Jun 142018

So, last Sunday we did a trip up the Brisbane Valley to do a rekkie for the Yarraman to Wulkuraka bike ride that Brisbane WICEN will be assisting in at the end of next month.

The area is known to be quite patchy where phone reception is concerned, with Linville shown to be highly unreliable… Telstra recommends external antennas are required to get any sort of service.  So it seemed a good place to take the Kite and try it out in a weak signal area.

3G coverage in Linville, with external antenna.

4G coverage in Linville, with external antenna.

4GX coverage in Linville, with external antenna.

Sadly, I didn’t get as much time as I would have liked to perform these tests, and it would have been great to compare against a few others… but I was able to take some screenshots on the way up of the three phones, all on the same network (Telstra), using their internal antennas (and the small whip in the case of the Kite).  However, we got there in the afternoon, and there were clouds gathering, so we had to get to Moore.

In any case, Telstra seems to have pulled their socks up since those maps were updated… as I found I was getting reasonable coverage on the T83.  The Kite was in the car at the time, I didn’t want it getting damaged if I came off the bike or if the heavens opened up.

I did manage to take some screenshots on the three phones on the way up.

This is not that scientific, and a bit crude since I couldn’t take the screenshots at exactly the same moment.  Plus, we were travelling at 100km/hr for much of the run.  There was one point where we stopped for breakfast at Fernvale, I can’t recall exactly what time that was or whether I got a screenshot from all three phones at that time.

The T84 is the only phone out of the three that can do the 4GX 700MHz band.

Time ZTE T83 ZTE T84 iSquare Mobility Kite v1 Notes
2018-06-10T06:08:16 t83 at 2018-06-10T06:08:16 Leaving Brisbane
2018-06-10T06:09:24 kite at 2018-06-10T06:09:24
2018-06-10T06:09:33 t83 at 2018-06-10T06:09:33
2018-06-10T06:26:17 t83 at 2018-06-10T06:26:17
2018-06-10T06:26:25 kite at 2018-06-10T06:26:25
2018-06-10T07:30:27 t84 at 2018-06-10T07:30:27 A rare moment where the T84 beats the others.  My guess is this is a 4GX (700MHz) cell.
2018-06-10T07:30:34 kite at 2018-06-10T07:30:34
2018-06-10T07:30:39 t83 at 2018-06-10T07:30:39
2018-06-10T07:41:48 kite at 2018-06-10T07:41:48
2018-06-10T07:41:54 t84 at 2018-06-10T07:41:54 HSPA coverage… one of the few times we see the T84 drop back to 3G.
2018-06-10T07:42:01 t83 at 2018-06-10T07:42:01
2018-06-10T07:51:34 t83 at 2018-06-10T07:51:34 Patchy coverage at times en route to Moore.
2018-06-10T07:51:45 kite at 2018-06-10T07:51:45
2018-06-10T08:24:57 kite at 2018-06-10T08:24:57 For grins, trying out Optus coverage on the Kite at Moore.  There’s a tower at Benarkin, not sure if there’s one closer to Moore.
2018-06-10T08:25:39 kite at 2018-06-10T08:25:39
2018-06-10T08:54:28 t84 at 2018-06-10T08:54:28
2018-06-10T08:54:35 kite at 2018-06-10T08:54:35 En route to Benarkin, we lose contact with Telstra on all three devices.
2018-06-10T08:54:39 t83 at 2018-06-10T08:54:39
2018-06-10T09:35:14 kite at 2018-06-10T09:35:14 In Benarkin.
2018-06-10T09:35:22 t83 at 2018-06-10T09:35:22
2018-06-10T10:25:27 kite at 2018-06-10T10:25:27
2018-06-10T10:25:48 t83 at 2018-06-10T10:25:48

So what does the above show?  Well, for starters, it is apparent that the T83 gets left in the dust by both devices.  This is interesting as my T83 definitely was the more reliable on our last trip into the Snowy Mountains, regularly getting a signal in places where the T84 failed.

Two spots I’d love to take the Kite would be Dumboy Creek (4km outside Delungra on the Gwydir Highway) and Sawpit Creek (just outside Jindabyne), but both are a bit far for a day trip!  It’s unlikely I’ll be venturing that far south again this year.

On this trip up the Brisbane Valley though, I observed that when the signal got weak, the Kite was more willing to drop back to 3G, whereas the two ZTE phones hung onto that little scrap of 4G.  Yes, 4G might give clearer call quality and faster speeds in ideal conditions, but these conditions are not ideal, we’re in fringe coverage.

The 4G standards use much more dense forms of modulation (QPSK, 16-QAM or 64-QAM) than 3G (QPSK only) trading off spectral efficiency for signal-to-noise performance, thus lean more heavily on forward error correction to achieve communications in adverse conditions.  When a symbol is corrupted, more data is lost with these standards.  3G might be slower, but sometimes slow and steady wins the race, fast and flaky is a recipe of frustration.

A more scientific experiment, where we are stationary, and can let each device “settle” before taking a reading, would be worthwhile.  Without a doubt, the Kite runs rings around the T83.  The T84 is less clear: the T84 and the Kite both run the same chipset; the Qualcomm MSM8916.  The T83 runs the older MSM8930.

By rights, the T84 and Kite should perform nearly identical, with the Kite having the advantage of a high-gain whip antenna instead of a more conventional patch panel antenna.  The only edge the T84 has, is the 700MHz band, which isn’t that heavily deployed here in Australia right now.

The T83 and T84 can take an external antenna, but the socket is designed for cradle use and isn’t as rugged or durable as the SMA connector used on the Kite.  It’s soldered to the PCB, and when a cable is plugged in, it disconnects the internal antenna.

Thus damage to this connector can render these phones useless.  The SMA connector on the Kite however is a pigtail to an IPX socket inside … a readily available off-the-shelf (mail-order) part.  People may not like the whip sticking out though.

The Kite does ship with a patch antenna, which is about 75% efficient; so maybe 0dBi at best, however I think making the case another 10mm longer and incorporating the whip into the top of the phone so the antenna can tuck away when not needed, is a better plan.  It would not be hard to make the case accommodate it so it’s invisible and can fold out, or be replaced with a coax connection to an external antenna.

If there’s time, I’ll try to get some more conclusive tests done, but there’s no guarantees on that.

May 192018

Recently, a new project sprang up on the Hackaday.io site; it was for the KiteBoard, an open-source cellular development platform.  In a nutshell, this is a single-board-computer that embeds a full mobile system-on-chip and runs the Android operating system.  The project is seeking crowd funding for the second version of this platform.

With it, you can build smartphones (of course), tablets, tele-presence robots, or really, any project which can benefit from a beefy CPU with a built-in cellular modem.  It comes as a kit, which you then assemble yourself.  The level of difficulty in assembly is no greater than that of assembling a desktop PC: the circuit boards are pre-populated, you just need to connect them together.  In this version, some soldering of pushbuttons and wires is needed: all through-hole components.  No reflow ovens or solder paste is necessary here, an 8-year-old could do it.

The break-out board for the CPU card features in addition to connections for all the usual cellular phone signals (e.g. earpiece, microphone, button inputs) a GPIO header that follows the de-facto standard “Raspberry Pi” interface, allowing many Raspberry Pi “hats” to plug directly into this board.

That lends itself greatly to expandability.  Want a eInk or OLED notification display on the back?  A scrolling LED display?  A piano?  A games console?  Knock yourself out!  You, are the designer, you decide.  There are lots of options.

I for one, would consider an amateur radio transceiver, an external antenna socket and a beefier battery.  Presently, I get around with the ZTE T83 (“Telstra Dave”), which works okay, but as it runs an old version of Android (4.1), running newer applications on it is a problem.  I believe it could run something newer, but ZTE believe that their job was finished in 2013 when the first one rolled off the production line.

The box did not include a copy of the kernel sources or any link to where that could be obtained.  (GNU GPL v2 section 2b?  What’s that?)

The successor, the T84 is a little better, in fact it has pretty much the same hardware that’s in Kite, but it struggles in rural areas.  On a recent trip into the Snowy Mountains, my phone would be working fine, when my father’s T84 would report “no service available”.  Clearly, someone at Telstra/ZTE screwed up the firmware on it, and so it fails to switch networks correctly.  Without the sources, we are unable to fix that.  Even something as simple as replacing a battery is neigh on impossible, they’re built like bombs: not designed to be taken apart.

I have no desire to spend money on a company that puts out poorly supported rubbish running pirated operating system kernels.  The story is similar elsewhere, and most devices while better in specs and operating system, lack the external antenna connection that I desire in a phone.

Kite represents a breath of fresh air in that regard.  It is to smart phones, what the Raspberry Pi is to single board computers in general.  It’s not only designed to be taken apart, it’s shipped to you as parts.  Apparently with Kite v2, there’ll be schematics available, so you’ll be able to look-up the datasheets of respective components and be able to make informed decisions about part substitutions.  All antenna connections are socketed, so you can substitute at will.

While the OS isn’t going to be as open as one might like (mobile chipset manufacturers like their black boxes), it’s a BIG step in the right direction.  There’s more scope for supporting this platform long-term, than contemporary ones.

As far as actually using Kite, Shree Kumar was generous enough to organise the loan of a Kite for me to test with the Australian networks.  The phone takes up to two micro-SIMs (about 15mm×12mm); one on the daughter card (this is SIM 1) and one on the CPU card (SIM 2).

For the sake of testing, I figured I’d try it out with the two major networks, Telstra and Optus.  As it happens, my Telstra SIM is too big (they call it a “full-size” SIM now; I remember full-size SIMs being credit-card sized), so rather than chopping up my existing SIM or getting it transferred, I bought and activated a prepaid service.  I also bought a SIM for Optus.  I bought $10 credit for each.

As it happens, the Optus one came with data, the Telstra did not.  No big deal in this case.  The phone does have a limitation in that it will talk to one 3G/4G network and one GSM (2G) network at a time.  Given both networks I chose have abandoned 2G, that pretty much means the dual-SIM functionality on this model is severely hobbled.  That said, either SIM can operate in 3G mode, and so it’s simple enough to switch one SIM into 2G mode then activate the other in 3G/4G mode.  So far, the Kite has spent most of its time on Optus.

Evidently Vodaphone still have a 2G network… at least the Kite does see one 2G cell operated by them.  Long term, this is a problem that all dual-SIM phone chipset makers will have to deal with, a future Kite may well be able to do 3G simultaneously on both SIMs, but for me, this is not a show-stopper.

I’ve put together this review of the Kite.  It’s rare for me to be in front of a camera instead of behind it, and yes, the editing is very rough.  If there is time (there won’t be this weekend) I hope to take the phone out to a rural area and try it out with the more distant networks, but so far it seems happy enough to switch to 3G when I get home, and use 4G when I’m at work, so this I see as a promising sign.

The KickStarter is lagging behind quite a way in the funding goal, but alternate options are being considered for getting this project off-the-ground.  Here’s hoping that the project does get up, and that we get to see Kite v2 being developed and made for real, as I think the mobile phone industry really does need a viable open competitor.