
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And SONY’s audio store MORA (Japan only) just announced that it would release files in DSD format, but the walkman I’m looking at - NW-A16/A17 doesn’t support these format yet. (Currently MORA sells Hi-Res audio in FLAC format, and these FLAC format are almost non-compressed WAVs, which means they only used FLAC container to include the art work, but didn’t take advantage of the compression so that the file size are huge). Not sure if they would ever support DSD via firmware updates either. One more reason to just hold off while being happy to use my current setup.

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