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.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Lenovo Iomega ix2-DL Network Storage 2-Bay Quick Review

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So I got the Lenovo Iomega ix2-DL NAS in September. It was an impulse buy at $40. I’ve been waiting patiently for the HDD sales ever since while have this NAS collecting dust. The online reviews don’t seem to favor it, but I still gave it a shot due to the price… It is the first Lenovo product EVER.
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I finally bought a pair of WD RED 4TB drives, cost me $300… It was definitely not cheap to have a dedicated NAS. But I can free my PC to do other things or shut down when I’m done with it now.
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I’m using RAID 1 - Mirror for the moment. When I first put the drives in, it took over a day to finish the raid setup. Configuring it was pretty easy. I didn’t try the LenovoEMC management software. I just log into the IP address, and manage it from the web interface. This video gives a pretty good demonstration to have you started:

The NAS gives tons of features, but performance seems to be under par probably due to outdated hardware (This product has been on the market for over two years now). Good job for Lenovo still updating the firmware though. I’ve been receiving two updates since I powered it up. It’s only been running for about two weeks so far. File transferring speed ranks the bottom of all the NAS products out there. My speed is about the same as the tested speed, got about 28mbps writing and 50mbps reading. So it’s definitely not for video editing of anything like that. But it suffices for storage for media consumption.
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The 4.0.x firmware brings a flat interface, which makes the interface a bit neat. But the web interface is still very slow to load, took about 5 seconds to load.
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While it gives you loads of features, I only use a few of them, namely Media Server, Transmission Torrent, and UPS. This video gives a quick tour of what these features are about:
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The ix2 comes with one USB2.0 port. That’s where you connect the UPS. Not every UPS works with ix2 though. You need to find one with the USBHID-UPS support. I happen to have an APC bought last year that support this protocol. Coupled with the Event Log features, I think I had a better chance to survive catastrophe failure. Hopefully that would never happen… Since it’s only got one USB2.0 port, if you need to hook up another drive, you can use a powered USB hub without any problem.

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The transmission torrent server works better than I would have hoped. It pretty much support every feature that’s available to the full blown utorrent. And private trackers do NOT have problem with this version of transmission so that I can use it. Torrent files, magnetic links, speed limits all work well. The only thing that doesn’t work quite well is if you want to download only some files from a torrent or magnetic link, you can’t easily pick the files.

To summarize, this is a low end NAS, probably the cheapest one out there that you can buy. The performance at 28mbps writing 50mbps reading is about the fastest USB2.0 speed or maybe some slow USB3.0 drives. This NAS is good for media server where once you dump the files there, you would only access it with good enough speed. It’s not good for constant transfer of files, especially large files, or any video or picture editing. I’m quite happy with my purchase since media server is my intended use. And I already have a compatible UPS to back it up.

Friday, September 12, 2014

SONY Walkman NW-M505 Review – aptX demystified

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So I’ve been stop updating this blog for the past two years now… I had to take a break and eventually got into photography for a bit. I’m trying to revive it by posting a new review here. But I don’t think I’ll update it that frequently afterwards. So this review is about the SONY Walkman M Series, NW-M505. It’s sold in Japan only, released about 11 months ago.
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It’s a unique entry into SONY’s Walkman line-up since it blends the smartphone function - Bluetooth adapter into the product. The key features are S-Master MX digital amp, active noise cancelling, and Bluetooth with aptX codec within a tiny body. You can view it as an upgrade to the MW1 I reviewed, but it’s designed by SONY Walkman department instead of their mobile department. Sine it’s a Walkman in nature, it lacks the fancy notification that’s available in MW1, it doesn’t require SONY connect app. It does show phone number when Bluetooth is connected though, not caller ID, just phone number. It comes with a built-in 16GB internal memory, but doesn’t support microSD cards. Being equipped with S-Master MX digital amp with a bumped up 10mw+10mw stereo output, it’s a solid entry into the Walkman series. The small size does mean SONY has to compromise a bit here, particularly on the battery life. For pure MP3 playback, it can last as long as 15 hours with active noise cancelling off. But with all the fancy bells and whistles (wav playback, Bluetooth), it only lasts 9 hours max. It doesn’t support FLAC playback either. It has no high-RES playback either, all formats including wave, atrac, aac, wma, mp3 support upto 48Khz ONLY.
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The sides: the design goes back to their classic E400/500/A600 series where changing songs require the twisting of the “shuttle switch” instead of physical button. Pull out the “shuttle switch” allows quick changing folders. Under FM, it manually searches for radio station. But instead of pushing in to lock the device, it gives a dedicated HOLD button. The volume rocker has a indentation for blind operation. Long twisting the shuttle switch also jump the song in 10sec interval, works both in music and bluetooth mode.
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Long pressing the “HOME-Back” button will take you back to the top function, highlight “MUSIC” function. The device’s interface is nicely layed out with three basic functions: MUSIC, Bluetooth, FM, and lastly settings.
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On the front is a SONY logo, underneath is the MIC, standard for Bluetooth communication. A tiny screen with upto three lines, and a call/play/pause button. The screen is very DIM, even with the highest setting, it’s pretty much invisible under direct sunlight.
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On the back is the hole for clip mounting or neck strap, and NFC. The included clip is poorly made of cheap plastic, it has very weak clipping force, attaching it to the device just destroys the aesthetic. So I opted to use a neck strap. But this device only weighs 40g, it bumps everywhere when you start walking/run fast… The NFC is a gimmicky at best, it requires you to install easy connect app. But how hard is to connect Bluetooth manually…
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Overall it’s a very nice looking device, other colors black, white, pink are available aside from the violet I chose here. I just wish it has a dedicated repeat/shuffle button. The mounting could really improve here, at least provide BOTH options for mounting AND neck strap at the same time. Maybe they are just trying to sell the soft case
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The audio quality is pretty good, both the mp3 mode and the Bluetooth mode. This is actually my first serious mp3 player. I use the mp3 mode for about 80% of the time now, and loaded the device with mostly 320K mp3 and wav files. The audio has very clean background. It has good dynamic range. It provides software enhancements such as clear bass and clear phase to further process the sound.
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For the equalizer, it included a few, plus two customizable slots. The EQ includes clear bass plus five bands, total of six possible adjustments. For the clear phase, I believe you have to enable the noise cancelling function to use it.
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Now onto the active noise cancelling function. The device includes MDR-NC31 noise cancelling earphone. It’s a short one with an extension cable. The biggest difference is the four pin, as seen on the above pictures. Left is the regular plug with two pins, middle is the one with remote control/MIC with three pins. but the NC31 has four pins. The same earphone is included with SONY’s Z2 smartphone for the same noise cancelling purpose.
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The noise cancelling can filter noises from bus, airplane, and indoor. I’ve only used the bus setting, and it’s extremely effective in blocking the noises. I even missed a bus stop once… SONY claims the noise cancelling can filter out 98% of the background noise.
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The device also supports other SONY noise cancelling earphone/headphones. If you select other headphone, you lose the noise cancelling function. And the sound stage is not as wide as the ones with noise cancelling for some reason. So I always default to the included earphone even if it has no noise cancelling ability…
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The device uses the standard microUSB port for charging and transferring music. The charger is not included, only a microUSB cable is included. It is NOT possible to operate the device while charging. It takes about three hours for it to fully charge. If you connect it to a PC for transferring music, it starts charging automatically. The battery display on the device is extremely inaccurate. Four bars are shown. But the first bar took forever to drain. If your first bar is gone, it means that you have less than 50% of battery left!
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I spent very little time with the FM. The S Master MX digital amp does NOT work in this mode. It has bands from 76Mhz to 108Mhz, so should be good for most of the world. You can auto search and store the radio stations.
Now onto the second part of the review, the Bluetooth performance and how to utilize the aptX codec. First thing is that there’s no annoying blue LED that’s found on every single Bluetooth device, I’m not sure how SONY got away with that, but I’m extremely happy with this!
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The M505 is SONY’s first aptX enabled adapter. Although currently SONY has the SBH20, SBH52, MW1 pro, MW1 Lite, all made by the mobile department, none of these adapters are aptX capable. To enable the aptX codec, both your source (smartphone, tablet, PC) needs to have aptX support, and the receiver must the support as well. Unfortunately I don’t have a smartphone with aptX enabled. So I bought a USB Bluetooth 4.0 dongle and tested it on PC.
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Left is the Samsung HS3000, and I’ve been using this adapter for the past two years. It works fine, but the sound quality isn’t that great. My normal usage scenario is that I would hook up these adapters to my car stereo, and play music, answer phones handsfree in the car. Even under the SBC transmission, M505 blows the HS3000 away. It has way more sound separation. The sound is much clear.
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I paired the M505 with a couple devices, but the main device is my cellphone – sony Xperia ION. I’m using poweramp as the main player. I was able to sync the song title, artist to the M505 by change a setting in poweramp. The only thing it doesn’t sync is the timeline, but by long twisting the shuttle switch, you can still fastforward or back 10 sec interval.
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To test it on PC, you would need a dongle that has CSR 8510 chip inside. CSR is the company that develops and licenses this aptX technology. I got a generic one just to try the aptX out. To be honest, there is very little incentive to use Bluetooth on PC since portability most of the time is no concern.
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There are different Bluetooth software called stack you can install. Among them are Microsoft, Toshiba, Widcomm etc. Different stacks have different implementations on Bluetooth, support for profiles could also be vastly different. What you need for the CSR 8510 chip is the one straight from CSR. You can download it HERE.
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This is what looks like after installing the CSR driver. I disabled my original Bluetooth 3.0 dongle with the Microsoft stack. Make sure you reboot PC after installing the driver!
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To enable aptX, both the transmitter and the PC has to put into the “Priority on sound quality”. This increases the power for transmission, also shortens the transmission distance vastly. Under aptX mode, you are limited in a 5-10m range instead of the normal upto 30m range. Behind wall is also a big NO NO.
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After successfully pairing the device, you’ll see a very brief prompt for confirming aptX connection is established. The prompt is so brief, less than one second, that I don’t think you will even notice… This is ALWAYS a confusing part that users don’t have idea whether they got the aptX connection or not. As for the actual audio quality, I don’t hear much difference between aptX and SBC… When I got a new smartphone with aptX support, maybe I’ll be more willing to do the test again. But right now, I’m not so impressed with it.
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I think the SONY Gold wireless headset is a way better choice for wireless listening. The dongle paired with the headset offers very intuitive operation, the sound quality is decent, the headset is comfort for wearing for one hour or two. Most important is that the USB dongle is plug and play, you can forget about the Bluetooth driver nonsense.
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The USB Bluetooth 4.0 dongle has the annoying blue LED. If you put the laptop into sleep mode, the LED by default will still shining, which means the dongle is consuming energy. To put the dongle into sleep mode as well, you can change the power management option from the device manager.
Above is a disassembled picture showing the internals of the M505.
So to summarize the review, here are some pros and cons of the device:
1. Small size, portable, attractive design
2. Good audio quality on both local and Bluetooth playback
3. Noise cancelling very effective
4. aptX support (need a smartphone to fully test it)
5. MicroUSB for data and charging
6. Bluetooth connection is stable
1. Small LED screen, poor outdoor visibility
2. Poor battery life (10hr on mixed use), inaccurate battery status
3. Not operational when charging, took 3 hours to fully recharge
4. Shuffle, repeat has no dedicated button, buries under the menu
5. Poorly made mounting clip, weak clipping force