Android on Xperia

One of my handsets is a Sony Xperia E C1504 (code-name Nanhu) which was a low-end-ish Android handset when it launched in early 2013, and was apparently relatively popular in India. One of its claims to fame is that it was also one of the first handsets to have a version of Firefox OS available for it. But why I’m writing about it here is that Sony has been hassling me to upgrade it to the most recent version of firmware (11.3.A.2.23), and recently I gave in, but since I was mucking about with the firmware I thought I’d “root” it as well. And therein lies the tale.

Although, as is often the case with Android when wandering off the well-trod path, it’s more of a cautionary tale.

“Rooting” an Android device means to gain complete control over the operating system through installing a superuser tool in the system partition. When Android is running, the system partition is read-only, so this step has to be done outside of Android itself (unless an “exploit” is used, utilising a bug in an Android implementation to achieve this). The usual process for achieving root is: 1) unlock the bootloader, 2) install a custom recovery partition, 3) copy a superuser tool onto the device’s filesystem, and 4) install the superuser tool into the system partition from within recovery. Oh, if only it was that easy.

Step 0 – Install USB Drivers

Before you can do anything, you need to get the right USB drivers set up on your PC, which is a world of pain itself. Complications come from whether the PC is running a 32-bit or 64-bit operating system, whether the drivers are 32-bit or 64-bit, whether the drivers support ADB, fastboot, or (for Sony) flash modes, and which particular USB port the cable is plugged into (and for which mode). I’m running Windows 8.1 64-bit, which seems to have limited driver support for this sort of thing.

I had to:

  • Install the Android SDK from Google, so that the fastboot and adb tools were installed on my PC
  • Install the ClockworkMod universal USB drivers
  • Before going any further, make sure the drivers are working. Use “adb devices” or “fastboot devices” from the command line to list the devices that can be seen. To put the Sony Xperia E into fastboot mode: turn off the handset, ensure it is not connected to the PC via the USB cable, hold down the volume up button, then connect it to the PC via the USB cable.
  • When I connected the Xperia E in fastboot mode, the laptop reported it as an unknown device “S1 Boot”. I opened the Device Manager (press Windows-X and select it from the menu, for a quick way to get to that), right-clicked on the unknown device, selected “Update Driver Software”, then “Browse my computer for drive software”, then “List me pick from list” and I chose the Nexus bootloader driver from the ClockworkMod set of drivers.
  • I used my laptop’s powered USB port for ADB and fastboot modes, but an unpowered USB port for the flash mode.

Pro-tip: If something’s not working, try another USB port. Try all of them.

Step 1 – Unlock the bootloader

Sony provides an official way to unlock the bootloader. Be warned that although it’s “official”, it will still void your warranty, and potentially brick your device. Ensure everything that is valuable on the device has been backed up somewhere else. At the very least, all apps and configuration on the device will be lost anyway.

I followed the unlocking instructions from Sony Developer World. However, my device immediately stopped working afterwards. It would go into a boot loop, showing the Sony logo, then the boot animation, then back to the Sony logo, and so on. The solution was to reflash the operating system.

I download the Flashtool that’s available from (I used Flashtool64 since I have a 64-bit Windows). It’s the one that’s commonly used in the Sony Android custom ROM community.

I followed the instructions at XDA Developers to flash the 11.3.A.2.23 version of the C1504 firmware onto the device (the newest version currently available). This happened to be an Indian build of the firmware, so I’ve ended up with some links to Shahrukh Khan videos on my device as a result. :)

It was pretty hard to find these instructions. Most Sony Xperia E firmware flashing instructions refer to the C1505 version, which has support for 3G at 900MHz instead of 850MHz. Since Telstra’s 3G network is 850MHz, I need this capability of the C1504, and didn’t trust that C1505 firmware would give me what I wanted.

Now my handset booted again, but aside from the Shak Ruhk Khan videos, I hadn’t gained anything new yet.

Step 2 – Install a custom Recovery partition

The Android fastboot mode gives access to the bootloader. Now that it was unlocked, the bootloader allowed a special partition called the recovery partition to be flashed with new firmware. The recovery partition is an alternate boot partition to the default system partition.

The two most popular Android recovery partitions are from CWM (ClockworkMod) and TWRP (Team Win Recovery Project). I’ve used both in the past, but this time I chose CWM since it seemed to be more widely tested on the Xperia E. Unfortunately, I found that most of the instructions for installing the CWM recovery resulted in Wi-Fi ceasing to work on my device. I also tried to build a new version of CWM for my device, but the CWM build tools didn’t support it.

However, I found someone had built a version of the ZEUS kernel (replacing the default Sony Xperia kernel) that included CWM recovery, and this wouldn’t have the Wi-Fi issue. I followed the instructions at XDA Developers to flash that onto my device.

Step 3 – Superuser tool

Now when I turned on the device, it booted as normal, but a blue light appeared at the base of the device at the beginning when the Sony logo is shown. When the blue light is shown, the device can be diverted to boot into CWM recovery rather than the default Android system by press a volume key. However, I needed to put a superuser tool onto the device’s SD card before this new feature would be useful.

The superuser tool is made up of two files (a system application called “su” and an Android app called “Superuser.apk”), but both are stored within a zip file for easy installation. I got the zip file from the AndroidSU site (the one labelled

I installed the zip file onto the sdcard simply by enabling the Developer Options on the device (under Settings) and ticking the USB Debugging option, then attaching the device to my PC via USB, and using the command on my PC:
adb push /sdcard/

Step 4 – Install the Superuser tool

I disconnected and rebooted the device, and when the Sony logo appeared (and the blue light), pressed a volume key. The device booted into the recovery partition. I followed the instructions at XDA Developers (starting at step 5).

And that’s all (!). Now I can boot my unlocked, rooted Xperia E (C1504). Remember, if you’ve followed along with these instructions, you’ve voided your warranty. But at least now you can install whatever you want on the device, or change any of the configuration settings.

One thing you might want to install straight up is a build.prop editor, such as the mysteriously named Build Prop Editor, to change configurations. For example, tweaking the network settings for the Australian mobile operators seems to improve performance. I haven’t tried these myself yet, but it’s an example of the sort of thing that can be done.

Windows 8 – worth the w8?

Our old laptop entered its death spiral a few months ago, but instead of replacing it immediately, we borrowed a stand-in laptop from a kind friend and decided to wait for the slew of Windows 8 compatible laptops that we expected to come in November. Not only would waiting mean that the machines available then be more “future proof”, and cheaper due to competition from other Windows 8 laptops, but we’d be able to pick up (I hoped) a decently-priced touch screen laptop.

Having had the iPad for a couple of years now, and experienced using it with a Bluetooth keyboard, I was completely sold on the idea of a keyboard-enabled device with a touch-screen. The combination of decent keyboard to type with and pleasant touch-based interface is a winner. It also doesn’t hurt that you double the screen real estate by moving from a soft keyboard to a hard keyboard.

So, November came, I put the plan into action, and bought a Sony VAIO E-Series touch laptop for a little over $1,000. It runs a standard Intel i5 processor and comes with a 750 GB hard disk drive. And of course, it had Windows 8.

This post is about sharing my thoughts on Windows 8, having used it now for almost two months. Initially, I was pretty excited with it, but I have since discovered some limitations, so I feel I have a reasonably balanced view of it now.

Major Changes

There are two really big changes that I’ve encountered, coming from Windows 7 up to Windows 8. Many of the other changes stem from these. The changes I’m referring to are: (i) you can now touch the screen to do things, and (ii) the Start Menu has become a Start Screen.

Realistically, Microsoft could’ve introduced native touch screen support in earlier versions of Windows. For example, HP has had this capability on their TouchSmart series of machines. However, it’s not enough for the operating system to be designed around touch if none of the applications are, since controls designed for mouse-based interaction are typically too small to easily manipulate using fingers. So, to introduce touch required Microsoft to push their entire developer community to redesign their applications, and this is logically done together with a major new operating system release.

This may have also spurred Microsoft to redesign their Start Menu. A feature of Windows since Windows 95, it was really a bit too compact for touch and required multiple clicks to navigate which becomes annoying with touch. They could’ve just made the Start Menu bigger and supported scrolling rather than clicking, but instead they took the pretty risky decision to replace the menu with an entirely new screen with a different user interface and its very own app store. Perhaps this understates the level of change. It’s almost as if they decided to replace the humble Start Menu with the entirety of Windows Phone 7.

The Touch Experience

I really love being able to touch the screen. Yesterday I used another laptop without touch, and kept having to pull myself back from touching its screen. It’s not that I use touch at every opportunity: it’s just one way I interact with the interface, along with the keyboard, trackpad and mouse. Some things are best done with a mouse, sometimes the keyboard is best, and some of the time touch is best. This is why I know that eventually touch-screen laptops will become common as those with trackpads.

Windows 8 enables this, but it’s not 100% there yet. Let me tell you about some of the gaps.

When you use touch to control the interface, the mouse pointer disappears. However, since the mouse pointer also used to indicate that the operating system is doing something (a little circular animation appears on it, although in previous versions of Windows it was a sand-timer), having the pointer disappear also leaves me in the dark as to whether that icon I just touched is really launching the program I wanted or whether I was a few pixels out and should really touch it again. Unsurprisingly, sometimes I launch things multiple times. This can get annoying.

It’s not just when launching programs, but any time I try to take an action where there may be a delay. Normally applications rely on the mouse pointer to communicate activity back to the users, so they don’t provide any other indication that things are happening (web browsers are a significant exception). Such applications will need to be rewritten to have an application specific activity indication. Or Microsoft will need to fix this, perhaps in Windows 9.

This tells me that the touch experience was not foremost in the mind of the designers of Window 8. On the contrary, it seems more to be designed around a “keyboard first” principle. Power users are given a range of handy key combinations, and it appears that some of these have been turned into useful gestures, but the whole touch thing isn’t totally elegant.

I find one of the handiest key combinations to be alt-tab, allowing me to quickly switch between applications/windows without having to use the mouse. As this is so useful, this has been converted to a touch gesture: place finger on the left-side bevel outside the screen, swipe to the right onto the screen, then without lifting your finger swipe back to the left. As well as being a clumsy gesture, it doesn’t actually list all the applications since all desktop applications are grouped together.

Another thing is the on-screen “Touch Keyboard”. Despite it being completely unnecessary because this machine is a laptop, ie. it has a keyboard, the Touch Keyboard keeps popping up. It slides up onto the screen when I am logging in, when I’m using Google Chrome, and at other random times. As soon as I touch a key on the real keyboard, the on-screen Touch Keyboard slides away, but I can’t prevent it appearing in the first place. Unchecking the Touch Keyboard Toolbar in the Task Bar properties is a temporary fix, but this resets after rebooting.

Apps and the Start Screen

Despite the Start Screen having the old Start Menu as its heritage, there are two types of application you can start from the Start Screen: (i) Windows desktop applications that we’re all familiar with, and (ii) “apps”. These apps can appear as “live tiles” on the start screen (showing a snippet of content from the full application), a full-screen application with a new touch-centric user interface, or a version of that full-screen application but adapted to fit just a fraction of the screen to allow multiple apps to be on the screen at the same time (not every app necessarily supports this though).  These two types of application live in different worlds.

To get new apps, most users will need to use the Windows Store app to discover and download them. Using the Windows Store is like using Apple iTunes or Google Play, and a Windows Live account needs to be set up with Microsoft before you can download anything, even free apps. This was a pain, since I’d set up one of the computer accounts as a local account for our 4 year old and I didn’t want to set up a Windows Live account for them. Another aspect to apps is that they are associated only with one user. Desktop applications can be installed system-wide for anyone to use, but not these apps. So, it also meant that I couldn’t install apps from the Windows Store under my log-in for my 4 year old to use.

This is not a problem on our iPad, where there is no concept of multiple accounts, so I can easily download apps from the Apple App Store and then my 4 year old can get to them. I guess she’s just going to have to stick to desktop applications for now.

There are a range of built-in apps that are available from the Start Screen, eg. Photos, Music, Video. These are similar to Windows Photo Viewer or Windows Media Player, except they are much simpler and have fewer features, so you might be inclined to just ignore them. Unfortunately, they are the default applications assigned to a large variety of file types. I’ve had to go into the Control Panel and change the defaults back to what they’ve been in previous versions of Windows so that I can actually get things done.

I have downloaded a few useful apps from the Windows Store, such as Skype, a couple of games, and a good internet banking app. However, there are strange omissions, such as no official Facebook or Twitter apps, no iView app, and no YouTube app. Given that Microsoft released their operating systems to developers a long time before they made the final version public for sale, it tells me that it wasn’t for lack of opportunity: these major developers have had absolutely no interest in making their services available as apps on Windows 8.

Developers have generally been pretty slow at updating their desktop applications for Windows 8, also. For example, iTunes 11 was the first version of iTunes that officially supported Windows 8 and it came out well after the public version had shipped (let alone when the original developer versions of Windows 8 were available). Google’s Picasa still doesn’t officially support Windows 8.

Concluding Remarks

Windows 8 is a big change from Windows 7, and users are going to go through a learning curve. However, the rapid uptake of Apple iPads by Windows users has shown that they’re quite happy to learn a completely different interface if there’s enough value in it.

For me, the experience of doing tasks on a Windows 8 touch-screen laptop is better than doing them on an iPad. For example, the freedom of using a powerful and modern web browser like Chrome that also has Adobe Flash support means I can get to all the content on the Internet that I’d ever want to visit – there’s little risk that I’ll come across a site that won’t load or for some reason corrupts my form data when I hit submit – and yet I can tap and swipe to my heart’s content so it is a pleasure to browse. When the experience falls down, it is usually when doing things that can’t be done on an iPad, eg. managing multiple accounts, using desktop applications, or multi-tasking.

Yet it is glaringly obvious that the experience must improve. Both application developers and Microsoft will need to update their software to work properly in this brave new touch-enabled world of Windows. Still, what’s available right now is both fun and useful (notwithstanding several annoyances) and gives me confidence that this world is achievable.

That said, if I didn’t have a touch screen laptop, I’d stay away from Windows 8, and if I didn’t have a high pain threshold when it comes to tinkering with my PC (or have someone in my household like this), I’d hold off on Windows 8 until there was more widespread application support, but for me it was worth the wait.

Is PlayTV a good PVR?

Image via Wikipedia

For Christmas, we bought a Sony PS3 bundle that included a PS3 Slim 250GB unit, a Bluray Disc remote control, and a PlayTV peripheral. Before buying it, I read a few reviews on it, spoke to some PS3 owners, skimmed through the Whirlpool forum posts on PlayTV, and started to think that it would be a good PVR. It was also cheaper and larger than the TiVo 160GB units that were on sale at the time.

However, now that we’ve been using it for a few months, I now know whether it is a good PVR.

What it has going for it:

  • Has a very slick and responsive user interface. It’s moderately easy to use, although you need to be comfortable using the Sony square/circle/triangle/cross buttons to move in and out of menus.
  • Records SD and HD. A 250GB unit can record about 30 hours of HD programming, given that Australian HD TV channels currently consume about 6GB per hour.
  • Can either record a given channel/day/time or specify a show (which can be found via a text search of the EPG – Electronic Programme Guide), including repeat recordings. If you specify a show, the PlayTV will adjust the recording times if the EPG start/end times are updated (which they sometimes are on most channels, except Nine and Go!).
  • TV programs are recorded exactly as they are received off the air, in their MPEG-2 Transport Stream, so if you later want to read the subtitles, they are available.
  • You can copy recorded programs (up to 4GB) from the device onto an external USB stick or drive. Although, it does require some fussing around.
  • Can pause live TV and then fast-forward through ads to get back to the live TV programme.
  • Even though it is “just” a peripheral to a games console, it functions as you would expect, recording shows even when you are using the PS3 to do other things, and also turning itself on to record shows if you’ve previously turned it off.
  • The fact that the Bluray Disc remote is based on Bluetooth (wireless) rather than InfraRed means that it doesn’t need to be pointed towards the unit to work. This has proved particularly useful with a toddler in the house that loves to press the buttons on the front of the PS3. The PS3 can be turned so that the front is not visible from the front of our TV cabinet but the remote control keeps working.
  • The PS3 also provides the ability to watch ABC iView (although you need to pick up a standard PS3 game controller rather than the BluRay Disc remote), BluRay Discs / DVDs, and has a web browser that allows you to get to most web sites (including YouTube).

What is not so good about it:

  • It can record only one show at a time. Even though it’s got two tuners, it uses one of them for recording, and one for watching.
  • It is Freeview compliant. This means that the Australian version is crippled compared to the overseas versions, with the ability to skip ads or fast-forward at super-high speed removed. You can set the unit to operate in the mode of a different country, e.g. UK, but you lose the ability to tune in UHF channels like those of SBS.
  • It is overly sensitive to noise or interference on the antenna. If you live in a low signal area, use splitters or extension leads, then you could very well find that you experience visual stuttering when using PlayTV, even if other digital TV devices perform fine. Replacing our RF cable with a higher quality one helped reduce the stuttering a bit.
  • There is no RF-out (like you might find on a VCR or even TiVo), so if you want multiple devices in the room to receive TV signal, you’ll need to put in an RF splitter between your wall point and the PlayTV. Unfortunately, this will increase signal loss along the cables, and may increase the visual stuttering or worse. When I tried adding a splitter to our set-up, we lost several channels in the PlayTV.
  • The Bluray Disc remote lacks several buttons that we regularly use (and are on our TV remote), specifically mute and subtitle on/off. The lack of volume control is not such a big deal, as the PlayTV normalises volumes to a pre-set level.
  • The EPG is populated with information extracted out of the channels as they are watched. This means that the quality is variable, and not all the information is present when you turn on the device. Also, even after the full EPG (shows all channels) has information, the mini EPG (shows information for the channel being currently watched) sometimes does not. Other PVRs either have their own EPG feed or can make use of a third-party feed like IceTV.
  • Although you can add additional time to the end of a show to record it in case it runs over the scheduled time, the most you can add is 10 minutes. This is sometimes not enough, and we’ve missed out seeing the endings of quite a few programmes.
  • The PS3 DVD player is one of the few sold in Australia that is region-locked, without an easy way of removing the lock. We have a number of overseas DVDs that we can’t play in it.
  • The software (even though it is currently v1.21) still feels immature. There are a number of annoying bugs that have somehow slipped through the QA testing. For example, although you can jump directly to a channel by typing in the channel number, it doesn’t work for channels higher than #023. Also, the live TV buffer fills up after 30 minutes of buffering and then stops working (you can’t watch from the buffer any more and need to return to the live TV show). Also, sometimes its parsing of the EPG data sometimes goes a bit skewiff, and we’ve had it record 2.5 hrs for a 1 hr show. I hope these are all fixed in later updates.

In summary, I would not currently recommend the PlayTV as a PVR, compared to others with similar prices. Certainly, if you are considering getting one, borrow one from someone and check to see if you get all the channels and any visual stuttering before you buy.

We are mostly used to our PlayTV now. Although, I would like to get someone in to check out our TV antenna system at some point, because if we could get rid of the stuttering, the PlayTV would be a nice, basic PVR.

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All part of Sony’s grand plan?

Sony logoFrom the side-lines, it’s been hard to fathom what Sony is up to. In fact, it’s easier to explain their actions as a lack of strategy rather than a grand plan. But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume they’ve got one.

Kate sent me a link to an article at The Age about James Gosling, who was touring around Australia recently. He’s an interesting guy, and I actually got to meet him. I also heard him speak at Sun Tech Day at the start of March, where he voiced an interesting thought: that players for Blu-ray Discs (got to have the hyphen) could make excellent TV set-top boxes.

The recent version of the Blu-ray specification (called Profile 2.0, also known as BD-Live) requires that the player has an Ethernet port, the ability to connect to the Internet, and 1GB of local storage. It’s intended for newer content to be pulled off the web to supplement the disc, rather having to rely on what’s stored on the disc. However, there’s nothing really to stop it from pulling all the content from the web, and having nothing on the disc. The disc could be a bit like the BBC iPlayer, and enable you to watch any movies or TV programs you like without having to insert a new disc.

And now that Sony’s won the HD-DVD vs Blu-ray war, we’re all going to eventually get Blu-ray players to make use of the High Definition TV screens we’re all buying. But what makes this different from all the other Sony boxes that you’ve ever bought, is that you may never need to replace any of your media.

Basically, every time Sony’s come up with a new format, they’ve needed to take one of two approaches: provide backwards compatibility with previous formats, or get people to buy all new stuff that conforms to the new format. The PlayStation is a great example of them following the former strategy – the PS2 and PS3 have been backwardly compatible, allowing people to keep old games. However, most of the time, Sony follows the latter strategy. Do you remember any of these..

  • Betamax, introduced by Sony in the mid 1970s – long dead
  • Compact Disc (CD), introduced by Sony and Philips in the early 1980s – terminal illness
  • Digital Audio Tape (DAT), introduced by Sony in the mid 1980s – now dead
  • MiniDisc (MD), introduced by Sony in the early 1990s – close to death
  • Memory Stick, introduced by Sony in the late 1990s – over the hill
  • Universal Media Disc (UMD), introduced by Sony in the mid 2000s – sad and lonely

You will note that none of those technologies was backwards compatible. With Blu-Ray, Sony has changed the game, and can potentially avoid the need to provide backwards compatibility – by delivering content from the Internet rather than on physical media.

The need to get people to purchase new media every time, meant that Sony could really only rely on selling a new box to play the media every 10-15 years or so, since there was such (understandable) resistance in replacing collections of music and movies. Without this limitation, Sony can continue to innovate with formats, adding new audio and video technologies which need new boxes to play, but without requiring customers to buy new media – since the content will be delivered from the Net. They will be able to sell people new boxes every 2-5 years, and stay ahead of the cheaper boxes coming out of China which will not have the latest features.

Or maybe this is all dreaming on my part, and Sony has no such plan at all.