A walk on the wild side: HXing the Samsung i8910 HD (part two)

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Last week saw my departure from safe waters into the world of hardware modding, in an attempt to get round the problems in Samsung's latest firmware for its i8910 HD flagship, ending with me installing firmware 3.17. In this followup article, I talk about what came next, some of the issues I faced, how I tried to overcome them and what I've had to learn to live without.

i8910 HD review photo

The story so far

From my first article:

What we're talking about here is taking a smartphone whose very use has been crippled by its own manufacturer. For example, when Rafe and I played with the prototype Samsung Omnia HD (later renamed to i8910 HD), it had pre-focus when capturing videos. It also had almost 100MB free on disk C: - not just extra space for users to fill, but vital for operating system temporary files, downloaded patches, web browser cache , messaging database, and so on. It also had a number of software bugs. Exactly one year on and we find a device that has been through 3 or 4 firmware updates and yet has lost the very useful pre-focus, now has only 18MB of free space on disk C:, a ridiculous and untenable amount for a 2010 smartphone after a hard reset (just look at the problems on the Nokia N97 with three times the free space), plus quite a few of the original bugs and problems are still there. Samsung haven't exactly been pouring much love out on the i8910 HD, it's all but an orphan.

Which is why I was fascinated to read of the activities of Andy (a.k.a. HyperX) and others, who claimed, almost in passing, as part of a drive to tidy and fix things generally, to have managed to extract the firmware ROM files of the i8910 HD and have juggled the various files and resources in order to save a massive 60MB of C: disk space. As a side benefit, pre-focus in video capture has been added back in again, plus there are some useful little utility extras. Amazing. And, of course, he's worked out a way to load this firmware onto the phone, something which I suspect is somewhat easier to do on the Samsung than it is on Nokia units.

I then worked through the install steps needed and ended up with HX 3.17 firmware installed and working, with the following two major benefits (over and above the i8910's usual charms - masses of RAM, 3.7" OLED screen, HD camcorder, loud speakers, etc):

  • 82MB free space on disk C:
  • pre-focus when shooting video

But what about setting up the i8910 HD with my usual workload of applications and functions? Read on for some caveats and advice, should you decide to follow my path...

DISCLAIMER: All About Symbian doesn't endorse any procedures which might cause you to void your warranty or break your smartphone. These features are in the spirit of an adventure outside the normal 'safe' channels. AAS absolves itself from any responsibility should you decide to copy the advice in these features and things go horribly wrong.


Working with the modified i8910 HD

My first concern was the camera, to check out the 'new' pre-focus in video capture. The full HD video resolution was working fine in terms of picture, but I wasn't happy about audio/video sync ('lipsync') - much as it was on that first prototype - there's simply too much data being created for the encoding routines to keep up, I suspected. However, rather than being a limitation of the processor or electronics, it seems that the bottleneck's the internal (8GB, in my case) mass memory, which simply can't keep up with the 2MB/second write rate. (You may remember that the Nokia N95 8GB also had legendarily slow internal mass memory, so the problem seems to be endemic....)

However, the 16GB microSD that I'd plugged into the expansion slot was rated quite a bit higher than this and, following a tip off, I switched the camcorder to saving videos to microSD: bingo! 720p 'HD' videos that were (more or less) perfectly in sync. 

The pre-focus works really well, letting you film close up and in crisp focus! The raw sound after flashing the HX 3.17 firmware had lots of hiss - it was effectively the raw capture from the i8910 HD's microphone, so I also took a moment to download HyperX's 'Noise suppression' patch, which chops out all the hiss, at the expense of 'gating' the audio slightly, an effect which isn't ideal, though you do have to know what you're listening for in order to spot it. 

After using the system for a week, I still can't decide whether I prefer the natural audio, complete with hiss, or the 'suppressed' audio, with the gating effect. Ah well, at least there's a choice!

Time to load up the i8910 HD (3.17) with my usual application load-out, to see what would break and what would work nicely:

My first item is one that I'm not even allowed to mention by name on AAS, for good reason, but you'll see why here. Sat-nav was a deal breaker for me and it worked perfectly. But let's move on.

I found Samsung's Podcasting app to be horribly buggy, but again this is Samsung-licensed/compiled code - I not only had it failing to work properly, it also caused a bevy of 'Memory full' errors - plainly bogus when I knew I had 150MB of RAM free! The solution was to get involved in the beta testing for the new Symbian Podcatcher, which worked a treat in terms of gathering podcasts. OK, there are a few bugs here (which I reported), but at least it's being actively supported and developed and there's a feelgood factor in helping the community.

Screenshot Screenshot

Podcatcher is meant for Symbian^3 though, and so relies on Music player to pick up the shows and handle the playing. Now, the HX firmware has a speed trick up its sleeve for music - to keep refreshes fast, it only looks in \Music on each disk - and, curiously, even if you tell Podcatcher to put its podcasts inside '\Music' the shows still don't show up on the i8910 HD with this firmware. So Music player's out. Which leaves using File manager as your way in to play podcasts - they're all handily sorted by podcast name, so it's not too much of a bother, thankfully. It's just a little weird to have to keep going to File manager when I want to play a downloaded podcast!

The Google trio of Google Maps (now at v4.0.0, with Buzz, of course), Gmail (Java-based, of which more below) and YouTube (now at v2.4.4, with logins) were next and all worked really well on the large, capacitive screen (grab them yourself at google.com/mobile).


Next up was the people's champion in the Symbian world, Gravity, now far more than a Twitter client. And it works superbly here, again using that responsive, huge OLED screen to good effect. More to the point, text entry on the i8910 HD's virtual QWERTY keyboard was excellent, for entering tweets and status updates. There's no auto-correction, sadly - blame Symbian for this omission - but the screen's large enough that mistakes are quite rare.

BBC iPlayer recognised the i8910 HD as usual and, as usual, allowed streaming access to the BBC's stored programmes. I guess asking HyperX to spoof the necessary certificates for DRM-locked downloads was asking too much - and I'm also guessing the phone would have had to have pretended to 'be' something different? 

SPB TV, one of my favourite applications for S60, worked here too, though patchily - the TV programmes aren't usually of very high quality (in either sense of the word), but it's always an interesting way to pass 10 minutes here and there - with the quirk being that some channels had audio and some came across as silent, annoyingly.


My regular secure database (i.e. where I keep PINs and passwords) is Hand Safe Pro, as regular readers will know. Yet this depends, crucially, on syncing the desktop and mobile versions over Nokia's PC Suite. What on earth would happen over syncing a (ahem) modified i8910 HD over the Samsung PC Studio link? With my heart in my mouth I installed the Handy Safe Pro desktop client and hit 'Sync' - and it worked first time - these guys at Epocware are real pros....


The other sync issue (and apologies to Windows users, who may want to skip this paragraph) proved to be a slightly tougher nut to crack - how to sync my Mac's Address book and iCal to the i8910 HD. With Nokia phones, this is trivial, in that Nokia's programmers knock up iSync plugins for every phone - you just download the one you want and hey, you're syncing with your Mac. Samsung do no such thing, but thankfully a third party, Nova Media, has jumped in to fill the gap: "iSync plugins for Mac OS X". These are commercial but not expensive - for just less than £10 you get three licenses for three different phones (from a variety of manufacturers, so you'll probably keep two 'activations' in hand for future non-Nokia phones on various platforms).


Nova Media's plugins appear in the Mac's 'System Preferences' and, in theory, are simple to kick start, though I had to restart the Mac and iSync a couple of times before the latter took hold. Once up and running though, it has been faultless.

A more serious problem was that, although Google's Java-based Gmail client installed and ran fine, all other Java programs I tried to install had major issues with the JC1 firmware, with each new installation overwriting the previous one and with apps and their icons getting horribly muddled. So, for example. we had 'Opera Mini' installed, but showing Snaptu's icon. This was a major issue for me, I like to run at least 3 or 4 Java apps and being restricted to just Gmail and one other was untenable. 


(spot the problem!)

One possible solution was to re-do all the previous steps, but with HyperX's alternative 'JB2' variant of the firmware. Resigning myself to an extra hour of reflashing and reinstalling, I put on JB2 and then re-did all the above - with the result that Java still didn't work properly. I wasn't happy. Quite why Gmail works perfectly, away from the other Java problems, is an utter mystery...

Still, I pressed on, needing to find out what else did and didn't work (in the interests of research for AAS!). Of my regular application load-out, the N97 (Web Runtime-based) Evernote client installed and ran fine, as did the S60 5th Edition Facebook client, which was all good. Micropool worked superbly on the large capacitive, bright OLED screen, but Raging Thunder, the driving game, crashes and burns (an unfortunate metaphor, in this case!). Wikitude didn't work, TubeMap was obviously out, being Java-based, and TouchNote also failed.

In addition to application installs, I was also experimenting with accessories. Top of my list was a way to control music and podcast playback without having to keep getting the i8910 HD out to tap its screen (e.g. in the rain, in public, at night in bed, etc.) Samsung don't include a stereo headset with playback control and I couldn't find one online - it seems that each manufacturer tends to approach hardware control in a different way - certainly none of Nokia's control headsets worked. 

One solution was to switch to using the multimedia control protocols (AVRCP) built into A2DP, i.e. Bluetooth stereo. Acquiring a Nokia BH-214, a well respected solution, I was able to pair with the i8910 HD and successfully control music and podcasts, but with some issues. Possibly due to firmware conflicts, I found that playback started to break up after a few minutes, stuttering away, with the only solution being to break the connection and reestablish it. This was disappointing and I'll be returning to possible solutions in the near future.

So let's recap. Firmware HX 3.17 brought a number of advantages, but also - possibly - introduced a number of instabilities. I say 'possibly' because I hadn't tested the existing Samsung 'official' firmware this extensively and I somehow doubt that this was perfect in the first place!

Footnote: But... what's this?... In the two weeks I've taken to write this pair of articles, Andy's been busy again and I see that firmware 3.29 is now out. If you have an i8910 HD and have been following along, then you'll want to stay 'current', though as usual with this device, you'll lose everything at every firmware update - whether via Samsung official sources or via HyperX. So you'll have to use File manager | Backup to save your data and documents, but resign yourself to an hour or so of reinstallation of applications and tweaking of preferences and settings. But hey, I'm guessing that this has become as much a hobby by now, so you'll probably quite enjoy it - as I did!

The i8910 HD modding scene is certainly fascinating - I even espied one online that was running Windows Phone 7 - proof that this super hardware can be turned to many different uses. What's next? iPhone OS 4? 8-)

Don't modify your Samsung i8910 HD because of the benefits - though they are there if you put the effort in. Modify it because it's challenging, fun, exciting and... well, because you can!  

Right, I'm off to try out HX 3.29...

Steve Litchfield, All About Symbian, 3rd April 2010

HXing the i8910 HD