It’s been another busy week – so busy in fact that I can’t see myself doing much in the way of blogging for the next month or two. Between working away on my research, RoadTest reviews and keeping everything running, it’s not easy to find the time to write something. As a result, I thought that it would be easier just to lump everything together this week … into another random post!
North-West Metro Gets an Opening Date!
Commuters have long been told that the North-West Metro would be opening somewhere around the middle of the year but without any specifics. Even during the recent trial of the Cooee Busways On-Demand Public Transport service, drivers were none-the-wiser as to when the metro would begin service (and consequently, when they would begin revenue service as well).
This has seemingly changed, as this banner on the Opal website proudly proclaims –
The Sydney Metro will begin service on Sunday 26th May 2019. The dedicated Metro page is here, suggesting that initial service will be supplemented by a night bus from Sunday to Wednesday, presumably to provide time for service maintenance, alterations and adjustments to take place. It reaffirms our understanding that it will be charged as a regular train fare, with the currently published timetable showing service intervals of five to ten minutes which is a little less than the four minutes I had expected based on previous publications but still quite adequate.
Along with this, The Ponds On Demand service page has now appeared in the TfNSW pages, which although lacking data, does seem to suggest that fares are starting from $2.20 standard and $1.10 concession as previously alluded to (prior to the cover-up of the yet to be fully launched Cooee Busways site).
Swollen Redmi Note 4X & Depleted Mi Max
When it rains, it pours … and when it comes to my Xiaomi phones, this seems to be the case. The first patient is my Xiaomi Redmi Note 4X. This unit was bought second hand for about AU$100 in October, 2018 making it about six months old. It was that price because it had a cracked screen – but I didn’t care because I needed a phone with a decent LTE modem to serve as my WAN connection (tethered via USB to a Mikrotik hAP ac). I originally had a perfectly fine Note 4X in this role, but since a family friend needed a new phone, I sent the fine Note 4X to them, exchanging it for the cheap second hand unit.
Unfortunately, and rather predictably, all that connecting-to-USB didn’t do the battery any good. As I had discovered in the past, while it’s not possible to overcharge a Li-Ion/Li-Poly battery due to the protection circuitry, the constant “floating” and micro-cycling of the battery causes voltage stress on the battery. As it is at a high state of charge all the time, this makes it more likely to swell up – in this case, so much so that the screen is visibly bowed with the backlight visible out of the crack on the side of the phone on both sides.
From the rear, this is most obvious when looking at the fingerprint sensor, which now has a gap all the way around. Operating with a swollen battery increases the risk of the battery containment being ruptured and potential for a “vent with flame” event to occur, which is sometimes reported as an “explosion”.
Because of this, I was pretty keen to get rid of the unit as soon as I could – but I needed a replacement first – hence the phone seen in the next section of this post. Unfortunately, the phones are not designed with ease of repair in mind, so while I did wish to repair the phone, I didn’t feel that I would succeed. The other issue would be economics – as Xiaomi don’t usually sell genuine replacement parts, all of the parts online are likely to be fake and cost upwards of $14. If serving in the same situation, they would likely swell again. With this phone out of software support now, there is really no reason to invest any money into repairing it – so I decided I would repair it with only parts I had lying about.
Opening the phone proved to be a rather interesting experience. At first, I spent some time separating the screen from the chassis only to find two opposing ribbon cables causing issues with removing the screen. Then I realised the plastic frame around it can be released from the back with just fingernail pressure. D’oh. There was no reason to pry at the screen and risk the digitiser and shards of glass separating …
Once the rear cover came off, we can see the culprit in its full glory.
This Li-Poly battery is a 3.85V version with a 4.40V charging termination voltage. This battery was manufactured by Sunwoda Electronic Co. Ltd. The date of manufacture was 2nd June 2017, so it is almost two years old.
The swelling is most prominent from the side, where it looks more like a pillow than a prismatic cell. Separation of the cell from the frame proved to be rather difficult, as the adhesive is rather firm and I didn’t want to add any heat to the battery. The release tabs did not work – they were more useful for removing remnant adhesive after separating the battery.
After a nerveracking operation which stressed the plastic pouch sufficiently that it is no longer pressurised, the battery was separated without puncturing the cell. Note to self – next time, discharge the cell first to reduce the likelihood of accidents!
The rest of the phone is as above – it seems just fine, but now comes the more difficult part. Since the battery uses a very special clip-on terminal attached to a flex lead, the only way I can salvage the phone is to salvage the protection board containing the connector from the existing battery. Through careful unwrapping of the adhesive tape at the top of the cell and cutting the cell tabs, I was able to free the protection board.
With this, I could attach wires to the board to attach an external battery.
Because the charging circuitry is optimised for a 4.40V termination voltage, replacing it with a regular 3.7V 18650 cell is probably not safely possible, unless an additional protection circuit intervenes to terminate charge early. I had a thought and performed some experiments to prove the possibility of using Ni-MH cells as a replacement, but I had something even better.
Enter a BM42 cell from the original Xiaomi Redmi Note 3G (first generation). I had this battery left-over from a friend who submitted their Redmi Note 3G to me for recovery. That phone was ultimately junked and destroyed due to an eMMC failure as determined by trying the manufacturing tools to flash the unit, but as it had removable batteries, I kept them just in case.
As the cell is 3.80V, it’s a little lower than the 3.85V nominal voltage of the original but close enough (I figured) because of tolerances. The additional protection board of the cell should keep it safe, but the voltage drop through the first protection board and wires should provide additional margin. Maybe when this battery fails and swells, I will consider replacing it with another, but because it is external, the process is significantly simplified.
Because of the vulnerability of the flex connector, I decided to glue the wires and wrapped-up protection board to the phone casing to eliminate stress on the connector. The rear cover could be drilled to accommodate the wires, but I found it easier just to omit it entirely in its modem role as there are no printed antennas on the casing anyway.
Which brings me onto the second patient … my Xiaomi Mi Max which has been my “faithful companion” for about two years of heavy use. It travelled around Asia with me and served as my “every-day” phone. Unfortunately, it too is having some battery issues.
What once was a super-enduring 4850mAh battery that could do 14-hours of screen-on time is now a shadow of its former self, offering closer to just four. I can’t make it through a whole day without a top-up, which is not helped by my voracious appetite for faster-than-realtime video playback on my commutes to and from work. At a measurement of the current consumed when charging and assuming it has a 100% efficient switching converter, the remaining capacity is no more than 2900mAh or about 60%. In reality, it seems to be even less, as on overnight “idle”, it can consume about 20-25% of charge. At least the battery has not swollen.
Because of this, I have now relieved the Xiaomi Mi Max from its “everyday phone” duties, transitioning to a new phone (below). I didn’t feel that it was worth risking opening it, or buying a sub-par battery that could be just as bad, so instead it will remain a Wi-Fi connected remote control/web browser/video and audio player for use around the house.
Quick Look: Sharp Aquos S3 (FS8032)
As the resurrection of my modem phone and the lifetime of my “everyday” phone was not guaranteed, I went looking for a relatively good value phone to act as insurance. You don’t want to be repairing your one and only internet access phone with the potential of breaking it and thus being offline until a new phone arrived. Because this is just a brief look at the new phone, I didn’t feel it deserved its own post, so it is included here.
I scoured OzBargain as I usually do, and saw the Sharp Aquos S3 (FS8032) via AliExpress for about AU$208 delivered. For the specs which include an 5.99″ FHD+ screen, all-Australian band support, NFC, 4GB RAM, 64GB Flash, dual-rear camera and Snapdragon 630 SoC, I thought that to be great value compared even to the Xiaomi Redmi Note 6 Pro, so I grabbed one. As usual, it takes nearly forever to arrive … while the modem phone continues to serve with a swollen battery and I continue to worry about the potential for a “vent with flame” to occur.
Eventually, it arrived in this sharp looking box, in red and white as their corporate style dictates.
The box shows the handset up front with gold foil accents. The rear panel lists the full specifications.
Inside, we are greeted with the phone, wrapped in protective plastic with Korean text, thus this appears to be a Korean market device.
The box itself is three-layered with the accessories underneath the phone.
The middle layer contains a wrap-around soft-touch plastic shell cover for the phone – we’ll see why this is important in a second.
Looking at the phone, we can see that the screen extends fairly close to the edges, with discreet Sharp logo along the bottom bezel edge. The screen does not have protective film, relying on the wrap-around plastic for protection.
The rear of the phone has a glossy, glassy surface (after the IMEI and regulatory information label has been removed). Because of this, it is a fingerprint magnet, but potentially may also shatter if mistreated. The wrap-around shell is probably there to prevent this.
The bottom reveals a hole for the microphone, a USB-C connector and a speaker grille.
Along the long side, there is the power and volume rocker buttons. There is a rose-gold style accent along the edges, matching that surrounding the fingerprint sensor.
Also supplied is the SIM tray ejection tool, headset (with additional tips), flat USB-C cable, USB-C to 3.5mm adapter and a charger with EU prongs. The unit is capable of dual SIM operation but the SD card shares the slot for the second SIM. The charger is a standard 5V/2A charger, dated October 2018.
In use, the phone is as I had expected – snappy enough as a normal mid-range phone, with fairly good reception and throughput, with a bright, sharp and saturated screen (including a notch which I’m not a big fan of) and a decent dual camera. It is surprising to see a phone of this category use a USB-C connector, although, this is at the expense of a 3.5mm headphone jack. The downsides that occurred to me are the integration of the menu/home/back buttons as soft-buttons on screen along with the notch, so the extra real-estate is a bit of a lie compared to old rectangular-screened phones with capacitive touch buttons and no notch, the weak and tinny monaural speaker, the Smile UX launcher and bundled apps which are limited and at times unstable (including RoboS). The battery is a little on the smaller side, thus only has average battery life. The included headset is very average, nowhere near as good as most third-party IEMs and the included charger is not Quick Charge capable, even though the phone appears to be.
But considering that I paid only around AU$208 posted, it is very good value. Aside from the issues noted above, the biggest disadvantage may well be the lack of support and limited OTA upgrades, as the product while branded Sharp, has almost no support site available online as it is an OEM product of Commtiva Technologies and only has Android 8.0.0 available even though there are “sister” models with Android 9. Accordingly, accessories for the Sharp Aquos S3 are rare and relatively expensive.
For advanced users, like myself, there is another big caveat …
… namely that it seems to be quite secure. Which unfortunately means there is no way to root the phone. I looked for regular means and out of desperation, tried even “shadier” methods such as KingRoot.
But after a long period of trying, the device cannot be rooted. As far as I can tell, it can’t be bootloader unlocked either, with no custom recovery available either. As a result, users will have to live the “regular” unrooted life.
This phone was pressed into modem service for the better part of an hour and a half, before the Redmi Note 4X was deemed successfully repaired and returned to its original role. Now, the Sharp Aquos S3 takes over the role of my Mi Max as the “everyday” phone.
The Problem with No Bootloader Unlock & No Root
It seems that the modern trend is to move away from rooting phones entirely, as the vendors and operating systems conspire to make it more difficult and apps perform lots of checks to try and deny rooted users the ability to use the apps. Unfortunately, for those who haven’t tasted the sweetness of a rooted phone, they really are missing out.
The first part usually starts with unlocking the bootloader which allows the underlying firmware to be replaced. Once unlocked, the fun can begin. One of the most useful things to have is a custom recovery – my preferred one is TeamWin Recovery Project (TWRP) which allows for easy installation of software from onboard storage, SD card, or even cabled to a computer via ADB Sideload commands. It’s useful for making full nandroid backups of the phone that can save you in case an update fails (or something goes wrong when you’re overseas), but also can save your bacon when your main system is stuck in a bootloop, allowing you to clear your caches and try again or even to navigate and copy your precious data from internal storage to SD card and vice versa.
Assuming you’ve rooted, perhaps using SuperSU (as an old-hat) or Magisk (for the more modern folk), then superuser access is now available and a whole realm of superuser applications is now at your disposal. Some of my favourite things to do with root include:
- having root explorer functionality on many file managers to allow you to tweak configuration options (e.g. build-prop) so that you can install “incompatible apps”
- having Busybox installed with a basic terminal like Termux, to having access to a full-blown Linux
- being able to run software like ProxyDroid to selectively tunnel apps via proxy servers, which could include tunneling through SSH with Connectbot to keep everything safe while overseas without needing a full-blown VPN, or use Tor clients more effectively
- being able to block ads through hosts file modification using AdAway such that the whole system is free of ads, including most “free version” apps
- being able to run my phone as an SMB server using Samba Filesharing
- being able to backup and restore apps and settings with Titanium Backup
- being able to modify the system DPI using something like Easy DPI Changer so that you can fit more onto the screen and reduce text sizes below the minimum in the settings.
Since moving to the Sharp, I’ve really missed the ability to do all of the above, which makes the phone a bit less appealing. It reminds me of just how noisy and trashy the internet is with all the ads – Chrome Mobile is almost unusable on many websites, so I have had to resort to Firefox with uBlock Origin as an extension. But other apps being no longer free of ads has led me to ditch them. The lack of ad blocking also means that tracking is probably also occurring in ways that wouldn’t happen on a rooted phone with a custom hosts file – maybe that’s why myMaccas now works smoothly on this phone since it’s not trying to phone home to some blocked tracker! Losing some of the capabilities can otherwise be worked around – instead of the phone being an SMB server, I use the phone to connect to an SMB server and push files over instead. But many of the more unique and useful capabilities are not possible without root access.
Migrating to the new phone “manually” by installing and setting everything up is a rather slow process, but reminds me of how many apps became unsupported and abandoned by their developers and eventually removed from the app store. Others may be supported, but then are not permitted to be installed because of some limitation on devices and have to be side-loaded from a copy stolen from a rooted phone. I experienced this frustration with the Sharp as well, notably with ES File Manager which was pulled from the store as part of a crackdown on DO Global’s click-fraud. I suppose that’s not a bad thing, as the app was very much bloated, loading ads and spamming notifications, so I went to MiXplorer and that’s actually been a good change. I had QuickPic installed, and that’s still around, but unsupported. I couldn’t get CSipSimple, so I had to grab that along with the codec pack from the rooted Mi Max. Older Keysight mobile meter/insulation test apps are no longer on the Play store either, which is a shame. It was a good chance to clear the cruft and reduce the number of useless apps installed as well.
Hopefully someone might be able to work out how to get the phone rooted in the future, so I can have all of these capabilities back …
“Open Heart Surgery” on a Computer
In the recent past, I did a teardown of the Coolermaster SickleFlow X 120mm fan as it was rattling incessantly. At the time, I took out two of these fans from my case, as they were both end of life with bearing rattles and vibration. I left the third one in, as it was still doing just fine. At the time, I replaced one of the two with a Fractal Design Silent Series R3 fan, while the other slot was occupied by an old Antec 120mm fan that came out of my 1100 chassis that still worked well. I already knew by then, the third one may well become a nuisance, so in preparation, I bought a spare fan and left it in a drawer waiting for the day to arrive.
Indeed, separated by just half a year, I heard more “galloping” noises from the case. But I couldn’t afford to shut down the PC as it was busy with many experiments. As a result, I had to perform some “open heart surgery” on the PC, fumbling with screws, a screwdriver and plugging in a small finicky connector. With a bit of careful alignment and patience, it was accomplished without shutting down, suspending or rebooting the machine at all. The things I do for uptime …
This time, I replaced it with a Corsair AF120 with white LEDs – not that I really wanted any LEDs in the first place, but that was what was in stock for a reasonable price at my local computer shop that wasn’t one of the “no brand” lucky-dip fans that are sure to fail sooner rather than later. Since this one was optimised for airflow, it seems to push a bit more air than the fan it replaced while being quieter, which isn’t a bad thing at all.
The only concern now? All fan slots in the machine have different fans in them! It looks a bit unusual, but at least there is no odd humming for now, even though each of the fans do spin at a different speed. However, just leaving my hand on the chassis, I can feel that perhaps I have another fan bearing that isn’t long for this world … maybe I should just bite the bullet and change them all over to something better, like Noctua fans which never seem to go wrong.
Firefox Extension Mayhem
While some people may regard Firefox as a footnote in today’s browser market, or perhaps as a relic from the browser wars of the past, many more technical users tend to use Firefox despite its ups and downs. I am a Firefox user myself for the most part, as I don’t really trust Google to be behind my browser, nor do I find Firefox to be as problematic and slow as others often claim. I guess it boils down to familiarity with the browser, its tools and extensions, as well as an understanding of Mozilla’s mission as being distinctly different to perhaps that of Google.
Just yesterday, however, something unusual happened causing many users (including myself) to suddenly lose access to all our extensions with a bright yellow banner exclaiming “One or more installed add-ons cannot be verified and have been disabled.” The cause appears to have been reported as a lapse of an intermediate signing certificate.
Mozilla are working on the issue as evidenced in their blog updates, with a fix supposedly rolling out in hours, but I’d have to say the response is a bit lukewarm at best, seemingly without the understanding of the urgency of the matter at hand.
On one hand, the browser still functions as it would. But on the other, we have lost access to many of the features that makes the browser great. Losing access to extensions like Ghostery, NoScript and uBlock Origin means that users who are concerned about privacy now are left without defenses. It also reminds us of how “cluttered” the web is with advertising, while opening users up to potential malware attack by the very questionable advertisements we have tried to block.
The responses are even more puzzling. While it can be understood that there may not be a very rapid-fire patch mechanism, the initial hotfix was offered via the Studies program – something many privacy conscious users are likely to have disabled along with telemetry/health report/crash reports. In desperation, I suspect some users may well have enabled Studies, but not seen any fix from it for hours. There were even reports that this fix did not work as suggested.
On other sites, comments included disabling the signing check for extensions using an about:config tweak. While this would certainly work, it would expose all the users to potentially running malicious extensions – perhaps not such a big issue if you are careful about things, but often users will “fix” things by disabling options or changing options that could conflict and break things in the future or leave them vulnerable.
There is another response which was supposedly the hotfix patch file uploaded to a file sharing page. I suspect many people would have downloaded it and installed it blindly – but without verifying the source and integrity of the file, perhaps this could be a vector to install malware. Call it paranoia, but I suspect during desperate panic situations, you can convince users to do things they wouldn’t normally do.
While I can understand the desperation, it got me wondering why so much of modern software “phones home” so often and silently. Why does an extension that was installed and running for years suddenly need to check if it’s still valid? Moreover, this is a way potentially for Mozilla to know when someone fires up their browser, how long they use it for, which extensions they have installed, even if they didn’t intend for it to happen. It’s just like one of my other pet peeves – OSes which “check” for internet connectivity thus alerting the “mothership” as to my existence, download updates silently without consent and install them, chewing up my precious 4G quota. Given that many OSes and devices rely on NTP servers for time, I’m sure the public NTP servers could probably determine when certain IP addresses are active based on the queries they get.
But even more than this, it’s important to realise that by adding this “function” into a system, they’ve suddenly increased the number of dependencies needed. This creates an interdependency issue – for example, when a certificate authority sneezes, a good chunk of HTTPS sites could go down. It’s part of the reason I resisted going to HTTPS for as long as I could … as there are many legitimate websites that really don’t need to have HTTPS.
It’s been both a frustrating and exciting week. I can’t wait for the North-West metro to arrive – in fact, I’ll probably try to be there on opening day to snap some shots and give it a few rides.
It’s also been a busy week servicing phones and migrating to a new one just to keep myself reliably connected – some risks were taken, but the reward was worth it. It is frustrating, however, that the new phone I have migrated to (the Sharp Aquos S3) is so rate that accessories are expensive and rare, but also that bootloader unlocking, custom recovery and rooting are not possible at this stage. This really does affect the phone experience, especially if you have been accustomed to the benefits of root-access.
It was good to have solved another rattling fan without rebooting my computer – I’ve got so much running on it that it never really ever gets shut down. With experiments in progress, I’d be set back a few days if it ever did go down unexpectedly. The issue with Firefox extensions was a reminder just how unbearable the internet can be without ad-blockers, as well as another reminder about the non-obvious issue of interdependencies and how many apps do things that you might not have considered necessary or even realised was happening.
But as usual, life goes on and busy weeks keep coming. Hopefully I’ll have some time to write as there are a few products I’ve tested that perhaps deserve a review posting … one day.