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2020-08-02 📌 My review: Samsung Galaxy Tab A8 (2019) SM-T290

Tags 🏷 All 🏷 Tech

This started as looking more closely at media playback on Android and ended up with a cheap replacement tablet. Firefox is dropping support for Android prior to 5 shortly, and as I've got a couple of Samsung Galaxy A3 2015 retail demo units on 4.4.4 which are around-the-house web browsers and video players I thought I'd try to upgrade the one I don't use with headphones as a sleep aid. I got the last SM-A300FU firmware I could find (Android 6.0.1 from 2017 on an Irish carrier), read up on using Heimdall to flash the contents, saved a PIT file of partition info, matched up the contents of the archive as best possible, hit start, and after a reboot the device is hard bricked as far as I can tell, it can't be got back to download-mode, the most it does is buzz when power + volume down is held for 10 seconds. Out of curiosity I got a USB jig listed as being for Samsung models for a few quid but it didn't help. Oh well, it was a risk and I won't be trying to upgrade the other one.

Following quick research I acquired a refurb Samsung Galaxy Tab A8 (2019) SM-T290, and that's refurb in the "would you like thirty quid off because it's been taken out of a box?" sense. It's pleasantly surprising how much things seem have moved on with tablets at this low price point, and you can kind of see why Google have given up with the Nexus range with Samsung and a few others steadily coming out with respectable product entries. I considered a Lenovo Tab M8 for what reviewers describe as "crazy long battery life" but Samsung tend to provide Android updates for longer and I haven't gone wrong with their mid-range hardware so far. Being 8" and 16:10 will also encourage me to stick some books on it, because try as I might I find 6" e-ink screens (which is still what they usually max out at) cramped. Its screen area is exactly small paperback size.

Most of the sites that bothered to cover its release or review it gave panning or qualified ratings;

Samsung has a boring new 8-inch tablet;

Samsung Galaxy Tab A 8.0 (2019) review – swipe left on this one

Samsung Galaxy Tab A 8.0 (2019) Tablet Review: A budget Samsung tablet with great deficiencies

But to someone who doesn't buy tablets very often, this is on par with the Nexus 9 that was the last decent one I got (and redistributed to someone who's making far more use of it) – at half to a third of the price. Though it's not a retina display it's perfectly good quality, evenly lit, and the speakers are sufficiently loud before they distort. Using sites like YouTube and iPlayer through Firefox (with some extensions – uBlock Origin and Video Background Play Fix) means being able to get the same functionality as a desktop machine with background playback and ad blocking, and there are extensions for boosting the volume on quiet media if needed.

There's no writing at all on the front, just two asymmetrical black holes for sensors in the white surround that don't look great, and only the company name on the reverse and very faint probably legally mandated markings. Tablets are still heavier than I usually like, compared to phone hardware or e-readers, although it's roughly 100g lighter than the Nexus 9. But the point of this was something different and more versatile, and it's still comfortable to hold in one hand. It won't fit in a zipped case for 7" tablets (zips up on a generously sized one but doesn't pad the edges) but fortunately I've got a leatherette slipcase it almost fits in for casual storage until a Case Logic generic for 8" tablets turns up. As an aside the back camera sensor seems awful compared to the years-old Galaxy A5 demo unit I keep on my desk – is it really so expensive to make good ones now?

It supports tap-to-wake and there are ad-free apps out there to provide a shortcut to turn the screen off, so as well as not having a physical Home button it can be handled pretty much entirely with the screen if you add another app to adjust volume level or mute things on a tap. The only thing I'm not keen on is the charging port being on the bottom edge. Still, battery life when reading or listening to videos seems extremely good and for my usage it seems unlikely I'd get through it even in more than a day of heavy usage.

This'll be a very lightly set up device, just the usual Nova Launcher Prime, VLC, Firefox, old version of ES File Explorer Pro, FBReader Premium, WiFi File Transfer Pro (last updated in 2013, still works) and some apps for (BBC) weather and a calendar display. Some fripperies like Shazam and TWAU that will probably get uninstalled. Google Keyboard because the swipe entry is what I'm used to.

VLC for Android bears some particular investigation because it contains all of the code needed to play DVD menus but still won't open a VIDEO_TS folder directly from a disc, so just popping one in the drive and sharing /dev/sr0 over samba is out. I needed to copy the DVDs I wanted to watch to ISOs on my NAS using dd commands (don't forget the status=progress parameter) or K3b, which isn't too much of a hardship when you've got a spare 2TB partition for disposable stuff and the discs are cartoons with lots of episodes on each. Defenders of the Earth, at the moment. The limiting factor is likely to be wireless speeds of the devices involved for interacting with large files on a PC.

VLC also often doesn't seem to work reliably to navigate to shares, just giving an endless progress bar after the username and password are entered. Other local network file managers can browse the shares just fine, including ES File Explorer Pro – I'm using the version (circa 2015). The genuine ES apps are no longer available in the Play Store due to dubious practices of some of their succession of owners, but the old version is probably okay and these are devices used purely for content consumption so I haven't bothered to look for an alternative. It can also do helpful things like back up APKs, including itself, and when browsing files it includes an "Open As" command to easily point ISO files to VLC so there's no need to worry about defaults.

Update: I found out that Android allows custom entries in the pull down shortcuts and they're officially called 'quick settings tiles'. So I've added apps for Auto Brightness Tile, BrightAuto, Volume Control Button, Screen Off Widget And Tile, Caffeine – Keep screen on, and Tile Shortcuts to add a shortcut to the Mute app. Why isn't all of this functionality to handle the screen and sound included as default? Whilst it's important to still have physical buttons on devices there should normally be no need to use them.

Also, for some reason Dolby Atmos doesn't seem to be on by default on Samsung tablets that have it. On the Tab A8 it adds a bit of boost and stereo separation to the speakers, which are both on the bottom edge.

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